Chapter 10: Old Blue (Draft)

black tractor on road near trees

The story so far:

Riley planned to prep for finals today.  Instead, Zoey dragged her to a cave where her parents’ initials were carved.  Rose called Riley to have her pick up Connor’s new meds.  When she gets there, Ethan quits the general store.  Louis returns, and is eaten by a shadow.  Riley defeats it, and needs to accept that reality now has monsters in it.

The gravel was a dirty grey, but infused with bits of quartz that sparkled like stars as the light caught them.  It was an odd backdrop as I stared at my hand.  They looked normal now, but I could still feel those long, dark fingers, like they were hiding just under my skin.  In vivid detail, I recalled that awful sucking noise, and the coolness of the air on my wet skin, as I pulled them out of the demon’s chest.  

My stomach felt sour again. From a distance, as though it was happening to another person, I wondered if I was going to throw up.  I forced my mind to turn to more logical problems.  Things that I had a chance of figuring out, if I could only focus.

Save her, Louis had said.  So had the statue.  I was hearing it everywhere now.  Save her. What did it mean?  I half hoped that her was me.  It felt like my toes were wiggling over the edge of a cliff.  How I was going to handle this one on my own?

Demons weren’t real… but they were.  Louis was alive, but Ms. Tillie didn’t remember him.  I doubted everything.  It felt like my mind was broken, so it no longer had the authority to tell me what was true and what wasn’t.  Was the country road really under my feet?  Or was I still asleep in my bedroom, and Zoey was going to open the window any minute now?

I heard an echo of my own voice in my head.  It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not.  We have to act like it is to survive.  It seemed like I’d said that a lifetime ago.  Had it only been a couple of hours?  But what happened if I took my own advice? If I let myself believe that all of that had really happened?  That would be insane.

Maybe Zoey was right: nothing was real.  It would be so much easier if I could just skip through the day like she did. She never worried about anything for long.  Feeling jealous, I ran my fingers over my face again.  I could feel the scratch, though it had scabbed over.  I pulled my hand away to stare at it again, expecting to see blood anyway, and imagined long, black fingers…

I was caught in a loop, and didn’t know how to get out.  If I did it enough times, something had to start making sense again. I touched my face, and let my eyes slide closed.  My hand was real.  My touch.  The warmth in it.  I could believe in that much, couldn’t I?

I kept walking.  It could have been a minute, or an hour.  I didn’t trust my head enough to tell me the truth, so I ignored all of its guesses.  After a while it stopped trying, and I walked down the country road with its vibrant wildflowers hugging the edges, and felt empty.

The sputtering growl of an old engine grew louder as I walked.   I opened my eyes and saw Grandpa’s tractor chugging merrily down the road, zig-zagging back and forth like a dancer.  Zoey was perched in the driver’s seat, waving her arms around like a … I was going to say crazy person. That didn’t feel so funny anymore.  

Was this really happening?  I’d never seen her drive it before.  Didn’t know that she even knew how.  And, maybe she didn’t.  Her hands hadn’t touched the wheel yet.  As she grew closer I could hear bits of song.  It sounded like a sea shanty.  Her knees were steering, bending the tractor’s path as she swayed to her own beat.

“Ohhh, who’s out here driving tractors with her feet?  Zoey, that’s me!”  She put a hand over her eyes, shielding them from the sun.  “Who found her a Riley out on the street?  Zoey, that’s me!”

I bathed in the absurdity of what I was seeing, and felt nothing.  No affection.  No surprise.  Aware of how wrong that was, I slapped on a smile.  I could handle this, I reassured myself.  I just had to keep it together a little longer, and I could worry later.

For some reason, that made me laugh. Maybe I’d already fallen off the cliff and just didn’t know it yet.

The tractor jerked to a halt when it was nearly close enough to hit me.  Inches from my face, I read the word Ford in blue letters, and 3600 in white.  Up above, she was singing “I’m so awesome, I’m so awesome,” as she did something that choked the deafening roar down to a low rumble.  

“Hola, chick,” she called down, punctuating it with what she probably thought was a cheesy wink.  “Wanna go back to your place, or mine?”

Rose.  I had to get the box to her.  First Zoey, then Rose.  After that, I would have time to think again.  

I took a steep step up onto the old beast.  There wasn’t much space to stand beside the driver’s seat, so I stood sideways and gripped its cracked plastic. “Careful of those,” she warned me, blocking me from a couple of levers that jutted out by her side.  “We’re not hooked up to anything, but they’re no fun up your butt, either.”  She stepped on the clutch and shifted into first.

