Note: There will be violence in this story. Shouldn’t be horribly gratuitous, but it is there.
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Braxton Crowley sat in the College Center, legs tucked up under her and her text in her lap. She had her final in Anthropological Languages in thirty minutes. The college junior brushed long, blonde hair back over her shoulder and she tried to cram as much as she could. The night before she had been asked by her boyfriend, Andrew, to help him study. Needless to say, when she woke up early that morning naked, she realized they hadn’t gotten much studying done.
Andrew Watson had been a smooth talker since the day Braxton had met him, almost three years before. They’d met during the blonde’s third week at school. At that time, Andrew- then a sophomore- had been charming and extremely persuasive in his arguments on why the fresh faced Freshman should go out with him. Eventually he’d worn down Braxton’s defenses, and she’d agreed.
Now, all this time later, she wasn’t sure of the wisdom of that decision. She blinked red-rimmed green eyes several times, the exhaustion catching up with her. Andrew had been partying steadily over the past few weeks, and being the good girlfriend- and bad daughter to a father who was a preacher- Braxton had joined in the fun. The ting that made her most angry at herself was that she didn’t even like to drink.
Braxton turned to see her best friend, Jared sit in the chair next to hers. “Hey,” she said, grabbing the half-empty cup of mocha breve that she’d picked up from Starbucks on her way in. The brew was now tepid, and she grimaced, wrinkling her nose. “Blech.”
Jared chuckled, taking the cup from her and walking over to the bank of microwaves in the corner and re-warmed the coffee. “Here. Try again.”
Grateful, Braxton took the cup and sipped, her eyes closing. “Much, much better. Thank you.”
“No problem,” Jared said, flopping down in the seat again. He studied her critically. He and Braxton were from the same hometown of Ivanwood, Colorado, a small mountain town in the Rockies. They’d been best friends since third grade, each ecstatic when they’d found out they’d been accepted at the same college. “You look like hell, Brax. Maybe you need to cut down on Romeo and concentrate more on classes.”
“I don’t need a goddamn lecture, Jared,” Braxton snapped, glaring angrily at the blonde man. She sighed, gathering her long hair into a ponytail. “I’m sorry. I don’t feel so hot, and I’m really angry at myself. I knew better than to go to Andrew’s last night.” She sighed again and met her friend’s light blue eyes. “I’m really thinking of breaking up with him, Jared.”
Jared nodded, doing a respectable job of hiding the giddiness he felt at those words. It wasn’t just because he’d been in love with Braxton since the fifth grade, but he knew that Andrew Watson wasn’t good enough for Braxton. She was beautiful, so intelligent, and had a bright future. Andrew’s thoughts of the future ended with his next party. “I’ll be here for you if you need me.”
“Thanks.” Braxton smiled and reached over to grasp her friend’s hand. He squeezed her fingers back, then gently slid his hand away.
“I’ll see you later. We still on for dinner tonight?” he asked, looking down at the blonde after rising from his chair. “I mean, today is the last of finals, and it’s always our tradition-“
“Of course we’re still on, Jared,” Braxton scolded. She watched as her friend left her, chewing on bottom lip. Jared Milton was a good looking guy with dark blonde hair and bright blue eyes. His chiseled jaw and well-kept body had many compare him to either Brad Pitt or a young Robert Redford. Braxton knew girls swooned over him, and often wondered why she, herself didn’t.
As much as he thought he was hiding it, Braxton knew that Jared’s feelings toward her weren’t entirely those of a best friend. Accepting this, she’d never let on that she knew. She valued Jared almost more than anyone in her life. A loner by nature, Braxton wasn’t one to need or want to be surrounded by people all the time, and was beginning to feel more than suffocated by Andrew and his need for constant socializing.
Braxton glanced at her watch as she sipped from her drink, nearly choking on the breve when she saw what time it was. Tossing the cup into a nearby trashcan, she threw her book into her backpack and hurried off to class.
