From the Foam to the Gravel

MW's Private Rank
Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

August 18th, 2017, 9:07 pm #1

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
The air conditioning had been on its last legs before the trip, and finally gave out somewhere in the great nothing past the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. By this time it was mid-afternoon and the land was cooling from the sweltering-yet-not-unusual ninety degree high, but Kimberly Nguyen still had to roll down the windows to get some airflow going. It was her third day of driving—really she was setting a pretty leisurely pace at about eight hours a day—and so she'd had plenty of time to realize and reconsider the mistake she was making.

This wasn't 2012. She wasn't twenty-one anymore, wasn't even vaguely shocked to discover that Survival of the Fittest had bared its fangs once again. She hadn't hopped the first airplane from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport after firing off a scalding ramble to be lost and found in cyberspace. She knew full well now that there was nothing for her in these places. Walking the streets once populated by these now-dead teenagers would bring no closure and offer no clarity. Surrounding herself with the grief of a gutted community would in no way alleviate her own pain. There was no mourning by proxy to be had, no kinship to be felt; in Seattle she'd spent days stalking through the rain, talking to nobody, retreating nightly to her hotel room to stare at a wall and not write a fucking word. She had done nobody any good and she would do nobody any good in Kingman, least of all herself, but even though she told herself every stop on the way that the right choice was to turn around and go back home and maybe make nice enough with the Star Tribune to land an interview and at least spread her thoughts, she still finished her lunch in Denver or Vegas or rolled out of her motel bed in Lincoln or Grand Junction and got back into the car and continued her drive. Yeah, maybe if she could get one single person to not watch the feeds that'd be more worthwhile than anything she could possibly gain by fumbling her way through a bunch of states more flyover than her own, but something drew her on just the same, and maybe she followed it because that sort of impulse was familiar in a way she hadn't felt in a long time now.

With the windows down she had to crank the volume up really loud so she could hear Springsteen over the roar of highway air and whirring motor, and she had her hair tied back which she'd never really gotten used to but it beat having it in her face when she was trying to focus on the road. Kimberly didn't drive very much; there was this real horror about driving that crept up on her sometimes, because it meant sharing the road with hundreds of strangers who might or might not know what they were doing, and two hundred and forty-six of her classmates hadn't chopped each other to pieces so she could be crushed to pulp under the twisted wreck of someone's Hummer because they just had to check their texts while merging at sixty.

Kimberly's car was this really shitty black sedan from the late Nineties that she'd gotten cheap mostly because it was a manual and when she'd finally gotten around to learning how to drive she'd been dead set on driving a stick just to relish the fact that she could. Everything in it was operated by cranking or twisting something; it took a solid five seconds of working the handle to get the windows up or down, and she had to actually put the key in the lock to open the door. It was better that way, though. There was a feeling of connection that was comforting in its way.

She'd made her way past Santa Claus, Arizona (population: fucking nobody) and through the only marginally less depressing Golden Valley, and while the roads had been mostly empty she'd noticed that some of the same cars cropped up again and again, passing her when she pulled off to find a bathroom and slipping by in parking lots or gas stations only to later overtake her once more. They were varied—the three she'd recognized most consciously were a minivan plastered in bumper stickers, a sleek red sports car of a make she couldn't identify without closer inspection, and a green Subaru—but they all seemed to be setting course for Kingman. Maybe she was reading too much into it. There wasn't much worth driving to out here, and there weren't many ways to go besides straight down US-93. It unsettled her nonetheless.

Minneapolis and Saint Paul were big enough that they could absorb even an unusual influx cleanly, without a trace to be found. She had this inkling Kingman wasn't the same.

Her first sight of the town did little to dispel that notion. It was distinct from the desert all around in that it was more green-brown than grey-brown, but that was about as far as it went towards welcoming visitors. A whitish-grey brick wall shielded the low buildings closest to the highway from traffic noise, but Kimberly couldn't guess if those buildings were dwellings, industrial structures, or abandoned shells.

It was getting dark when she pulled off the highway and into town, and over the next ten minutes night descended in full while she searched out a gas station. She'd let her tank run almost dry, mostly out of a desire to avoid extra stops in little nowheres. Now that she found herself in the moderately-sized nowhere that was her destination, there wasn't much to it but to settle in and see what she could do about finding a place to pass the night.

The gas station was small but a lot cleaner than she expected, most of the pad free of oil stains and the windows of the little shop crystal clear. There was nobody else around, so she pulled up at the first pump, hit the button to let the attendant know she'd be paying inside, and got the fuel flowing.

The door had one of those electronic bells that rang at a pitch nobody could find pleasant. The inside of the store was almost as empty as the outside; there were three employees, one seemingly here to start his shift, and another apparently at the end of hers. The guy who was neither leaving nor arriving slouched over the counter, reading a magazine. It looked like The National Enquirer.

It wasn't that different from any gas station she might've seen back home—same scratch lotto tickets under glass, same junky snacks and drinks, same stacks of cigarettes behind the counter that always made her feel a little bit uncomfortable—but an insubstantial pall hung over everything. It took a solid thirty seconds for the newly-arrived employee to tie his apron on, nod goodbye to his female coworker (who vanished through a backdoor), and run his hand through his hair three times, and only then did he let his gaze wander in Kimberly's direction. The guy reading didn't so much as move his head.

She'd meant to look through the store a little, maybe buy some food, but the atmosphere put her on guard, so instead she made a quick circuit, grabbed a newspaper titled The Daily Miner, and quickly returned to the counter.

"What can I do for you?" said the newly-arrived employee. He looked like he was a few years younger than Kimberly, and he had half a foot of height on her. He was white, heavyset but not fat, with close-cropped dirty blond hair, pale blue eyes, and oddly-thin lips. His nametag read "Lester," which was the sort of name that made Kimberly hope he'd given his parents some hell growing up.

He seemed to be sizing her up in turn, and that made her a little more conscious of her own appearance. She'd dressed to be inconspicuous: blue jeans fitted but not tight, white tank top under an unbuttoned black long-sleeved shirt, hiking boots, hair tied back. She had a straw cowboy hat in the back of her car, along with her other clothes, but hadn't gotten enough of a feel for whether she'd look like an idiot or not if she put it on.

"I need to pay for my gas," she said, putting the paper on the counter, "and I'd like to buy this."

Lester pursed his lips, which made them almost disappear. He glanced at the guy reading, who didn't response, then turned back to Kimberly.

"You're new in town."


He didn't seem totally ready for his impoliteness—for his tone made his statement anything but simple observation—to be met in kind. He met her gaze with a little more focus now.

"You a reporter?"

"Fuck no," Kimberly said. That changed his expression to a stillborn smile.

"Good," he said. "Not much here for reporters right now. Not late arrivals, anyways."

"I'm not surprised," Kimberly said.

He'd still made no move towards ringing her up. The guy with the magazine was only pretending to read now; he flipped a page forwards and then backwards and then forwards again with only a few seconds between, like maybe Kimberly was dumb enough that she needed a sound effect for his feigned inattention to be conspicuous to her. But fuck that guy.

"So what brings you to Kingman, then?" Lester said.

"Personal trip," Kimberly replied.

"We've become a real hot spot in the past few days," Lester said. "Lots of tourists. I think you'll be disappointed."

"I'm not a tourist."


Flip, flip, went the magazine pages. The door chimed, and an older woman in a faded floral dress and flip flops walked in. She nodded at Lester, and he said, "Evening, Suzie," and then she wandered over to the snacks.

"A lot of people are here for a lot of reasons," Lester said, turning back to Kimberly and lowering his voice, "but I don't think most of them are good."

"I imagine I'd agree with that."

"People are hurting."

"I understand."

His lips hid again and he scrutinized her face, making no pretense of hiding it. Kimberly gave him a smile, not her happy smile but her long-ago smile, and he broke eye contact.

"So," she said, "can I pay?"

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, okay. Just a sec."

The woman he'd called Suzie was buying half a dozen Diet Cokes and two packs of Camels, because she had terrible taste. The guy ringing her up still held the Enquirer in his left hand, thumb holding his place while he punched buttons on his register one at a time using his right index. Kimberly waited, and soon Lester gave her a figure and she handed him cash. She'd made sure to keep most of the money she'd brought squirreled away throughout her bags and car, because having to flip through a few hundred worth of twenties wasn't particularly inconspicuous. Lester punched some more buttons and handed Kimberly her change, dropping one of the quarters so it bounced off her palm and rattled on the floor. All four in the store paused in silence for a second.

"Sorry," Lester said.

Kimberly shrugged. She did not bend to retrieve the coin. Lester did not offer her a replacement, just her receipt.

"Hey," Kimberly said, "is there anywhere around here someone might be able to get a room for a few days?"

"Not unless you're really lucky," Lester said. "Lots of tourists, lots of reporters. Maybe if you go to Flagstaff, or back to Vegas or Phoenix."

Suzie had finished her own purchase, but she and the guy who'd checked her out seemed united in their desire to spy on Kimberly's conversation. Whatever. She'd get out of here and manage. She'd been prepared to sleep in her car on the outskirts if she had to. It wouldn't be the worst place she'd passed the night.

"Thanks," she said, giving Lester a nod and the others no recognition as she turned back to the door.

She was on the threshold, door held open, electronic beep already sounded, when Lester called out, "Hey, wait."

Kimberly turned back, fixed him with her gaze again. It seemed he'd turn away again, but he rallied and held eye contact, searching her face for something at the same time. This wasn't common, but also wasn't all that unusual. After a three count, she raised an eyebrow.

"You sure you're not with the news?" he asked.


Kimberly slipped out the door, letting it swing shut behind her, and made her way back to her car as the desert night began to turn chill.

