Authors: Patrick Jones
Two roads diverged in a wood, and Iâ
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
âRobert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on.
âLed Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven”
“It's really simple, kid,” the investigator barks at me from across the table. He's trying to scare me. “The one who talks is the one who walks. So, I'll ask you the same thing I did when you came in here four days ago. What happened on November fifth?”
I'm trapped in an impossible situation. He's asking questions, but I've got no answers I can giveâyet there's so much I want to say. My mind is a mess, littered with fear of the future, thoughts of the past, and one nagging question: how did my fifteen years of life lead me to staring deathâin the form of a bloody dead bodyâin the face?
Friday, November 5
I woke up that morning under dry sheets to the smell of coffee in my nose, the taste of cotton in my mouth, what felt like a brick smashing inside my skull, and a burning feeling in my gut. But not a single midnight memory of Nicole Snider resting in my brain. I was cheated even in my dreams that morning, never knowing, of course, that the day itself would end in a nightmare.
I turned off the buzzing alarm busting my eardrums, then buried my not-handsome-enough face into the soft pillow. I wanted to suffocate the thoughts of another dayâalthough Fridays were the best day in my Nicole-less life. Friday was the day my best buds, Brody and Aaron, and I all told our moms we were going to the Swartz Creek High School football game. Instead, we'd hang at Aaron's sister's trailer drinking Bacardi 151, shooting the shit, and playing poker.
We'd started one night earlier than usual, at Aaron's suggestion, and I was paying the price. I crawled out of bed as if my feet contained all of my five ten, 160 pudgy pounds, and wanted to vomit. It made me wonder if it was called “hungover” because I'd spent the night with my head hung over the toilet trying to vomit. But here, too, I was a failure.
My stomach felt queasy, but worst was a headache aggravated by any noise, even the sound of the piss splashing into the water hurt my head. I reached into the medicine
cabinet and pulled out a bottle of aspirin. I swallowed straight two round white clouds of relief and horded four for later in the day. When I brushed my teeth, I looked into the mirror and wondered what day I'd start shaving, what week the zits on my chin would disappear, and what month I'd look more like a man instead of this fifteen-year-old awkward mass of flesh, nerves, and want. I spat out disgust at myself with the toothpaste, then stumbled into the kitchen.
My mother was wrapped in an oversized white sweater and curled up on the kitchen floor sitting next to the heat vent, Kool in one hand, coffee in the other. Her bare face showed little signs of life, love, or the pursuit of happiness. I avoided her eyes, then looked through the faded yellow drapes at the frost-kissed leaf-covered backyard as she spoke. “Good morning, Mick.”
I grunted, then grabbed milk from the fridge and poured a half glass. Maybe it was the distraction of my broken heart more than my throbbing head, but my hands didn't work, and I spilled milk on the counter. “Sorry,” I said. I said that word a lot to everyone.
“Accidents happen,” Mom said, as she moved from the floor, then walked toward me. She cleaned up my mess while I snatched the Rice Krispies box from the sparse cupboard. Except for buying fast food, neither shopping nor cooking were Mom's strengths. “Are you okay?”
I grunted, but I wanted to say,
No, Mom, I'm not okay and you're not okay, but let's keep lying to each other since the truth hurts
. I wanted to tell Mom a lot, but I couldn't say the
words. I spent more time imagining conversations with her, and others, than I did having them.
“When did you get in?” she asked as I successfully poured milk into the cereal bowl.
“About ten,” I mumbled. About ten after eleven was the truth, but I knew Mom had had a rare date after work, so she didn't get home until after midnight. My lie was safe, if unsound.
Mom sipped her coffee, then spoke. “Are you going to the game tonight?”
“I'm taking the booster bus with Brody and Aaron.” I offered up the lie for her to challenge, but she let it go with a little half smile. She didn't like my friends, but didn't comment, unlike ex-Dad. He lectured me to “stay away from those who drag you down.” I took ex-Dad's advice to heart and saw as little of him as possible.
“So, homecoming's next week,” Mom said after an awkward quiet. My house seemed like a funeral home with all these long moments of silence. Even if I wanted to talk more to Mom, I couldn't because she was either working or too tired from working so many hours. She managed this snotty Chico's clothing store at Genesee Valley Mall. Outside the house, Mom always dressed in their private-label outfits, accessorized by her disappointed frown caused by her unkempt fashion-challenged son.
“I guess,” I said in between swallows, but I wanted to say,
I know stupid homecoming is next week. You can't walk two feet at school without some prep or jock talking about it like it was the center of the universe
“Are you going to the homecoming dance?” Mom asked. I slurped down some milk, but wanted to say,
I had a chance to go with Nicole, but I screwed it up. I don't ask you about your boyfriends, so stay out of my love life, or lack thereof
“Probably,” I mumbled my half-truth so she could only half hear it.
