9. Today – Watch It Burn


i

Will holds Charlie’s arms behind his back and jerks them upward. Pain explodes in Charlie’s shoulders and he clenches his jaw to keep from crying out. He doesn’t want to give them that satisfaction. Not Will, and especially not that bastard Jed, who is standing with his hands in his pockets, wearing a satisfied, sadistic grin. If he had any, Charlie would bet money that this is giving him a hard-on.

“What did you tell her?” Jed asks. His voice is so low that it is nearly drowned out by the noises of the party on the other side of the tree line. People who might be able to help him are so close, but they might as well be a million miles away. Even if someone heard him, he doubts they would cross Jed.

Charlie spits blood onto the sand, narrowly avoiding Jed’s bare foot. “I already told you, Jed, I didn’t tell Northrop a goddamn thing!” He struggles to free himself from Will’s iron grip, but they both know it’s useless. Charlie wishes he’d stayed home.

Jed grabs Charlie by the chin and holds his face steady. “I don’t believe you.” Years of quarterbacking have turned Jed’s arm into a machine. The punch that jackhammers the breath from Charlie is as devastating as the first one. “I can do this all night, Charlie. All. Night. Long.” He pulls a flask from his back pocket and takes a swig. It’s cheap whiskey. Jed’s breath is rancid with it.

“Just tell him,” Will says in his ear, though it sounds to Charlie as if he almost hopes he won’t.

As Jed pulls back his fist for another punch, Rob stumbles into the clearing, his shirt stained with sweat and a feverish hue clinging to his cheeks. “What the fuck’s going on here?” He falls to the sand and ends up on his hands and knees, laughing in short, staccato bursts that like fireworks in the night sky.

Jed swears under his breath and yanks Rob to his feet. “Get it together, Langdon.”

Rob shakes Jed off and nearly falls again, but he manages to keep his balance. Barely. “You’re not the boss of me. You’re not the boss. Boss…” Rob says the word over and over, the sounds becoming alien the more he repeats them.

“Jesus Christ.” Jed takes a deep breath. He cracks his knuckles one at a time. Charlie recognizes the signs of Jed’s growing frustration. “Will, get him the fuck out of here.”

Will grips Charlie’s arms tighter. “What should I do with him? He’s fucking plastered.”

“Lock him in your trunk until he sobers up,” Jed says. “Just get him out of here.”

“You’re lucky,” Will says into Charlie’s ear. He wrenches Charlie’s arms one last time before letting him go and leading Rob from the clearing by the collar. Rob doesn’t resist. Whether he knows it or not, Rob has helped Charlie even the odds.

Charlie waits until Will and Rob are gone to speak. He doesn’t consider trying to run away. If his legs had been one hundred percent he still wouldn’t have been able to outrun Jed, but the bones still ached and his muscles were still atrophied. It wouldn’t be much of a chase. Instead, he shakes out his arms, working the feeling back into them.

“Rob ain’t looking so hot,” Charlie says. “The other night he was laying in the middle of the road outside of your dad’s bar.”

Jed takes another swig from his flask as he paces a circle in the sand. “You know what I like about you, Charlie?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “You take whatever shit people throw at you. You just absorb it and never let it get to you.”

“I didn’t say anything to Northrop,” Charlie says.

If Jed hears him, he doesn’t show it. “Take Robbie. That blubbery bastard shows up at my window in the middle of the night, crying and going on about how he can’t live with what we did.”

Charlie tries to find an exit, a way out of this, but with Jed, the only way out is through. “You.”

“What?”

“What you did.”

“You were there.” Jed smiles. “That makes you guilty too.”

Charlie wonders what it would feel like to kneel on Jed’s chest and punch him until his mouth is so full of blood and broken teeth that he chokes on them and never says another word again. The way the shadows play in the clearing, he almost believes he can see the blood. But that’s just his imagination…the lack of sleep. He hasn’t slept a wink since the seizure. Every time he closes his eyes, he fears it’ll be the last time.

“You know what the difference between you and me is?” Jed asks.

“I have a conscience?”

Jed shakes his head. “I know the truth about the world.”

“You do,” Charlie says sarcastically.

“Oh yeah.” Jed relaxes a bit. His smile is easy and the air around him seems alive. Jed always said could shape reality around him and make people believe that anything was possible. Charlie used to believe in Jed when he’d lead them to battle on the football field. Charlie was one of the faithful. But not anymore.

“We’re it, Charlie. The pinnacle of humanity.” Jed stops pacing and stands still in front of his audience of one. “Rules, laws, they don’t apply to people like you and me. We can do anything we want and no one can stop us.”