Braxton shared a house off campus with three other girls and Jared. The large two-story hosted five bedrooms- two on the first floor, three upstairs, a large kitchen, and an unfinished basement below. The blonde pulled into the driveway, her thirty-four year old Volkswagon Squareback, pumpkin orange. Braxton’s small group of friends called it the Orange Bomb. The car may have been ugly, but it still ran well, and was roomy enough to give stranded roommates a ride.
The metal car door groaned just before it was slammed shut. Braxton felt lighter on her feet as she headed into the old house. She noticed that it needed to be painted, and wondered if the landlord would give them a break in the rent over the summer if they agreed to do the job. The thought didn’t even get to fully process before her cell phone began to ring.
Flipping the little red phone open, Braxton put it to her ear. “Hello?”
“Hey, baby. How did your finals go?” Andrew asked. He sounded far away and distracted. Braxton could hear loud music in the background and laughter.
“Wow, Andrew. It’s not even three in the afternoon and you’re already at Gus’, huh?” the blonde said dryly, heading into the house.
“Nah. Damian wanted to play some pool, so we’re down here shooting. You coming tonight?” he asked before someone got his attention. The phone was obviously covered as muffled voices could be heard. Braxton rolled her eyes, impatient for the call to end. “Sorry. Anyway, you comin?” Andrew asked again, back on the line.
“Coming where?” Braxton asked, jogging up the creaky staircase to her bedroom that was located on the second floor.
“In my bed later,” Andrew laughed, again, making his girlfriend roll her eyes. When there was no response to that, Andrew cleared his throat. “Party, my place.”
“No, Andrew, I’m not. I’ve already got plans.” Braxton tossed her weighed down backpack to the bed, watching as it bounced heavily, nearly falling to the hardwood floor below.
“Cancel ‘em.” Andrew cut off Braxton’s protests. “Come on, Brax,” he whined, “I graduate in a week. This is to celebrate. You gotta be there. Come on…”
Braxton sighed as she sat on the edge of the bed. “Alright, Andrew. I’ll be there.”
“Yeah! Hey, could you pick up a keg on your way?”
Braxton sighed, bringing a hand to her forehead. “Andrew-“
“Please? I promise, I’ll never ask anything of you again. But I only got my little Mazda. You got room in that hearse you drive.”
Braxton flopped back on the mattress. “Alright, Andrew. I’ll do it under one condition.”
“I come home tonight, and don’t have to stay long. I’ve got a busy weekend, and need to get up early tomorrow,” the blonde lied.
“You got it, babe. Alright, cool. I’ll see you at my place around nine, ‘k?”
“At nine. Alright.” Braxton slapped her phone shut, not returning Andrew’s profession of love. She had made up her mind during that phone call. This was it. Her last hurrah with Andrew. The thought almost left her giddy, excited to be out from underneath the demanding man for the first time in far too long. She blamed her weakness on her mother’s own.
Margot and Fletcher Crowley had been married for more than twenty-five years, most of that Fletcher had been an abusive drunk. He got a clue in the past eight years and had gotten off the Jack Daniels, turning his fervor to God. Ordained five years ago, Fletcher Crowley was now one of the most outspoken men in Ivanwood, his fiery sermons a trademark.
Braxton remembered watching her mother cow beneath Fletcher’s hand her entire life, never understanding why Margot never had the courage to get out. “Now look at me,” Braxton muttered, staring up at her water-stained ceiling. With a heavy sigh, she pushed herself off the bed and headed downstairs to break the news to Jared.
Jared picked at his dinner, anger making his jaw flex. He could feel Braxton’s eyes on him, but he ignored them. Pushing his plate aside, he sipped from his soda and stared out over the restaurant.
Braxton felt the guilt gnawing at her, her own food merely pushed around the plate. “I’m sorry, Jared,” she said again. “I really wish you would try to understand.”
