"What do you mean, 'it died'?"
"It just did." His hand on my wrist tightened as he dragged me down the trail. "Come on, Abs. Quit lagging."
I frowned, though I knew he couldn't see it, and quickened my pace, still just barely able to keep up with him. "You killed a dog?"
"I didn't kill anything, all right? I just found it dead."
"What's with all the questions?"
I nearly tripped over a stray branch and when I slowed, he jerked me forward. "What's the hurry?" Aside from the fact we had to be back at school in fifteen minutes.
Hunter didn't answer; he came to a sudden stop and I bumped into him. A breeze swept through the forest, weaving between the trees and tugging leaves off the branches. I looked around for a moment, stupidly, trying to figure out what was going on. My gaze came to rest on something lying just a few yards off from a small river. Yellowish brown fur - it blended in with the browns, golds, and oranges of all the shedded leaves, and only the glistening shade of red that was drizzled over it stood out. Hunter grabbed my arm, moved towards it, and reluctantly, I followed.
"Ew." I brought a hand to my mouth, nausea poking like needles in my stomach. From here, the view was more visceral. It made me involuntarily cringe. "What happened to it?"
"How the hell should I know?" He pulled off his hoodie and tossed it to me.
"Well, you're the one who found it." I folded it in half, letting it hang over my arm, and decided to focus my attention on anything but the dead animal. The sweatshirt was warm - a stark contrast to the biting chill of the autumn air.
"He was already like this when I found him."
Then why was he so anxious to bury it?
"What do you suppose happened?" I asked slowly.
"You're asking a shitload of questions."
I took a few steps away and leaned back against a tree; Hunter had a shovel, from who-knows-where, and he walked off a couple of yards, sunk the blade into soil. He jammed his foot against it, shifted some weight onto the handle, and levelled out the first shovel-ful of dirt.
After a couple of minutes, I approached the dog, walking cautiously just in case it was still alive and lunged out at me, grabbed me by the throat and tried to rip me to bits. I'd seen the kind of thing happen on those animal blooper shows before. Carefully, I crouched down beside it, covered my mouth with my hand as I let my eyes rest on it.
It looked like it'd had its head bashed in. Blood was now congealed, stale and pooled in crevices from between rips of skin, skull split and crushed at the back. I glanced around for any signs of a weapon, any sort of blunt object that could've caused it. But there wasn't anything.
A shiver crept down my spine and, biting my lip, I looked over my shoulder at Hunter. He was still digging. I inched closer to the dog, turned around the leather collar some so I could read the tags.
"'Mephistopheles. Romska. 1522 Munger Road'," I mumbled, continued reading the phone number listed on the purple heart-shaped tag. I looked to Hunter. "Do you suppose Romska is the name of the family that owns him?" And what sort of name was Mephistopheles? It sounded familiar but I couldn't place it.
"I don't know, what does it matter?"
I released the tag and sat back on my heels. "It doesn't."
I knew he was bad with animals, but this was borderline. . . disturbing.
Pulling at one of my braids, I wrapped the end of it around my finger and tugged. Squatted beside the dog, I watched Hunter dig for a few minutes. What was I supposed to say? To do? When he'd said he was going out for lunch, I'd only tagged along because I thought that's actually what he meant. Not that he was sneaking off the bury a dog. With a sigh, I got to my feet and trudged back over to a tree stump and plopped down on it, fidgeting with the hoodie.
The clouds were clearing, giving way to the sun like servants bowing to their master and the air was growing warmer. I stared up at it for a while; not at the sun, but at the clouds, and tried to make shapes of them, but they were too obstructed by skinny tree branches that stuck out into the sky like they wanted to rip the clouds out, collect them on their twigs like cotton candy.
And boy was I hungry. I felt a little sluggish, too, and almost regretted coming. I'd checked my sugar levels just before leaving, as usual, and had been planning to actually eat; that's why I had taken the insulin, after all. Now wonder I felt like crap now. Then again, I had been the one who'd asked to come along. He hadn't seemed happy at the time, but I thought he was just cranky or something.
I tugged at a braid, my attention focused on the river. Vibrant light cut through the tree tops, pouring through the cracks between leaves and branches, sending shimmers over the rapid waters. It was a pretty place.
Now it was a graveyard.
"The water looks so inviting," I mumbled, basking in my misery. I missed summer.
"It's probably freezing cold."
"Yeah." I pulled at the strings of his sweatshirt, trying to get them even. My stomach growled lowly. He was probably hungry, too, I noted to myself. This was supposed to be our lunch break, after all. "We have to get back to school soon, or else we'll be late."
"I'll sort it out for you."
