It wasn’t a bad night by any accounts; there wasn’t any rain to muddy the roadside ditches, and the breeze was warm with the smell of just-fallen leaves, not yet bitter for November. The street itself (a segment of Barry Road) was quiet on the outskirts of its town, long past where the suburbs turned to farmland so only the faint mountain range of shingles could be seen in the far distance. The lane was empty except for some sentinel lamp posts, and a single bus stop with clouded glass and old posters, long-faded, advertising missing dogs or yard sales. The sun had just slipped behind the forest along the roadside—turning the sky gold, then navy, then black—when a bus lurched up and wheezed to a stop. It dumped out a boy, stuck awkwardly between teenager and adult, who tripped into the shelter with a tight chest and one hand groping for his inhaler.
His head was a slipstream of curses, rushing around a solid and obvious awareness that his chest felt like roaring television static. He clambered to take a puff of his inhaler. The flies buzzing at the lights seemed oblivious to the cap churning through his blueing fingers. The panic made the whistling worse. The posters stared. His head was pounding. Finally he managed to stick the nozzle between his teeth, and send a muggy cloud of salty-sour powder jetting down his throat. The taste was atrocious; the nearly immediate relief was not.
He put his arms above his head. With his ribs pressing against his compression shirt, he closed his eyes, and breathed as deeply as he could. It rushed through him easily and cleared his focus.
He had gotten on the wrong bus, a classic screw-up for a boy…teen…man who lived more in his head than in the real world, a necessity. As he stared around the decrepit shelter and the street beyond, he thought perhaps it would not have been so bad if he had taken the bus to the end and let it turn around, or at least gotten off somewhere with a corner store to cower in. But when he had blinked himself out of a transitory daze and seen they were long past his stop, he’d yanked the cord and rushed out the next stop without checking.
He found himself simply stranded, with a long walk to anywhere hospitable. In most situations, he’d call on the zillenial’s chauffeur, his good buddy Uber, and laugh about this later. As the thought occurred, he brightened, until he touched his phone in his pocket, where it was mournfully heavy. He forgot to plug it in the previous night, and it had gone brick-useless halfway through the day. Because he wasn’t thinking.
“Goddammit,” he snarled, with every muscle locking up. His teeth grit sharp and he wanted to scream, convinced it wouldn’t matter because who the hell would hear him? The adrenaline was all angry and wet, his throat was closing up, and he wanted to wake the hell up from this and end up in his bed with everything all right. He tore himself around in an aimless little circle, caught his reflection in the glass, and hated it for the first time in a while.
Chase Devereaux was a man waiting for puberty to show back up finish its damn job, which meant he had the gangly limbs of a ninth grader and the smooth, doe-eyed faced of either a toddler or a teenaged girl, depending on how self-deprecating he was feeling. And he really did feel like a child. A stupid fucking kid. But hey, he thought, in a bitter rush of spit through his scoffing lips. At least he wasn’t crying. Instead his eyes just felt like they were about to burst open in a red-hot wave of oozy inside stuff.
He could just walk the rest of the road, burdening some rando family with a snotty, sweaty mess asking them to call him a cab, but this wasn’t so much about being stranded. Mostly, he was pissed off he let it happen. He’d be an hour late, maybe even more, and it’d be obvious he couldn’t even take a bus properly. Couldn’t do anything properly.
The street was quiet except for the resounding thud of Chase’s sneaker against the murky glass of the shelter. The yellow-black swampish light glinted on a payphone mounted into the wall. Through the rattle in his head, Chase stared side-long at the smooth metal. He swiped his hand over his nose. At the very least, he knew his home phone number. Had he been a few years younger maybe he wouldn’t have, but he memorized it in his youth before cell phones were given to seven year olds. His hand was in his pocket then, thumbing at the extra coins spit from a vending machine.
But he remembered Bible camp, the summer after fourth grade. He remembered crying for the entire week, with his hair too hot under the summer sun. He remembered crying through the pay phone home to his parents. They hadn’t been cruel, not intentionally, when they told him to tough it out for the next week. He had felt as lonely and hopeless as this.
