EAST: Chapter 2
THE THEATRE IS SO DARK that I can’t make out the face of anyone in the audience. But that’s fine; all that matters is this bright stage and this music, so hot and intense that it fills me up from the inside and makes me feel so, so alive.
There’s a high-pitched sound. And then again. I try not to let my eyes wander but suddenly I’m pushed down the risers, falling, parents are pouring onto the stage, everyone is trampling over one another. Screams, shouts, sobs, names being called—“Eea! EAST!” I hear, but it sounds muted, as if coming from a very far distance…
A long, harsh scream cuts over all the rest…
I’m frozen in place, staring at the golden flames licking up the curtains and the smell of smoke burns into my mind. A hand grabs onto my shoulder and the scream cuts off and I realize it was me, it’s me, and I can’t move, and all I can do is stare at the wild, wild flames.
Someone had the bright idea to spray paint my locker all yellow, orange, and red, and on top of all that, scrawl MURDERER in big black capitals. So now I’m in the principal’s office, scowling at the principal’s desk while the principal scowls at me and promises he’ll find who did this. Yeah, good luck.
When I’m finally released, I head out the door so fast I run smack into someone else. “Oh, sorry—”
It’s supermarket girl, the cashier, the one who wanted to know my name. But that cheery expression is gone; instead her cheeks are chalky white, and there’s an emptiness in her face that stops me short.
“Miss Lee,” the principal says, his voice suddenly grave. “Come in, come in.”
I can’t help but give the girl one last look as I leave. When her eyes meet mine, I notice that they’re filled with unshed tears.
Because I’m late to class, I have to go all the way up to the front and hand over the excuse slip. Everyone stops to watch. The teacher puts on this sympathetic expression and starts on a long speech about vandalism while I stand there, wondering if my ears are as red as Jem’s always get when Dad embarrasses him at his soccer games.
Snickers echo quietly throughout the room when I’m finally allowed to go to my seat. A note waits for me on the desk. I hesitate, and crumple it and stick it into the drawer.
Somebody shifts in their seat, leaning close to me. It’s Kieran Thomas, and he waits for the teacher to turn his back before hissing “Murderer.”
I ignore him.
“I bet you’re behind this one, too, aren’t you?”
“…take u and the derivative of v…”
“I always knew you’d strike again. Once wasn’t enough, was it? You’re addicted…”
“…if this doesn’t work, we use the next method, which is called…”
“Everyone knows you were behind those fires. Maybe the police couldn’t prove it two years ago… But you’re going to slip, they’ll find the evidence, and then you’ll be sent to prison fore”
I look up. Somewhere in the middle of that tirade, the teacher had moved back to our row.
“What?” Kieran says irritably.
“Would you care to share your comments with the rest of the class?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a long, white arm curl lazily as he stretches in his seat. “Just informing East of the current events.”
Somebody coughs, and the teacher frowns. “Current events?”
“You know, the girl who disappeared and was found in the woods, all burned up. And now Ciara’s brother’s gone missing. I just thought East would want to know what’s happened to the brother of the latest girl who offended her.”
Simultaneously, the eleven bodies in the classroom gasp. Heads swivel between me the boy behind of me, mouths open, eyes eager—out for blood.
“Kieran! Please refrain from—”
“You know what, East?” Kieran says loudly, suddenly standing. Involuntarily I flinch in my seat, but nobody seems to notice. “I’m not afraid of you. I won’t cower while you and your fucking family pay off the school and the news. My dad’s got his men working overtime and—”
“Working, really? Or is he just drunk off his ass again and screwing around with some other tourist?”
Kieran’s face reddens, and the sight of it only fuels the fury that’s suddenly unfurled inside of me. I see him moving before he even does; my hands fly and grab onto his wrist just before it connects with my face and I dig in my nails—flip it an twist—he yelps.
The teacher pulls on my shoulders, and I willingly let go of Kieran. He cradles his wrist, hissing through his teeth. “You crazy bitch,” he screeches. “I’m going to get you for this, my father’s going to get you for this, you hear me?”
Blood roars in my ears; it sounds like the ocean. My heart pumps loud and fast. I bare my teeth at him in a macabre smile, and he steps back so quickly he almost trips over a chair.
