|| Heavy Dirty Soul ||
After accidentally hearing a murderer's confession, three students live in constant fear, as they each find themselves targeted by the killer that can't be caught.

Heavy Dirty Soul
Kerri Caldwell

Published through Odyssey: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/user/@celiacwarrior

Prologue
                It’s hard to remember everything before that day. It’s hard to function-going to the bathroom, watching tv, talking to people.
We do that a lot. Talk. And it’s always the same questions, same conversations. And still, it gets us nowhere, except farther from closure. Safety.
A normal life.
There’s not a minute that can go by without the two us being near each other. We were pretty inseparable before that day. We were four when our mothers first met, and from what they tell us, we hated each other. They used to leave us with the nanny when they’d go shopping. They’re not sure exactly when it all changed, but suddenly we were begging our mothers for playdates.
It’s been nearly twelve years since then. Tess and I are everything to each other-late night support when the parents are fighting, company when the parents are away, and the simple comforts of being best friends.
After it all happened, our entire friendship was tested. Somehow, we are stronger, only standing because of each other.

________________________________________

“Reagan!”
I look out the kitchen window to see Tess. From the look on her face, and the state of her hair, I know exactly what she’s been doing. I’m not quite sure who, though.
“Tess,” I say when she lets herself in through the back door. She can only smile. I roll my eyes and return it.
“What’s his name?”
“Justin.” she sighs, sliding into a chair. She leans her head back. Her long, wavy blonde hair hangs over the back, looking every bit as tangled as she had been in the sheets earlier. I’ve seen her like this a million times-Tess finds the perfect guy about every month. I have to give her some credit, though. They have never been flings, or just for sex. And the guys she dates are pretty decent-buy they’re also still in high school. What more can you expect from most of them after a month?
Sill, each and every time there’s a heartbroken Tess that I have to put back together. And I do enough of that without a guy giving me a reason. Tess’s parents give me that opportunity.
“Justin?” I repeat. “As in Gellar?”
Her head snaps up. “Yeah!” she says, her smile even bigger. I just laugh.
“How’d that happen? He goes to another school, and he lives, like, on the other side of town.”
“It makes him that much better.”
“Okay,” I say, because sometimes I just don’t want to understand. I go back to making my dinner, which I’ve made myself practically every night since I was seven. We’ve probably had hundreds of maids come through our house, but they all learn quick that they’re not here for me. We let my parents think that, but I draw the line there.
“Reagan, one day you’ll get this.”
I keep working on my grilled cheese sandwich. Serious Tess was coming out, which put her into worry mode. It always left me thinking. At this point in my life, I didn’t need anyone to take care of me. The only person I needed was Tess. And I didn’t need her to worry about me. She had enough going on in her life that someone needed to worry about her.
“Well, I’m in no rush for that day to come.” I finally say.
“I know.” Tess says sadly. “But I can’t help but wait for it.”
I turn to her and give her a smile. Because I knew what she wasn’t saying.
That I deserved it.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to be alone in detention. But the day that changed us, Tess was supposed to be in there with me, too.
It was usually my mouth that got me into trouble. And only because I couldn’t keep it shut when I heard bullshit. There was one teacher in particular who I swear had a detention slip written out for me every day. Up until that day, I hated Ms. Perry. She was your stereotypical teacher at our stereotypical private school. And it seemed like all I had to do was show up and I had pissed her off. A debate over a topic not worth repeating led to me and Travis Booth yelling at each other, as our classmates cheered on. Ms. Perry was not amused.
I have to admit, I sort of was amused. If there was any guy at this school worth getting into a debate with, it was Travis. He moved here in the 8th grade, so we’d had enough classes together to know we didn’t always get along. Mainly on my part. Ok, mostly on my part. Tess loved to remind me that he had a crush on me. I loved to remind her I didn’t care. At first, he was the boy I had to put in his place. He didn’t learn the rules easy. Again, Tess liked to point out it was because he liked me. He liked to piss me off, especially in class. I wasn’t used to someone challenging me, or really, outsmarting me. Now he’s the boy who still challenges me, but knows he can never outsmart me. Which is exactly how we ended getting detention together.
The biggest setback to going to a private school is Mass. We go every. effing. week. The whole damn school gathers in the church at the end of the day, where everyone sits for an hour, agitated because it’s so close to the end of the day. That particular day, though, I was stuck sitting next to Travis. When it came time for the Our Father he grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard, like we all used to when we were kids. I am not in the mood today, and before he lets go, I dig my fingernails hard into his hand. He just smirks. When we were supposed to shake hands for the Sign of Peace, I turned away from him. He still had his hand out for me when I turned back around. Everyone giggled as I glared. By the time Mass was over I was so pissed I wanted to go home. But no, I had to spend the next hour in detention with Travis’ stupid face. At least Tess would be there, too. We manage to catch each other’s eyes through the crowd of uniforms rushing to get home. I wait for her by one of the confessionals, and before I know it, I’m inside of one with Travis.
“What the fuck, Travis!”
“Shhhh!”
“No one can hear us.” I push his finger away. He just stares at me. “Is there a reason you pulled me in here? As if you haven’t annoyed me enough.”
His eyes give away his sheepishness. “Never mind,” he mutters, turning to leave the tiny confessional, but then he’s back inside, Tess pushing him.
“Ummm, is something going on?” She’s grinning.
“Yeah, detention. Let’s go.” I motion with my hands to get the two of them moving.
Tess rolls her eyes. “Please. Like you’re in a hurry to be early to detention.” I fold my arms and look at her as Travis snorts.
“What’s going on here?” she asks.
“Like I know-“
Suddenly there is a slam on the other side of the confessional. We all freeze. It’s quiet on the other side, but we can see through the screen that someone is in there.
Great. This person is about to confess all their sins to three students headed to detention. I’m sure us sitting here and listening is a bigger sin than anything they’re going to confess. We need to get out of here before they start talking. As I point for Tess to open the door, a man’s voice speaks.
“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been several years since my last confession.”
Jesus, we had to get out of here. This was not going to be a quick confession.
Go. I mouth to Tess. She turns, kicking the chair and it echoes loud. The sinner on the other side clears his throat and keeps talking, not waiting for his cue to go on. Travis and I glare at Tess.
“I’ve done something terrible, enough that I should be going to the police instead.”
We all stop and look at each other, and it was in this moment that I started to feel afraid instead of annoyed. Because both Travis and Tess look the same way I felt. No one moves.
“I’ve been keeping this secret for a few months. I can’t keep it any longer. But I can’t go to the cops. I can’t turn myself in. But I have to get it off my conscience. It’s been coming back to me in my dreams. I keep seeing her face. It haunts me. She haunts me.” His voice is different now. And now I’m really scared, there’s no denying that. Travis grabs my arm and pulls me down to the floor. I do the same with Tess. When he points to the screen that separates the confessional, I understand. We are stuck in here. If that man opened the screen and found us in here, we would be in more trouble than we could even think of. This wasn’t something detention would take care of.
We are barely breathing as this man keeps confessing. He hasn’t gotten to his sin yet, but it’s obvious he’s crazy.
“I don’t know what came over me, Father. Something possessed me, told me to do it. Over and over again. I couldn’t ignore it. So I followed her. I kept a knife in my car, waiting for the perfect time. It finally happened.”
Tess is crouched by the door, this look on her face I will never forget. I can’t stop shaking. Beside me, Travis is pale. As the confession goes on, the need to escape gets stronger. I can’t keep still.
“I followed her home. She was alone. I waited in the backyard until it was late enough. It all happened so perfect, like it was meant to happen. She took the trash out some time near eleven. I walked up behind her and stabbed her in the back.”
Travis clamps his hand over my mouth. Tess reaches for the door, but Travis and I both lurch forward, barely stopping her. On the other side of the thin wall separating us from a psycho, the details of a murder are being described as we lay on top of each other, pressed against the wall, praying this man won’t open the screen. He goes on for a minute, mumbling and making no sense. When it seems like he’s almost done, Travis reaches for the door again. This man has been to confession before, he’ll be expecting a penance when he’s done. We had to get out before it came to that.
Tess and I watch, holding our breaths, as Travis gets the door open. I follow Tess out the door, feeling Travis’ hand on my back as we crawl across the aisle to the first row of pews we come to. We keep crawling towards the door, ducking in and out of pews. It takes five minutes to get halfway to our escape. Each time we have to get into the aisle Travis looks to make sure it’s clear, the fear intensifying each time he has to do this. We are almost to the door when someone comes through it.
