Copyright 2008 by Eric J. Juneau. All rights reserved.
This story is in no way intended to infringe on the established copyrights and trademarks of Monolith Productions, Inc. It is for entertainment purposes only and is not intended for sale. It may be freely distributed providing that no alterations to the story are made.
This story contains adult language and graphically violent content. It is not intended for readers under the age of 13. Reader discretion is advised.
The characters and incidents portrayed and the names in this story used herein are fictitious and any similarity to the name, character, or history of any person, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental and unintentional.
End of the line.
by Eric J. Juneau
PrologueStudies indicate that even though current trends are increasing, there is evidence leaning to the opposite end of the platform.
Nice and meaningless. People didn't want to be seen as wrong so they hedged all their information, making it useless.
Avery Price reached for his Mountain Dew on the top of the desk. He took a sip and wrote down the site of the web page in his bibliography notes. This Sociology paper was breaking him down. Every book he had checked out of the library was terrible. Every statistic contradicted another statistic. Every page-long paragraph was filled with drivel. Nobody committed to anything. Even his own thesis was fudgy: 'Uncovering the myths and facts of homelessness in America'.
True, he wasn't reading seventeen novels a week, as many teachers had warned him he'd do in college. But humans weren't meant to pound this many hours of work in a day. Was this what you were supposed to do in a real job? Or were they trying to break you and build you back up, like in the military.
No. Focus. He had to get this done. Yes, researching information about the homeless was boring and monotonous. If it was what he had to do to graduate, it was a small price to pay. When it was done, then he could relax. But not right now.
Avery checked the time. About eighteen more hours, eight hundred more words, and two more sources to go. If he finished today, he could get a start on the math homework too.
The sound of the key being inserted and the doorknob clicking jolted his trance. Tucker barged in and tossed his backpack in the middle of the room, jangling with metal and glass. He pulled out the door of the fridge, grabbed a beer he wasn't supposed to have, and jumped on the lower of the two bunks. Avery's bed. HIS bed.
Tucker belched. He stretched out with a grunt and turned on the TV.
"Goddamn, those mother fucking classes are bullshit, ain't they?" he said between clicks of the remote. "I'ma take all those papers and shove them up their ass. Who needs it? I ain't doing papers in my job."
Someone made a big, loud knock at the door, as if the knocker had hammer. Tucker got up off the bed.
A kid wearing a toque and giant pair of headphones stood in the doorway and exclaimed, "Yo wassup, fucka!" Avery still had no idea what his name was because they only ever referred to each other through vile images.
They slapped hands together and dropped on Avery's bed to watch TV. "Where you been, man?" Headphones said
"Had class. There was a pop quiz Friday! Who the fuck has a pop quiz on Friday? There ain't even anybody at class on Friday. He's trying to fail us, I swear to fucking god," he said as he took a big gulp of his Michelob.
Further evidence doesn't support-
"Man, I got this killer bud for us. This stuff, like, WILL get you high."
Further evidence doesn't-
"Shit yeah, you know we be smokin' that shit tonight. Where the fuck were you on Sunday?"
"Man, I went to this party on 333 Spencer."
"Did it suck?"
"Hells yeah, man, it sucked like hell. They think just cause it's Sunday, you can't have a decent kegger. It was a football frat. Like, no bitches there."
Further evidence doesn't support the theory that-
"Dude, where's my beer?" Headphones said.
"Get your own. I ain't your fuckin' bartender."
Avery started tapping his fingers on the keyboard, waiting for their conversation to finish so he could get something done.
The friend reached in the fridge and drew out a beer for himself. "Dude, move over."
"I ain't no faggot. Sit on the couch."
"Aite, I'm gonna see what Reggie's doing."
"Aite, see ya."
Headphones and his beer left, thank god. At least now there was nothing-
Tucker had switched the channel to MTV2, and was singing along with Marilyn Manson.
Avery sighed again. Only six more months with him. Then it would be over.
It was probably time for an email check anyway. He was still waiting on a response from Professor Harcourt about when the homework was due. He had probably emailed him three times this semester with the same question. He was an old professor, he could have had the year down to a 'T', but he was always changing things on the syllabus.
He minimized Netscape and opened up the mail program. A brief little chime sounded and two messages appeared in his inbox. One was a piece of junk mail about a credit card. Trashed. The other was from his uncle's work address. Expecting a funny forward, or photograph, he opened it.
My extreme condolences to you on your loss. She was a bright woman and it was sad to see her go when she'd only lived such a short-
Wait, what was this? Who died? Maybe he sent it to the wrong person. No one he knew had died.