"You always say that." Not that skipping school was a frequent occurrence.
"I always follow through."
I glared at him, but he didn't notice, which was fine, because I really wasn't mad anyway.
"No, seriously." He stopped digging, stuck the shovel into the ground. "If you get into trouble, I'll sort it out."
"You don't have to keep rubbing it in my face."
He grinned, a lopsidded grin that disappeared as quickly as it had came. "You can't help what you're born into."
I shot him a look and crossed my arms.
"We'll be back before class starts."
I raised my brow. "Promise?"
He ran a hand through his short brown hair, gave a vague nod. "Promise." He made his way over to the dog and I decided it was a good time to turn my attention to something different; something not so macabre.
I rubbed at a spot on the hoodie. There was some brown paint near the strings, matted, embedded in the black fabric . Must have been spray paint from one of those little outings with everyone else.
"You can afford better threads than these, my frisky little kitten," I said with a sigh, and when he looked my way, I indicated the hoodie.
"Why change something that's not broken?"
So he was going to be philosophical about it. He could at least get the phrase right.
A couple of minutes passed and he continued to fill in the hole. I crossed my legs, the seam of my jeans snagging against loose bark.
"Where'd you get the shovel?" I stared at it, trying to will myself to recognize it from somewhere. It looked old; made of pale wood with deep crevices that ran from end to end like a thin ribbon of air. The shovel itself was rusted, chipping, looked as if it would collapse into a million of jagged pieces if too much pressure was applied. It might look prettier that way.
"Found it," he mumbled. He glanced at me and continued, "Just lying around - somewhere." He gave a shrug, like the shovel had somehow magically fallen out of the sky and landed directly in his hands and I was blaming him for it.
He offered his hand and I took it, lifted off the stump. I handed him back his hoodie and brushed off my jeans of any debris. He pulled it on, tugged at the hood and all my hard work I'd done with evening the strings was wasted.
"Back up some, yeah?"
I frowned and took a step backwards. "Why?"
I backed up three long strides, confusion setting in. "Okay."
He swung the shovel against the tree and pale wood snapped in half, the cracking sound cutting through nature. The metal end was sent flying, landed in the river with a plunk and he tossed the handle in after. Several seconds passed, I watched, and the two pieces were swept downstream quickly, like ants anxious to carry home part of a sandwich that a little kid dropped on the sidewalk and they were afraid that someone might find it - that someone might take it away from them.
I cringed at it and followed Hunter when he indicated we were leaving. "Wasn't that a little excessive?"
He scratched behind his ear, took the lead and his pace was quickening. "No." The tone in his voice told me not to question it any further. Nothing good would come from it anyway.
I put a hop in my step and skipped up to him, despite the shaky feeling that was lacing my muscles. We'd parked just at the side of the road, right before the lines and lines of house trailers - or the trailer park, as someone less tactful might say it - and it would take a few minutes to reach it. We'd never really been out this way before. Sure, it was a small town, but this area was just at the outskirts. Neither of us lived nearby. "Do you think anyone will notice we were gone?"
He looked annoyed and just started walking faster. "Why would they?"
"Because we missed lunch," I said, which reminded me that I was still hungry. I didn't really care so much about missing eating it at school as I did missing the meal at all. "And I'm hungry," I mumbled. "Oh so hungry. I think I'm gonna faint."
"I'll get you something later."
"After I'm already dead." I struggled to keep up with him. Skipping breakfast, despite my intentions this morning, now seemed like such a stupid stupid idea. "I can just imagine it now. Cause of death: diabetic seizure. You'll be locked up in prison for the rest of your life because you deprived me of nutrition."
"I knew I shouldn't have let you come."
"You're not gonna make me walk all the way back when you know there's a good chance I'll go into a diabetic coma."
He stopped, abruptly, then leaned over some, so he was nearly crouching. "Hurry the hell up."
"Oh, you're too kind." I climbed onto his back, hold tight, and he straightened. I let my arms dangle limply around his neck, half-tempted to straighten out the strings again. That'd probably make him mad, so I thought better of it. His pace was just as brisk as before, and I was now genuinely curious as to what his hurry was. He usually didn't care much about missing school, though, he knew that I did, so maybe that was it.
Maybe. Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe, maybe, maybe. . .
It was such a useless word.
I'd probably just get a headache if I kept thinking about it. Like my brain would explode, or, at the very least, my brain would start leaking things - all the good memories that I wanted to keep with me forever. They'd be replaced with all these stupid questions that I came up with, that I knew I'd never get the answers to.
