“I’m fine…I’m good, I swear.” He lied.
Leaning into the west side of the brick, school building, he intentionally avoided eye contact—his gaze remained skyward—his thoughts anchored. The stagnate air left the flags flaccid, hanging high above the two of them on the school flagpole.
“Colton, I don’t want to hurt you.”
He peered past her to their departing classmates. “Then don’t.”
“Colton.” Her hands worked around his waist, pulling him into her. “If we were ten years older, but we’re not. I don’t want to spend my evenings acting older than my forty-five-year-old parents do. I want to be young while I’m young.”
“Then be young, Brooke.” His words came softly—monotone, the way one might speak seconds after being gut-punched.
“You know what I mean, Colton.” Her tone, sound and definitive, had him longing slip from her embrace and crawl away to sort his thoughts.
“I’m going to go, B.”
“Not sure. I think the lake, maybe.”
She squeezed him tighter. “Please don’t hate me tomorrow. I don’t want to be here in the same school as you, knowing you hate me.”
Gently kissing the top of her blond head, he sighed heavily. “Not possible, B.”
The crack in his voice had her pushing away gently, peering up at him. “Colton, are you okay? You’re going to be okay, right?”
“I need to go.”
Prying free from her completely, he made his way to his topless, black jeep. Tossing his bag in the back, he leapt over the side.
“Colton…wait!” She ran to the parked vehicle, catching the attention of some of his friends near the gym entrance. “Colton please. I don’t want to have to worry about you.”
It took all he had to smile—it hurt to smile. “Don’t. I’m not your problem anymore.”
Leaving her in the rearview, he imagined his routine without her the following morning. Surely, he’d be nothing more than a distant memory by sunrise.
How long until the replacement arrived? The idea of anyone else touching her had him gripping the wheel so tightly it blanched his knuckles. With the speedometer reaching seventy-five on a residential street, he quickly corralled his emotion and slowed his speed. Approaching the stop sign, he glanced to his reflection in the mirror as he came to a complete stop.
“Dammit!” His fist pummeled the center of the steering wheel repeatedly—each time it produced a short burst from the horn.
A right turn put him on course with the lake. Large, overgrown, and surrounded by miles of woodland, many a bass and catfish had been hooked by him and his fishing buddies during their summer evening ventures.
As he overlooked the water—vast and speckled with whitecaps—he wiped a tear from his eye, swearing it was the last. Several minutes later he parked near the dock.
His seat leaned completely back, he closed his eyes tightly, resting his arms behind his head as he basked in the warm, spring sun. A slight breeze blew over him—bringing with it the scent of blooming honeysuckle laced with a hint of rotting garbage.
Moments later, his eyes fluttered, and he drifted.
He awoke to his phone vibrating in his pocket. Blinking—the world appeared a pale gray as he attempted to focus while retrieving his phone.
“Hey Colt. Are you at the gym?”
“Um…nah. The lake.”
“Oh. What time are you going to be home tonight?”
“It’s okay. Your dad will be at the hospital tonight…I was just trying to figure out supper.”
He sat up, smiling. “How about homemade pizza and some old movies.”
His mother remained silent a few seconds. “That…that sounds great, Colt.”
“We need anything from the store?”
“Well, let me look and I’ll text you. Will Brooke be joining us?”
“You okay, honey?”
“Talk about it later, Mom.”
“Okay, Colt. I’ll text you. Love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
Seat readjusted, he exited the vehicle with his hands tucked in the pockets of his gym shorts. Kicking stones and humming an Easton Corbin song, he made his way to the shoreline as he squatted near the water’s edge. Hundreds of minnows appeared to move as one large group beneath the calm surface below him.
The lake was more than a place to fish and swim, it was a place to be alone with his thoughts.
Colton sprang upward, turning quickly to see who’d decided to disrupt his solitude—Dezerea Brinkley, or Dez. “Hi.”
“You’re Colton, aren’t you? Colton Kavas?”
Colton wasn’t entirely familiar with her story, he’d never actually spoken to her prior to this…but he’d heard Dez was trouble. She graduated three years before him and as far as Colton knew she hadn’t done much since then. The rumor was, she’d tried every drug known to man, but Colton knew little of drugs. She was pretty, but she had that look. She always appeared as though she was leaving a tavern, no matter what she wore or how well she put herself together. Thin, with long, dirty-blond hair, she usually had it down when Colton saw her.
“Do you got a lighter?”
“Huh? No…I don’t smoke.”
