When he was five, Charlie Hudson became friends with a boy named Hank Lundy. The Lundy’s had lived next door for years, though Charlie hadn’t known Hank existed until the day Mr. Hudson left and never returned. Charlie rarely speaks of his father, though he thinks of him often enough. He wonders if things might have been different if he’d stayed, or maybe taken him and Seth along when he vanished.
Not that it matters. Isaac Hudson is never returning to Blackpool, and that’s a fact.
Hank Lundy, however, never left. He was exactly the friend Charlie needed at exactly the time he needed it. For years they were inseparable. They played infantry men tunneling under enemy lands; secret agents infiltrating a megalomaniacal fiend’s secret underground compound; they were daredevils and superheroes and pirates on the open seas, floating along in the carefree, lawlessness of youth, their imaginations the only limit to the long stretches of endless days.
Up to that point, Seth had been Charlie’s only real friend. But Seth became, as most older brothers eventually do, fiercely uninterested in any of his baby brother’s games. Maybe if the gap in their ages hadn’t been so wide; or if Mrs. Hudson hadn’t hurt her back in the accident; or if Isaac Hudson had never left Blackpool, Charlie would have seen what Hank was becoming before it was too late to stop it.
It started with small things. Lizards, mostly. Hank dug trenches in the ground–narrow ditches with smooth walls that tilted inward–into which he would release lizards he’d spent the morning collecting. Sometimes he would rain death from above, lobbing sharp rocks at his prisoners as they scrambled desperately about, searching for freedom. Sometimes he would soak the dirt at the bottom of the trench in lighter fluid and watch the lizards burn. Sometimes he buried them alive. Young Charlie was awed by the creative ways Hank Lundy devised to kill his tiny, cold-blooded prey.
He was less impressed the first time he witnessed Hank kill a cat.
They were sneaking through the dump, foraging for anything that looked worth having, when a small gray thing streaked across their path; a crazed animal on a mad dash to elsewhere. Charlie was surprised but not bothered–wild animals and strays were common–but Hank let loose a ferocious war cry and gave chase without so much as a thought for his companion. It was hot and Charlie wasn’t in the mood to run. He followed Hank, though he lacked his friend’s inexplicable enthusiasm. When he finally caught up, Hank was standing over the gray creature, swinging a piece of bent rebar the way a lumberjack would swing an ax to chop wood. Hank grunted with the effort of it, but didn’t make another sound otherwise.
On the walk home, Hank told Charlie he’d thought it was a raccoon. There’d been a rabies scare a few weeks earlier, he explained, and it was better to be safe than sorry. Charlie didn’t believe Hank; there was no way he could have mistaken that scrawny gray cat for a raccoon unless he had suddenly gone blind and a little stupid.
Still, they’d been friends for years. Sixth grade was only a few weeks away, and Charlie didn’t want to start middle school friendless.
When people’s dogs began to go missing in seventh grade, Charlie knew it was Hank. His friend had begun to pull away from him, happier spending time by himself, doing things Charlie thought it best not to imagine. Only, he imagined them anyway. He had no choice. His dreams were plagued by the sight of the bloody, beaten cat in the dump. He woke up screaming in the dark, his nightmares infested with visions of Hank skinning Mr. Gentry’s sweet old dog Scrapper with his Swiss Army knife. Scrapper had gone missing a week earlier, and though he didn’t have proof Hank had taken him, he knew it in his gut. Seth drove him to the Sheriff’s department and Charlie gave his statement to the police. Two days later, they found dug up the carcasses of a dozen pets buried behind the Lundy’s trailer, not ten feet from Charlie’s own. Charlie’s dreams had been grim; this was worse. Two days after that, Hank Lundy stabbed a girl in the neck with a pencil. He didn’t make a sound then either. Nor as the police led him away.
Charlie began to suspect that he was responsible for killing the animals in Blackpool, when a murder of crows fell dead around his trailer seconds after he finished singing for Theo. The tiny, feathered things formed a near-perfect ring around the outside of his home. For a while, people thought the deaths were the result of a disease or parasite. Scientists were dispatched and tests were run, but no cause could be determined. It was like death had simply come along and extinguished the fragile spark of life. There were no signs of pain, no signs of suffering. One minute they were alive, and the next they were not.
Off like a light switch.
After the birds, Charlie locked up his guitar for two weeks. Animals stopped dying, confirming what he already knew: every time Charlie played his guitar for Theo, something died. For the first time in years, he thought about Hank Lundy. He wondered if Hank’s first kill had been difficult, how he lived with the crushing guilt, and if it ever got easier.
