Before, ten years ago
The status of the text flipped from ‘unread’ to ‘read’. Loren continued to stare at her phone impatiently waiting for the typing dots to appear next. But nothing happened. She scrolled up, cringing at their last messages. A couple of days prior, she had written a crafty piece on “another friend” who had acquired a “boyfriend” recently and was blowing her off at every turn. Riley had finally replied last night:
RY (11:37pm): I’ve come to realize your last text wasn’t referring to some other friend.
RY (11:37pm): You’re referring to me.
RY (11:42pm): And I feel like an absolute ass now that I didn’t see it sooner.
RY (11:42pm): Lunch tomorrow? Just us? We’ll have a proper chat, yeah?
Being asleep, Loren hadn’t seen them until she woke that morning. She had eagerly agreed to lunch and suggested they ride to school together. And at 6:32am, Riley had read the text. She stared at the screen some more, willing him to answer. But still nothing happened.
Frustrated, Loren growled and dropped the phone onto her bed, focusing herself on getting ready for school instead. When she emerged for breakfast a half hour later, Loren noticed Riley’s car was already gone from his house across the street. She poured herself some cereal, wondering if he had gone in early.
As she was about to walk out the door, her phone rang. Loren answered eagerly, hoping it would be Riley. But it was only her mother.
“Hey, hun,” wavered her mother’s voice, “have you left yet?”
“I’m just about to,” said Loren, swinging her backpack over shoulder and wrapping a scarf around her neck.
“Do me a favor, kiddo, don’t take the normal route to school, ok?”
“But the lights…” Loren began in protest.
“I know, but just take the other route, ok?” Her mother sighed at the lack of Loren’s agreement. “There’s been an accident the way you usually go, they aren’t letting anyone through.”
“Oh, yeah, ok,” Loren finally agreed. Her mother was a bus driver for the school district, after all, she would know these things.
While Loren drove to school, however, her curiosity got the better of her, and she went the way she usually did. She got about halfway before she saw the flashing lights. After the next stoplight, the road dipped down into a little valley, and at the bottom of it, pandemonium reigned. The red and blue of the emergency lights were blinding in the early morning darkness. The sirens were still screaming, reverberating off the surrounding hills. There were squad cars in the intersection, forcing everyone to turn left or right, no one was allowed through.
On the frigid January morning air, an officer’s words carried above the din: “There’s been an accident, we think involving a student, we can’t let anyone through.”
The officer at the median’s smile faltered as Loren pulled up alongside him. “You don’t want to see this, sweetheart,” he said gently.
“Is it very bad?” asked Loren, pushing herself up higher in the seat. Between the fire trucks and the ambulance, she caught the sight of the yellow of a school bus. No wonder her mother had known about it. She could also make out the tell-tale glow of a fire raging beyond.
“Don’t look, lass,” said the officer, edging into her line of sight. His hand rested briefly, on her car door. “Best to be off with you, get yourself safely to class now, my dear.”
A hollow feeling formed in the pit of Loren’s stomach. She swallowed nervously, nodding with a weak smile at the officer, before turning to go the way her mother had originally suggested. She hoped there was no one on that school bus, that her mother didn’t know the driver. And whatever was on fire beyond it… there would have been no survival from that.
A violent shudder shook through her frame and Loren turned up her music as she drove away, drowning out the sound of sirens and putting more distance between herself and the accident. Before turning, Loren glanced back behind her one last time. A strange feeling was burrowing deep inside of her.
The corridors of Century High were eerily quiet that morning. Those who came from the west part of town were abuzz with talk of the accident, spreading a description to anyone who would listen. No matter what Loren did, she could not escape the ‘have you heard’s, like it had been some popular television show on the night before.
She ducked into the band corridor, eager to search for Riley. But he wasn’t there. There were still twenty minutes until first bell, where else would he have gone? She checked the gym to see if he had joined a pick-up game of basketball, no Riley. She checked the corridor where his locker was, no Riley. She checked the science lab, no Riley. Finally, at a loss of where else to search, Loren headed for the corridor where Heather’s locker resided. There was no Riley there, either. Nor Heather. Just the little grouping of Heather’s friends, all of whom glared at Loren as she hurried past.
The first bell rang.
Loren shook her head in confusion, turning in the direction of the stairs for first period. Riley would have to wait until after Philosophy class.
Between second and third period, Loren scanned the usual place in the corridor where she would run into Riley, and usually Heather, nearly every day. Neither of them was there today. The pit in Loren’s stomach widened and she felt as though she were being sucked into a void. He must have gone home sick already, she thought, pulling out her phone as she walked.
ME (9:11am): Hey, where are you? I looked everywhere for you this morning.