“Like a push one in your…” She peered over the side of the Jeep as Colton walked to her.
“Nah. My phone charger is—”
“Think you can give me a lift? Just to the Snack Shack.” She continued looking over the interior of his vehicle as she asked.
Chewing the inside of his cheek, his mind couldn’t produce a single reasonable excuse to deny her request.
“Just to the Shack? I need to get home.”
“Yeah. Just to the Snack Shack.”
“Where’s your car?”
Squinting as she looked to him with her hand blocking the sun from her view, she shook her head. “I was left.”
She reached for the handle and climbed in. “Just a boy. He’s a dick.”
“You going to college next year?”
He climbed in over the side. “Yeah.”
“Good. Get the hell out of here and don’t look back. Rip that rearview mirror down on your way out of town.”
Reaching under the seat, she pulled the adjustment lever—pushing it back as far as it would go. She then propped her feet on the dashboard nonchalantly.
She pulled her messy hair back—exposing a small owl tattoo on her shoulder. It looked to be professionally done. The black, quarter-sized tattoo design boasted disproportionately large eyes. “Hey…can you run me by Jacob Springfield’s house real quick? I mean, the Shack first, but then—”
“I need to get home. I’m sorry. I’m going to have to rescind my offer.”
She looked to him—seemingly taken aback. “You’re going to leave me out here?”
“I need to go.”
“I mean, just the Shack…not Jacob’s—”
“I can’t. I need to go. My mother is expecting me. I’m sorry, Dez.”
Nodding her head while looking to the floorboard, she reached for the door handle and stepped out. “Good luck in school, Colton.”
She was nearly one-hundred feet away when the hint of guilt looming in his gut had him calling to her. “K’, but just to the store.”
She turned, smiling. “I’m good. Better get home to your mom, man. Drive safe.” And then she was gone.
“Oh my gosh. I can’t handle another bite.”
“Come on, Mom…ice cream?”
Colton and his mother sat in the living room of the Kavas two-story home. Old Yeller played softly from the sixty-five-inch flat screen, mounted above the fireplace.
“Oh, dear. I don’t think I can handle that.”
Patting his stomach, Colton offered his mother a smirk. “Yeah…I’m anticipating digestive issues tomorrow.”
Dianna, his mom, cocked her head, shooting him a curious glance. “Are you not feeling well, Son? Didn’t you just say you’re going for ice cream?”
He chuckled, leaning forward. “I feel fine, but a…that’s not what the school secretary needs to hear from you in the morning.”
“I’m confused, Colton.”
“I need a long weekend. Can you just tell the school I’m not feeling well?”
His soft request had his mother’s gaze sharpening with concern. “Colton, what’s going on?”
“Colton, you’ve never asked me to do anything like this before. You can understand my concern.”
Sinking further into the leather couch, he turned his gaze from her. “It’s dumb…she’s dumb.”
She reached for his plate—clade with crusts and sauce. “I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later she returned with two bowls of ice cream—one of which she’d drizzled in chocolate syrup and sprinkled with nuts. Handing him his monstrous desert, she sat next to him with hers.
“Now…tell me all about it.”
After staring at the bowl for several seconds, he inhaled deeply and turned to her. “She wants to be young.”
“Brooke…she wants to be young while she’s young.”
His mother’s expression was riddled with confusion as she removed the spoon from her mouth. “And, is she aging rapidly? I don’t understand.”
“Basically, she feels like I’m too settled…or…boring. She doesn’t want to be with someone who acts older than her parents do. She broke up with me.”
His mother sat her bowl on the oversized coffee table. “That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Would she prefer a boy who hasn’t been accepted to an excellent college, or…perhaps one who experiments with recreation drug use? Perhaps she’d enjoy a boy who brings her the gift of gonorrhea.”
“Mom.” He laughed—his mouth full of ice cream.
“That makes no sense to me.”
Setting his bowl aside as well, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “It’s okay. Maybe she’s right. We only have two months left and then it’s over…high school is over. Maybe I need to do stuff.”
“Yeah. My friends and all their friends all have lives outside of school and sports.”
His mother’s cool hand took his. “Colton…if by stuff, you mean drinking beer and staying out all weekend doing things no seventeen-year-old boy should do…will you please reconsider this plan? You are so close. The finish line is right there, Son.” Her grip on his hand grew tighter—her gaze more intent. “If you want to go to a few silly college parties next year to mingle and what not, do it, but you have big plans and huge goals. Those goals are your goals…and they don’t leave much room for late-night shenanigans and intoxicants.”