MW's Private Rank
Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

September 15th, 2017, 5:47 pm #2

Thursday, June 4, 2015
The front seat of her car didn't rank in the ten worst places Kimberly had ever woken up, but it was far from pleasant. She was stirred to consciousness by the sun, and that residual stickiness and congestion that came with sleeping outside was all over her on account of having left the window cracked, and she was stiff and her shoulder hurt, and for a moment she couldn't remember or place where she was and imagined that the past seven years had been nothing but one long dream (even though she still almost never remembered her dreams) and her right hand slid to her ankle, searching, but all she found was her foot since she'd taken off her socks and shoes the night before. She blinked, coughed. The world clarified.

The light was coming through the driver's side window; she'd set out a sunshade in the windshield but had also not parked in a good orientation. She was set up in a spot in Hualapai Mountain Park—a place really intended for those camping in tents, but she didn't have a tent. They'd let her in anyways. She'd skipped dinner and soon fallen asleep, and despite the uncomfortable nature of her arrangements hadn't stirred to more than a half-waking until daybreak.

She turned herself around, stretched a little and rolled her shoulders, hoping that the ache would fade quickly today. Usually it did, more or less, but usually she slept on a fairly soft bed and wasn't coming off three straight days of driving. She dug through the pack on the backseat, finding her toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant from where she'd stashed them while clearing out of Grand Junction and a pair of flip flops and some clean clothes, fresh jeans and undergarments and a plain black t-shirt, and finally a towel. She'd slept in her clothes the night before, and was still wearing them now, and while that was also not an unfamiliar sensation it was an unwelcome one, particularly combined with the memories that had stirred.

It was a pleasant enough morning. Kimberly made her way down the dirt road, taking in the pine trees and the low scrub and the other campers just starting their days. More were awake than she'd've expected, a few families making breakfast, a twenty-something couple stretching outside their tent, and an old man sitting at a table with a cup of what was probably coffee who nodded as she passed. It was already getting a little warm. The flip-flops slapped at her heels and the occasional rock got stuck between her toes and had to be kicked away, but she didn't mind.

The shower facilities were probably mostly intended for the cabins they lay adjacent to, but Kimberly wasn't really that concerned with breaking rules, and she had specifically avoided asking so that she could plead ignorance if need arose. She waited outside for a little, did a circuit of the small building, trying to make sure she was alone; a pudgy man in his early forties made his way out of the building after about five minutes, but it seemed that aside from that the coast was clear. Perhaps the cabin inhabitants were more insulated from the dawn, or were shower-before-bed people. It didn't matter. Kimberly slipped inside and found that she was indeed by herself.

It wasn't a modesty thing, not exactly—rather predictably, the place was set up in such a way as to alleviate most of those concerns anyways. The thing was, Kimberly was very, very particular about her scars, especially when she was keeping a low profile. The obvious and identifiable one was of course her shoulder; the nickel-sized central circle of tissue was surrounded by a mass of lines and dots, evidence of when her captors-turned-temporary-caretakers had cut out the remaining bullet fragments and then sewn her back together, along with the relics of those hasty initial stitches that had probably saved her life on that long-ago beach. There was also the long, jagged line running horizontally along her right outer leg, a couple inches above the knee, and a thin slash that didn't quite align properly tracing the underside of the index through ring fingers of her right hand. Those didn't get people's attention as much—especially the latter, which you really had to be paying pretty close attention to her hands to notice—but they could prompt questions or stares she didn't want all the same.

"Why don't you get that covered up?" a guy she'd dated for a while about half a year ago had asked out of the blue while they sat on his bed, about sixty seconds before becoming her ex, with a nod to her shoulder. "You could get a sick-ass tattoo and nobody'd be the wiser." But the thing was, being branded with a perpetual reminder of everything and carrying that with her was bad enough. Not having that would've been unthinkably worse.

And besides, it wasn't like Kimberly was some stranger to having extremely mixed feelings about her body. She'd hated her scrawniness in high school, hated how she felt next to girls like Rosa or the slutty Jennifer. She'd hidden, at first, behind her hair and her sweaters and her eyeliner, and then over time that had changed and she'd owned it, all crazy fishnet gloves and spiked collars and a lacy Prom dress adorned with silver chains. If she couldn't be like everybody else, she'd decided, then she'd make damn sure nobody else could be like her.

Most days, all of that felt impossibly long ago. Maybe it was sleeping basically outdoors that was stirring it all back up, or maybe it was everything that had prompted her trip in the first place. Whatever the case, she didn't much care for it. Nostalgia was as pernicious as it was seductive, even without the extra baggage her own past carried.

The water was warm enough, and the showers were dim and buggy but the bugs stayed to the dry corners of the room, and she'd forgotten her shampoo in the car but what the fuck, one day without wasn't going to kill her. She toweled off and got dressed again and brushed her teeth, spitting in the sink just as a pale girl with curly red hair who looked maybe fifteen ducked inside, laughing loudly until she saw that she wasn't alone and then stifling her exuberance to giggles. Kimberly gave her a smile and then departed, old clothes wrapped around deodorant and toothpaste, toothbrush in her other hand. As she made her way back to her car, she saw that there was even more activity at most of the campsites, though the couple had disappeared back into their tent. She nodded to the old man this time, and he raised his coffee cup to her, though she couldn't say if it was in acknowledgement or invitation to join him; she smiled and kept walking.

When she returned to her car, she packed her things away and then leaned against it for a time, listening to the world and enjoying the slight breeze that stirred. There were bugs, the rustle of trees, the indecipherable mumble of distant conversation. She figured the people here were, by and large, not local. It seemed that this was too far off the beaten path for the news crews and other assorted vultures to make their ways to, or if they had they were holed up in the nicer cabins, insulated from the real world.

She just stood there for a while, thinking that really she wasn't here for any specific reason, that there was nothing to draw her into town if she didn't feel like it. On some level, she didn't, but she got into her car and started the engine nonetheless.

At the very least, she thought she should probably find a place to do a load of laundry and maybe see about buying a tent.

MW's Private Rank
Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

October 12th, 2017, 6:39 pm #3

((Kimberly Nguyen continued from But I Might Die Tonight))

Fuck Josie Vernon.

Kimberly's forced calm had lasted just barely long enough to put sufficient distance between her and Josie and Josie's friend and whoever else had turned up to make mysterious noises and ruin Kimberly's night that she couldn't easily turn around and go back and give them a piece of her mind. That space was really all that stood between her and such a course of action. The shock of Liz's apparent success at finding a way to screw over everyone else had taken priority, and it still took priority, but Kimberly had the capacity to multitask. And oh was she pissed at Josie now.

It was cool on the mountain, and the slight breeze slipped in under the towel that covered Kimberly's left arm, raising goose bumps and making her wish that somehow the sleeve of her sweater could've been salvaged. The pain wasn't so bad just now. To an extent, it was probably familiarity; she remembered this experiment back in seventh grade science class where the teacher—and she couldn't remember who that teacher had been at all, maybe a man with a beard in his mid-thirties?—had made them sniff various vials and track how long it took until they could no longer actually smell the substances within. Before too long, even the most potent fumes would become undetectable. If something changed, though, or they had a moment to mentally reset, the odor would come right back. So maybe that was kind of how it was with the pain, because there were more important things to be focusing on, and the fact that her shoulder was irreparably fucked up forevermore was important to know and be reminded of from time to time but couldn't get in the way of her moment-to-moment survival. And of course, she was taking quite a bit of ibuprofen as well.

Everything smelled of pine trees and the dry needles crunched underfoot and made Kimberly think about the few times she'd really been in the wilderness. Her grandparents weren't much for the outdoors; they liked their life in the city and if they all drove out to one of the lakes to spend a day swimming and picnicking that was enough adventure for half a year or so. Far better, they thought, to go to a museum or a concert or a movie. Family vacations were rare, not because they didn't have the money (they did) but because it wasn't how her grandparents enjoyed themselves and it wasn't something Kimberly really pushed for. But she had been camping a few times, just with friends and their families instead of her own, and she'd enjoyed herself even if it had been well outside her comfort zone. She'd been kind of looking forward to the stupid class trip.

But now, the loose earth made her nervous. The pebbles and debris could give way with a misstep, and there was little chance of assistance if she sprained an ankle or caught herself wrong and broke her good wrist. It was dark and hard to see where she was going, even with the almost-full moon, and besides, who knew who could be lurking?

That last thought burned some, because it was Kimberly who should've been the shadow that scared others. It was just that Josie was so very fucking stupid that she couldn't understand subtlety or menace or threat, and that actually really hurt quite a lot. She'd just run off like Kimberly couldn't do anything, and she'd gotten away with it because Kimberly really couldn't do anything, and that made Kimberly feel, well, not exactly emasculated but something in the neighborhood.

She wished she could've hurt Josie. That's what happened when you didn't take people seriously enough: you got hurt. If Josie could treat Kimberly like a joke and just walk away without suffering any sort of repercussions, though, that meant that either she had in fact treated Kimberly with a suitable level of credibility (none) or that Kimberly had chosen to let her go, and try as she might to spin it as the latter that wasn't really how it had gone down.

It wouldn't have needed to be something major. Maybe make Josie really sweat about her friend, like really think that Kimberly was going to actually kill the lisping girl, or maybe just loop the rope attached to the grappling hook around Josie's pale little neck and strangle her a bit. The image came to mind easily—she'd choke and open her mouth wide like a fish's, scrabble at the rope, eyes bulging, trying to cry for help but not able to force air from her lungs. She'd thrash back and forth, kick and try to stomp on Kimberly's feet, but that was what thick boots were for preventing. They'd make eye contact and Josie would mouth out something—"please" had good ring to it—and Kimberly would smile sadly and shake her head a bit and Josie would ramp it up again and try harder than ever and still get nowhere, and then as her eyes started to roll back in their sockets like she was that girl in The Exorcist or whatever, Kimberly would release her hold. Josie would topple to the ground and cough and gasp and just as she sucked in her first big breath Kimberly would kick her really hard in the side and send her sprawling in the dirt and say fuck you, Josie Vernon, you should be careful because you never know who's a threat and you're really fucking lucky I'm not actually looking to murder your pathetic, naive, idiotic ass. And then Kimberly would light a cigarette and walk away with her head held high not because she was lying to herself but because she'd really earned that right.