“Can the three of you explain-“
A sound at the back of the church stops Ms. Perry, and makes us all look.
A murderer looks back at us.
“Son of a bitch.”
“RUN!” Travis yells, grabbing Ms. Perry. If I weren’t ready to piss myself, I’d find this whole scene hilarious. Ms. Perry is in her forties and slightly overweight. She does not appreciate being hauled through the school halls by three undisciplined students who are supposed to be sitting quietly in her detention.
“That’s enough!” Ms. Perry finally screams, and we turn around, ready to keep running. “What is going on? One of you better explain immediately.”
Travis is bent over, trying to catch his breath. Tess is crying beside him.
“We-“ I look over my shoulder, feeling Tess and Travis doing the same. How could this have happened? It was insane. But it was real. I knew it was, because I couldn’t be this afraid over something made up.
Ms. Perry touches me. I scream, making Travis and Tess jump. Ms. Perry looks at me, then all of us, and an expression I didn’t think she could convey came across her face. It’s not until we are locked in her classroom that we can speak. Before Travis can finish, though, Ms. Perry is driving us to the police station. She calls our parents from there. Only Travis’s parents are waiting for him when we’re done talking to the police. Ms. Perry is waiting with them, and the way everything feels, it’s like we’re in trouble. The three of us stand together after being separated for the last couple of hours, waiting. We are too afraid to do anything.
Travis’s mom makes the first move when she goes to hug Travis. She surprises me and Tess when she hugs us next.
“All of you are very brave. And safe, ok? Nothing is going to happen to you.”
Travis reluctantly leaves with his parents, and I try not to watch him go. Tess and I are left alone with Ms. Perry, the absence of our parents obvious. She picks up our bags and we silently follow her out of the station. I grab Tess’s hand, searching the parking lot. I give directions to my house, telling Ms. Perry she can drop both of us off there. We’re all silent, but I keep catching Ms. Perry looking at us in the rearview mirror. Finally, as we pull into an empty driveway, I ask, “We’re not safe, are we? He saw all of us, he saw our faces.”
Ms. Perry turns around to look at us. “You are safe. You saw him as well. We all did.”
“He saw you, too, Ms. Perry. Aren’t you scared?” Tess asks.
“No, I’m worried.” she says softly. When she looks back at my empty house, I get it.
“Someone’s always home. The maids…”
Ms. Perry nods, and I’m surprised that she doesn’t press on. “Alright, why don’t you go inside. I’ll call your parents later.” She waits in the driveway until we’re inside. Tess and I wait until we’re locked safely in my room to get in my bed and burst into tears.
“What if they don’t find him?” Tess asks, hours later. We still haven’t ventured from under the quilt Tess and I made the summer before middle school. We took our clothes from elementary school (including more matching t-shirts than I want to admit), and, from a do-it-yourself project in Seventeen magazine, made a pretty worthy quilt. Our birthdays, which are exactly six months apart, are when we make the trade.
“I don’t know. I mean, how does he know we heard anything? We were just standing in the church when he came out of the confessional. He doesn’t know we were in there with him.”
“He knows we ran out of there. And that we were scared.”
“Yeah, that might have given us away.”
We sigh.
“I wonder how Travis is,” I say, sitting up to look at the time. “God, it’s 9 o’clock.” I get out of bed and open my door, where I can see both of my parents’ cars in the driveway from the hall window.
“What’s wrong?” Tess asks behind me.
“They’re home. How long have they been here?” Tess follows me down the stairs as I keep mumbling. “Ms. Perry had to have called by now.” We find them in the den, each with a glass of alcohol.
“Hi, sweetie!” my mother says, suddenly very loving. “Drunk with love” was appropriate for describing my mother in these moments. My father, on the other hand, was a man of very few words. But this is no different than any other day.
My mother is oblivious to me pushing her hug away. Tess is too nice to stop her.
“Did one of my teachers call?”
“Oh! Yes! She told us what happened.”
“When?”
My mother waves her hand. “Oh, a couple of hours ago. We didn’t want to bother you.”
I roll my eyes. Both of my parents’ lack of concern about this situation is not surprising. I can only imagine the conversation Ms. Perry had with my drunk parents. Which makes me think of Tess.
“Where are your parents right now?” I ask her once we’re alone in the kitchen. I’m suddenly hungry.
“God, I don’t know. They might be away this week.”
“Well, either way, you’re staying here.” We both stop what we’re doing and look at each other. It’s this moment that it all starts to change. A sleepover in the middle of the week should be something to celebrate. Instead, we are afraid the other will leave us alone.
“Ok.” Tess finally answers.
Without another word, we fix our dinner and take it to my room. I call Travis once we’re locked in.
“There’s no school tomorrow.”
“Why is there no school?” Tess asks. We have Travis on speaker phone.
“I guess it’s a safety precaution,” he says. “We have to go back to the police station tomorrow, too. They think they have some suspects.”
I swallow. “We didn’t hear anything about that.”
“I can pick you both up tomorrow if you want.” Again, another moment of change. Travis would be using this to his advantage any other time. But his offer is as reluctant as my acceptance.
“Ok. See you tomorrow.” We hang up, everything so out of control.
“What if he’s not in the lineup?” Tess’s voice is barely a whisper as we settle back into the safety of each other’s presence under our quilt.
“I dunno,” I whisper back, huddling deeper.
Neither of us speaks, even though it takes hours to fall asleep. Eventually, we wake up to the sun outshining the lamps in my room that we were too afraid to turn off.
. . . .
The day we go back to school, everyone knows. It was only a matter of time.
“Hey!”
It is becoming all too familiar to have Travis jumping out of nowhere and pulling me into small, private places.
“Dude, you have to stop doing that!” I hiss. “Every time you do, I think it’s him!”
“Sorry, I’m sorry!” he rushes, ducking back out of the closet. He returns seconds later, following a scream.
“Jesus!” I hear Tess’s voice.
“What’s going on, Travis?” We’re all squeezed together. My face is in Travis’s armpit, so I move over, resting my face against Tess’s shoulder.
“Some of the other students know. David Luke just asked me about it.”
“What did he say, exactly?” Tess’s voice is loud.
“He asked if it was true, about us hearing some crazy guy confess a murder. I mean, he was dead on about it – how did he find out? Most rumors end up being twisted.”
None of us say anything, each of us lost in our own version of this nightmare. But its reality brings us all back together during Ms. Perry’s class. Minutes into the lesson I feel the stares. I try my best to ignore them, knowing I’m probably overreacting. I felt paranoid all the time – it caused me to walk into things since I was usually looking over my shoulder.
When I finally do look up I catch Stacey Collins watching me. She gives me a quick smile before averting her eyes. I glance over in time to see Allen Bell trying to get Travis’s attention. When he does, Travis’s expression tells me exactly what he’d asked. He looks over at me now, and I feel sorry for him.
“Mr. Bell, is there something you need to share with the rest of us?” Ms. Perry walks over to her desk, waiting for Allen, his mouth open.
“Is it true, what happened on Monday?”
Ms. Perry looks up now, reaching to set her book down. She misses her desk, and it hits the floor with an echoing smack. When I jump, she looks at me, followed by the rest of the class. I feel my face heat up, and I start to get angry. I hate being so afraid.
“I can’t say exactly if anything happened. I wasn’t there, so I wouldn’t know. But it’s nothing anybody needs to worry about.”
If Ms. Perry knew anything about teens, maybe she wouldn’t have answered in a stern voice. The fact that she did basically told every kid in class that the rumors are true.
I sit at my desk and try not to cry. I try to concentrate on something to block out the ringing in my ears. Nothing works until I look up and see Tess standing outside the classroom door. She’s crying, and I know that she just experienced the same thing.
My classmates are still trying to ask Ms. Perry questions. I keep my focus on Tess as I grab my books and walk out.
“Reagan…” Ms. Perry half-heartedly tries to stop me. I take Tess’s hand and lead her out of the school, not stopping until we get to the parking lot. I find a bench and pull Tess to me, letting her cry out both of our fears. It’s not long before someone comes up beside us, and I didn’t know it at the time, but he was the one that was going to get me through this.
Travis stands for a moment, watching Tess, and when he speaks I realize he’s crying. “Are you ok, Tess?”
“No, I’m not ok!” she yells, pulling away from me. I’m shocked. “This is not ok!”
I watch stupidly as Travis nods. It seems just as stupid, but it calms Tess down.
