We were like brothers for so many years. It was always “Nate and Cade against the world”. Now it’s just me against everyone else but I didn’t care before I arrived.
Yet, despite my best intentions, now that I’m here I can’t move from my seat to where he lies. The casket at the front of the church has been shined to a high gleam and no matter where I look, the light bounces off it and catches my eye as though daring me to turn away. For a brief moment I wish Mom came with me, but this is harder on her. They condemn her too since this is obviously a reflection on how she raised me.
I can’t blame Mom, though. She wasn’t even there so how could she be responsible for anything that happened? As for me … well, yeah. I lay fault at my own feet. But I wasn’t alone.
So, summoning whatever remaining ounces of self-worth I can, I rise from my seat and start to walk. And as everyone else moves toward the casket to pay their final farewells and respects, I head toward the exit. I can never say goodbye to Nate and I’ve realized that I no longer have any respect for him. Besides, it’s not like I need to see him that way. Not again. I got plenty of that three nights ago.
Let them condemn me because they don’t know the truth. They don’t know anything. There were only two of us that night. I’m still here, a pariah forevermore, and Nate’s lying, unmoving, in that box. He can’t explain what happened, and I won’t.
And so life goes on. For one of us, anyway.
I hear her before I see her face and I hesitate to turn. The book resting haphazardly on the counter in front of me seems like a better object to focus on. I guess that makes me a coward but I don’t care. Lyssa. The last time I saw her, at Nate’s funeral, she looked at me with such hatred in her eyes that I would’ve gladly withered under her stare if I could.
But I’m at work now and there’s nowhere to hide. Not when my boss, Marelle, chose tonight to be sick and leave me on my own. I’m determined to prove I’m not a complete screw-up, and not burn the place to the ground in her absence. I doubt having Lyssa and her friends here will make things run smoother.
She looks at me in stunned horror as I approach and her expression rankles. I’ve already worked seven of a ten hour shift and I can’t deal with this. I’m too tired. She came where I work and she has every right to leave. Heck, I’ll even help her to the door, but I won’t feel like a criminal. Stuff her and her dead brother and the stupid injustice of it all.
I stop beside the booth they've perched themselves in. Her expression hasn’t changed. Mine darkens. “What do you want?” I ask. There’s no room for small-talk.
“Excuse me?” Her eyes flash and for a moment I can see Nate in the fierce blue staring up at me. But it isn’t him. And I don’t need a reminder that I tried to wake him, resuscitate him.
I force away the painful memory and let out a sigh. “You heard me. Don’t play coy, Lyssa. It doesn’t suit. Now, what do you want?” I deliberately drag out the last words to make sure she hears this time.
Her eyes narrow and I’m glad it’s late and the diner is all but empty. “You have no right talking to me like that with some kind of attitude, as though you did nothing wrong. You have no right talking to me at all.”
“And you have no right bugging me at work.”
“I didn’t know you worked here.”
“Well, now you know. So now you can go.” I take a step back and gesture toward the door. The friends she entered with, who until then remained silent, stand in a huff and walk outside after cussing at me. But Lyssa lingers. She isn’t done.
“Don’t tell me what to do. You—”
“Have no right? Got it. Well, you either stay and order something, or you leave with your friends. Those are your options. Because I’m not going to stand here discussing anything with you. I do have that right.”
She rises slowly and her eyes lock on my face beseechingly. “I don’t understand you, Cade. I thought you were his friend.”
Her words cut through to my core. “I was.” His best friend. But I don’t bother saying so. She should already know, and if she doesn’t she certainly won’t now.
“If that’s true then you should realize there’re other people hurting. Everyone is. If we just knew what happened, it would help us—”
I cut her off. Whether she did come here by accident or not, there’s no denying what she wants. It just happens to be the one thing I can’t give. “No,” I whisper. “It wouldn’t.” I turn and refuse to watch her go, but her pained sigh mingles with the door chime as it breaks the silence of the room.
Mom’s gaze follows me as I move about the kitchen. I don’t speak. Not yet. She’ll begin when she’s ready. So I keep moving. I open another cupboard and pull out the makings for a sandwich, although the thought of eating today churns my stomach.
Finally, her voice wavers and I know she’s holding back tears. “You don’t have to do this, Cade.”
I let out a small, humorless laugh and face her. Bad move because I can see the crystals glistening in the corners of her eyes. I thought she’d cried enough. Apparently I was wrong. “You didn’t say that last year, or the year before that. You used to always tell me how important school was. How I could do whatever I wanted after, but I needed that high school diploma first.”
She bites her lip because she can’t deny her words. She still believes all those things. And, after hearing them my whole life, so do I.