Charlie wants to roll his eyes, but he has to keep Jed talking until he works out a way to escape. Right now, Jed is capable of anything. This whole speech might end with a whimper, or Jed might decide that Charlie is a liability and do whatever it takes to make sure he doesn’t talk. “Eventually, everyone’s got to face the music.”

“Not me,” Jed says. “And not you either if you could just let go and enjoy life a little.”

“What about heaven? What about God?” Charlie spots two dark shadows behind Jed and hopes that they’ll come his way so that he can escape, but they head toward the lake. “You can’t cheat death. When you die, you’ll be held accountable for your sins.”

Jed shakes his head and chuckles. “You’re so small-minded. Do you really think God would have put someone like me on this earth if he didn’t intend for me to be the best that I could be? Does God punish the lion for killing? Does he hold the shark accountable for all the fish he eats? No. Because he built them to be the best that they could be. I’m just following God’s plan for me.”

“Animals don’t have souls. They don’t know any better. You do. Or you should, anyway.”

It is a long minute before Jed says anything else. When he does, Charlie doesn’t miss the disappointment in Jed’s voice. “One of these days, you’re going to have to make a choice, brother. You’re a predator or you’re prey.”

“You’re gonna pay for what happened to Theo,” Charlie says.

Jed smiles, the predator indeed. “No. I won’t. God only punishes the weak. People like you.” He takes another swig and cracks his knuckles. “Now, tell me what you told Northrop.”

ii

Charlie sits at the edge of the water, holding the edge of his shirt to his nose. A bonfire burns brightly in the distance and a country twang blasts from a radio. It’s bacchanalian, the sort of thing Theo would have loved, but Charlie isn’t in the mood to party. And anyway, Jed’s still there.

In the end, Charlie told Jed everything that he’d said to Deputy Northrop, including the fact that she’d found his digital watch on Theo’s body. That had made Jed laugh. The idea that Northrop was trying to pin Theo’s death on Charlie was hilarious to Jed. Finally he got tired of beating up Charlie and went back to the party. Charlie didn’t want to stay, but there was nothing for him at home.

“Want some company?” Lily Wolfe sits down beside Charlie without waiting for his answer, like she’s anticipating an invitation despite the fact that company is the last thing Charlie wants. “Damn, look at you.”

“It’s nothing.” Charlie tries to avoid her hands as she turns his head to the side to take stock of his injuries.

“Lucky your nose isn’t broken,” she says.

Charlie’s eye is already beginning to swell shut, but it’s his stomach and ribs that hurt the worst. Jed knows the best spots to punch to inflict the most damage without leaving a mark. The black eye and split lip weren’t for Charlie’s benefit; they were a message to anyone else who might cross him.

“How have you been?” Lily asks.

“Great. Really.”

Lily slaps Charlie’s arm and giggles. “You always make me laugh.”

“I wasn’t trying to.” Charlie dabs at his nose with his shirt again, but the bleeding has mostly stopped.

“I know. But still.” Lily looks straight out over the water. “Is all that stuff they’re saying about you…is it true?”

Charlie knows exactly what stuff she’s referring to, but it’s the last thing he wants to talk about. “Lily–”

“I know we were never a thing, but I didn’t think you were like that.” Lily glances at Charlie out of the corner of her eye. “With Theo, I mean.”

Between the beating he took and the awkwardness of having this discussion with Jed’s sister, Charlie wishes he’d never come to the party. “It’s complicated.”

Lily shrugged. “Not really. Were you sleeping with Theo?”

“I was.”

“See?” Lily touches Charlie’s cheek, where it’s bruised. He winces. “Did Jed do that to you?” Charlie nods. “Why?”

Charlie doesn’t know how much Lily remembers from prom and doesn’t want to say anything he’ll regret, so he says, “Because your brother’s an asshole, that’s why.”

There’s a moment when Charlie thinks that Lily is going to defend Jed, but it passes and she just nods a little. “Why’d you come here? After what happened at school, I figured this is the last place you’d come.”

Even before what happened to Theo, Charlie wasn’t a party person, but he was wherever Jed was. Jed, Charlie, Will, and Rob. They were a foursome, always together. Things are different now. Like at the lunch table, he no longer belongs.

“I don’t know.” Charlie starts to stand up. “I should go home.”

As he gets to his feet, wincing with pain, Lily stands too. Her shirt reveals her flat, pale stomach. She brushes her hand along Charlie’s arm. “You can tell people you were confused,” she says. “We had some good times together.”

