I wake up late the morning after Olivia’s party, and am almost immediately hit with the full force of approaching armageddon. Worrying about Roy all night had kept me conscious until an absolutely satanic hour, and now after lurching through the bathroom-kitchen-closet routine at a sloppy pace, I blearily step into the end of the world when leaving for school. The air is thick and dry with smoke when I walk out the door, making me hack and spit involuntarily-but in between fits I look west toward the source and shudder. A massive ash cloud is blacking out Aliso Peak, slowly descending from what looks like somewhere in Laguna, blanketing all points east in fine flakes of carbonized snow. Trees, cars, sidewalks, streetlights, signs, and cheap Halloween decorations stand silent, all looking like they need to be dusted. It’s almost peaceful, until I realize that’s what’s left of someone’s home on the Volvo. Their house on our car.
I pull my shirt collar up to cover my nose and mouth, walking the other way into a rising red sun. I can stare directly at it-the light is filtering through as weak as if it’s already ebbed to afternoon strength. I get down the ramp and as far as the park before my eyes start to water, but I keep going anyway-I’ve got to get Alan to pull his head out of his ass and help me find out if my brother made it back to school in one piece. I’ll need backup when I find Liv today, but relying on Alan’s ability to detach himself from Nadia’s rebounding grip is probably asking too much. As I squelch through the park’s semi-irrigated grass, I try to think through every possible way my best friend could weasel out on me, but then I notice a girl dart out of a house up ahead on Santiago and begin her own dazed trek to school.
It’s Hannah Haynes, and the whole pending thing with Alan flushes right out of my head as I drop back quietly. There’s a conversation I want to have with her, too-but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. At this distance I’m still close enough to see those tanned shoulders peeking out of an oversized, hand-me-down lavender sweater, but I’m gaining on her. The ash itches in my throat and I suppress a cough.
Hannah keeps walking in a weird, splay-toed waddle that she’s always had despite years of soccer and hula, but the rhythm of it is absolutely hypnotic, not to mention totally familiar. Her lank, brown-black hair sways with each step, and it’s too easy to follow the line running from there right down to her thighs-a little thicker than they used to be, and clad in black, ankle-length spandex. She’s not chunky, just well-proportioned for her short stature. The top of her head might just about fit under my chin. I’ve been totally fascinated by it her ever since fifth grade, when she was the first girl in our class to step into a real woman’s body, almost overnight. The smoke is tickling my nose now. I wasn’t the only slobbering fool who noticed, of course, but I’m the only one right here and right now, and that’s good enough fo-for-ah, shit!
My sneeze crashes through the morning silence and Hannah-who’s only about ten feet away now-whirls around in shock, but when she sees me simply smiles, waves, and waits. Sweet. I try to keep my cool as I catch up to her, but I probably fail.
“Hey R.J.” She turns as I approach and begins walking again, so I keep going.
“H-hi, Hannah.” The atmosphere seems much hotter and drier than it did a few minutes ago. “Um, nice day for a walk, huh?”
She rolls her eyes but smiles anyway. “Yeah, totally. I almost didn’t want to leave the house today. You?” She turns onto Caracas and I follow.
“Gotta take an English test. Well, that and I need to jump Alan for ditching me last night.” Whoah there-slow down. Pace yourself.
Hannah smirks. “You guys went to Liv’s party, didn’t you? My brother was supposed to come down for it, but we missed him.” Uh-oh. What does she know about that?
“Um, um yeah, we did and-he did-and it…well, kinda sucked, actually.” We turn again, onto Acapulco, and climb the short hill to school.
“I kinda figured it would,” she says, but then dismisses the whole thing with a wave and looks up ahead. “Shit. Looks like too many cars pulling in for classes to be cancelled.”
We wade through the crowded student lot, peppered here and there with more ash, but when we get to the front door we’re immediately tangled in a huge throng of exhausted people who don’t usually show up to high school. Adults and small children-some with smoke-blackened faces, some crying, but most just looking extremely tired-are waiting for a hastily-constructed bureaucratic procedure to bless them with a cot and some blankets inside. Thanks to the fire, our school has transformed into a disaster-relief area overnight, and when Hannah and I finally shove our way inside, a fat, walkie-wielding proctor directs us straight to the second-floor stairs.
“But what for?” asks Hannah. “My first class is down here.”
