(2003) He listened to the waves crashing in a little cove on the Gulf of Mexico and let his backpack thud to the sandy drift at his feet. He'd hitched there from Latimer, Mississippi, which he'd thought would be impossible but which turned out to be startlingly easy. Maybe it was his appearance. Maybe no one could imagine a guy with a green Mohawk, camouflage cargo shorts, and a t-shirt that read, "Mount and Do Me" hurting anyone. After all, whenever the serial killers were on trial, they were always described as the "boy-next-door" type. Good looking, well dressed, clean cut all-American types. Priestly, as he'd decided to start calling himself, was the polar opposite of that.
He wasn't specifically trying to get to Florida, actually. He was just trying to get anywhere else besides where he was. It was cold in the panhandle, which he hadn't expected. When he thought of Florida, he thought of sticky heat and old people and co-eds on Spring Break. And, okay, it wasn't spring yet. It was January. But he'd still somehow pictured things differently. He'd pictured himself finding a job and a place to live, having nothing but fun and genuinely not giving a damn about anything, all of which would be a change from the life he'd been living, which was more in-line with the serial killer thing...dress slacks and stuffy button downs, watered-down hair, a prep-school smile, and a 3.9 GPA. All of it in the little brick house on the manicured street where even the dogs barked politely, with a fifties throwback mother, and a father that, to all outward appearances, was a firm but cordial man who loved the Lord. Capital 'L'.
Looking at Priestly now, you'd hear Godsmack instead of gospel. You'd imagine him burning the Bible rather than thumping it, and you'd probably never guess he had a favorite scripture. But then, a lot of things had been stripped away in the last seven days. God created the world in seven days. And since then, Priestly had re-created it. The first rule of his new world was that he was never going to tell anyone his first name if he could help it. The second was that he could treat his 'temple' (as his father and the Bible called it) any way he pleased. And what pleased him was the fuck you, Dad way it looked right now.
But it was farce, all of it. Living without everything he'd been immersed in since birth was just…impossible. He felt like his soul had died. He wondered if there really was a God or if all the atheists had been right, if he was just ridiculous…a joke that the rest of the world got and that he was only just coming to a sick realization of. He wondered if this was what was meant by a "dark night of the soul". He'd never felt so free, but it was not the good, lighthearted feeling he'd always thought the word implied. It was devastating, lonely, and cruel.
He'd been on his own for just seven days. Though he'd thought sure someone would be willing to hire him regardless of his appearance, even the edgier music stores, skater shops and head shops just took his applications and smiled and told him they'd keep him on file for six months. The Trac-fone he'd bought in Biloxi, the number to which he'd given on each application, hadn't rung once since. He couldn't go home. No way. What little family he had was still back in Latimer, so that was no good. His father's tight grip left him with few close friends because his father found ways to keep him from making any that weren't affiliated with the church. The church friends he had were still snowed. Both of his closest ones tried to convince him to go home, to talk to his father and mother. They care about you. They're worried about you. His answer? Hell, no. There just seemed to be nothing left. Not in Latimer. Not here. Not anywhere.
He crouched down and dumped the clutter of seven days on the road on his own out onto the sand. Three t-shirts, a scattering of pocket change, a few crumpled bills of various denominations, a stick of black eyeliner, the green hair gel he'd fashioned his first Mohawk with one boring afternoon, a studded bracelet that irritated the hell out of his wrist but which looked cool, about forty sticks of individually vacuum-packed beef jerky which seven days ago he'd loved but which he knew he'd never willingly eat again if he lived to be 100, a fold-up rain poncho he'd picked up in Mobile, a couple pairs of boxers, and a pair of jeans whose back pocket held his wallet and his ID and even the ATM card to his checking account, which had about $945 left in it. All he had to his name, dumped on the sand.
Priestly didn't stop to think. He just started shoving the biggest rocks he could find into the backpack. If he thought about it too much, he'd probably change his mind. And if there was one thing he was tired of, it was thinking. He just wanted to turn his brain off, and this was the surefire way he knew to do just that.
Trucker rode the wave almost all the way to shore, sighing at the bittersweet tug he got realizing it was the last one before he'd have to face the endlessness of the drive back to California. He didn't usually mind being alone, having time to think and just drink in the world around him. But he hadn't intended to ever look back at the parts of his life he was ashamed of, either. So, so much for intentions and best laid plans.
He thought about sleeping one last time in his van on the beach, but he knew he couldn't possibly get away with it for a second night. There were 'no trespassing' signs everywhere. The cops would surely take notice, and he really didn't need the fines.
