Tim – Step One

I had spent the entire week in pile of disjointed nerves, anxiously anticipating the weekend. And here it was, already Friday, the day Hux insisted I get off the bus at his stop to call Jim over and commence his plan. I was completely soft with fear, my heart racing. What does he want me to do? I kept thinking. He was right beside me for the entire ride, watching me intently.

“It’ll be alright,” he said. I didn’t believe him.

My legs almost gave out as I scooted across the seat to stand up and walk down the aisle. This was wrong and I knew it. Whatever he had in mind as the solution, I just couldn’t see it ending well. He threw an arm around me as we made our way up his driveway. I cringed when I heard the bus pulling away. No turning back now. I had made sure to tell my mom I was getting off at Mariah’s because she didn’t particularly like Hux or any of his friends. So not only had I lied, but I was now hanging out with the biggest misfit of the entire school. Not like she probably cared at that point, since she was so enamored with Jim. Why was I doing this again?

He led me into their living room and I sat down on the couch as he opened the liquor cabinet. His aunt wasn’t home.

“Want a drink?” he offered.

“I’m good.”

“Right, of course you are,” he chuckled, handing me a shot of Jack Daniels. I reluctantly downed it, gagging for a couple seconds.

“You’ll learn to love it after we’re done. It’s not like that piss Jimbo drinks.” He took a swig from the bottle and set it down. “So here’s what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna call him to say you’re at a friend’s house. Thing is, he probably remembers my address. There’s an abandoned house a couple blocks down from here on the verge of foreclosure. It’s still got all the furniture and shit. We’ll take the notice down, I’ll bring some alcohol, set it up like I live there. He rings the doorbell. That’s where you come in.”

My heart skipped a beat. “Wha…what do I do?”

“Take off your shirt and answer the door. Jimbo can’t resist the sight of a little eye candy,” he grinned, giving me a wink.

“Screw that!”

“I’ll be right there with you, he’ll probably think it’s a threesome. Plus it’s hot as balls in that place, the electricity’s been out a couple months. That’s about it for you. I’ll do all the talking, you can hide up on the stairs out of sight if you want. This is just the setup.”

“Won’t he run away when he sees it’s you?”

“Nah…I know this cocksucker. He’s got a thing for age progression, likes to see how all your parts and pieces are growing. Sick fuck,” he spat, lighting up a cigarette.

“I’m scared,” I squirmed, feeling nauseous.

“More Jack?”

“Please.” I figured it was best not to fight it. Anything to get me through what we were about to do. “So…what exactly did he do to you?”

“I didn’t let him get that far. I was about twelve or so. Was taking a nap upstairs, he wandered in at some point. I’m a light sleeper, which he wasn’t betting on. Tried shoving a hand down my pants when I was pretending to be asleep. Lucky I always keep a knife in my pillowcase. I slashed the right side of his neck and chased him out. Hasn’t been back around here since. We reported his ass, but the cops never found him. Sorry he got to you.”

“Yeah…”

“The house is maybe a twenty minute walk. Let’s get going,” he said, finishing up another shot and picking up his backpack to load up some bottles. I got up, feeling a bit dizzy as he led me out.

The sky was cloudy that day, threatening rain. A fine drizzle had started about halfway through the trek. I observed Hux’s gait as we strolled along, seeming to any outside observer like two good friends on our way to parts unknown. Maybe talking about girls or engaging in some random conversation about the school day. Listless, two souls wandering toward a fate unknown after senior year. But Hux seemed so self-assured, even if he wasn’t. So suave. Always comfortable in situations that put others in a state of unease. And for that, I often envied him. In a strange sort of way, you had to admire the guy. He had courage. Quiet strength. Cojones. The kind of steel-coated balls that only come from years of patience and living through the worst. Or maybe he was just insane and nobody knew any better. It was hard to tell the difference.

I tried to keep my mind open, repeating the same phrase and reverting to that sense of hopeless abandon I had felt when I heard the bus leaving. No turning back now. Just go with it. Stay in the moment.

We stepped up onto the porch, which was littered with trash everywhere. Red Solo cups, broken bottles of alcohol, exploded lighters, debris from firecrackers and old paper streamers. Either this had been Hux’s hangout for a while, or other people had hosted parties. I assumed the former when he dug a key out of his pocket and tore the abandoned notice off the sliding glass door.

“You ready for this?” he asked.

“Not really, but I’m too buzzed to care.”

“Atta boy,” he smiled, opening the door.

The house smelled a bit musty. Plastic and sheets covered most of the furniture, and there were patches of dust and liquid stains on the coffee and end tables. The lampshades were a bit tattered, and there was some broken glass from light bulbs littered on the floor and around the couches. Hux got to work tearing off the sheets and rolling them into balls, tossing them in a nearby closet. I found a broom and dustpan and went around sweeping up the glass and trash, making sure to sweep over the front porch. He wiped down the tables and cleaned the windows. We took about a half-hour making everything look as presentable as possible. After that, we took a few more minutes to sit down and talk through the plan again.

I did a quick shot and smoked a cigarette to gather up the necessary courage and finally took out my phone. Hux nodded, and I scrolled down to Jim’s number. No turning back now.

“Here goes nothing.” I hit the call button.

“Hey Tim,” he answered in a cheerful tone. I wanted to vomit.

“Hi,” I said, hoping my voice wasn’t too shaky. The alcohol helped at least. “Listen, I’m over at a friend’s house studying. Do you think you could pick me up around 4:30? His mom’s out at work and I need a ride home.”

“Sure,” he said. “What’s the address?”

“242 Valley Road.”

“Got it. Be there soon.”

“Thanks.” I hung up and tossed my phone on the coffee table. “He’s coming.”

“Good.” Hux pulled off his shirt, and I turned my head away. I didn’t really want to look at him. Jim made me feel shameful enough about being gay. He let out a chuckle. “It’s okay to look,” he said, stepping over to me. “Come on, sexy boy.”

“Get away from me!” I insisted, scooting away. But I looked anyway after catching my first glimpse, and found myself shocked by his body. “Whoa,” I breathed.

I’d never seen Hux without a shirt before, and the true extent of his burn scars fascinated me. Almost the whole right side of him from the neck and shoulder down across his chest and over the top half of his abdomen was covered in a stretched, sometimes scaly texture. Some areas were faded red while others were light pink. He leaned over me so I could get a better look.

“Mind if I touch?” I asked.

“Go ahead.” I traced a hand over the burnt sections of dead skin, truly intrigued by the interesting texture, wondering what the sensations of my touch must be like for him. “What’s it feel like?”

“Hot,” he said. I tore my hand away, but he grabbed it back, running my little fingers slowly along his chest. “Not like what you’re thinking,” he assured me. “I mean it feels…hot. Like how you’d feel after burning yourself. Kinda that feeling of fire, but also more sensitive underneath. It tickles almost, but in a really distant way. It’s a little hard to explain.”

“And your face is like that too?” I traced a finger over the top of his eye and lightly down his cheek.

“Yeah, there too,” he said. I went over his chest again, down to his belly button, softly brushing the hairs of his happy trail. “All right, that’s enough,” he smirked.

“Aw shit!” I felt myself getting hard. “I’m really sorry, I-”

“Forget it,” he laughed.

“No, I can’t let this keep happening!”

“You’re a guy, you’re growing up, chill out!”

“You don’t understand,” I whimpered. “It hurts! Every time, I just think of Jim, and-”

“So don’t think about him.”

“It’s not that simple!”

“Yes it is! How do you think I got over my fear of fire? It sure as shit wasn’t through whining about it and hiding in the dark. You’ve gotta face this!”

“Easy for you to say, he didn’t rape you!”

“You don’t even have to look at him when he gets here, okay? God, you need to drink more.”

“You’re a prick.”

“Yeah, get in line with everyone else who thinks so. Don’t pussy out on me.”

“So what’s the purpose of this anyhow? You said it’s just the setup. A setup for what?”

“Haven’t gotten that far yet.”

“Great,” I sighed pouring myself another shot.

“Jesus, you and my aunt are so similar. She drinks herself stupid every day.”

“You told me to have another.”

“Would you jump off a bridge if I told you to? Just proves my point. You let people shit on you once, they’ll do it for the rest of your life. Hey, you listening?!” He grabbed the shot glass out of my hand and downed it.

“What the hell!”

“You’re gonna make me do all the talking, I need it more than you.”

“I don’t understand you at all.”

“Take off your shirt, we got ten minutes.”

I rolled my eyes and pulled it off. Not like I wanted to, but the house was pretty hot anyways. Then my heart sunk as I heard the sound of gravel crackling outside and the engine of an approaching car.

“He’s here,” Hux said.

“Oh god, I can’t!”

“Yes you can, just answer the door and I’ll take care of the rest! Hide up the stairs out of sight when he steps in. I’ll be right here, okay?”

I nodded, and moments later, the doorbell rang. My stomach turned and I froze. Ding-dong. My hands were shaking. Just do it, you pussy. Hux is here. He won’t let this asshole hurt you. I took a deep breath and opened the door. Jim was standing there, looking a bit shocked.

“Hey,” he exhaled. He looked me up and down, though tried not to make it obvious. The blink of his eyes told me a lot. “You ready to go?”

“In a minute. You can come in, I just need to get my stuff.”

“Okay.” He stepped in somewhat reluctantly, almost as nervous as I was, and I saw his mouth drop open in surprise at the sight of Hux as I headed up the stairs and sat down near the wall where he couldn’t see me.

“Hey there, Jimbo,” Hux said.

“Mark! Uh…wow, I…wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“I know. Take a seat,” he said all nonchalant-like.

“Look, I can’t really stay too long, so-”

“Nah, sit down a minute. You’re an old friend, let me get you a drink.” I heard the clinking of glass as he poured him one. “So how’s it goin’?”

“All right, not too bad. Can’t complain.” I cautiously peered around the corner to see him scratching at the scar on his neck. The one Hux gave him.

“So you’re back in town, huh?”

“Yeah, I…got a job as manager of the local grocery store. Doesn’t pay too much, but it’s decent. How’s your aunt doing?”

“Ah, she’s fine, she’s good. Manager job sounds about right for you. You get some good help nowadays, what with the high school so close? I know the kids need money around here, they’re pretty eager to help out.”

“Yeah…”

“Thought so,” Hux chuckled. “Just out of curiosity,” he said, lighting up a cigarette, “how’d that thick neck of yours heal up?”