Charlie puts distance between then. “Never gonna happen.”

Lily shrugs. “Can I give you a ride home?” Charlie isn’t sure whether this is some kind of ploy, but the thought of having to walk all the way home makes his body ache.

“Sure. And thanks.”

“Anytime, Charlie.” She pauses and says. “Not all Wolfes are assholes.” She walks to her car without another word, and Charlie runs to catch up.

iii

Charlie waits until Lily is gone before trying the door. It’s locked. He can’t remember the last time that his mother locked the door to their trailer. It’s not as if there’s anything in it worth stealing. Charlie tugs on the handle, cursing under his breath.

“Mom?” Charlie bangs on the door.

The windows are dark and he doesn’t hear anyone moving around inside, but the car is sitting in the driveway, leaking oil into the grass, so he knows his mother has got to be inside. Charlie looks at his wrist, forgetting that his watch is gone. Theo was the last person to touch it. A shudder tears through him, shaking his bones.

“Mom!” Charlie bangs on the door so hard that he skins his knuckles on the wood. “Mom, let me in!”

A light flicks on in the front of the trailer but the door remains shut. “Go away, Charlie.” His mother’s voice is slurred and slow.

Charlie pulls at the door, trying to force it open. “Come on, Mom, let me in.”

“I can’t take anymore, Charlie.” The light goes out. He thinks he hears his mother crying, but can’t be sure.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Charlie says, but his mother doesn’t answer. Charlie thinks back to the times he went camping with Seth and wishes he had that tent. But that’s at Jed’s house. Charlie tries to think of where he can stay the night, but he hasn’t got any more friends, no one to take him in. There’s one place, but he doesn’t think he can bring himself to go there.

The half-moon disappears behind some clouds, and Charlie leans against the door, too tired to cry, too hurt to care what his mother is going through. He knows this is all his fault, but he can’t deal with it right now.

After twenty minutes sitting outside, Charlie gets up and walks around to the back of the trailer and climbs up through his bedroom window. He slices open his fingers on a bit of metal poking out of the window frame, but doesn’t let it deter him. It was easier when he was younger and could slide right through the window, but back then he’d had to stand on a bucket to reach, so there was that. As quietly as he can, Charlie stuffs a change of clothes into a pillow case and grabs his guitar. The moment he touches the smooth neck, his muscles unravel and he knows that everything will be all right.

He hears his mother moving around outside his door, so Charlie slips out the way he came and disappears into the night.

iv

The key is where Theo left it, behind a loose brick near the basement door. Theo was probably the last person to touch that brick, and Charlie’s hand hovers over it as he tries to picture what Theo would have looked like the last time he stood here. It’s been so damn long since Charlie has seen Theo look like anything other than the boy dripping wet, that he can hardly think of him any other way. But that’s not what Theo used to look like. Theo was vibrant, alive. He was practically a light source all on his own.

Charlie shivers in the heat, wondering if Theo lingers even when Charlie is not playing his song. It’s a question he thinks of often. One he’s not sure he’ll ever get an answer to. Maybe others would be creeped out by the idea of someone hanging around, watching them all the time, but Charlie is comforted by it, even if it’s not true.

A drop of blood hits the sidewalk and pulls Charlie from his memory. His nose is bleeding again. Charlie puts his hand to his nostrils while fumbling with the brick for the key. It’s there, and Charlie uses it to let himself into the basement.

It smells like Pop Tarts and mildew down here. Even without the lights, Charlie knows right where to go. Theo’s bedroom was upstairs but he spent most of his time in the basement. There’s a couch against a wood-paneled wall, and a big TV that he’d rescued from the side of the road. The picture was always a little blurry, but it worked well enough. The damn thing weighed more than Theo had, and Charlie could never figure out how Theo had gotten it home. Theo always laughed when Charlie asked him, and said that he had superhuman strength.

Only half of the basement belongs…belonged to Theo. His mother uses the other half for her crafts. She embroiders things. Everything. She puts Bible verses on them. And not the nice, sweet, Jesusy kind from the New Testament. Mrs. Jackson is hardcore. At the flea market every weekend, she sits in her little booth selling pillows that say shit like, “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death.” That one’s always a big seller.

But the basement feels like no one has been in it for ages. Charlie can’t explain it, but the walls feel lonely. They remember Theo and they send tendrils probing out into the empty paces, looking for him, but find no one. It’s not just the basement though, it’s the whole house. The walls, the doors, the very foundation misses Theo. This house is not a home without him, and Charlie wonders how the Jacksons have survived.

