North from Vegas

Chapter One

As he walked down the deserted sidewalk, Ethan Grey was certain of three things: one, his brother was going to hate him. Two, he needed to talk to Zee, right now. And three, he wasn't ever going back home.

He wasn't a kid anymore; he did not have to listen to his mom and old man going at it, yelling so loud that neither him or his brother, Jake could sleep. Besides, he'd already moved out once with his fiancée, gotten a taste of what it was like to be his own man, and then he'd had to move back in. He'd been telling them all along, even more so for the last month or two, that he was going to leave soon; still, he knew that Jake would be pretty upset with him for just taking off.

Hey...I'm not as good of a person as he is. So kill me. I'm not going to just stand there like he will and listen to them going at it again. No way. I'm done.

He'd been walking for a while, almost two hours. The city had always seemed like such a short, quick drive from their ratty old house in the suburbs. Walking along the obscure road that only the locals seemed to know about, he'd figured he'd be there within an hour, at most. It had been a lot longer than that.

When Ethan sat down on the sidewalk, he groaned, realizing just how tired his feet were. "If I can just get into Vegas, maybe I can figure out what to do," he said to three pigeons that were scuffing around on the asphalt.

"Coo?" One of them said in reply.

He smirked and shrugged out of his backpack, fishing around in it for some bread or something to give the birds. Coming up with a package of plastic-wrapped crackers, he started to unwrap them, but the crinkling spooked the pigeons. They jumped into the air, cooing accusingly at him. He rolled his eyes when they landed a few feet away.

There was something in his pocket, and now that he was sitting, it was stretching at his jeans uncomfortably. He thrust his hand into the offending pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He stared at it.

He knew he should really call Jake and let him know he had everything under control. He couldn't make himself turn the phone on though, and he kept staring at it, imagining what he would say.

"Hi Jake. It's me."

"Who?" Jake would answer, probably irritably. (At least, it had better be Jake that answered...)

"Ethan," he'd say, "your brother." And at this point, he'd squeeze his eyes shut and hope that Jake wouldn't hurl the phone against the wall or out the window.

With a sigh, he mashed his thumb into the "on" button and held it there several seconds. Nothing happened.

"Oh, you're so kidding me," he groaned, pressing it again. Still no reaction. The blank screen stared back at him, mocking him in its black silence.

"Aw, forget it!" he shouted, throwing the phone towards the pigeons. They shrieked and flew up into the power lines as the phone shattered against the asphalt.

Good. Let the cars run over it.

Not that there were many along this road. It was one of those two-lane'ers, the back roads that were all over the smaller towns. Ethan had been walking along it forever, and he was getting fed up, almost wishing he'd taken a car, or a bus, or something.

But you don't drive, he reminded himself.

Yeah, that was something he'd sworn never to do again...

He shrugged, figuring he'd just give Jake and his friend Zee Holton a call once he got into the city. There were payphones all over the place. In theory anyway.

No loss. My phone's useless anyway since I don't have money to pay the cell bill…

Glancing up at the pigeons still eyeing him suspiciously, he made a finger gun with his hand and pretended to shoot them down. Then he stood up, shouldered his backpack, and kept on walking towards Las Vegas.

By the time he noticed traffic on the road increasing, the familiar buzz of the highway, and the skyscrapers looming ahead, Ethan was almost too tired to care that he'd made it. The backpack he'd purposely packed light felt like someone had snuck a few bowling balls into it. His shirt stuck to his back and sweat was making his forehead itch like crazy. The hot, heavy wind didn't do much to help, nor did the sun that he imagined was slowly cooking him alive.

Straining to peer between the traffic, he saw a bus stop across the road.

Bingo, he thought with satisfaction. There's going to be a nice little payphone over there, I'll apologize to Jake, and then I'll get Zee down here to pick me up.

He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and took a deep breath, gripping the straps of his backpack and jogging across the street. A while back, the rural road he'd been following all day had taken him to a busy intersection of a main road.

Ethan cursed as he found himself in the middle of the road, a car barreling down on him from each lane. Two sets of angry horns blasted at him, and he jumped out of the way, sprinting the rest of the way across.

Read between the lines, guys, he thought mutinously, holding up three fingers to the backs of the cars that had almost run him over. Not that it was really their fault. It was his, and he knew it, but he was sick of the heat, and he wanted to talk to someone. He remembered hearing once that the average person hardly ever went a day without hearing someone's voice, engaging in a conversation.