Avery turned towards the phone on the dresser. A cold pang of fear ran through his blood.
PART 1: Life Support Chapter 1
In the cafeteria, the walls were painted with yellowing taupe with a bright brown and orange stripe that zoomed along the wall. A throwback from the 70's.
Avery looked out the window over the campus, watching the odd student trundle across the sidewalk under the overcast skies. His food stayed untouched, except for a few attempted bites. The yellow light from the room and the gray of the outside clashed horrifically, so Avery focused on the window. Everything looked the way he felt, in some world not his own.
Jacob and Nick walked into the cafeteria area. Avery knew them from math class a long time ago. They were close to being friends, but had never hung out beyond the campus to be anything more.
"Hey, Avery, what's up?" Jacob said. He had sandy brown hair and a deep tan, almost Hispanic. "Aren't you hot in long sleeves?"
Avery shook his head.
"Mind if we join you?" Nick said. He wore a Dallas cowboys jersey and had short black hair on his head and face.
"Naw," Avery muttered.
"How come you're sitting alone?" Nick said.
Avery watched two ducks fly across the dark gray sky. "My sister died," Avery muttered.
"Ohhh," they both said. "I'm sorry."
Avery kept watching the ducks as they landed on the ground, on top of a small university-maintained garden. They padded around the flowers for a bit, nipping at the petals, then flew away.
"How did she die?" Nick said.
Avery kept his eyes on the flower bed. "Suicide. They found her in a shed behind some boy's house. They don't know who the boy was, but they think they all knew each other. They all killed themselves at the same time."
"All of them?"
"There were four of them. Three boys and Sophia, my sister. They think it was some sort of poison because there was a knife, but no wounds on any of them except for a finger prick."
"What? Was it some sort of ritual thing?" Nick asked.
"I don't know. All I know is what my dad told me. And all he knows is what the police report says." He poked at his mac & cheese. "They only found her yesterday evening."
"I'm sorry. Were you close to her?"
"I dunno. Not recently. Not since I left college." He picked up his orange and tried to peel it, struggling with the thick rind. Anything for a distraction. "I haven't seen much of my family since then, except for holidays. It's hard for me to leave since I'm two hours away, and I don't have a car. It's too hard to keep in touch with your family as the classes get tougher. And when our mom died, it didn't help, it kinda broke the bonds of the family. I never saw any signs that she was suicidal."
He became frustrated with the orange and plopped it on the tray, rattling the plates and silverware. He sighed. "It just doesn't make sense to me. She may have dressed gothic, but she was not depressed. She was like any other apathetic high schooler. It was just a phase. She had some problems. We all did after mom died, but we were all past that."
"But they don't know a cause of death?"
"Not for sure. They're looking. They think drugs or poison. Maybe an OD."
"What did your mom die of?" Brandon asked.
"Leukemia. When I was twelve."
"So it's just you and your dad now?"
"Yeah. But I just don't get it. They said there was no drug paraphernalia, no needles or pipes, no blood, no signs of foul play. And why would three other people join her? Sophia would never let anyone push her into doing something she didn't want to do, she wasn't that type."
"Did she leave a note?"
"Nope, no note, no message that anyone could find. The more I try and think about it the more it doesn't make sense."
"Hey, man, death's not supposed to make sense," Nick said. "My mom's brother killed himself when she was thirteen. She said she never got over it really."
"My grandpa died when I was eight," Brandon volunteered. "I cried for days, and I wasn't even that close to him. I barely remember him now. That's different though," Nick said. "But you never get used to death. It always comes as a surprise. It's always unexpected."
Avery said, "Yeah, I know. But it's not that it's unexpected. It's just that I can't believe it’s a suicide. Not after... well, I mean why now? If at all. And why with those three other people?"
"Yeah, that is weird." Nick said. "Maybe they all made a suicide pact. Were they friends of her's?"
"I don't know. They were all her age. Maybe they went to school with her. I don't know any of her friends. And I doubt my dad does either. I'm sure he wasn't talking to her at all. He never did. We might as well have been abandoned after mom died."
"When is her funeral?"
"...I don't know. I didn't ask. Probably this weekend." Avery made a mental reminder to call his dad tonight and confirm with him.
"Then maybe you can ask some questions there. Maybe by then they'll know more."
Brandon said, "When my grandpa died, I was surprised how people at the funeral were in really good spirits, talking with each other like it was a party."
Nick said, "I remember there was someone who died in a skiing accident in grade school. I didn't go to his funeral, but there was a grief counselor who came in first period, who was talking to us about it, and I was like, who is this? I don't even know the guy. Isn't it a little inappropriate to be talking to all the classes about it?"