“Besides, it’s my senior year. I want to see it through. I deserve that, don’t I?”
“We can always move.”
I shake my head. “We can’t afford it, Mom. You know that.”
“We’ll find a way.”
“No. I won’t make you leave your job or your friends because of this.”
“I’ll find another job. And my friends …” She doesn’t say it, because she doesn’t have to. We both know those friends have been ignoring her for weeks now. Ever since the accident.
“They’ll come around, Mom.” I’m not convinced, but I can’t stand to see her upset either. It’s like Dad leaving all over again, except that time her friends rallied around her instead of shunning her away.
“I don’t care. I’m more concerned about you. You know they won’t just let you walk in there like nothing happened. What if they … do something?” A tear slides down her pale cheek and it eliminates my restraint.
I walk over and wrap her in a tight hug. “I’ll be fine, Mom. I am capable of taking care of myself, you know. Besides, the worst they’ll do is call me stuff.” Even I can’t make that sound believable, but I try.
“We could move.” Her tears are flowing freely now and the front of my tee is starting to soak but I don’t let go.
I swallow and then speak the harsh truth that she’s too good to admit. To herself and definitely to me. “Mom, it doesn’t matter where we go. I will still be responsible for Nate dying.”
Everyone in the school lot looks surprised to see me driving. They’ve all forgotten who was behind the wheel that night, and I realize this’ll be worse than I thought.
We ruled this school, Nate and I. We arrived in this same lot and the jocks and cheerleaders would rush over, even though they’d seen us mere hours earlier. Being the schools’ best athletes, people were always happy to see us and willing to do anything to be one of us.
But Nate was always better. The better quarterback. The better point guard. Just better. He also used that to his advantage, and was more popular because of it. People naturally gravitated toward him.
The hierarchy of high school is a wonderful thing—when you’re on top.
Swinging my backpack onto my shoulder, I wonder if all of it was some dream I once had. Because I’m not popular anymore.
Everybody watches and nobody tries to hide it. Why bother, I suppose, if everyone else is doing it. Funny, I sound like the teacher in health class, only she wasn’t talking about staring at people. Maybe she should’ve, and she wouldn’t have mumbled and blushed her way through the syllabus. Not like that matters anymore. None of the girls look at me with any interest. Not like before. I doubt I’ll ever go on a date again. Thanks, Nate.
My locker’s been decorated in preparation of my return. I figured as much. Funny thing is, it doesn’t look like they’ve bothered to arrange to have it scrubbed off. And the red words have now completely dried onto the gray metal. It’ll be impossible to erase the words now. But maybe that’s the point. Even the staff wants me to suffer. At least a little.
Most of the words are juvenile and have no standing to what happened, but right in the centre someone’s spelled it out for all to see. Big, bold, red letters. K.I.L.L.E.R.
In class things go from bad to worse. People refuse to sit near me, out of respect for Nate. Others throw stuff every time the teacher turns her back and I vow to sit in the last row for the rest of the day. It’s only when Brent, who used to hang with me and Nate every day, makes the sound of a crashing car that I crack and punch him out.
I’m sent to the office amidst a chorus of laughter and the principal sends me home for the day for unacceptable behavior.
Only then do I start to consider Mom’s offer of moving and leaving it all behind. But I never can. Whether I like it or not, it’s part of my existence now, so I might as well endure everything that comes with it.
The nightmares all start the same—with both of us in the car hurtling toward that tree. And no matter how hard I try to change the outcome, Nate ends up trapped in the driver’s seat and I’m standing on the outside looking in. And, just like in reality, there’s no happy ending. I wake in a cold sweat every time.
The next time Lyssa enters the diner, I know there’s no chance it’s an accident. She drops into a corner booth and toys with the napkin holder. And I simply watch as I try to figure her out. When Marelle walks over, Lyssa declines her assistance. Her gaze touches on my face for the briefest of moments before flitting away again. Marelle looks at me and shrugs. It’s Friday night, after eleven. It’s the quiet hour, even for us. No one comes in here at this time of night unless they want something. And they already know what that is before they take a step through that door.
But Lyssa knows what she wants. She’s just not going to find it listed on our menu.
So I make her think I’m ignoring her. After all, that’s what I’ve done each time I’ve seen her for the past month. Although she’s never approached me either. Until now. Of course she’d wait until I’m separated from any all-seeing eyes before making her move. She wouldn’t want word to spread that she’s consorting with the enemy.
Ten long minutes pass before I stride over with my head high and refusing to let her see how affected I am. By her. By everyone and everything. Without a word I fall into the booth opposite and cross my arms over my chest.
