Authors: Colleen Nelson
stomach dropped when I read Mom's email: “Call me ASAP.” Why couldn't it just say “Everything's great here. Nothing to worry about”?
I held my phone in my hand and stared at it, willing myself to press her number. I didn't want any bad news and with an email like that, what else could it be?
It had to be about Eric. Something had happened to him. We all knew it was only a matter of time before we got a call from the hospital or the cops showed up at our door. He'd tried to hide that he was using at first, avoiding us and staying out all day, only coming home when he knew we'd be in bed. But I'd lie awake until I heard him open the front door and turn the TV on. Sometimes it would be 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. I'd breathe a sigh of relief knowing he was home safe and tiptoe past his bedroom in the morning, careful not to wake him. We all thought he was just partying, out with friends, celebrating the fact that hockey was done for the season.
This went on for weeks until Mom cornered him one day at breakfast. Dark circles ringed his eyes and he looked haunted, not like himself. He'd told her he was having trouble sleeping and stormed out of the house. He'd slammed the door so hard the glasses in the cupboards rattled.
I didn't tell Mom what I'd heard people saying at school. Shaking their heads at how low he'd sunk.
He appeared in my room one night, talking a mile a minute and pacing. He told me about his hockey games, reliving each one in detail. He wouldn't calm down. The energy in him was like a volcano, ready to explode. And he wouldn't look at me. It was like he was in his own world and I was stuck behind glass, watching him. “Eric!” I'd shouted. “What are you doing?” When he'd looked at me, his eyes were wide with shock that someone was in the room with him. He took off again, yelling that I'd ruined his life. I ran after him on newly thawed ground, the ice crystals cutting into my bare feet.
He didn't come back for days. We found out later that he'd stayed with a friend whose parents were out of town. He'd trashed their house. They wanted to press charges, but Dad talked them out of it.
The cops brought him home one night. He'd been wandering around downtown Lumsville. Muttering and kicking garbage cans over, or trying to. I crept downstairs at the sound of voices, cowering behind the spindles. Mom sat in her housecoat at the kitchen table, listening to the cops. Dad ran his hand through his hair, over and over, a nervous tic. When the police left, Eric went ballistic. He tossed the kitchen chairs to the ground and kicked the fridge. “I don't need any of you!” Eric shouted. “You think you know me, but you don't.” And then he barrelled up to his room, racing past me on the stairs. I heard him moving furniture around in his room, playing music so loud the walls shook.
I got used to the pattern of behaviour. He'd disappear for days and then come home when the high started to wear off so he could crash. He'd sleep for two days straight and wake up ravenous. Then, he'd mope around the house or spend the day staring at the TV, like his best friend had died.
He didn't go to school anymore. None of us were surprised when the principal called, asking Mom and Dad for a meeting at school. Eric was failing his classes. He wasn't going to graduate.
Mom and Dad gave him an ultimatum: either straighten out or live somewhere else.
I left my first poem for him taped to his door, where he'd be sure to see it.
Sand running through
I lost you in the cracks.
I keep digging,
But you are too
I don't know what he did with it, but when I came home from school that day, it was gone. And so was he.
pulled out the wad of papers in my back pocket. Hope's poems, eight of them folded together into a tight, thick package, and the photos she'd left for me. A couple I'd tossed, but the ones of us when we were kids, I kept.
I stared at the one of me in my hockey gear, grinning into the camera and leaning in a hockey stance on my stick.
I remembered that day. After the photos, Coach Williams had introduced himself. He'd seen me play and wanted me to come out for a few practices with the Hornets. A Junior AAA team. I'd bit back a smile, because I had a burning desire to play faster, betterâand know it mattered to someone.
Looking at my grinning face in the photo made me sick. If I'd known what was in store for me, would I have said yes to his offer?
Rage filled me. Out of nowhere, it seared through my gut and exploded through my mouth. I got off the bench and tried to lift it up, straining with the effort, but it was bolted down. I kicked it, yelling curses at the top of my lungs. Then ran to the chain-link fence and slammed my body against it, clawing, trying to shake it loose.
I'd let him do things to me. I wailed at what I'd let happen. It was too much. To think about it squeezed my head, the thoughts ramming against my brain inside and out. I couldn't get free of them.
I was on the ground, racked by sobs. My gut sore, my mind wasted, my body rotting.
Something wet and warm on my fingers. Storm licking me. She nuzzled against my arm and lay down in the crook of my armpit.
Hope's poems sat in a ball a few feet away, white against the green grass.
She never knew about Coach Williams. No one did.
blackbird landed on the branch outside my window, its wing feathers spread like fingers. An ugly squawk when it opened its mouth.
I'd put off calling Mom for as long as I could, but the curiosity was killing me. Knowing would be better than wondering. Mom answered on the second ring, like she was waiting by the phone. Maybe she was.
“Have you heard from Eric?” she asked right away.
I closed my eyes with relief. If she was looking for him, he was still alive, the worst hadn't happened. “No. Why?”
A slight hesitation. “Oh, no reason. I just wondered if he'd checked in with you. He”âshe dropped her voice. I imagined her going into the kitchen, escaping to somewhere Dad couldn't hear herâ“hasn't been by in a few days.”