Avery grimaced. This conversation had somehow turned to them and their experiences. He was the one with the sister who died. It was pretty egotistical of them to focus on themselves in his time of need.
Then he felt incredibly guilty for feeling that. He had been feeling guilty ever since the phone call, the fact that he was alive and Sophia was dead. He could move on, and she couldn't. She couldn't do anything ever again.
He sucked his tears back in and picked up his fork at both ends in his hands.
"I just don't get why she has to be dead," said Avery.
"She didn't have to be dead. She just is," Brandon said.
"I mean why she wanted to be dead."
Nick said, "Yeah, that's how suicide is. They always think that they're leaving the world so they won't cause pain to anyone, but they just end up leaving more pain since they're gone. And no one ever really knows why."
The fork in Avery's hands was shaking, and the tines were digging into his palm, making sharp, focused pricks.
"Dude, ease off," Nick said.
Avery realized what he was doing and released the fork, placing it gently back on his tray. "Sorry." He pulled on his sleeve, straightening out its length.
"You sure you're okay?" Nick asked. "Maybe you should see the counselor."
"No, I'm fine. It's the shock. I'll be all right." Avery realized he had been around death a lot in his life. First his mother, and now his sister. All people he was close to. All immediate family. Maybe death was hereditary.
Avery stood up. "You want my pizza?"
"Sure," Nick said immediately. He picked the plate off the tray. "You sure you're all right?"
"Yeah, I'm just gonna do some homework or something," Avery said, knowing there was no way he was going to be able to concentrate on something so monotonous. "I'll see you guys later." Avery picked up his tray and left.
He was sure they wanted to give him better words of encouragement, but they were human. Nothing could heal the death of someone as close as a sibling.
Avery slid his tray on the rotating racks, a pile of unfinished food and wasted meal tickets. Maybe tomorrow, he'd eat when he'd be hungry on a biological level.
Evening was setting in when he walked across to his dorm. The sky had changed from gray to a western sunset. Avery kept his eyes down, trying to get the ever-repeating thought out of his head: Why is she dead? Why is she dead? Why is she dead?
In his ten-by-eight cube, he shut the door and sat on the bed. He had been in this room for a month, and it was about as good as it was getting for the year. His desk was against one wall under his roommate's bunk. His bed to its left, his roommate's desk on the right.
He really had no typical college adornments, only a few photos and knick-knacks on his desk. His roommate, on the other hand, had no compunctions about turning the place into a teenager's basement pad. His desk didn't have even a semblance of organization – assignments past due and a textbook of generic English, amid the Mountain Dew and beer cans, stolen street signs, dirty plastic dishes, sports junk, and a bong.
Tucker had also put himself in charge of decorating the walls with cheap posters. He had posted a black and white photograph of a middle finger, but the R.A. told him to take it down. On the other wall, above his desk, was an image of Asu Chei, a supermodel. She was crawling toward the camera on hands and knees, wearing a bikini with a loose fitting top that let her breasts hang down like udders. She was making a seductive "come get me" look. Something about that look transfixed Avery. He both desired it and hated it at the same time, like watching a car wreck.
For the third time that day he sat at his desk in an attempt to do homework. It took him an hour to get through one page of Sociology. The thoughts of Sophia and her death jumbled around in his head like lottery balls. If only he could make sense of it. Remembering movies he'd seen, he took a page of notebook paper and wrote down "Sophia" and circled it. Then he drew stems reaching off like a web, illustrating what he knew –"three boys", "shed", "drugs", "knife", "suicide."
He stared at his little picture for five minutes, trying to think of new elements and the connections between them. Finally, he said "Fuck it" and crumpled it up. He wasn't a detective. He couldn't investigate the scene of a crime if he wasn't there. The police were already handling this.
He stowed the Sociology book and brought out his Calculus book. Maybe doing some logical equations, some problems that required analytical thinking, would clear his mind. It needed to be finished anyway. He also turned on the radio, tuned to a classic rock station.
It helped some. Punching numbers into his calculator and looking between his notes and book provided enough distraction to push away the feelings – simple numbers that either were or weren't. Somewhere he was able to forget it completely and become entranced in his work.
When he finished with the last problem, he stowed the notebook paper in his Calculus folder, ready to hand in, and pulled out his planner, a gift from his aunt at his graduation party. He put a satisfying check next to "Calc 3.10 HW". After that he had English and Sociology. Both of those papers were due two weeks from now, but he had put miniature deadlines in pencil at evenly spaced out parts of the month. Anal as it was, he could use this method to measure what he had completed and what he had to go.