It was luck or it was fate that made him look up at the cliffs over the cove. He saw the shadowy figure there, bent over something, silhouetted by the rapidly setting sun. As the sun dipped lower behind that cliff, the shadow came into sharper focus, lifting something onto its shoulders and staggering with it. Trucker's heart started hammering, though consciously, he couldn't say why. That had happened a lot in his life, in the parts he liked to tuck away and not think too much about. They'd said he was better at sensing trouble than any radio transmissions, any sirens.
He was paddling furiously even before the figure with its freshly shouldered burden took a resolute leap and plunged violently into the roaring tide below.
Actually finding the shadow figure was more of the same: dumb luck. A miracle. Whatever you chose to call it. But Trucker kept his eyes on the place where he thought the shadow figure landed, and when he caught a vibrant yellow amidst the brackish water and white foam, he reached down and pulled a fist of it up. Jesus. Jesus Christ. He was a just a kid. Just a young kid. Well, not a kid kid. Probably a very young adult, which was a kid compared to Trucker's fifty-three years.
Another bit of luck was the fact that whatever the kid had slung on his shoulders before jumping was no longer on his back. There's no way he'd have been floating for Trucker to find if the burden had still been there. Seeing his face, pale as death but streaked with rivulets of something vibrant green, Trucker got sick flashes of the dark things he'd long ago put away like tucking winter clothes into dusty trunks in dustier attics. He pushed them aside even as he pulled the kid up across the board face down and strained for the shore.
He was fully aware of the clock ticking, of the seconds rushing by as he hit the shallows, dumped the board, and dragged the kid up onto the sand high enough so his face and a little of his shoulders were out of the water. Waiting for a pulse was, he imagined, like waiting for the man in the gallows to release the trap door. There! Faint. Incredibly faint, but he felt the barest throb under the pad of his index finger.
There was no breath, however. And that meant he might lose the pulse, too.
Trucker tipped the kid's head back, gently pinched his nose shut and started rescue breathing. Four breaths. Nothing. Three breaths, and then the kid choked and jerked, water and vomit rushing forth. Trucker gently rolled the flailing kid to the side, away from himself, and winced as he watched the poor guy empty out.
When it was finished, the kid flopped back on the sand, lifting one quivering hand up to his face to wipe it off. Trucker met his eyes, saying nothing for a long moment. He just stared into the bewildered green eyes and wondered what was so wrong in the kid's life that he'd try to drown himself. His voice was quiet as he said,
"You're going to freeze to death if we don't get you up off this beach to someplace warm. Think you can walk?"
The kid just looked at his outstretched hand for a moment. Trucker felt a profound relief when he felt the kid's trembling hand slide into his own. He pulled the kid up then caught him as he pitched forward, his legs unable to support him.
"Ok," Trucker said, looping an arm under him, "I've got you. My van's just over there," he pointed. "Think you can help me get you there?"
He dipped his head in agreement. Reality proved trickier. Trucker nearly had to drag him there. The kid's lack of coordination bothered him for many reasons, hypothermia being the biggest. The kid wasn't shaking anymore, and that wasn't a good thing. The water was probably all of fifty degrees this time of year.
Trucker wasn't at all sure the heater in the van still worked. Though he'd intended to sleep in the van the night before, instead he'd just tucked himself into his sleeping bag with the small fire on the beach blazing outside the open van door. Now, however, he cranked it as high as it would go, and then he dug out his last clean pair of clothes…a ratty old pair of jeans and a sweatshirt reading "Beach City Grill", his sub shop's logo.
"Put these on," he told the kid. "I'll wait outside."
Waiting for the kid to dress, Trucker peeled out of his full body wetsuit and climbed back into the dry clothes he'd shucked earlier. When he peeked over his shoulder after what felt like enough time, his heart stuttered again at the quick glimpse of skin he caught just before the sweatshirt slid down over the kid's front. Bruises. Dark, angry bruises that he doubted came from the suicidal dive from the cliffs. Trucker sighed and climbed back into the van.
With some relief, Trucker noticed the kid was back to shaking. "Get in the sleeping bag," he pointed. The kid's eyes flicked over to it dubiously. "Or freeze your ass off," he shrugged, smirking. "Your choice."
Warily, he peeled back the top layer of the sleeping bag and stuck one foot inside. As soon as the other followed, Trucker reached over and zipped him in. The kid's shaking bumped up a notch until his teeth chattered. "You'll be okay in a couple minutes," Trucker told him.
They just watched each other, the old hippie and the messed up kid.
"I'm Trucker," he offered finally, as the kid's shaking began to subside. Trucker waited patiently, but the kid didn't offer up anything. "What should I call you?" For a minute, Trucker thought he'd fallen asleep. His eyes were closed, and he was still except for the gentle rise and fall of the sleeping bag.
"Priestly," he said softly, his eyes still closed.