“I should really be going.”

“Nah, you got robbed at knifepoint, right? If I recall, you told my aunt you didn’t feel safe around here anymore.”

“Oh, yeah, that was…it was pretty bad. Tim, you almost ready?” he called. I didn’t answer.

“Don’t worry about him, we actually got a couple things that take a little while to pack up. I’m sorry man, I was just kinda wondering,” Hux sighed, chomping on some ice and running a couple pieces over his bare chest. “Damn, it’s hot in here. So Jimmy…what made you come back to Kentsburg? I mean if it wasn’t safe and all.”

“I, uh…” He was visibly sweating now, running a hand over his forehead in between staring at Hux’s body. “I met a girl, Tim’s mother. Wonderful woman.” He seemed to force those last words out in an attempt to sound sincere. “We’re actually getting married next month.”

“No way!” Hux exclaimed. “Well congratulations!”

“Thanks. I’m actually securing some paperwork so I can formally adopt Tim.” I shuddered. What?!

“That’s cool, I always thought you were pretty fit for child-rearing,” he smirked.

“Well look, I should really be going…”

Hux continued his blatant charade, spilling a few drops of his drink down his half-naked body. That’s when I started thinking of how dangerous this stupid act was, because I had called Jim over to pick me up. My mom wouldn’t be off work until at least 8pm, which gave him at least three hours to beat the living shit out of me and rape me until I couldn’t take any more. Fortunately, Hux was the kind of guy who had thought ahead about this. But I still feared going home at any point. Jim would have plenty more chances to take this out on me.

“If you have to, that’s cool,” Hux said. “But I just remembered we actually got quite a bit more studying to do. Big test on Monday.”

“Yeah,” I said, heading downstairs. “Different subject, we were focusing so much on history I forgot about the biology project we gotta present. I’m really sorry…”

“Right,” Jim said, eyeing me suspiciously.

“My aunt can run him home tomorrow, it’s no biggie,” Hux said.

“Okay…I guess that’s fine.”

Hux threw an arm over my shoulder and leaned close to me. I could tell this was making Jim wildly uncomfortable, so I acted as naturally as I could, laying my head on his chest and wrapping my arms around his side. We both grinned at Jim, who got up and backed away for the door.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Tim?”

“Yup.”

“Okay. You two have fun now.”

“We’ll have loads of fun,” Hux smiled, caressing my back.

Jim ran out the door, adjusting his collar and letting out a faint “see ya” as he bolted for the car and sped away. Hux laughed and let go of me, and I shoved him backwards.

“Could you be any more of a fucking idiot! You know I can’t go home, right? He’ll beat the shit out of me!”

“Oh, you’re definitely not going home to him now. We got this fucker good. I just hope you’re ready for what needs to happen tomorrow.”

“What happens tomorrow?”

Hux didn’t answer. He just took another sip of his drink and smiled.

“Hmmm.”

Tim – Dormant

I showed up at Seth’s house sometime in the afternoon the night after the second burn party. He had brought Hux over too, so the three of us had all gathered in the basement waiting to hear what he’d discovered about the drone. He sat down at the large work table against the far wall with a pair of goggles, a screwdriver, some old radio magnets, two halves of PVC pipe, and a hammer.

“So what’s this thing do?” Hux asked.

“You’re gonna love this. You see those two pieces of piping?”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“It used to be one piece. I cut it in half using the center blade ring. Check out the edges.”

I ran a finger around one of the pieces, nearly cutting myself. It was incredibly smooth and sharp. Seth took the other part and set a book on top of it. Perfectly level.

Hux rolled his eyes. “What’s your point?”

“First off, you don’t get cuts this perfect from any kind of man-made machinery anywhere on the planet. With blades like these, there should definitely be discrepancies. I measured them, tested the weight, everything is perfectly even and balanced about the material. I ran the pipe into the blades by hand. This kind of precision…it should have taken a whole other machine, dude.”

“No way!” I exclaimed.

“You boys ready to see this in action?”

“Just get on with it,” Hux muttered.

“Might wanna cover your ears before I hit the pressure switch.” I immediately cupped my hands so I couldn’t hear as he held a finger just above one of the radio magnets. Hux just smirked.

“I’m no pussy,” he laughed.

Seth touched his finger down, and the blades immediately sprang to life at super high velocity as he grabbed one of the pipes with his other hand. There was an extremely high-pitch shredding noise. Hux screamed something incoherent as Seth jammed the pipe half into the blades. Sparks shot out everywhere. I backed up, keeping my ears covered as a shard of metal flew out in my direction, and Seth let go of the magnet. Tears were running down Hux’s face. The blade stopped spinning in its tracks.

“What the FUCK!” Hux yelled.

“Told you to cover your ears,” Seth said. I laughed.

“JESUS FUCK!”

I picked up the piece of pipe that had fallen near my feet and felt around both edges. Smooth as a countertop. Hux was still freaking out.

“That’s crazy! What about the blades? I didn’t even see it slow down. It just…stopped.”

“Static electromagnetic field,” Seth explained. “It’s attached to rotors, but it still runs by magnetic energy. There’s no startup or slowdown time. It spins at full blast. I’ve never seen technology like this anywhere in my life. It’s astounding.”

“What’s this do?” I asked, pointing to a small circular pad in the center.

“Hold on, let me get these magnets out of the way.” He handed them to Hux, who threw his cigarette down.

“Okay, put your finger on it, just stand back in case.”

I touched my finger down, and suddenly a bright blue projection shot out of the middle, forming a large holographic display in the air.

“Holy shit!” Seth jumped back, startled.

“What the hell is that?!” Hux exclaimed.

“I have no idea, I haven’t seen this yet!”

The display seemed to show a blueprint of the device, with various lines and markers positioned around it and names of what appeared to correspond to different systems. Some dots were green, others flashed yellow, and some were red. The language wasn’t one I recognized.

“Klingo Unu,” Seth read. “Klingo Du. Klingo Tri. One, two, and three I recognize. Klingo…”

“What the hell language is that?” Hux asked.

“Armilo…armed…weapon? I know this shit from somewhere during language studies in school…it looks like Esperanto.”

“What is that, like Spanish?”

“No…it was an international constructed language from the early 20th century that combined grammar from several different European languages . It’s easy enough to learn, but very few people speak it.”

“I thought you said this wasn’t man-made,” I pointed out.

“It’s not…at least not like anything I’ve heard of.”

“Maybe it’s a government thing,” Hux posited. “Like code talkers and shit.”

“Could be. But why Esperanto? It’s easy to recognize. I’m more amazed by the display, I mean look at this thing! Electromagnetic rotors are one thing, even if they are in an experimental stage. I’ve heard rumors they’re supposed to replace the brake pads of most major cars soon. But outside of a sci-fi movie, I’m pretty sure this kind of hologram doesn’t even exist yet.”

He reached out and curiously ran a finger through the display. His touch seemed to distort it slightly, giving off a small buzzing sound. “Whoa, it kinda tingles. Feel that, Tim.”

I traced a circle around the drone’s image, and a light static feeling like a shock ran through my hand. I intuitively expanded all five of my fingers through it, assuming it might work like a touchscreen. I was right. The display expanded to show the outer ring section of the device. Still curious, I traced another circle around the center blade ring. Then something unexpected happened. The blades suddenly moved in on themselves like a puzzle, retracting all the way around in a circle, and the top half of the device folded over to show its inner workings. A large word in bold red capital letters started flashing at the top of the display.

DORMANTA

“Whoa!” Seth exclaimed. “Sweet, I think you just disabled it. Hux, hand me the magnets.” He tried touching a finger to it, but the word kept flashing. “Should be safe, I guess. Good job, Tim!”

“Thanks,” I beamed.

“All right, I think that’s it for today, at least until I can take a closer look at all the wiring. I don’t know what other defenses this thing might have. Best to play it safe.” He nervously tapped the touchpad in the middle and the display disappeared. “Whew,” he sighed, removing his goggles. “I need some bud.”

“Read my mind,” Hux said.

I turned away as he dug out the pipe from his hoodie. Back when we were digging that thing up a couple days before, I began to dwell again on something Seth told me earlier. That this thing, whatever it was, might be connected with the blackout somehow. He had mentioned radio towers to see if they could be emitting a kind of signal that was responsible for cutting our power. And I only knew of the tower that was already destroyed months before all this started happening. That thought still made me shudder, and Hux’s nonchalance about it was seriously beginning to bother me.

What if that had been our only chance at fixing all this? I couldn’t take the guilt of knowing what happened to Jim, and the aftermath of what occurred about a week after Hux told me to visit him. It was my fault. All of it was my fault, and even if we did discover what these devices were and learned their true purpose, what if it was already too late?

Hux gave me a smile as he stepped over to offer me a hit of his weed. I said no of course, though he seemed perfectly content. Back in his element, happy, and proud. Something I could never be as long as the thoughts of that night still plagued my conscience. I remembered his tough love regarding my first situation with Seth. He always seemed so sure of himself, so convinced he had the answers to everything. But what if he was wrong? What if we had killed our only way out? And what if this was his whole plan all along? Because as the villain in an old movie once proved, some people just want to watch the whole world burn…

Tim – Hux’s Plan

Walking into my next class that day felt awkward knowing that someone else knew my secret. I couldn’t get my mind off it. Hux’s reaction seemed incredibly strange to me too. Why did it matter what the guy’s name was? Did Jim touch him too?

The history teacher started scrawling notes on the electronic board as everyone frantically dug out sheets of paper or synced the info to their iPads. I just sat their paralyzed, drifting through daydreams. The lecture was something on ancient Aztec sociopolitical order. Colton sat in the back corner adjacent to me. I figured since the teacher didn’t notice him taking swigs of cough syrup, he probably wouldn’t notice if I was spacing out. By that time, I decided I’d approach Hux after class to see what the fuss was about. Not like I had to think that far ahead.

Colton slipped me a note when the bell rang.

“What’s this?”

“Mark wants to see you,” he slurred, sounding high.

“Thanks,” I sighed. “You know, you should really lay off that syrup. It’s gonna hurt you.”

He smirked. “I’m cool, man.”

“Hand it over.”

“No, it’s my last bottle!”

“I just wanna try some. I’ll give it back next period, okay?”

“Fine,” he relented, stuffing the Tussin into my bag as everyone crowded around us.