Come to think of it, maybe it was not such a bad idea after all to try to retrace her steps and figure out if Josie was still there. She had a good sense of direction. Yes, there was Liz out there gambling with the lives of everyone but herself as the stakes, and, yes, there was Kris out there still in need of a reckoning that would make anything Kimberly might be considering doing to Josie look like a mild lecture from a parent who feels obligated to express disapproval but whose heart isn't really in it. But the thing was, Liz and Kris could be absolutely fucking anywhere on this enormous island while Josie was probably still scratching her head with those other arrivals all introducing themselves like they hadn't been classmates for four years or more (assuming nobody had killed each other, of course) or else somewhere at least vaguely nearby that spot. It was a pretty big mountain, but not that big, and the girl and her lisping friend weren't especially quiet or sneaky.

Kimberly had actually turned around and taken two steps without fully realizing what she was doing, even while still vacillating as to which course of action she should be pursuing, when there came a crackling sound from all around. She stopped, crouched, let her good hand rest on the ground, pine needles and dirt pressing into her palm. The little ambient noises of insect life went silent, replace by the hiss of a microphone. The breeze returned to Kimberly's awareness like one of those scents in science class, making her shiver. She listened.

The voice was one she'd come to recognize, rather than a surprise like last time. Danya.

"Evening, children... my aren't we having a busy day? It seems that one of your number has no regard for the rest of you. Gee, I tried to warn you about that Liz Polanski, but she just won't stop playing roulette with your lives..."

Kimberly turned right back around, stood and moved as the words echoed from everywhere and nowhere. Her throat felt tight and she held her breath like somehow that would ward off the possibility that any inhalation could be her last. It was surprisingly easy to forget the collars at most times, even though Hermione's fate had made it uncomfortably clear that it was probably not very hard to trigger them, but right now all Kimberly could think about was her head being blown clean off. Would she remain conscious, she wondered, for a few moments, flying through the air and watching her own lifeless body crumple with blood spewing from the stump of her severed spinal cord? She'd read somewhere that a man had once blinked again and again after being executed by guillotine. How many blinks had he made it? Kimberly thought maybe thirteen or seventeen.

What were the odds she'd be picked as the next example? She was an injured girl who hadn't done a hell of a lot. She'd been with a group that was also looking to escape and had spent a lot of time trying to keep her alive after she got shot, so maybe her death would resonate with them and send them a message. On the other hand, she'd disavowed their plans, walked away from their likely-futile resistance to pursue something much more acceptable to those in charge; perhaps that was a point in her favor. She was all alone right now—would that help her or hurt her?

Her pace had elevated into a cautious jog, and she couldn't hold her breath anymore but wished she could, and the crunch of her footfalls was audible but what did that matter? Everyone on the island had bigger issues right about now. Sweat was prickling along her skin, especially her exposed arm, and surely the night air would make her regret that soon if she didn't die, but that was a problem she'd gladly face.

Josie was pushed aside again—accessibility mattered only to a certain point—and Liz and Kris came roaring back to the foreground. Kris was, of course, the real first priority, the one thing Kimberly truly wanted with all her heart to make sure she could deal with. Josie would be a temporary release, but a distraction; time spent on her would be time not spent finding Kris for the main event, and time was something she might not have that much of. And Liz? Liz had to be... stopped. That was a prerequisite to all the other things Kimberly wanted to do with the rest of her life; for her to be assured that any failure to catch up to Kris rested solely on her own shoulders, she would need the lottery of sudden death shut down. Everything else would keep, or if it didn't that'd be a shame but was an acceptable loss to get rid of that horrifying anticipation, that awareness of her own throat and the blood pulsing through her veins with every heartbeat and how easily it could spray out in a brief, sickly arc, leaving her nothing but a pile of cooling meat.

By the time Kimberly slipped out of the night air and into the stuffy, stale tunnels, some of her composure would have returned, and while flustered she would be able to approach the whole situation with a certain degree of analysis. But while Danya spoke, she felt even more helpless than she had while bleeding in the sand, and this feeling, like that one, was something that she doubted would ever entirely leave her.

((Kimberly Nguyen continued in Blackout))

MW's Private Rank
Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

December 8th, 2017, 3:09 am #4

Saturday, June 6, 2015
The news broke too late to make The Daily Miner, but to Kimberly's surprise 89.3 FM KNAU got the BBC, so she was able to get the general idea of what had happened. The reports were succinct, digests for busy commuters, and she'd always preferred long-form but they told her enough. STAR was effectively gone. Some of the people taken in 2007 had survived. McAllister went on about how they should just let the government do its job. The Chinese spilled further secrets and everyone was very unsure what it meant for the kidnapped students from Kingman, never mind that they were surely all but one long dead. Kimberly sat in her car listening and sipped a carton of coconut water.

It was hard to sort how she felt about it all. Fuck McAllister—never mind if he was from the party she was nominally a member of, she'd held her nose when she voted for him in 2008 and again in 2012. She thought the president untrustworthy and hypocritical, and yet she couldn't say he was more than half wrong here. Her feelings towards STAR had always been mixed, with a decided lean towards the negative. She remembered making her way through the alley behind The Promenade, remembered the furtive, heated conversation she'd had with the man who had followed her. She couldn't call her words to mind verbatim—sometimes, once in a while, something still truly stuck with her, wormed its way inside of her and took on a life of its own and whispered itself back to her again and again, but no longer was this common in the way it had been on the island—but some of the key points were still at hand. She'd made herself very clear: she'd wanted nothing to do with them, because giving your life to revenge was giving your life all the same. She'd said she wanted closure, wanted to grow up. She'd thought maybe they ought to consider seeking the same.

So what was this now, in light of that goal? Why was she in Arizona in the middle of the summer?

She hadn't found anything she'd been looking to except for an individual-sized tent at Target and a sleeping bag to go with it and some provisions a little more to her tastes. She had found other things, things she had not been looking for but was grateful to find nonetheless. There was a record store. It was not a good record store—the selection was limited and scattershot and the prices were high—but it had given her something to do that felt like a purpose. She'd spent two hours going through it from top to bottom, and hadn't even minded when the proprietor gave her a disappointed look upon discovering her ultimate stack was a mere three CDs. She'd bought another copy of Blood on the Tracks, and had been listening to it when she wasn't listening to the radio. It was some bad pressing, incorrectly indexed; the cuts between tracks came about a second and a half late, so if she skipped around she missed the very first notes of each song.

She hadn't been recognized, or at least had not been approached. It felt like an inevitability that somebody would get curious or make a leap and talk to her, confront or question her, and she didn't know if that was something that terrified her or that she yearned for. Nothing here was hers, though, and nobody had implied otherwise, and that was right and proper.

Maybe she was being self-involved. Kingman was no bastion for the Vietnamese diaspora, but she'd ditched her signature hairstyle and fashion sense years ago. She'd talked to the media since periodically, but the mainstream press wouldn't touch her because she wouldn't sing to their tune, and if the BBC was a pleasant surprise to find here, Democracy Now! would be an impossibility. Probably the most recent images of her most people had seen would be the National Geographic stuff, and that was three years gone now.

Still, she'd spied on the others in the record store as she flipped through the CDs, a vigilance she carried even when logic told her it wasn't needed. Her fingers had found a rhythm their own, paging through the cases with a clack-clack-clack like a drumbeat, catching the scents of dust and old paper, and she'd looked at the names and cover art but what she'd seen had been in her peripheral vision, the way people walked and stood and spoke to each other.

The man at the counter encouraged everyone to buy whenever possible, but his heart didn't seem to be in it; Kimberly thought he was operating as best he knew how by returning to familiar patterns. He smiled and laughed and dropped in a compliment or recommendation in almost every interaction, but the words were the same time and again, and the corners of his eyes never moved. An elderly couple perusing the classical section murmured inaudibly. They clearly had their own worries; the woman was so stooped she must have lost half a foot of the height she stood in her youth, and the man lurched every third step. And yet, they were the only ones who conveyed anything approaching joy. They compared records, slowly easing box sets from their shelves and carefully holding the large disks to what light there was, scanning for scratches. The younger patrons, by contrast, were subdued. A number didn't buy anything, just walked in and made a circuit, their seeking as aimless as Kimberly's. Some of them glanced at her, but nobody spoke to her. She did not acknowledge the looks she received.

After the record store, she'd driven by the school for the first time. It looked nothing like Bayview. There was a large, rolling field of grass in front, dotted randomly with picnic tables, and while it was nice enough it struck her as quaint. But maybe that was best way to describe high school in general now. She could remember what it was like, of course. When she was young, thirteen and fifteen and seventeen, she'd promised herself again and again that she wouldn't forget like all the adults in her life seemed to have. She could still call back how fucking cool she'd felt the very first time she put a cigarette to her lips and drew in the smoke that burned and scratched. In those two seconds of inhalation, before she coughed and dropped it, she felt powerful and sexy and alive, because not only was she doing something society said was just for adults, she was doing something that everyone agreed was bad and forbidden and self-destructive, and from that point forward, she'd thought, for the entire rest of her life she'd be the person who'd made that choice in that moment.

She could remember the pain and the drama, and she could finally do it without resenting or disowning or mocking the person she'd been when she suffered through it, without trivializing the small struggles merely due to how they compared to her later trials. She could think about her poetry, its tortured metaphors, the thought that she could only reveal her soul to the world in a wave of darkness and slickly suffocating death, and she could laugh not at it or herself but at how different most things looked now, and also at how in some ways they remained very much the same.

Kimberly could even remember a time when she had thought that it was very important to pretend not to be very smart. Clever, sure, clever had always been something she'd valued, but she'd hidden the marks on her papers not to keep her grandparents from scolding her but to keep her friends from teasing her for getting As. She could remember why, and yet at the same time it felt so alien, almost as alien as the fact that the strongest alcohol she'd had in her life was still Bacardi 151 that she'd coughed up all over herself, almost as alien as the fact that the boy sitting next to her had gone on to gut one of his friends and say it had all been for the greater good.

