Everyone thought I should be afraid of him, but I wasn’t. I told him so one night, my head tucked into his shoulder, my legs tangled in the stiff, cheap sheets of his bed. He sighed and pulled me closer, covering my mouth with kisses, his gratitude, his guilt--and I didn't tell him the rest. I wasn't afraid. I was curious.
Which was more or less what everyone thought. Bad boy, good girl--it's an old story, hardly worth a raised eyebrow or a knowing whisper over cartons of milk in the check-out line of the supermarket. I was slumming, it was the fascination of the forbidden, the romance of dirt-under-the-nails and trailer parks. But that wasn't it either.
I knew who he was, had known for years. I was only seven when he and his mom came to Hazard, but already I would listen when adults talked together after dinner, playing with a doll in the corner and never letting on, and I heard what they said. His mother wore a wedding ring, said she was a widow, but that was easy to do. Who knew his father was? Maybe she didn't know herself.
The kids in the schoolyard said otherwise. He had killed his father, they said; meet his eyes and you'd go to sleep that night and never wake up. They shouted names at him, launched spitballs when his back was turned, egged his locker--but I never saw anyone lay a hand on him, not directly. You wouldn't quite dare.
He grew up quiet and surly, walked out of school when he was sixteen and never came back. Meanwhile I was taking AP classes and my teachers talked about college--to which my dad said, "Don't even think about it." Our paths never crossed, and I doubt he knew my name, but I knew him. Not that it mattered much, but he was part of our town, like the school, or the highway, or the river.
Three years ago, his mother died. Cancer, they said, which shed a different light on the way he'd dropped out of school and started working at the gas station. There'd been no funeral, there'd been no one to mourn except him. Her body was cremated at Miller's Funeral Home, and that was the end of that.
Joshua Miller swore that the coffin was smoldering before he even loaded it into the cremator, and all the guys at Harry’s Bar shook their heads and said, "That boy ain't right."
Hazard is a small town. Small towns have such narrow ideas about the definition of "right." And we have such narrow ideas about the definition of "bad." Bad girls smoke and drink, wear short skirts and stay out late at night. There's no word for someone who brings a chicken pot pie to the trailer of a young man who doesn't have a friend in the world, and says, "I'm so sorry for your loss" when she means, "Is it true you can start fires with your mind?"
But I swear, I never meant to hurt him.
It wasn't hard to get him to trust me. He was desperate for someone to trust, and I was there. He told me about his father, who'd been in the army, and the army base he'd lived on before he came to Hazard, which had a river running through it just like our town, and which he thought had been in California. He didn't tell me much, but I don't think he was holding back--I honestly believe he didn't remember.
He loved to walk down by the river, and I loved to walk with him, watching how the water responded to his gestures, how the air eddied around him--he never seemed to notice, and if I pointed it out he only shrugged. He was more interested in stealing glances at me, slipping his arm around my waist, going so slowly, so carefully. I was never that careful when it came to him.
He was terrified of fire. He couldn’t say why.
My job at the library gave me a lot of time for research, and an easy excuse for whatever I wanted to ask--I had a patron who was doing a genealogy project, I was trying to decide whether to order a book. I found out about an army base that had been abandoned fourteen years back after a fire where some houses and a laboratory had burned down. I couldn't find out what project they'd been working on in the laboratory, but I could guess.
I should have guessed that someone would be watching for me, for someone looking for the clues I was looking for. But I didn't. And then another stranger came to town. He'd worked in the sheriff's office over in Valentine by the South Dakota border, they said. He carried a camera with him; photography was his hobby. I saw him taking pictures of waterbirds down by the river sometimes. I never saw him take pictures of me. All the same, I knew.
What could I do? When he sounded me out about my research, oh-so-innocently, I played dumb. It might have saved me to tell him everything I'd learned, or guessed. It might have saved me to run. But then, it might not have.
And also, there was him.
I swear, I'd never meant to love him. I'd only wanted to know what lay behind all the rumors. But he touched me like I was the most precious thing in the world, his smile was like the sunset over the river, and I had brought this on him. I had to give him a chance.
I can smell the breeze off the river, feel the grasses wrapping around my ankles. It's cold, and dark, and I can hear footsteps behind me. I start to run. Something slams into me from behind, knocking me face-first into the grass and mud. There's a hand in my hair, jerking my head painfully backward. I scream, but there's no one to hear me. I try to fight, but I can't move. I can feel something being wrapped around my neck--
I'm going to die. But they'll do worse to him.
I should have told him--
I hope he knows--
If he can make it to the river--