Charlie stands in the doorway for a long while, he loses track of time. There are so many memories of Theo here. Of him and Theo. Of them together. They overwhelm him. Rushing him. Drowning him. The ground shivers and tears itself apart. Charlie holds onto the wall, bracing himself for an earthquake that only he can feel. But it never comes.

“This was a bad idea,” Charlie whispers. He turns to leave but can’t. There’s too much night outside and nowhere for him to go. Resolutely, Charlie enters the basement, closing the door behind him and closes his eyes. He’s inside. Theo was here too.

But he’s not anymore.

The only people in this house are Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, asleep upstairs. And they’re the last people he wants to see.

Charlie wonders, as he has so many times before, how he came to this point. How he got here. It wasn’t so long ago that Charlie and Theo were eating McDonalds in Luther and swinging from the rope into the river and making so many plans for the future. So many plans. They were going to travel the world hunting for new words. Charlie was finally going to escape and be the man he wanted to be. No more hiding, no more pretending. He was going to love Theo in the open. He convinced Theo that they just had to lay low for a little while longer. A couple of years at most. Then…

Then nothing.

And now Theo is dead and everyone in Blackpool thinks Charlie is a freak and he spends every spare moment he can singing songs to bring Theo back from the dead, killing animals in the process and doing God-knows-what-else. Maybe none of this would have happened if Charlie had just said yes to Theo one of the hundred times he’d pleaded for them to go public with their relationship. That’s the nightmare that plagues Charlie. Not what happened on prom night, but all the what-ifs that could have taken its place. Maybe, right now, Charlie would still be in Theo’s basement, sneaking in after curfew, only maybe Theo would be with him and they’d promise to go to sleep but would instead spend the whole night kissing and holding hands and whispering secrets to each other across the unquiet darkness.

Charlie puts down his guitar, stumbles to the couch, and falls onto it. The cushions squeak under him, and he groans in pain. Every muscle aches. Every muscle screams out in pain. But it’s nothing compared to the pain in his heart. Charlie digs his fingers into the cushions and touches something soft. He tugs at it. It’s one of Theo’s shirts. It still has the smell of him. The sharp, acid smell of Theo. A million pictures flash through Charlie’s memory when he smells it, and he presses the shirt hard to his nose, ignoring the bleeding and pain, to gather as much Theo into him as he can.

It’s too dark to know what shirt it is for sure, but Charlie can guess. He breathes in so deeply that Theo fills his nostrils, releasing the memories from the place in his brain where he hid them.

In the dark, Charlie reaches for his guitar but stops short. He pulls his hand back and curls up on the couch with the shirt. He doesn’t need to see Theo to know that he’s here.

v

Mr. Jackson is staring at Charlie when he opens his eyes. It’s the first time he’s really slept in months, and it takes a moment for his brain to comprehend where he is and what is happening. He bolts up and begins to babble. The words fall from his mouth and he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Panic is all there is.

Without uttering a word, Mr. Jackson hands Charlie a dish towel wrapped around some loose ice cubes. Charlie doesn’t know what to do, so he takes the ice and holds it up to his eye. He can barely see out of the right one. The ice is a welcome balm.

“I never liked you,” Mr. Jackson says.

“I didn’t mean…I shouldn’t have…I had nowhere else to go.”

Mr. Jackson’s face is stone. Charlie only met him a couple of times, and this is the most Theo’s father has ever said to him.

“Sometimes I sit here and feel like Theodore is going to walk right through the door.” Mr. Jackson looks at the door, which Charlie didn’t shut all the way. “He never does.”

Charlie can’t help wondering if he knows about Northrop and the watch. “I should leave.”

Mr. Jackson nods. “Leave. Leave town. Leave Blackpool. Leave Tennessee. Just leave and don’t ever come back.”

Charlie doesn’t need any more encouragement to get up and grab his guitar. He keeps the shirt, hoping Mr. Jackson won’t notice. When he gets to the door, he stops. He’s about to say something but Mr. Jackson beats him to it. “Leave before you end up like Theo,” he says. “You’re the only thing left in this world that reminds me of him, and I can’t bear to see you gone too.”

vi

Thought he isn’t on the schedule at the Waffle Barn, Charlie shows up and helps Roy through the morning rush anyway. Customers stare at him and whisper after he leaves their table, pretending that he can’t hear them when they know for a fact that he can. But Charlie ignores them this morning. He ignores everything. He focuses on taking orders and carrying food-laden plates to their tables and cleaning off the empty dishes and refilling endless cups off coffee. Before he knows it, it’s after eleven, and he slips out the back door without telling Roy.