There were two people sitting on the bench of the bus stop, a man and a woman who bounced a toddler on her knee. Both of them were looking at him funny, but didn't say anything as Ethan walked a little to the left, then to the right. "Payphone…payphone," he muttered, like that would make it appear. He walked around the plastic structure, the brightly colored posters tacked up in the panels starting to do funny things to his vision. "No way, no way, I killed myself trying to find one of these and now there's no phone here?" He shoved the heels of his hands into his eyes and groaned.

He lowered his hands, and kicked hard at a crack in the cement. People walking along the sidewalk were staring at him, but he didn't care.

Great. What am I gonna do now?

"Hey, uh…mister?"

Ethan turned around, probably too abruptly, and faced the young woman waiting for the bus who'd stood up and was holding the hand of her child.

"What?"

"I ah…heard what you said. If you want to call someone, I think you could probably try one of those stores just up there." She pointed behind them to a row of several small convenience shops. "There's probably a public phone in at least one of them."

"Oh…thanks," he mumbled, dropping his gaze to his filthy sneakers.

"You're welcome. You looked like you needed it. I hope you can get in touch with whomever you're trying to reach," the woman replied kindly.

It was weird to hear genuine warmth in a stranger's voice.

Before the woman could say anything else, Ethan made a quick getaway, heading straight for whichever store happened to be directly in front of him. QuikMart.

A blast of air conditioning hit him as he passed through the sliding doors. He stuck his hand in his pocket and sighed, leaning against the wall. Speaking with the woman at the bus stop had done something to his emotions. That wasn't saying much though, since the heat and even the damn colorful signs in the shop were messing with his head as well.

There wasn't anything special about the store. It was a little messier than it should be, empty boxes lining the walls, a pile of cleaning supplies shoved into a half-open closet. Ethan hated the floor; the harsh contrast of the large black and white tiles was making his eyes cross.

He looked around for any employees and saw a man standing at a counter, ringing up frozen dinners for a girl. The man was a little taller than him, and certainly a lot heavier. He was balding, and the glasses he wore accentuated his sharp blue eyes, making them look calculating and hard.

Yeah, great choice, Ethan, he scoffed. Why couldn't the cashier have been some nice old lady or just a kid or something?

While he sized up the cashier, the man was busy inspecting Ethan as well, his hawkish eyes looking him up and down.

Finally, Ethan cleared his throat and bumped the girl by accident. She made a sound of protest, and he ignored her.

"Um…is there a phone I could use? A pay phone or something?"

The cashier grunted. "Do you see any of those in my store, boy?"

No. That's why I'm asking you. "No, sir."

He hoped the word "sir" might placate the cashier, but it had the opposite effect.

The man planted both hands on the counter and leaned forward dangerously. "Listen here, you no good bum, even if I had a nice little phone on my wall, I wouldn't let the likes of you use it, you smart-aleck punk. Now get outta' my store. I don't need riff raff like you hangin' around."

Ethan felt his pulse rising, starting to hammer in his head. He jerked his chin up and leaned forward as well. "Hey, buddy, this isn't no luxury department store you got here." He purposely put the antagonizing drawl into his tone. "This place is a slum. You should consider hiring people to clean the place up. Maybe if you weren't so high and mighty, all up on yourself, you'd be willing to hire the people you call no good punks and bums, but since you're too good for them, I guess you'd better be happy with this hog shed until then, huh?"

The man's eyes got dangerously bright; Ethan could tell his jaw was clenched hard enough to crack teeth. "Oh man, oh man, kid, you're really askin' for it. Shut your trap before I beat you so hard you forget your own lousy name."

Ethan leaned back abruptly. "Oh yeah?" He shoved a hand through his hair, pushing it off his forehead, then gesturing at himself. "Well, bring it! You wanna go at it? Then I'll-"

He felt an elbow in his ribs and he spun around, his fist up.

"Jeez, stop it already, will you?" The girl who'd been at the counter, tall with long, crazy black hair, got in his face, her voice shrill. She slapped a cell phone into his palm. "Use this and call whoever you need to call, you idiot." She suddenly turned and glared daggers at the man. "And you, lay off him! He just asked for a phone, not the whole world. If you want to start a fight, go down to that huge bar on 43rd street, get boozed up, and have at it. But please, Uncle, not in your own damned grocery store!"

Ethan stared at the little white phone. He looked at the girl, took in her determined face, and decided not to argue. He realized she was just about his height, which actually made him feel short. And stupid.

Nice. Let's get arrested for starting a bar fight in a convenience store, he railed at himself. Real smart.

He stomped off a few feet, finding himself standing in the aisle for snacks and sodas. Flipping the phone open, he started to punch in Jake's number.