ME (9:12am): Did you go home sick?
ME (9:12am): Or did you ditch me for Heather. Again.
She stared at the screen, weaving in and out through the crowd, again waiting for Riley’s reply. But like that morning, no reply came. This time, the text never flipped over to read. The pit in her stomach was widening.
At the end of fourth period, study hall, there was a crackle overhead as the school’s intercom system came to life. Loren was fiddling with her phone beneath the table, trying not to focus on the fact that Riley hadn’t checked his texts in almost four hours. Her forehead resting on her backpack on the tabletop as she stared at the quarry tile of the lunchroom floor. She lifted her head as the voice overhead cleared their throat and began.
“Good morning, students.” It was their vice principal, Mr Warwick, who never made announcements. “I have some unfortunate news this morning to share with all of you. As many of you know, there was a car accident this morning in route to the school. It involved an empty school bus, and one of our students.” Loren swallowed, her nerves suddenly, inexplicably, spiraling out of control. Who had it been? Were they alright? Of course, they were not alright, there had been nothing left of the other vehicle, just a fiery remain.
“Those of us in the office were apprehensive to tell you their identity,” Mr Warwick was continuing, “but we deemed it best not to leave it to your imaginations. The student involved was Riley Fiske, and he unfortunately did not make it. I know this will come as a shock to many of you, especially our band and science community. The counselor’s office is open to any who need it.”
The floor seemed to have dissolved beneath Loren. She felt as though she were falling into that pit of her stomach she had been feeling earlier. It was as though she had detached from her body and she had floated up to the ceiling where she could see herself, far below. She looked pitiful, just sitting there like that. Not reacting.
There was a clatter beneath her table as her cell phone slipped through her fingers, falling to the floor.
Her eyes burned as she stared at the same spec on the tile floor she had been looking at before Mr Warwick had started talking.
Her throat felt like it was closing, on fire.
She wasn’t breathing.
He was dead. Her best friend. Dead. Gone. And all she could do was sit there.
She had seen it, had been barely a hundred yards away from him. Had he been on fire then? Had she been right there as he died? Or had he already been gone? Had her text message killed him?
There was someone screaming in the wide-open lunchroom, their pain ripping through the silent room like a dying animal. Loren’s neck creaked as she craned around to see who it was, who was falling to pieces.
A pair of hands grasped Loren’s shoulders, the pressure of them squeezing sensation back into her body. Her study hall advisor stood over her, their face twisted with worry, trying to pull her back from whatever she was on the brink of falling into.
It was her; she was the one screaming her throat raw.
The red and blue lights flashed violently, the colors blinding in the pitch-blackness of the early morning. The sirens were screaming, reverberating against the rolling hills. An officer stood on the median, directing traffic to turn around and take another route. The words carried further on the chill, January morning air: “There’s been an accident, involving a student, best to go back around.”
The hills swirled to become the royal blue locker-lined corridor of the old high school. There were screams echoing against the metal, but the corridor was empty.
Her eyes slid open, the screams still echoing in her ears. She had not dreamt of that day in years. Though, she didn’t dream at all anymore. Her throat felt raw, as though she had been screaming like she had then. Shoving back her ice blue hair, Loren slid to the edge of her bed, biting her thumb nail. The pill bottle on her bedside table called to her, promising the silence she had come to know and crave over the years.
There was a creak on the floorboards behind her, and she turned to see a blonde woman emerging from the bathroom, tugging on her jacket.
“Where are you going?” Loren said hollowly.
“You need serious help,” the other woman said, pulling on her boots. “Things I maybe wouldn’t have had a problem with if you hadn’t kept calling me Riley in your sleep.”
Loren’s heart lurched in her chest. “That’s not… he’s not…”
“Oh, even better, it’s a he,” the other woman – Haley – rolled her eyes.
“It’s not like that and you know it,” Loren said wearily, rubbing her eyes.
Haley shrugged. “No, I don’t know; but I honestly don’t care anymore, Lore.” Her hands slapped her thighs on the way down. “I’ve put in too much time trying to figure out the enigma that is you, and you just don’t give. You aren’t shy about mentioning past traumas, but you never tell me. I don’t think you’ve ever told anyone.”
Loren bit her lip, turning back to stare at the pill bottle. How many would it take to make things quiet, now? She heard Haley snort in annoyance.
“And whenever it’s pointed out by someone else just how damaged you are, you look in all the wrong places for help.” Haley was standing in front of her now, snatching the pill bottle up in her hand. “These are going to kill you, Lore!” She shook the bottle angrily. “But I don’t know anymore. Maybe that’s what you’ve been going for all this time, and I just got in your way.” She dropped the bottle, letting it hit the edge of the table and roll away under the bed.
