1. The End
Our lives are made up of choices. Big ones, small ones, strung together by the thin air of good intentions; a line of dominos, ready to fall. Which shirt to wear on a cold winter’s morning, what crappy junk food to eat for lunch. It starts out so innocently, you don’t even notice: go to this party or that movie, listen to this song, or read that book, and then, somehow, you’ve chosen your college and career; your boyfriend or wife.
So many choices, we stop counting after a while. They blur into an endless stream, leading seamlessly to the next question, the next decision – yes, no, no, yes. The line of dominos falling one by one. Click, click, click, they tumble faster until you can only see the two that really mattered:
The beginning, and this, the end.
Oliver, and Ethan, and I.
‘What are you doing, baby brother?’ Oliver takes half a step towards us. ‘You’re scaring Chloe.’ He looks from me to Ethan and back again, and I can see him trying to assess the scene, his brain ticking quickly behind those sharp blue eyes. ‘Just calm down.’
‘I am calm!’
‘We can talk about this.’ Oliver tries to soothe him.
‘No!’ Ethan insists, his voice a hoarse yell. The sound sends shivers of fear through me. I’ve never seen him like this before, so wild and erratic. Out of control. ‘I’m not listening to your lies any more. It’s all bullshit, every word of it. You can’t talk your way out of this!’
‘I’m sorry,’ I whisper, crumpled in the corner. ‘I’m so, so sorry. I never meant . . . I never meant to hurt you.’
‘It’s too late for that!’ Ethan screams.
I flinch back, shaking, looking desperately for some escape. But I’m trapped with Ethan standing between me and the door. Oliver is closer, he could go and get help; I catch his eye, trying to gesture, but instead of leaving, he just inches towards us.
‘Shh, Ethan, it’s OK.’ Oliver holds his hands up, a sign of submission. ‘We won’t talk, we don’t have to do anything. Just put the knife down.’
Ethan looks at the blade in his hand, like he’d forgotten it was there. The steel glints, bright in the candlelight, so pretty I could almost forget what ugly truths it could write.
‘Ethan, please,’ I beg. ‘Don’t hurt us.’
DISPATCH: Nine one one, what’s your emergency?
CALLER: Please, you have to send someone. An ambulance, please, he’s bleeding!
DISPATCH: OK, we’ll send help. Just calm down, and tell me where you are.
CALLER: I . . . I don’t know what to do. There’s so much blood, I can’t make it stop.
DISPATCH: Where are you, honey? What happened?
CALLER: Up by Echo Point, by the lake. I tried to get him out, and now . . . (sobbing) Please, he’s not moving!
DISPATCH: I’m sending an ambulance now. Tell me what happened, where is he hurt?
DISPATCH: Honey? Are you there? Talk to me.
CALLER: (Quiet) It’s burning. Everything’s on fire.
2. The Beginning
It was three weeks until the end of summer, and I was counting down, the way I always used to as a kid. Then, the countdown was to keep fall at bay; measuring every precious moment of summer freedom, as if somehow charting the days out in neat red marks in my journal would give them weight enough to make them real, anchor them steady in my life instead of letting them drift, aimlessly by, into the front porch popsicle haze that was already gone.
Now, I counted towards the end of summer because I couldn’t wait for school to start. Marking out the weeks in an afternoon lull at the diner, day by day, planning my escape.
Three weeks until freshman orientation. Three weeks until I could be done with Haverford, Indiana, for good: the single-stoplight Main Street, the shuttered stores on the outskirts of town, and the house that stood too quiet – filled with torn photographs and the ticking time-bomb that was my mother. Three weeks until my real life could finally begin.
‘Can I grab a drop of that refill, sweetheart?’
I looked up from my paper napkin calendar with a start. Sheriff Weber was in his usual booth by the windows, nursing a cup of coffee as he leafed slowly through the local paper, chewing absently on the end of a ballpoint pen. Most afternoons, he would be there, flipping through paperwork or settled in with his word puzzles. He often would say – yawning, stretching – leave the chasing down criminals to the younger deputies; people knew where they could find him.
‘Sure, sorry.’ I rounded the counter and poured him more, glimpsing the scribbles on his crossword page.
‘Thanks. You know a five-letter word for discordant, on edge?’
I paused, seeing the letters take shape in my mind. ‘Sharp?’
Weber nodded slowly, writing in the answer along the edge of the box.
‘Why don’t you fill it in?’ I asked, curious. Now that I was up close, I saw he had almost the whole page covered with notes, but nothing written in the grid itself.
‘I like to wait until I’ve got it all figured out.’ Weber gave me a conspiratorial smile, his weathered face drooping above the crisp blue of his uniform; a dark, Basset Hound face. ‘Saves going back and making a mess with the crossings out.’
I lingered by the cherry-red booth. The diner was quiet, it always was this time of day: a haven of sunshine and pie displays, and swinging Sixties pop on the old-school jukebox. Now that most of the summer crowds had decamped from their lakeshore vacation homes, Haverford seemed in limbo, the streets empty where only days ago, they’d bustled with the busy throngs of day-trippers and summer kids, tracking sand across the floors, dripping melted ice-cream across the cracked vinyl seats for me to clean.
‘You’ll be off soon?’ Weber asked. I’d known him forever. His daughter was my best friend and this year, I’d spent more time than was polite over at their house under the guise of studying and after-school hang-outs.
I nodded. ‘I leave a few days after Alisha, I think.’
‘It’s too soon. Although don’t let her know her old dad said that.’ Weber gave me a rueful smile. ‘She says we’re acting like it’s the end of the world, not college. I expect your folks are the same.’
I tensed at the mention of my parents. ‘Something like that,’ I answered vaguely, but Weber must have realized his mistake, because he coughed, awkward.
‘Say, what’s the pie today?’ He changed the subject.
‘Blueberry.’ I smiled quickly. ‘It’s good, you want a slice?’