“None of us are ok – not until they find him. I can’t eat, or sleep, I can barely sit here and tell you this because I’m so afraid!”
“Us, too, Tess,” Travis says, sitting down beside her. He rubs his eyes. “I check every lock on every window and door. Like, twenty fuckin times a night.” He has his head bent down and I can see the back of his collar sticking up. I want to reach over and fix it, just to be able to fix something between the three of us. As if it could be that simple. “Every little fucking noise makes me jump. I always feel like I’m about to piss myself.”
I watch Tess watching as Travis falls apart. I look up and see Ms. Perry across the parking lot, looking more worried the closer she gets to us. God forbid she isn’t cry, too.
“Jesus Christ,“ I mutter. Ms. Perry doesn’t waste this moment to give me a disapproving look. Even though she’s crying, it still comes across that way. But it’s lost its effect on me after so many times. Even now, as we sit here in panic and uncertainty.
 Kids our age face uncertainty all the time. Graduation, college, jobs. But not this. Not their lives, living in constant fear of a murderer.
However this ends, our lives will never be the same.

“I can’t imagine how scared you are, having to be here every day.” Ms. Perry looks us all over, hesitating. “I talked to your parents, and the school counselor.”
“That’s so pointless,” I say quickly.
“I think it might help to have someone to talk to. Help you with your fears, with the other students-“
“The only thing that’s going to help is to find that psycho! How have they not found him yet? We all saw him, we gave a description, didn’t they get his fingerprints?”
“I don’t know, Reagan.” The sadness on Ms. Perry’s face looks so out of place on a teacher that is usually lecturing me and writing detention slips.
I sigh, looking over to Tess and Travis. There’s nothing we can do but wait. Ms. Perry lets us leave, with the promise that she’ll call later. We pile into Travis’s car. He turns the car on, and then turns to us. “I can’t go home alone right now.”
“Neither can we.” Tess’s voice is small in the backseat. There’s a heavy feeling of suffocation surrounding us.
“So, let’s keep it that way,” Travis says. “No one’s ever alone, not if we can help it. We’re safer in numbers, right?” He looks at me, then Tess. I look at her, too. No one says a word, but it’s a silent pact we stick to. It’s not hard. We’re all so scared, we don’t care about being desperate or brave. Travis doesn’t care when I call him one afternoon, minutes after he drops me off. He’s in my driveway a minute later, and without a word, sits down with me in my kitchen and just holds my hand. Tess and I are rarely apart, but the times we are, I know Travis leaves work early, or makes his way across town to pick Tess up. They drive around until I call, or it’s safe to go home. For Travis, this is any time. He has parents who come home from work and spend time with him. Tess and I become regular fixtures at his house. And though the subject rarely comes up, we know Travis’s parents are aware as to why we spend so much time here, and so much time together.
It doesn’t take long at all to feel comfortable in Travis’s house. His mom makes dinner that we all eat around a table. We actually hold a conversation, something very foreign to me and Tess.
“Do you and your parents do this every night?” I ask Travis after our second time over for dinner. We’re in the living room, sitting around the fireplace. We can hear James Taylor and The Eagles playing in the kitchen as his parents clean up dinner – again, another foreign concept. In my house, that’s why we have maids.
“What, eat?”
I give him a look, and he smirks.
“Yeah, most nights.” He shakes his head, still laughing at me. I catch Tess watching us, and she grins at me. I squint my eyes back at her. I turn back to Travis when he asks, “So I take it your parents aren’t always around?”
“Oh, they’re around, just not in the way yours are.” I tell him.
“And mine, literally, are never here. I lose track of where they are, they’re gone so much.”
Travis looks at Tess. “And that’s why the two of you are so close.”
Tess gives him a shrug and a smile. “Something like that.” We all laugh. It’s been days since any of us have smiled.
Eventually, school becomes easier. Our classmates quit asking questions, but the entire situation never actually dies down. It’s like that whole “small town gets a celebrity” thing – our little private school gets its 15 minutes of fame, and at the expense of me, Travis, and Tess.
We all start seeing the school counselor. I don’t say much the first few visits, but I can’t deny I need someone else to talk to. Some things I just don’t want to bring up in front of Tess or Travis. We don’t talk much about it with each other, but talking to a person outside the three of us helps. Even if this doesn’t last, it’s still a nice escape.
                It’s late in the afternoon, and already dark out when my phone rings. I don’t glance at it, knowing it’s Tess.
“You ok?”
There’s no answer, just sobs.
“Tess, what?” I shout into the phone, panic making me drop it. I snatch it back up, yelling Tess’s name.
“I-I came home-I think he’s been here, Reagan! There was a piece of tape on my bedroom window. Someone wrote on it ‘Keep your mouth shut’. It has to be him, right?”
I feel slightly dizzy, and am suddenly paranoid that I’m being watched. “Are you still home-are you alone?”
“My dad is here somewhere-“
“Call the police, Tess, and tell your dad.” I’m shouting everything I say. “I’m calling Travis, we’ll be right there.”
“Reagan, I’m scared.” Tess breaks off into sobs, and although she’s cried a lot these past few weeks, this is different. This was a whole new scared.
“I’m on my way, ok? You don’t have to be scared. I won’t let anything happen to you.” I make her hang up so she can call the cops, and I call Travis. As chaotic as my brain is, there’s a part that notices how quick Travis gets to my house. He must’ve been around the corner. We don’t say anything as he cuts the five minute drive to Tess’s house down to seconds. The next two hours are a blur of stupid questions, gathering evidence, and answers that only spiral us deeper into fear. The frustration has been building, and I’ve been waiting for the explosion. It suddenly seems to be happening, but I can’t quite register it.
“Travis, calm down! Please.” I watch as he does the opposite, and continues pacing and ranting. I think he’s finally lost it.
“We can’t, we can’t-“
He keeps repeating himself. I look at Tess, knowing I’ll get no response. I feel more than overwhelmed. I suddenly don’t care anymore. Let Tess never speak another word in her life. If that’s what she wants, then fine. And Travis – I always thought I’d be the first to have a mental breakdown, but if he wants to lead the way, that was fine, too. I didn’t care.
“We can’t stay here. We have to leave.” At first, I don’t hear him.
“Rea. Tess. Let’s go.”
“What? Where?”
“I don’t know, but anywhere that’s far from here. Let’s go!” He’s so urgent that I stand up. I look behind me to see Tess is already standing. My stomach drops when I realize how quick we all jumped at his words. And not in that way where you think you’re going to pee, but more like a thrill.
And I know we aren’t coming back for a long time.
I want to split up so that we can pack faster, but Travis refuses to separate. But within the hour, we’re leaving tire marks as we race out of town. If any of us wants to look back, that town was blurrier than the stop signs Travis sped by. For the first time ever, I feel carefree. I feel good. I’m excited, and when I turn my smiling face to Travis and Tess, I can see it’s the same for them.
                It’s been three weeks. Tess’s parents think she’s on a trip for school. They lost track of the days before Tess even fed them that lie. As long as they hear from her, they don’t ask questions. When my parents think to send me a drunken text, I just tell them I’m up in my room. Or over at Tess’s. Or I just ignore them. Travis doesn’t have it so easy. Watching him after the first few times he talks to his parents has me convinced that we need to go home. No one who has parents that love them should put those parents through hell and worry. But Travis won’t hear of it. It leads to a huge fight that results in me locking myself in the bathroom. I’m so confused and conflicted. I hate watching Travis suffer, hate the way I can hear his mom when he talks to her. But what I hate the most is how I feel. I feel safe here. I felt scared and alone and helpless at home.
Hours later, the soft knock I can barely hear lets me know it’s Tess.
“Come in.”
There’s hesitation at my quick response. Tess is now realizing I never actually locked the door. When her face appears around the door, I am stilled at the concern in those piercing blue eyes. I’ve known Tess my whole life, and nothing concerns her. Ever. Instead, she gets hurt. And the look in her eyes when someone hurts her can have me running after a person before Tess can explain. But now, with this worry aimed at me, I get why Tess falls apart so easy. Having someone care about you can make you feel so vulnerable. Especially when you’re not used to it.
Tess is quiet as she climbs in the tub, and sits down opposite of me. We look at each other for a few moments.
“This just isn’t the same without bubbles.” She’s so serious, but I know she’s trying to make me laugh. I’m trying not to cry.
“Why is one thing after another so fucked up?” I can’t meet Tess’s eyes. One look and I will lose it.
