My stomach was twisting as the cheers grew louder on the beach. There are sixteen minutes. Sixteen minutes until Maddie, Jane and I all turn twenty. Our joint birthday out at the old creek had been a tradition of our since the foundling friendship of three awkward teens trying to survive high school.
Younger then, we had hidden beneath the upturned canoes and promised that our lives would mean something. But things changed. People grew up and the future starlets I had dreamt about drowned somewhere out past the rotting jetty and I didn't know how to pull them out.
Maddie had long settled content with her acting career breaching no further than aiding school plays and Jane blindly followed suit by letting her boyfriends dreams come before hers. Her weekly dramas at the local Payless filtering out between snaps of her strawberry gum.
I titled my head back, letting the salty sweet air of the water run across my hot skin. The beer in my hand was now lukewarm and its label was peeling in my palm. My dreams are a lot more ... frightening now. Vivid high-tech colour images that startle me awake. I find myself tangled in damp sheets as I lay there trying to swallow my heart back into my chest. I'm screaming in most of them, sometimes drowning.
Mainly I'm running.
'Wren, get your head out of the clouds and get over here. Mark is about the light the bonfire.'
Jane's tiny frame peeks out from under her boyfriends arm, snapping that strawberry gum of hers. I remember buying her a whole bumper pack of gum for her fourteenth birthday, a joke of sorts. Instead she frowned at all the curious flavours.
Pineapple, what kinda flavour is Pineapple for gum?With a shake of her head, the strawberry gum was ripped from the pack and the rest shoved into one of her drawers, never to be tested.
Rising, I chuck the empty beer bottle into the creek and wipe my clammy hands across the seat of my jeans. I venture towards the crowd of leering, cheering onlookers taunting the lads trying to light the pile of wood and grass. Most of the boys are still wearing their Pineshore sports jackets as throwbacks to their glory days. Seeing it makes me itch mostly and forces me to swallow something bitter back down.
Pineshore is a small town, one of the smallest places you could think of. I've ran the outskirts of it in less than fifty minutes. My family was never one for settling roots, for generations we had suffered with itchy feet. Restless in their wanderings, they needed to keep following some deep desire in them to keep on walking until they fell off the very edge of the Earth.
This wanderlust was quelled in my Grandpapa. No one speaks of it, but he firmly rooted our family in the quiet sleepy town of Pineshore and ever since family members have been begging one another to try and pull their roots back out again. No one ever can. Grandpapa's a family recluse now, choosing to spend his days in the attic with his rocking chair and jigsaw puzzles then with the family he so resolutely set up home for.
A cheer breaks the thick night's air at the fire rumbles to life. Heat burns the side of my face and fills the crowd with odd angles of darkness. Maddie runs up to me and slings one hot little arm around my neck.
'Ten minutes Wren, and we'll officially be leaving our teenagers years behind! Excited?'
The words leave my mouth before I can think. I see Maddie's face drop a little and I shake my head.
'Birthday blues, too much beer and not enough roasted marshmallows.'
I pull an odd sort of face. Halfway between repent and regret.
Laughing she pinches my cheek like a proud mother and runs back into the crowd of heated bodies with murmurs of marshmallows lingering in the air. Alone, at the edge of the crowd I don't hear him sneak up on me.
He's tall and dark against the firelight. But most of all I don't know him. Everyone is a familiar face in Pineshore. But yet I don't know him. Something in me unfurls and my fingertips begin to ache. A wry smile twists my lips.
'Oh no, didn't you hear? I'll be leaving my good years behind in ten minutes. How on earth could that possibly make me sad?'
He snorts and twists his foot into the ground.
'And here I was hoping that I'd find some fun in this here dive. Hey, you don't suppose you know the nearest place for gas? My bike's out and I really wanna get out of this town.'
I watch him for a while. A small breeze creeps across my face and I catch the faintest hint of spice on him.
'Five minutes everyone!'
The crowd cheers again at Maddie's shout. My mouth dries and my lungs sort of collapse for a second. I think the boy notices something shift in me as he steps back a little. Towards the cool shade of the jetty. He steps back further and I grab onto his jacket. It's smooth to the touch.
'Get me out of here.'
'You heard me, get me out of here. I don't wanna here them tell me I'm twenty. Not yet.'
I shake my head trying to get the words out. Those big eloquent words you're supposed to save for moments like this. But they don't come loose. Instead we're left with awkward words that gape between us like the tail of an untucked shirt.
He shifts again, trying to pull free.
'Look girl –'
'Wren. It's Wren, like the bird.'
'Look Wren, I don't know what you want but I'm gonna be going real far from here.'
'That's what I want. I want to be so far gone from here that it can't even reach my thoughts.'
They begin to count down in the background and my fingers dig deeper into his jacket. I catch the light of his eyes flicker between me, the bonfire and his bike. The counting begins to echo in my head and I can hear the hiss and catch on every number. I press closer towards him and his eyes finally settle on me.
'Seven, six, five –'
With a curse he slips his arm round and grabs onto my hand. It well worn and cool like the rocks at the bottom of a river and I realise we're running. The countdown fades in my head and all I can see is the dark of his back and feel the weight of the night pressing down on me.
I swing onto the back of his bike and it shudders beneath me. Everything's spinning as he weaves across the old dirt tracks of home. Peering from beneath my lids, I see the last image of home against the darkness.
Welcome to Pineshore! Population; 204.