Audrey’s house is in a part of town that Charlie rarely visits and he repeats her address over in his head to make sure he doesn’t forget it.

Kennedy Estates is little more than a cluster of houses at the end of town. It’s the last group that you pass on your way to the highway. The lawns are neatly trimmed and the houses painted in bright colors. There are kids riding their bikes on the street and chasing each other around, still done up in their Sunday best. Rumpled suits and pink dresses that are now grass stained.

Charlie walks quickly down the road trying to act like he doesn’t know he doesn’t belong. He is struck that this is likely how Theo felt all the time. Dogged by the feeling of being apart when all he wanted was so desperately to fit in.

The house at 860 Voltaire is small but inviting. Before he even gets to the driveway he hears the music. It is muted but so very alive. This is not the music that Charlie sings for Theo. This music is spun from youth. From the desire to burn things down just because. For a moment, Charlie just stands in the street listening to the music. He closes his eyes and lets the notes and the words suffuse his being. It has been so long since he’s listened to and really heard any music but his own, and for the briefest second, it reminds him that there is still a world outside of Blackpool. It reminds him that Theo didn’t die for everyone.

But then Mr. Jackson’s face invades his thoughts and Charlie remembers everything. Theo, that night, why he’s really here. It would be so easy to walk away. Even easier to walk in and play their songs, leave Theo wherever he is. But that’s not going to happen. Charlie has to bring Theo back. He has to.

A car honks its horn and Charlie stumbles toward the sidewalk. The garage door rolls open and Audrey is standing there, holding her own guitar, frowning at Charlie as if she’s forgotten she invited him.

“You’re late.”

“I had to walk.”

“So?” Audrey turns her back and says something that Charlie can’t hear to the other guys. He vaguely recognizes the lanky kid behind the drums and the guy on bass has one of those familiar faces that seems to imply that God occasionally reuses the same mold.

Charlie isn’t sure whether Audrey is inviting him in or telling him to leave, but he’s already come all this way and there’s no chance in hell that he’s leaving. Charlie walks up the driveway and into the garage. It smells like clove cigarettes and sticky, summer sweat. Audrey doesn’t bother closing the garage door. A couple of the kids who’d been riding their bikes, gather on the sidewalk in front of the house.

“Marco,” the guy behind the drums says. He nods with his chin and that’s about it. He’s got a faraway look in his eyes like he’s perpetually living five seconds ahead of every conversation.

“Charlie—”

“No one cares,” the guy on bass says. “Can we just play?”

Audrey shoots him a dark look. “Don’t be a dick, Trip.” She looks at Charlie. “What happened to you?”

Charlie did his best to clean up in the bathroom at the Barn, but water can’t wash away bruises. “I just want to play.”

For a second, Charlie thinks Audrey is going to yell at him or tell him to get lost, but she finally nods and says, “We’ll start. Come in when you think you’ve got it.”

Without hesitation, Audrey steps up to the mic and begins to play. The song isn’t quite country, but it isn’t quite anything else either. It is a song about driving to nowhere on an empty tank of gas. The lyrics are nothing special, but Audrey’s voice certainly is. She surprises Charlie with a deep, rich timbre and a level of control that’s surreal. Audrey climbs up and down the notes, filling the garage with them. Trip fills in with his bass and Marco pounds out a utilitarian beat on the drums. But neither of the boys really matter. It’s all about Audrey. She’s the soul.

Charlie doesn’t remember turning his guitar around, but before he knows it, he’s plucking at the strings, playing alongside Audrey. He doesn’t know the verses, but he joins in on the second chorus, his tenor sliding in and around Audrey’s smooth voice. It’s like a dance, the way their voices join and separate, supporting the other and coming dangerously close to clashing but never doing so.

When the song ends, the only thing Audrey says is, “Again,” and they launch into the song a second time. This time, Charlie knows the words. Their buried in his fingers, and he sings alongside of Audrey like he’s been singing with her his whole life. Charlie closes his eyes as they launch into the chorus and he feels the words. They’re more than lyrics to a song. They’re part of Audrey’s story. Part of who she is. And Charlie sings his heart out for her.

On the last chorus, Charlie opens his eyes. He hopes to see Theo but he isn’t here. There are the kids on the sidewalk who have been joined by some adults. Audrey is there, watching Charlie out of the corner of her eyes. But Theo is nowhere to be found. Charlie doesn’t even feel him. His heart sinks.