He'd been hitting on her, that night at the party. Kimberly had only realized that about a year ago, late at night when she'd been up for no good reason considering trying to get hold of Justin Corrigan and then deciding like she almost always did that it was a bad idea. Peter had been hitting on her. Actually, maybe she'd known it all along and just had forced herself to forget; she had surprisingly clear memories of that party, and among them was reiterating to herself, again and again and with great conviction, that she wasn't going to fuck anyone there, despite the fact that she'd never been the sort to just meet someone at a party and fuck them.

Indeed, barring a span of just over a year following her return where she kept to herself, Kimberly's romantic inclinations remained much as they'd always been: she was a serial monogamist with a fickle streak, not too concerned with what society said you didn't do until the third date and similarly unworried about what it thought you had to do at that milestone. She was more often not in relationships than in them, and probably that was her own doing—she'd spent a long time trying to figure out what sort of person she could even still connect with, had made her mistakes turning back to exes from before everything in the hopes they'd still see her as a person instead of a figure and that their root incompatibility might have somehow been burned away, had made other errors trying to push aside her past and affect a normalcy she'd never in her life felt—but she didn't much mind. She liked other people, but she didn't need them. She wasn't so sure anymore that she could sustain anything beyond platonic love for those among the living for anything beyond half a year, and when it all inevitably went up in flames, she still preferred to be the one to throw the match.

Classes were obviously out of session. It was well into summer, and she was sure they'd have been cancelled even were it not. Still, there had been cars in the parking lot, occasional motion glimpsed through the windows. She'd parked across the street, gotten out, then just leaned against the driver's side door looking at the place for a while before getting back in and driving away. There'd been a minute there where she'd thought to maybe enter the school, get her nametag from the office and see if the inside struck her as more familiar, but the impulse had passed. Besides, she'd probably already come off as alarming or sinister, standing there watching even for five minutes. The attraction most of the world held towards this place was altogether too prurient, and while she might think herself different others might not, and regardless it didn't give her any right to intrude.

A few more stops, a little more drifting aimlessness, and then she was set up at the campsite, her little home base that was becoming, if not homey, more hers with every day.

She alternated between the radio and Dylan for a while, but as the evening fell she turned off both and sat in the dark, listening to the world around her, nature and the others in the campground.

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Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

December 16th, 2017, 11:04 am #5

Sunday, June 7, 2015
Kimberly stared into the fire. She didn't have to wait long before it whispered to her.

It had been like this for as long as she could remember. Her grandparents had been very careful to keep the matches and candles out of reach when she was small, and as she'd grown up there'd been a little surge of excitement every time she lit a cigarette or had to fix the pilot light on the stove. There was something magical about the hiss of a match, the puff of sulfur, that no lighter could ever replicate. It felt more real, somehow.

For a brief time, she'd thought maybe there was something to astrology when a middle school friend's mother asked her some questions about her birthday and put together a chart and told Kimberly that she was a Leo, a fire sign, and gave some little details about Leos that struck close to home. She'd said other things—apparently Kimberly had absolutely no air prevalence whatsoever, whatever that meant—but it hadn't taken too long for Kimberly to decide that all of it was bullshit. All of it, that is, except perhaps her innate affinity for flame.

The night was calm and not hot. That was something she'd been told in class several times over the years, that the desert weather was actually varied, but it took firsthand experience for that fact to become real to her. She'd gathered the tinder from her surroundings, scraps of bark and twigs and pine cones, but the core of the fire was logs that she'd purchased in town. She knew a little about setting campfires, knew to build a teepee and put the kindling at the bottom, but it was not an elegant creation and it'd taken her three tries to get it going. The whole while, the smell wafting through her mind wasn't pine and fresh air and wood, but tar and gasoline and just a hint of fear.

What the fire said to her depended on the day. Sometimes it told her she was right, right in everything she did, right to stand against the world and tell anyone with a problem with that to fuck themselves and die. Sometimes it told her everything would be okay, that the night always ended, that wounds healed and breakups stopped mattering and pain passed. Sometimes it pleaded with her to release it, told her it would be okay, just burn down the whole damn mountain and to hell with anyone caught in the conflagration.

She never trusted it fully. Some things had to be held at arm's length. Kimberly did not forget betrayals easily. The all-pervasive smoke, the heat, those seconds when the window wouldn't open, the horror flashing through her mind, the thought that they'd never pick her blackened bones from the rubble. She'd written a will, not too long after she got home, and one of the big reasons for that was to explicitly state that when she died she did not want to be cremated.

She sat on the ground, cross-legged, gazing at the wood as the flames wove through it. They slipped in and out, the blackness of char spreading with glowing orange delineating its advance. Sometimes it roared and sometimes it seemed almost to dissipate, but she knew that the heat and the burning was inside the logs now, knew that even once everything seemed completely spent the energy and potential would live on for some time. She added further collected sticks and twigs, tossing the periodically into the stone circle, watching as they were consumed.

The smoke from her fire shifted with the wind, now coming towards her, sweeping heat across her face, and she narrowed her eyes but did not close them. This should have been familiar, but now the scent was too strong to pretend. This was a campfire, not a burning building. The smoke made it hard to breathe, but she could move a few feet to either side and be free of it, and soon enough the breeze would change direction again regardless. And the smoke itself, this was smoke from the burning of wood and wood alone, not plastic and paint and wires and bodies.

Kimberly stood, walked the fifteen feet to her car, got an empty can that had once held coconut water. When she returned to her seat, the smoke was going off to her left. She wasn't the only one with a fire. At the next campsite down the road, a young couple and their two children—a boy and a girl, Kimberly thought, but couldn't be sure as they held that androgyny of the prepubescent—were roasting hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks. Kimberly rolled the can between her hands, felt its solid construction, experienced a brief moment of guilt because she tried to be a good liberal, dammit, she always carried her bottles until she found a recycling bin, but still she pitched the can into the flames with a little underhand flick of her wrist.

It landed at the base of the wood pyramid, and rolled towards the center of the flames. For a few seconds, nothing happened, and then the printing on the side of the can began to discolor. Whites and blues turned to grayscale, and the label's words lost their hue but retained perfect definition. A lick of fire spouted from the opening in the top of the can, and then the middle of the side facing Kimberly softened, thinned, and burned away around another tongue of flame. The aluminum turned weak and papery, the words finally lost coherence, and after a few minutes there was nothing left except scraps and the thicker top and bottom of the can.

Someone smarter—no, someone more scientifically inclined—might have been able to accomplish something with an old can and a fire. Kimberly's grandparents had read her this story when she was young about a tin soldier cast from a spoon, malformed and abused as he sought love, ultimately consumed by the fireplace and melted into the shape of a heart along with his paper ballerina paramour. She'd hated that story, hated it like she'd hated The Velveteen Rabbit and Peter Pan, but it had at the same time held that undeniable pull of the truly disturbing. What got to her was the way it tried to couch its bleakness, turn it into something bittersweet, a comforting lie that most of its audience accepted without analysis. Perhaps that's why horror had eventually become her genre of choice. Death and misery she could take, just as long as it didn't pretend to be anything else.

She was sitting closer to the fire now. Its heat suffused her, concentrating particularly in her knees, the point of her body closest to it. She was becoming slightly uncomfortable, the denim of her jeans insufficient shielding from the temperature—maybe even, she thought as she touched her right knee and found the fabric almost singeing her fingertips—trapping and magnifying it.

She wanted to move and at the same time didn't want to. The heat brought discomfort, but not danger, she thought. The pain was such that it didn't even feel right to call it that—it was nothing compared to what she felt when she twisted wrong in her sleep and her shoulder screamed her awake, nothing compared to the time she accidentally set off the pepper spray she still carried with her (augmented now with a stun gun that lived in the passenger-side door of the car) and cried for half an hour, nothing compared to getting hit so hard in the face she didn't see clearly for almost a month. So she decided to stay, and then just as quickly changed her mind and scooted back a few feet. What was there to gain from torturing herself like this? This wasn't penance, wasn't closure, wasn't anything except proving to herself that she could do something she already knew herself well capable of.

Frankenstein's monster planned to burn himself to death as absolution for his crimes of revenge.

Fuck not learning from your mistakes.

She sat and watched the fire burn and burn. The remnants of the teepee of wood collapsed under their own weight, a crash that kicked sparks into the air, wafting harmlessly to drop in the dirt at Kimberly's feet, disintegrating into grey ash. The crackling was almost musical. The world was dark now, all dark except for her fire and the faint glow from a campsite further down the way where somebody's reading light was visible even through the semi-opaque side of their tent, its blue fluorescent glow unnatural and disruptive. The couple and their kids had gone to bed. Before this week, it had been quite some time since Kimberly had spent any real time in a place free of light pollution. Since the National Geographic trip, probably. She tore her gaze away, turned it up to the stars behind the smoke, but only for a few moments.

In time, her fire burned itself to nothing. She poked around its ashes with a stick, stirring the embers, uncovering orange glows that promised rebirth. Stoke us again, they whispered, restore our glory. We can burn all night, if you want us to. We can burn until the sun comes up again. We can wait for the dawn together and talk.

Kimberly shoveled dirt into the fire pit, killing any chance of a wayward spark leaping somewhere dangerous, then ducked into her tent. She had somebody else she needed a word with.

Hey, Kris.

It's been a while.

I think about you—I remember you—every day, but sometimes not in the ways I probably should. Sometimes I fuck up and you just become this thing again, this reason. Why does it hurt? Kris. Why am I crying? Kris. Why can't I reach? Well, you get the idea.

The thing is, that's how we got into this mess in the first place, thinking of each other as reasons and things. I won't pretend to comprehend the details of what you faced, but I think I understand the basics. You were scared, just like I was. You were scared, but you didn't know what to do with that fear. You were scared, but not of the same things as me.