Not him first. I'll get a hold of Zee. He won't care if I'm rough with him, but Jake will.

He shoved his finger into the "end" button and dialed in his friend's phone number. He wasn't sure if it was his cell, or his home phone. Guess he'd find out.

"Hello?"

He felt all the energy sag out of him, and he sagged against the shelves, sitting down hard.

"Zackarie?"

"No. It's Zee. The name's Zee." He sounded mad. "Who's this?"

Until he heard the stupid nickname his friend was so fond of, Ethan thought for a horrible second that he'd had the wrong number.

"It's Ethan…" His voice cracked; he couldn't say anything else, though he wanted to. His head ached and spun, and he figured he was just really dehydrated. He yanked off his backpack with his free hand, unzipped it, and pawed around for a bottle of water.

"Ethan? Oh, hey, man, what's up?"

His throat felt constricted, but he managed, "I want to talk to you…"

"You're talking to me right now. Um…is everything okay?"

Ethan realized he'd emptied everything out of his backpack. His black hoodie, his box of matches and his toothbrush, along with a myriad of other things were scattered across the tile floor of QuikMart's snack aisle. And he still didn't have any water.

"You still there, man?"

The concern in Zee's voice was getting to him.

Quit being such a damn baby, and answer him…

"Yeah…yeah, I am…" He mashed the hoodie into a little ball and stuffed it back into his pack. "Look, I want to talk to you, like, in person. Can we meet up somewhere in town?"

"Oh, yeah, of course. Where are you?"

"Standing in the snack aisle of a convenience store owned by a guy who personally threatened to beat me until I couldn't remember my name," he said dryly.

He smiled when he heard the gagging noise on the other end of the phone.

"What? Oh man, you have got so much explaining to do, and you owe me a drink for scaring me."

"Drinks huh?" Ethan was still smiling; he was sure he looked like a fool. "I guess you're thinking of a bar. Great; there's only about two million of those in Vegas."

"Come on, don't get all sarcastic on me now. I'm tired; I didn't sleep well last night because I was working the night shift again. I feel one of those stupid headaches coming on, so be flattered that I'm willing to come downtown to find your sorry butt. Now," Zee paused to take a breath, too quickly for Ethan to figure out whether his friend was actually annoyed, "tell me where you are."

Ethan scrambled for his exact location. "I…I'm in this place called QuikMart. It's at this bus stop across a…really busy street…" He felt the heat in his face even more prominently when he realized he had absolutely no clue where he was.

Real specific. Now Zee knows exactly where I am; there's probably a dozen QuikMart's here, and triple that amount of busy streets…

He slapped his forehead with his hand. "Zee, I'm sorry," he groaned in frustration, "I just can't think or function or do much of anything right now. C'mon, you know Vegas like the back of your hand…help me out."

He heard Zee sigh, and the phone was silent for a while. "You know the freeway, right? The main road that runs right through the center of town? If you go outside and tell me the name of the street you're on, from the freeway, I'll be able to find you. Anyway, when we link up, I know this awesome tavern we can go crash."

Ethan blinked. He hoped the fierce girl who'd loaned him her phone wouldn't mind if he slipped outside for a few minutes with it…

"Can…can I do that and call you back? The situation here is um…hard to explain. But it's touchy."

"What do you mean by that…?"

"I'll call you back, okay? Five minutes."

"Wait! Ethan!"

"Five minutes."

He snapped the phone closed. With a sigh, he swiped the back of his hand across his sweaty face.

Before he could hang out with Zee and tell him what was on his mind, he knew he had to call Jake first. There was no way, no way, he would leave town without at least contacting his brother first. His conscience would kill him.

Ethan fingered the phone, turning it around in his palm several times before he opened it and typed in Jake's number.

His brother picked up after the fifth ring.

"Hello?"

Hearing his voice was like a punch in the gut.

"Hey, Jake…it's me. Ethan."

There was silence for so long that he nearly lost his nerve and slammed the phone shut.

"You left…" Jake's voice was numb, dead. There was no accusation in the simple statement, and that somehow made it worse.

"I'm sorry…I didn't…I've been getting ready to go for a few weeks now. You knew that. And last night…the fighting and stuff…" He trailed off.

Could that have sounded any more lame…?

"Yeah, same as always." Jake sighed. "I don't want to hear it, Ethan. Not now. I'm too angry."

Ethan gripped the phone tighter. "But why? I told you I was going to be moving out! I told you I'd leave!"

