My muscles ached; the dull throbs weighed down my limbs, begging for rest, but I couldn’t sleep. My stomach was doing somersaults, and the bleak darkness that had settled in around me allowed my imagination to run wild. Every time the old home groaned I held my breath. The sounds of nocturnal wildlife brought tears to my eyes. Goosebumps ran up my arms. My eyes darted around the room, certain that something had moved.
I hadn’t noticed it the first night; the funeral had preoccupied my enough, but I knew now.
I was scared of my childhood home.
I tried to reason with myself. The odds of my parent’s murderer coming back was slim. Willow Creek was a relatively crime-free town. No one was here. It was just me.
I took a deep breath; closed my eyes. The shadow was there again. Faceless. Humanoid. Deadly. A strangled cry escaped me as I ripped my comforter off.
Another deep breath. I needed a distraction.
The soft glow of my cell phone cut through the darkness. A few strokes led me to my contacts; scrolling through without any single person in mind. I paused on Christina’s name. She had told me more than once that if I needed anything, she would be there. She wouldn’t mind. I hesitated, then kept scrolling. The next number I stopped on was stored as ‘Mr. Impractical’. It was Jay’s, and I smiled at the memory the nickname evoked. It stemmed from an argument about which of the four elements was best.
He answered on the second ring, “Hello?”
“Hi, Mr. Impractical.” I chimed, trying my best to force all negative thoughts from my mind.
He didn’t miss a beat, “Air isn’t an impractical element.”
“It is when you only want it to fly.” I retorted.
“I’m sorry, we don’t all want to control something as boring as water.”
“Water is not boring. Water is life and so many people don’t have clean-”
“What’s the matter, Will?”
I stumbled over the interruption, unsure how Jay had caught on so quickly, “Nothing’s the matter?”
“Will, I don’t think you’d call me this late at night unless something was the matter.” The silence stretched between us until he sighed, caving in, “Did you want to grab those drinks?”
I glanced over at my alarm clock. The hands read 10:50 pm, “Is there even a bar open this late?”
“Damn, Willow. I know Willow Creek isn’t San Myshuno or anything, but we still have a nightlife.”
“It’s fine. After all, when you left the only things we could do were bowling and the movies. Pick you up in thirty?”
“See you in thirty.” I agreed.
Calling The Rack a dive would have been cordial. It was an old brick building, with red neon signs emblazoning its name into the night. Food wrappers and broken beer bottles littered the unkempt parking lot. I follow behind Jay, every step vigilant, as we entered. Once inside, the sour stench of stale beer and nicotine permeated the air, and an untuned guitar screeched from the makeshift stage in the center of the building. I flung my hands over my ears, but the musician kept playing, oblivious.
I realized Jay was talking, but his voice was swallowed in the cacophony of music and chatter. I gave him a quizzical look. He responded by pointing at the bar, which had a plethora of empty beer bottles scattered across its top. They belonged to a couple of middle-aged men who had their eyes glued to the sole television, engrossed in a football game, as they puffed on cigarettes.
Jay led the way, taking up post on a stool tucked away in a corner; the one furthest away from the guitarist as possible. I mentally thanked him, as did my ears. He ordered a beer from the black-haired bartender as I sat down next to him, “And whatever the lady wants.”
“A cosmopolitan?” I faltered at the bartender’s blank stare. I should have known; a cursory glance revealed this was not a place that served drinks of the froufrou variety, “I’ll just have what he’s having.”
The dark-haired man turned, reaching into a cooler, before planting two bottles of beer in front of us. Jay popped the caps off our drinks and then held out the chilled beverage for me. We clinked bottles before Jay chugged his down; I sipped mine, nose crinkling as the bitter liquid slid down my throat.
“Haven’t acquired a taste for beer yet?” The amusement in his voice was as clear as the disgust on my face.
I frowned, and the felt crinkle between my eyes deepen, “Stop teasing me. I hate it and you know it.”
“Come on, Will! You’ve been in the city for four long years, I thought you’d have tougher skin by now.” Part of me knew that Jay was joking; there was a smile on his lips, his eyes were bright and mischievous, and he had already ordered his second drink. The other half was annoyed, and it was this part of myself that I felt clawing to the surface.
“Four long years and you’re still a child, I thought being an adult would have solved that by now.” I chugged my beer to distract myself from the crestfallen expression that my mocking had inspired.
“Damn, Will,” Jay’s voice was barely audible over the racket taking place around us, “I was just trying to cheer you up.”