Loren continued staring at the empty space where the bottle had been.
“Say something,” Haley snapped.
“You won’t like what I want to say,” Loren said quietly, barely above a whisper.
“You’ve never cared what I’ve liked,” said Haley simply, before turning and heading for the bedroom door. A few moments later, the apartment door slammed as well.
Loren fell backward on her bed, the box spring creaking in protest, allowing the slow turn of her ceiling fan to quiet her nerves. She wouldn’t fall completely into what Haley said. The pathetic thing to do would be to have thrown herself on the floor to retrieve her pill bottle from under the bed the moment her front door had slammed closed, if not the second Haley had turned her back. But she could make it, she could last a little while. She didn’t need the drugs. Whatever makes you feel better.
A slew of colored pills filled Loren’s palm scarcely fifteen minutes later. She didn’t bother picking through them, simply tossed the collection back into her mouth and chased them with the bottom sip of a glass of whiskey. She closed her eyes, waiting for the numbness to take hold of her.
The room swirled nearly an hour later when Loren rose, her eyes blinking slowly. Her mouth felt like air-dried wool socks. The kitchen felt miles away, but she forced herself up, swaying slightly as she wandered down the hall and to the left, into her small eat-in kitchen. The fridge was empty, unsurprisingly. She drank from the faucet like any drug-reliant, alcoholic, twenty-seven-year-old would.
Her head throbbed unpleasantly, almost as though she were hungover already. Mixing was never a good idea, she knew that. She had bordered on functionality, leaving people on the outside wondering if there was an underlying issue. Maybe Haley had been right, maybe she was trying to die. The weight was unbearable. Loren turned away from her kitchen window, where the life of the city around her was still rubbed in her face at even one in the morning.
She moved out across the hall into her living room. The television was on and washing the room in a bright white glow. There was also a man sitting on her couch. It was just Riley, which wasn’t different than any other night. He often sat around her apartment at night. At the kitchen table, on her couch, at the end of her bed, her bathroom vanity.
Tonight, was different, though. She never had her television on, especially when she was alone. And she knew Haley hadn’t had it on. Her mouth went dry as Loren moved into the room, perching hesitantly on the edge of her armchair. She tried to see if the left side of his face was burned away, or if he would continuously turn away as he always did.
His dark brown, nearly black eyes flickered to hers, holding her gaze. “What?” he demanded haughtily.
Loren let out a shriek, flinging the only thing within arm’s reach – a table lamp – at Riley. Instead of causing him to flicker and fade, and the lamp shattering against the bookcase on the far wall, as a normal night would have done, it hit Riley square in the shoulder where he fumbled it and half caught it, only bending the lampshade.
“What the hell, Lore?” he demanded, setting the lamp gingerly on the floor beside the couch.
“What are you?” asked Loren shakily.
“Uh… me?” Riley shrugged, unsure of what Loren wanted him to proclaim.
“Yes… but… you’re… you’re dead. You’ve been dead for a decade.”
“Have I?” Riley rubbed the back of his neck. “Has it really been that long?”
“It’s been a lifetime,” whispered Loren, staring at him wide-eyed.
“And it has not been kind to you,” he sighed sadly, taking in the sight of her.
Sliding from her chair, Loren moved across the room, kneeling on the floor before Riley on the couch. She sat with her hands on either side of his legs. “Have I lost my mind?” Loren whispered. “Or am I dead, too?”
Riley smiled a sad smile at her. “You’re not dead,” he said gently.
“Perhaps,” Riley shrugged.
“Are you… real?” Her hand hesitated above his knee.
His hand closed around hers, his fingers lacing through her own. The pressure on her own hand was firm, undeniable. “Only for tonight,” he whispered as Loren launched herself from the floor and into Riley’s arms.
“What does that even mean?” she whispered from the crook of his neck. How was it that ten years later, he still smelled exactly as she had remembered?
“It means that you get one more night,” he said simply.
“I assume, in the morning, I will be gone. At 6:33, to be exact,” Riley sighed.
“Where will you go?”
“I assume back to where I came from.” Riley gave a gentle shrug as Loren sat up, her eyes searching his face. The skin on the left side of his face was smooth and perfect, every freckle still in place, just as it had been.
“And where was that?” Loren pressed.
“You know I can’t answer that.” His lips quirked into the hint of his old mischievous smile.
Loren sat back on the floor, gazing up at Riley. He strangely looked exactly the same, yet as a twenty-eight-year-old. “We only have five and a half hours,” she said finally. “What should we do?”
“Anything,” said Riley with a shrug. “The night is ours for the taking, Lore.”