We pushed our bikes as hard as the gears would allow. Sometimes my sneaker slipped from the pedal, peeling skin from my leg. My lungs burned. I was convinced no air was getting in, but somehow I was still alive.
It was night, sometime after dinner. That’s how we told time in the summer, right? After breakfast? Before lunch? The only measure of time that mattered.
Wind rushed past my ears, shrieking as we rode back behind Miller’s farm. I watched for wolves in the tall reeds that lined the trail. It was my worst fear.
Most nights, anyway. That night was different.
That night I couldn’t think of anything.
Pricey pedaled up beside me. The shortest of all of us, pumping twice as hard to keep up. It’s weird—I remember seeing his orange hair flashing behind him as he rode, but how could I in the dark? Must be my brain painting it in. Color by numbers.
Tears were running down his face. I wonder if I could see that too, or if it was just in his voice.“What do we do?”
“Just get there.”
“What if he’s hurt?’
More skin peeled off my shin. I was almost grateful for it. “Just keep going, Pricey.”
The trail—only a cow path, really—wound around a sharp bend. I had taken it hundreds of times, but never at full speed. I’d walk my bike through while the others whizzed past, calling me whatever was fashionable in the back of the bus that week. In my defense, I was a husky kid. Top heavy. The others were lean and streamlined, leather-tan from endless days in the sun. I was pasty white, the color of unbaked bread dough and about the same texture.
But I learned that night that I could take that turn without slowing down. My stomach lurched. I was thirteen maybe? Fourteen? Even then I knew this was going to hurt.
The trail ended at the woods. I don’t know who owned them—Miller? The state, maybe? But, for the summer, they were our fortress. Our sanctuary.
As the forest thickened, I probably slowed down. In my head, it was all too slow.
Once we reached the clearing, I could see the moon. Maybe it was out all night. Hiding here. Waiting for us. I could make out the two trees—the big one with our tree fort, and the smaller one we used as a bike rack. Between them was the pond.
Moonlight rippled across the surface of the water. If not for that, I might have missed the outline of Thomas standing near the edge, dismounting his bike.
Even though there was nothing left in my jelly legs and furnace lungs, I clenched my teeth and put on a burst of speed.
I’m sure it hurt. It should’ve hurt.
When I reached Thomas, Pricey was already screaming for me to stop. I’m sure he put it together as we pedaled. Or maybe the day we dug up the Box. He was a smart kid. Probably why he picked the Monocle.
Pricey’s wails tipped off Thomas. He turned around, his eyes pale orbs, ghostly white and watery. He put up his hands.
“Miles, wait, I—”
Three words. It’s all I let him say. I left the seat of my bike. For a moment, I was weightless. Then gravity kicked in and I began my task of pummeling Thomas in the face. I landed three hits before we met the ground. My pinky shattered on his bony forehead, right in the crook of his eyebrow. Pricey was still screaming, but it was just sound. White noise.
It wouldn’t stop me.
Julia sweeps across the dance floor, drink in hand, cocoa curls bouncing on the shoulders of her denim jacket. She didn’t mean to dress like it was 1986, but it was all her suitcase had in the way of proper nightclub attire. Her lipstick feels too thick, like it might melt and run down her neck. The music, a trancey techno beat, thumps in her chest. She loses track of which is the song and which is her heart.
She climbs two levels—four flights of stairs—before she finds him.
He’s alone, nodding his head to the comparatively mellow jazz. He blends in pretty well for having a good decade on most of the crowd. Amazing what a clean shave can do, she thinks. His hair isn’t long, but it’s messy, like he just woke up. Or like he never slept. He wears jeans that taper at the cuff and a blue plaid button-up, one button left open at the top. Two would be fashionable, but he’s too insecure for that. His face looks boyishly out of place.
Julia doesn’t go to him right away. Instead she finishes her drink and orders another from the bartender. She can still feel the warmth of the first drink sliding down her veins, whispering to her. Earlier, she decided to keep her wits about her, but now that she’s here, this close, she wonders why it matters. Maybe she could just disconnect now and wake up tomorrow with it done.