“I know, I know,” I sighed, “I’m sorry. It’s just…”
Jay waited for me to finish, and when I didn’t he was quick to prod me for more, “Just what, Will? Is it your parents?”
“No. I mean, yes. Yes and no.” I paused, collecting my thoughts, “Of course my parents’ death is bothering me. There’s so much I would do differently if I could – with them, with Christina, with you-”
“Me?” He pointed to himself, eyebrows raised.
“Yes, you. I was so focused on myself, on my dream of becoming a doctor, that I never thought about how it effected anyone else. Hell, that’s not even true. I knew, I just didn’t care. I was selfish and it’s my fault that they-”
“Whoa, whoa, Will,” He waved his empty hand around, interrupting my word vomit, “I don’t blame you for breaking up with me when you left for college. I was mad at the time because I loved you, ya know, but you were right; long distance wouldn’t have worked. And your parents were proud, Will! They loved you and knew how hard you were working. They bragged about you every chance they got. You were busy living your life, and they got it. Alright? Everyone got it. You couldn’t have stopped what happened. It’s not your fault.”
I buried my face in my hands, sobs racking my frame, as Jay’s large hand came to rest on the small of my back. I leaned forward, trying to hide from his sight while his fingertips rubbed circles through my cardigan. It took me several minutes to collect myself, and I desperately clung to Jay’s words in order to do so. I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to hear that it wasn’t my fault; that my parents had been proud. When I finally raised my head, Jay’s sad smile was there to greet me, “There she is.”
“Here I am.”
He laughed, finishing his third beer, “Feeling better? Anything else you need to get off that ample chest?”
I flushed, swatting his arm, “Shut up!”
“Seriously, Will. You can tell me anything. You know I care about you.”
“There is one more thing…” I trailed off, unsure if I should tell him what had prompted the late night phone call.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” He asked as another drink arrived.
“You just cried in public – I think we’re past embarrassing.” He nursed his beer as he spoke, but that didn’t hide the grin he was sporting.
“Maker, you’re really obnoxious, you know that?”
Jay shrugged, “So, what it is?”
“I’m afraid,” I repeated, “afraid of my house. I… think I hear people downstairs but no one is. When I close my eyes I see… it… happen.”
“Stay with me.”
“Stay with me. At least for tonight,” I stared at him, incredulous, until he continued, “I’ll play you for it.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Not at all. Your choice: Darts or Foosball?” Jay chugged the last of his bottle before standing, slightly off balance, and heading to the other side of The Rack. Unsure if I really had a choice, I followed close behind.
We played darts, not because I thought I was good, but in hopes that Jay’s obvious intoxication would impede his performance. Drunk or not, Jay decimated me – I was lucky to have hit the target anywhere, let alone a bulls-eye.
“I win!” Jay’s excitement at this accomplishment was endearing, “You gotta stay with me tonight.” His gloating was not.
It was for the best, I quickly decided, that I sleep over Jay’s house tonight. Six beers into the night would make anyone in need of a designated driver. “Give me your keys.” I conceded. He handed it over without argument, along with his wallet.
“Just in case I pass out, you can GPS my address.” He explained.
Jay managed to get out of the bar and into his old blue sedan without much trouble, and despite the faith, he lacked in himself, he did stay conscious the whole drive home. In fact, he sang along to the radio, all inhibition lost.
When we pulled into his driveway, the headlights illuminated a quaint country cottage located a few miles away from downtown Willow Creek. The lawn was maintained, and Jay motioned his hands in front of him as if the building was on display, “Welcome to my abode.” His words were slurred and he stumbled out onto the driveway.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Jay did for a living. I had been selfish all evening, only talking about myself and my problems, that I realized I had no clue how Jay’s life had changed in those four years since we had called it quits.
“Very cute.” I remarked, holding out my arm so he could steady himself. He latched on, following me to the front door. It was unlocked, and while it was normal for doors to be left unlocked in Willow Creek, I made a mental note to check all the entrances before I went to sleep.
“Come on, let’s get you into bed.”
“This way!” Jay hadn’t lowered his voice since we left the bar, and without the ruckus to drown him out, he was simply shouting now.
“Shhhh, Jay, you’ll wake up your neighbors.”
My warning had little effect as he took off, stumbling, down a hallway and into his bedroom. By the time I caught up he had already flopped onto his mattress without bothering to crawl underneath his sheets or – I crinkled my nose – taking off his shoes. I kneeled beside the bed, untying one shoe and then the other, before wiggling them off his feet. It was least I could do for the peace of mind he had given me that night, “Goodnight, Jay” I whispered before slowly closing the door behind me.