Avery sat back in the chair, done with his homework for tonight, at least as far as he was going to get, and waited for the Lynyrd Skynyrd song to finish before turning off the radio.
The alarming sound of the door banging open reverberated and Avery caught Tucker coming into the room from the corner of his eye. He looked baked. His friend with headphones was standing in the hallway still.
"Hey," Tucker said. "Let me borrow 20 bucks."
"What?" Avery said.
"I need to borrow 20 bucks."
Avery sighed at him, dumbfounded.
"C'mon, we're buds. Just let me have 20 bucks."
Avery grew irritated. "I don't have 20 bucks on me."
"Come on, man. Can't you go to the ATM or something?"
"I'm not going to the ATM to give you 20 bucks." Avery turned back and sat down in his desk chair.
Tucker flipped him the bird, called him an feminine hygiene product and left. Avery looked up at a photo of Sophia. Chances were always 50/50 whether he was going to be home or the office, but he always called home first.
"Hello?" his dad said.
"Hey, it's me."
"Hi son, how are you doing?"
"Yeah? How were your classes today?"
"How is pre-law?"
He always asked that question. He still had no idea that there were no pre-law classes on his transcript. He was more of an undeclared at this point. The registrar only said pre-law for now.
"Fine. Dad, I forgot to ask when her funeral is."
"Her? Oh, Saturday."
Good, it was the weekend. That meant he could go. "What time can you pick me up?"
A pause. "I can't pick you up until Saturday afternoon. Friday, I need to finalize this deal. And then Saturday I'll have to be at the funeral all day."
Avery furrowed his brows. "Can you drive up to get me as soon as I'm done with class on Friday?"
"I'm too busy. I can't get up there and back in time, unless I drive all night. If you'd contacted me earlier, I could have changed something, but I didn't know you needed a ride down."
Avery spoke to the phone as if it was the one responsible. "What the hell would make you think I wouldn't be coming down for this?"
"I didn't know you needed a ride. Pre-law is tough. I only came down twice a year when I was in college. I missed a lot of stuff."
"Well, I'm not too busy to miss this."
"I thought you would get a ride yourself."
"You're the only one who's ever given me a ride back home." His voice grew agitated and rageful.
"Well, I didn't know you needed a ride this time. Can't you get someone else to do it?"
"No one I know is from Kilward. And this isn't a holiday weekend. No one's probably going to be going down south."
"Well, did you try looking?"
Avery whined, "Just pick me up."
"Look, I'm closing a really important deal here and I can't do it. I don't have the time. Try asking one of your friends at school if you can hitch a ride."
"What's the matter with you? It's her fucking funeral and you can't take the time off from work?"
"Don't use that language with me. The world doesn't stop just because people die. We're in the middle of a merger. I've got other people who depend on me too. You think this is easy for me?"
"I can't believe you can't drive up two hours to take me to MY SISTER'S FUNERAL!"
Avery wound up his arm and threw the phone against a corner of the wall. It made a thick smack against the concrete slab and broke into three pieces.
Then the tears started.
* * *
Two men, shaded invisible in darkness, looked up at the curtained window. Both wore trenchcoats. They were not surprised at the crash, or the sobbing afterwards.
"He's a hard case. There's no fucking way he could do this. He's crying on his bed," one said in a voice like sandpaper.
"Unless you got a body better, this is it. He's the only one with... the motivation. He's the closest to the fire. He's our boy."
"He's crowbait. But it's your funeral. Do whatever you want. I'm done with them."
"You don't want any part of it?"
"I'm no one's babysitter. And I'm through being someone's poker chip. I don't take orders from anyone anymore."
Two red orbs faded in from the darkness. His eyes. The other stepped back, keeping his distance.
The other nodded. "I know that. Don't worry. If this works, we'll all be kings again."
The next morning, Avery Price woke up to his alarm. Now he stared at the wooden plank of the bunk above him, trying to recall last night. He had cried himself so tired he fell asleep. Then he remembered – Sophia was dead. Today Sophia was dead, and she would always be dead.
That set the mood of the day as he snapped off the alarm off and pulled away the sheets. Tucker was asleep, snoring and dreaming about his party the night before. Every morning was the same. Tucker had no morning classes, so it was always Avery who had to tiptoe around. He had given up eating breakfast because it made so much noise – opening the mini-fridge, pouring the milk, crunching the flakes, opening doors to go wash the bowl. Now he just took caffeine pills to shake off the sleep.