In the end, Charlie’s need to see Theo overrode his moral objections. If animals had to die to make the miracle possible, so be it. He wasn’t Hank, he didn’t enjoy death. And he reasoned that he wasn’t directly killing them. There was no blood on his hands. They were simply casualties of the war Charlie was waging against the hollow dark of forever. Such rationalizations helped, though Charlie knew, even if he repressed it, that what he was doing was unnatural and that, one day, there would be a reckoning.
But each time he played his guitar, every time he saw Theo’s beautiful face, Charlie found he cared less and less about the consequences to come.
Charlie holds the photograph over his face, staring at it and trying to use the angle to determine from where the picture was taken. It’d been over a week since he’d found the picture in his Calculus book, but he was no closer to discovering who had planted it. He is less concerned about the threat of being gutted than he is about the fact that someone might expose his relationship with Theo.
The picture is dotted with his fingerprints. Charlie tries to enter the static image, to go back in time to that night, and undo all the dark days that have passed since this picture was taken and imagine all the might-have-beens that could take their place. But reality is frozen, time is locked. This frame, this image of Charlie and Theo stealing precious seconds alone together, will forever and ever be.
Charlie remembers the night. Remembers how Theo’s tux smelled like rain. And how it rustled softly when he walked. How Theo grinned the whole night long. How happy he looked on the ballroom dance floor with Minnie Reynolds in her garish gown sewn from bits of plaid she’d spent months collecting, while Charlie suffered at a table with Jed and Will and Rob and their dates. He was so enthralled with Theo that he hardly remembers a single word Lily Wolfe said to him.
But while he was watching Theo, someone was watching him, and Charlie needs to know who.
The plywood door to Charlie’s room eases open, and his mother fills the space between. She looks thinner than yesterday. Yesterday, she looked thinner than the day before that. Tragedy is the cancer that is devouring her. One son in prison, another just plain stupid. Charlie knows he is the root of her problems and that she would have been better of if he’d died in the crash on Deereborne, but he can not allow his guilt to flower or it will suffocate him.
“Dr. Echols called,” Mrs. Hudson says. “You missed your appointment again?” Her voice reminds Charlie of flat soda.
Charlie lays the picture on his bare chest. Even shirtless and with the tiny hole he calls a window wide to the night, he is sweaty. “Mary made me stay late again. Bedpans needed emptying.”
Mrs. Hudson swears. Charlie got his mouth from his mother and neither makes any apology for it. “Tell that woman that if she keeps you late again, I’m going to come down there and stuff her into a bedpan.”
It’s no use explaining to his mother that Mary holds his future in her gnarled hands. One word from her could ruin everything. The best Charlie can do is keep his head low and follow Mary’s rules, no matter how much he despises it. But he nods to his mother anyway and that seems to satisfy her. “Leg doesn’t hurt so much anymore, anyway.” Which is mostly a lie. Charlie’s leg aches less than it did, and he walks normally most of the time, but it will never be right again.
“Sorry I didn’t make dinner.”
“There were leftovers.”
“Were?” Mrs. Hudson asks. She grins half-heartedly.
Charlie shrugs. “Don’t worry, I already regret eating them.” He rubs his stomach.
Mrs. Hudson fakes shock, putting her hand to her mouth. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“I wasn’t sure whether you’d made meatloaf or accidentally put my football in the oven.”
“Oh, nice. Is that how you treat your mother? I work all day to pay the bills and then come home and slave over a stove. For what? For you. My beloved son. And this is the thanks I get.” Mrs. Hudson smiles as she leans against the doorframe. It is the longest conversation they have had in days.
Charlie chuckles but it is forced. Though she will never say it, he knows that she works tirelessly because of him. To pay for the damage he caused. To pay for the ambulance and the hospital stay and the surgeries that saved his life.
“How’s your back?”
Mrs. Hudson stands up straight and raises her arms over her head, brushing the ceiling tiles with her painted fingernails. “Better every day.” Charlie can not tell whether this is the truth or the truth his mother wants to believe. Though he is thankful that she has stopped taking her narcotics, he worries about her.
“What’s that?” Charlie’s mother points at the picture on his chest. It is still face up but his hand covers most of Theo. “Is that from prom? Can I see?” She reaches forward to take the picture, but Charlie snaps it out of reach.
“I don’t have any pictures of you in your tuxedo, and that thing wasn’t cheap.” Though Charlie is sure his mother meant it as a joke, he doesn’t miss the dig. The ruined tux is one of the many bills his mother works to pay off on his behalf.
“I said, it’s nothing.”
Mrs. Hudson pulls back to the doorway, pouting and angry. “Any special girl you’re thinking about taking to prom this year?”
Charlie relaxes everything but his grip on the picture. “Prom’s not for months, ma.”
“Fine,” Mrs. Hudson says, holding up her hands. “Just so long as you don’t take the Wolfe girl again.”
“Promise,” Charlie says.