It doesn't really matter. Mostly I just wanted to say I'm sorry.

Not that I killed you, of course. I'm not sorry about that at all. I wouldn't have done it if it was a thing I was going to regret. I like to think maybe you understood. I hope you weren't angry, but I wouldn't blame you if you were. It's okay if you hated me. I understand.

No, I'm sorry that I couldn't get it right in the beginning. That day on the beach, I trusted you, more or less. I made myself trust you, and I paid for that trust. You did not trust me. And I understand that too. Trusting was a mistake. It was then and mostly it still is now. But all the same, I think there's a world out there, a world that maybe never existed but could have, where things went differently. I can see a world where I know you better, where I understand what you're feeling and what I'm feeling, where I know the right words to say and the right things to do to calm you down. I can see a world where one tragedy is enough, a world where you throw down the gun and cry about what you did and then turn away from that path.

I was right, Kris. I was right. We could have just sat around and waited and all gone home. Nobody had to die.

So I'm sorry that I wasn't someone you could trust. I'm sorry that I wasn't better.

I know you're gone. I don't think there's a heaven or a hell or a god and I don't think you can hear me. I know you're always going to be dead. I know this doesn't mean anything. But still...

I'm sorry.

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Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

February 15th, 2018, 3:13 am #6

Monday, July 9, 2012
Seattle was not quite what Kimberly had expected. It was a large city, coastal, chilly in more ways than the physical, but it was not crippled by the loss of the Aurora High students, and life had not ground to a halt.

It also was not constantly raining. Kimberly would forget that, later on, spreading recollections of the ninth across her entire visit, imagining days spent stalking through the rain, but the truth was that Saint Paul saw more thunderstorms during the period of her trip. The one that she experienced stood out not due to magnitude, but because it was in a way atmospheric. It wasn't what she'd come looking for, but it was closer than anything else.

She'd heard the news of the return of Survival of the Fittest from her grandfather, banging on her door at quarter to one in the afternoon loudly and persistently enough to rouse her from her isolation. Her phone had been off, the blinds drawn, the lights on low. This was usual for the day—fuck Independence Day, a holiday she'd been somewhat hostile to even before 2008, when she spent it holed up because she was too emotionally drained to keep rebuffing reporters—and she'd been just short of flying off the handle before she saw the look on her grandfather's face change from fear to relief. He'd been afraid they'd taken her again, he said, like that other boy. Kimberly had found herself hugging and comforting him, telling him no, no, he didn't have to worry. She would never go back. She'd die first, but she didn't volunteer that thought.

Their conversation had been brief. Once he was satisfied that Kimberly was unhurt, and once she'd managed to ascertain the specifics of the situation, she'd told him she had some very important things to do and would be going out of town for a little. She'd promised to check in and she'd promised to be safe and then she'd tapped into the flames that had roared back to life inside of her and channeled them into a screed that the mainstream media, as usual, wouldn't touch directly, only cautiously report on and excerpt from. Then she'd made her way to the airport and hopped the next plane to Seattle, full of purpose and certainty, and that sureness hadn't faded until she was safely ensconced in a hotel room, unpacked, checked in with her grandfather (who told her she'd missed an awful lot of calls—she preferred to use a landline in part because it made her substantially more difficult to reach, and had left her cell shut off the whole time), and ready to begin.

It was only at this point that she'd realized she had no idea what she was doing. She'd brought some of her tools, laptop and notebook and simmering indignation, but without clear purpose. She'd spent much of that first day firing her editorial off to further rejection and some fringe acceptance, and then had found herself drifting through the city almost at random.

Now, the better part of a week later, as the rain finally fell and thunder rumbled through the night, was the first time she felt she was finding anything approaching insight through the method.

It wasn't much. It was past midnight, technically the ninth now, and she was walking downtown, the rain spattering against her black windbreaker and her glasses, the drops blurring her vision and stretching the taillights of passing cars into red streaks that could almost be figures. The buildings here were sleek and modern in this way that made Kimberly think of hospitals and spaceships. They struck her as profoundly unwelcoming. The EMP Museum stood out as a garish mess of angles and colors, a jumble of chaos that Kimberly judged far too manufactured and calculated. It gave her the chills, like a cluster of dead leaves that looked a bit too much like a body. The Space Needle, by contrast, towered over everything but seemed like it belonged. She could imagine entering the building, climbing the stairs or riding the elevator or whatever, leaning against the rail and looking out over the city. She stopped at the International Fountain, struck by the giant sloped circle of concrete surrounding the spray of water, but after a few moments all she could think about was how reminiscent it was of an arena, so she hurried on.

This was the part of Seattle that was on all the postcards, the heart of the city, iconic and attractive, and yet Kimberly doubted the story it told had all that much to do with the dead students whose final moments were even now being spooled out to the voyeur masses. No, any truth here would be found elsewhere, in houses where dinnertime conversation was replaced with the drone of television, in skate parks fallen silent, in a spike in suicides. The famous sights were nothing but an acceptable backdrop to put behind reporters when the world got tired of seeing the drab grey school building. They could be—had been, would be—the trite, surface-level identifiers of any city anywhere in the country.

It was chilly, and her hair stuck to her forehead. The streets were quiet but not deserted. In a city this size, Kimberly doubted anything but the harshest weather could bring total still, no matter the time of night.

She was watching the people from a distance, trying to detect some sign of mourning, of anger, of understanding, but what she saw instead was people living their lives. That, then, was the truth of it: life stopped for some, but never for all. A couple huddled under one too-small umbrella, laughing and squeezing closer together. Kimberly's glasses were too damp to make out their ages, and by the time she'd taken them off and tugged the hem of her jacket up enough to wipe them with the bottom of her t-shirt, the objects of her attention had vanished around a corner.

Cars splashed through puddles. The wind shook the trees that lined the streets here, trees with branches full of bright green leaves, reminders that whatever the weather on this gloomy night, it was still the middle of summer. Kimberly shivered, wishing she had a sweater or maybe a hat. What she didn't allow herself to want was a cigarette. She could imagine the little spark of a match igniting, drawing the smoke into her lungs and feeling it spread warmth from her core down her limbs to her fingertips and the bottoms of her toes, but she could just as easily visualize the blackening of organs, the way a single exception would turn into an infrequent routine would turn into a habit. She'd never gone through a pack in a day, but the island might've made her were she not forced to ration. It was harder, she knew firsthand, to wean herself from destructive coping mechanisms than to avoid cultivating those habits in the first place.

It was late and cold and she was finding nothing. There had been a feeling of progress, one that carried her for some time, but it was dissipating into wisps. She could resume her search in the morning, perhaps with a better idea what she was searching for. For now, she turned her focus to finding a bus stop. Her hotel was a couple miles away, nothing worth worrying about but also an unpleasant enough distance to traverse in the middle of the night while soaked.

When she came to the nearest stop, three blocks later, she was surprised to find that she was not the only one waiting. A white man in his late thirties sat on a bench, engrossed in his phone, and a young woman in a bright red wool coat stood nearby, under a tree. The man had scruffy dark stubble and short receding hair that looked like it was normally neatly-combed when not soaked. He was stocky, tall yet heavy with an air of faint strength. His body language was tense in an understated way, tightly-wound, and it got Kimberly's guard up immediately.

The young woman was Asian, maybe also mixed, Kimberly thought, and she seemed nervous, glancing from the man to the street to her feet, then quickly surveying her surroundings. When she caught sight of Kimberly, she seemed to shake herself from her thoughts, though her edginess showed no signs of diminishing.

Kimberly took this all in quickly, casually. It was second nature now—or maybe it had always been—to assess others. It lurked somewhere outside the realm of conscious thought, but when the young woman broke from the cover of the tree and moved towards her, Kimberly was only loosely surprised.

"I'm," the girl said, "I'm sorry to bother you but, uh, I lost my wallet and I don't have any money for the bus. I was, I was wondering if—"


Kimberly dug into her pocket, withdrew her wallet, took a moment to remember what the fare was. Two fifty? Two fifty. Maybe she was being fleeced, feeding a drug habit or supplementing an allowance frittered on overpriced clothing, but she wouldn't begrudge. She'd been there.

"Thanks," the girl said.

"It's nothing."

Silence returned. The girl stayed close, hovering just inside Kimberly's bubble, and that irritated her so she forced herself to turn away, to look along the road for the bus, but at the same time she listened, centering herself, feeling her breathing. When the bus stopped, it took her off-guard. She was the last to board, and took a seat at the very back. This was, she realized, not going to be a good ride. Usually the bus was okay, but every so often it all came back.

It was stifling. The windows were stuck—Kimberly had tried to open the one next to her right away, thinking maybe she'd yell out at her friends outside, or throw something at the underclassmen, which was probably exactly why they were locked. Thwarted, she sat and waited and waited, waited while the rest boarded, waited while the driver told his stupid jokes, waited while fucking Mrs. Bishop, late as always, came careening through the doors. This was going to be a long seven hours.

She had a notebook and some actual books, but had been counting on getting someone cool to sit next to. Instead, she was squashed against the window by Everett Taylor, who was okay in that incredibly lame tight-ass nerd way except he actually wasn't that smart so spent his whole life studying shit again and again that Kimberly got on the second try even if she was hungover. She thought he'd probably picked her bench because she was skinny so there was plenty of room, but it fucking sucked for her. Yeah, he'd asked if he could sit and yeah, she'd said yes—because what the fuck else could she say?—but that did not mean she had to like it.

Everett was reading a book. Kimberly assumed he couldn't possibly be studying anything since school was for all intents and purposes done, but there was room to be surprised. She dug out her own book (she was rereading Carrie) and tried to focus but it wasn't working so great. The bus slowly wound through the city, and Everett was radiating heat, and that warmth of someone else's body—even someone who'd been neurotically careful to avoid actual contact with her—was uncomfortably intimate. She tried to scoot a little closer to the window, and glanced over to see Everett glancing at her and felt really fucking awful about herself for a second, but that soon clarified into irritation at him. Fine. Fuck him.

