I gulp in air, breaching the surface. Ice-cold water stings at my hands and nose, drenching my clothes and pulling me down, down, down the river. Blindly, I grasp for anything to latch on to, but my arms are too weak to fight the raging current.
For a minute, I think I’m about to die. I’m too young. It was a dare, I want to shout. But who cares? Certainly not the river that’s about to drown me.
I make one last attempt to grab the river bank, sinking my fingers into the soft dirt. The water pushes hard against me and my fingers slip on the fresh mud. I suck in a breath full of water. I try to scream but only a gurgling sound comes out.
Then, I feel a hand grip my arm. My arm burns as though it’s about to be ripped right out of its socket. I slide onto dry land, flipping upwards onto my knees, coughing and spluttering for air. Rough hands shove me onto my back, causing me to spit out some of the water clogging my lungs. Repeated pressure on my chest causes me to heave the rest of it out; I roll onto my stomach and take in rapid, shallow breaths.
“Gosh, kid, what were you thinking? I oughta slap the stupid out of you, but I think it might kill you,” this is followed by a laugh without warmth. “Oh, kid…”
As soon as the world stops spinning, I turn to glare at him. Victor Moore has dark hair, which he is currently using as a rest for his hand. He also has dark eyes, narrowed in annoyance.
“I didn’t need you to come along and play the hero,” I spit out at him. It’s a lie, and we both know it.
“Would you rather I let you drown?”
Victor stands up, his expression full of disgust. “Fine, then. But now I’m going to be in trouble, too, because you’re a baby and you need people to take care of you.”
My face starts to heat and I also stand, stepping away from him. “At least I don’t spend my nights crying over parents that don’t want me.”
Victor blinks at me, and for a second he falters. His hardened expression turns confused, a little dazed. He looks younger, almost. Then he straightens, forming his mouth into a hard line.
“It’s not like you could, anyways. Yours are dead.” He turns on his heel and walks away.
I drag my feet across the ground, dreading the moment I walk into the home. I’ll have to face Victor eventually, because we share a room, but that’s not it. Ms. Wilson will loose her mind when she finds out what I did. Richie will be disappointed in me too, which almost hurts more, because Richie is a pretty cool guy, and he likes me.
I open the door, bracing myself for the onslaught of shouting. Instead, all I hear is:
Which is almost worse. “Hey,” I say, dodging Levi’s hug to take off my shoes and peel of my socks.
“Heard about your little stunt by the river,” he says, plopping down in the big leather chair with a grin, “shame you couldn’t complete it. You know, I swam that river twice round when I was-”
“Twelve,” I finish for him, “so you’ve said. Many times.”
“Anyway, I could have done it if superman hadn’t swooped in to save the day,” I hear the hatred in my own voice.
Levi flips around so he’s resting his head on one of the armrests. “From what I hear, he saved your life. I know you hate each other for whatever reason, but you could still thank him.”
I sigh. Levi was one of the people who I thought I could count on not to take Victor’s side, but I guess with them being friends and all I should have known. Levi’s older than me, and he's definitely smarter, but he treats life like one big joke. Sometimes I wish I could be able to do that.
“Where’s Ms. Wilson?”
“Upstairs, chewing Victor out. She’ll be down soon for you, I’m sure,” Levi puts a hand to his ear, “legend says you can hear her from here.” We both pause, and listen. I can, in fact, hear her from where I stand, but I can’t quite make out what she’s saying.
“Great.” That’ll be a nice cherry on top of my day. “And… Richie?”
“He knows,” Levi says, looking at the ground, “but he already yelled at someone today and I don’t think he’s itching to do it again.” By the way he avoids my gaze, I can tell that ‘someone’ is him.
We sit in silence for a few minutes, then Levi gets up and goes up the stairs. I grab the book from the side table and sit down in the armchair. My eyes drift over the pages but I’m unfocused. I can still hear the conversation between Ms. Wilson and Victor.
“Well, you’re not my mom!” he shouts, loud enough for the whole house to hear. I put down my book, shocked. Victor’s never raised his voice at an adult.