She watches the area around him, scanning for friends, acquaintances. Girlfriends. He nods at a few people, smirks at even fewer. No, he’s definitely alone. Waiting for somebody maybe?
She won’t do this with an audience.
Nobody shows, but his beer is nearly empty. Maybe his friends decided on another club. Maybe this beer was just a polite courtesy.
Now or never.
Julia moves toward him, practicing a smile somewhere between friendly and predatory. He notices her a couple times, but his eyes always flick away.
Finally: “What are you drinking?”
His gaze stretches to the far side of the room. “Beer.”
He glances at the bottle. “Brown?”
Julia shakes her head. “You’re not making this very easy.”
He makes eye contact. He squints. “What is this exactly?”
“Just trying to buy you a drink.”
He smirks. “I—really I was just leaving. Any other time—”
Panicked, Julia rests her hand on his. “I think that would be a mistake.”
Another snicker. “Why’s that?”
Julia leans into him, putting her lips to his ear. “Because I think we should talk about what happened to my brother.”
He jerks his head back like he was stung. He stares at her. He sees what he was squinting at before. “Julia?”
Her lip twitches, the slightest of tells.
“Shit,” he says.
His muscles bunch. He’s going to run. She remembers him in a cast, pinky propped up like he was perpetually enjoying a proper tea. She presses just below his metacarpal.
“Don’t,” she says.
He clears his throat, embarrassed. “What are you doing in LA?”
“I’m here to be an actress, Miles,” she says flatly. “What do you think I’m doing here?”
Miles looks at his beer again. There’s hardly anything worth finishing. Briefly, his eyes dart towards the exit.
Julia pushes his pinky knuckle again. His gaze whips back to her. “No charges were filed. You know that,” he tells her. “There was no crime—”
“No crime?” she interrupts. “My brother died in the woods with his friends and nobody ever talked about it again—and you say there’s no crime?”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” he shouts, putting a hand on his chest. He gets quiet. “I—I didn’t do anything.”
Julia takes a deep breath. Center. “I’m…not saying that. It’s just Mom, Dad—nobody told me anything. Nobody talked about it. You know how hard that is? It’s been years, Miles. Decades.”
Miles chews on his lip.
“I just want some answers,” she told him. “I want to know what happened that night.”
Trumpets wail. The song comes back to their ears. Miles gives a hint of a nod. “Can we go somewhere else?”
“Of course,” she says. “Do you know a place? I’m a fish out of water here.”
“There’s a coffee shop down the block that’s open all night,” he says. “I’ll meet you there.”
“No.” Julia shakes her head. “We’ll walk.”
On the way, they speak only once.
“Do you remember the pavilion?”
“Do I remember it?” Julia says. “Yeah, I remember it.”
Miles looks away. “I mean—I meant when—”
Julia rolls her eyes. “I know what you meant, Miles. When we kissed.”
“Yeah,” he sighs. “That.”
They order two black coffees and Julia picks a table in the middle of the coffee shop—same distance from both exits. In the soft light, she sees that Miles is almost as pasty as an adult in California as he was as a kid in the Midwest. Leaner, yes, but still the same boy that she always saw in her driveway.
He swirls a stick around in the inky liquid. “So? Where should I begin?”
“At the beginning would be nice.”
He sighs. “It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“Why don’t you start with what you were doing out in Miller’s Woods?”
His shoulders slump. “Maybe we should start at the beginning.”
“Jesus Christ.” Julia rubs the bridge of her nose. “Look, why don’t we start with the other boys. Tell me about William.”
“William?” Miles asks.
“Priceman?” Julia tries.
“Oh,” Miles snorts. “Pricey.”
“Yeah, the little ginger kid,” Julia agrees. “What about him?”
