A rowdy tavern in a small town. Thick smoke hanging low over the small crowd of patrons who were partying and pigging out on cheap beer and food.
This was the last place that Daniel wanted to be.
Yet there he was, sitting alone in a booth at the Rusted Cap, waiting anxiously for his friend.
"Did you hear the news? They finally reopened that hit and run case from a few years back,"
Daniel perked up, glancing over his shoulder at the booth behind him.
He disliked listening in on others, but the topic caused him to pause.
"What, that gymnast? What was her name... Adams?"
"Yeah. I heard she never recovered from the accident,"
"Poor girl. What kind of person do you have to be to leave someone lying on the road like that?"
"Wish I could get my hands on the bastard. The freak would be crying for his mommy,"
The two men chuckled before ordering another round of beer from a passing waitress.
Daniel's ears burned.
They had reopened the case?
There were no witnesses. No evidence. What did they know?
He had to stop himself.
He couldn't keep thinking about it. If they failed to find him five years ago, the only thing that time would help was him.
After all, Daniel had changed.
He wasn't the man that he had been on that loathsome night.
If only he could forget it.
"Dan!" He was broken from his thoughts with the arrival of his friend.
The broad shouldered blonde had been Daniel's way of keeping sane over the years. It felt like they had been friends his entire life, yet he had only known Brian since moving to Melbrook.
"Brian," Daniel smiled, his heart beginning to calm. His stomach still ached, but seeing his friend helped him to put aside his fears.
"Thanks for waiting," Brian grinned, sliding into the seat across from Daniel.
"Why did you want to meet here? You know how I feel about these places," He frowned, watching as Brian hailed the waitress.
"Come on, lighten up. The food's good and the service is sweet," Brian smirked, looking pointedly at their server.
"Your usual Brian?" She asked with a smile.
"You know me so well. Get my friend here whatever he wants, on me," He winked.
With a giggle, she turned to look at Daniel.
"I'll just have water, thanks..." Daniel mumbled.
"Sure," She said shortly, her smile turning plastic. "I'll be back with your drinks," she gave Brian a last wave before heading for the kitchen.
"Hey, why so cold? I swear, it's like you don't want a girlfriend," Brian quipped, nudging him playfully across the table.
With a scowl, Daniel sat back in his seat. "Look, can we drop it? Why did you ask me here, what is going on?"
"Geez, quit grilling me man. What're you a cop now? Can't a guy want to try something different for once?"
"Look, if you're bored, you can-"
Daniel was interrupted by a large pitcher of beer being placed between them, as well as two cups and a second pitcher of ice water.
"Here you are!" The waitress chirped.
"Thanks doll," Brian broke away from Daniel's glower, turning to smile at her as he took his glass.
"Cheers Dan. It's been five years since we met. Guess it's our anniversary," He joked, pouring beer in both of their glasses, grinning all the time.
Daniel grew queasy as he watched the amber liquid pour.
He never touched that glass.
Daniel didn't sleep well that night.
His dreams were haunted by his past.
The screech of tires. The thud.
The sight of that woman's body lying prone beside his car, blonde hair strewn across her face. Blood pooled around her twisted body, more blood than Daniel had ever seen.
Everything was a blur after that.
The next thing Daniel remembered was waking up in a daze on the floor of his apartment, a mixture of blood and vomit caking his shirt.
His confusion didn't last.
The night before came crashing back.
Why had he driven home? Why hadn't he called a cab that night?
Those questons still burned within in his mind.
Daniel quit his job and sold his car for scrap.
He moved to a new town, even going so far as to change his name.
No one knew him there.
It was a fresh start.
It wasn't long after that he met Brian. They bonded over the fact that they had both recently relocated, Daniel claiming to want a change in pace, Brian continuing his work. He was a journalist, a freelancer who was frequently published in the papers.
By now Daniel considered him his closest friend. Brian was the only person he felt he could trust. Everyone else, he kept at arm's length.
Some called Daniel cold, but Brian said he was a dreamer, never coming down from the clouds.
He envied Brian. He was the social type, got along well with everyone he met. Daniel had never heard a bad word against him.
Before the accident he had been more outgoing, even flirting and drinking with women, cracking jokes and melting hearts with a warm smile and dark, curly hair.
Asking him to do the same now would only result in bullheaded replies. Daniel didn't make many friends because of this, but somehow, Brian had broken through.
He tried to feel some semblance of comfort in knowing that someone still cared about him.
When Daniel finally rose from the hot tangle of dampened sheets, his phone was vibrating angrily on his nightstand. He had four missed calls as well as twelve messages, all from Brian.
Rather than attempt to read, Daniel answered the latest call, still groggy with sleep.
"Jesus Dan, are you alive or what? I've been calling all morning," Daniel could hear the sound of Brian's car in the background of the call.
"What time is it?" He mumbled, wincing at the bright sunlight piercing through his curtains.