I made my way through the noisy halls, making sure he wasn’t following me as I headed for a trash bin at the corner to toss it out. That kid has always worried me. Digging the note from Hux out of my pocket, I discreetly unfolded it.

Meet me in the library. Health section. – Hux

My next class was wood shop, so it was on the way there. A billion thoughts were running through my mind as I sprinted down the hall, though I knew my questions would probably be answered. What truly scared me was the idea that maybe he wanted to tell someone. What would my mom say if she knew? That was the last thing I needed. I did my best to shrug it off until I pushed my way through the library doors. My heart was pounding like crazy, and my hands were shaking. I thought I might fall over because my steps were really staggered too. Bracing myself on a desk, I took a deep breath and looked toward the health section. It was far into the back away from anyone who might hear us, and the shelves were tall enough to hide us.

I pretended to be looking for something as I headed over, drumming my fingers across hundreds of book spines. I caught sight of Hux in the distance, thumbing through a book called How To Be Safe: Sex Education For The Gay Male.

“What’s up?” I shuddered, sinking back against the wall behind him.

“Just reading up on some gay shit. Did you know if a dick hits your prostate, it’s like an instant orgasm?”

“Hux, what the fuck do you want?”

“Yeah sorry, just reading. So that Haggin asshole. I kinda know him. He dated my aunt a few years back,” he said, shoving the book back in its place.

“What?!” I blurted out.

“Keep your voice down! It’s a library. I brought you here ‘cause it’s quiet. Anyway, motherfucker’s dangerous. He tried putting his hands on me once when she was out. I took a knife to his neck and he hasn’t been back since. At least not until now, ’cause apparently he has a new choice of ass.”

My mouth dropped open. “So what…I mean…it’s not like I can get rid of him. My mom wants to marry the guy!”

“That’s the thing,” he sighed, digging out a cigarette and lighting up.

“What the hell? Dude, we’re gonna get caught-”

“Relax,” he cut me off. “Listen to me very carefully. You need to get rid of him. But you can’t do it. Not by yourself. Now me, on the other hand…I got a plan. So you’re gonna want to hear this.”

“Forget it!” I snapped, turning to run away. “I’m not letting my mom kick me out!” He grabbed me by my backpack and swung me around.

“Listen!” he insisted. “You want this asshole to keep fucking you in the rear until you bleed to death?!”

“It’s not so bad,” I choked, tears flooding my eyes.

“Oh bull fucking shit, Tim! He told you it’s you coming onto him, right? That you make him do it, and you’ll get in trouble if you squeal?”

“Just leave me alone!”

“Hey!” a voice called from the end of the row. I looked back. Seth! “You bothering this kid?”

“Nah, man,” Hux smiled. “Look,” he quickly whispered in my ear, “you come to my place on Friday after school, you call that asshole over, and I’ll tell you exactly what needs to be done, got it?”

“Let me go!”

“Get lost,” he snapped, shoving me along.

“Hux, what’s your deal?” Seth approached him as I scampered away.

“Chill,” he replied, stamping out his cigarette. “I got this. Private matters.”

My tears cracked the scenery around me like a kaleidoscope as I left for my next class. I couldn’t do what he said, I just couldn’t! Either I’d die from the shame, or Mom would kick me out. Jim said so, and I believed him because she barely talked to me anymore. She was always too busy to pay attention to me. And I cried because of that, but also because somewhere deep inside, I knew Hux was right. If I was ever going to survive this, I needed help. Jim had to go. I had no idea how Hux was planning to go about getting rid of him. And if I knew at the time just how serious his solution would be, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to it. But the path before me was set. There was no turning back.

Tim – Inner Workings

Two weeks had passed since we lost power, and Seth still couldn’t figure out anything more about the strange machine from his field than on the day him and the others had dug it up. They’d moved it into the basement to see if there was any way to tear it apart. Kelsey had thrown a huge sobbing tantrum about it the day after the party, but Hux was somehow able to calm her down. He was the only one I ever saw who had that kind of effect on her. If it were anyone else, she’d be going straight for the jugular.

Things with me and Seth started off a little rocky at first. After the incident in the barn, I did kinda have some explaining to do. He took it surprisingly well. One thing I noticed afterwards was that he had a tendency to give me tighter hugs than before, and never from behind. He would call my name first and make sure I turned around. His kisses too were gentler, and he never let his lips linger. They scarcely deviated from my face. But I loved that about him, his sweet nature, the way he was so respectful and took his time.

On rainy days, we would sit in his bed reading books. I would sink back into his chest as he wrapped his arms around me, sometimes reciting poetry, other times planting pecks on my cheeks in between lines of The Once and Future King. We laughed together, we cuddled close. And for that first week anyway, the blackout was something that existed only in the back of our minds. At other moments, we found ourselves forced into remembrance through the habitual use of light switches, fans, radios, refrigerators, and everything else that required electricity. Still, not many people complained during the first week.

Nothing was particularly terrible, or at least that’s the level to which most of us had deluded ourselves. There were a lot less things to do for entertainment, but Hux had made an announcement after his first party that he’d be holding one every weekend he could muster. This of course hinged on the willingness of a few farmers, so he made up a list of people and went door to door until he had the next two lined up. Everyone else had either threatened him with shotguns or kicked him off their porch.

But it seemed the more Hux made it a regular event, the more people showed up. It was something to look forward to, and at least it took everyone’s minds off the increasing likelihood that no one was coming to save us. Even so, fights started which had to be stopped. You could see the seeds of anger being sowed from the outset. And though nobody was worried about it just yet, I knew it would only be a matter of time before we were eating each other alive. What little faith I did have, I placed only in Seth. His desire to truly understand the intricacies of what was going on provided me with a sense of hope that seemed lost on others.

“I don’t know if I can figure that drone thing out,” he told me one night at the fire. We usually stayed outside a couple hundred feet away from the barns. Hux always made sure to warn his closest friends when he was about to start, so Seth and I were the lucky ones.

“You’ll get it,” I assured him. “It’s got screws and stuff, right?”

“Yeah, it’s not that. I’m just too scared to touch it. This thing didn’t exactly come with an instruction manual. We had enough trouble digging it out of the ground, I don’t want to set anything off.”

“But you weren’t scared to move it before.”

“I know…maybe I’m just having second thoughts. There was something about that look in Kelsey’s eyes when she watched us digging it up. You should have seen it. It really bothered her, Tim. I think she might know more than we do.”

“So ask her about it!”

“Not that simple. Nobody asks about her last time in Jackson,” he sighed, tossing aside a pebble. “When she came back, she was…well, she was different.”

“How?”

“Violent…she locked herself up in her room. I tried asking her what was wrong and she pinned me against the wall so hard I thought she’d crush my neck. That kinda strength only comes from fight-or-flight,” he explained, taking a swig of soda. “She was legit terrified for her life. I even had to remind her who I was. Later, she went hysterical and told me she was sorry and I promised I wouldn’t ask anything about it again. She still carried knives to school, got in fights…”

“Yeah, I know how that feels.” I bit my lip and he snuggled me close.

“What really kills me is that she might be the only person who knows anything.” I briefly considered offering to ask her for him, but I figured it’d only cause bigger problems.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get it Seth, I know you will. You just gotta learn to understand it. That’s what you did with me, right? Never give up.”

“I don’t intend to, shrimpy butt,” he smiled. “Why do you got so much faith in me, huh?”

“Wouldn’t be much of a boyfriend if I didn’t.”

He kissed me on the cheek and we stood up.

“All right, tomorrow I’ll see what I can do. You want to swing by in the afternoon?”

“What time?”

“Around two-”

“Oh…clocks don’t work,” I remembered.

“Right,” he laughed. “Well come by whenever. You don’t have to ask, ya know.”

“My dad raised me to be polite.”

All of a sudden, Hux started shouting at everyone to get out of the barn and start the razing. He gave them until the count of ten before he lit the match. People went wild and started a stampede out of the entrance, screaming and flailing as they went. Seth and I just looked at each other and started laughing. Sure you could argue that it was dangerous, but what else did we have to do for fun? Besides, Hux always counted an extra few seconds to make sure he wasn’t killing anyone. The crowds were probably the worst part. I won’t lie, sometimes people did get trampled. But we all took care of each other. I just hoped it would always be like that.

The inside of the barn was wired with fireworks galore. Johnny and Mike had spent hours lining the walls with what was left of Hux’s stash. Very few cracks in the wooden boards had been left unfilled with some kind of fuse or flammable material. When the match was finally lit, everyone held their breath in anticipation of the send-off as if dangling by a string. And Hux loved every second of it.

“It’ll be the most epic explosion ever!” he would promise, and every single weekend, he outdid himself. That’s what other people would tell me, anyway. I would more or less cover my ears and look away until I heard the faint sound of cheers echoing through my cupped palms. If there’s anything I can say about that experience, it’s definitely one you never forget. Still, all that excitement sorta bothered me in a way I can’t fully explain. It was almost as if there was something more to it, something unspoken lingering beneath it all, begging to be understood.

Several elements began to make me very uneasy the more I dwelled on them. For one, the drones were still out in the fields. Nobody knew who placed them there or when. Second, there had been a massive swarm of African bees spreading up north through our town in early spring, which confounded pretty much every scientist in the United States since the point of origin wasn’t known. They just sort of appeared out of nowhere and disappeared as quickly as they’d arrived. Third, all this bad shit started happening at the beginning of summer. Mariah’s cousin inexplicably showed up in town one weekend to hide his drugs and promptly left. Kelsey came back from the city and went nuts. Jim came back, the radio tower incident happened, then the power went out.

I hated to jump to conclusions, but the strange truth was that all of this felt connected somehow. And no matter how many parties Hux planned or how good my relationship with Seth was going, I couldn’t shake the feeling that things were about to get a whole lot worse.

Tim – Shards of the Same

I don’t care what anybody says. It’s rough being raised by parents of two different nationalities, so when people ask if I hate my dad for leaving, my answer is no. You’d be mad too if you were in love with someone who insisted you move to their country and had to be thousands of miles away from friends and family and everyone else you had grown up with. I guess he just started looking for a way out. On the other hand, I don’t resent my mom either. She used to be there for me before Dad left and it was easier to talk to her sometimes, although both of them could be pretty distant when they were fighting. That had turned out to be a major problem for me, because then I’d just end up alone in my room listening to music. I didn’t exactly have friends at school to hang out with. After the split, I didn’t even really have my mom.