The stuffy heat came in waves, and finally, way too late, the driver turned on the AC, but the bus was old as shit so the AC didn't seem to actually be doing anything. Kimberly read the same line in her book five, ten times, and someone behind her snored, and she thought that actually, sleeping through this wouldn't be such a terrible idea, especially since she was feeling some fatigue from who-knew-where. She put Carrie back in her backpack and took off her glasses and folded them up and put them in there too so they wouldn't make her ears ache, and then she leaned against the window and closed her eyes.

She was startled from sleep for just a moment by the bump of Everett slumping against her, and tried to muster the fury to tell him to fuck himself and shove him into the aisle, but it just didn't seem a worthwhile expenditure of energy.

When next she woke up, nothing was ever okay again. Her head pounded as she watched the teachers' execution, watched Mrs. Bishop's skull explode leaving one little fragment dangling from a scrap of skin, watched the heavyset man who introduced himself as Danya give his speech, watched the clip of a year-old murder. It all felt unreal. No, even more, it was unreal. Something had gone wrong, but this would all come to a screeching halt in no time flat, she decided, because Bayview was not a school of killers and heroes, not a school special in any ways except perhaps its too-large population (and how many of her classmates, lucky fuckers, hadn't even wanted to go on the stupid fucking trip to the Badlands anyways? A whole fucking lot, she thought), and so they just wouldn't let themselves fall and then they, well, they said they'd kill everyone but they wouldn't, they'd—

"What?" Someone had spoken to Kimberly—been speaking for some time, perhaps. She blinked, turned, and right there in the seat next to her was the man from the bus stop. The bus was otherwise empty. She thought she might have missed her stop.

"Are you okay?" the man said. "Too much to drink?"

"I'm not drunk," Kimberly said. She took a deep breath. She was carrying a stun gun and some mace, both secreted away in pockets.

"I said, you're not from here, are you?" the man said. "I'm a tour guide, so I was thinking maybe if you want I could show you—"

"No," Kimberly said.

"Are you—" the man started, but then Kimberly turned to face him and locked eyes with him and he stopped, searched her face, looked away when she held his gaze. The bus came to its next stop and he stood and made his way out the door.

"Bitch," he mumbled as he went.

Kimberly didn't know or care if she was meant to hear it.

MW's Private Rank
Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

April 16th, 2018, 5:44 am #7

Tuesday, June 9, 2015
To her family—not her real family, but her extended family, the ones who mostly lived in and around what her grandfather still referred to as Saigon—she was Nguyen Thi Kim. She hated it, hated it with the same passion she felt back in high school when some white kid or substitute teacher tried to dub her "Wynn" or "Wayne." Names were important. They mattered. Taking someone's name away was an attack. Renaming someone without their permission was an act of dominance, of arrogance, or of lacking empathy.

People did it to Kimberly all the fucking time.

Most common was "Kim." That one at least made sense as an abbreviation, but it pissed her off because it sounded more "Asian" to people. In fact, her mom had picked her actual name in part because it could be easily shortened to something immediately familiar to those distant relatives she barely knew.

Less frequent, but still distressingly prevalent, was "Kimmy." Kimmy was dismissive, demeaning, patronizing. Kimmy was what you called a toddler or a dog, one you weren't particularly fond of. She'd almost slit a girl's throat for calling her Kimmy. Burdening someone with a nickname was presumptive. It was lazy. If someone didn't care enough about her to spare her the full three syllables, that was a good signal that she didn't have any reason to give a rat's ass about them.

This all was at the forefront of Kimberly's mind because she was finally checking her answering machine. She wasn't a cell phone person, not really. Hers had been the last generation to spend a decent chunk of their lives before cell phones were ubiquitous; her first had been a Nokia with a shiny black faceplate and an antenna you could pull up to improve the reception, inherited from her grandfather near the start of eighth grade. She'd enjoyed it in theory but hadn't used it much, and nothing on that front had changed in the dozen years since. She still didn't have a smartphone. Back in Saint Paul, in her apartment, she had a landline hooked up, and when she had to really talk to someone, that was what she used.

All the same, it had been over a week out of communication now. Her family wouldn't be too worried; she'd been checking her texts periodically to see whether they'd sent her anything, and she'd told them she'd be gone for a while. There were, however, other people who sometimes wanted to get hold of her.

Kimberly was leaning against a tree at the far end of the Target parking lot. It was early afternoon, and it was raining lightly. Most of the city seemed happy to keep out of the drizzle. The dense clouds didn't match what she'd expected from Kingman, but neither did the campground or the suburban sprawl, so she wasn't surprised anymore. It was about ten degrees cooler than it had been two hours ago, and that was a relief.

Most of her messages she deleted before listening to in completion. Anyone who got her name wrong was pruned. This took care of an irritating number of journalists who hadn't done their due diligence. She was amazed that they still called asking for comments or interviews, because they never wanted to hear what she had to say. They wouldn't run profanities. They balked at the thought of someone placing any blame on the kidnapped students or their families. Their expectations were perhaps shaped by some of her less caustic peers, the ones all too happy to sell their souls for a sound bite and a nostalgic moment back in the spotlight. The cause didn't matter; when Kimberly bothered to respond, it was to send them packing unless they fulfilled her exacting requirements. Just about the only mainstream program that she had a good relationship with—and mainstream was a bit of a stretch in all honesty—was "Democracy Now!"

Also quickly pruned were the threats and the heckling and the sycophants. Her number wasn't listed, and she changed it twice a year, but somehow it still ended up in the hands of the particularly twisted and dedicated. The calls made little impression by now. She knew better than most how easy it was to let go when it felt like society's rules didn't apply. She didn't take anything said behind a mask of anonymity seriously. It had been disturbing once, when she was just home, though her grandparents had shielded her from the worst of it. Now it was routine. Abuse, slurs, lurid sexual fantasies, she'd heard it all so often that it held no power. She might as well have been reading comments on some video on the internet totally unrelated to her and her life. Once in a while, when the spite ran highest, she'd even field an unfamiliar number and see what they had to say, especially if they were calling from abroad, and then let them have it if she deemed it merited.

Just in case, though, she brought her stun gun and her pepper spray with her almost everywhere she went. They lived in a pocket of her jacket or the glove compartment of her car or wedged between the mattress and the wall.

The well-wishers were creepier to her, the ones who seemed to think that she would appreciate comfort from them. They were strangers, and those who found ways to call tended to be the ones who deluded themselves into thinking they knew her. Sometimes that meant they'd read her book. Far more often, it meant they'd dug up clips. Most of the people who'd sought out her own perspective knew better than to try to initiate contact.

What that left, then, were the messages from those not so easily dismissed. Her immediate family she would catch up with later. There were a few calls from others worth her time, a few surprises and opportunities to give genuine consideration and exploration. And then there were those distant relatives, the ones who said in Vietnamese she could mostly understand, "Oh, Kim, how terrible that it's happened again. We're so glad that you're okay. We're thinking of you."

She hated them. They were fakes, full of exaggerated pity and liar's empathy. Most of them she'd never met in her life. One or two might have thought to call on a single birthday when she was a child, or have come through the United States and spent a night at her grandparents' house and had dinner with them. They hadn't cared about her when she was nobody, the half-white mistake burdening her poor grandparents who'd already had so much work raising their daughter in a new country. But as soon as Kimberly became somebody of note, these great-aunts and half-cousins and old family friends had always been there for her, and wouldn't she tell them what it had been like, wouldn't she give an interview for her dear third cousin's college entry paper, might she come make a speech at her great-uncle's company dinner?

They were spared her wrath only because they mattered to people who mattered to her. Her grandfather would sigh and tell her not to judge them too harshly. They don't understand, he said. They're a world away, and they think they're doing what's right. They've suffered too, many of them, in ways you can't understand either.

Kimberly couldn't believe that, even for her grandfather. What she could do was delegate the responses to him, to handle as he saw fit.

By the time she'd finished, the rain had let up. The air still hung heavy with humidity, but she liked that. It felt right, somehow. It felt like something had been washed away, and now she was clean again.

Kimberly called her grandfather that night, lying inside her little tent in the plain black nightie she'd gotten out of her luggage when she got sick of sleeping in her jeans. All the while, the resurgent rain pattered against the water-repellant fabric. She didn't feel fresh anymore; she felt certain condensation would gather inside and start dripping on her at any moment. The reception was poor, partially due to the weather but partially to her remote location. She'd meant to call earlier, but then just hadn't felt up to it.

"Hello?" Thuan Nguyen's voice was gravelly, halfway between concerned and resigned, though the faint static made it harder for her to read. Kimberly remembered only now that she was two hours behind Saint Paul—it would be about one in the morning there. Her family did not have to deal with the same volume of harassment and attention she did, but every so often they would still catch some of it, and her stomach twisted as she realized she'd probably caused concern.

"Hey," she said, "it's me."

"Oh." A pause, silent but for the pop of interference and the drumbeat of rain and something faintly vocalized on the other end of the line. Kimberly could put herself there now, watching her grandfather reassuring her grandmother that everything was fine, hand over the receiver in a vain attempt to conceal from Kimberly the distress she had caused with her late-night disruption. Then he was back. "Kimberly, it's good to hear you. Are you okay?"

"Yeah," she said. "I'm fine, shit, I'm sorry. I forgot the time difference."

"It's fine," he said, "fine."

Anything she did was fine, according to him, even—especially—when it clearly actually wasn't. It had been this way as long as she could remember, and she'd raged against it and relied upon it in equal amounts at various points in her life. Now, it just made her tired. It was an indirectness born of kindness, but it tried her own empathy, forced her to guess and tiptoe lest she unthinkingly take advantage as she had just done. But he could no more change his circumspect nature than she could set aside her bluntness.