“You seem oddly chill right now,” she observed.  “With all the fuss, I thought you were in some real trouble.”

“What fuss?” I asked with a sense of foreboding tinged with hope.  Were there more shadows?  Had someone else seen one?  Someone I could talk to, who might believe me?  At once, I felt guilty.  Selfish.  Another shadow sighting meant another possible victim, and no one deserved to die like that.  My own comfort shouldn’t have been my first thought.

“Tillie called Ethan, and she swore up and down that you’d fallen into the deep end of the crazy pool.  He was at work, so he tattled to mom that I skipped school.”  She scowled at me as she shifted into second.  “Thanks for that, by the way.” 

I didn’t know what to say, so I told her the truth.  “I didn’t tell him.”  But I’d seen Ethan quit before I went to Ms. Tillie’s… hadn’t I?  What was real?

Her expression flickered with concern, then she was back to her usual carefree self.  The tractor sounded like it was going to grind itself to death before she shifted into third gear and relieved some of that tension.  “Either way, mom called me and said to go looking for ya, but I knew you were good because I’d been tracking that wolf all morning.”

I wondered briefly if she was joking, and decided that she wasn’t.  Reckless?  Exciting?  That sounded pretty well in her lane.  If she’d been the one to see the demon, I knew she would have shaken it off by now.  Probably even designed a superhero costume to compliment her claws.  I didn’t wish that Zoey had seen it instead of me… that was too selfish, even for me.  I wanted to be her: confident in my immortality, and just crazy enough to think that I might not be crazy.

“A-a-anyway, I was too beat to walk you home.  Grandpa C said I should learn how to drive, and I told him I couldn’t learn what I already know.  He said prove it… so here I be, baby,” she declared, singing the last few words loudly.  She patted the steering wheel fondly.  “Me and Old Blue.”

I suddenly realized that she was waiting for me to react.  I didn’t dare let go of her seat or I would have fallen off during our bumpy ride.  Instead, I forced a smile of admiration and managed to say “thanks.” 

“Well, you’re definitely more animated than normal,” she teased.  “So, what’s your story?”

I don’t even know where to start, I thought bleakly, so I started with the truth.  “A friend of mine passed today.  Louis.”

“Ah.  Well, that explains a lot.  Sorry, Riles.”  She squinted at the road.  “Did I know him?  Why does that sound kind of familiar?” 

A thrill of hope shot up my spine.  Maybe it was just Ms. Tillie that didn’t remember him, for whatever reason.  Maybe Zoey would believe me.  She’d known him longer than I had.  “He was a neat freak.  Kind of judgy.  Short tempered?  Super smart, a little paranoid.  Kind of conceited?”  I dredged my memory for anything she had ever said about him, and threw it back at her.  Please, Zoey.  Remember.

Zoey raised her eyebrows in shock.  “Wow, Riles.  Way to talk shit about the dead.”

“I’m not –” I objected, upset that she wasn’t even trying.  My whole body was shivering with the effort of not lashing out at her.  Whatever was going on, I was in this by myself.  I didn’t know why it had to be that way, but Zoey didn’t have the answers I was looking for.

“Sorry,” I sighed as she downshifted for the turn into my driveway.  “That wasn’t okay. I’m just,” and I clenched my teeth as I shivered again, “not okay with it yet.”

“You’re not supposed to be okay with losing a friend.”  She parked by the barn and we jumped down.  I could still feel the vibration of the tractor in my teeth.   “Take a minute off.  You really look like you need one.”

I held the box with Grandpa’s new medication out for her.  “Do you mind running this inside to your mom for me?  I just … I’m going to take that minute.”

Out of the blue, she attacked me with a bear hug.  “I’m sorry, and I love you,” she whispered in my ear, and I could feel tears stinging my eyes again. “Come get me later.  For now, why don’t you go see Heather?”

“Thank you,” I cried, my voice breaking.  I hugged her back, feeling small and childish in the arms of someone three years younger who routinely needed my help to reach the top shelves.

“Ew,” she protested with a soft laugh as she rubbed circles on my back.  “What is this?  Actual emotion?  From you?”  When she pulled away, she was holding the box. She ran her thumb over my cheek to wipe away the tears.  “Go put yourself back together.  I’ll keep everyone off your back for as long as I can.”

Anyone else would have smothered me.  Told me I needed to talk, because it’s what they needed to feel better.  Zoey simply waved over her shoulder as she started toward the house, and I was surprised by how well she did know me after only two years.  By walking away, she proved that I wasn’t alone after all.

“I love you, too,” I whispered to her back.  

What do you think?