“Understand what?” Jared asked, suddenly his eyes boring into hers. “Understand that yet again that asshole gets you to turn your back on your friends? On the people who actually cares about you?”
“Don’t do this,” Braxton said quietly. She understood her friend’s anger, but she felt her own prickle at her spine. “Andrew is my boyfriend, Jared. Not you.” She knew it was low, but her own guilt and anger at herself made her lash out.
Jared stared down at his plate, his heart aching. He nodded, jaw clenched. “You’re right.” He threw his napkin onto the table and shoved back in his chair. “You can start new traditions with your boyfriend, and piss on three years of tradition with your friends.” With those final words, and a few bills tossed atop his napkin, Jared stormed out of the restaurant.
“Damn,” she sighed. Jared hadn’t even given her a chance to tell him the good news of her decision regarding Andrew. Deciding that her appetite was gone, she paid the bill and left, deciding to go get the keg and hit Andrew’s party early. The earlier she got there, the earlier she could leave.
Braxton sat in her car, seatbelt still firmly in place. She could smell what she called the “ Volkswagon smell”. It was like a school bus- all vinyl seats and musty air, no matter that she had wiped the entire interior down with Clorox wipes earlier that day. She tapped the steering wheel with impatient fingers, jaws working as she tried to decide what to do.
Parked at the curb in front of the house Andrew shared with his friend, Damian. Every light was on in the small, ranch-style house, and loud music could already be heard pumping through the open windows. Braxton glanced across the street at the house where old man Davis lived, wondering how long it would take before he called the cops. The sad part was the party hadn’t even started yet.
The blonde grabbed her cell phone and quickly dialed her boyfriend’s number. At his answer she spoke, “Come out here and get this keg out of my car. I can’t lift it by myself.” With that, she slapped the phone closed and waited. Within a few moments the front door opened and Andrew, wearing only a pair of jeans, his bare chest pale in the darkness, trotted across the weed-riddled front lawn.
“Hey, baby,” he said, leaning in through the rolled down driver’s side window and taking Braxton in a deep, sloppy kiss. She could taste the alcohol already on his breath and cringed.
Within ten minutes, the keg was placed safely inside on the table next to an impressive collection of bottles of various shapes and sizes. The furniture- as threadbare as it was- had been moved out of the room to make room for the guests to mill about, dance, drink, and whatever else they might do.
Braxton was in the kitchen helping Damian make platters of snacks. She actually liked the dark-skinned man. His bald head glistened under the intense lighting in the small space. He was tall, more than a foot taller than she was, good humored and sweet. It was too bad he got so aggressive when he was drinking. He and Andrew were both graduating, though for Braxton’s boyfriend it had been by the skin of his teeth. Damian, a highly intelligent man who had managed to earn honors even with his busy social life, already had a job waiting for him in a Detroit plant working in middle management. Andrew, well, no body knew what he’d do after graduation.
“You know,” Damian said, as though he had read Braxton’s thoughts. “I think for Andy it’s gonna be like some bad John Hughes, Joel Schumacher film. You know, Billy from St. Elmo’s Fire or something.” The big man glanced up to make sure his friend wasn’t anywhere near. “He has no drive, no ambition, and I really wonder exactly how he plans on paying back all those student loans he’s taken out over the past four years.”
Braxton stopped slicing the block of sharp cheddar, hand resting on the counter. “Damian, I need your advice.”
“Sure, Brax, what’s up?”
“Well,” Braxton said softly, “you kind of delved into my thoughts with your little speech.” She met Damian’s grin before continuing. “How pissed do you think he’ll be if I break up with him tonight?”
Damian took a step back from the Styrofoam cooler he had been pouring ice into. Whistling through his teeth, he shook his head. “’Bout time, Braxton. I love the brother, you know that, but I always thought you were too good for him. He’s gonna be pissed as hell, but I think it’s for the best. I mean, come on, he’s graduating and doesn’t seem to have a whole helluva lot going for him. You’re heading into your senior year now, and have the whole world ahead of you.” He eyed her. “You know?”