"I'm sorry," she said again, and then before he could protest, she added, "I went through my calls."

"Oh?" Another pause. "Are you still in...?"

"Arizona? Yeah."

"Mm." More noise came from the background, surely Kimberly's grandmother asking for an update. Her grandfather murmured something inaudible, then said, "How long will you be there?"

"A week and a half, max."

The rain beat against the tent, picking up for a moment, and Kimberly shivered. She was lying on top of her sleeping bag; it had seemed too warm to bundle up, but now she wasn't so sure. Goosebumps prickled along her bare legs, and she switched her phone to her left hand, absentmindedly running the fingers of her right along the ridge of scar above her knee.

"Mm," her grandfather said again. "Are you having fun?"

The answer was as complicated as the question was misguided. Kimberly closed her eyes where once she might have rolled them.

"Yeah," she said.

"Good," he said. "You take care of yourself. Be safe."

"I am," she replied. "I always am."

"Is there anything you need? Something happened, with the messages?"

"I..." Kimberly paused, considered. "Some relatives. I'm not up for that right now, but I think it can wait. I'll call them back when I get home."

"Mm. Well, if you want any help, I'm always here."

"Thank you, grandpa," she said.

The term of endearment tasted strange, wrong. Most of the time when she addressed her family, she did so by name. It was a habit she'd cultivated unconsciously as a child, one that had seen her called insolent and disrespectful by outsiders more than once. She had only recently started with the nicknames, once in a while, and only because she knew he liked them. Her grandmother, who was as stubborn with names as she was, would always be Linh.

"We worry about you," he said. "With everything that's happening, you know. They've mentioned you in the paper."

"Not too often, I hope?"

"Mostly you've been unable to be reached for comment." He chuckled.

"Good," Kimberly said.

"Take care of yourself. We'll see you soon. We love you."

"Thanks," Kimberly said. "You too, both of you. I love you too. I'm sorry I woke you up."

"It's nothing. Goodnight."

She hung up, finger still tracing up and down her leg as the rain came down. The faint glow of her phone dimmed, faded, and she put her glasses aside and closed her eyes soon afterwards, but sleep wasn't coming easily tonight. For a long time she just lay there, listening to the world.

MW's Private Rank
Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

April 20th, 2018, 5:46 am #8

Wednesday, June 10, 2015
"Only about twenty left," someone said behind Kimberly as she stood in line at the Diamondback Ice Cream Parlor. The woman's voice was hushed, furtive, and that was what made Kimberly eavesdrop in the first place. It took a moment before understanding caught up with her senses. When it did, Kimberly turned, slowly, and behind her found two women around her own age, dressed fashionably, shorts and tank tops, each with a little boy attached to one hand, facing each other and smiling. Immediately and intuitively, Kimberly hated them.

It was warm again, almost hot. Last night's downpour already felt a distant memory; most of the puddles had evaporated over the course of the late morning, and now it was mid-afternoon. Ice cream had felt like just the thing—a rarity, because Kimberly wasn't much one for sweets. She'd seen this place several times on her drives through town, and had finally stopped in. Now she was regretting her decision.

"Excuse me?" she said.

The woman who'd spoken was the shorter of he pair, though she still had an inch on Kimberly. She had dirty blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, wide, freckle-covered cheeks, a little snub nose, and Kimberly imagined that her eyes were blue because that made her more repulsive somehow, but they were hidden behind sunglasses. She was white; both of them were.

"Um," the woman said, "what?"

"'Only about twenty left.' You just said that."

There were two people in line in front of Kimberly, young men she thought but couldn't say because she'd been wrapped up in her own mind until disturbed, but they were more focused on the menu than what was going on behind them. It seemed like the place was understaffed today. It was small, homey in this profoundly unwelcoming Americana way. One wall was home to a collection of photographs of smiling, bloated people who had each choked down a massive sundae unassisted. A sign termed it the "Pike's Peak Sundae Challenge" and that pissed Kimberly off inordinately because Pikes Peak was in Colorado, the better part of a thousand miles away.

"I don't know—" the taller woman, a brunette with washed out green eyes, started. Kimberly silenced her with a shake of her head.

"No," she said. "You know."

The little boys were shifting, glancing around uncertainly; the one appended to the woman who Kimberly had cut off squirmed like he might want to break free, but the woman's grip was strong. Her tendons stood out against her knuckles.

The shorter woman swallowed. Her brow crinkled, like she knew she was caught and was trying to decide whether to play offense or defense.

"It was on the news today," she tried.

"What was?"

"The," she said, then swallowed. "The Cochise kids. About twenty left."

"No there aren't," Kimberly said. "They're all dead. Except maybe one."

The woman reached up and snapped her sunglasses off her face like that bitchy little flourish would mean a thing to Kimberly. Sure enough, her eyes were sky blue. When she locked her gaze with Kimberly's, her face was shifting into rage, but the uncertainty set in real quick. Within two seconds, the woman had glanced at her friend, pleading for rescue; the other woman reached out and relieved the blonde of her kid. The woman then tucked her sunglasses into her pocket, slowly and awkwardly, and stepped to the side, out of line. Kimberly paced her, leaving the other one to uncertainly walk towards the counter with the kids in tow. They slipped from Kimberly's attention, except that little part that was always on guard.

"I'm sorry," the blonde woman said, her voice dropping. The speed at which she was cowed came as a surprise, but the cause soon became clear. "Did you... do you know someone there?"

"No," Kimberly said. The woman's eyes widened a little, some of her outrage returning, but Kimberly kept speaking. "That doesn't make it okay."


"Those were people," Kimberly said. "Someone loved them. Every one of them."

The air conditioning was going strong, but Kimberly felt like she was standing in front of a furnace. Her breathing was slowing down, taking time along for the ride, and she was aware of the physical space in a way she hadn't been before. She'd be able to reach the woman if she took one step forward, and then if she wanted she could shove the blonde backwards to slam her back against the dining counter and her head against the wall.

"I don't know what you're talking about." The woman retreated one step, two, and bumped up against the counter at the window without assistance. Her eyes went wider and Kimberly felt that familiar flash of glee. She was scaring this woman.


The new voice that cut through the moment came from the employee behind the counter. The other woman was there now, one little boy on either side of her, and Kimberly thought, in that moment, that neither of these women would never understand, not even if twelve years from now those little boys grew into young men and stabbed each other to death.

"Ma'am, are you okay?"


The air felt heavy and stagnant.

"I'm fine," Kimberly said. Then she looked at the boy who belonged to her victim and smiled. "Your mommy's a sociopathic bitch."

She whirled and was out the door before any of the others collected themselves enough to retort.

The concrete bench in what the sign on the fence had identified as Liberty Park was warm and smooth. Kimberly was lying on her back on top of it, eyes closed, the sun warming and drying her face. Her stomach hurt and her throat was tight, not quite like something was wrapped around it but close enough for discomfort. She swallowed once, twice, three times to no effect.

About twenty left whose last moments hadn't yet been laid bare for the universe. She hadn't wanted to know that. She also didn't want to know that it meant about two days remaining in the broadcast.

About twenty left. She'd been sitting in the remains of a sawmill, a compound of buildings surely full of distinct, nightmarish details, but what she could recall most clearly about the area was that there had been a huge smear of blood. Whose was it? She'd gone through the tapes, trying to get everything right when she wrote down her memories, but that was a detail she hadn't thought to research. Of course she hadn't. The image came clearly now, but she hadn't thought about it in years and those hours spent in the sawmill were the one part of her stay she'd never revisited. All this time, and she'd managed to keep one promise.

Erik had been hurt, bleeding, caught in the crossfire on the mountain, but he'd kept his spirits up. He'd had jokes for her, to keep her calm and sane. She'd realized, some at the time and more fully over the following weeks, the extent to which he'd pulled her back from the brink. It had been so easy to choose to forget the beauty and good and kindness in the world, so easy to embrace the opportunity to let only the darkest facet of the truth inside her shine through. Erik had reminded her that it was okay to like people. It was okay to empathize, to care. It would hurt, yes, and that was why it was worth doing.

She was who she was. She was still that person who caused others pain and liked it. The anger, the spite, the burning that lifted her up when she was pushed over and whispered to hit back twice as hard was still there. But now she also was who she always could've been. She made her choice, every single day, and sometimes she fucked up or chose wrong, but she always tried. She could say that much with confidence.

"Enough children died on that island. Do not be one of them." Words from her past, words that had helped welcome her home, but it had taken her a long time to understand them. She'd thrown something close to them back at the man from STAR, and she'd told herself some variation so many early mornings or late nights, but still sometimes the realization took her by surprise.

She was alive. She'd survived in a physical sense, but in other ways too. Her life was not bad. She cared about her family, and she had friends whose company she enjoyed. She found pleasure in music, in nature, in a good book about vampires. If she lacked a clear purpose, then often that felt for the best. Some days, she'd wake up and know what she had to do, if not why, and then she could do it.

And just like that, as she ran her hand over her face, wiping at her eyes while the breeze pulled at her hair, Kimberly finally knew what she was doing in Arizona.

She wasn't like other people. She was alive, but that had been anything but a forgone conclusion. She'd ventured to the underworld and walked back out again, and that meant that sometimes, just for a little while, she'd be called back to visit the world of the dead.

MW's Private Rank
Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

April 21st, 2018, 6:17 pm #9

Friday, August 1, 2008
The wind brushed through the streets of Saint Paul, Minnesota, at anything but a steady pace. Gusts stirred lawn clippings and the odd abandoned candy wrapper or sheet of loose newspaper into small whirlwinds. It had been this way for a few hours now. It was early evening or late afternoon—daylight lingered long enough at this time of year that the difference was academic—and Kimberly sat on a plastic chair on the second floor deck of her grandparents' house in North End, wrapped in a light blanket despite the warmth. Her grandfather sat on the other chair, five feet or so between them, staring out into the nearly-empty streets just like she was.