“Your teachers are up there, hon,” says the lady, wearily pointing at the stairs. “First floor’s closed for a few days.”
So we trudge up the stairs and join the rest of the buzzing students on the thickly-crowded upper floor. Everyone’s peering over butcher-paper activity posters hung from the balcony, staring down at the newly-homeless souls from Laguna below, who are trying to stay sane among the many white cots strewn with clothing and sleeping children. Some girl on Hannah’s right is whining about “how are we supposed to throw together a Homecoming float for the game tonight?” and Hannah looks at me with a gaggy face.
She says “I’m so glad that’s not my problem right now,” and instantly, my plans begin to crumble. Damn it!
“R-really? So you’re not…you’re not going to the, um-” My voice dies, even though there’s no smoke in here. The crowd pushes in all around and I’m acutely aware that I forgot deoderant this morning.
“What, the dance?” She shrugs. “Wasn’t planning on it. Why, are you going?”
“Um, well…I’ll go if, um…if you go.” Oh, you’re a genius, R.J. Suddenly the bell rings, we’re in a vacuum, and she bursts out laughing. God, the physics of this is absolutely fucked up.
“Yeah, okay,” says Hannah. The universe instantly rushes back into the void and I’m flattened.
“Oka-wait, what?” I do a triple-take and she laughs again. People are starting to push past us to first period.
“I said yes, R.J. I mean, the idea of seeing you all dressed up is just…just irresistibly hilarious.” She winks and turns around to leave.
“Well-well okay, then. Can I, um, can I cal-” My last word bounces off her disappearing head, but that doesn’t matter-wait until Alan hears about….ah, double shit-I have to hit him with the other thing first, and the clock is ticking. Fine. I hustle off to Crouse’s class, trying not to let the worries about Roy overpower what just happened.
Alan is already in his seat in the back of the room when I get there. I slip in next to him and wait for him to say hi, but he doesn’t, so I tap him on the shoulder. “Hey man. How you feeling?” He snaps out of something and seems to just notice me. Alan looks as tired as I feel, but gives me a weak smile and a weaker “Hey” in return.
“I’m so fucking tired,” he continues. “I was, um…up all night, dude.”
“Right,” I reply. “Dressing Nadia’s wounds, huh?” Alan responds with a lecherous wink, but I don’t laugh. “Good for you, man. I myself was freaking out about my brother unconscious for three-plus hours in a car driven by a Derek-on-speed.”
Alan gets pretty pissed at this, but since the teacher’s in the room he just sighs. “Look R.J., I’m sorry, but Roy was like…way out of control, okay? I mean, what were you expecting to happen? He made a complete ass of himself. He needs to get over this and sober up.”
“Did Nadia tell you to say that, or did you make that one up on your own?”
“Oh fuck,” he whispers, as more people filter into the classroom and things quiet down. “Let’s not-let’s not do this now, okay R.J.? Why are you giving me this shit? Wasn’t Liv the one who helped you drag Roy downstairs?”
I slumped down onto the desk. “Sorry. I’m sorry, Alan. Yes, it was Liv.”
“Well what? I nearly ripped her apart when we came back down and they were gone. Shit, dude-I even made her ditch her own party to trail her cousins when they took off after Roy and Derek.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Well you were deep in the Russian Love Palace by then, weren’t you? Listen, Liv owes me an explanation, so I need your help, and…” The bell cuts me off, and Alan takes the opportunity to politely ignore me for the rest of class.
The test is an absolute bitch-I can’t concentrate at all, let alone competently analyze All Quiet on the Western Front, so I’m still fuming at the end of first period and just bail without a second look at Alan, slipping into the hallway’s crush as soon as the bell rings. I stumble through the crowd and make it to the balcony to have another look at the growing refugee camp below. A cursory scan reveals nothing but the same nervous people, random clothes and other crap lying around, and, and…and Olivia Arroyo huddled downstairs, scrunched up between the activities room door and the pay phone right outside, talking a lot and listening much less.
The crowd’s thinning out before the next bell, so I hurry down there as fast as I can-forget Trig, and screw being out of bounds-and am ready to jump all over Liv before a stray thought catches my attention and I calm down a little. I creep down the stairs to Activities, trying to shut out the din of the retreating masses, until I’m right around the corner from Liv’s voice-a frantic, high-pitched whisper-and I decide to just listen.
“…but has he come back yet? What? Don’t fuck with me anymore, Justin-is Chris…okay, then when?”
