For those who haven’t already read them, you can find links to the previous chapters here:
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9
Chapters 10 and 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29
By the time I stopped for gas at the station on the edge of town, my thoughts had shifted from Weed back to Shawna. I saw enough of her memory to guess what might have happened, but that really didn’t matter. I didn’t need to know all the details of what she’d been through, or what she’d done, in order to make my decision because it really had nothing to do with any of that. None of my assignments had actually been about what they’d done. Sure, in some cases it might have made it a little easier to do what I had to do, but each one really only boiled down to me choosing their death or mine.
A couple miles from town I opened up the bike all the way, trying to use the roar of the engine to drown out my thoughts but it didn’t work. The rush of the corn fields and telephone poles flying by in a blur as the wind pressed hard against me should have been enough to chase away anything on my mind, but it didn’t work that time. My thoughts just went around in circles, again and again.
“I can’t kill her.”
“So tell Lucifer you’ll take another five assignments.”
“But what if they’re even harder?”
“Then take her place.”
“Even if I don’t kill her, another Reaper will, and who knows how awful they would make it?”
“Then you do it.”
“I can’t kill her.”
On and on it went, and by the time the sun started to disappear below the horizon I was no closer to a decision so panic was starting to set in. I only had until the sun started to rise again to make up my mind, but I still had no idea how to do that.
Food, I thought. I knew food wasn’t really the answer but I hadn’t eaten since lunch that day, and everyone knew you couldn’t make good decisions on an empty stomach, so I headed home to see what kind of leftovers might be in the fridge.
The driveway was empty so I parked the bike in front of the garage and made my way inside. I just wasn’t expecting to see the kitchen light on, so I stopped just inside the door. That’s when I heard her voice.
“I was wondering when you’d get home.”
Mom was in the laundry room, switching a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer.
“I left a plate for you in the fridge.”
“Thanks,” I replied, as I tried to remember if we were supposed to have dinner together, and if so, what kind of excuse I could come up with for missing it.
She came out into the kitchen with her arms around a basket of clothes and started folding them at the table.
“Theresa was looking for some extra hours, and I figured I had enough around here to keep me busy, so I gave her my shift. I hope I’m not interrupting any plans you might have made for tonight.”
She said it with a slight smile, almost like she was hoping I did have something planned. And my guess was that she wanted that something to include Shawna.
“I was just out for a ride.”
The smile disappeared and was replaced by her concerned motherly look.
“This late?” She asked. “I don’t know if I like you on that thing when it’s dark. Motorcycles are hard enough to see in daylight…”
“Mom, it’s fine. I didn’t necessarily plan on being out this late,” I replied. “I dropped Shawna off after school and just decided to keep riding. I guess I kind of lost track of time.”
Her smile started to return as soon as I mentioned Shawna, but then she quickly tried to hide it.
“I just worry about you.”
I grabbed the plate of meatloaf and Mac N Cheese out of the fridge and heated it up while mom finished folding the laundry. I figured having food in my mouth might stop the questions, but I was wrong.
“You look like you have a lot on your mind,” she said, as soon as I sat down.
“I just have a decision to make, and it’s not an easy one.”
“Something I can help you with?”
I wanted to laugh at the idea of mom helping me figure out how I was supposed to kill Shawna, but instead I just shook my head.
“It’s one I’m going to have to make on my own.”
“Is it about Shawna?”
My jaw dropped, and there was nothing I could do to hide it.
“I just put two and two together,” she continued. “I figured since you took her home and then rode around for hours, you probably had something on your mind, and she was probably that something.”
“Well, yeah, kind of…but…”
“Just don’t stress too much about it. I’m sure that whatever you decide, she’ll understand.”
“Thanks mom,” I replied, though in reality I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the statement. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that she was probably right, mostly. Shawna was one of my best friends, and if the roles were reversed, I’d tell her to do what she had to do. I would give up my life for her, but unfortunately that was no longer an option. It was either her life, or both our lives. That was what made the decision so hard.
I finished the food on my plate and took it to the sink where mom was doing the dishes. I dried and put away the clean ones as she finished washing them. Neither of us said a word the whole time, not until we were done and she was about to leave for work.
“I know life can be rough sometimes,” she said on her way out the door, “but it sure does beat the alternative.”
Like I said, that was my mom; part parent, part friend and part philosopher. And what she said really did get me thinking, though I wasn’t so sure she was right. Things would definitely have been better if I hadn’t made my deal with Lucifer. Sure, I’d be dead, but no one else would have to suffer because of my mistake, especially Shawna.
It wasn’t the happiest thought, but it did help me decide what I needed to do next; consult someone who actually understood how I felt. Not that John Cusak actually knew how I felt, but Lane Myer, his character in Better Off Dead did, so I went upstairs to watch the movie. The dark humor always made me laugh, and I really needed to laugh, or at least to lose myself in someone else’s misery for a little while.