As it turned out, she had been dating some guy behind his back too. It took some getting used to, but Jim seemed pretty nice for being older and laid back about things. He was your typical all-American guy, nothing like my dad at all. Rules were pretty lax. Whatever I wanted to do was fine, and the dude was an open book about everything. He talked quite a bit. We’d have him over for dinner, he’d watch football, Mom could talk about things my dad never understood because she was American and didn’t quite hold the same values I guess. She always thought he should be more open, and so Jim came along and changed all that because he wasn’t so quiet. He knew how to have a good time. We got along great for the first month or two.

One night when we were in the living room, Jim poured me a shot of Absolut. Maybe he bought it because of me. Who knows. But I thought it was awesome for once to be treated like I mattered. No one ever paid attention to me at school much. When they did, it was usually to push me around and call me stupid names. I ended up downing a couple shots mixed with cranberry juice and felt great about it. What I hadn’t realized though was that this was a different sort of attention. Not the fatherly kind, but the really wrong kind.

My head was spinning from the alcohol and the sports cameras on the television panning every which way, and I started feeling nauseous and decided to lay down on the couch.

Then it happened. I could only vaguely remember what went on, and I sure as hell didn’t want to believe it was what I thought. You hear about that stuff all the time in school when you’re a kid, but you kinda laugh it off and never think it’ll happen to you. When it does, it’s like you’d rather block it out or something…I dunno. Maybe it’s just because boys are seen as wimps if they talk about it. Anyway I didn’t find it necessary to tell anyone. Dad always taught me to value my secrets, so I did. Besides, I was the one who wanted to drink. I liked Jim otherwise and it only happened once, right?

Wrong. Mom ended up dating this guy for quite a while, and that’s pretty much how it was for two nights a week over the next couple years. Within the month following that first time, I eventually got used to it. It became a routine. If nothing else, I figured the alcohol helped me relax and wasn’t so bad because when I had it, there wasn’t anything vivid to bother me during the day.

But just when I was getting used to only being touched, things happened that I could remember, and that’s when I freaked out. Started acting bad in school, threw things, mouthed off a lot. I never beat anyone up, but I was just so angry and Mom had said she wanted him to move in. I never once argued about it because she said she loved him. Plus if I told people, what would they think? He said they’d all laugh at me or I’d get in big trouble and get thrown out of the house. I had every reason to believe him too, because Mom had gotten a lot more distant ever since my dad left. I was never sure why.

After I got in trouble at school for lashing out again, I mostly stayed quiet and kept my head down. Of course the less attention I paid to myself, the more everyone else started going after me. Kids at school, big high school ones, but even those in my own grade were getting taller than me. The junior and senior high were connected via a hallway in the same building, so anyone from the upper grades could easily come over and harass someone smaller if they wanted.

But despite everything, there was one person who did start to stick up for me…or at least I think he did. It was weird because Hux always seemed to show up at just the right times. He more or less became my bodyguard. I guess I was thankful, but the more I got to know him, I didn’t really like him. He understood me fine in the coming weeks with everything that happened. He was there for me. That much I’ll admit. Everyone else was scared of him though. Personally, I was never sure how to take it. Whether it was the scars on his face or just the fact he was always getting in trouble, Hux has always been a little on the strange side.

One Tuesday after gym class, most of the other boys had left the locker room except the ones who liked to give me crap. Mind you, this was following a weekend where Jim decided to go overtime on me so bad that I could barely walk. Sure, I usually participated in running around and playing dodgeball as much as I could. On that particular day though, I ended up benched for the entire class.

So there I was in my little corner slowly getting dressed, minding my own business, trying not to yelp from the constant burning pain in my ass. I wanted a shower so bad. Ha, right. Even all things considered, you tell me what kind of seventh grader has the courage for that.

“Hey ghost boy, whatcha so scared of?” this Tony kid snapped, shoving me against the lockers. I had just grabbed my jeans and was about to take off my shorts, which I really didn’t want to do in front of anyone. Usually I used the bathroom stall, but someone had broken down the door in the previous week.

“Probably he’s got no cock!” his friend Derek sneered.

My heart started pounding. “What do you want?”

“Nothin’. Me and Tony just want to know if it’s true or not.”

“If w-what’s true?”

“If you’re hiding a vagina under there!” He suddenly tore down the back of my shorts as Tony whipped my ass with a wet towel.

“Ow, stop!” They didn’t. Derek pushed me hard up against the lockers and proceeded to thrust his crotch at my bare backside.

“You like it in the ass, faggot?”

“Is that why you been walkin’ like you shit yourself!” Tony laughed. I clamped my teeth down on my lip until I tasted blood. What would they care if they knew? Go ahead, I thought. The worst has already been done to me.

But just when I swore I was doomed, the door leading out to the hallway suddenly creaked wide open and slammed against the wall so loud that I nearly jumped halfway outta my skin. A flicking noise echoed in the distance followed by the scent of tobacco, which—when mixed with the still-present aroma of boy sweat stinking up the room—only made it that much harder to breathe.

“Afternoon ladies,” a raspy voice sighed. Derek immediately let go of me, so I quick pulled my shorts back up and glanced over my shoulder to see who it was. Of course.

There against the wall stood a grungy-looking guy who was a junior at the time. Half his face was mauled like Freddy Krueger from burns he suffered as a kid. Everyone knew him and if you didn’t, you probably would have heard enough rumors in the halls to be shitting your pants by the end of the school day. The way his bottom lip curled up in a half-smile like he was all that, constantly bragging and messing with his lighter…I guess people were frightened or whatever. Hux is a character, I’ll give him that, but he’s more of an asshole than anything else.

“Shit, it’s Mark Huxley! Run!” Tony cried, grabbing up his bag as fast as he could and ripping the zipper shut before scampering out with Derek two steps behind. I took a second to catch my breath and banged my locker shut. At least I wasn’t afraid to get dressed with Hux in the room because if anybody else came in, they’d probably run away screaming too. Even teachers avoided him like the plague.

“Pussies,” he smirked, sucking on his cigarette and blowing smoke everywhere. I scrunched my nose and tried not to breathe any of it in. “Don’t see you runnin’ off scared, Casper.”

“Hux, go away.”

“Funny thing to say to someone who just saved your pasty ass.”

“You didn’t save me, you showed up and they left.”

“It’s a free country. I don’t bite. Come on, don’t I at least get a thank you?” I stayed quiet. “No waves? No nods? Not even a smile?”

“I just need a shower and I don’t want anyone here. Especially not you.”

“What’s wrong with me? I just wanna finish my cigarette-”

“Hux…” I rolled my eyes.

“Way I see it, you can either square with me or the football team coming in next period can mop the floor with your bony ass. And by the looks of things, they’ll probably need a gallon of bleach.”

I gasped as I suddenly felt something wet running down the back of my right leg. My hand shot down to my butt to check what it was, and something sticky and damp matted to my fingers. I knew I hadn’t sat in anything for the last hour, but I wasn’t sure. People always played pranks on me. Ketchup? Not the right consistency. My heart sunk in horror as I clutched my gut. Blood.

“Oh fuck!” I cried, biting my tongue and wiping the tears away. But Hux didn’t say a word or even blink. He just shrunk back leisurely against the wall, enjoying his cigarette like he hadn’t even noticed. For some reason, the thought briefly crossed my mind to tell him everything right then and there, about the guy who was doing this to me and how my mom didn’t have a clue. Maybe I would ask him what I should do, if he’d say something to a teacher or somebody so I wouldn’t have to. Yeah right. I was far too ashamed.

“Please don’t tell anyone!” I begged.

“Not my business what you do.”

“Um…okay…” I didn’t look him in the eye. Not like he was paying attention anyways. “Well I’m just gonna take a shower, so…”

“I’ll hold down the fort for ya.”

I nodded and breathed a sigh of relief, despite the fact that I’d rather have been shaking him and crying and all that emotional shit. Why doesn’t he care?! For the moment though, it seemed enough. Maybe later. No one would mess with me as long as he was out there, I knew that much. Hux might be a major asshole and crazy unpredictable at times, but if there’s one thing I can say he’s solid on is that if he says he’ll protect you, you can count on it. We didn’t say anything else to each other. I just turned the corner and kept my head down.

Stepping into the shower area, I tossed my towel down on the bench outside the stall and took off my shirt. Easy enough. Then came the hard part. It took a few seconds of gentle maneuvering around to find the best possible way to remove my shorts without risking any further pain or bleeding. I couldn’t be sure when it started, but Derek and Tony hadn’t mentioned anything. Maybe it was just the stress. With my knees carefully bent, I turned on the water and let it run down the length of my back. My shorts would get soaked, but I didn’t care. It would have hurt too much to take them off dry.

As I heard Hux coughing and hacking up mucus in the background, tears started to blur my vision beneath the steam and hot water. How much longer did this have to happen? Of all people, why me? Jim had been living in our house for two months and Mom was now talking about engagement. Engagement! Marriage! To the very man I used to trust with my life, the guy who took me everywhere, the person who had been more of a best friend and father to me than my own dad after he decided to leave with some slut up in Jackson. It wasn’t fair. My life had turned into a living hell. If I didn’t get out of it soon…

“No,” I whispered to myself. “No, you gotta be strong. You can’t let him get to you, you can’t let him kill you, you can’t-”

“You jerkin’ off in there?” Hux rasped.

“Talking myself out of suicide!” I snapped. “Not like you care.”

“Oh Jesus H. Christ, not another one.”

“You don’t get it!”

“The hell I don’t. Why do you think I sneak outta class to get stoned in here? Miss Caldwell’s lectures make me wanna open a vein-”

“You don’t take anything seriously, do you?”

“I am serious,” he insisted. “My parents are dead and my aunt’s a hopeless drunk. Better suck it up, kid. We all got somethin’.”

I sighed and figured I probably should have kept my mouth shut. Meaningful words were wasted on a guy like Hux. My dignity was long gone. Much as I tried to find any sense of wisdom or inspiration from all the comic book heroes and movies I used to watch when I was younger, everything seemed lost. Even all those abuse videos they make you sit through in middle school. The parents in them always care, or they apologize for being so blind and stupid to the suffering of their kids. It was hard to imagine that sort of reaction from my mom. She was so deep in that she wouldn’t have noticed anyway.

When I was done, I turned off the water and reached for my towel only to have it thrown at me.