She gives a long-suffering sigh and continues to push the spring-loaded holder in and out. “Lose the attitude, would you, Cade?”
“You have no excuses this time, Lyssa. You knew I’d be here. You probably drove by to make sure I was before stopping.” When she doesn’t deny it, I continue. “So, I’ll keep the attitude and you can get to the point. I’m busy.”
She scoffs. “Yeah. apparently.” We both glance around the diner. Marelle stands on the other side of the large room and talks to a couple of truckers, regulars—our only other customers.
“There’s more involved than just cooking and serving, you know.” Which is the truth and an absolute lie at the same time. Until it nears closing time I’ll be in the kitchen doing homework, just like every night. It’s the only way I can keep on top of it all. I don’t remember Mom telling me how much work senior year was. Seems she conveniently left that out.
“I’m sure there is.” She looks at me and her eyes hold for the first time since the funeral. Not only that, but I can’t see any trace anger. The sadness is still present, but it’ll be years before that disappears. Maybe an entire lifetime.
It’s the first chance I’ve had to examine her lately, and I realize she’s aged. It’s not surprising, but it worries me. Her dark hair is pulled into a tight ponytail instead of meticulously styled and she’s not bothering to dress as nice as normal. Then again, maybe this is just how she comes to see me.
I incline back in the booth and drop my arms. “You didn’t answer me, Lyssa. Why are you here?”
She leans forward and pushes the holder aside. Her gaze never wavers. “I’ve been ignoring you.”
A burst of air escapes my nose and for the first time in my life I let out a snort-laugh before continuing to chuckle like a person is supposed to. She looks hurt and I hold up a hand until I stop. “I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you, per se. But, come on, Lys. Everyone has been ignoring me.”
“Not everyone.” Her voice lowers and her gaze finally falls away. And my breath catches. I don’t need her to say more and am grateful when she doesn’t. It’s not like I can hide it. Not anymore. The black eye and busted lip can’t be hidden like the first lot of bruises could. They were conscious of where they hit me at the beginning as though testing to see if I would rat them out. When I didn’t they stopped caring where they got me, so long as they hit hard.
I try, but I can’t blame them. They’ve lost their hero. The one person they thought had and deserved it all. They don’t care if he was my friend as well, and they definitely don’t care that I was forced to watch him die.
“And? What? You feel sorry for me now?”
Her head lifts and I see tears glistening in her eyes. I force myself not to react. It was bad seeing her cry at the funeral, but I won’t let her suck me in only to turn on me like the others.
“I guess I needed to see it was true. I didn’t want to believe when I heard.” She bites her lip and I glance at Marelle to make sure she’s handling the room without me. And to compose myself.
“Well, you’ve seen. Is that all?”
“Come on, Cade. I never—” A tear rolls down her cheek and a line of diamonds shimmers in its wake. She sucks in a shaky breath. “I didn’t want this. Nate wouldn’t want this.”
“How do you know? I’m just getting what I deserve. At least, that’s what they tell me when their fists make contact.”
“Why don’t you do something about it?”
I roll my eyes and settle deeper into the booth. “Like what? Fight back? Sure, when I’m outnumbered five to one. And even if I could get the upper hand, what would it accomplish? It’ll just mean I’ve hurt more people. What’s the point?”
She pauses. “I don’t want to see you hurt.”
Little does she know I hurt anyway, even without the external injuries as reminders of my failure. “Why do you care?” I keep my voice steady despite the beat of my heart.
But she can’t answer. She attempts to, and for that I give her credit, but when she opens her mouth nothing escapes.
“It doesn’t matter. They’ll grow tired eventually. It’s not like they’re going to beat me up all year.” It’s the same line I fed Mom when she saw me, and I sound as convincing as I did then. For all I know they will continue. They can make it a daily ritual. The number of participants has increased; maybe they’ll set up shifts.
“Nate wouldn’t want this,” she says again.
“Well, at least we agree on that.” When another tear falls, I sit up and gently place my hand on hers. I’m genuinely surprised that she keeps her hand in place instead of pulling away. “Who would have thought after all these years we finally agree on something, huh?” I give her hand a slight squeeze before drawing back.
A tiny smile creeps onto her face and she clumsily wipes away her tears. Her blue eyes sparkle even more when she smiles. Just like Nate’s. “Who would have thought?”
AUTHOR BIO: Kate Lee Phillips is a reader, a writer and a lover of all things YA. Her hope is to write stories that inspire, the way others have her. And create characters and worlds that linger long after the last sentence is finished. Dissonance is her first published story. For more details, including information about her YA novel saga The Darkness Series, check out her website and facebook page at www.kateleephillips.wix.com/author and https://www.facebook.com/k.lee.phillips