I really thought it might help me forget about everything for a couple hours but I’d seen the movie so many times that I zoned out almost as soon as it started, quickly losing myself to my own thoughts once again. And unfortunately I was so lost in those thoughts that I jumped at that sound of my bedroom window sliding open.
“Sorry,” Shawna said, pausing on the tree branch outside my bedroom window, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
There was no way for me to play it cool, so I decided to just tease her a bit.
“Did you forget how to use the stairs?” I asked, with a grin.
“No,” she replied, as she climbed into my room, “I just figured it might be past your bedtime and I didn’t want to wake you by ringing the doorbell.”
“Yeah, that might have been a little too mean.”
“So really, why the window?”
She looked down at her feet, then at me.
“I wasn’t sure if your mom would be home, and as much as I love her, I just really wanted to talk to you.”
The sudden honesty, and lack of hostility, was nice but also took me off guard a little. I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond.
“You said you’d talk to me after you took care of something,”she said. “Have you taken care of it?”
“Because if not, I can go…”
“No…you’re fine. We can talk,” I said, pausing the movie.
I wasn’t sure why I said it, other than the fact that I didn’t want her to go, even though I had no idea what to say to her.
She moved closer but didn’t sit down so I scooted over, giving her a little more room on the bed and she took the hint.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about,” she said, staring at, but not really watching the tv.
“You really don’t have to,” I said. “I can tell it’s hard on you so maybe it would be best to wait until you’re ready.”
“I am ready,” she said, turning and looking directly into my eyes, “It’s just a little tough to talk about. But I really do want to, because I don’t want there to be any secrets between us.”
“Everybody has secrets.”
“Secrets you keep from Weed?”
“Well…uh…that’s not really the same thing.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few differences between you and Weed.”
“So you’re saying we will never be that close?”
“What? No, I’m just saying that our relationship will always be different than the one I have with Weed.”
She looked hurt as she turned away from me.
“… but that’s not a bad thing. Different can be good.”
I saw her look down, and when she looked up again she had a determined look on her face.
“I don’t remember it real well, because I was so young,” she said, “but I remember enough.”
“You really don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, yes I do.”
I wanted to reach out and hold her hand, to let her know it was okay, but I knew I would instantly see everything she was struggling to tell me, and I wanted to hear it from her instead.
“It was just before mom and I moved here,” she continued. “It was the reason why we moved here…”
We just sat in silence for another minute as she collected her thoughts.
“There was this guy mom was seeing. He did horrible things to her…and to me. One night it was really bad, and there was just this …this gun…it was just there.”
She reached over and put her hand on my leg. I almost grabbed it, but stopped myself. She didn’t seem to notice.
“I didn’t mean to do it, I just couldn’t take it any more. I wanted it to stop. It had to stop.. I don’t even know how I knew how to use it. I just grabbed it, pointed and it went off.”
She froze, her eyes just staring forward. Then she shook her head and looked at me.
“He just kind of fell down. I thought there’d be more blood, but there wasn’t really that much at all.”
I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close. Her pink, fleece sweatshirt kept my hands from touching her skin, saving me from the visions she was surely reliving. We just sat on my bed like that for what seemed like eternity. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing and just held her. At first she was shaking, even though the whole room felt hot to me. Eventually she stopped, and I just felt her breathing; slow and even. I was just about to look down to see if she had fallen asleep when she pulled back and looked up at me.
“I shouldn’t have shoved my problem on you. I’ll go if you want me to.”
“No, you should stay,” I replied.
“Maybe you didn’t really understand what I said…”
“No, I got it.”
She narrowed her eyes and stared directly into mine with a serious look of concern.
“Nate, I just told you that I killed a guy and you’re acting like it’s no big deal.”
“You also told me that you were a kid, being abused, and that you did it to defend yourself and your mother. Who wouldn’t have done the same thing?”
She just stared at me as a wave of relief washed over her face.
“My mom said it was crazy to want to tell you, and I almost listened to her.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.”
“Me too,” she replied, “but now it makes me wonder what’s wrong with you.”
“Would you have reacted differently if the roles had been reversed?”
“Yeah, like you would have ever shot someone.”
“Maybe,” I replied. “What if I told you that I’d killed several people?”
“On the Nintendo or Playstation?”
She started laughing hard before I could respond, and hearing her laugh made me laugh. So we just continued laughing together.
“Thanks for understanding,” she said as soon as we pulled ourselves together.
“Of course,” I replied. “That’s what friends are for.”
“And to answer your question,” she continued, “I like to think that I’d respond the same way, if the roles had been reversed.”
“Now, I want to watch The Princess Bride.”
“What?” I replied, a little louder and sounding more surprised than I’d meant to.
“You heard me.”
“But you never want to watch that movie.”
“I do now.”
She had a smile on her face and a pleading look in her eyes, that made me want to do anything for her. The fact that she wanted to watch one of my favorite movies with me, after years of complaining about that very movie, just made the decision even easier.
“As you wish.”