That wasn't unusual for Eric. He'd probably crashed somewhere, exhausted after days of being awake. She took a long breath. It echoed in my ear, magnified by the phone. “Is there something else?” I asked. She sounded more concerned than normal. We'd gotten used to his sporadic appearances.
“No,” she answered too quickly.
“Look, if you're really worried, leave him some food in the old tree stump. If it's gone, you'll know he's okay.” I felt like a traitor for spilling our secret.
She gave a mirthless laugh. “The stump? Where you used to build forts? That's where you â¦” Her voice trailed off.
Looked after him
, the unspoken words. Gave him the help that his own mother wouldn't, or couldn't: clothes from his room, notes to tell him when Dad would be gone, leftovers disappeared from the fridge. “You never told me.”
“I should have,” I said, but didn't mean it. It wasn't her right to know everything about us.
We made small talk for a few minutes. She asked about school, how I was settling in, who I was spending my time with. I lied, making my time at Ravenhurst sound better than it was. I told her Cassie and I hung out, and I invented friendships with other girls. If she knew how unhappy I was, she'd suggest I come home and I didn't want to do that. At Ravenhurst, I could forget about Eric and pretend my fractured family was whole again.
Thursday, September 18, 11:45 p.m.
Hi from Hellton
It's after curfew. I'm not supposed to be on my computer, but I couldn't sleep. Are you staying at Ravenhurst this weekend? We should meet up. What's your cell number? Mine is 555-3009
Friday, September 19, 8:04 a.m.
There's a coffee shop on the corner of Harrow and Garfield St. Do you know it? We could meet there. 1:00 p.m. on Saturday? 555â7893
I hadn't known what to think about his emails at first. No guy had ever approached me before, either in real life or online. My replies had been cautious at first. Who was he? He'd just seen my profile picture in the online student directory and sent me a message? Wasn't that kind of weird? But how else would he meet girls at an all-boys school?
He'd been at Melton since he was twelve and hated it. He knew some of the Ravens because our schools did activities together. He thought they were bitchy and stuck-up. That's why he liked me. I wasn't part of that world. When I read that, I knew I could trust him.
I'd get to meet him tomorrow. My heart gave a leap of excitement, followed quickly by nasty voices in my head. What if he didn't like me? What if the relationship we'd created online was stilted and uncomfortable when we met face to face?
I pushed the negativity out of my head. Maybe he was the soulmate friend I'd been looking for. I'd always thought it would be a girl, but why? Devon was so much easier to talk to. There wasn't any drama or hidden meanings that I didn't know how to decode.
I started to send a message to Devon and glimpsed the remains of the poem I'd scrawled on myself days ago. Like almost-erased footprints, I followed the track backwards to my elbow. I'd scrub it off tonight in the shower. The last thing I wanted was for Devon to see my insecurities laid bare on my flesh.
I could think about was getting high. Each footstep was one closer to a fix. My body pulsed with the thought of it. I tried the rubbing alcohol I'd stolen from the pharmacy, soaking my shirt with it and sniffing it, but it just gave me a headache and burned my nose. No good.
I'd made it into the cityâpast the winding butterfly highway, through an industrial area that stunk with belching factoriesâand found a park. There were places to hide, thickets of trees I could camp in, and washrooms. Luxury not to have to squat and wipe my ass with leaves. But nothing helped the greyness that suffocated me without meth.
Not the bottle of whiskey I'd found hidden in the bushes, sucking back the few drops of amber liquid at the bottom. Or the submarine sandwich some girl had handed me out of her car window. Everything was dull. A flat line.
Storm wanted to run. She tugged on the leash. The gauze was dirty, bits of grass and sand had gotten tangled in the fabric. We'd spent the last two nights in the park, hiding from the park police who patrolled. It was getting colder at night. I'd hugged Storm against me, shivering in my jacket and unable to sleep.
Storm strained at the gauze, her front paws pedalling in mid-air. “What is it?” I asked, annoyed. Standing up, I let her lead me but had to run to keep up with her. Her breath came in jagged gasps in her determination to get somewhere.
She led me to a clump of bushes, where a dog, still on its leash, was tangled up inside. I rubbed Storm's head and crawled in. The dog barked at me. “Don't be scared,” I said softly. He tried to move backwards into the bush, away from me, but the branches wouldn't let him. I kept talking as I untangled his leash, finally pulling him out. Burrs and leaves were all over his coat and I wondered how long he'd been trapped in there.
The new dog had a silver tag in the shape of a heart:
and a phone number.
It took some convincing to get the park office to let me use their phone. The woman at the front desk shot me a horrified look when I walked in. Without the smells and noises of outside, I was exposed. Conspicuous inside an office with carpet and furniture, I itched to get back outside.
“It's just to call the owner,” I told her, trying to control my temper. “I found her dog.” The woman didn't know what to do and called security.
“If I had any change, I'd use a pay phone,” I mumbled. “But I don't.” The security guy stood over me as I dialled, two dogs at my feet sniffing each other's butts.