“What do you mean?”
“That day in the confessional. Tell me you didn’t think that was the most fucked up thing that’s ever happened in your entire life. But then this? What we’re doing right now? It’s even more fucked up, Tess.”
“We’re safe here, Reagan.”
“Exactly!” I look up in my exasperation, and everything on Tess’s face is trying so hard to understand.
“Rea – “ she starts to say, and that’s it. In seconds, I burst into tears. It startles Tess. I bring my knees up to my face. This is all too much. When Tess takes me in her arms, awkward as it is in this tiny motel tub, I stop pretending everything is going to be fine. I cry my emotions out instead. All the tears release the anger and fear poisoning me from the inside out. It isn’t long before my ragged breathing is calm again.
“Tess, we’re seventeen. We shouldn’t be living like this. This shouldn’t be safer than home.”
“I know. I know it’s twisted and fucked, but does it matter? Does any of this matter, as long as we’re together? All of us?” she adds. I bend my head to my chest. She’s right. The only reason any of us have made it this far is because we haven’t been alone.
I hear Travis come into the bathroom.
“I would die if something happened to either of you. We could easily all be wrong, but I feel safe this way. I can eat without puking. I can sleep. I can turn on the fucking tv instead of listening for every little noise that might be him.”
“I know, Travis, I get it.” I tell him softly, my apology.
“And I get where you’re coming from, but this isn’t forever. I’ll see my parents again.”
“You don’t know that. It’s been months, and he’s still out there. People go their entire lives getting away with murder. What’s to stop him from killing us, too?”

Part 4
“I don’t know that. But it’s what I believe, it’s what I want to happen.”
It’s quiet, uncomfortable, and awkward. Though we all felt safe, this is wrong. It’s wrong for Travis. Tess and I can live like this as long as we want. It’s also the very thing that separates us from Travis. But now, what kept us joined to each others’ sides, overshadowed this, and I knew it.
Silently, Travis holds his hand out to me. As he pulls me up, I turn to Tess, doing the same. Travis takes all of our phones, turns them off, and puts them beside the tiny tv. We all crowd on one of the beds, Tess, me, and Travis, and watch whatever we find. The hours pass by unnoticed, and eventually all that is tense and uncomfortable is forgotten. We fall somewhat into a routine. It takes a couple of weeks to feel safe enough to venture outside. That, and we all start going a little stir crazy. During another game of rummy, Tess takes all the cards, screams, “I’m done!”, and throws them out the window. She storms off to the bathroom, the only place any of us can go for some privacy. Once we hear the lock click, Travis and I look at each other and laugh.
“Poor Tess.” I say, walking to close the window. It takes everything in me to leave the curtains open.
“How long do you think she’ll be in there?”
I shrug, turning to Travis. “From the sound of the water running, awhile.”
“Good.” And then he walks over and kisses me. I push him away, startled, and then surprise both of us by pulling his face back to mine. My brain hardly has time to acknowledge my feelings. I’m drawn in by this kiss with the boy I’ve always seen as an annoyance. I didn’t know I wanted this.
Travis pauses and looks at me, and when he sees that I’m not going to stop him, he leads us to the bed. We lay next to each other, and I let him smooth my hair away from face as he takes it in. When our lips touch again, I’m unable to name the feeling that it brings. I do know I want more than this, and from the urgency in his kisses, Travis does, too.
But we don’t do that. We can’t. But what we are doing right now, I love. I love the way he feels around me, what his kisses are doing to me, and how it makes me forget. I love the way he tastes, and that if we keep doing this, I’m going to lose control.
“Travis,” I breathe, the room spinning. He has his eyes closed, trying to pull himself together.
“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting to be able to kiss you?” His eyes are still closed.
“I have a guess.” I say, and when his eyes meet mine, my body surges at the thought of him kissing me again. With one last long and deep kiss, he gets off the bed.
“Maybe I should go get dinner.”
“Good idea.” My face is red and flushed. I hear Tess moving around in the bathroom. “Maybe you could go to Panera?”
 Travis smiles. Tess loves Panera. “I’ve got my phone. Lock up behind me. Remember our knock.”
I get up and join him at the door. “Be careful.” I tell him. He kisses my cheek.
“Be right back.”
I feel like an idiot as I lock the door behind him, though the feeling is quickly replaced with near crippling anxiety that always intensifies when the three of us are separated. To distract myself, I check on Tess.
“Hey!” I knock on the bathroom door. Tess unlocks it a moment later, letting me in. She sits back on the edge of the tub, still wrapped in a towel.
“You feel better?”
“I guess,” she mumbles, shrugging. “Wait. What’s the matter?” She stands up, panic all over her face. My stomach drops as I join her in panicking, even though I have no idea why.
“What? Nothing. Oh my god. Why?” I turn and look back into the room. The door is still locked.
“Your face is all flushed.”
“Oh,” I say, my face heating up more. “It’s fine. I’m fine.” I stutter stupidly.
Literally one second passes. “Oh my god.” Tess has already figured it out. How could she not? She’s been with more guys than I’ve even talked to. In my defense, I scowl at her and turn away.
“Stop!” Tess commands, and it takes me by surprise. I pause in my getaway, and Tess comes to stand in front of me. She searches my face.
“You just kissed?”
“Christ, Tess! You were in the next room-“
“Don’t ever let that stop you from-“
I close my eyes and hold up my hand. “Stop. Just stop.” This didn’t need to go any further. When I open my eyes, Tess is smiling at me.
“Tess…”
She just laughs and throws her arms around my neck.
“I love you.” she says seriously. Her face is right beside my ear, mine beside hers. I hug her harder.
“Everything’s fine, Tess. I love you, too.” Without another word, she goes back to the bathroom and gets dressed. Then she joins me at the table, still quiet as I set it. Three paper plates, three paper cups, and the flowers Tess picked out a grocery store in another plastic cup in the middle. I took a picture of our little dinner table the other night. It’s my favorite.
Movement at the door minutes later sends my heart racing, bringing me out of my thoughts and relaxed state. A series of knocks lets us know it’s just Travis. I still look through the peephole to make sure.
Travis grins when I open the door, and I’m so quick to return it. I feel like an idiot, and I can’t help it.
Tess looks up in surprise at the bags Travis is holding. “Panera?” Her face lights up.
“Yeah, why not. It’s your fav.” Travis says, setting the bags down on our table. Tess bursts into tears without any warning.
“Whoa, hey-“ Travis spins around to look at me, worried. I just wave my hand at him. Tess isn’t upset, exactly, but I know what she’s feeling. It’s something we never got from home, yet we managed to find it here, in this shithole motel, hundreds of miles from the home we ran from.
That something was a family.
“C’mon, Tess. Let’s eat.” I start unpacking the food, Travis still staring at Tess.
“I love you guys,” Tess blurts out, and I laugh.
“We love you, too, Tess.”
“We love you so much, we’ll let you have the free cookie they gave me.” Travis teases her. She rolls her eyes, laughing.
“Shut up and let’s eat.”
As I sit down to join them, listening to them tease each other, I realize that I can flash forward ten years and still see the three of us together, doing exactly this. Everything inside of me swells in an unfamiliar feeling that I know is contentment. I am also certain that in the hard days I know will follow, I can look back on this moment and count on it to get me through.
That moment comes sooner than any of us had imagined. We’re starting to get too comfortable with our comforts. Still, it wasn’t something we could have ever seen coming. I don’t know who is more shocked we open the door one afternoon-us, or Ms. Perry, standing out in the parking lot. She has more guilt than shock written all over her face, like we’ve caught her doing something she shouldn’t be.
No one moves. We all just stand there and stare. But after a minute we all feel that need to be inside, in the safety of the motel room. Ms. Perry follows us in. She takes in the two beds, the tv, and our table. It was only a week ago that we’d been laughing around it.
“You left. All of you.” Ms. Perry looks each of us in the eye. Suddenly we’re back at school, getting scolded by the teacher.
“We had to, Ms. Perry.” Travis is the first to speak.
“No, you didn’t. I have been worried – “ she breaks off, looking away. This uncomfortable situation is now even more awkward as we watch Ms. Perry wipe away tears.
“We’re fine.” I mutter, earning looks from Travis and Tess. I shrug at them, mouthing “What?”
“Ms. Perry, would you like some water?” Tess is already getting her a cup. Travis offers her a chair, and she takes the cup as she sits down.