“Kieran Thomas, you watch your mouth!” The teacher is saying. With a sudden move she spins me around and gives me a push. “Go to the principal’s office—both of you!”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The door opens and closes, creaking. I crane my neck around to see Jem there in the doorway. “Heard you got in trouble today,” he says casually.
I shrug. “Dad likes to exaggerate,” I say. I try to sound casual, but that sudden fury has since died down. Why did I have to react to that idiot?
Jem comes up to the porch swing. I eye him warily, but he doesn’t seem mad; in fact… Is that a grin?
“Here,” he says, and, coming closer, he drops a pile of bills on my lap.
I stare. “What’s this for?”
He lifts my calves before sitting down and letting them drop back on his lap, then he leans back, rocking us both. “Christmas. New Year. Birthday.”
“It’s too early for all of that.”
“Giving the little shit what he deserved?”
I shake my head, but a laugh escapes anyway. “You make a terrible role model. Anyway, I don’t need this. Take it back.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” he says quickly, pushing my hand away. “Get yourself a new dress. Or a book. Or have lunch somewhere in town instead of at that revolting cafeteria. Or whatever it is you kids like to do nowadays..”
“You’re not that much older than me.”
Jem grins and tilts his head back to look at the grey sky. “Just keep the money, Eea. I have a job now; let me give you something once in a while.”
I can’t think of another way to refuse. “Thanks,” I say.
He hums, and takes a corner of my blanket and rubs it between his hands absentmindedly.
“Do you want it? I’m warm. I’ve got, like, three.”
He shakes his head. I go back to my derivatives.
There’s a click as he flicks open his lighter. I wrinkle my nose, but know better than to say anything. A few moments later he takes a long, slow drag of that cancer stick, and blows out a puff of smoke at the setting sun.
“Denny’s coming back tomorrow, by the way,” he says.
“Thanks for ruining the mood.”
“I still don’t get why you two never got along.”
“We’re siblings,” I deadpan.
Jem sits up, looking mock-affronted. “Hey, I’m your brother too, aren’t I?”
“Well, you know, there’s a reason I always tell you you’re stupid and ugly and—” I shriek, laughing, as Jem tries to sink his fingers into my ribs. “Okay, okay, mercy!” I cry finally. He smirks, all smug, and leans back, making the bench swing back and forth again.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ve got some good news for you, too.”
“Asher is back.”
I freeze. “Who?”
“Asher. You always called him Ash. Remember?” He shakes out the cigarette. “He just drove in last night or something.”
Jem laughs at my expression. “Didn’t you know?”
He’s in too good of a mood to notice my tone. “Aw, shit, I haven’t seen the kid for years…” He takes a drag, smiling lazily, not noticing the way my entire body has stiffened. “Wonder how he’s doing now. He left so suddenly…”
I make a choking sound. Jem looks at me. His grin drops and a confused expression takes over. “What’s wrong?”
“I hate him,” I say vehemently.
Jem’s so startled the cigarette drops out of his hands. “What the fuck?” He bends closer, peering at my eyes. “Wait, are you serious? Why? What did he do?”
I grunt. Suddenly I don’t feel so warm anymore, and I throw my pens back into my pencil case, sliding the calculator’s cover back on with a far more violent motion than it deserved.
“Seriously? I thought you guys were good friends?”
“We were,” I say darkly.
I stand up, the blankets trailing behind me. Jem grabs my arm to prevent me from moving. “East…”
I shake my head. Suddenly, I laugh. “I’m just kidding,” I say untruthfully. “Whatever. I gotta finish a presentation for history tomorrow. ’Night!”
Dad’s reading a newspaper in the living room as I pass by, but he’s got the TV on, and the image on the screen almost makes me jump. It’s filled with fire. It’s only a picture, I remind myself. Just a picture of some bonfire some of the local kids set up, even though it’s the middle of winter and way past Halloween.
Dad has noticed me standing behind him. “Are you alright, honey?”
I nod. “Yeah.” But I can’t tear my eyes away.
He follows my gaze and realizes what I’m looking at. “Oh, Eea, I’m sorry.” He reaches for the remote, but I stop him.
“No, it’s fine,” I urge. “I’m fine.”
“I was only reading the paper anyway,” Dad insists, and turns off the TV.