Braxton nodded. She turned to the darker man, placing an arm on a massive forearm. “D, kind of keep an eye on me tonight, okay? I don’t want any trouble.”
Damian smiled with a nod. “You got it.”
Braxton sat in a corner, a plastic cup of beer in her hand. She sipped it from time to time, watching, glancing at the clock far too many times. She’d tried to get Andrew’s attention, to get him alone, but he was far too drunk already to listen to what she had to say. Besides, she knew when he was drinking, he had a temper.
She took a sip of the room temperature beer then sighed. She’d had enough. She could be at home with her roommates right now, or could still be spending her evening with Jared.
Pushing to her feet, Braxton dropped the plastic cup in a nearby trash can and then started the hunt for her messenger bag. She just knew she should have left them in the car, pocketing her keys. Shouldering her way through the crowd, she found her way to Andrew’s bedroom, where she thought she remembered him heading with her bag. The door was closed, but she didn’t bother knocking. Likely he was outside smoking weed with his friends, as she hadn’t seen him anywhere else in the house.
The room smelled of stale sweat, and new sex. That’s when Braxton saw it: over by the window, the shirtless body of Andrew, jeans unbuttoned and down around his thighs, was receiving a very spirited blowjob from some blonde. Andrew’s eyes were closed, his head thrown back, brown hair falling limply away from his head.
Braxton wasn’t sure what she felt in that moment. Perhaps a tiny amount of jealousy. Anger, for sure, and probably a bit of relief. She noticed her bag lying on the bed, and quickly grabbed it. Andrew didn’t even turn to see who was in the room until the door was nearly closed. Braxton heard her name called, but didn’t bother stopping, instead making her way back through the house toward the front door. She craved the fresh, late spring air in her lungs and on her face.
As she hurried across the street, making way for a speeding truck, she reached the Orange Bomb. The sound of running bare feet met her ears, then a hand on her shoulder.
“Brax, wait,” Andrew panted, exertion of his impromptu sprint leaving him breathless.
Braxton turned around, noticing that his pants had been pulled up but were still unbuttoned. He followed her gaze, hurriedly buttoning them. “At least you have the decency to look embarrassed,” she told him, sticking her key into the lock of the driver’s side door.
“Wait, I’m sorry. That was dumb. Look, it just happened, okay?” he said, placing a large hand on the window of the driver’s door, keeping the blonde from pulling it open. She batted his arm aside, tugging the squeaking door open. She looked at him.
“You did me a favor, Andrew. I was going to break up with you tonight, but figured you were too drunk to even know what I was telling you.”
“What? Why were you gonna break up with me?” he whined.
Braxton looked at him, incredulous. “You’re kidding, right?” She turned to face him full on. “You let some chick give you head, Andrew! That was just the cherry on this very messed up sundae.” She turned back to her car, then stopped before sliding in. “You owe me fifty bucks for the keg.”
Andrew had to jump back or get nailed by the sharp edge of the door. He watched as the orange station wagon sputtered to life, then prattled down the dark street.
Jared growled as yet again his character died against the evil, and extremely powerful monster, Gaenith. “Bastard,” he muttered, finding himself at the Game Over screen. He hit the reset button and waited for the video game to go through its opening sequences, taking the time to get himself another glass of Mountain Dew. As he tossed a couple ice cubes into the red plastic glass with Coca Cola written across it in bold, white lettering, the house phone began to ring.
Grabbing the hand piece, the blonde man held the phone between ear and shoulder as he finished making his drink. “’Lo?”
“Hey. It’s me.”
Jared felt his jaw clench for a moment, setting the green, two liter bottle on the scarred counter top. “Yes, Braxton?”
“I know you’re mad at me, Jared, but I need to talk.”