“Whoa,” Marco says when the song ends. “So like, he’s definitely in, right?”

“Your hand.” Audrey points down at Charlie’s fingers. They’re dripping blood. Blood coats the strings and has stained the leg of his jeans.

Charlie doesn’t feel the throb until Audrey points it out, and now the tips of his fingers where he’d cut them climbing through his bedroom window are on fire. “Shit.”

“Take five, guys.” Audrey pulls Charlie off to the side and sits him down on a wooden stool beside a workbench. She glares at the people hanging out in front of her house and shouts, “Don’t make me get the hose!” The kids scatter as Audrey runs inside.

Trip stands his bass against the wall. “Where’d you learn to play like that?”

Charlie shrugs.

“I’m Trip. Lawrence Kell the Third, but I fucking hate the name Lawrence.” He holds out his hand.

“Charlie Hudson.” He looks at the hand and grimaces at his own.

Marco chugs a soda and drums in the air while staring in Charlie’s direction. “You’re that guy,” he says. “The journal guy.”

Charlie’s fist tightens and he prepares to leave. He is saved by Audrey who slams the door behind her, carrying a box of Band-Aids and peroxide. “Leave him alone, Marco.”

“Just asking.”

“Don’t.”

Marco shrugs and drops it. Audrey sets to cleaning Charlie’s fingers with peroxide and cotton balls. It stings, but Charlie hardly notices.

“You hear about the hospital in Knoxville?” Marco asks.

Trip is on his cell phone, scrolling through messages. He doesn’t look up but says, “What about it?”

Marco looks at each of them in turn, his eyes wide. “The dead babies?”

Audrey rolls her eyes and starts putting the Band-Aids on Charlie’s fingers. “What are you blabbing about?”

“Yesterday? All the babies at some hospital in Knoxville? Do none of you watch the news?”

Trip slides his phone into his pocket. “Some of us are too busy getting girls and having sex to bother with the news. Luckily we have you.”

“Please,” says Audrey. “The only girls you’re getting with are pay-by-the-hour.”

“You wish.”

Charlie doesn’t take his eyes off of Marco. “What about them?” he asks.

Marco pulls out his own cell phone and punches something up on the touch screen. “All the babies born yesterday were stillborn.” He hands Charlie the phone. “Not a single live birth for twenty-four hours.”

There it is on the screen. Charlie skims the article. Authorities thought there was some kind of toxin in the air but nothing was found. Perfectly normal births resulting in stillborn children. Bile rises in Charlie’s throat. He returns the phone.

“It’s the end of the world,” Audrey says.

“What?” Charlie asks.

Audrey shrugs. “Dead animals, people living who should’ve died, people dying who should’ve lived? I thought it was just Blackpool, but if it’s happening in Luther and Knoxville, maybe it’s the end of the world.” She’s dead serious. Her face is stone. But then she starts laughing and slaps Charlie on the shoulder. “You white boys are so gullible. Now let’s get back to practicing. Momma will have a fit if we go past two.”

They all gravitate back to their instruments but there’s something new in the air. A pall. Audrey may have been joking, but Charlie can’t help feel the seriousness of her words. Maybe it is the end of the world. And maybe it’s his fault.

“Wanna try Red Light again?” Audrey asks.

Charlie touches his fingers to his guitar. They’re still sticky with his blood. “Can we try one of my songs?”

Audrey looks at the boys who just shrug. “Sure. Start playing and we’ll join in.”

The song doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s one of Theo’s favorites. Charlie doesn’t even have to think about the notes or the words anymore. His fingers just play. The Band-Aids get in his way so he pulls them off quickly. From the first note on, things feel different. Charlie feels Theo. But he can’t see him.

Charlie plays through the first verse, willing Theo to appear. Pouring his heart and soul and blood into the song. But nothing. No Theo.

Marco joins in on the second verse. Trip soon after. Audrey waits until the second chorus, but when she does, everything shifts.

Theo appears in the drive way, bright as sunlight. He’s still wet, still dripping with mud and his red hair is still stuck in patches to his forehead, but he’s clearer than Charlie has ever seen him. Charlie nearly stops playing, but manages to hang on. If the others can see him, they say nothing.

When the song ends, Charlie falls to his knees at Theo’s feet and begins to cry.

Audrey and the others watch him in silence.

They may not see Theo, but they know they’ve witnessed something amazing.

Audrey kneels down beside Charlie and hands him another rag for his fingers. “Don’t be late next time.”

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