Mrs. Hudson lingers in the doorway. She has so much more to say, so many questions that remain unanswered. Part of Charlie wishes that she’d ask him about that night, ask him about Theo, ask him anything other than what he wants for dinner. He would tell her if she asked. He is dying to tell her–and not because he feels guilty or thinks that knowing the truth it will make everything between them a little better–but because she is his mother and, though he does everything he can to hide the truth from her, he wants her to know it. To know him. She doesn’t ask though. She never asks.
“You seen your brother lately?”
“I’m thinking of heading out there tomorrow.”
Mrs. Hudson nods. “Don’t stay up too late.” Defeated, she closes the door behind her.
Charlie waits until his mother’s heavy footsteps fade before looking at the picture again. When he can’t bear it any more, he stuffs it under his pillow and turns out the light. As soon as he closes his eyes, it is dawn again.
The pizza looks particularly yellow under the glower of the ancient heat lamps. The baked chicken looks even less appetizing. Charlie slides his tray down the line, careful not to bump into the girls in front of him, and snags an apple and a bag of chips. It’s not much of a lunch, but it strains the scarce supply of cash in his pocket. The pizza would be cheaper, but he’d pay for it later on, likely during sixth period.
As Charlie shuffles up to the cashier, a stern older woman with unnaturally straight teeth, Will Asendorf reaches over his shoulder and drops a plate of chicken and rice onto his tray.
“Add that,” Will says. He claps Charlie on the back and smiles. Unlike Jed, Will has both looks and skills. Handsome and suave, there isn’t a girl at JD who hasn’t daydreamed about having a go at him, and that includes most of the teachers.
Charlie digs into his pocket for his money. Three dollars. Not nearly enough for the lot of it. He hands the bills to the cashier who frowns at him. “Just the chicken,” he says.
“Good man.” Will picks up his plate and says, “Come on then,” before heading toward his table.
Empty-handed, Charlie leaves the apple and chips with the cashier but doesn’t immediately follow Will.
Theo used to say that lunch was the scariest part of the day. More terrifying than gym. Back then, Charlie didn’t understand why, but he understands now. He feels like prey, like he is separated from his pack, in mortal danger of being picked off by someone stronger, faster, deadlier than himself. Charlie feels the eyes of everyone watching him, waiting to see where he will go. Before, he wouldn’t have hesitated to follow Will, but everything is different now.
Will takes his usual seat at their usual table. Rob is already there. He looks worse than he did the night Charlie helped him home. He’d shown up to school the next morning with a busted lip. Jed is suspiciously absent, and a cursory sweep of the cafeteria doesn’t turn him up. It’s not that Charlie wasn’t invited to sit at their table at the beginning of the year–Jed hadn’t disinvited him–he simply didn’t feel welcome, doesn’t feel like he belongs to their group anymore, or if he even wants to.
The longer he stands in the middle of the room, the more people whisper and stare. Charlie hears all their voices, all their accusations. Maybe the person who took the picture is in the cafeteria right now, watching him, waiting for the perfect moment to carve a hole in his stomach and bathe in his blood.
Though his intuition screams that this is a bad idea, Charlie skirts a path through the tables and sits at his usual place across from Rob.
Rob Langdon nods. The table in front of him is loaded with unhealthy portions of starchy, salty foods, but he has not eaten a bite of anything. Will, on the other hand, attacks his stringy chicken with zeal.
“Dude, you missed it the other day,” Will says around a mouthful of partially chewed food. “We stole the deputy’s kid’s shit and fire-hosed the fuck out of it.” He grins like this is his proudest moment. As if decades from now, he will look back over the years and remember pissing on Owen Northrop’s books as his crowning achievement.
“I heard,” Charlie says. It is all he says. He does his best to avoid looking at Will, but he can’t avoid Rob’s stark frown.
Will chuckles. “Maybe now that bitch will leave us alone.” He looks up from shoveling food into his face and notices Rob’s expression. “Seriously, if you start whining about that shit again, I’m gonna break your nose, dude.”
“His mom’s a cop,” Rob says quietly.
“She already knows something–”
“Shut. Up!” Will snarls at Rob.
The humor is gone from Will’s face and Charlie has never seen Rob so thoroughly routed. He doesn’t know what to do. Though they are trying to maintain the illusion that everything is the same, nothing is. Will is not Will, Rob is not Rob. And Charlie…is not Charlie without Theo.
Rob scrubs his gaunt face with his hand, his knuckles crisscrossed with white scars Charlie has seen before but never asked about.
“I don’t give a fuck what Jed says, we have to–”
“Have to what?” Jed Wolfe drops his tray on the table and grips Rob’s shoulder. Rob goes stone still. Charlie imagines he can smell his old friend’s fear.
“I have to go,” Charlie says. He pushes his seat back and begins to stand as Jed begins to sit.