“Did you…just say shenanigans? That’s awesome.”
She chuckled and kissed his cheek. “I love you so very much. You are my greatest achievement, Colton. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Lightly squeezing her hand, he leaned forward and grabbed his ice cream. “So…you’re going to call the school for me tomorrow? I mean, I’m only your greatest achievement and all.”
“Yes, Colt. What do you have planned?”
“Eh…nothing much more than pajama bottoms. I might lift some weights in the garage.”
“Oh. Well, I’m rounding at the hospital in the morning, but I’m not seeing anyone in the clinic. Maybe we can hang out a bit more tomorrow too?”
“And Colton…I would say that Brooke is silly, or dumb or even selfish, but the truth is that she has different goals than you do. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you, and there’s nothing wrong with her. You’re both at an age where time seems almost infinite and choices don’t seem to have any real consequences until those consequences are on paper or posted on social media. She’ll see…years from now, she’ll see, but by then you won’t even care.”
He sighed, smiling. “I know, Mom. It just sucks right now, though. It really…really sucks.”
She nodded in agreement. “It will get better, Son.”
“I know…it’s just getting there.”
“Well, while you’re getting there, remember that I love you very much and I am always here if you need me for anything, okay?”
“I know, Mom. You and Dad are seriously the best parents a guy could ask for. I’m a lucky dude.”
“We’re lucky. I’m going to go clean up the kitchen quickly.”
Only ten in the morning and his bedroom had been officially de-Brooke’d. Each frame, showcasing their flashy smiles, was wrapped in old newspaper and placed within a box along with each card, and even the little bear she bought him. Tucked securely in the box, he placed the items in his closet.
Downstairs in his swimming trunks, he poured a glass of orange juice and made his way outside. The morning air was crisp and cool, yet not uncomfortable. The motor of the hot tub kicked on—humming softly. He smirked and walked in its direction.
After removing the heavy cover, he climbed in.
His parent’s home sat on four acres and was two and a half miles outside of town—he could have climbed in naked and only the squirrels and birds would have seen.
Leaning over the side of the tub, he fished his phone from his towel and played his favorite playlist—Chris Stapleton leading off the list of songs.
Their backyard was a maze of established oak and evergreens. Speckled with pinecones and small wildlife, Colton felt at peace staring off through the thicket for hours.
Resting his head into the soft cushion, he relaxed and allowed the powerful jets to work away the tension in his back and shoulders. Tiny droplets—dancing on the bubbling surface—tickled his nose as he closed his eyes.
“Colton.” His mother’s soft voice coaxed him from slumber.
He awoke—slightly panicked to see her sitting next to him, her chin propped on her hand as she looked at him.
“Hey, sleepy boy.”
“How…how long have you been here?”
“A few minutes.”
“Creeper.” He smiled at her as he sat forward.
She chuckled, her gaze still on his.
It was then he realized his songs were no longer playing—he had to have been in the tub for at least an hour to have went through the entire playlist. His hands emerged from the water—saturated and prune-like.
“Your father used to have to drag me from your room when you were little. I loved watching you sleep.”
“Do I need to lock my door at night, Mom?”
“No, goof. I completely respect your privacy. Just…seeing you so peaceful and comfortable…I didn’t want to wake you just yet.”
“Nah…I’m glad you did. I need to…well.”
“Relax? Nap the day away? It’s not like you can go to the mall or gym or go jogging. I wouldn’t want the school to know we are dirty liars, would you?”
“You have worked diligently all year. Your grades and achievements are more than remarkable, Colton…they’re outstanding. It’s okay to sleep the day away occasionally. Recharging is necessary.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too. I brought you some breakfast.”
“Eh…healthy shit? I can’t do that yogurt stuff—”
“No…I told Nana-Sue of our conspiracy this morning. She insisted on preparing you breakfast. I’m sure your arteries will pay greatly.”
This news slapped a smile on Colton’s face. “Seriously? What the hell, Mom? You let me sleep away when I’ve got food from Nana-Sue waiting on me?”
“I told you…you looked so peaceful.”
“That’s because I’m famished and starving. I don’t have any energy.”
“So silly. You’re going to Nana’s retirement party, aren’t you?”
“Yeah…of course. How long has she worked in the Cafeteria?”
Dianna bit her bottom lip, looking upward as she thought on it. “Well…she was there when your father and I began practicing. That was twenty…um…twenty-two years ago, so at least that long.
“I love her. I want to take her to college with me. You think that’s a legitimate request?”