Trucker nodded. "Good to meet you, Priestly." Watching Priestly, he considered what to do next. He couldn't very well dump the kid off and head back to California, what with him being suicidal. He wasn't sure taking him along wouldn't land him in jail on a kidnapping-across-state-lines charge, though.
Guess he'd have to risk that second night on the beach, after all.
The kid–Priestly–had been shuffling around in the sand, staring up at the cliff and then pacing in little circles for about a half hour. Trucker just watched him, fully prepared to spring up and wrestle him to the sand if he looked like he might try another cliff dive. Priestly had become predictable in the last few minutes, so it was easy for him to shut his eyes and pretend to be asleep whenever the kid glanced toward him where he lay on an old ratty blanket next to the campfire. He'd left the kid in the van in the sleeping bag all night, but Trucker's radar, the thing that kept him alive through his dark years, woke him up to the quiet movements of a restless Priestly.
When the kid started off in the direction of the cliffs, Trucker eased to his feet and began slowly ambling after him. With the roar of the tide, Priestly didn't hear him back there, and he didn't look back, just strode with his fists in the pockets of Trucker's jeans, head bent down against the cold breeze. Other than the temperature, it wasn't a bad morning for a walk, so Trucker said nothing. He just shadowed Priestly, still wondering if he'd try again.
It seemed he might as the beach began to rise up, rocks showing here and there under piles of sand drifts. Trucker continued to follow, wondering how much further he should let the kid climb before saying something. About halfway up the rise, he called out,
"You aren't thinking about jumping again, are you, kid?"
Priestly jumped about a foot in the air and glanced back at him, dipping his head. "Ah," he coughed, looking at the ground. He shook his head. "No," he answered softly.
"Then why are we returning to the scene of the crime?" Trucker asked calmly, following again as Priestly continued climbing. Priestly stopped, scrubbing the back of his head with one hand, eyes darting and mouth working a couple of times as if he was trying out answers.
Looking vaguely embarrassed now, Priestly glanced his way again, only meeting his eyes for a second before staring up at the top of the cliff. "Just thought I should see if any of my stuff is still there."
Trucker smiled. That was a good sign. What he'd thrown away yesterday was today what he hoped to recover. If he were intent on trying again, he wouldn't be searching for his discarded belongings. "Let me help you," he said. Priestly didn't answer. He just went back to climbing.
With Trucker's help, Priestly found the two pairs of boxers, the fold-up poncho, the pair of jeans, the three t-shirts, a couple handfuls of change, and even some of the many crumpled bills that had been trapped underneath the clothes. The rest of it was gone, of course, but it was less than a hundred bucks worth, anyway. All of the jerky was there, too, but he just grimaced at it and left it there. Glancing at Trucker with what he hoped was a Don't ask sort of look, Priestly mumbled,
They carried the stuff down the beach again in silence. Priestly wasn't sure exactly why he followed Trucker, but it wasn't like he knew where he should go next. He hadn't planned on walking anywhere ever again. Not that he was sorry. That whole thing…that was stupid, and it was done. That was the rock bottom they talked about, he figured. From here there had to be an up.
Priestly wondered if Trucker would begin to ask questions, and when he didn't, Priestly was torn between relief and disbelief. He wasn't sure he was ready to talk, anyway, though he figured he owed Trucker the explanation.
Back at the old VW bus, he wasn't sure what to do. He wished he hadn't lost his backpack in the ocean. How was he going to carry the stuff around now? Of course, once he gave Trucker his clothes back, he'd probably have to put on every piece of clothing he had just to stay warm, given that he was already freezing in the borrowed jeans and sweatshirt. After that, it was just the money and the rain poncho. No sweat.
"Can you give me a hand here?"
His head shot up at the sound of Trucker's voice. He looked up at the old surfer-hippie's weather-lined face and the gentle, laughing eyes. He was shaking off the frayed, once-red-but-now-pink blanket he'd slept on. Priestly caught one corner as it flapped his way on the breeze and found the other corner, dropping the clothes he was holding to help Trucker fold. Priestly was left holding the blanket as Trucker used a pail to scoop up sand, which he dumped on the already dying fire until it was completely smothered.
Feeling awkward, Priestly tossed the folded blanket into the VW and scooped up his clothes from the sand along with the items Trucker had carried.
He didn't answer. He just stood there holding his stuff and wondering what the hell to do. He didn't want to feel like this, like he was some lost puppy trailing after the first person who was nice to him.
"Priestly," Trucker said, watching him carefully, "it's not a trick question." He met Trucker's eyes for a millisecond, which was all he could stand. Kicking the sand a little, he just nodded. But Trucker made it easy after all. He just headed for the driver's seat and called over his shoulder, "I'll drive, you take shotgun." Priestly shook his head. Of course you'll drive. It's your van.
A/N: My intent is to have each chapter title be a song title, but we'll see if that works out. ;p