Jed nods. “Sure you can. We miss you, Chucky.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Sit.” It is more than an invitation but less than a command. People don’t say no to Jed Wolfe. Charlie used to believe it was because people liked him. Charlie had liked him. In the beginning, he was a good guy. Over the years, he and the boys had gotten into a lot of crazy trouble, and Jed had always gotten them out. That had changed though, and Charlie realized, too late, that people do what Jed says because they fear him. Maybe they don’t even know it, maybe it is only a tiny, primitive voice whispering in their ears that he is dangerous, but few people stand up to Jed, and those who do tend to end up worse off for it.
The instinct to do as Jed tells him is hard to resist, and Charlie isn’t sure whether he sits down again because he wants to see how this plays out or because he is afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t.
Rob pushes his food away. Will returns to devouring his chicken, as if nothing is wrong. It is gross to watch him pull the thigh from the leg and eat around the bone, slurping bits of meat away like a savage.
“You’ve been avoiding us.” Jed says as he lays out his lunch.
“Sort of thought it was the other way around.”
Jed laughs as he unwraps his sandwich. It looks like turkey, but then again, all the cafeteria meats tend to look the same pale gray. “I miss you on the field. Especially since this pussy won’t stop acting butt-hurt all the time.” He elbows Rob. Rob pulls away. The motion is small, almost imperceptible, but Charlie sees it. Jed sees it too, and there is a slight tightening around his eyes. Anger. But it does not spread to the rest of his smiling face.
Charlie glances at the feast in front of Rob and his stomach growls. Before, he wouldn’t have thought twice about grabbing something off the tray, but now he feels uncomfortable, out of place. He wishes he had never sat down at this table, that he’d ignored Will’s invitation and gone to the band room instead, where his guitar is waiting for him in a locked closet Mr. Mancuso lets him use despite the fact that he is not in band and refuses the band teacher’s attempts to persuade him to join.
“How’s your brother?” Jed asks.
The question catches Charlie off guard, which was likely Jed’s intention. His toothy, cocky grin supports Charlie’s suspicion.
“What do you care?”
Jed shrugs and tears off a bite of his sandwich. “I don’t.”
“He got a boyfriend yet?” Jed asks.
“No,” Charlie replies coldly. “Do you?” He locks eyes with Jed, who sneers. Neither boy backs down. “You should leave the Northrop kid alone.”
“I have plans for him,” Jed says casually. Then, “I have plans for you too,” not so casually.
Jed’s surname is fitting. There is something cold and cruel about him. He is an apex predator, the beast at the top of the food chain. He kills thoughtlessly, as if it is his right. He reminds Charlie so much of his old friend Hank right now that he half expects to find a dead puppy under his chair.
“I should go,” Charlie says.
“It would be better if you stayed.”
“I don’t think so.”
Charlie knows better than to seek help from Will–he is Jed’s man to his bones–but Rob is another story. Only, he is weak. Too weak to join a rebellion. Charlie catches his eyes for the briefest moment before Rob turns them down and to the table. Defeated.
“Maybe I’ll have to tell Deputy Northrop what I know,” Charlie says. He regrets it the moment the words are out of his mouth, but he can’t let Jed win this one or else he will never stop winning. It is more than pride, it is more than anger. It is survival.
Will stops eating and glances up at Jed. It is the first time that Charlie has seen him afraid. But there is no fear on Jed’s face. No indication that the threat has affected him. If anything, he seems even more pleased, like this is exactly how he hoped their conversation would play out.
“No!” Rob yells. Kids from another table look over and he shrinks under their scrutiny.
Jed quiets him with a condescending pat on his arm.
“It’s fine,” Jed says. “If Charlie needs to squeal to the Deputy, it’s cool. I don’t own him.”
People are watching him again. Maybe it is only Charlie’s imagination, his lack of sleep warping his brain, but he hears them pointing, sees them laughing. A funnel of sights and sounds directed at him. It is too much. It is too heavy. He wishes Theo were here to anchor him and keep him safe. Every passing day he sinks deeper into the ground, becoming less connected to the world. His is nearly a ghost already.
“This ain’t a joke, Wolfe.”
Jed narrows his eyes. “Everything’s a joke. The trick is to make sure you’re the one who’s laughing.”
Charlie hesitates briefly and then stands up, pushing his chair back with a screech. People are looking at him now, he is sure of it. Curiosity spreads through the cafeteria like brush fire, stealing the air from the room for fuel. Charlie does not run, though he would like to. Instead he walks toward the exit, intending to keep walking and not stop until he is somewhere safe, holding his guitar, stroking the strings, and singing to Theo.
Rob’s apology from the other night echoes in his brain as he walks away from the table. He can’t help feeling that he is about to find out what Rob was so sorry for.