“Hux, what are you-”

“What’s his name?” he asked, tossing his cigarette butte in the drain puddle near my feet.

“Who?”

“Don’t play dumb on me. The motherfucker who’s been raping you. His name.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied, grabbing up my soaked boxers from the floor and ringing them out. Why did he care all of a sudden? I ignored him, throwing on the rest of my clothes and pushing past him to the door. But just as I was about to leave, he whipped out in front of me to block the path.

“Who’s doing it, Tim?”

“Would you just leave me alone?”

“WHO IS IT?!” he demanded, grabbing me by the shirt and throwing me against the wall. Tears squirted out from my eyes. Okay…

“His name is Jim, alright?!” I whimpered. “My mom’s boyfriend! She wants to marry him…”

“Shit,” Hux gasped. “Jim…what’s his last name?”

“I can’t…”

“Yes you can.”

“Are you gonna tell-”

“Don’t make me beat it outta you!”

“Haggin,” I choked. “It’s Jim Haggin.”

Hux let go.

“Get outta here. Now.”

“You swear you won’t tell-”

“NOW!” he yelled, shoving me out.

I reluctantly backed away and scampered off down the hall as the door slammed behind me. What was all that about? I wondered. This had nothing to do with him. I shouldn’t have told him anyways because it’s none of his business. Seconds later, a primal scream shattered the silence of the empty hall. I found myself running even faster. Where would I go now? Who knew? No matter how far I went, I could never get away from it. And yet somehow in that small moment of peaceful solitude through which Hux made known his humanity, I found myself believing—just for a fraction of a second, anyway—that maybe I wasn’t as alone as I thought.

Tim – Light A New Fire

What are you doing?!” I cried.

“I’m sorry, I just-”

“DON’T TOUCH ME!” I screamed. “Look, I can’t do this. I-I have to go…”

He said nothing as I tore away from him with tears in my eyes, the last blurry look of shock on his face receding into the distance. I turned and bolted for the ladder. In all honesty, leaving him up there tortured me worse than the memories themselves, but I had to get out.

Wood grazed harshly against my palms as I slid down in a panic and nearly lost my footing. The scents of hay on the lower level now stifled my nostrils to the point I could barely breathe. By the time I finally managed the throw open the latch on the door, Seth was already a few feet away from me and I ended up slamming it in his face. Instinct had taken over any desire to sort things out rationally. All I knew was that I had to get away. Get away from the man, get away from the source of the bad thing.

I ran as fast as I could around to the opposite side of the barn past the bonfire, bumping hard into Hux on the way and knocking over poor Colton with his bottle of cough syrup. He shouted at me, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Keep running, I thought, breaking through countless rows of corn stalks and into the field. When I tripped over a bunch of debris and went falling down face-first into the mud, that was it. The emotions caught up with me, the lump in my throat finally burst, and I just let it all out right there in a flood of wailing sobs.

Concerned voices emerged from behind me. First it was a couple of the parents who had come, then the sound of Mariah pushing past them and yelling at Seth to go away, that she would talk to him later. A few people asked if I was all right before disappearing altogether, but I didn’t bother answering anyone. Soon there was nothing but the sounds of a distant crowd again, the painful bits of twigs and broken stalks digging into my skin like bad memories, and the cold abandon of hope carried on a sweeping breeze through the field.

I sniffled and rolled onto my side to steady my breathing. Safe again. It was over. I was alone, or so I thought. The snapping of stalks caught my attention, but I was too ashamed to bother trying to figure out who it was. I would much rather have died right there anyway. Maybe they would leave me alone. Still, my heart pounded as their steps drew closer and eventually knelt beside me without a single word. I debated whether I should move, but then they spoke.

“It never goes away, does it?”

Hux.

“Is that why you always have to burn things?”

“Don’t know,” he breathed, lighting up a cigarette. “I kinda stopped trying to figure myself out when I was your age. Now I just sorta roll with it.”

“You were wrong, you know,” I swallowed. “You said it would go away. You promised.”

“Guess I lied,” he breathed.

“Why do you always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Pretend like you don’t care about people. But you do, don’t you? Somewhere inside-”

“Oh Jesus Christ,” he spat. “What do you want, Tim? You want me to hug you and act like this is some kinda weird parallel universe where everything is perfect, all dancing unicorns and fairies and shit?”

“No.”

“Then you just gotta feel lucky you’re not dead and accept that the world is a tough ride to hell. People are gonna lie to you all the time, it’s really nothin’ to cry about. Look kiddo…I don’t blame anyone for their feelings, but there comes a time when the fire has to die and you gotta move on. Stop snorting the ashes and getting all worried that somethin’ bad might spark up. No fire is the same and you can’t just be a ghost all the time, that’s no way to live.”

“So how do you move on?”

“How the hell do you think? Fuckin’ light a new fire! I gotta get back to my party, you’re cramping my shit.”

“Sorry.”

“Tim…get the fuck off the ground,” he said, stepping to his feet. I reluctantly took his hand and rose to my feet. “Welcome back to real life. Now are you gonna go out there and talk to your boyfriend or you gonna pussy out?”

“I dunno. Maybe I’ll just go home and-”

Suddenly, he grabbed the back of my head with one hand and my crotch with the other, forced his mouth over mine, and proceeded to exhale his nasty cigarette smoke down my throat. Gagging, I drove my fist hard as I could into his stomach. He backed off and I fell back to the ground in a choking fit.

“WHAT THE FUCK!”

“Just checking to see if you got any balls,” he huffed. “You know I’m not a fag.”

“Fuck you!” I coughed, spitting up the nausea of his breath.

“Maybe now you got the bad memories of that douchebag child molester outta your head, you can get the hell out there and enjoy your life for once. So are you gonna get off the ground or do I have to hold your hand?” He offered his hand, but I smacked it away.

“Don’t touch me!” I shouted.

“Aw, that’s cute. The little boy wants to fight.”

“Piss off.”

“I’m gettin’ hard,” he smiled.

“Get away from me!”

“Not until you stand up.”

“Fine,” I sighed, dusting myself off. “Why you gotta do that shit anyways?”

“‘Cause it’s time for you to let go. How’d it feel when I kissed you?” he asked, taking one last drag off his cigarette before stamping it out.

“Fucking gross.”

“Jim?”

“Same, only-”

“Only what?”

“My dick got hard.”

“That don’t mean jack shit, it’s just biology. What about Seth?”

“I like him…”

He grabbed me by the shirt dragged me close.

“Then listen up. We all got things worth fighting for, it’s why you got a heart,” he whispered. “Stop being a pussy and stay the fuck on your feet. And for the love of god, if you really like Seth, you better stick as close as you can to him so he keeps away from me and Kelsey. Ass whip him or dick whip him, whatever it is you fags call sexual influence, I just want him away from us. He causes shit for me, I cause shit for you. Understood?”

“Yeah,” I nodded.

“Go suck his dick.”

He gave me a good shove out of the field and lit up another cigarette as he pushed past me. Hux really wasn’t so bad of a guy as long as you got to the root of his motives, which was something few people were privy to. I can’t explain why, but getting beaten around a little had actually made me feel better in a way. I left that field feeling a hundred times tougher than when I went in.

“You do care!” I called.

“No I don’t.”

Of course he would never admit it, but I knew right then and there that despite everything we had gone through earlier in the year, Hux was still capable of being a good friend to someone. That might be a bit of a stretch to say since he mostly looked out for his own interests, but you would be goddamn grateful if those interests ever happened to involve you. He was just a little nuts in the head sometimes. Any outsider I’m sure would have questioned his methods. The rest of us knew better to just leave him to it because if you stood in his way, it only made him the kind of enemy you didn’t want to have.

I was able to go back to the party that night with my head held high and my spirit stronger because of what Hux had made me realize. At the same time though, this nagging thought began to haunt me over the course of the next week concerning what had happened after we scarecrowed my abuser two months earlier on a giant wooden X in the middle of an abandoned field.

I had been angry that night…angry at Hux, angry at myself, angry at my mom. Maybe it was all the emotion having come to a head once we both realized Jim was back in town, but I could vaguely recall falling into a rage and running away after Hux set the fire. I had almost gotten lost in the field, but before I knew it, my foot caught on something and then…

Seth said something about the devices sending out a jamming signal. If we can cut it off, we might be able to get the power back and radio someone for help. Then I remembered. Oh shit! The radio tower…it’s gone. Gone because of me…

Tim – (Not) The First Time

By the time we got to Johnny’s barn, a large group of people had already gathered around a bonfire that had been set up near the entrance. Most of them were kids I recognized from school. Some had walked a couple miles or more. A few parents showed up too, though not many. It wasn’t exactly the kind of party you were supposed to tell the adults about, but I guess Johnny’s dad wasn’t gonna let it happen unless a few parents were present to babysit.

Not like anyone cared. It was the middle of summer, the power was out, and nobody could go drunk driving because the cars were all dead. So even if everyone got high up to their eyeballs, there weren’t a whole lot of bad decisions you could make otherwise. Also, Johnny’s dad made sure to keep all his guns under lock and key. Safe and sound, right? What was the worst that could happen?

Oh yeah. Only Mark Huxley and the few hundred candles everyone had showed up with, which was more than enough to torch both the barn and Johnny’s house. Let’s not forget the fireworks either. Mariah must have noticed how nervous I was getting because she kept playfully bumping into me with a smile as we approached the crowd. My stomach was tying in several knots. I scanned through the faces to find Seth, but there was no sign of him yet. I guessed he was probably in the barn setting everything up for Hux’s live music idea, whatever it was.

“You okay Tim?” Mariah asked, grabbing a glass pipe and a packet of weed out of her back pocket.

“I dunno…you see Seth anywhere?”

“Not yet.”

My heart was beating fast. I anxiously looked around to see who else I knew. Kelsey was across on the other side near the entrance to the barn smoking a joint with Hux. He wrapped his arms around her from behind, every now and then taking a sip from the bottle of vodka in his hand. Colton Shant stood a few feet away from them with his trademark paper cone cups pouring himself a load of cough syrup. He always carries around a sleeve of cups. Then there was Christy who I didn’t know too well, but she’s good friends with Mariah. I was just watching Johnny and Mike coming out of the barn when suddenly I heard a soft voice behind me and jerked around to see a pair of hands covering Mariah’s eyes.

“Guess who?”