“You taking that Snider girl?” Mom doesn't know Nicole broke up with me on the first day of school; she doesn't know that I'm broken apart. The question was tentative; this was more of a conversation than we normally had. I wished there was a TV in the kitchen. I could have turned it on, and we could have watched other people talk to one another instead.
“No,” I whispered as the cracking popping snapping cereal crashed into last evening's rum and Coke. I felt sick to my stomach, but sicker in my lonely boy circumstances.
Mom sighed, then spoke. “It's a little late to ask someone else out, don't you think?”
I rinsed out the bowl and the glass, but not the bad-tasting feeling that truth or lie, I was disappointing my mom either way. “I don't want to talk about it!” I shouted as I left the room.
“Fine,” she snapped at me before she took a final drag and burned down the last hot embers on the Kool.
“Fine!” I shouted over my shoulder, but regretted that immediately. I wanted to say,
Mom, I'm sorry. You don't deserve this crap. I want to be a better son, but I don't know how
“One day you'll talk to me.” Her words bounced in my
head, like a silver pinball at Space Invaders arcade. I wanted to turn around and admit my helplessness.
Mom, I want to talk to you so you can tell me what to do, but there's a wall and I just can't smash through it
Instead, I said nothing and retreated to my room, slamming the door behind me. I pulled cleaner clothes from the pile on the floor and got ready for school. I thought about wearing something other than my usual blue jeans and black T-shirt to impress Nicole, since she was now with that well-dressed college-bound bastard Kyle Miller. Yet I knew even if I changed my clothes, it wouldn't have made Nicole change her heart or her mind. I wanted to confess to her how I felt, how I deserved another chance, and how I wouldn't mess it up this time. But deep down, I knew I was lying to myself, as I often did. I can't even tell myself the truth, and admit it was all my fault. As I headed toward the shower that morning, I thought about turning the water on superhot. I wanted to burn away a layer of skin and scorch away my old self. I needed to become someone else; someone who wouldn't cheat or be cheated again. Nicole and I broke up because I was the one who cheated. How could I have known then that split-second decision would start me down a winding road filled with fire, smoke, and blood?
If you were looking at life in prison, then wouldn't you take a long look at your life?
Even if, like me, you've only lived life for fifteen years. My mom made me watch a movie once called
The guy in the movie keeps saying how life is like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you'll get. Even I know boxes of chocolates have those diagrams on the bottom that show you what's inside. No, life isn't like that at all. You want to know what life is like? You ever see a road map of the United States? That's life. It's a thousand possible roads, all of them somehow connected to each other. Some roads take you places where you can roll down the windows, let the music blast, and drive forever free; some roads lead you to places you thought you'd never be, like this place. There's one road out of this place and it's the road I cannot take. Instead, all I can do is open up the map in my head, run my finger backward from this place to the place before and the place before that, and think about the roads that got me here
I blew off my mom's request that I wear a coat, so I stood on the curb in the cold waiting for the bus wrapped only in my black hoodie. I hated taking the bus, and couldn't wait until I turned sixteen when ex-Dad promised he'd buy me a car to drive to school. School's too far to walk to, and I'd rather die than have Mom haul my sorry ass, so I waited, alone. Sure, there was Whitney a few feet away, but she might as well be a thousand miles away. She was bundled up in a long brown winter coat with a bright yellow scarf and matching gloves and hat. When Whitney spoke in math class yesterday, I tried not to look at her. I tried to catch myself, thinking,
, but wanting Whitneyâor most other girlsâwas like a wildfire, always changing directions.
Whitney stood with fellow preps Erin, Meghan, and Shelby, each one more beautiful and unreachable than the next. They laughed, baring their perfect white teeth to the gray fall sky. Their laughter was a cold hard rain falling down on me: it chilled, reduced, and angered me. I wanted to say to Whitney,
I'm not really a bad guy. I'm not smart enough or rich enough or good-looking enough for you, but I'd love only you
. I even took a step toward Whitney, but fear pushed me back. There's a brick wall of frustration firmly placed between the Whitney World and me. I felt like a doomed character in a Poe story: walled in, brick by brick; buried alive.
I never wanted to be a prep like Whitney or Kyle, nor a jock like Rusty Larson or Bob Fredericks, who strolled in all their three-letter cockiness toward the bus stop. Both of them jock jerk juniors who shouted at each other like they were on the football field. They yelled about nothing, other than to prove that this flat land was their mountain.
I clicked on my knockoff iPod (my jPod I call it) and felt the volume vibrating in my ears as I stared with silent rage at my fellow Swartz Creek Dragons. Music saved me and got me through that hate. Morning, noon, night, or whenever the Whitney World tempted me with unattainable beauty and the Rusty Bobs of school showed their colors of confidence, old Zeppelin, in particular “Stairway to Heaven,” let me feel close to human. All the rage in my head and heart vanished into the volume of Plant's singing, Page's guitar, and the Jones-Bonham rhythm attack. I didn't need new music; the best music had already been recorded.