Realization dawned within Riley one hot, comatose afternoon in the row of many. It dawned in him when he was alone, in a country he hardly knew the name of, in a part of the world he’d never visited. It came with terrifying power and sent a cold stab to the area in his chest where his heart might have been. She knew. Lizzie had known all along what would happen. And then she had just… done it. Riley looked down at his hands. They were trembling.
Everything ends that night on the beach.
Everything starts with a wound.
There were four of them. There was Tucker, the happiest, most fervent crackhead Riley had ever met, with his long sandy hair and contagious chuckle. Also, he had mad skills with the guitar. There was Audrey, a Christian good girl gone rebellion with drugs and piercings as her weapons, who that night had saved said guitar from being thrown into the bonfire twice already. There was Lisa, of course, little fair-headed Lizzie who liked to think that she wasn’t so much of a nerd that the rest of the world considered her to be. That was why she fit in. All of them were outcasts. And on top of the bunch was Riley, King of Grovel, the White Duke. It was the fourth of July and the warm night was lit up by fireworks, pounding of music and the screaming laughs of all the youth Jacksonville could bring forth. Black was the sky, black was the sea, the sand crisp and white and seeping into places where you wouldn’t believe it possible. They were all high as buildings, and with a dirty blanket as his pillow Riley had been staring at the nearest fire for what seemed like an eternity. The flames seemed to twist and dance only for him. He heard nothing, felt nothing, not the wind or even Lizzie’s body cuddled up by his side.
“I love you, Riley.”
Her voice caused drunken ripples to break out on the calm ocean that was Riley’s numb mind, distorting it beyond recognition.
“Oh no you don’t.” he grunted.
Lizzie’s hot breath was on his cheek, whiskey disguised with mint, and the air was vibrating with her always present, nervous energy.
“Yes I do.”
She was on top of him now; God only knew how, her glasses glinting far above him, her matted flaxen hair like a halo against the black sky. Her skinny jeans-clad thighs hugged his hips obscenely. This was all new to Riley. They would always end up together nights like these for different reasons. Lizzie needed reassuring, Riley needed sex. But Lizzie had never acted out like this before and Riley knew right away that he didn’t like it.
“Hey Audrey!” Riley called.
“The geek seems to think that she loves me, do something about it.” Riley turned his head against Audrey’s direction, and all of a sudden it became clear why he didn’t get an answer. Audrey’s mouth was otherwise occupied. Neither she nor Tucker, the lucky bastard, would have noticed if a nitrogen bomb had detonated next to them that very second.
“It’s true, I really do love you.”
Lizzie’s face was closer now. Her stone grey eyes could very well have been beautiful, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the rest of her face was so mediocre. Riley smirked, grabbed her knee and let his hand slide up her thigh to her crotch.
“Then prove it.”
At first she said nothing and Riley thought she was going to smack him. But then she smiled, a broad, warm smile that was very unlike her.
“Fine, I will.” she said, and the next thing Riley knew was her steps in the sand as she took off. This didn’t bother him the least, in fact, he was relieved. Soon he was dozing off, the waves in his ears and the flames whipping in front of his clouded eyes.
He awoke to the sound of yelling, agitated voices.
“Holy shit, that blonde geek is going to jump!”
Jacksonville Bay was surrounded by tall, razor-sharp rocks that dove right into the waves at places. The tallest one had been named the Devils Drop in popular speech, around the time when Riley’s grandparents were young. Over the years it had marked the spot for rites of manhood and many other equally foolish stunts. But the years had also chiseled away chips of stone from the bottom of the cliff, the waves turning them jagged and pointy. Since the deaths of two young men three years prior, no one had ventured even close to the Devils Drop. Not until now. There was movement and alarm all around Riley, yet the world seemed to hold its breath. He was still in a seating position when Lizzie jumped. He watched her fall, the seconds stretching out like hours, her light silhouette against the black sky; and all he could think of was how fragile she looked. Like a rag of white cloth in the wind. Nothing more.
Several tense moments passed before someone decided to run down to the shore and look for Lizzie. Her body was floating in the shallow water among the rocks, and it was broken. Riley would never understand how Audrey and Tucker managed to pack all four of them into Audrey’s car, but somehow they did. Audrey was too hysteric to drive, so they placed Riley in the driver’s seat. It was a miracle he didn’t kill them all the way he drove. However, that proved to be the only miracle that would be granted to them for a long time.
They arrived to a hospital already crowded with adolescents; poisoned from too much alcohol or suffering from fireworks-related injuries. But when Tucker came bursting though the door, carrying Lizzie, everything happened very fast. They took her away someplace deep into the clinic, but Riley didn’t follow. He dragged himself into one of the toilets near the entrance and slumped down on the toilet seat. As electricity surged through Lizzie’s body, desperately trying to wake her, Riley opened a bag of the finest coke that could be found north of the bay and placed a small amount on the edge of the sink. When Lizzie’s last breath escaped her, Riley drew in as hard as he could and his world exploded into shiny shards of colored glass. Cold, cold were the tiles against the back of his head as he closed his eyes and slid down onto the floor. Cold like something that was dead.
It was morning when Riley emerged into the corridor. He wanted the world to be dull; instead he saw everything with overwhelming clarity. Sunlight gushed in from every window, sharpening all the white surfaces until Riley thought he was going blind. He heard a child crying, metallic wheels sliding over the floor, people laughing in the distance. He found Tucker and Audrey on a green couch in a waiting room. Audrey was sobbing quietly and her long black fringe was wet with tears. But it was Tuckers state that really scared Riley. He sat straight up, like he was made of stone, completely silent. His eyes were big and fixed on the floor. Riley had never seen him like that before.