Charlie pushes open the cafeteria doors, grateful to be out of that prison, when he sees the first poster taped to a pillar. The words on it are too small to read from where he is standing, but the way the students gathered around it turn to look at him is enough to know that the words are about him.
The poster is a photocopy of a journal, it appears. The handwriting is tortured and cramped; Charlie recognizes it the moment he is close enough. It is a page from Theo’s journal. It is an entry about a camping trip they took together. There are details even Charlie has forgotten, though, after today, he will never forget them again. Fear lodges in Charlie’s throat as he reads each word. He goes deaf and does not hear the snickers around him. He tears the poster down. These words are private; they belong to him alone. Knowing these people are reading them makes him feel sick, dirty. It corrupts everything he and Theo had together. Charlie would cut out their eyes to keep them from reading if he could.
This is Jed’s work. There is no one else who could have done this. No one else who would have.
Charlie crumples the paper and tries to walk away, but everywhere he turns, he sees another poster. The walls are covered with them. Pages and pages of Theo’s brilliant, innermost thoughts. Thoughts about life, about Blackpool, about him. Charlie will never be able to remove them all.
But he tries anyway.
Audrey Allen knows she shouldn’t, but she can’t stop reading the pages of Theo Jackson’s journal she finds taped all over school. Teachers have begun to pull them down; Principal Barrymore makes an announcement over the PA that anyone caught reading the pages will be suspended, but no amount of intimidation can stop Audrey from reading. She hides in the girl’s bathroom clutching pages that detail the depths of his feelings for Charlie Hudson.
She never would have guessed. The Charlie that Theo describes in his journal does not match up with the Charlie she has read about in the newspapers. And she’s read quite a bit since she caught him in her grandfather’s room at Ashview. Sometimes she sees him at the nursing home, limping through the halls, but he ducks her whenever she tries to talk to him. There is something wrong with him that she can’t quite put her finger on–something off–like she’s looking at him through a pair of binoculars that are out of focus. Yet, she can’t shake the image of him standing in front of her grandfather’s bed with his guitar, or stop wondering what she might of heard if she’d kept her fool mouth shut.
The final bell rings and the last group of chatty, perky girls finally leaves for class. Audrey is alone. But not alone. She has Theo. A boy she never spoke to, not once. She saw him in last year’s production of Hamlet and remembers feeling his madness. Though Audrey had never seen a play performed anywhere other than the Jefferson Davis High School auditorium, she recalls thinking, as Theo chewed through the scenery, that his talent was too big for that stage.
His words, though–the words threaded through the page with ink and tears–are smaller. Intimate. There is nothing sweeping about them, nothing grand. She expected she would find the dreams of a young man caught in a town too confining for him to ever really be happy, but she does not find those things. As a leaky faucet drips, counting the seconds that add up to minutes, Audrey Allen finds a young man in love. In love with theatre, in love with running, in love with life.
In love with Charlie Hudson.
No matter how many times she reads the pages in her sweaty hands, no matter which way she turns them around or tries to peek into the gaps between words where so many people hide their real secrets, she us unable to find a boy who was about to take his own life.
Maybe those pages are taped elsewhere.
Audrey leaves the bathroom stall in search of Theo.
Jefferson Davis High School has never felt particularly hospitable to Audrey, but she has learned to navigate its treacherous halls carefully enough to remain unscathed. She has her friends–Marco and Trip and the girl they all call Starla, though that is not her real name–and they stick together while remaining apart. Though she has always been aware of the rip currents hidden under Blackpool’s treacherous shores, she has never been so foolish as to wade too deeply into them. High school is more often about learning to survive than learning vocabulary.
Today, as she traces her steps back to the first page of Theo’s journal, the school feels particularly hostile. The strays in the halls, skipping classes like herself or running errands for teachers, all shuffle about, whispering over pages. Audrey sneaks glances at every passerby to see if they have pieces of Theo she is missing. Under the guise of emptying garbage from her yellow backpack, she digs through the trash bins stationed across campus, examining every sheet of paper that might contain another stolen fragment of a boy she never knew.
Principal Barrymore and his goon squad were thorough, and Audrey finds nothing new. The further she gets from the cafeteria, the less likely Audrey believes it is that she will find any more bits of Theo Jackson.
Audrey’s only consolation is the pages neatly folded between the heavy cover of her dense World History book. The history of Theo wrapped within the history of the world.
Eager to be out of the halls before the next bell rings, Audrey walks to the band room on autopilot. Mr. Mancuso allows her to use the room to practice, and never asks if there is somewhere else she is supposed to be. The JD band room is her sanctuary. The only four walls on the entire campus within which she truly feels at home, despite its claustrophobic lack of windows and suspect moldy smell that is particularly heinous on rainy days.