“How’d you find us?” I ask. My curiosity might get me killed, but I don’t care. If Ms. Perry can find us, why not him? From the expectant looks on Tess and Travis’ faces, I know they have the same concern.
Ms. Perry takes a sip of water. “I had help from a friend. Your phones still have their GPS on.”
“You’re fucking kidding, “ I mutter, rolling my eyes.
“Reagan.” Ms. Perry says sharply. Travis is trying not to laugh. Tess looks confused.
“They tracked us, Tess.” I tell her, and she raises her eyebrows. “Yeah,” I say.
Ms. Perry tries to change the subject. “Well, from what I can see, the three of you have been doing just fine. Your parents, on the other hand-“
“Don’t give a shit?” I challenge Ms. Perry. Before she can answer, I go on. “I’m guessing you noticed our absences from school, went to each of our homes, and only Travis‘s parents could clue you in. Right?”
“Ok, Reagan.” Travis puts a hand on my arm. For his sake, I stop.
“Is everything ok? Why are you here?” he asks Ms. Perry.
“It’s safe. You can come home. “
I hear Tess as she takes in a sharp breath. I turn to Travis, who is staring hard at Ms. Perry. “They found him? You’re sure?”
Ms. Perry smiles. “They did.”
“What, do they need us to come back and identify him?” I ask.
Ms. Perry blinks. “No, I believe they matched fingerprints. It’s all over. That’s what I was told at the police station.”
“Then why are you hear?” She blinks again. But Tess gets what I’m saying.
“Reagan. We have to go back.”
I turn to her, pain in my chest. “What?”
She looks at me helplessly. “It’s not right…”
“Our whole loves aren’t right, Tess!” I yell, and that’s all it takes for her to cry. I don’t care, though. She hurt me first. I don’t dare look at Travis. I know where he stands about all of this, and I don’t blame him. But I never thought this day would happen – I didn’t know what to do. All I can see is the three of us together, forever. Psychotic murderer after us or not, my life isn’t right without the two of them. I didn’t have anyone else, but even more, I didn’t want anyone else. The thought of going back to how we used to live, after this small taste of how it could be, is unbearable.
I go and stand by the window. When will I learn to stop believing that the worst is over?
“Reagan.”
I ignore them. I just need a few more seconds to get over this. Deep down, I know I won’t go anywhere without them, but that doesn’t mean I need to be willing or happy about it.
I turn to Ms. Perry. I hate how she’s watching me, always worried.
“How are we supposed to just go back to our lives?”

Part 5
“I don’t expect you to. It’s something all of you are going to have to figure out. It’s going to take some time.”
It’s not what I want to hear. I glare at everyone, making it clear I’m not happy about any of this.
It takes minutes to gather everything we have and take it to Ms. Perry’s car. I ignore Tess when she tries to take my hand, and then her sniffles when she squeezes my hand and lets it go. I glare at Travis’s eyes watching me in the rearview mirror as he settles in the front seat beside Ms. Perry, who sees everything that is going on with her teacher eyes.
It’s tense and silent, my stomach twisting into knots the closer we are to home. I know that psycho is no longer at large, but Ms. Perry is right. Coming back home, adjusting to our lives-it was all going to take time. I look at Tess, biting her lip, not the least bit trying to hide her fear. Travis, somehow, is convincingly calm. And Ms. Perry still looks like she’s going to cry.
I’m surprised as Ms. Perry pulls into a shopping center. We’re only minutes from home, and I find that I just want to get this over with.
“Anybody hungry? My treat.” Shutting the car off, she turns to look at us, hopeful. I roll my eyes.
“I’m hungry.” Travis plays along. Ms. Perry gives him a grateful smile before looking to Tess, who only offers a small smile and nod. We all get out, and without consulting each other, walk towards the Panera at the corner of the shopping center. Once inside, we are glued to each other. I forget about being angry as I grab Tess’s hand and press myself against Travis. His quick eyes are scanning the busy restaurant.
“Kids?” Ms. Perry says gently, and we turn to the cashier and stutter through our orders. Waiting is agony, and I don’t think any of us can handle sitting down inside and eating in public.
“Let’s go eat in the car”, Ms. Perry suggests. “It’s a little too crowded in here, and I don’t see anywhere to sit.” Still glued together, we follow her out of Panera, ignoring the handful of empty tables we rush past. It’s easier to breathe with each step closer to the car.
Silence surrounds us again as we pick at our food, nobody speaking because we don’t know what to say. If this was how it was going to be from now on, then we were better off on our own. This was worse than before.
“Kids, you know I’m always here for you. I know how you’re feeling. And there’s always the school counselor. We can find better help, too, if that’s what you want. Just give it time, things will get better, I promise.”
“Can I just say-“
Travis and Ms. Perry both turn to look at me so I shut up and sigh. “Nevermind.” I mutter like a brat, and stare out my window.
“I don’t want to go home yet.” Tess says, everyone turning to look at her now.
“Let’s go to my house first. My parents will be happy to see all of us.” Travis says, reaching to touch Tess’s hand. She just nods, eyes to the floor. Ms. Perry starts her car, and I still can’t find a place past my anger to comfort Tess or be nice to Travis. So I just ride along, watching the scene outside my window become familiar again. Each house and shopping center fuels my anger just a little more. I had myself convinced that I would be coming back here. Even under the circumstances, it wasn’t any better. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he could still be out there. Like this was all a trap.
Just before we get to Travis’s street he calls his mom.
“Mom?” A lump fills my throat at his voice. He doesn’t try to hold back any emotion. I wonder what it feels like to have parents like his.
“I’m home.”
By the time we are pulling into the driveway, there his parents are, waiting. It hits me in a thousand different ways.
Ms. Perry walks ahead while Tess and I hang back. Suddenly I feel like I could easily be blamed for this whole situation. It feels exactly like that day in the police station. It’s so obvious that Tess and I are in no rush to get home, where there won’t be anyone to welcome us as if they actually missed us, much less knew we had disappeared.
I look away from the happy reunion, turning my glare to the sky. I feel like I’ve lost everything. It’s a quick, hard reminder that Travis and I come from worlds that can’t possible exist within each other. Ms. Perry is right in more ways than she knew. The lives we were trying to fit back into just got a lot harder.
I feel Tess beside me, just as quiet. This isn’t fair in so many ways. It’s not fair that this happened to us. That our lives will never be the same. That we had a small taste of paradise, our paradise, only to turn right back around and find the only thing waiting for us is the hell we ran away from. It’s not fair that Travis gets to come back to a different version of paradise, while Tess and I will never know what that’s like.
It’s not fair that I’m still mad at Tess.
“Wanna go raid the liquor cabinet and go to the beach?”
“I’m already there.” Tess doesn’t hesitate to answer. I pull her to me. It’s just like her to be so damn forgiving, even when I most certainly don’t deserve it.
“I hate my life.” I mutter.
“I hate your life, too.” Tess replies, and we both snort.
As we pull apart someone else throws their arms around me, making my body and mind lock.
“You don’t know how worried we were.” I relax at the sound of Travis’s mom acknowledging that we had been missing. She holds me tight, and I tense again, knowing that if I give in, I’ll regret it. “I’m so glad everyone is ok.” She lets me go and holds my face so that I have to look into her kind, concerned eyes.
“I know you’re not ok, but you’ll get there. All of you will help each other.” She kisses my forehead when my eyes fill.
Travis, his dad, and Ms. Perry join me as I watch Travis’s mom gather Tess in her arms, who, unlike me, doesn’t hold back. I feel slightly guilty that I’m not the one comforting her, but I know exactly how she feels when Travis’s mom is around.

She just doesn’t try to fight it like I do.

Part 6
After Mr. Booth suggests we go inside, we all sit in the living room. As much space as there is, me, Travis, and Tess still glue ourselves to each other on the couch. Ms. Perry takes the chair next to us as we’re all given something to drink. The three of us leave our sodas on the table, unwilling to move.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come to you first when I found them.” Ms. Perry looks so strange to me, sitting in a comfortable chair with a glass of alcohol. “I wanted to, please believe me, but I needed to make sure everything was ok before I brought them home.”
Mrs. Booth is still wiping away tears. She waves a hand at Ms. Perry, trying to pull herself together. We all watch as her husband takes her hand. I don’t dare look to see what Travis’s face looks like at this moment.
“You brought them back, that’s all that matters.”
None of us smile. I don’t know about Tess or Travis, but I can feel a chill on my neck at all times. I feel it more now than I ever did before.