“Let’s see…two guys in my life have worn that cologne. The other one stopped after catching fire to his shirt last month ‘cause flammable things are his biggest vice. That leaves you, Rasta boy.” Of course it was Seth.

“Gettin’ the party started I see,” he said, nodding to her pipe. “Mind if I take a hit?”

“Go for it, I got it from you anyways.”

“Thanks. I had a hell of a time setting up Colton’s drum set.”

“Oh god, what the hell is this music thing Hux mentioned?”

“Dunno,” he sighed, lighting up a hit. “Probably gonna be a disaster. Think you can try talking to him about it? I’m just kinda worried things’ll get outta hand like earlier. He’s already all over my sister, and with all the fire and shit around-”

“I hear ya….I’m gonna go have a chat with him. You can talk to Tim-Tim here.”

I immediately froze. How could she do this to me? I had told her how scared I was. Bad things happened when I was nervous, and she knew about my abuse. Maybe not every single detail, but she definitely knew enough. Of course nobody understood how petrified I was about my own body doing things I didn’t want. I had no clue what to say. My mouth just sorta hung open in protest. By the time I was able to utter a sound, she had already walked off. Great. I’m alone now. Alone with-

“Tim!” he nudged me. Crap! I hadn’t been paying attention. He’d probably called my name a dozen times already.

“Oh…h-hey Seth,” I managed.

“You were kinda spacing out. You okay?”

“Yeah! Fine, good, thanks.”

“First party, huh?”

I felt a bit relieved. “How can you tell?”

“You’re swinging that bag of candles around and looking at everyone but me.”

“Sorry…”

“Here, come sit down,” he urged, pulling up a couple lawn chairs. I was still shaky. “Just chill, nobody’s gonna hurt you. I got my eye on Hux and everyone else. Johnny kinda put me in charge of making sure nothing too crazy goes down, so I’m supposed to stay sober for tonight.”

“That sucks,” I smirked, putting on my best cool-guy face.

“Doesn’t bother me now, actually. Need my mind clear to think about more important stuff.” Stupid ass, I chastised myself. Like an idiot, I never really tried to understand things. Up until a couple years prior when I had gotten to know some of the older kids in school, I had just assumed anyone who was on drugs was a total partying maniac with no shred of intelligence. I was especially wrong when it came to Seth. Maybe that’s what drew me to him. He was so smart.

“You mean the lights in the fields?” I asked. “Mariah said you dug up one of those things.”

“Yeah, it’s sitting in our basement…didn’t really touch it yet though. Just asked a few people what they saw the other night. Hux said they lit up like a wave and then everyone lost power. Like some sorta EMP thing.”

“EMP?”

“Electromagnetic pulse. Fries all the circuitry, causes a massive blackout starting from the point where it’s set off. Like an explosion.”

“Wow,” I smiled. He continued on for a bit about some other theories he had, why he thought they made sense, who could have made something like those devices and for what purpose. It honestly didn’t even really matter to me what he was jabbering on about, I just liked listening the sound of his voice. I sat there for a bit doing my best to pay attention, only I kept getting distracted by the glare of the bright orange fire in his pretty blue eyes. There was something so captivating about it all, and before I knew it, he was asking me if I was okay again.

“Tim?”

“Huh…yeah? Oh sorry, I was just-”

“You’re too cute,” he smiled. That one got my attention.

“W-what?” I smirked.

“Shit. Nothing, nevermind.”

“No, did you just say what I thought?”

“What’d I say?”

“What I thought you said…”

“What?” we both asked in unison, laughing. Now Seth was the one who started to look a little nervous. Ironically enough, I actually began to feel more comfortable after that. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

“So…do you like guys?”

He sighed. “I’m not exactly out about it so please don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t,” I assured him. “Promise.”

“Cool.”

An awkward silence filled the air a few seconds as I watched him. Tons of crazy thoughts were already flooding my head. Is he just scared? I wondered. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Or maybe he’s just as scared as me.

“Sooo…”

“You ever been with anyone?” he blurted out.

Fuck. “Um…” Yes. I was molested. But that’s not what he meant, and it definitely wasn’t something I wanted him to know. Not yet, anyway. “N-no,” I answered shyly. “You?”

“Nah,” he smirked. “First time for everything though, right?”

“Haaa…” My face turned beet red as I grinned the widest I ever have. “Maybe.” First time…

He reached over and gently took my hand in his, caressing my fingers with his thumb. A rush of butterflies descended to the pit of my stomach. I hadn’t quite expected that from him. I also hadn’t expected the effect his touch might have on me, and suddenly a queasy feeling began to stir deep in my gut. How could I be so sure this was good for me?

Not that holding hands bothered me in the slightest. It was the thought of everything that might follow. All the firsts for him that could never again be firsts for me. The experiences that had been stolen when I was younger. There was nothing new to discover, no way to know if I’d be okay when things got more serious. What if I’m traumatized all over again? I thought. What if I break down and my greatest happiness turns into my greatest misery?

“Come on, I want to show you something cool.” Seth got up and led me over to the right side of the barn through a throng of people. I could feel myself starting to panic, but I did my best to focus on him until we were well away from everyone. Mariah briefly looked back from the crowd and gave me a subtle wink before we opened a side door on the bottom level and went in. Seth latched it shut behind us. Hot orange flame could be seen shining through the cracks between the wooden boards, providing the only visible light. The smell of hay was a little overpowering.

“It’s okay, I’m not gonna hurt you,” he assured me, turning onto a ladder. “I think you’ll like this.”

I froze. This had to stop. If things continued triggering me, it would ruin everything. Suck it up, I reminded myself. You know him. Your friends know him. He’s not going to hurt you.

“Uh…” I breathed. “I’m not so good with heights.”

“Hey,” he smiled, “I got you.” He took my hand again, kissing my knuckles as he locked our fingers together. Again came the butterflies. This time though, the feeling was a bit different. As we ascended the rungs of the first ladder and then the next, I began to think back as hard as I could to all the times I remembered my heart fluttering like this.

My mom’s rotten boyfriend? No. My shitty time in school? Nope. Way before that, maybe? Soon enough, I came to the conclusion that this had to be something entirely new. Dare I say it…a first. There were no prior feelings I had to reference this to, and that filled me with more happiness and joy than I’d ever experienced in all fourteen years of my short life. So what if I didn’t know anything about relationships? This just felt right to me.

Climbing up to the third floor loft, Seth took me over to the wall and flung open a small window. I immediately had to turn away from the dizzying height. It was bad enough that the loft inside overlooked the main area on the first floor where he had set up Colton’s drum set. Either I had to stare at the wall or squeeze my eyes shut to keep my stomach from jumping.

“You okay?” he laughed.

“No!”

“Here, take my hand.”

I cautiously did as he said, steadying my breaths and stepping over to the window. Poor guy. I was probably crushing his hand with how tight my grip was, but he didn’t even wince. The floorboards creaking under my feet didn’t help me feel much at ease either. Throughout all of it though, he was surprisingly patient. That was another thing I could appreciate.

“Whoa,” I breathed.

“You won’t fall, I promise.” He took my arm and led me up to the step. I still hadn’t opened my eyes, but the cool breeze of the night told me where I was. “Now take a look.”

“Oh wow!” I smiled, finally having mustered up the courage. The view was amazing! I could see everything from up there. The top of Johnny’s house over to the left, the fire raging strong down below, over the fields across the street and to the distant horizon. Up above, you could just make out some of the stars and various constellations, even over the ambient light given off from the party. The sun had already set some time ago, but it was still a beautiful sight. I couldn’t think of any other person I’d rather be sharing that moment with. It was just a shame it probably wouldn’t happen again. Hux was gonna set fire to the whole thing and then it would be over.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“It’s awesome!” I grinned. His gaze met mine, and when his hand brushed my cheek, that was it. I was lost in his eyes. Before I knew what was happening, our lips connected. A sudden jolt of warmth immediately spread through my veins, nerves finally relaxed. Happiness. The desire for more. A thousand daydreams before this could not compare. The gentle wind, the laughing voices and cheer emanating from below, the scents of firewood mingling with those of the boy now joined with me…it was perfect.

Then something started to happen that caught me completely off guard. Warmth. Fire. Memories of stale cigarette flavors and groping hands. A rush of blood trickling down. Lips grazing my neck. Something overpowering…the pressure building between my legs…no. No! This is wrong! A tight feeling seized me hard in the chest and I instinctively shoved him away without a second thought.

Tim – Dirty Shame

HuxFlyer1

I won’t lie. My initial reaction was to tear up the hastily hand-written flyer and toss it in the trash. I had already had enough of Hux and his stupid antics to last me a lifetime, never mind the fact that he always used virtually everything that went wrong as an excuse to set fire to something. You broke up with your girlfriend? Let’s burn some shit! You’re sick? Let’s burn some shit! You’re dad’s on disability and the check is late? Let’s burn some shit! Some douchebag molested you as a child? Let’s burn some shit! The power to the entire town is cut off? Let’s have an epic pyrotechnic party and raze a fucking barn! There was literally no end to his obsession with fire.

Still, I decided it was better than spending the night all by my lonely self at home with my mom, who—as luck would have it—had conked out early. Besides that, maybe Seth would be there. Ooh no. In recent weeks, it seems that every moment he crossed my mind, I started getting all jumpy in the pit of my stomach. I kinda liked Seth. The way he could fix almost anything, read manuals like they were books, the way he laughed, his cologne, his dreamy blue eyes that sparkled underneath the grime after he dug that machine out of his back yard earlier…the dirt in his dreads, mud dripping down his smooth chest, jeans falling ever so slowly below his-

“Oookay!” My heart pounded as I brought myself back to reality and looked in the mirror. This was gonna suck. I could feel it happening again, the red that flushed my cheeks and spread down the front of my body. A tight, hot, rush of blood. If it happened near Seth, I would have to sit down somewhere and hope to God he wouldn’t touch me while I drew my knees up to my chest and tried to think of something else until it went away. And even though I’d been told in school this would happen and that it was completely normal for a growing guy to experience these feelings, I couldn’t deal with it. Not because it was anything new to me. It definitely wasn’t. Something had been stolen…

I was little the first time, too young to know what was going on, and now it hurt. It actually ached inside. This all started happening again a couple months before The Shock when I first began to accept my feelings for Seth—something I hadn’t particularly wanted either. Now it was just so hard for me to be around him. I’d get all nervous, my stomach would tie in knots, then I’d feel the bad thing start to happen and I’d have to walk away or sit down. But this wasn’t because of normal teenage hormones or even that I was gay and out of the closet. Everyone knew that and it turned out not to be so much of a problem. I was still ashamed of what happened when I was a kid. Back when I was nine, my dad up and left without warning. Mom started seeing a new guy, and he…

That’s all over though, right? I told myself. He’s gone…you and Hux, you…well…it just shouldn’t bother you anymore. Forget about it. As I felt the pressure that had built up in my jeans slowly start to fade, I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. Made a few silly faces, ran water over my hair to fix it, threw on my favorite shirt. Enjoyed acting like the kid I was. Brushed my teeth a couple times, then smiled again. I realized I couldn’t seem to stop smiling, in fact. All because I knew Seth was going to be there. Seth…

“Not again, please!” I groaned. “Maybe I should think about Mark’s ugly face.” Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the front door as someone started shouting like crazy. At least that was one way to break the mood. “I’m coming, hold on a sec!”