And today he needed one. He felt like he was still half in the sludge of a dream world. The drawer creaked as it opened and he pulled out his caffeine pills – Wake'ums – right next to the counteractive Relax-Z sleeping pills (made with pure bone calcium, whatever that meant). He pulled out a yellow pill from the plastic bubble and dry-swallowed it.
He had his routine down to maximum efficiency. He brought his clothes to the communal bathroom to change into them. He never changed in front of Tucker. He was afraid the testosterone-fueled big man on campus would be awake one time, take a picture, and blast it on the campus website.
After his clothes were on, he returned to the room, dropped off his pajamas, and picked up his backpack, stowed with the day's needed books and homework, and headed down to campus. The outside air was crisp as he joined the other half-asleep animals.
The campus was organized in two halves – residence halls and scholastic buildings. A lake bordered them in the northeast, making the only path between the two a single road , like a cholesterol-caked artery, unless you wanted to walk through the fields and trees.
Thus obnoxious promoters and religious fanatics had the perfect opportunity to pepper the incoming students with flyers of no-name bands and pamphlets on how to be saved. Someone was doing just that a few yards before the path split, likely a preacher based on his white clothes.
As Avery drew closer. A gap between the students in front of him formed, meaning he had no one to block for him and take the hit. Pangs of fear and embarrassment hit his stomach. The preacher held out a half-size piece of paper for him, like he was holding out a cup of water for a marathon runner.
"Happy to share the scriptures with you," he said as Avery politely grabbed the piece of paper, trying to avoid eye contact. If he hadn't grabbed it, either the preacher would have gotten even more pushy, maybe even following him until he took it, or he would have felt guilty the rest of the day. It was easier to take the thing. Plus he had some reading material if needed.
The sidewalk beyond was littered with pamphlets that said "Eternal Life is a FREE Gift". They all had the audacity to chuck it a few yards away from him. This was all the good they did. Avery glanced at the paper. It was full of CAPITAL WORDS and "misplaced quotations" that were supposed to "emphasize importance". He shoved the literature in his pocket. Class would start in fifteen minutes, so he had some time to go to the student center and look at the ride board.
He'd never used the ride board, he just remembered the tour guide mentioning it when he came here the first time. There was a big map of the state and troughs with slips for each of the sections. The two types of slips – "I need a ride" and "I'm offering a ride" – were few and far between this early in the week. Kilward, unfortunately was in the 'other' section, too far to mean anything. That slot was empty.
A girl student wearing a loose-fitting college hoodie walked up to him. It was Sasha. She was a farm girl with a round middle and big boobs. They'd met at a house party, but they'd stayed platonic.
"Hey," Avery said.
"Hey, did you go to the party last night?"
"No, I stayed in my room. Did you go?"
"Nah, it would have been just me and Tammy. And it would have been lame. Who has a good party on Wednesday night?"
Avery asked, "Are you going home this weekend?" It was a shot in the dark. He didn't even know where Sasha lived.
"I need to get home this weekend. And I can't get a ride.
"Do you know where I live?" Sasha asked.
"Uh, no, come to think of it."
Rockville was four-hundred fifty miles from Kilward. "Oh."
"Maybe you can take a Greyhound or something?" Sasha said.
"Maybe," Avery agreed, although he wasn't sure how much Greyhounds cost, or how to get to one.
"Why are you so desperate to get home?"
Avery really didn't want to have to explain it all again, but it looked like he had no choice. "My sister died."
"Oh no," Sasha gasped.
"Two days ago. I need to get back for the funeral."
"How'd she die?"
Avery was about to say 'suicide', but closed the lid on that can of worms at the last second. "They're still trying to find out."
"Really? What happened?"
"Poison or something."
"Oh. I mean, where did they find her? I mean, how?"
"Ah, I don't know. Somewhere. But I've got to get down there for the funeral."
"Are you doing okay? Did you see a counselor?"
"I don't have time for that. I've got too much to get done. Ironic that they give you all these services, but no time to exploit them. The only thing I care about is finding a way to get down there."
"And you can't find anyone to give you a ride?"
"That sucks," Sasha said. "Having a car is so necessary in college. I really wish I had one. Even a crappy one."
Avery knew his dad could have easily bought him a car, but chose not to so he would learn the 'value of money and delayed gratification'.
"You have no life unless you have a car," he said.
"I know, and there are all these guys with these nice cars on campus. I can't believe it."
Sasha looked at her watch. "I gotta get to class. If I hear of anyone going down south, I'll let you know."
"I'll see you later."
Avery nodded and picked up an "I need a ride" sheet to fill out.