As she nears the door, Audrey hears the whispers of a song. A mournful keening that slips through the cracks and grows around her, tiny tendrils crawling up her legs and twining about them, rooting her to the concrete walkway. This is another private moment that she has intruded upon. She isn’t sure Theo can care that she has read pages from his private journal, but she feels–in the notes, the words, the air itself which is practically vibrating–that she is not wanted here. But the singer on the other side of that door does want someone. He is so lonely that he aches in a way Audrey did not think was possible and does not fully understand.
It is so beautiful. So…desperate that she feels ashamed for not turning around and walking back the way she came. But she can not leave. Something more than curiosity makes her turn the handle and sneak into the practice room, hoping to catch a peek of the singer, though she already suspects who it is.
The moment she pulls the door open, the spell is broken. The song stops. Charlie Hudson looks at her with murder in his pale eyes. Then he looks to a spot directly in front of him and falls to his knees.
Theo is so real that Charlie can almost touch him. As he sings, he recalls the things he read in the pages taped to the school walls. To everything. He is not yet thinking about the fact that Jed has proven to the world that he and Theo were in love. He does not yet consider how Deputy Northrop will react when she discovers that Charlie did indeed know Theo. More than knew him. He is only thinking about the words, letting the depth of Theo’s feelings for him infuse the music. Maybe, he thinks, this will finally be enough to bring Theo back. Fully. Finally. Though months of trying has weakened the foundation of his hope.
No longer does he even think about what he is singing as he sets the song free, sending the darkness inside of him into the world.
Theo begins to take shape. His red hair, his hazel eyes, his long nose. The edges are watery but it is Theo. Charlie tugs at him, reels him across the boundaries of death so that he can kiss him one last time.
The door opens. Charlie glances at it, startled by the intruder, a girl he knows. The girl from Ashview. He turns back to Theo, but Theo is gone.
Charlie falls to his knees, pain lancing through his once-broken leg, and begins to sob.
Audrey is unsure what to do. She curses herself for barging in and interrupting something so private, for violating something so personal.
Leaving would be the wisest course of action. She could pretend that she never saw anything, never heard Charlie sing, and forget everything about this day. But that would be wrong. In the days to come, students and teachers and just about everyone in Blackpool, will be talking about how Charlie Hudson was gay with Theo Jackson–a kid who many feel, even if they won’t dare say it out loud, was better off at the bottom of the lake. They’ll read Theo’s journal entries and see one side of a complicated story. But here and now, Audrey sees another side. Only a glimpse, barely a fragment. And she thinks someone ought to remember it so that Charlie doesn’t have to bear the coming storm alone.
So, instead of leaving, of forgetting, Audrey Allen kneels beside Charlie and puts her arm around his shoulders.
“You cry like a sissy,” Audrey says when her arm begins to ache from the awkward position.
“Right.” Charlie wipes his nose with the back of his hand, avoiding looking at Audrey. He is grateful and also annoyed.
“He loved you,” she says, knowing it sounds dumb coming from her. She only knows these boys from what she’s read, but right now it’s enough.
“I gotta go.”
Charlie stands up, ignoring the pain in his leg, and slings his guitar around to his back, leaving Audrey on the floor. The bell rings to release students from their classes and he hesitates. Out there are monsters, hungry for Charlie Hudson’s blood. He stumbles back a step as someone screams in the hallway.
“Stay here,” Audrey says. “Mr. Mancuso won’t mind.”
“I gotta go.”
Audrey gets up and brushes her legs off. She is surprised by Charlie’s lack of surprise at the screaming. It is almost like he expected it. She checks the time on her worn out cell phone and says, “I have a car.”
The screams in the hallway grow louder and more terrified. Charlie takes Audrey’s hand and pulls her to the fire exit, ignoring the alarm. Ignoring the screams.
Charlie hates other people’s driving, but he is forbidden to have a license until he is at least twenty-two. Audrey’s driving is the worst he has seen. It is not that she inattentive. Rather, she grips the steering wheel as if letting go would spell doom for the both of them. The girl in the driver’s seat is wound up so tightly that there is a very good possibility that she will explode like a grenade.
“Where are we going?”
“Just keep on driving until I tell you,” Charlie says. They snuck off school grounds and have been driving west on the interstate for fifteen minutes. He hates this girl for disturbing him, for sending Theo back to wherever he goes when he is not with Charlie. It nearly worked that time. Charlie could feel Theo growing more real with each passing second. At the same time, he is grateful to her for rescuing him.
Audrey is a tough girl, Charlie thinks. He hopes that she is not brittle. Being near him tends to break people, and it would be a shame if that happened to her.
“Sorry about Theo.”
“What do you know about that?” Charlie asks.
“Only what I saw–what I read.”