“Of course you do,” Jared said, taking a sip from his drink before returning the soda to the fridge. “Undoubtedly that asshole hurt you. Again.”
“Yeah. I caught him getting blown by some bimbo,” Braxton said, her voice quiet, thick from emotion.
“Shocking,” Jared said dryly, heading back to the living room where the game awaited his direction.
“Jared, please. I need you, but don’t need your comments,” the blonde pleaded on the other end of the line.
“Of course you do. Just like you have every goddamn day for the past year and a half. Just like you have every time you’ve stood me or your other friends up for that piece of crap. Just like you have-“
“Damn it, Jared! Can’t you just be my friend? I don’t need a lecture.” Braxton sounded like she was on the verge of tears, which made Jared even angrier. He felt she kept setting herself up for this hurt time and time again, regardless of just how often Andrew Watson showed his true colors. He was tired of it. Tired of listening, being the constant shoulder his friend cried on, yet she never listened to him, or to anyone else that told her to drop the loser.
“Braxton, I’m in the middle of my game. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Jared, please. I really need to talk-“
“Later, Brax.” Jared felt a stab of guilt as he hit the END button on the phone, tossing the cordless to the couch cushion next to him. The ironic thing was, he really wasn’t sure who was more the fool- Braxton for going out with that asshole who constantly used her, or if he, himself were the bigger asshole because he felt Braxton used him constantly. That wasn’t true, he admitted bitterly. Braxton was a good friend and had gotten him through more crap than anyone.
As he settled in for round two on his video game, Jared had to finally admit that nothing would ever happen between him and Braxton. He glanced guiltily at the phone, chewing on his bottom lip as he tried to decide if he should call the blonde back or not. Deciding that he was still too angry, he turned back to his game.
Braxton felt a sob come to her throat as she slapped her phone shut and tossed it to the passenger seat of the old car. Bringing a hand up, she swiped at her eyes. She was tired of crying, the source of which was usually Andrew. She was hurt by the phone call with Jared. Never had he been like that with her before. She was stunned, and tried to wrap her mind around what had caused it.
It was no secret that her best friend didn’t like Andrew, and for a multitude of reasons. Even so, never had he turned his back on her so completely. Okay, so she’d made a mistake! She got that. Braxton banged her hand against the steering wheel to coincide with her angry thoughts. Everyone made a mistake. Even the perfect Jared.
“What about Rhonda, Jared?” she asked the empty car and dark, empty night around her. The blonde man had made more than one mistake where women were concerned, and had his heart broken many times because of it. Why was she so different? Why wasn’t she allowed to make her own mistakes?
More tears began to fall as Braxton studied the night around her. When Jared had essentially hung up on her, she had taken an old dirt road, which she wasn’t even entirely sure what it led. All she knew for sure what that she needed some time along to think.
The scenery flew by, the rough, rutted road beneath the Volkswagon’s tires making the car lurch now and then. Braxton hung onto the wheel with both hands to maintain control. She was surrounded by fields on all sides, though she couldn’t even begin to know what was being grown. A ditch ran along the road to the left, a slight embankment on the right. She wiped away a few more tears, allowing her mind to wander over every aspect of her life.
Growing up in Ivanwood, she had felt she had very few choices- either marry a farmer, or become a librarian. Neither appealed, so she had worked as hard as she could, earning a scholarship and a ticket out of town. Initially her father wasn’t going to allow her to take the scholarship, as it was to a secular school, but eventually she had convinced him. The price of her escape was to come back to Ivanwood after graduation, and settle down. She knew that he hoped being exposed to the wild ways of college life would scare her into marriage. He had been sadly mistaken.
For Braxton, the thought of living her mother’s life scared her more than a bunch of drunk coeds. Her mother had done nothing, seen nothing, made no impression in life whatsoever. If not for her daughter, the day Margot Crowley died, the world would forget that she had existed. Braxton refused to be such a ghost. She had dreams, expectations of life and of herself.
