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Ghosting

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The screaming. Oh, God, the screaming. The shouts of "FIRE!" echoing down the hallways, the crying of teens afraid to die, the shrieks of people realizing the gravity of the situation... It was horrible chaos, the normal ruckus of a house party having transformed into something far more sinister.

Everything before this moment was nothing more than a blur. Rich had only a vague understanding of how he got here, but he was mostly trapped in the present, and literally; he was pinned to the carpeted floor by debris, completely incapacitated by the fruits of his own twisted labors. He wasn't necessarily surprised by this development, but that wasn't synonymous to the level of sheer terror he felt in the least. Words couldn't even begin to describe how afraid he was in that moment.

With one hand, Rich gripped the carpet beneath him as an outlet for his pain and with the other, he desperately reached out towards those scurrying down the hall in a mad dash for the nearest escape. He felt as though it were against the rules somehow for him to audibly plead for help, so he instead uttered the word under his breath as he prayed someone would notice his plight and save him.

But there was no one. They were all very rightfully preoccupied by their own need for survival.

¡Idiota! ¿Ves lo que has hecho? Lo estabas haciendo muy bien, y todo lo que te quedaba por hacer era presentar a tus compañeros a este estilo de vida. ¡Podría haber sido genial! Y lo echaste todo a la basura, ¿para qué? ¿Para la humanidad? ¿Por la libertad? No entiendo tu motivo, Richard. ¿CUÁL ERA TU MOTIVO?

God, he didn't have time for this!

Shutdown.

The strained voice fizzled out into static before dissipating entirely, leaving Rich with a mind clearer than before, but one that was also still plagued with terror. He had no guidance, no friends in this hellish nightmare, which shoved how fleeting life was in his face. The squip's voice, though in a state of deactivation in reality, rang in his ear like a distant memory, ever-present and prepared to chastise him for his mistakes.

This is what you get, you stupid boy.

As the fire continued to roar, the flames licked at Rich's skin and burned him, seared him like some sort of pathetic piece of meat. Each time such an injury would occur, which became higher and higher in frequency as the precious seconds ticked away, he would hiss through his teeth, sucking in air that was barely present and realizing that the available oxygen was gradually thinning. It was becoming harder to breathe, harder to bear. He was burning, suffocating...

Dying.

He wasn't traditionally comforted by this thought, but he found himself calmed slightly in a more resignated sense. He craved life more than he had anything else in a long time, but maybe it was for the best if he didn't make it out of this alive; if he lived, the squip would, as well, and they would just be back right where they started. If the flames consumed him, the Supercomputer From Hell would be gone for good, and it wasn't looking like he had much of a choice between life and death, anyway.

So, Rich succumbed.

He stopped fighting for his life and instead devoted what little time he had left to preparing for the cold (or incredibly hot) embrace of death. His only wish was that, by some miracle, it would be swift.

"Rich!"

Oh, God. Here goes.

"Shitshitshit-"

It didn't take long at all for Rich to catch on and realize that Death had yet to arrive on the scene and that the one approaching was someone not only mortal, but also very young. It was difficult to make out his face for a moment because the air was thick with billowing smoke and ash, but Rich's face lit up when it cleared slightly and the boy came into better view.

Jake looked frazzled to say the least, and understandably so; it WAS his house that was up in flames, after all. His face glistened with sweat and his eyes were filled with an unadulterated terror that was beyond his normal set of emotions.

Fueled by adrenaline and pure panic, Jake was quick to grab the edge of one of the splintered rafters that was keeping Rich down and attempted to lift it upwards with a bit of a struggle, though eventual victory. Rinse and repeat, and the literal burden was at last lifted off of Rich's shoulders.

"Fuck, are you okay?!" Jake gasped as he wrapped his right arm under Rich's for support as the smaller boy nearly collapsed shortly upon standing.

"I'm fine!" In truth, he was definitely feeling the effects of having the ceiling cave in and fall on him; his back ached, making it difficult to bear a standing position, and he knew instantly that a fair amount of damage had been done. Still, it was clear that Jake was crumbling under the pressure, and knowing that his best friend was injured would likely break him entirely. Therefore, he made the decision to keep it under wraps.

Despite the insistance that all was well beside the obvious, Jake hoisted Rich up into a bridal hold; it was awkward, but there were no protests from the carried party, who was unsure if he would have been able to successfully escape on his own two feet. He did, however, bite back a quiet "No homo", realizing the tension hanging in the air was already far beyond repair via comic relief.

Jake hurriedly calculated an escape route as his mind finally cleared enough to make coherent decisions, knowing the place better than anyone else who attended the party. His mind was working at a million times a minute, as evidenced by his wide eyes darting all over as he gathered new information about their grim circumstances, and Rich could feel his companion's heart pounding in his chest. He had never witnessed or even dared to imagine Jake so close to the edge, so close to hysterics, so close to a total meltdown, and the thought crossed his mind that this scared him more than the fire, itself. It was almost as bone chilling as the time he watched his usually mild-mannered brother trash his room while screaming obscenities because he was so sick of their dad's bullshit.

Since they were on the first floor of the building, they thankfully had no reason to be concerned about that stairwell that was then out of commission, but they were tasked with navigating from the back of the house to the front, to freedom. There were hazards to their very being all around and the house itself threatened to come toppling down with every second it remained ignited. Jake, however, with his stubborn will to live and newfound refusal to die, disregarded the danger and instead focused his eyes on the prize: the front door, which, remarkably, remained unobstructed.