"It's nearly one o'clock. Don't you remember? You agreed to help me today. You're taking notes. Or did you plan to flake on me?" Brian accused.
"No no, I'm up. Come get me," Daniel swiftly climbed to his feet and began digging for a clean pair of jeans.
"I'm five minutes away. You'd better look presentable," Brian finished, hanging up on Daniel before he could reply.
It wasn't long before Daniel was dressed, washed as best as he could be with the time constraints, a grey hoodie thrown on over a plain shirt with his usual jeans and boots.
Brian was dressed similarly, though he had traded Daniel's hoodie for a flannel sweater and a red cap.
He looked fresh, alert. Daniel was the opposite.
"You look half asleep. Are you going to be able to keep up with me?" Brian asked, turning to look at Daniel's rumpled appearance.
"Keep your eyes on the road," he retorted.
They drove in silence after that, an old country tune playing faintly on the radio, the highway mostly empty as they drove towards the edge of the city.
"Hey... Where are we going again?" Daniel asked, watching as the houses grew fewer and farther apart.
"Just the next town over," Brian spoke casually, turning the dial up on the radio.
"What was your story about again?" Daniel asked, anxiety chewing at his empty stomach.
"It's about this old crash. They've reopened the case, and I want to be the one to break the story when the driver is caught," he spoke firmly with a determined glint in his eye.
Daniel's heart plummeted.
"Oh..." He fell back into his seat, his head now spinning.
If he had eaten anything before leaving, he knew it would have decorated the dash board now.
"What's wrong, you look sick," Brian glanced back at him with a quizzical look, his eyebrow cocked.
"Are you hungry? I doubt you had time to eat before you left,"
"No! No... I am fine, just a little carsick," Daniel smiled weakly, quick to brush his friend off.
"Let's just hurry there,"
Brian nodded in agreement, allowing Daniel to close his eyes as he leaned back in his seat, sighing slowly.
He hadn't been back home since then.
When Brian finally parked, they had come to the local police department.
Daniel's heart began to race.
"Our interview is with the cop who was first on the scene," said Brian, grabbing his bag from the backseat before he climbed out, walking towards an elderly gentleman who stood waiting near the double doors.
Daniel pulled his hood over his head, hunching himself over as he followed Brian from the car.
He kept his hands buried in his pockets to hide his quivering.
"Brian," The older man smiled, clapping him on the shoulder when he came to greet him.
"Daniel, this is detective Blake, he is the one I have been communicating with on this case. He's been a great help," Brian smiled, pushing Daniel towards the other man with a laugh.
"Good to meet you son," Blake stuck out a large hand, and Daniel took it reluctantly.
His hand was crushed in the other man's mitt, but he gave a weak smile regardless.
The detective lead them to a quiet spot around the back of the building. There were a few tables just before the asphalt turned into grass, leading into a deep ditch.
Those trenches were common in this area due to the risk of floods.
"Alright. Dan, you're going to be taking notes. I am recording this interview, but I want to get your observations as well," Brian waited for Daniel to nod before he sat down, the both of them facing the detective, who had placed a thick envelope on the table in front of him.
"Detective Blake, would you tell me what happened the night of the accident from your perspective?" Brian leaned over, turning his tape recorder on and pointing it towards Blake.
"Yes. It was close to two in the morning. I had traded shifts to help a friend. It was rare for me to be patrolling so late. It had been mostly quiet, but people were beginning to head home from the bars, so I took an extra lap down past Doug's. It gets darker once you reach the end of that stretch of road, enough to keep your brights on. When I saw her, she was plain as day, lying beneath the last light on the corner, almost like she was waiting for me," he said.
"Then it was well lit? No chance of someone missing her in the dark?" Brian pressed, watching Blake intently.
"In my eyes, you would have had to have been sleeping at the wheel to miss that girl," Blake shook his head, heaving a long sigh.
Daniel sat in silence, feverishly bouncing his leg under the table, watching the two speak.
He had been drunk that night, yes, but he didn't see that woman.
He bit his tongue, choking back the bile that rose in his throat.
"Tell me, was she alive when you found her? Conscious?" Brian pressed.
"When I got to her, she was breathing, but the poor thing wasn't awake. She was clinging onto life. I never thought she would make it," He shook his head.
"What of the driver?"
"Long gone. Our town has such close bonds, I couldn't believe that one of our own had left her there to die. Most wanted to think it was a stranger's doing,"
Brian glanced over at Daniel, motioning for him to write.
Daniel was frozen in place, watching the detective with glassy eyes.
"And what of the evidence? Were there any suspects?"
"If there had been, I believe this case would have been closed five years ago," he paused. "We interviewed half of the town. Those folks couldn't believe that anyone would do that to such a young girl,"
"Yes, Hailey Adams. I heard she was a talented gymnast, that she was hoping to participate in the olympics," Brian agreed. "Detective, isn't there a hospital not ten minutes away from the crime scene?"