Charlie flares his nostrils as he watches her. She finds it difficult to keep her eyes on the road. “Were you at prom?”
Audrey shakes her head. “I’m only a junior.”
“The pages on the walls,” Audrey says after a moment. “Did you put them up?”
Charlie laughs. In the pages of his journal, Theo described Charlie Hudson’s laugh many ways. Warm, loud, boisterous. But this laugh is none of those things. It isn’t simply cold or dark. It is the absence of everything.
“Those were a gift from Jed.”
“Clearly, he’s the worst gift-giver ever.”
“This ain’t nothing,” Charlie says. “A warning shot.” Charlie hopes that this will silence the girl for a while. He has done everything in his power to avoid her at Ashview and, though he is thankful to her for giving him a ride, he is not looking for a new best friend.
“I’m in a band,” she says. “Nero’s Fiddle. It’s kind of progressive country. More Ryan Adams meets The Decemberists than any of that saccharin Taylor Swift bullshit. But not really country either. Sort of a punk take on country. Know what I mean?”
Charlie folds his hands in his lap. “Nope. Turn left up here.” He indicates a dusty stop sign.
“We’re okay, I guess. Not like you.” Audrey drums her fingers on the steering wheel. “Marco is decent on drums and I’m pretty sure that Trip only took up the bass because he thought it would get him laid, but we’ve played a couple of gigs in Luther.”
“Just keep on going until we get up to Castle. I’ll tell you where to go from there.” He dips his chin to his chest and closes his eyes. Exhaustion rattles in his every breath, not that he’s going to be able to sleep with the crazy girl manning the wheel.
Audrey laughs nervously. “You’re not planning on taking me out to the middle of nowhere to rape me are you?”
Charlie doesn’t open his eyes. “Hadn’t planned on it, but the day’s still young.”
As she drives, Audrey shifts her bag to within easy reach, wondering how quickly she can get to the mace she keeps in a pocket. “How do you know I don’t have herpes or gonorrhea or something?”
“I’m not gonna rape you.”
“So now I’m not good enough?”
Charlie sighs. “How about this: if I suddenly get a violent need to rape someone, you’ll be at the top of my list.” He opens his eyelid a little, peeking at her through his lashes.
“I’d rather go out for ice cream, but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.” There is a hint of a smile on her lips. She drives the rest of the way in silence.
Blackpool County Prison sits in the ass-end of nowhere. The Sheriff’s department runs a last chance program for teens nearby and forces them to run laps in the afternoon under the shadow of their likely future home. It’s twenty miles in any direction to anything resembling civilization.
“You can let me off over there,” Charlie says, pointing to a parking lot.
Audrey pulls her car into a spot. “So, prison?”
“Yeah.” Charlie offers nothing else in the way of an explanation. He gets out of the car without so much as a thanks and begins walking toward the fence, where a guard is eyeballing them both.
“Hey!” Audrey calls out her window. “Your guitar!”
Charlie turns around. “I’ll be back for it.”
“You expect me to wait?”
“Forget it,” Charlie says after staring at her for a moment. He hadn’t even thought about it. He’d just assumed Audrey would wait and now he feels like a moron. He returns to the car and reaches into the back seat for his guitar, slamming the door shut when he’s done.
Audrey huffs. “Are you always such a dick?”
“How’re you going to get home?” Audrey asks, though she isn’t sure why she should care. She begins to doubt that the young man Theo wrote about and the obnoxious prick limping away from her are the same person.
Charlie stops again, only he does not turn around this time. “I’ll figure something out.”
“It’s just…I have to visit my gramps.”
“Right.” Charlie heads for the fence.
Charlie spins around. “I could’ve been in and out already.”
“My band–the one I told you about? You should come play with us sometime. You’re good.” Even in spite of his behavior, Audrey still wants to see him play. “Maybe together, we could be great.”
There is a moment when Audrey thinks that Charlie is going to accept her offer, but he walks away instead. She sits in her car after he has disappeared inside wondering what the fuck happened today. Part of her wants to stay. Gramps won’t know if she misses one visit, but Charlie Hudson is nothing to her, and her grandfather is everything.
Maybe she will regret it, but she pulls out of the parking lot of the prison and heads for home.
Seth Hudson’s prison uniform is a dour gray that hangs loosely from his body. He has lost weight since the last time Charlie was here, though Charlie does not mention it. Nor does he mention the new bruise on his brother’s neck. It is a war wound that Seth wears proudly.
“Got a boyfriend yet?”
Charlie growls at his brother. “No. You?”
“How’s mom?” Seth doesn’t spend much time looking directly at Charlie. He looks around at the other prisoners talking to their loved ones. The room offers little in the way of privacy, but it isn’t like on TV. There are no glass walls. Just a concrete room full of plastic tables and sadness. The walls have absorbed so much of it that the weight of it is nearly unbearable.