“Open up Tim-Tim, we’re gonna miss the show and Hux wants me there early!” It was Mariah. I actually never used to talk to her very much back when we were in school, but somehow we just sort of fell together around the beginning of summer. She was the first one I ever came out to, so we’ve been pretty close since then. I tell her everything and she looks out for me.

Believe it or not, it does get kinda rough around this town. Not necessarily because I’m gay, though some kids don’t like it. It’s more that in recent times, everyone’s gotten a bit more violent…well, cautious is probably a better word to use. It wasn’t like that then, though. The parties for the most part have helped everyone forget. But now that there’s less of everything—particularly drugs and food—people get antsy. Mariah says it’s pointless to keep writing this all down, but I kinda like to remember the good parts.

“Hey!” I said, opening the door to give her a hug.

“How you guys holding up with the power out?”

“Eh, it’s only been a day. Water’s still hot.”

“Your mom asleep?”

We heard her yell from the kitchen. “Tim, what was all that racket?! You know I didn’t get any sleep last night!”

“Sorry Ma!” I called. I turned back to Mariah. “Well, she was.”

“Bad habit I guess. I’m used to Hux being stoned out of his mind. You guys got any candles? We need as many as we can get.”

“I think so. Hey Mom, we have any extra candles?”

“I can spare five or so…here,” she said, grabbing several off the coffee table and putting them in a plastic bag for me. “Careful the two glass ones don’t clink together.”

I took a quick look inside to see what she had picked. I knew there were at least two that I never wanted to leave the house. My dad had bought us each one a few years back on a trip to Sweden. They were hand-crafted with special designs, and while Mom probably couldn’t have cared less whether they were tossed in the trash—I was surprised she hadn’t done it already—they were definitely something I wanted keep.

“Mom no,” I insisted, handing them back to her. “These always stay.”

“Are those the Swedish ones?”

“Yeah…”

“Then get them outta here. Your father never stayed.”

“Mom!”

“Or keep them in your room, I don’t care! Christ Tim, they’re just candles!”

“Ugh, jävla helvetes!”

“Excuse me?!”

“You know what I said!” I immediately snatched them out of her hands and ran back to my room to hide them in the box under my bed. That was the only place she would never search during her obsessive cleaning rounds. It was also where I kept my journals that said everything I never wanted her to know. Stuff about my dad and her and how it made me feel, what I felt was her fault and what was his. And all the stuff that happened to me when she started seeing that other guy that turned us both into completely different people…she could never find out about that. Nobody could. Or what Hux and I did.

How long had it been now? I figured two months. Mark said it would eventually kill the pain, but he had been wrong. So wrong. I was still hurting, and every night I continued to cry myself to sleep because of what that asshole did to me. I freaked out about everything just like my mom. She would go on cleaning sprees, I was barely able to leave the bathroom without checking myself a million times and washing my hands at least four. I needed a paper towel to even touch the doorknob. I’d look in the toilet expecting to see red every time, and sometimes I’d brush my teeth until my gums bled. For the first month anyway, that’s how it was. The second was better, if only by a little.

And now I was getting older. That’s what made it all worse. I was becoming a “man”. The dreaded thing I feared becoming ever since the day my dad left and another guy came into my life and decided to try showing me what he thought it meant to be a man. Now I was terrified of my own sexuality, because to me it didn’t make you a man. It made you a monster. Something to be feared, something to run from. Because if you let the monster get you, you’ll eventually turn into it. You transform, like a werewolf or some other crazy rabid animal that kills people.

“You’ll like this,” he used to tell me. Inside my head though, I knew I hated it. I had to hate it, right? So why had my body done things that told me I liked it? Was I the one who seduced him? He’s right, I had thought. Maybe I do like this. It hurts so much, but something feels so good. Then it feels better, then it feels great, then it feels…I don’t want it. I would do anything to avoid letting it happen because I knew I’d feel like total shit afterwards. I would feel exactly as I did on the day my dad left, and then I would be alone again. Cold, naked, wet, in the dark…cold. And unable to tell a soul. Not even my own mother.

“Tim?” her voice startled me from the doorway. I suddenly realized I had been kneeling by my bed for several minutes now, eyes absently pouring over the words—actually just one word—I’d written down in my journal. The two pages I had flipped open to were entirely flooded with DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE!

“Yeah?” I whimpered in response. I didn’t realize I’d been crying either.

“Mariah asked if you’re still coming.”

I shut the book and tossed it back under my bed. “I’ll be right there.”

“You sure you’re okay sweetie?”

“Yeah,” I sniffled, forcing a smile. “Look, I’m sorry about the candles Mom, it’s just that they’re hand-crafted and-”

“It’s okay honey. I guess I forget how much you miss your dad sometimes. I know it may not seem like it, but I have my moments too.”

“Yeah…”

“Right…well Mariah’s waiting, so you can head out. Try to be back at a decent hour?”

“I will.”

“Stay safe,” she smiled, pulling me into a hug. Safe…right. If any of this sounds painful, it’s because it definitely was. Moments like that tended to be a lot more commonplace than I wanted them to be. The sad fact of the matter was that this had actually been going on for months. Usually, my mom and I were pretty good about avoiding each other. If we got in each other’s hair even in the slightest way, there were sparks. In the same vein though, we both knew when to walk away and leave each other just cold enough before it turned into a raging fire. So that’s kinda how it was. Like having my mom leave, but not really leave. We were just…absent.

I guess in some twisted ironic sense, that’s sorta what my whole life was about. The joining of hot and cold to form the lukewarm little fish of me, Tim Andersson. I was as much of a ghost as anybody needed, half-alive and just sort of existing between two extremes. Some days I wished I really was a ghost, or that maybe I’d have the balls to just end it all right there. That’s how I felt after my dad left anyways. I never wanted to haunt anyone, but I knew that every time my mom looked at me, she’d only be reminded of someone she hated. And much as you want to, you can’t really control something like that. Then her new boyfriend arrived and made me feel so low and faded that by the time Hux came along to help, I was already letting him call me “Ghost” because that’s exactly what I felt like.

I wasn’t stupid though. I knew I had to talk to my mom, and soon. Otherwise it would only be a matter of time before I lost her forever. We didn’t know a thing about each other anymore and I had no idea how it all happened, but with the guy who caused it now having been gone for quite a while, I figured it was high time we started picking up the pieces.

I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her I loved her so much, but I didn’t know how anymore. I wasn’t even sure if she was okay with me being gay. The first and only time I told her, she’d had her face buried in a magazine and was like “oh that’s cool” and never said anything else.

But whatever. I wasn’t about to spend the rest of the night worrying about all that crap when I honestly had much more important things to consider. This was Hux’s party, so obviously Kelsey would be there. And if Kelsey was there, Seth always had to be around to protect her. I guess it was a winning situation for the both of us even though I absolutely couldn’t stand Hux or all the morons who followed him. That’s the only thing that really bothered me about Mariah, but they were just a tad closer than the two of us and had known each other longer, so I can’t really complain.

As I rejoined her out on the front porch, my heart skipped several beats with the thought of seeing that gorgeous boy again. Even his scent was locked in my mind, and I couldn’t help but smile thinking of him. Seth was a great guy. At least I had something that made me happy. I honestly didn’t even know him that well, but I knew he was good at protecting people because back when Hux started talking to me, he had tried to ward him off like my knight in shining armor. Mariah giggled at me several times during the mile-long trek to Johnny Sabota’s place as I kept gushing.

“That’s so cute you like him!”

“Yeah, but why would he be interested in me? He’s straight. I’m the only gay kid in this entire town. I’ll be alone forever.”

“I wouldn’t say that. Seth is bi, kiddo.”

“What?! No way!” I exclaimed, stopping in my tracks.

“Yes way!” she laughed.

“How do you know?”

“He kinda let it slip out in eighth grade.”

“Oh shit,” I groaned. “Now what do I do if something happens? I can’t talk to him, I’ll be shaking so bad!”

“Calm down!” she grinned, tousling my hair. “I got you, Timmy boy. Don’t act any different, just be yourself. You know him kinda, it’s not like you’re total strangers.”

“No, but he smells so good, and those eyes…ugh! What if I get so nervous I puke on him?”

“You’re not gonna puke Tim! Just have a drink or two, smoke a couple cigarettes and have a good time. Take the edge off a little. You can dance with me and Christy for a bit, then when you feel comfortable enough, just walk up and say hi. Or I’ll tell him to say hi to you. Either way, I’m gonna make sure you talk to him.”

“Oh god, I can’t do this,” I whined. But she planted a big kiss on my cheek and threw an encouraging arm around me.

“Loosen up!” she chuckled. “This is gonna be fun, I know it. Get ready, Ghost boy! We gonna light these fires tonight, woo!”

Kelsey – Blast From the Past

“Hey!” Mark Huxley called from down the driveway, interrupting my thoughts. Son of a bitch. There I was, chain-smoking on the porch again. I guess I never was able to break the habit. “You ran away.”

“Your point?” I exhaled.

“Point is,” he spat as he strolled up, “girls don’t usually do that to me…unless of course they’re afraid of my burn scars, which I know for a fact you aren’t.”

“Hux, I know you want to try to impress me and all, be a badass or whatever. I get it. But you’re not stupid. You know better than to ask me what happened out there.”

“Well I’m not stupid, but no one ever said I was smart exactly,” he grinned. Asshole.

“Would it kill you to be considerate?”

“I guess not. Sorry.”

