This story is by Nathan and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I’m driving down the road, watching the broken, yellow centerline pass by faster and faster, and all I can think about is how to respond to the last text I received:
Did you tell them?
I turn up the bottle of Jack Daniel’s and swallow the last drop. It burns as it goes down.
How could I tell them? Truth is, this second-rate suburban farm town survives on secrecy. He just doesn’t understand that. But I do.
I’m going fifty in a thirty-five zone, and twilight is giving way to nighttime. I can’t get outta here fast enough. About a mile from the interstate, just when I think I’m safe, the shape walks out in front of my car. I hit the brakes, and just before my car makes contact, the shape turns and looks at me right in the eyes, and I know. It’s him. I run my car through him. Through, as in, he just dissipates.
Two years of therapy, and this’s still happening?
I get out of the car, look around to be sure there’s no body in the road. Nothing.
“Why won’t you just leave me alone!”
“Leave me alone, you hear me!”
The car radio comes on, playing a song I know all too well. “Secret” by The Pierces.
“Screw this!” I run back to the car. That familiar, awful smell…he’s not gone. My hand is on the gear shift when I see the jaundiced eyes in the rearview mirror, watching me from the back seat. I want to move, but I can’t.
Please, not again.
His face turns grey and purple as he pounces forward, that same familiar scream escaping his gaping hole of a mouth. His face right next to mine, he gurgles something I can’t understand, blood-tinged spit hitting me in the face.
MOVE, DANIEL, JUST MOVE.
I stumble out of the car, full of whiskey. I run until my legs give out and bring me to the ground, roadside gravel and debris digging into my hands and knees. Everything stands still and spins all at once. I roll over onto to my back, my eyes closed, willing it all to stop, and, as much as I fight it, my mind goes back to that night six years ago.
It was because of him, the old man who lived in the rundown house at the corner of Blue Ridge and Main Street. That old place came up at most town meetings, as was reported in the town’s newspaper.
“My son’s afraid to walk home from school down Blue Ridge anymore,” Mrs. Goodman, head of the middle school’s PTA, said. “That old man chases him into Main Street if he gets too close to his yard.”
“I understand your concerns, but he’s lived there since before his mother—”
“We’re familiar with the history. Maybe it’s time to let the past die, and worry about the danger he poses to the children now.”
She wasn’t lying about that. He’d chased her son, Hank Goodman, after the boy threw some deodorant at him and told him to take a shower. It got a laugh out of the kids who walked down Blue Ridge after school. Hank seemed pleased with himself until the man threw a rock at him and chased him onto Main Street where Hank peed himself when a car nearly hit him.
And trust me: nobody, not even the town’s oldest living ex-mayor, stood up to the Goodmans without paying for it.
I guess that’s why I agreed to his plan. Plus, we’d been “friends” since elementary school, so he knew everything about me. Things nobody else knew.
He’d planned it perfectly. On Friday night after the first game of the season, he and some of his football buddies would stay the night at my house.
“And after we roll his yard, we—well, you—will dong-dong ditch him.”
“Wait. Why me?”
“Well, you’re the fastest guy on track team, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess…” I said, happy to accept the compliment. “But, should we really bother him? I mean—”
“Sorry, I forgot you’re the good kid. I just thought you’d help your best friend out since, you know, he tried to kill me in front of Stephanie Kirchner and all…”
When that didn’t convince me, he knew what would.
“And we do still have that deal,” he said. “Remember? You help me out with Stephanie, and I don’t tell anyone that you and Conner—”
“Okay! I’ll do it. Just…” I looked around to make sure nobody was listening. “Just keep your part of the deal, okay?”
“Secret’s safe with me.”
And we really did go to my house that Friday night, but only long enough to stock up on some extra toilet paper and take a bottle of whiskey from my dad’s cabinet. From there, Blue Ridge was only a ten-minute walk.
David, Hank’s teammate, spoke first: “So, I heard you and Brittney Ballard, uh…” He motioned by moving his hips back and forth. “Y’know…”
“Uhh…” I looked at Hank, who was nodding at me vigorously. So, he was telling people I’d lost my virginity. To Brittney. A girl. Was this his way of helping me?
“This guy,” Hank said with a laugh when I didn’t reply, “always the shy one.”
“Right,” I said. I took a swig of my dad’s whiskey.
“We’re here,” Hank said. “Y’all ready?”
We armed ourselves with toilet paper rolls from our backpacks and tossed them into the trees, on the porch railing, the bushes, and the old truck that must’ve been there at least twenty years. And, I admit, I actually felt like one of the boys. Like I was normal.
“Alright, bud,” Hank whispered to me, his hand on my shoulder, “you ready?”
They hid in the bushes while I walked up to the front door. I knocked hard three times and, in my best imitation of a woman’s voice, I shouted: “It’s your mother! Let me in, I’m so cold!”
I bolted when I heard movement inside, but I was still in the yard when the front door creaked open. Had he seen me? I ran even faster, crossed Main Street, and dived into the bushes with the others.
He stammered around the yard, into the road. “H-Hello!” he called out. “Mama?”
Did he really believe it was his mother? I felt bad for him.
Headlights were coming around the blind spot. He stayed in the road. Surely, he’ll move, I thought. But he just stood there, mumbling something. The car must’ve been doing at least forty around the curve, but I still could’ve jumped out. I could’ve pushed him out of the way, maybe saved his life.
But I didn’t. I just watched as he turned toward the car, its headlights illuminating the kidney spots on his face, his yellow eyes like two full moons.
The first thing I heard after he hit the pavement was the gurgling. Was he still trying to talk? That’s when I knew he’d seen me. He was looking right at me, reaching out his hand, trying to speak his last words, and I never knew what they were.
And then he was dead.
The car door opened, and a man stepped out and ran over to the limp body lying on the crimson-stained asphalt of Main Street. “Jesus Christ, is he dead?”
Next thing I know, Hank was pulling me by my backpack and telling me we had to move. “They’re gonna see us!”
The other boys were gone. There was no way I could step into the light. We never meant to kill him. But he was dead. And it was our fault.
I ran. I ran until my legs gave out, and I fell to the ground, and I lay there in the dirt where I belonged.
The town newspaper that released that month reported that the mayor had been drinking when he stepped in front of an oncoming vehicle. Another secret to keep.
I open my eyes, and I’m still here, on the ground. It’s gone. The screaming, the gurgling, the smell—all gone. But I can’t do it anymore. I’m done running.
I reach into my pocket, pull out my phone. One text message from Conner: “It’s okay if you’re not ready. Love you. Can’t wait to see you.”
I write back: “No. No more secrets. Love you.”
I stand up, steady myself. My heart races as I get back in the car. Is he still here? I check the rearview mirror. The backseat is empty. I turn the key, and the headlights come on. There he stands, no longer grey and purple. He nods at me, looks away, and walks across the street into the woods. He’s gone. And it’s time for me to go, too.
I unlock the phone to call my mom. My throat tightens as the phone rings. As scary it will be, tonight’s the night I tell all my secrets. Every last one of them.