“I have a friend down at the station, and he informed me as soon as the news came in that the man at large was in custody.”
“How do they know it’s him?” I ask again because I can’t shake this feeling that we aren’t safe, that this ordeal isn’t as done with as they’re letting on.
“Reagan, they were able to match fingerprints. They have him, he’s off the streets, and you’re safe.” As much as I hate Ms. Perry as my teacher, this version of her was different. I know she can tell I’m not satisfied with this, but I feel no judgment, even though I feel out of control. There was nothing about our situation anymore that I had control over. There was no more running away and never coming back.
“Would all of you feel better seeing him in custody? You don’t have to see him face to face. It can be through a one-way mirror or even a monitor. I can talk to my friend and see what can be done. You don’t have to make any decisions right now, though. I know you don’t feel like it, but you are safe, ok? I promise.”
Tess grabs my hand as Travis leans forward, rubs his face, then turns to me. Our eyes only meet for a moment before he speaks.
“Maybe in a few days we’ll be able to handle something like that,” he answers quietly. The adults all nod, worried eyes so focused on us that I want to cry. I stand up fast, startling everyone, including Tess, whose hand I’m still holding.
“Sorry. I need to pee.”
I don’t realize that I’m not breathing until I start choking. I reach the bathroom door and slam it behind me. Catching my breath, vision blurred, it’s easy to pretend I’m back in our shitty motel bathroom, where no one could touch us, and our lives actually felt like we were moving forward. Now, everything is so mangled and chaotic, that all the parts of my life I kept separate have merged into a mass that sits heavy on my soul.
It’s a force that lets nothing good come in or out. And now more than ever, I feel like I deserve the shit that happens to me. If I were a better person, if I wasn’t so hateful towards my parents, even if I felt like they deserved my indifference towards them, then maybe life would throw something better my way. If I were a better student, friend, daughter, human-
“Reagan.” I blink at my surroundings, a scene that was becoming all too familiar. A secluded place and whatever alcohol we’re able to find. I don’t know where we left from or when we got to where we are. I keep getting sucked into the black hole that is my life, wondering why I couldn’t just do better when I had the chances to, and then my life wouldn’t be the regret it was.
Why did I have to let my anger lead me through life? Why couldn’t I be more like Tess, be more forgiving and trustful, and let people in? Why did I have to be such a dark person that didn’t give others a chance to show me they were good?
It’s well after midnight, and Tess and I are sitting on the beach. It’s quiet for a really long time. Just the motion of the waves as we pass the bottle back and forth. I hate how the one place that Tess and I once found comfort in is now just as wrecked as we are.
The beach has done nothing to keep my mind away from the thoughts of my heavy, dirty soul. This was punishment, I was sure of it. God dangled everything in front of me, just within reach, then took it away as fast as I pushed people away. Travis was proof of that. He wasn’t ever going to be mine, he was just a taste of what I could have if I wasn’t so shitty.
“I hate how nothing feels right.” Tess murmurs, pulling her hoodie tighter around her as if it could actually ward off the chill that is now always at our backs.
“When did it ever?”
“It didn’t. But this used to.” She waves her hand and I follow it, looking out to the waves beyond us. There is nothing else around us. Our fear, uneasiness, anger, sadness-it’s all there, building as we sit here. But with each sip of alcohol, and each wave that fills the silence, it all starts to ease up on us.
We know better than to get wasted, but we can’t stop ourselves from getting to the point where it doesn’t hurt anymore. I’ll know when we get there because I’ll start crying. When the hurt isn’t there, the emptiness is a reminder of what will be waiting for us tomorrow. But for now, this is our moment to feel nothing. To let the tears out that sometimes I fought too hard to keep from falling.
I really wasn’t as strong as I wished I was. I feel like I’m about to break. After everything we’ve been through I can’t help but think about the fact that Tess and I can very well lose each other. We’re dealing with something way beyond anything we should be able to handle. And that scares me.
Tess grabs my hand, and the ocean in front of me blurs.
“Tess, why are you so good to me?” I blurt out. I keep looking out to the waves I can’t see.
“Oh, I guess because I’m so awesome.” She sighs, stroking my hair. When she sees I’m still crying she puts her arms around me. “Regan, it’s so easy. Why are you so good to me? It’s the very same reason.”
“That you can’t help it?”
Tess laughs. “Yeah, something like that.” She puts her warm face next to mine, and I desperately try to find the comfort when our faces touch. I find that Tess’ is dry.
“I like when you let me take care of you.”
I just shake my head. “How are you so calm?”
“Because you need me to be.”
­­­­­­­­­­­­
Part 7
“And what about you?”
“You’ve taken care of me far more times than I’ll ever be able to repay you, Rea. You don’t think I realize this?”
“It’s not a competition.”
“And that’s exactly why I love you so much. Because taking care of each other is just natural. That’s why we’re still best friends, and always, always will be.”
“How can you know that?”
“I can’t. But I don’t ever want a life that doesn’t have you in it.” Something in her voice makes me pull back to look at Tess. She’s almost angry when she tells me, “I’m serious, Reagan. As long as we’re both still breathing, don’t ever leave me.” She holds me with her stare, and I see that something has shifted inside of her. I’m torn between acknowledging this is because we’d been running for our lives, or recognizing that Tess was stronger, but she was still the most important person to me.
“Ok, Tess.”
...
We go back to school a week after coming home. We’ve missed so much that technically, we should be expelled, or at the very least, redoing the entire year over when the following school year started. But considering “our circumstance” we’re allowed to come back, though that first week we are kept in a classroom away from our peers “so we can focus on catching up without distractions.” We aren’t stupid, but we also don’t care. If everyone thinks keeping the three of us secluded so that we spend 8 hours with just each other’s company isn’t fine with us, they’re wrong. If they think this is the best way to ease us back in among our classmates, then we’ll let them keep thinking that. If the only faces we ever saw again belonged only to me, Tess, or Travis, then so be it.
We don’t care.
Two other faces hold their own places within my life. I can’t speak for Tess or Travis, but I am haunted by one every night in my dreams. Ms. Perry is a steady, constant presence in our lives that I find doesn’t bother me. But that other face, nameless, finds its way into my subconscious where I have no control over what happens. Every fear that I have control over in the daylight takes a life of its own during night. I have no desire to share this with Travis or Tess. We all agreed, silently and unanimously, we didn’t need to see that fucker behind bars. That’s where he belonged, not us. We belonged with each other, something that has only changed in the slightest.
We still spend every waking moment together. Tess has all but moved in, sharing my room with me like we’re sisters. She goes home when her parents stop in briefly before taking off again. My parents are as oblivious as ever, but this all works for us. We’re dealing how we want to, at our own pace, and their interference would only hold us back. We eat dinner with Travis and his parents as many times as we can manage throughout the week, and always on Monday nights. Mrs. Booth will send out a group text every Monday morning telling us how brave we are and that she loves us. It feels far from corny, and what I imagine is a mother’s love. Then she’ll ask one us what we want for dinner, each of us getting a turn to choose Monday night’s meal. For once in our lives, Tess and I have a routine that resembles family. Tess has become especially close with Mr. Booth, something that Travis tells me is good for his dad.
“Before I was born, I had an older sister. My parents were really young when they had her. Like 19. She died when she was 10. She had a nut allergy that they thought she’d grown out of. She went about three years without any incidents, eating whatever she wanted. Then one day, she was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich for lunch at school, and she went into anaphylaxis shock. No one could help her because she wasn’t known for having any kind of food allergy.”
Travis tells me all of this one late afternoon while driving me to work after I mention the friendship developing between the two.
“What was her name?”
“Zooey, like ‘Franny and Zooey’.”
I smile. “Tess loves that book. She has about 6 copies of it. If she sees a book she loves in an old bookstore, she has to buy it.” I roll my eyes.
“My parents talk about her enough that I know who she is, but it’s not something that comes up often. She and my dad were extremely close, and you can literally see the pain on his face when Zooey is mentioned.”
“How long after did they have you?” We’re in the parking lot of my work, and I swear it feels like this drive gets shorter each time, even though Travis takes the longest way possible.
“A year later. She’d be 27 now. I’ll show you a picture of her later.” I groan when he unlocks the doors, and he laughs at me before suddenly leaning over and kissing me.
We haven’t done or said anything about that moment in the motel. That entire period of our lives is like a story we’ve been told so many that times that it feels like it could be our own. Except that it did belong to us, but we can’t ever reach it, no matter how hard we try. Going back is not an option.