Even still, the last three years hadn’t shown that very well. Yes, she did well in school- up until this past semester, that is. But still, she kept to herself, dating a guy who treated her little better than her father treated her mother. She belonged too no clubs, had very few trusted friends, and essentially was a wall flower. Now, heading into her senior year after the summer, she had one more year to prove herself, one more year to make a life for herself and save herself from having to go back to Ivanwood.
Braxton felt more tears well up in her eyes, impatient as she swiped at them. She hated to cry. Bringing up her shoulder, she turned her head to wipe her eyes on the sleeve of her t-shirt. Turning back to the road, Braxton cursed as something flashed before the headlights in the blackness of the countryside.
No time to think, she swerved hard left to miss the creature, which looked like maybe a cat. The dirt and rocks made her skid, and she saw that she was headed for the ditch. Yanking the wheel hard right, the car shuddered in that direction, hitting the embankment at incredible speed, sending the orange car air-born. Braxton held her breath, for a breathless moment feeling like she was in the Millennium Falcon, headed off into hyperspace as the car seemed to head for the stars. Soon enough the nose pointed back down to earth.
The car landed on the front right fender, sending the car into a violent roll, right front fender to back left fender, and back again, twisting just enough on the last roll to its side, where it began to roll again. The silence of the night was interrupted by the sound of crunching metal, exploding glass, and then a dull thump as a body landed in the middle of the field.
Braxton lay on her back, staring up into those very same hyperspace stars. For the split second that she looked, her thoughts took her to another time in another place. She and Jared had lain on her trampoline back home, staring up in the night sky:
“What do you think it’s like to die?” Jared asked, head slightly tilted to the side, nearly touching his best friend’s, who lay not a foot away.
“I don’t know,” the 16 year old blonde girl said. “Maybe you fly amongst the stars.” Her voice was wistful.
“You don’t think you go to Heaven?” the young man asked softly, glancing over at the profile of his friend.
Braxton thought for a moment before she gently shook her head to the side. “Not my father’s Heaven, no.”
A tear leaked out of the corner of Braxton’s left eye, her broken body no longer feeling the warm breeze of the late April night. No air entered her lungs, everything seeming to still, so silent, so peaceful.
The tear began to dry as Braxton’s vision began to fade, the stars dimming until they winked out. She no longer felt the cold ground underneath her, the vegetation once itchy against her back. She could no longer hear the crickets begin anew, nor the creaking of the settling car fifty yards away. The smell of raw plant life disappeared from her nostrils. She could no longer taste the blood in her mouth.
As the senses disappeared, Braxton felt as though she’d become a giant nerve center, everything sensed on a plane she could never understand, as she was enveloped by, what once she may have described as a golden light, but could not be described by such simple terms. The “light’ enveloped her, filled her, drove her. The knowledge and intelligence of the world filled the being she’d become. A sense of peace, belonging and understanding.
Reveling in the wonder of it all, she failed to realize she was being watched, judged and protected. A choice. She knew she had a choice, but had no idea what the options or answers were. Filled with a deep, profound understanding, the light began to fade until with a rush the star-filled sky winked overhead. The ground came up from nowhere, pounding into the broken body. Braxton gasped as the blood covering her face chilled her skin from the night breeze. She smelled her own mortality, coppery and thick, upon the breeze.
What was the very tip of pain poked her, and before she could respond, once again the ground receded, taking the night with it. She felt light, no more than air. The breeze blowing against her, almost as if it could blow her across the field and send her on a journey home.
Braxton blinked down at herself, rising higher and higher. She saw the twisted arms that once she used to throw a mean football. She saw her left leg tucked up under her right knee. Her face was a roadmap of bloody cuts. Glass and blood clumped her hair, nearly slicking it to her skull.
I want to cry.
Braxton closed her eyes, raising her face to the stars above, offering herself to their ancient mercy.
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