It was that memory that stuck in his head: of his mom picking him up early, and the way he sat in the passenger seat with his backpack in his lap and his nose and eyes leaking. The sky had been a wide, flat blue that day, the air summer sweet with sunshine over the dashboard, but he only remembered how silent his mother had been. Disappointed. He couldn’t do a damn thing right, could he?
Staring at the phone, taking a slow breath, he resolved himself not to call his mom. But being late was just as bad—she’d know something had happened, smooth his hair all condescending and ask why he hadn’t called her. Didn’t he know he could always call her?
Chase grit his teeth again and ransacked his head for any other number to call. He inspected the phone and was sure there had once been a sticker for the local cab company, but it was faded down to a white smear. No luck. No goddamn luck. The change wasn’t going to be enough to call the operator, and were there even operators anymore? What was their number?
“Come on,” he sneered. Did he remember anything else?
The wind whooped a little through the trees, wheezed in through the glass walls of the shelter. It brought the mournfully cold smell of autumn, and a wave of goosebumps prickling up his arms. His mother would have urged him to bring a jacket. Would have stood over his shoulder with her voice sick-sweet. Just trying to protect him, she’d say. Keep him safe, she’d say.
I’m not sad about who you are, just that it means people are going to be cruel.
Chase pushed his hands through his hair and jerked to grab the plastic phone, sticking it awkwardly against his shoulder and plunking the coins down into the machine where they rattled and fell. He sniffed, and then breathed evenly.
He tried to think of any other number besides his own. He thought about being a kid, back before he could jam it all into his contacts and never bother with it again—
The number came into his head as a dial-tone song. He suddenly remembered standing on a chair in his kitchen and tapping the same number nearly every weekend. Summer most often, with his Ben 10 backpack or his Super Soaker or his Pokémon games neatly set in his DS carrier. But he’d dialed it at Bible camp too, and maybe that’s why it came back now, because he’d relied on two people then.
Chase knew one number besides his own: Jacky Ram’s landline. They had been in Grade One together and seemed inseparable for years, living only one block apart which was the best sort of luck. His parents had joked they’d end up married; the memory of that made Chase’s chest tighten. Eyes fixed on the loose keypad, he couldn’t remember the last time he and Jack had spoken. He dug a little deeper into his childhood memories, which felt like walking into a video game dungeon without saving first.
Grade Eight, Chase asked for a pencil, but fourth grade was the last time they had truly been “friends” before fifth grade started to pull them apart. Jack had gotten busy with his parents, and eventually they just stopped speaking the same language. In high school, Jack was stuck in mock trial and model UN, while Chase was hiding in stairwells and waiting for it all to be over. He cut clean for university, and hadn’t even thought about Jack since then.
Chase stared down the payphone with a crinkle between thin eyebrows. He could still call his mom and be a screw-up again.
Underneath a lamp that shone like an interrogation light, Jackson Ram (Jacky in childhood and Jack now) sat at his war-torn desk with too many textbooks open to too many highlighted pages. His high school diploma stared while he dragged agonized, drooping eyes over his poli-sci report. He wanted it mostly done by the time his dad came home, so he could look it over.
Jackson…Jacky…Jack never really picked up the landline with its twisting cord. That was “Parent Work” in his mind. But with his parents gone for the weekend and Jack promising to “mind the house,” he felt a raised sense of responsibility for everything within those four suburban walls. So when the landline chimed, sounding eerily more robotic than a cellphone, he pulled off his bulky headphones. He sat a second there, listening to the dull thud of the Black-Eyed Peas declaring themselves 3008. Beyond the circle of light in his room, echoing up from deep below, the phone chimed again with a little more vigour, more insistent. He gave it another ring to decide if he really did want to speak with someone, and then sighed and thudded down the stairs.
The kitchen was nearly black, great grey waves of light coming through the back windows in grid-lock patterns. The phone was only an outline, but he waded out towards it and plucked it from its cradle.