I didn’t think Travis and I were an option anymore, but with his lips dancing against mine, I think I might be wrong. I refuse to be the first to pull away. This is just as intoxicating as the first time, and I when I push against his lips, Travis responds with his tongue. Time passes with no regard from either of us. We pull apart only to breathe, and then realize where we are.
“Just drive somewhere.”
I don’t know where he’s headed, but I’m sure Travis is taking the short way this time. Paul Simon sings to us about Julio and by the time Travis pulls into a junkyard, a new song starts to play. Neither of us moves.
“Though it’s only been a month or so
That old car’s buggin’ us to go
We’ve gotta get away and get back on the road again
Me and you and a dog named Boo
Travelin’ and livin’ off the land
Me and you and a dog named Boo
How I love being a free man.”
Travis turns the music off when the song is over, and I just sit there, trying to figure out exactly how I feel. That song, that damn song, I played it on repeat when we were on our own. I drove Tess and Travis crazy with it, but I didn’t care.
The first time I heard it after we got home, I took Tess’ iPod and flushed it down the toilet before throwing everything I could get my hands on at something else. Tess has seen my anger, she’s seen every side of me there is, but this well and truly scared her. I don’t know when I ended up on the bathroom floor, surrounded by the mess, my anger coming out in painful sobs. Tess and one of the maids managed to get me into bed, and I slept for an entire day, that way you do when you are emotionally wrecked. Though we’ve never spoken about, I know Travis was let in on my meltdown.
It is silent for too long, long enough for the mood to shift. Here we are again, neither of us wanting to make the first move, except now the space between us has grown.
“I can’t take the silence.” Travis finally whispers, looking at me guiltily. I feel just as guilty for making him feel this way over a stupid song.
I take one of his hands in both of mine. “I’m sorry. It’s fine, really.” I can’t look at him as I say this.
“I was going to delete the song, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I know how much it hurts you to hear it, I get it, I do. But for me, it brings me back to a time I would give anything to do over.”
I look to him, sure I’d heard him wrong. He looks right back into my eyes.
“I know we’re all starting to adjust. Things are slowly getting better, but I still can’t shake this feeling that it’s never going to get any easier than this. That we’re always going to carry this tragedy with us for the rest of our lives, always feeling like we need to be in hiding, and never feeling safe enough to settle down somewhere. Have a family. Have the love we both deserve.”
Fuck. Travis lets me cry for about two seconds before pulling me to him.
“Reagan, that first day I saw you in school, I saw us. I still see us now. A year from now, five years. You’re still there.” He pushes my hair away and places a gentle kiss on my temple before whispering in my ear.
“I love you.”
I stop. I stop crying, moving, breathing, thinking. Travis takes my face in his hands, gently guiding me to look at him. He does love me, I can see it all right there on his face. I smile and get one in return.
“Travis. I love you, too.”
His smile grows wider, and finally the space between us no longer exists. We fill all the parts of each other slowly, but our needs and impatience leave us satisfied in minutes.
“I’m not even embarrassed.” Travis grins at me as he pulls his jeans back up. We’ve finally stepped outside the car, only because it’s easier to put our clothes back on.
“Don’t get used to that. Next time better be longer.”
Travis doesn’t have a chance to respond. I stop pulling at my shirt when I see his face, looking somewhere past my left shoulder.
“Reagan, run.”
I do what he says. I don’t look behind me or ask questions, because I don’t need to. I know exactly why Travis is throwing up as we crouch in between abandoned, junked cars. It’s the same reason my vision keeps disappearing. Not that it matters because I can’t see anything in the fucking dark. I stumble across gravel, panic rising as I become aware that I can’t tell where any sound is coming from.
“Reagan!” Travis hisses from somewhere behind me. He grabs my shirt and hauls me backwards, and for a brief moment, I am unsure who exactly has their hands on me.
“Don’t move, Rea. Don’t. Move.” Travis whispers in my ear.
I am frozen. If he finds us, I’m dead. I can hear his grunts and shuffles, giving him away, though I still can’t tell where exactly he is. I just know he’s close. Travis grips me harder the closer he stumbles to us. It’s hard to tell whether he’s drunk, or just out of it. He sounds the same way he did that day in the confessional, crazy and not making any sense.
Except he wants to kill us. This, he is fully aware of. He wants us dead. We escaped once already, I knew he’d do anything to make sure that didn’t happen again. Fear surrounds me as I realize we are playing a waiting game. We’re waiting for him to find us, waiting for an escape, or waiting for someone to save us. My mind is quick to convince me that the first will be our fate. My grip on Travis loosens, and I’m only able to stay in the moment because he grips me tighter.
And then it hits me.
I pull out my phone and send a text to Tess, making sure my location can be found. Travis whispers in my ear as we wait out this un-fucking-believable scene. We can still hear him pacing and tripping, muttering to himself. I try focusing on Travis and his voice in my ear instead. I couldn’t make out the words either voice made, but the one in my ear at least brings some comfort.
Stillness closes in when all movement abruptly stops around us.
A sound explodes like it’s right on top of us.
The sirens pierce right through us.
We watch it all unfold before us.

Part 8
Those blue and red lights should’ve made me feel better, but all I can think is that this is the moment of desperation. Who knows what that psycho will do just to get what he wants. Visions of how this all could end play out in front of me. But the one that happens only buys us more time. We aren’t stupid enough to see it other than the reality it brings. Before Travis and I hear the slam of car doors, we watch him get away, taking our relief with him. My stomach sinks at the knowledge that he’s still going to be out there, and I wish he’d killed us. I can’t live another day in this misery.
I turn to Travis’s stunned face. He’d long since stopped whispering, and I can’t speak. Neither of us attempts to move. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter as they call out our names, because we’re watching them attempt to go after that psychotic fuck. We can’t move.
Someone finds us. I scream when they touch me, bringing Travis out of his daze.
“Don’t you fucking touch her!” He brings us both back to reality when his fist connects with a cop’s left cheek. Nobody moves.
“Oh, shit.” Travis is blocking me from everyone, but I can feel the tension when I put my hand on his back. “Shit, I’m sorry.” He’s crying.
“Son. You’re safe. It’s ok.”
But we aren’t. It’s not.
We’re taken to the police station. I am numb, wondering when the fear is going to hit me. Ms. Perry is the first person I see when we get inside, and it’s only now that something else replaces the numbness. Anger propels me forward with tunnel vision.
“You fucking liar!” I scream, and Ms. Perry just stands there. “You lied to us!” Nobody stops me or interrupts me, and it seals the truth. “How could you? Did you just say that to get us to come back?”
Ms. Perry continues to stand there, looking as stunned as Travis did 20 minutes ago. “Tell me!” I scream even louder, turning to kick the chair beside us, sending all the rest looking like a train wreck. Ms. Perry jumps, hands gripped and shakes her head, but it’s not her that speaks.
“She didn’t know.”
We all turn at the voice. It belongs to the officer from the junkyard.
“Know what, Donnie?” Ms. Perry’s voice is small. I already know what happened.
“You lied to her because you knew she’d bring us home. You knew we’d come back because we thought it was safe, because she’s the only one we trust.” The mark Travis left on his face isn’t satisfying enough.
“Donnie, please tell me that’s not what you did.”
The way he looks at her makes it obvious that the two of them are not just friends.
“Jen, they’re safer here than they ever will be out there. There was no way to protect them if we didn’t know where they were.”
“Are you fucking kidding me!” Travis’s voice startles everyone. “That’s exactly what happened tonight! He found us, he followed us, and he trapped us! Reagan got us saved. Tess got us saved. Don’t you act like a god damn hero.”
“Travis.” Mr. Booth pulls him away from Officer Bright, certain he’ll take another swing. We’re all certain he will.
“If what went down tonight had happened when you were on the run, do you think any of you would still be alive?”
“We got lucky this time! How would you have ever found us if I hadn’t sent that text to Tess?”
Officer Bright sighs. “We were already on our way. Your phones, all of your cars are tapped and wired.”
Funny, all I can think about is what Travis and I did earlier in the backseat of his car. What the fuck.
“Then why did it take you so long?” Travis is no longer yelling, but his voice is far from calm.
“I know how scared you both were. So I know that it probably felt longer, but we were at the scene less than 10 minutes after we got the call that -“
He says his name and I go deaf. I hear nothing that anyone says after hearing that name. I look to Tess and Travis. We’ve been living in this hell for so long, and never knew his name. I don’t know how it’s possible, but with a twist in my stomach, this all starts to feel way more real than it did.