“Colton, if Nana-Sue prepared your meals daily…it wouldn’t matter how many hours you spent in the gym. That woman loves her butter and oil.”
“Deeelicious. Mom, you mind grabbing me a towel?”
“It’s right here, brat. I’ll see you inside.”
Freshly dressed and at the dining-room table, Colton scarfed down biscuits and sausage gravy, bacon and eggs, and hash browns.
“Dear god, Son. Chew.”
Colton set his fork down and wiped his mouth as the front door opened. His father came in to the kitchen—looking exhausted. He looked to Colton, seemingly taken aback. “Colt…don’t you have school today?”
Colton smiled with stuffed cheeks. “Um…stomach ache.”
“Oh, I can tell.” His father happily walked to him, ruffling his hair. “Hopefully these tummy-bugs aren’t around tomorrow, Colt. I figured we’d go to the lake?”
Colton leaned back, patting his stomach. “Depends…with or without the pager?”
He walked to Dianna, kissing her cheek. “No pager. Last night was an emergency. We wouldn’t be interrupted. And I’m only taking morning clinic for the next twelve business days.”
“Holy shit, Dad. Did hell freeze over?”
“No. Staycation. So, how about we get up around five, get the tackle ready and hit the water before sun up?”
“Great. I’m going to bed before I fall over.” Bryan, his father, hugged his mother tightly as they shared casual conversation regarding his night at the hospital.
Several of Colton’s parents were divorced or separated. He was incredibly thankful his were so loving to him and each other.
His dad kissed him atop his head, and then made his way to his room. “Love you, Colt.”
“Love you more.”
His mother joined him at the table with avocado slices and a grapefruit.
“Hush. So, Colton, I was going to talk to you about something.”
Washing his food down with milk, he looked to her curiously. “K’.”
“Would you be interested in going with me tonight to the, I Hear Your Heart group meet and greet?”
“Huh? Isn’t that like a violation of confidentiality or something?”
Shaking her head, she lifted an avocado slice to her mouth. “No, not at all. The support group isn’t affiliated with the hospital or my practice.”
“Oh…well, why do you want me to go?”
“Hmmm…just to get out of the house.”
“Um…sure. I can do that. I need to practice anyways.”
“Practice? Son, you’re better than I am. You’re amazing.”
“Duh. I’m a champion at everything in life. You should know that.”
She chuckled. “And so humble.”
“Ha. I suck at most stuff.”
“No…you don’t. You are a champion.
The meeting was held downtown. The old, brick building had been remodeled, but upon entering, it smelled musky—like under the kitchen sink at home. There was an odd perfume lingering too. Dressed in nice jeans and a comfortable shirt, Colton followed his mother to the center of the group.
“Do I just—”
He was instantly silenced by her piercing gaze.
He felt his face flushing red in the completely silent room, as his mother’s hands began signing. “No vocals, only hands.”
Quickly, his own hands worked to formulate an apology. “Sorry. Maybe explain the rules next time.”
Taking their seats, Colton’s gaze remained anchored to the floor—his hands clasped tightly together. The room remained muted. His mother’s elbow abrasively nudged his upper ribs—eliciting a forced chuckle. “Stop.”
She smiled at the eclectic group of seven people. “Hello. Sorry we are late. This is my son. This is his first time here. He is not deaf, but practices signing frequently. I brought him here to meet you all if that is okay.”
Colton’s face remained hot—his heart raced as the group simultaneously smiled—their hands signing a welcome. “Hello. My name is C O L T O N. I’m happy to be here today. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity.”
The proficiency and speed of his hands had some of the group members offering respectful nods. Colton’s gaze had primarily settled on the elderly man sitting directly across from him and the middle-aged woman to the man’s right. As his nerves settled, he passively looked over the group until his curious glance was transfixed on her. To his far right sat a beautiful girl with shoulder-length brown hair and dark brown eyes. She blushed as their eyes met and she quickly looked away.
His heart fluttered. In his seventeen years, he’d never seen a girl so breathtakingly beautiful.
The group meeting consisted of many motivational stories and several silent smiles. After the fourth time she caught him staring in her direction, he made a conscious effort to not look her way. After the group meeting, the members shook hands and several thanked Colton for spending his Friday night with them.
Turning to his mother, he was taken completely aback to see the brown-haired girl standing next to her. “Son, I would like you to meet someone.”
He was actually thankful his loss for words wouldn’t leave him looking like a complete idiot.
“I’m, I Z A B E L L A. Or just B E L L.” The instant her hands stopped signing she was extending a friendly handshake. Her smile had him dumbstruck.