Riley tried, but he was cut off by Audrey. She hid her face in her palms and her shoulders started shaking violently. Tucker turned his dead-pan stare against Riley, and in his eyes Riley saw all the things they thought they knew about each other withering away.
“Riley… what did you say to her, man?”
“Shut up! Shut up, shut up…” Audrey whimpered, but Riley was already on his way out.
Riley walked out of the hospital, and he never stopped walking. He walked to the bank and withdrew the content of the account his parents had set up for him (for emergency situations, or foremost, for him to use when he finally decided to grow up). He then walked to the airport and bought the first ticket that was out of the country. The flight went to London, eight hours of nothing but water and clouds. They were right above the middle of the Atlantic when the withdrawal symptoms hit Riley. He was feverish and trembling like a mad man, and he had to convince the stewards that he was epileptic in order to be left alone. Riley placed his burning, aching forehead to the window and cried without tears.
London was windy and dark, but it wasn’t far away enough. A couple of days filled with boat-rides and busses later, Riley considered himself lost. As he walked down a quiet street into a small town by the shore, he thought to himself that that had been the meaning from the start. He had wanted to get lost, to get consumed by the earth as his guilt consumed him from inside his very bones, every waking second. He had wanted to go somewhere where nothing reminded him of that night, and he had failed miserably. Everywhere he went there was either sea or rocks and black skies, same sky, same torment that was impossible to escape from. As he drew nearer the center of the little town, he heard noises. There were clubs there and bars, crowds of anxious, drunken, haughty people… It was all the same. Riley sat for hours on a park bench at the town square, consuming two packets of Danish cigarettes as he watched them. He hadn’t smoked anything as harmless as cigarettes since he was an angry thirteen-year old. He had nowhere to go, and truth to be told, his only wish was to melt away into the night and never come out again.
There was a club right across the square from where he sat. Suddenly, a small group of people left it in a chaotic manner. A fat Danish girl was yelling at two young men following her, they were tearing at her jacket and laughing viciously at her protests. There was no security or help to be seen, and before Riley even knew it he was on his feet.
“Leave her alone!” Riley yelled, and the two men spun around. They scrutinized Riley, then said something spiteful about him to each other in Danish. Riley stepped closer to them.
“I said, leave her alone.”
Maybe it was the fact that he caught them off guard, maybe it was the way he looked at them. In any case, they snorted and walked back into the club. The girl poured a whole rigmarole of words over Riley before she realized that he didn’t understand her. She then proceeded to tell him in English that she appreciated his help, but that she really hadn’t needed it. Her face was round and flustered, her hair tied back in a long ponytail, she wore boots and the most ill-fitting leather pants Riley had ever seen. Her name was Trine, and he would live in her home for two months to come.
They hadn’t talked for long before Trine decided that Riley would sleep on her couch that same night. He did, and the single night was soon followed by others. Trine worked at a daycare during the day, and she let Riley use her aged computer and come and go as he pleased. Riley thought that he must have seemed like a stray kitten to her, dirty and hungry and in need of love. Maybe he had come to her in a time where she really needed to help someone. Every night she masked her happiness to see him - still there when she returned – well, but Riley noticed. They watched TV, cooked simple meals together and small talked. Only once did Trine ask him why he had left, Riley then turned his face away and she never asked him again. The days were long and warm. Trine offered books for Riley to read, but he spent most of his time wandering the shore or sitting on her balcony with a pen and a writing pad. He had never known that he had it in him, but his head was no longer clouded by drugs, the pain was sharper but he found a strange comfort in that. Often he wouldn’t stop to think about what he was writing until he broke the pencil or ran out of paper. At one time, Riley understood that his writings were letters, letters to Lizzie, and his words were solely of forgiveness.
Riley had lived with Trine for almost two months. He sat by her computer one night and transferred his texts onto it, for some reason he wanted to keep them. Trine seated herself by his side and without asking, helped him organize the over-scribbled papers. When she was done, she looked at him cautiously for a while and then caressed his upper arm very slowly. Riley looked at her. Her hair was let down and she had put on makeup. He knew right away what she wanted from him, and he did it for her, did her that small favor. Trine curled her toes when she came.
Some time afterwards Riley was merely awake, drifting between sleep and consciousness. Trine, however, was bouncy and smiling from ear to ear. She calmed down eventually with one of her books, and Riley was seconds away from falling asleep. Suddenly, he felt Trines elbow nudging his lightly.
“I really must read you this. It’s another famous quote, I know, but this one is really good.”
“`All humans have wounds. The only thing we can do in this rotten world is to try and not inflict more wounds on each other than necessary.´”
Trine slept within ten minutes after closing the book. Riley did not.
He waited a few days, like a child on the edge of the highest trampoline. Then, one morning after Trine had left for work, Riley got up and organized his few belongings in a plastic bag. The shirt and jeans he had bought, the writing pad and the book Trine had given him. It was the first chilly day for what seemed like ages, and through the windows Riley thought he could see autumn rolling in over Europe like heavy silver clouds above the water. He left a note on Trines kitchen table, on it was many words that really couldn’t express his thoughts. He signed the note “Thank you.”
“Riley?! Oh my God, is it really you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Where have you been?! Oh what the hell, it doesn’t matter, are you all right?”
“I can’t believe… I mean, I thought… We’ve missed you so much…”
“Audrey… how are things, back home?”
“Oh you know, everything is the same, only nothing like it was before. It’s… different, but I think it’ll be okay, you know? I think it will… where are you?”
“I’m coming home.”