"That doesn't change the fact that you left last night like a blasted coward! Just because of another stupid fight!" Jake's voice started sounding far away, like through the other end of a tunnel. "Then this is goodbye, brother. I hope whatever you're doing, wherever you are, makes you happier than when you were at home, when you at least had me."

And then Jake hung up.

He slammed the phone shut and smacked it down hard on the floor, a sound of pure frustration and anger erupting out of him. Taking a deep, shaking breath, he stood up and stumbled out of the aisle.

The girl was leaning against the counter, her arms crossed. Her evil cashier uncle was nowhere in sight.

"It's about time," she said, lifting an eyebrow.

"I need to take this outside to tell my friend where I am," Ethan mumbled, vaguely lifting her phone in his hand. Really, he couldn't care less about Zee right now, or getting a stupid drink at a bar. He wasn't even thirsty anymore. He was numb; Jake's anger had taken the last of his energy.

The girl frowned. "Go ahead, kid."

He didn't even bother with a thank-you, almost walking into the door before it slid open. The sunlight made his eyes smart; he had to blink away the momentary blindness. With a sigh, he opened the phone again and re-dialed Zee.

"Ethan?"

"Yeah, it's me," he said, squinting at the tiny green street sign over the traffic light.

"Well? Where are you? I've been cruising around and haven't seen any sign of that store you mentioned."

"I'm at the bus stop, at QuikMart on… South Vegas Avenue." He shaded his eyes, rubbing at the dust caked on his face. "About how long is it going to be until you get here?"

"Oh hey, I know where you are then. I'm only two blocks away; I'll be there in about five minutes."

"Cool…see you then," he replied.

He was staring at the cars going by, and didn't realize that Zee had hung up until he heard the dull beeping in his ear.

Why do I suddenly feel like dirt? He asked himself as he turned and trudged back up to the store. He let his question go unanswered; he simply didn't have the energy for any of that soul-searching stuff.

The toe of his shoe caught on the metal doorstop going across the floor, and he stumbled.

"Watch it," he heard the girl say warningly.

Ethan looked up and saw her, still leaning against the counter and chewing a wad of gum.

"You look like something that crawled out of the downtown sewer," she observed, looking at him strangely.

He ignored the comment. "Thanks for the phone," he muttered, tossing it to her. She caught it with one hand, never taking her eyes off him.

"Sure thing," she said.

Ethan walked over to the closest shelf and leaned against it, facing her and trying to pretend she wasn't there.

"You know, you really shouldn't mouth off to guys who are about three times your size." She was picking at her nails now, finally looking elsewhere.

Ethan jerked his head up, his glare enough to scald her face. "He started it. I even called him "sir," but he was still ready to pound me."

She ignored his protest. "The name's Anya, by the way." She strode over with her hand out.

He forced himself not to flinch, finally putting his own hand out and shaking hers. "Ethan."

Anya raised an eyebrow. "Do you have a last name? Or should I just call you Mr. Anonymous?"

Ethan scowled. "Did your crazy uncle tell you to find out who I am?"

"No!" She returned his glare and backed up a step. "Sheesh, forget it..."

"Grey!" He snapped, stomping his foot. "Ethan Grey. That's my name; you good now?"

Anya cocked her head at a funny angle and actually smirked. "Yep." She nodded. "And I'm Connalan. Anya Connalan." She held out her hand again. "So, do you want to do this introduction business over again then?" Her eyes were dancing, like she enjoyed his discomfort.

He wanted to glare at her again, but he found that he couldn't. Up close, he realized her eyes were the same blue as the sky. They were like her uncle's: smooth and polished and sharp, like the edge of a knife. She obviously liked jewelry; there was a tangle of necklaces of varying lengths draped over her tank-top. A handful of silver bangles hung from her wrists. Loose clumps of her wavy black hair partially hid medallion earrings. Just as he realized he was staring, the phone vibrated loudly in her hand, and she peered at the display.

"I don't recognize this number. Is it one you've called?" She asked, holding it up for him to inspect.

It was Zee. "Yeah, that's my ride. He's probably in the parking lot."

Anya opened the phone and hung up. She gave him an impish look, but said nothing.

Ethan sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. "See you around," he said. "Thanks again."

"I'm sure you will," Anya nodded. "Hey, tell your buddy to do me a personal favor."

"What's that?"

"Tell him to erase my number from his phone."

Ethan smiled to himself, thinking of how obnoxiously flirtatious Zee could be.

"Yeah, I will. Bye," he said, quickly going out the door and out into the sunbaked parking lot.

That was pretty weird, he thought absently, scanning the parked cars for Zee's beat-up blue jeep.