Long pause. My heart rate begins spiking. Jesus Roy, what happened to you?
“…well then I want to talk to him, and-no, escúchame asshole, I will go to the fucking cops if you don’t-”
“…you don’t think I will? You don’t think I’ll call Miguel up right now and…what? No, no fuck that, leave Roy out of this, it has nothing to do with him and-”
And that’s the last thing I hear her say before I’m around the corner and looking into her wide white eyes, before I stick the vice around her shoulder and drag Liv into the A.S. room and shut the door. Maybe there are people in here, but I don’t care-Roy is missing and she knows where he is and that’s all I need to know-and as I slam her up against the wall and get right in her face I can smell the fear wash right off me and deluge her.
“This is the part where you tell me everything you know about my brother, Liv.” She’s breathing hard and looking at me like I’m some righteous avenging angel. “Everything. Where is Roy and what the hell’s going on?”
“H-he’s…he’s f-f-fine,” she spits, and I let up a little to give her some air. “He’s…he’s at, at school. Derek drove…drove back last night.”
“All the way? Does Justin say that, or do you?”
“C-Chris says. He…he…followed them. The whole way.” A single bead of sweat is trickling down her face. At least I think it’s sweat.
“And-what, to make sure they got there safe and sound? That’s insane. So…so Chris just got back, then?”
“D-don’t be stupid, R.J., he called from a fr-”
I slap my hand over her mouth. “No no, forget it-this was a mistake. Don’t tangle me up in all your weird family shit, Liv. You told me the important part, and the rest is your problem. I can’t fucking believe you let them leave. You say Roy’s fine? Well he damn well better be, because if he’s not, I’ll…I’ll…”
Her expression changes subtly, as if she can sense me searching the nine layers of hell for the ideal punishment, but I don’t let up. “No, you still owe me one. You owe me big, Liv, and…and so…so if I ever come to you with a favor well…you better, you better remember this moment, okay? No, wait-you better remember what his face looked like when you shut the car door. Never, ever forget that.” She nods her head quickly, but I’m already past the point where I care if she’s sincere or not. The third period bell rang a long time ago-stupid goddamn block schedule-so I try to back off with as much grace and manners as I can muster, and try to think up a tardy excuse that will work on my iron-hearted Trig teacher.
The rest of the day is a total blur. Alan avoids me, Liv just plain disappears, and the most I ever hear from Hannah is when two of her giggly, ditzy friends explode in peals of laughter when I walk by. I’m so distracted by the idea of Roy in limbo that I barely remember to bitch out the Jesus-freak P.E. coach when he starts prosletyzing at the class during free weights-but when I do and it earns me a referral, I lapse into complete fuck-it mode and walk out of the gym, out of the locker room, off campus, and straight home through the ever-present rain of ash.
I’m half-expecting Andrew to be there, conducting a session even, but he’s not-and with Robin still at school, I have the whole place to myself. Toss my backpack on the chair and turn on the TV for some fire news, but it kinda creeps me out, enough to make me feel like dumping my clothes and washing all the smoke out of my hair. As I pass by the answering machine I see a big red “2” blinking away, so I casually hit “play” and listen from my room. The first message is for Andrew, from a patient, but it’s from Hannah’s mom and is pretty strange-I can’t make out most of it, but it’s her tone that’s unsettling. It’s almost too…friendly? But then the second message comes on and I forget everything else for its entire duration.
“Hey…R.J., it’s um, Roy. Oh man, I feel so fucking terrible right now. I think this is the worst hangover I’ve ever had, and…and uh, I’m kind of…beat up. I didn’t…I think I got in a fight last night, but I can’t-I can’t remember a damn thing. I talked to Pete and he says I went down there to see you guys for some party and…and I already left a message for Nadia and…oh Christ, I hurt all over and everything sucks. I’m sorry, R.J. I mean, I don’t know what to be sorry for yet, but…no, no I’m sorry for losing it again. For like, for embarrassing you in front of all those people. If I did what it feels like I did then…well…I’m, I’m real sorry. Can you uh…can you call back when school’s out? I like, really need to talk to you. Okay dude. Thanks for…you know. Later.”
He’s alive. Thank God. I realize I’ve been holding my breath the whole time, and let it all out. Holy fucking shit, he’s alive. I pick up the phone, wipe my eyes, and start dialing his number.