“Your mother says you like to fish?”
“Yes!” He shook his head and returned to signing. “Yes. It’s one of my favorite things.”
“Really? I haven’t seen you at school. Are you from here?”
“Yes. I homeschool.”
He rocked on his heals nervously. “Are you going to college next year?”
“Yes. Special Education. You?” she replied.
“Pre-medicine. Are you going here?”
“I am. Are you?”
“We should go fishing at the lake sometime soon.” Her simple gesture had him grinning widely.
Nodding, his gaze stayed glued to hers. “I’d like that.”
“Okay. What is your phone number? I’ll text you mine.”
He didn’t even care that his lingering mother was watching the scene from mere feet away. As Bell produced her phone from her pocket, Colton graciously and happily typed his number in her phone. Seconds later—his was vibrating in his pocket with her text.
“Sent. Oh, and if you call, make sure it’s F A C E T I M E.” She smiled.
“Of course. I’ll text you this weekend.”
“It was nice to meet you.”
As she walked away, Colton felt as though he were possibly in some strange dream. He’d never been approached by a girl before, let alone the most beautiful girl on the planet. He pursued Brooke for months before she agreed to dinner and a movie. The fact that this girl asked for his number made no sense.
Still stunned and smiling, he looked to his grinning mother.
The first few minutes of the drive home were silent. Her face was plastered on his brain—her pretty smile and beautiful eyes…
“Aren’t you glad you came with me tonight, Colt?”
And then an idea jumped into his mind—replacing his nostalgia. “Mom…did you do this?”
“Do what, Son?”
“Did you set this up? You did, didn’t you?”
Her silence had him shaking his head. “Dammit. I knew it.”
“What? You knew what?”
“There’s no way a girl like that would ever ask for my phone number. That was a douche move, Mom. Not cool.”
“Colton. I will have you know that she saw your senior picture on my office desk and asked about you. I didn’t set anything up. I assure you she didn’t ask you on a pity date on my account.”
Resting his head into the headrest, he smirked. “She asked about me, eh?”
“Yes. She asked who the cute boy was.”
“Right. She actually said I was cute?”
“Sweetheart…she’s deaf, but her vision is perfect. You are a very handsome young man. Stop selling yourself short.”
“And you think it’s okay?”
“I think what’s okay?”
“Well, I mean she goes to your clinic.”
“Colton, I’m not her audiologist and she asked you to go fishing with her, nothing more. I don’t see any issues there. She’s an eighteen-year-old woman. Take her fishing.”
He gave his mother a cynical smirk and turned his gaze forward. “Fine…I’ll take her fishing.”
“Okay then…take her fishing, goofball.”
“I bet Dad is still passed out. I hate it when he works all night.”
“He only does is occasionally, Colton…you know that.”
“I know, but he’s seriously the hardest working Otolaryngologist on earth. He shouldn’t be working nights, period. He should be home at five thirty like…every night.”
“Honey…he was in surgery on a tumor resection until nearly five this morning. It couldn’t wait. He wasn’t leaving until he was sure they were stable. I’m sure his patient appreciates his tenacity.”
Colton smiled. “Yeah. Dad’s a badass. So are you, Mom.”
“And so are you, Colt. My little badass…scored himself a date tonight.”
“Is everything loaded, C?”
As Colton attempted to answer his father—his yawn prevented his words. He chuckled. “Yeah, we’re good, Dad.”
His dad’s large hand gripped Colton’s head like a basketball. He pulled him in—hugging him tightly. “I love you, Son.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
The embrace extended just a few seconds longer than usual. “Dad…you okay, man?”
As they separated, his father ruffled his hair. “I’m okay, C. I just miss you, bud. You’re always busy…or I’m busy.”
Glancing toward his father, he socked the man’s shoulder. “I’m never too busy for my Dad, yo.”
He smiled. “You know what I mean, C.”
“Yeah. We’ll need to take a few dudes’ camping trips this summer if you’re down. Maybe get Shawn in on it.”
As they walked out the front door, Colton stretched and yawned again.
“What time did you go to bed last night, Son?”
He smirked. “I crashed at like…one or one-thirtyish.”
“What? Why so late? You’re going to be a zombie today.”
“Eh. I met this girl last night. I crept on her Twitter and Insta. Pretty stalker-face style.”
“That girl from the meeting you went to?”
They both climbed into the Jeep. “Yeah.”
“Your mother told me about her. Is she pretty?”