“She’s still clean,” Charlie says.
“And you?” Seth doesn’t carry himself like someone for whom freedom is no longer a luxury. He smiles often, unnerving Charlie.
Charlie isn’t sure whether his conversations with Seth are monitored, so he whispers, “About prom.”
“Shut the fuck up, Charlie.” The smile vanishes.
“Shut the fuck up!”
The guard in the room eyes Seth cautiously, moving his hand to his baton, but remains where he is.
“Someone sent me a picture,” Charlie says, keeping his voice low. “And a warning.”
The chairs have no backs and Seth balances on the edge, always in peril of going too far in one direction. “It’s Jed,” he says.
“It ain’t Jed,” Charlie says. “He already knew about me and Theo. Anyway death threats aren’t his style.”
“He’s fucking with you, kid.” Seth’s face relaxes and he lets out a sigh. “So long as you keep your mouth shut, you’re golden.”
Charlie doesn’t argue with his brother because he knows that it will do no good. Once Seth has made up his mind, it stays made up. But he knows that Jed did not take the picture because he made sure Jed was occupied before he snuck off with Theo. The details of that night are branded into his brain for all time.
“Jed outed me.”
“What?” Seth’s anger rises again, but he keeps better control this time. The guards all seem to like him, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cut the visit short if he loses his temper.
Charlie tells him about the journal.
“I’ll kill him.”
Seth remains undeterred and plots out a hundred ways to make Jed Wolfe suffer before he dies. Then he asks, “You okay?”
“I’ll live. Don’t know what I’m gonna tell Northrop.”
“She’ll get why you kept it secret,” Seth says. “Just tell her you broke up before prom. Tell her he cheated on your or something.”
Charlie shakes his head. “I’m not saying he cheated.”
“Saying it doesn’t make it true.”
Seth holds up his hands. “Fine. Do what you want.”
The brothers spend the next ten minutes talking about the Lions and Charlie’s classes and Seth’s cellmate who has a case of night terrors so bad that he keeps most of the guys up all night with his screaming.
“A couple of guys tried to pay me to smother him in his sleep.” Seth pulls out a cigarette and lights it, making sure to blow the smoke away from Charlie. “I told them I’d think about it.”
Charlie chews on his nail until the end bleeds and there is nothing but the quick. “I’m real sorry you’re in here. It should’ve been me.”
“It’s only a year. I can do a year in my sleep.”
“It’s cool.” Seth takes a deep drag. “Mom still pissed?”
“She thinks I ratted you out.”
Seth points at him with the cigarette. “You can’t tell her the truth.”
“I already promised,” Charlie says. But he does it anyway.
The guard calls time and Seth stands up, taking a last drag off his cigarette before stubbing it out in the ashtray. “Gotta run, baby bro.”
“You need anything?”
Seth shakes his head. “Tell mom I love her.”
“Sure.” He is about to stand up when he says, “Sometimes I see Theo.”
“Theo’s dead,” Seth says. There is a sharp edge to his voice that Charlie knows means he should shut up, but he can’t.
“But what if he ain’t?”
“But what if?”
Seth takes a deep breath, clenching his fists over and over. Charlie knows his brother well and knows that it is taking all of Seth’s self-control not to beat some sense into him like he did when they were kids. He leans forward and whispers, “If Theo wasn’t dead then there’s a pretty good chance that you would be. So I’m real sorry he’s gone and that you miss him. But you’re alive, and I’m not sorry for that.”
Charlie sighs and moves away from his brother. “I am.”
It takes longer to escape Blackpool County Prison than it did to get in, and all Charlie can think about is going somewhere quiet to finish the song he started at school. The sun is low in the sky when he exits. He is half expecting Audrey to be waiting for him and finds he is disappointed that she is not. In her place Deputy Northrop leans against her cruiser with her arms folded over her chest. Charlie is not surprised to see her, though he is surprised to see her here. His mind goes blank as he tries to come up with a story to tell her, some reason to explain why he never mentioned knowing Theo. The only thing that comes to mind is the truth, but he can’t trust her with that. Not now, maybe not ever.
“Charlie,” Deputy Northrop says. “Come on with me. I got some questions to ask you.”
Charlie thinks about his brother and the journal and that night at prom. He thinks about Theo’s face every time he calls him with a song. He thinks about the accident where he almost died. Running would be dumb, but he thinks about that too. Time warps and breathes. Reality feels like putty, stretched too thin. He is dizzy, his knees buckle. Everything sounds like bees.
Deputy Northrop catches Charlie as he falls.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie mumbles. “I’m so fucking sorry.”
“For what?” asks Deputy Northrop. “Charlie?”
“It’s my fault,” Charlie says. “I killed Theo.”