“Pricey was a good kid. Super smart, kind of a conniver. He could get in and out of any gas station with pockets full of candy,” Miles reminisces. “He was the one that told us about the Box.”
“That’s what we called it,” Miles says. “It was more like a chest.”
Julia squints. “Like a treasure chest?”
Miles frowns, the air rushing out of his nostrils. “This was a bad idea.”
Julia waves him off. “Okay. Put a pin in that. What about the other kid? Thomas?”
The name hits the space between them like a brick. Miles’ fingers twitch around his mug. “I hated Thomas.”
If my little finger hadn’t broke, I think I could’ve kept hitting Thomas forever. I wasn’t a fighter, but after three long months, Thomas had it coming.
Stunned by the pain in my hand, I let up. Thomas shoved me off, the same deadly sneer he usually wore returned to his face.
“You little shit,” he said, wiping at his lip. For giving him the beating of my lifetime, his face was relatively unscathed. No blood, just a little puffier.
“Cut it out, both of you,” Pricey said, getting between us. He turned on Thomas. “What are you doing out here?”
“Collecting his trophy,” I muttered.
“Fuck you,” Thomas spat.
“Stop,” Pricey said, barely above a whimper. “Please stop.”
Cradling my hand, I stared Thomas down. “You saw him fall?”
“Yeah.” Thomas nodded. “Didn’t you?”
I shook my head.
“Where were you?”
“Uh-huh,” Thomas replied. “I stopped by his house. He didn’t come home for dinner.”
“You talked to his parents?” Pricey asked nervously.
“I talked to Julia,” he answered, then waited for what I would do next.
My broken finger screamed. Our trio was quiet, listening to the buzz of insects in the dark.
“We have to find him,” Pricey said. “Before his parents find out.”
“Find out what?” Thomas spat. “We don’t know anything—”
Pricey cut him off. “We all saw him fall, Thomas.”
“Almost all of us,” Thomas said coldly. My broken finger screamed, but I was willing to break it all over again.
“Enough with the pissing contest!” Pricey mustered. “We have to find Aaron. Now!”
“Okay,” Thomas told him. “Then try the Monocle.”
My cheek twitched.
Pricey went about checking his pockets. He always wore this little vest with endless zippers and compartments. Usually it didn’t take nearly as long for him to find it. Then again, we were all a little rusty with our objects.
Finally, Pricey produced the Monocle. He put it up to his face, so that his eye was nearly visible through the darkened lens. He turned, gazing around the clearing.
After a few seconds, he lowered the stone, confused.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Pricey tapped the Monocle in his palm. “I don’t think it’s working.”
“What?” Thomas asked.“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s not working,” Pricey repeated. “I can’t see anything.”
“What’s that mean?” Thomas asked.
I shrugged. “Maybe—maybe Aaron’s not around here.”
“No, you guys don’t understand,” Pricey said. “I don’t see anything. There’s always something. Glowing footprints, or a streak of light—it shows you everything, not just what you’re looking for.”
“Well—” I began
Pricey turned to Thomas. “Try the Gauntlet.”
“How’s that going to find Aaron?” Thomas sneered.
“Just see if it works, Thomas,” Pricey groaned.
Thomas pulled up his striped sleeve to the elbow, revealing the Gauntlet. It wasn’t much bigger than a watch.
He clenched his fist. Nothing happened. He did it again, harder.
“Is it working?” Thomas said. “Can you still see me?”
Thomas pointed at me. “Try yours.”
“I, uh—I didn’t bring it.”
Both of them stared at me incredulously. “Why wouldn’t you bring it?”
“Because,” I whispered.
“Because why?” Pricey pushed.
“You know why,” I hissed.
“Why didn’t you bring it, Miles?” Thomas asked, eyes narrowing.
“Because,” I shouted, “it looks like a knife! That’s why!”
“So?” My skin crawled. Tingled. I hated Thomas. I hated him for making me spell it out. “Let me ask you something, Thomas—would you want to be out here with a knife when the cops find a dead kid?”
To be continued.