The detective nodded fiercely. "That was the worst part. This person hit a young woman and drove away. They could have dumped her at the hospital. Maybe then she would have had a chance."
"I read she was paralized," Brian said, his voice softening slightly.
"Indeed. Her life's work, ruined. The poor thing," Blake rubbed his temples before placing a hand on the envelope in front of him.
"These are photos taken from the crime scene," He pushed them across the table, between the two of them.
Daniel's head began to spin.
He had barely looked the when it happened. To see it again... He didn't know that he could take it.
His knuckles turned white as he gripped his pencil, digging into the page of his notepad.
Brian opened the envelope, sliding a small stack of photos into his palm.
Daniel looked away, cold sweat dripping down the back of his neck.
"This was how they left her?" Brian asked quietly.
"Yes," Blake spoke gravely.
Daniel kept his head down, staring at the empty paper.
Suddenly Brian dropped a picture down in front of him.
"That was the only photo we got of her before the ambulance took her," Blake spoke.
It was dark in the photo, but not dark enough that you couldn't see her pale body strewn across the ground, blood all around her, smeared across her face and dress, shards of glass cutting into her arms and legs.
Daniel recoiled, jumping to his feet and stumbling back.
He heaved, turning to face the ditch before vomiting, dropped onto one knee.
Brian and detective Blake watched as Daniel coughed, his limbs shaking.
"Some can't stomach it," Blake said, and Brian nodded.
When Daniel pushed to his feet, a rush of anxiety overtook him, and he began to leave, walking quickly away from the table.
"Dan, come back!" Brian called after him, but Daniel didn't slow. He walked up the sidewalk, his heart racing. He didn't know where to go. The cars that drove past were loud, the sun bore down on him, the trees seeming to close in around him.
He could hear Brian shouting, but he didn't stop.
He stumbled, beginning to run. "Leave me alone!" He cried, tearing off down the street.
Suddenly, he felt a tug at his sweater, then a shove.
Daniel lost his footing and fell into the street.
He barely saw the car.
With a sickening thud, Daniel's body slammed into the incoming SUV, which couldn't stop before running him over.
Blinding pain shot through him before everything went numb. His vision blurred, staring at Brian's shoes at the edge of the sidewalk.
Then it all went black.
When he came to, it was quiet. A soft humming and a methodical beeping was all that Daniel heard.
His eyes felt heavy, his body numb. He couldn't move.
Slowly, he opened his eyes enough to see Brian standing over him, watching him intently.
"You're awake." He said calmly. "Do you know why I asked you to help me today?" He watched Daniel's eyes flicker.
"Don't try to speak. From what I heard, you couldn't even if you tried," Brian shifted, reaching for Daniel's head, patting it gently.
"You don't know who I am, do you Eric," Brian watched Daniel's eyes widen. "Yes, I know your name. But do you know mine?" He smiled, gripping Daniel's hair in his fist. "Jacob Adams. I'm the brother of the woman you murdered," He hissed, pulling Daniel's head up off of the bed, holding him to his face.
"You're the reason she died, Eric. You murdered her when you stole her dreams!" He shouted, slamming Daniel's head into the bedframe.
Daniel groaned, unable to move his mouth to speak.
"She took her own life because of what you did! She had a future!" Brian threw him against the headboard again, shaking him roughly.
"I wasted five years watching you, waiting for the perfect moment. I had to know what kind of a man could kill my baby sister," Brian's voice wavered, tears now dripping down his face.
"You stole everything from me. And why?! Because you were drunk? We went drinking and you nearly cried when I passed you a beer! Did it hurt to be reminded of what you did?" He released Daniel, swiping at his tear streaked cheeks.
"The hospital was SIX MINUTES AWAY!" He cried, his face twisted with loathing.
Daniel's eyes filled with tears, but still he couldn't speak.
He wanted to tell him how it happened, to apologize to him, anything. He couldn't.
"You are a monster... That is why I pushed you in front of that car," Brian sobbed.
Daniel's eyes widened.
"Yes... I wanted to kill you. But this is better. Now you'll understand why," Brian laughed, leaning over Daniel's prone body.
He climbed onto him, pressing his knee into Daniel's ribs.
All Daniel could feel was the pressure.
He began gasping, his eyelids fluttering as he choked.
Brian grabbed his neck and squeezed, his nails digging into Daniel's skin.
"You made me do this," He whispered, his eyes manic, a smile creeping onto his face.
"The only difference between you and me? Once you're dead, I'll turn myself in,"
Daniel's vision darkened as he stared at the one man he trusted.
He wanted to change.
He wanted to become a good person.
He knew he couldn't run from his past forever. His very existence tortured the only person he had grown to care for.
It was better this way...
It was all he could do for his only friend.