“Kids?”
I can feel it, feel myself starting to come undone. Shit just got real. Though we’d never actually been safe, we’d been living under the illusion that we were. But now there was no way to lie to us, and this is so much worse.
 This, we never saw coming.
Grady Cortez had a history of mental illness, along with crimes on his record ranging from attempted murder to maiming and beating an officer. It’s all the same to me. He was a psycho capable of dangerous things, and he wanted us dead. It wouldn’t be long before Travis, Tess and I were another crime on his record.
“We’re going to keep you safe.” Officer Bright tells us, though it’s useless. We don’t trust him. “I didn’t get the three of you back here just to let him get away anything. We’ll catch him.”
“How is he even on the streets?” Travis asks.
With a shake of his head, Officer Bright hesitates. “Instead of serving time, he was committed to a psych ward, where he was supposed to spend a year, and then be moved to a prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.”
“How long.”
“Life.”
“What the fuck!” I scream. Everyone jumps. Tess lets out a scream and Ms. Perry drops her coffee. “That motherfucking psycho gets a life sentence, and you send him to prison? He should’ve been executed! Why is he still breathing?”
“Jesus, kid. Calm down, they don’t execute people like that anymore. The judge needs enough evidence and justification for that. And watch your mouth.”
“He’s killed someone before, right? Like, before the confession that we heard. That’s the only reason you get sentenced to life in prison. Right?” I challenge him.
“Reagan.” Ms. Perry says softly, but I will not calm down.
“He was found to be mentally unstable.”
“Then how is he on the streets? I’m guessing he wasn’t released on good behavior.”
A small smile plays on Officer Bright’s face, but it’s gone when he speaks.
 “No. He escaped.”
I sit down, dumbfounded. Nobody speaks, leaving the opportunity to overthink every possible outcome from here on out. We didn’t stand a chance.
“I don’t want to hear anymore.” Tess says softly. It’s such a contrast from my screaming and anger. Travis takes her hand, closes his eyes, and sighs. I watch him, so very aware that he wasn’t in this with us, Tess and I would not have survived this long. And I don’t mean by staying alive. I mean by living. Breathing. Functioning.
As soon as his eyes open, he’s looking at me. I get that panicked feeling, wanting to look away, but I can’t. The feeling in my stomach that keeps traveling farther down has me convinced I am seriously bent. There is a certified psycho attempting to murder us at all costs, and all I can think about is the backseat of Travis’s car. But when his cheeks turn slightly red, and he clears his throat and looks away sheepishly, I feel less like a freak. He lets go of Tess’s hand and stands up.
“What do we do now? We can’t just go back to our lives.”
Ms. Perry starts to protest this, but Officer Bright puts a hand on her arm. With that one small touch, it becomes even more obvious to the rest of us. Travis looks down as he shoves his hands in his pockets. I sit back in my chair, the anger starting to grow again. Tess continues to sit there, as lost as ever. Ms. Perry looks to Officer Bright, her eyes shining. He squeezes her arm, and I can admit that he looks sorry. For her, and for us.
“No, you can’t. Until this is figured out, and we have him in custody, none of you are to make a move without first letting us know of your destination. You’ll each be accompanied by an officer anywhere you go.” I know he expects us – me – to argue and make a big deal out of all this, but we don’t.
“What about school?” I roll my eyes at Ms. Perry.
“Jen, you’re in danger, too.”
Ms. Perry looks embarrassed, and I realize with some guilt that we’ve never considered her in all of this.
“What happened?” Tess asks the question that’s hanging between us all.
Ms. Perry glares at Officer Bright.
“They need to not feel like they’re alone.” Her face falls when he says this.
“He’s been leaving these notes for me-in my car, my mailbox, taped to my trash can. The last one was left on kitchen counter.”
Tess gasps, a hand over her mouth. Her eyes are glued to Ms. Perry’s face. Chills break out over my body as I turn to look at Travis. He turns away, hands over his face.
“This is such bullshit.” he says. “Bullshit.”
And no one can deny this.  

Part 9
After hearing Ms. Perry tell us information that seems pretty damn important and necessary to keep from us, I am all out of words. Words to give, words to hear. I don’t want any of it. The only predictable parts of our lives always involvws this stupid police station, where Officer Bright always looks like he’s constipated, Ms. Perry and Tess are always crying, Travis and I are throwing whatever we can lift, and his parents watch with worry and love, like I deserve it.
This is my breaking point. I know it, and I can feel it in the way everything is so far away, so out of reach. It makes me just as unreachable. I don’t know when anyone else starts to notice, but when Tess takes in my lack of reaction at being told we’re staying at the police station tonight, she holds my eyes long enough for me to know she’s concerned.
But I don’t care.
I’ve become something I didn’t think was possible. The endless anger inside of me has kept me alive my entire life. I always had more to say, plenty of energy and will to fight back with whatever was needed. Words, actions, or fists, retaliation was my fuel. But it seems that even those of us with the darkest souls can be taken down by someone else with a dirtier soul. And I’ve been taken down by something evil, and it’s so woven into my life that I will always be within his reach.
Hours pass that turn themselves into days instead. It’s become aware to everyone that I am not here. I hear certain parts of certain conversations that certainly have no effect on me. I don’t absorb information or give away emotions. I don’t know what I do, I don’t know how I’m
“Any change?”
I turn away from Reagan after watching for some small reaction. “Nothing. It’s been a week, Donnie. She needs a doctor.”
“We had the best trauma doctor come in – “
“No. Not that doctor.” I’ve turned away from Donnie, so sure these words will give me a reaction. But Reagan is a lifeless shell, draped over the couch she has to be forced to move from to bathe and eat. That feisty attitude that made for an obnoxious teenage girl and every teacher’s nightmare has given up. In her place is a girl so broken and traumatized, I fear we’re doing her more harm than good by keeping her in this state. No one is making logical decisions, everything is guided by fear. We’re torn between what is best, and what feels safe. If the adults can’t make sound decisions because we’re so terrified that it’ll be the wrong one, how can we expect Reagan, Tess or Travis to feel safe? This thought has been sitting in my head, like the slow build of a migraine you can feel right behind your eye. You either did something about it before it got to the point of blinding pain, or you ignored it until you were curled in a ball, crying on the floor.
I feel like Reagan is straddling that line, so close to the point of no return. Nothing can coax her to react. Not Travis. Not Mrs. Booth. Not me.
Not Tess.
Everyone’s concern sits right on the surface, unspoken, but loud and deafening. We all agree in silence that Reagan has a right to lose herself; the situation we’re in certainly justifies that. But where do we draw the line between allowing her the time to process, and enabling her coping mechanism?
I’ve stayed at Donnie’s since the day I came home from work and found that note on my kitchen counter. I was so overwhelmed by fear that I turned circles in my kitchen until I made myself sick. I didn’t know if he was still in the house. I didn’t know if I went running for my car that he wouldn’t be there, waiting. I didn’t know if he was watching my every move. Nothing felt like the safe, right decision, not until I was collapsed on my kitchen floor, sobbing into my phone, not even sure who I’d called.
It’s not a day I will ever forget, not as long as I live. That mas was in my home, but I never had to look him in the eye during the most terrifying moment of my life. What happened to Travis and Reagan at that junkyard is a nightmare we all relive when there’s too much silence, when the darkness outside can’t quite be eliminated, no matter how much light we try to overcome it with. The nights are for the nightmare. We all have the same one. And the daylight just brings another morning, with no relief from the night before.
Tess and Reagan have stayed with me at Donnie’s since that night. When Tess handed me the phone, I briefly spoke to her mother, who only questioned if I was expecting money for watching over the safety of her child. Reagan’s parents had very little to say. No questions asked, just a couple of words to acknowledge the situation and then hand their daughter over to me.
I’ve dealt with all types of parents in my career, but I’ve never felt the level of anger that surfaced from the neglect I witnessed from Tess and Reagan’s parents. How Reagan or Tess haven’t cracked sooner is nothing short of a miracle, though it’s obvious now more than ever that their friendship is solid. Solid and steady in a way that has been built over the years, tested, but never broken.
I’m not sure about a lot of things right now, and nothing feels like the right thing to do or say. But I am certain, from somewhere deep inside of me, from far outside of this chaos we call our lives, that Tess and Reagan will be who the other needs, no matter how all of our lives turn out.

I would bet my life on it.