I breathe deeply through my nose, and go to sit down beside him. He glances outside the window to where Jem is rocking the porch swing all by himself. “I see that your brother is smoking again,” he says.
I give him a look. “Why do you let him, Dad?”
Dad scratches his head. “He’s 19 now, honey. He’s an adult, he’s not living in this house anymore, he’s old enough to make his own decisions.”
“But it’s an idiot decision.”
“It’s his decision,” Dad repeats. “I don’t like it, but… We all cope in different ways.”
I see his fingers reach for the ring on his left hand, watch him twist the gold band there. With a small sigh, I bring my legs up onto the couch, and lean my head against Dad’s shoulder. “I’m glad you came home early today,” I say quietly.
Dad pats my arm; I can’t remember the last time we shared a hug, and his awkwardness makes me want to smile and cry at the same time. “I’m glad, too,” he says.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
You can’t hide. The truth will out.
I stare at the words, feeling sick. Kieran Thomas—it has to be; it’s always him. Whispers sound up and down the hallway, and even without turning around I know everyone’s giving me and the space around my newly re-vandalized locker a wide, wide berth.
When I turn my head I meet the eyes of a freshman hovering across the hall. “What are you staring at?” I snarl, and he blanches, and skitters away. The whispers stop. I slam my locker shut, swing my backpack over my shoulders, and head towards the big double doors. My chest is tight and my mouth burns with a sour taste. Calm down. Calm down.
The principal is standing by the doorway to his office, holding a steaming mug of coffee. “Where are you going?”
“Out, for lunch. We were dismissed early.”
He looks at me, hard. “Lunch doesn’t begin for another two minutes.”
The expression in his eyes is so foreign it stops me short. I study him. None of the staff have ever doubted me before, much less picked on me over as little a detail as two minutes. “My history class finished early, and seniors always—”
“School rules are school rules, Miss Winters,” he says, voice still hard. “Rules apply to everyone. There are no exceptions, especially… Considering the circumstances…”
Ah. I see. Fury boils in me again, and just as quickly, I push it away. I stare right into his eyes.
I know what he sees: Dark eyes, dark as night. “Eyes like the Devil,” they used to say.
After a minute or so, he starts to fidget. “Miss Winters—” he begins, but the bell cuts him off.
I’m out the door before the ringing even stops, and I walk fast, as fast as I can, and my wind whirls and whirls. What did this mean? Where did his change of attitude come from? Surely even Kieran Thomas can’t be making such a big impact on the staff.
Still green things need to be seen
So don’t you stop to breathe
Maybe we just need to move on
I blink, and breathe, and the familiarity of this old diner fills me with memories. Pineapple buns, fresh coffee, the faint aroma of roses despite it being smack in the middle of the winter.
For a moment I’m flushed with happiness, and silently, in my head, I thank Jem again. It’s been too long; I’m surprised I even remembered how to get here. There aren’t a lot of diners yet, so I order quickly, then head to the booth Jem, Dennis, and I used to always sit at.
I’ve already slid in when I realize somebody else is there there. “Oh, I’m sorry—”
I know he left all of these scars
I know he left all of these whys
He’s barely changed—I mean, he has, but he still looks familiar enough that I recognize him. The same cheekbones and jaw, same tufts of blond hair just as bristly as he is. What’s different is his posture: It’s straighter, firmer, like he’s consciously holding himself up. He seems tense. And his eyes…
I couldn’t just run after my stars
I couldn’t just tell you good-bye
The song ends, and I break, looking away; I don’t want to see his eyes. I try to slide back out—my heart is pounding—but he grasps my arm, pulls me back. “East,” he says. “East.”
“Stop saying my name,” I hiss, shaking him off. “What the hell are you doing here?”
He blinks and suddenly he’s wearing a mask and that makes me blink, too. I forgot how quickly he can switch faces, just like that.
“I’m here to visit,” Ash says, finally. One of his hands tightens, the knuckles standing out as he closes his fingers. I almost smirk. “How are you?”
“How am I?” My hand shakes, my heart pounds. “I… That’s none of your business, Asher…”
He doesn’t seem to have anything to say to that. And sitting there, looking at him, all of two years’ anger and grief and pain builds and then recedes into only one thing: Fear.