He leaned into the wall. “Ram residence.” It sounded like something a kid would say, but he figured he’d hang up on the robotic sound of a telemarketer soon enough, so what did it matter how he answered?
Jack froze, standing in a hoodie and sweatpants in the middle of his quiet kitchen. The name was ancient, the voice was low, but it seemed somehow familiar. He looked at the phone on the wall. The number certainly wasn’t recognizable, though it was local.
“Who is this?” Jack asked, pulling out a wooden chair from the table and sitting down.
“Ch—” The voice stopped. “Devereux. Dev,” someone finally said. Jack’s mind tumbled, and clicked. “From…”
Your backyard, Jack thought. It all raced back like the theme song of some long-lost show. Ben 10 maybe, that had been his favourite. Your basement because you had a Wii. The time I made you laugh at your party and SunnyD came out your nose. Your Communion when you asked if I had a suit you could wear and we stole my Dad’s tie—
Jack was sitting now, staring down at the wooden kitchen table. Someone had poked pencil holes in it a while ago. He wondered if it was Dev, absentmindedly drilling while they worked on their joint science fair project. “Dev from elementary school,” he said, as if musing, or remembering. Jack ground one hand into his forehead and was smiling slowly. He wondered when the last time he drank a SunnyD was, a delicacy that only came from Dev’s house. Or the last time he had a freezie. Or when they got rid of his Dad’s “Big Chair” in the “computer room”—they didn’t have it anymore, and he remembered it being there as a child, but not when it went away. Pokémon battles and helping each other fill the PokéDex. “Did you forget your DS here?” He had meant for it to be funny, but he heard his words echo in the phone and it sounded almost cruel.
Dev’s voice was low, like someone with a cold, and squeaking like a leaking pink party balloon. “Listen, I didn’t wanna bug you. But I got on the wrong bus and I—”
Jack didn’t know what he had remembered—it fluttered out of reach, like trying to catch bugs—but a back corner of his mind caught the tears the day Dev came home early from Bible camp. Jack had brought his Hot Wheels over, and they had lain in the grass and dragged them slowly, methodically, over the dirt. Dev’s hair was chopped short and ragged. Jack didn’t ask. They just rolled the cars, even if they both felt a little old for it. They ignored everything else, because they had known then, somehow, that this was the beginning of the end of everything that had come before it. “You didn’t wanna call your mom,” Jack said, nearly instinctual.
Jack didn’t like the laugh that came through the phone line then; it seemed hollow, bitter. The voice sounded old, much too old to be Dev from the next block over, who liked horror movies and hated Barbies. “Yeah, she’d start driving me to school or put the tracker back on my phone. So like…send me a cab? Or an Uber? Do you have Uber? Whatever just—”
“I drive, actually,” Jack said, only realizing then that he had cut Dev off. He tried to put himself back on track. Every word felt strange in his mouth. Another language. “So…no…I don’t have…Uber.” He drew the ‘r’ out with his face burning.
Chase faltered too. When did it get so hard to talk? “Just get me home and I’ll…” He paused. Jack got the feeling he was about to hear tears, or maybe just the dull tone of being hung-up on. “I’ll drop some money at your place, I guess.”
“Where are you?” Jack asked. Simple question. Gauging question. Could be anywhere in the world, he thought, and he was damn busy. He had a paper to finish, and had to mind the house. And whoever this was, they were too old to be Dev from the next block over. They sounded like a low-voiced ghost, and did Jack really owe a stranger anything?
It would almost be better for it to be a stranger. His parents would think him gallant and charitable. But if they knew he’d gone to get Dev, the questions would come back, the hard ones he’d slipped under good grades. He hadn’t even escaped them by cutting ties—when Dev walked for eighth-grade graduation with lime-green hair, his parents still asked Jack if they spoke anymore. Which was to ask if Jack was anything like Dev. Which was to say “no” and only mean it because Jack willingly knew nothing about his old friend.