With my nail, I scratched at the paint on his hood and some flaked away. The color started coming off, rubbed onto my fingers. That was odd, because spray paint didn't normally do that. . .
My fingertips came back red.
Unconsciously, I bit at my lip. Hesitated, a mere moment, then took a fistful of the hood in my hand and pulled it away from his neck.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Hunter," I said, drawing out the last syllable. "Why did the dog bite you?"
There were four gashes, a thick red hardened against skin, just above his collar bone. A purplish yellow bruise edged each one, a couple other scratch marks still faintly red, irritated.
I felt him tense a little, but it didn't show when he replied, "What's with all the goddamn questions?"
"What if it had rabies?" I dropped the solemn edge to my tone (because I knew it wouldn't get me anywhere) and poked him in the back of the head.
He gave a frustrated sigh. "It had tags."
"That doesn't mean it's had all its shots," I said, absently brushing my fingers over the ends of his hair. When we were in elementary school, our hair was the same shade of brown. The exact same. Since then, his had lightened; mine had darkened. It used to be easy to get passed off as siblings, but these days, not so much.
With a sigh, realizing that he wasn't going to respond, I decided to take another approach. "Lacey will see that see that, and you know she'll ask. Should I say it's from me?"
"I'll drop you."
I let out a shallow breath, rested my chin on his shoulder and felt his hold tighten on my legs. Maybe once we got back to school I could convince him to go to the nurse's office. And if I couldn't get any answers out of him by then, I could always tell Lacey and maybe we could corner him.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement. Something was crawling. A ladybug. I squirmed a little. "You've got a bug in your hair."
"No, it's not," I insisted. "What if it settles, lays eggs, and larvae start hatching out of your head? What if they eat a hole in your head and infect your brain and you turn into some sort of insect zombie? Well, to say the least, Lacey would definitely - "
"Abs, can you shut up for two seconds?"
I flicked the bug and it shot off into the foliage. Hunter's arms tightened at my knees again and with a sigh, I leaned forward, adjusted my hold. I wasn't sure why I was so antsy, anyway. Usually I was more mellow. Then again, I wanted to know what was going on and he wouldn't tell me. It was unsettling, especially because he seemed mad, and I never knew what to do when he was mad; I just wanted to cheer him up.
I was pretty simply for a sixteen-year-old girl.
A flash of light and a pure reflection from the bright sun made his car look like a black glass marble. Well, maybe an oval-shaped marble. The light was harsh, relentless and increasing as we neared, and the exterior would probably be sizzling hot if I touched it. Maybe we could find some robin eggs and fry them on the roof? Protein. Could never have too much of it. Nobody ever worried about their cholesterol until they were middle-aged, anyway.
Hunter stopped and bent over a little. I slid off, mumbled my thanks, then stretched my arms over my head and gave a yawn.
We made our way to the car and I noticed his attention on something in the row of trailers, something that I couldn't quite see. Probably because I was too short, and if I asked, he wouldn't tell me, anyway. The handle was hot and I quickly opened it, a shot of pain edging at the palm of my hand. I pulled it shut carefully, closed my hand over the seatbelt, the metal clasp also burning, and fastened it.
He got in the driver's side, opening and shutting the door with such a force that I was surprised it didn't fall off at the hinges. As I stared out the window, elbow propped against the arm rest, the engine turned and roared to life, sent the vehicle faintly vibrating, nearly imperceptible. We pulled out, back onto the road, and I turned my attention from the bare trees that were becoming just a blur.
I rubbed my thumb against my forefinger, watching as the dried blood there crumbled.
Everyone scurried to their seats as the bell rang and I took another bite of my apple, focus on the seat that wasn't being filled. Lacey's attention was there too, thumb poked out of the hole of the cuff of her shirt, twitching a little.
The teacher pulled the door shut behind her and directed us to take out our books and hand in yesterday's homework.
Beside me, Vulture was munching on some sort of candy bar. I had to will myself not to look because it would make me even hungrier. I was half-finished with my apple, which I'd managed to snag in the cafeteria right as it was closing, but it did nothing to kill the appetite - just heighten it. I still wasn't feeling up to par, though. Hopefully no one would catch on.
I pulled out my homework: a crumpled piece of paper that had made it through my cat's incessant attacks the night before. With any luck, Miss Collins wouldn't blow up at me about it this time. It wasn't my fault the cat was demented.
She started calling attendance and I sat back, hooked my feet around the bars under my chair, and glanced at Vulture.
Two candy bars. I stand corrected. He had the wrappers laid out on his desk, flattened and upside down so that they caught shimmers from the flourescent lighting. I stared at them for a moment, longing, then felt a tug on my sleeve.