She'd been wrong about making it home before her absence was noticed. When she slipped back through the front door, quieter than she probably ever had, he'd been sitting at the kitchen table waiting for her, a cup of tea in front of him and more on the stove. He hadn't asked where she'd been, hadn't tried to unpack her mumbled excuses. He'd offered her a mug. It was peppermint, her favorite. He'd told her he was glad she was back, and she'd gone up the stairs to her room and gotten some sleep.

It had hung over the rest of the day, like a shirt reeking of spilled rum taken from her room and washed and returned without a word. Finally she'd gone to the living room and roused her grandfather from his book and said they had to talk. That was why they were here now, but over fifteen minutes barely a word had been spoken. It was bright out. It could've been any day in mid-summer. This was supposed to be her last summer vacation before college. She'd been accepted to UMN, but had deferred that now, probably forever, another choice her grandparents had supported her in without a hint of challenge.

A particularly strong burst of wind rattled the gate to the neighbors' yard. When she was little, Kimberly had always pretended that there was something magical in there, based on the neat rows of leafy staked plants and stone paths she'd observed from this same balcony. She'd hopped the fence a few weeks after her fourteenth birthday, and had been young enough still to hold a faint disappointment when she found nothing but tomatoes and zucchini.

Her grandfather's eyes were drifting closed. Thuan was a thin man, a head taller than her, not properly balding but with a receding hairline. He wore round glasses to read, part of why Kimberly preferred square frames.

"I don't get it." Kimberly was more surprised to speak than he seemed to be to hear it. He sighed, opened his eyes a little, and pulled himself more upright.

"What don't you get?" he said.

"Don't you want to know where I was?"

He looked at her face, and then away from her. It was pointed. This was how they communicated sometimes, both of her grandparents, in glances and insinuations, and despite having spent her whole life around it Kimberly still at times felt hopelessly lost.

"I tricked you," she continued. "Every time I told you where I was going, every time I asked for a ride, every report I gave you every day, it was so I could sneak out last night."

She pulled the blanket closer. It cascaded down from her neck, only her head visible above the grey fabric pyramid.

"You don't want to know why?"

"Of course I do." He turned back now, and met her gaze, examining her face. Kimberly lasted a four count before she turned her eyes back to the street. "Either you'll tell me, or you won't."

She waited, for what she wasn't quite sure, maybe a car to rumble past, maybe the gate to rattle again. Nothing happened.

"I murdered a girl," Kimberly said. "I went to talk to her dad."

Still nothing happened. When she couldn't take it any more, she turned, expecting to find her grandfather also looking to the road, or maybe with his gaze still locked to her face. Instead, his eyes were closed, his hands folded on his chest.

"Well?" Kimberly said.

He opened his eyes. "Well?"

"Now you know." She pulled the blanket even tighter. The wind pushed her hair in front of her face, and she blew it away; she didn't want to take her hands out from under the blanket. Her bleached streak was growing out. There was more than an inch of black at its base now. She'd thought about lopping the lock off, and was still loosely toying with the idea, but she didn't think one choppy chunk would be any less obtrusive, and she didn't want to cut it all. She'd had long hair as long as she could remember. She couldn't quite wrap her head around an image of herself with a pixie cut.

"Yes," her grandfather said. "Now I know."


"Mm." He shrugged. "What do you want me to say?"

It took her a moment or two to figure out how to answer that. Now a car did roll by, and the gate rattled. There had, Kimberly suddenly realized, been a wind chime hung in the doorway to this deck when she was a kid. She'd sometimes heard it, faintly and distantly, as she fell asleep at night. She wasn't quite sure when it had disappeared, what had happened to it. It had been gone for years.

"I guess," Kimberly said, then stopped. She took a deep breath and found her certainty. It was oddly far from reach. "I want to know how you feel."

"I'm glad you told me."

"Not about that." She exhaled, long and slow, and let the blanket fall from her shoulders to pool on the wooden boards of the deck. She was wearing sweatpants and an old black t-shirt washed so often the hems were fraying. It was very soft.

"I want to know how you feel about everything," Kimberly continued. "I, it's... everything that happened. I was gone, and I did horrible things. I hurt people. I murdered someone. I'm sure a lot of people fucking hate us now, and I don't think they're wrong to. I did that to us. To you. And I did it all on purpose."

Her grandfather wasn't talking, but all traces of apparent drowsiness had evaporated. He was watching her again, but when Kimberly met his eyes it wasn't a contest or a challenge anymore.

"Someone came," she continued. "They came to save us. If I hadn't done what I did, if I hadn't lost control, she could be here. But I killed her. I murdered her. No matter what I do or where I go, for the rest of my life that's something I did. That's who I am now. I'm a murderer."

Her voice tightened, lowered. Her eyes stayed on his face, but she could barely see him through the smoke and flame in her memory. She hadn't been able to kick the window out. She almost hadn't seen the latch, and when she'd noticed it she'd laughed.

"I want to know what you think about who I am now."

Time passed. Someone laughed, far off down the block. The smoke cleared, perhaps dissipated by a gust of wind that carried a can down the street, one of those tall green Arizona cans that prominently featured the price: ninety-nine cents. Her grandfather watched her a little while longer, and then he sighed and looked away.

"Let me tell you a story," he said.

Kimberly sat, waited. He watched as the can rattled along. A truck turned onto their block, and drove right at the can, and Kimberly waited for the crunch, but the can passed beneath its axles and was carried further alone, out of sight.

"Is that alright?"

He still wasn't looking at her, and his voice was off, wrong somehow. He sounded different, sounded nothing like he ever had before.

"Mm hm."

He sighed, rolled his shoulders, and scratched at his hairline.

"Before your mother was born, I was working with the army. I wasn't a good soldier, but I spoke good English and they needed that, and I wanted to help. We needed the Americans because..."

He trailed off, then waved his hand like he was fanning away the last vestiges of smoke.

"It doesn't matter anymore. Maybe it never did.

"I worked with a lot of Americans who didn't want to be there. Sometimes I didn't either. Your grandmother and I had just married before I started, and she didn't like my involvement. But I did what I could.

"You never knew then what would—what could happen. And one night, we were searching. I can't remember what for. I was told that sometimes interpreters would get shot first. I don't know if it was true. It was dark, and we were at the edge of town, and we came under fire. We pulled back, and I saw this boy. He was your age, maybe younger. He was hiding by the side of the road and clutching something to his chest, and all I could think was that he was waiting to kill us. So I..."

He reached up, as if to scratch at his head again, but just held his hand in front of his face for a time. It was shaking, very slightly.

"I had a pistol. I pointed it at him and he turned to run and I pulled the trigger. It was very dark. I don't know if I hit him or not. I don't know if I killed him, or maimed him, or missed him completely.

"I don't know if he's alive somewhere, telling this same story, or if he died and they burned him right by the side of that road. And I don't know if he was our enemy. I don't know if he was waiting to ambush us. I will never know. I don't think I want to."

Kimberly's grandfather finally found a purpose for his hand, bringing it to his forehead and massaging his temples gently.

"I can never know. That is my punishment for shooting. I never told anyone. Maybe some of the men I was with, they knew. Maybe not. It was dark. Your grandmother doesn't know. Your mother doesn't. But now you do."

Another gust of wind swept through the neighborhood, higher now, carrying over the deck and pulling Kimberly's hair in front of her face, obscuring her vision completely. She wanted to brush it aside, to reach down and reclaim the blanket, but she did neither. She said nothing.

"What you did, some of it was bad, and some of it was good. Maybe if you had done things differently, that girl would be alive, and maybe she would be dead and you would too, and everyone else. It's impossible to know. But what I do know is that you were true to yourself. You always have been and you still are. To me, that is all that matters. You are my granddaughter and I love you more than anything else in my life. Nothing has changed that, and nothing ever will."

The wind blew throughout his speech, and his words were distant, muted, but clear and strong just the same. Kimberly shivered and now brushed her hair from her face, but she made no attempt to clear the tears from her eyes.

MW's Private Rank
Joined: February 18th, 2009, 7:01 am

April 21st, 2018, 6:17 pm #10

Friday, June 12, 2015
The British man on the radio started to say something about how last night a sole survivor had emerged, but Kimberly jabbed the proper button and Bob Dylan cut him off. The desert stretched out on either side of US-93, wild and endless and almost untouched by civilization save for a string of telephone poles out the left-hand window. It was late morning and already the temperature was climbing. Today was going to be hot.

Everything was packed, though not as neatly as it had been on the way in. The tent was disassembled and stowed in the trunk. Kimberly had considered donating it to one of the secondhand stores on Main Street, but had changed her mind seconds after parking. She'd decided she'd enjoyed camping, and thought she might want to take another shot at it. If nothing else, there was a trip to the Badlands in her future.

She hadn't done laundry quite as recently as she'd've liked, but there would be opportunities en route. She'd made a few calls, returned a few text messages. Her grandfather had said he was excited to see her again, and she'd said he shouldn't get too anxious because she'd be taking the scenic route back. There was no hurry. She had a long, long time.

She'd stopped for gas at the edge of town, just a topping off, and had thought she might see Lester again, but had found new faces instead, a couple of apathetic women in their mid-twenties, one with a particularly tacky turquoise septum piercing. They'd been sold out of the coconut water Kimberly favored, and also of The Daily Miner.

With the windows down, the hot dusty air circulated through the car, and Kimberly briefly took her left hand from the steering wheel to wipe a few drops of sweat from her brow. Despite almost two weeks in strange beds and rough sleeping bags, her shoulder was feeling pretty good. Maybe she was just getting used to roughing it again. Maybe she'd be singing a different tune this evening.

The roads were quiet, mostly empty. What traffic there was still trended mostly towards Kingman. A CBS news van sailed past and Kimberly flipped them off out the window, then broke into laughter and cranked Dylan up. Idiot Wind indeed.

And behind her, Kingman fell further and further away, until she couldn't even pick out the point where it lay against the ring of hills and the hazy horizon.