A horn sounded somewhere off to his right. It was loud, and closer than he'd expected, and he jumped. Zee pulled up to the front of QuikMart way too fast, skidded, and peered down at him from the open window.

"Eee-than!" Zee exclaimed, drawing the word out.

"Hey, Zackarie," Ethan said, nodding, using the name to annoy his friend.

Zee rolled his eyes. "Behave, or you're not getting in this luxurious, air-conditioned car of mine. That's the second time you've called me that, and I've told you before that-"

"You hate your name, I know." Ethan finished the sentence and grinned, holding his hand up.

Zee clasped it and then gave him a high five. "Just get in the car, Grey."

Ethan walked around the front and got into the passenger's side. Luxurious wasn't exactly the right word for Zee's jeep. For starters, there was no air conditioning; Zee just drove with all the windows down. That was fortunate too, because if they were closed, Ethan knew the seats would probably smell pretty bad; they were full of mildew or something, Zee had said.

They pulled out of the parking lot, and Ethan resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder to see if Anya was still inside QuikMart.

"So what's up? You sounded beat on the phone," Zee said, glancing over.

Ethan didn't look at him, hunched over with his chin on the door, staring at the side-view mirror.

"Just…the usual," he mumbled. "I just wanted to get out, ya' know, and I wanted to talk to you." He paused, lifting his head and loving the feel of the wind on his face. "Thing is, I got halfway into town, and found out my phone had died. So then I had to just keep walking into Vegas, which is like…seven miles from my place. And it's really hot, and the road I was on had absolutely zero shade…"

"There's water in the cubby down there," Zee tipped his head down a bit.

"Awesome, thanks, man. I was dying of thirst." Ethan uncapped the half-empty bottle and took several long swallows. He didn't care that the water was warm, or that Zee had obviously drank out of it as well. Between the water, driving around with the wind in his face, and just hanging with Zee, he was starting to feel human again, alive again.

He noticed some of the neon lights on the buildings sparking to life, and he glanced at the sun, surprised at how low it was. Zee looked over, following Ethan's gaze.

"Yeah, it's dinnertime, almost six-thirty." He grinned. "Cheesesteaks and drinks at Sneed's, is what I say," he declared.

Ethan glanced over and smirked, getting a good look at his friend for the first time all day. Zee was wearing a bright green (neon green, actually) t-shirt with bold black stripes across the length of it. His brown hair, which was long by Ethan's standards, hanging around his ears and halfway down his neck, was neatly combed.

"Minus that stupid shirt, you look very nice," he said sarcastically. "You even shaved; you looking to get into trouble tonight or something?" He kept smirking, even when Zee reached over and cuffed him over the head.

"You just shut up. You're hardly one to talk; you look awful." Zee rolled his eyes again. "And no, I'm not going to get into trouble, so calm down, Mother."

Ethan sat back and folded his arms, shooting Zee a smug look. He waited for him to finish his thought; he had already guessed at what he'd say, because it was just a matter of fact that Zackarie Holton never, ever looked presentable.

They pulled off the road and parked on the side, in front of simple-looking bar. Zee didn't get out right away, instead eyed Ethan sideways.

"So I know you want to talk about something important, because there's no way you're doing all this-" he swept his arm around in an arc, summing up the day, " -for no reason. Something happened at home and you're going to drag me into it, as always. So don't try to deny it." He smirked when Ethan opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. "Anyway, I'll totally listen to you and all, but I also haven't been out in a while. Between working at the factory and trying to get myself through my last year in college, I haven't had a good time at a bar in forever."

"Are you done whining?" Ethan asked, punching Zee's shoulder lightly.

"The point is," Zee continued tolerantly, ignoring the interruption, "that I wanna hang out for a while, and…ya know... mingle. Maybe get myself a girl or something."

Ethan snorted. So that was it. He should have known; Zee really was a party animal at heart. Or maybe he was a hopeless romantic. In Zee, it could be hard to differentiate between the two.

Without waiting for him, Ethan clamored out of the car and stretched on the sidewalk. Signs and buildings were lighting up in earnest. Vegas was coming alive.

"Whatever," he said, finally answering Zee. "It's cool. I have a proposition for you, but I'll tell you later, after you've had some of your fun and wound down a little, okay?" he asked when Zee stood on the sidewalk with him.

"You sure?"

"'Course I am. You can do your thing, and I'll have some dinner. Drink the bartender out of all his water, and maybe eat all his ice…and then we'll talk."

Zee grinned. It was the kind of smile that lit up his whole face and made his dark eyes dance. "Sounds good," he said, clapping his hands on Ethan's shoulders.

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