"Want one?" He rummaged around in the pocket of his hoodie, pulled out a Snickers bar.
I opened my mouth to say no thanks, but for some reason, I just nodded. He handed it to me, I mumbled a thank-you, and the teacher's voice suddenly grew louder.
"Brooks." She looked up from her attendance notebook, eyes skimmed over us. "Hunter Brooks. He's not here?"
I was tempted to cover for him, but I really had no idea if he was planning to come back to class or not. I didn't want to say "Oh, yeah, he's here. He's just running late," and him not turn up at all. It was better if I just kept my mouth shut. Let Lacey worry about him.
Some of the other students started whispering.
"He was here earlier."
"I saw him in English," another one piped up.
Miss Collins turned her attention to me. I fiddled with the Snickers bar a little.
"I haven't seen him since lunch." I offered a shrug.
All eyes focused on Lacey now.
"Me neither," she mumbled, wiggling her thumb around. Red hair fell out of her eyes as she tilted her chin up to meet Miss Collins' gaze.
"Moving on." The teacher let out a sigh, marked something down on the attendance sheet. She continued on with the roll call and I nibbled on the apple some more, promising myself that I wouldn't eat the candy bar until the apple was finished. I looked over my homework a bit, came to the conclusion that my answers were at least in the right realm; hopefully I wouldn't get too horrible of a score. Physics, or the sciences in general, really, was my worst subject.
Once the apple was widdled down to nothing but a core, I tossed it into the garbage can, earning a look from the teacher, and pulled at the end of my braid. We passed our papers forward and there was a knock at the door. It opened. Hunter stepped through, a hesitance there - a planned one - and offered a sheepish grin.
"Sorry I'm late."
Miss Collins was seated at her desk, one hand in her chin as someone handed her the stack of homework. "And why are you late?"
Hunter dumped his books onto his desk - the one right behind Lacey's - and took a seat. "I had to go to the bathroom. Couldn't help it."
A few murmurs broke out, some laughing and giggling. I wasn't really sure why; it wasn't as if he was voted Mr. Congeniality or anything. He was one of those guys who sucked at communication, but somehow, still had tons of friends. The sort of person you'd hate unless you were given the opportunity to be their friend. The sort that you were afraid of crossing, because you knew that, if they wanted, they could turn the entire school against you.
That's how it always had been. That's how it seemed like everyone else thought of him, even if they would never say it.
But to me, he was just Hunter.
The teacher stared at him for a moment, brow raised and pen between her fingers tapping against the desktop rhythmically. As if thinking over her next words, she said slowly, "It still counts as a tardy."
Not that it mattered. If he really cared, he could just complain to his mom. She was good at setting the teachers straight.
"I get a tardy for that? Might as well have skipped entirely," he mumbled, sitting back. "I'll have to remember that."
"All that matters right now is if you remembered your homework."
He fished it out of his book. "I did it while I was in the can."
He'd done it last night, actually. We had worked on it at his house for almost an hour.
"Hand it up."
Vulture chuckled a little, shifting, and his whole desk shook. He was a big fellow. Like a cuddly stuffed animal. He glanced at me, offering a grin, and I returned it.
Miss Collins took to the front of the room, told us to open our books to the chapter we were studying. I flipped my book open, absently turning page after page with one hand as I prodded my candy bar with the other. I still kind of really wanted to eat it, but it would probably be too noisy now that the lesson was starting.
Reaching the right page, I pulled the book so it was positioned in front of me, so it at least looked like I was paying attention. My mind was elsewhere - the forest. The scenery there had been pretty. I wanted to draw it; the river, the trees, the way the sky looked from ground-level. My fingers were itching to draw it. I thought I might get the chance in art class tomorrow, but odds were that the teacher had something else planned. She usually did. For an art teacher, she was sure good at stifling creativity.
From the corner of my eye, I caught movement. Across the room, Hunter was stretching. Arms extended above him, he planted his feet on the rack underneath Lacey's seat. She turned around, facing him, and said something quietly, to which he grinned. He said something in response, pencil twirling between his fingers, and she smiled as he tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, then said something else and swivelled back around in her seat.
And I was only watching because I was bored.
Briefly, I entertained the thought of tossing the candy bar to him - because I knew he hadn't had anything to eat, either - but my mind shot down the idea before it had even formulated. It was pulverized, bombarded by a volley of gunfire that split the very thought into millions of billions of little pieces until there was no chance of my pathetic self trying to assemble them back together. I had bad aim and he had lousy peripheral vision. Needless to say, it would probably turn out ugly.
And so, feeling a bit useless, I sat forward, attention on the whiteboard.