“I’m somewhere on Barry,” Chase said. “I think. Not sure where though and it’s long…” He kept talking, and Jack listened halfway. The paper wasn’t due for two weeks—he had wanted to be ahead of it. Dev used to call him a keener; he remembered that fondly. He remembered Dev fondly, before they drifted apart. Drifted was an apt word, he thought. They really had been like two paper boats pulled on separate currents. Neither asked for it, and neither knew it was happening until it had gone on too long to be sad over it. Chase’s parents said he was busy, busy again, busy some more. By the time they went to separate high schools, they hadn’t even been to each other’s birthday parties. Jack’s parents never asked what happened to Dev, and Jack was almost sure that his father was grateful that name didn’t haunt their house.
He pressed his fist into his lips with the air stiflingly chill around him. Dev and the escapades. Water gun fights in the middle of November that gave them both the flu. Almost breaking his mother’s vanity mirror with a rogue soccer ball that shouldn’t have been indoors in the first place. If they’d broken that mirror, Jack would have taken the fall. Backwards ball caps and muddy knees, which Jack’s family found at first strangely endearing, and then just strange.
He sat up a little straighter, looked through the kitchen window out to the grey street and the quiet houses. A car passed and threw a wave of white light over him. If Chase had seen him, he would have thought him too old to be Jacky Ram, even Jack Ram. His face was all set lines in that bobbing wash of light, the solidity of something soft, compressed tighter and tighter.
Jack could see just the edge of his vehicle from where he sat, a Dodge Ram truck his father had owned and passed on to him, a real manly thing. Jack thought it was ridiculously large and stupidly loud. Or he could call a cab, but his parents would see the bill and he couldn’t lie then. He was strict about keeping secrets, thought it was better to be seen as overly honest to save fuel for the stuff that really needed keeping. And he couldn’t tell them this. His parents hadn’t gotten along with the Devereauxs towards the end of it all, around the time when everyone except Dev was getting their ears pierced at Claire’s. Their patience was chopped short with Dev’s hair, and Jack had done everything right since they were kids.
“We don’t talk anymore,” Jack found himself saying, and there was a slightly stunned silence.
“I…I know,” Chase said. “I just need a ride and then I’ll pay you back and we can like…see a movie or something?” But it was the opposite of what Jack wanted to hear.
“No, I mean like we don’t talk anymore and that’s all right,” Jack said, not angry or upset, but resigned. “We’re different, you know? We grew up and that’s fine so like, I don’t need us to be friends or anything.”
“I’m not asking—”
“No I mean,” Jack started to say, and again knew he’d cut Dev off. He groaned and closed his eyes, so unsure. They didn’t even follow each other on Instagram. Jack wasn’t sure anyone followed Dev on Instagram. As if abandoning something behind, she’d faded from town.
“Dev,” he said, sure now. They’d been friends once, and now things were different, and maybe they were better for it. “I think—”
Chase stood in the bus shelter, with the flies buzzing, and the cold air rushing, and the night dark and maybe filled with slashers who kill the guy at the bus first…and he heard the phone click dead. Heartlessly request more funds.
He stood, doe-eyed and awkward, young and terrified, ignoring his reflection, starting to cry despite hating himself for it, and all he wanted was a SunnyD. He wanted to drag some Hot Wheels through the dirt. Focus on the grass on his face. Ignore the obvious. Chase thought of Jacky rolling up in his car, rolling down the window, and wondering what the fuck happened to Dev from one block over. Chase thought all the signs were there. Chase thought no one ought to have been surprised.
Chase knew people were still surprised anyway, and maybe it wasn’t slashers he had to worry about now. He’d changed, things were different, and that was supposed to be good.
So he went and waited outside the station. Either for Jack, or another bus, or maybe just until he grew too bored to stay, and would walk home to call his mother as if he was still a child. So maybe things hadn’t changed at all.
MATTEO L. CERILLI is a speculative novelist by trade, who occasionally ventures into contemporary short fiction when his professors tell him to. Currently he attends York University where he is studying Professional Writing and Creative Writing. He is the 2021 recipient of the Adrienne Grago Creative Writing Award, and received an Honourable Mention in the 2020-2021 LAPS Awards.
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