“Ha!” Colton threw his head back. “Like…the prettiest girl ever. I couldn’t even think straight when I looked at her. It’s like…my face just got all hot and I felt like a complete idiot.”
His father chuckled. “That pretty, huh?”
“Yeah. That pretty.”
The drive to the lake was mild and cool. Colton tapped along to Eric Church on his stirring wheel—singing under his breath.
Several minutes later, they were at the dock. Tackle unloaded and chairs set out, Colton and his father were the first fishermen at the shore. Their lines were cast, and they were relaxing as the sun began kissing the lake from the opposing side of the water.
“Beautiful day out, Dad.”
“Yes sir, it is.”
Nearly thirty minutes of small-talk and not a single nibble, and Colton was looking for nearby bushes to relieve his bladder.
“Nature calls.” He stood, walking toward the thick brush near the water’s edge. He looked around to ensure his privacy before pulling the front of his sweatpants down.
The sun continued rising as he peed into the water. Mission complete, he took a moment to enjoy the cranes calling…the soft breeze and the fish jumping at random on the otherwise still lake.
“Colton.” His father’s voice was less than four feet behind him.
“Shit…Dad. Scared the hell out of me.”
His father’s expression was off—his eyes—there was something about his gaze that conjured immediate concern.
“Dad, are you okay—”
“Hey bud…just come back to the Jeep with me.”
“Dad, is it Mom? Is Mom okay?”
“She’s fine, C. Come over here with me.”
“Is Grandma okay?”
His father stepped to him—their gazes solid and heavy on one another. “Grandma is fine, Son. Walk with me.”
His father’s tone—calm and soothing—was a stark contrast to the intensity racing in his eyes. A dark dread had Colton feeling as though he needed to look behind him. As he turned, his father’s hands grabbed either side of his face.
“Colton…I need you to walk over to the Jeep with me, Son. Please.” His voice shook.
“Dad…you’re scaring me. What’s going on?”
“Just walk with me, bud.”
Colton merely nodded, taking a step toward his father.
It wasn’t defiance…it wasn’t even curiosity. Sheer fear had Colton turning his head from his father’s gaze and to the water he was over only seconds prior.
The blinding orange light cascaded across the cattails and a collection of garbage in the water near the shore…and on the exposed, blond head and shoulders of a light-pale-blue woman, face-down in the water.
His breath left him in heaves. His father’s words were audible—but within those seconds, nothing made sense.
His hands abrasively slapped across his forehead. Finding it impossible to inhale, his mouth agape as he stepped closer—his gaze rested on the chilling scene just feet in front of him.
Reality was brutal—he recognized the tattoo and white and red spaghetti-strap shirt on the body—he’d seen them day before yesterday. It was Dezerea Brinkley bobbing lifelessly below him in the shallows.
It wasn’t until his father’s hand covered his mouth that he realized he was yelling—screaming—as he stared at the body of the girl he’d talked to less than forty-eight hours prior. Turning from the horror and to his dad, he initially believed his father was simply embracing him. After he pried his eyes to see the water and cattails bouncing further and further away, he realized his father was carrying him like child from the water’s edge. His legs were wrapped around his dad’s waist and his arms squeezed tightly around his neck as he wailed heavily.
“Colton. You’re okay, bud. We’ll call the police. It’s probably a homeless woman—”
“No! That—” As his father set him down, Colton bent over, dry-heaving as his tears fell to the dusty road below him. “It’s… Dez Brinkley. It’s my fault, Dad.”
“My…fault.” His emotion made effective communication nearly impossible.
“That’s Dezerea Brinkley? Dez from your school?”
Colton fell back on his butt, crying into his palms. “Dammit!”
“Colton! How do you know that is Dezerea Brinkley, and how on earth is this your fault, Son?”
His cries continued and rose in pitch. His palms pressed heavily into his eyes.
“C! Talk to me!”
“I was here Thursday.”
“Oh, my god…what happened, Colton?”
“She…she needed…she needed a ride and I told her no.” The words were unbearable leaving his mouth. He continued to wail in front of his Jeep.
“Hey now, bud. You’re okay. It’s going to be okay. Let’s get you in the Jeep.”
His father deadlifted him from the ground and set him in the passenger seat. He felt as though he were going numb—physically numb. It was as if he could no longer feel his face or his lungs expanding with air…as if he were floating.
Little birds hopped through the reeds and foliage above the water. They paid no mind to the lost life below their antics—Dezerea Brinkley—face-down among the accumulated garbage in the cattails.