He ran in strides, his long legs allowing him to cover an impressive distance in a short amount of time. His reaction time was impeccable as he maneuvered throughout the house while muttering something incoherent under his breath. He had to stay light on his feet because one little misstep was all it could take to kill them both.

One step was all it took.

Jake had been doing so well to avoid the obstacles in their path and victory was almost guaranteed, but he had failed to account for the most pathetic pile of rubble he had ever laid eyes on. He wasn't given much time to regain his footing, so he was left with no choice but to practically throw Rich across the living room as he tumbled to the ground; both boys hit the floor hard, the contact finally getting an agonized shout out if Rich.

Rich slowly rolled over onto his side and, after a moment of regaining partial composure, was able to make out a pleasant view of Jake... struggling?

Oh, God. Jake was struggling.

"Fuck!" the taller boy whined as he jerked on the leg of his pants, which was caught on a jagged edge on one of the pieces of debris. It wouldn't come loose, wouldn't even tear, trapping this boy at the worst time possible. "FUCK!"

"Oh, shit!" Rich instinctively shouted. "You okay?!"

"I'm good, I got this!" Jake's voice was tearful, indicating that he wasn't being truthful in the least. "Don't wait for me! Just go!"

"Wait, no, I can probably-"

"GO!" Jake shooed him like a stray cat, staring at him with an expression that was beyond bewildered; their exit time was extremely limited, and he was all too aware of it.

Rich hesitated, wanting to live but not wanting to leave his friend. He was also unconvinced that he would be able to beat the ever-ticking clock in his condition, so maybe he was doomed no matter what his instincts dictated.

Still, it's miraculous what the human body can do under pressure.

He bolted. He hated himself for it and would always regret the decision, but he bolted and left Jake to his own devices.

The door wasn't far off, and Rich was greeted by the glorious, cold, fresh night air and a mob of costumed teens standing out in the street. Some kids gasped, some sighed in relief, and some just gawked as he collapsed onto the grass and onto his hands and knees and began to sputter and gasp, taking in all the breathable air his lungs could take. No one dared offer to help him, maybe out of fear of the burning house behind him, maybe out of fear of him and what he had done, but courtesy wasn't of the essence at that juncture; he was alive, and that was all that mattered.

Eventually, however, someone got around to asking the question on everyone's minds.

"Where's Jake?"

Nobody else uttered a word, but instead eyed him expectantly, awaiting what they prayed was good news. He could only bring himself to reciprocate that look of despair; the truth refused to come out, and lying felt wrong in so many different ways. He just kneeled there and hoped, hoped that Jake had gotten free and was only seconds away from meeting the rest of them, hoped that he had made it to a safe area, hoped that some benevolent deity had granted him invincibility, hoped that anything, be it realistic or even something directly out of fiction, had saved him.

Several long, painful, silent moments passed as everyone exchanged glances, as they watched the fire roar, as they listened to the structural integrity of the house begin to fail.

As they watched it fall with Jake still inside.

Rich woke up screaming as he had on the night it all happened.

He jolted upright, clutching his chest and tossing what little covers he had left on him aside. He had broken out into a cold sweat in his sleep, and once he was capable of suppressing his shouts, he was all too aware of how heavy his breathing was and how erratic his heartbeat felt. That dream, or nightmare, as would be a more appropriate name for it, wasn't an uncommon occurrence, yet it never failed to incite the same response, the same guilt. 5 years, and the night still haunted him.

It was nights like these when he hated waking up in this house; he thought the reconstruction of the Dillinger house was a wise idea, but the bad memories always came flooding back and made his feel like an unwelcome stranger in a place he used to feel so safe in. Still, he stayed, because where else did he have to go?

Realizing sleep was out of the question, Rich forced himself to rise from the bed and hazily stepped out into the dark hallway, where he then swung into the neighboring bathroom. He could still feel his heart about to leap out of his chest, but put in his best effort to disregard it while he went about his normal routine for whenever this happened, which involved little more than standing over the sink and splashing his face with icy water until he got his bearings back. Every now and then he would get a good look at himself; everyone would say he had grown up well, retaining his dashing looks from highschool, but he currently had the appearance of someone who's life was falling apart at the seams, though he figured it was the most accurate representation of himself. On the outside, he was almost always at his best, but he was constantly facing some sort of internal struggle.

Somewhat calmer now, Rich trudged back into the bedroom to grab his phone and read the lock screen display:

3:07
FRI, OCTOBER 2

Too close for comfort.

Rich tossed the device haphazardly onto the bed with an exasperated sigh and dejectedly retreated downstairs to crash on the couch and watch TV, turn off his overactive brain for a while. After all, he didn't have to be at work for another three hours.

It was a show that he didn't recognize, something off of late-night television that was nothing but vulgarity, but that didn't bother Rich in the least. It was mindnumbing, and mindnumbing was good in his book.

The next step to turning his thoughts off was to lay on his side and stare into the nothingness, also allowing the images swimming through his brain to fade into sex jokes and laugh tracks. He wouldn't think about the fire or his scars or the squip or the party or Jake's charred body. Just the now. This was how he lived, had to live.

If he didn't have this, he wouldn't be able to live.

He wound up falling asleep in the early morning hours, on the couch, as he had many nights before.