“It’s whatever,” I sighed, taking one last drag and tossing out my cigarette. “So, your party…expecting a big turnout?”

“Doing what I can to rally the masses,” he smirked. “Would you mind spreading the word?”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not. Not like it’s the absolute worst idea you’ve ever had.”

“Oh, almost forgot. You have any spare weed lying around? Not for me, it’s for Johnny’s dad. He’s hurting pretty bad.”

“God,” I laughed. “Course we do, take what you need. I swear we’re running a Colombian cartel.”

“Nothing wrong with that. Long as you got enough for the party,” Hux chuckled.

“Don’t push it. Shit takes time to grow. Anyone takes too much more, we’ll be down to the babies.”

Seth suddenly rounded the corner from the side of the house to surprise us both, taking off his shirt and tossing it aside. When it comes to me, my brother’s always been pretty protective, much as I give him shit about it. I used to think it was kinda strange because I always got the impression he tried too hard to be the man of the house. Of course I’d chalked it up to how most boys are. That was up until he told me he’s bisexual. No wonder he was acting all tough. Mark of course knows, but Seth for whatever reason likes to pretend he doesn’t. Typical boys, always with one hand on their pride and the other on their dick.

“Hey, Hux.” I gave him a weird look. “Not interrupting, am I?”

“Nah,” I smirked. “Mark was just leaving.”

He rolled his eyes. “Was not.”

“That’s cool, I could use your help out back,” Seth said. “We been digging up one of your things.”

My heart sunk. “One of what things?” I snapped. “Seth, what are you doing with our yard?”

“Nothing Dad wouldn’t approve of. And it’s not in the yard, it’s out in the cornfield, he wants it outta there anyways. What do you care?”

I hesitated for a second but shook my head. It couldn’t be what I was thinking of. Not a chance in hell. We would have seen or heard something by now, especially if they had just dug their way into the ground carefully tilled by farmers for half the spring season, which was completely unlikely because somebody would have seen it. And it’s not like there were any crazy noises or things slicing us to bits. At least not yet. Still, I decided I should probably see what they were up to.

Holding my breath as we rounded the house, Hux put an arm around my shoulder right behind my brother. It was a bold move, but not one that I felt like dealing with at the moment, so I shoved him off of me. He made this sort of “whatever” sound and quickened his pace to catch up with Seth as if he even had to suck up. He was practically untouchable. It’s not like Seth would ever have the guts to fight him if he really had to. I didn’t care at the moment though. My heart was starting to thud in my chest for all the wrong reasons, wondering what the hell they were digging up and if it had anything to do with what I’d seen in the city. The flashing lights the night before had been enough to scare the living shit out of me for another lifetime.

As we made our way to the site about a quarter-way into the field through which my brother, Johnny, Mike, and that stupid Colton kid had hacked down a clear path with my dad’s old machete, I tried to remember everything my cousin had said to me on the last day I saw her. Don’t tell anyone. Not a word. Not a soul. Keep it secret. Give them hope, even if you have none. You gotta give them hope.

The closer we got, the more I tried to reassure myself. Blinking lights don’t mean anything, it was probably just police from the town chasing down a lead on a meth lab. The storm came and knocked out the power and the rest is some crazy elaborate dream. Maybe they dug up rocks or found some fossilized giant like that hoax from last century. A waterline or something to help put out Burnboy’s fire party once it was over. Hey, everyone needs a solution, right? A crop circle maybe. Yeah. Even that sounded half feasible. I had to laugh. Be happy, not react completely insane, it was probably just a-

“HOLY, WHAT THE FFF-…I mean whoa, uh…okay…” Calm down. I blinked once. Twice. Quickly looked away and bit my finger, then took a quick peek again. Not that the boys were paying attention, which probably worked to my advantage. Not like I even had to see it to know what it was by someone describing it.

“Wow, that’s like five feet across. Bigger than I thought, the ones I saw must have been half-buried,” Hux said, lighting up a cigarette. They were still digging it out. Digging up that fucking machine, and much as I wanted to tell them how much it could hurt them…

“Probably heavy too,” Seth said. “Guys, watch out for the blades!”

“HA!” I laughed loudly. “Do you guys even think you should be messing around with that? I mean seriously…I mean, it’s not like any of you know what it does! Really…what?! Seriously?! No…no, no, no fucking way! This is just…this is just fantastic…no…I can’t breathe…I need to get out of here. Now.” I felt my chest tighten as I started getting a panic attack and turned to rush for the house to down a couple of my old anxiety pills. I hadn’t had to use them in months, but the sight of that thing I’d not laid eyes on since April, not to mention any details of just how the hell it ended up in our field, right outside of our goddamn house.

“I’m going after her,” Seth sighed. “Kelsey? Kelsey, listen-”

I broke into a run but stopped halfway down the path to take a breather. “I really, really do not want you touching that!”

“Look,” he explained. “We’re just gonna see if we can take it apart, maybe figure out what’s going on around here and why we can’t get any cell phones or radios to work.”

“Oh Seth, you and your theories and science shit-”

“Kelsey-”

“You’re not gonna find anything, Seth!”

“Everyone down the street said they lost electricity in sequential order. I think it’s sending out a signal, and if there’s a chance of that, maybe we can cut it off and get the power back.”

“Cut it off how?! You don’t even know what those things do!”

“I can infer a couple things. If they’ve been sitting out there this long and there hasn’t been much hive activity around here for years, it would explain the killer bee swarms this spring. Obviously it’s dangerous. I just want to understand this. We’re being as careful as we can, okay? Trust me.”

“Seth-”

“If we can at least get the phones or a radio going, we can contact the city and see what’s going on…unless this is about something you already know.”

“Seth, don’t you dare!” I charged off. I wasn’t about to get shit on by him too.

“Kelsey, please just listen,” he insisted, pulling me back and staring me in the eye. “Sis, have I ever let you down?” I blinked away the tears and took a deep breath to calm myself. Couldn’t argue on that. “I’m not going to ask you what happened, okay? But I want your honest opinion on something.”

“I can’t.”

“Please…I want to know if you think this is worth it, huh? Say if we could get the power back, turn on the lights, not worry about food spoiling and dying from the summer heat and use Dad’s old radio to call for help…do you think it’s worth trying to figure this out?”

“Yeah,” I smirked, turning away.

“Seriously. You sure?”

Yes,” I lied. “Anything’s worth a shot, right?”

“Thank you,” he smiled, giving me a hug.

“No problem. Just don’t bring that thing near me, huh?”

“You got it.”

“Cool.” I didn’t feel much better. “I’m just gonna head back for the house, take one of my old chill pills, gather up some bud for Hux’s stupid barn party.”

“Okay,” he replied, starting to head back to the clearing until it registered. “Wait, what! Not that stupid shit he planned with Mariah!”

“Guess so,” I shrugged. “You got any better ideas for a good time, let me know.” I didn’t even blink an eye or bother to stop walking when I heard a sudden explosion go off in the field. Told ya so. Maybe I looked back with a bit of curiosity and a laugh, but that was about it. Someone out there gave a nice loud shout that they were okay anyhow.

I suppose it should be said that there’s a certain amount of comfort that comes with accepting the inevitable. I wasn’t stupid. I’d known from the start that these things would eventually show up in our area. It was only a matter of time. To tell the honest truth, I don’t think I’m even scared to die anymore. Man has always struggled with their mortality, but who really wants to live like that? Hell, might as well go out with a good bang and set the world on fire, watch it burn over the horizon until we’re all specks of cosmic dust and there’s nothing left but stars to wish on.

Why not, Janelle?

Kelsey – Don’t Look Back

“Janelle, please stay!” I had pleaded with her after getting out of the car in my driveway. “You can’t just go back, you don’t know what’s waiting out there!”

“Yes I can!” she cried, hanging out the window in the back seat. “What’s waiting for me out here, Kelsey? I’m nothing! This is your life, this is all you. You’re so much stronger and I’m so sorry I ever doubted you! I just wanted a chance…”

“Jan, you’ll die! Why go back?! Tasha, you can’t seriously-”

“I’ll do what she wants,” Tasha sniffled. “I have family too.”

“And I have to see if my mom’s okay!” my cousin cried. “You don’t have to be selfish or protect me anymore, alright? You did what you could. Don’t feel guilty for me, ever!”

“I don’t even know if it’s safe here,” I whimpered. “Please Janelle, stay! Stay for me, we love you, I love you! I can’t live knowing you’re out there, that I sent you back-”

“This is my choice, don’t you dare blame yourself!”

“And what if it comes here, I’ll be alone!”

“You have Seth, and besides that, you’ve gotta promise me,” she urged, getting out of the car and squeezing my hand tight. “If you never hear from me again, if I die or whatever-”

“No!”

“Kelsey, I’m serious. If things start happening here, you have to promise me…promise me that you’ll make them believe they have a chance. We don’t talk about any of this, okay? You don’t mention it to anyone, Kelsey! Not a word, not a soul, because so help me God if you let them lose hope, I’ll come back and fucking kill you! You promise?”

“Janelle…”

“Promise me!”

“Alright,” I breathed. “Okay! I promise…”

“Come here you stupid little girl,” she cried, wrapping her arms tight around me.

“You’re littler,” I joked.

“I love you!” she sobbed. “I love you so much…and now,” she whispered in my ear, “this is what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna turn around and not even watch this car leave, you understand? You just start walking to your house because it’s a bright new day. Beautiful…not even a single cloud. And when I’m gone, you can turn around, you sit on those busted front steps of your porch…you turn around, and you look at the sunrise. You watch that fire spreading in the sky, you wait until it’s dark out, wish upon a star, then you go say hi to Hux and give him a good fuck for me,” she laughed.

“Fuck you!” I giggled.

She let go of me and kissed my forehead.

“Don’t ever look back. You have all the time in the world, baby girl. Live it.”

My cousin got back in the car and I started walking. I walked and walked, the longest distance I’ve ever walked in my life. Heard the gears of the car change and wanted to turn around, but I didn’t. Not a chance. I’d made a promise. Heard them back away, the shift of gravel kicking up, and still I kept walking. The soft crush of stones under my feet and the sensation of being back in that hotel again, my heart fluttering.

Then I stopped as I heard them reach the street and speed away. Shut my eyes tight and didn’t open them until I reached the front steps of my house. That’s when I sat down and started to cry. I didn’t stop until it got dark. And even then, I waited for the stars…