I watch as Ms. Wilson walks slowly down the stairs. “Is your hair wet? Cato Jones, get off my chair!” I shoot up from where I sit, my hand flying to my hair.
“Sorry,” I mumble.
She frowns, then hurries towards me. “Oh, are you alright?” She cups my chin with her hand.
I pull away. “I’m fine. You don’t need to treat me like I’m seven.” I wish she would just yell at me like she did Victor. This is worse.
“Alright,” she raises her eyebrows, “if you’re so grown, you can do the dishes with Victor. For the next month.”
I’d rather do the dishes alone, but Ms. Wilson seems to be in a dangerous mood. I can’t read her, which is strange, because she’s one of those people that wears her emotions like an article of clothing for all to see.
Ms. Wilson gives me a look, and then walks away. I slink up the stairs, pausing outside of my room. The door is open, and I can see Victor on his bed. He’s curled up, facing the wall. I slip in, hoping to go unnoticed.
At first, I think he’s asleep, until I hear the soft sobs from his side of the room. I swallow hard. Tough guys don’t cry. Why is he crying? He needs to stop crying.
Weak guys cry; I cry. The night my dad died, I had stayed over at a neighbors house. I was up all night, racked with sobs. I stayed with the neighbors for a week, and then Ms. Wilson had come to take me to the children’s home. Not quite an orphanage, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t an orphan.
I wonder if Victor cried, when his parents gave him up. He used to tell me stories about them. They drank a lot, and loved to party, and travel. They didn’t want a kid.
We were just kids, then. I was seven and he was ten. And then we grew up, and he turned into everyone’s knight in shining armor and I turned into… whatever I am now. A loser, I guess.
“Kid?” Victor rolls over so he’s looking at me.
“Yeah?” I can’t be mean to him, not when his eyes are puffy and red from crying.
He shrugs his shoulders. “Nothin’. Just wasn’t sure if you were in here or not.”
“I am,” I say, which is kind of stupid, since he can already see that.
He closes his eyes, and I think he’s going to sleep, but then he sighs. “Can I tell you something?”
“Sure.” Now I’m confused. Isn’t he supposed to be mad at me, for getting him in trouble?
“I’m gonna run away,” he tells me, “I’m gonna go some place no one will ever find me, and start life over. I didn’t do so well in this one, but I want to go somewhere. Not literally- well, I guess I do want to go somewhere, but that’s not what I mean. I want to make a mark on the world. You understand?”
I don’t, but I nod anyway.
“No one’ll miss me here. Not even my parents cared about me. Ms. Wilson will worry for a few weeks, and then she’ll forget about me. You wouldn’t tell, would you?” He frowns as if it’s the first time he’s considered the possibility.
I shake my head. “Thanks, I guess. I’m leaving tonight,” he sounds like he just decided that in this moment, “I’ve got enough money to buy myself a plane ticket. Or maybe I’ll hitchhike.” He half-smiles. “I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, kid. Maybe I feel bad. You know, for what I said earlier.”
I’m silent. Mostly, I’m still trying to figure out why he’s leaving. What good does he think he can do? He’s just a teenager, a little older than I am. I open my mouth, to ask, or apologize, or perhaps just to say something, but he’s rolled back over.
I wake up to the sound of shouting. Vaguely, I remember my conversation with Victor, and I smile. He’s gone, then. Good for him.
I roll out of bed, still dressed in my clothes from the day before. I don’t remember how I fell asleep in them, being all soaked in water. I was just too worn out to think right.
My eyes travel over to Victor’s bed, which is made. It’s never made. On top of it sits an envelope, marked with the words: to Cato.
I tear it open, pulling out the letter.
Hey, kid. I know you don’t like me calling you that, but that’s what you are. A kid. I’ve known you since you were seven years old, when your dad died. By that time, I had been in the home for three years. Those three years were some of the worst in my life. I was alone, trapped in my own little world where things never went right. Then you came along, all doe-eyed and innocent. Remember how you used to tell me stories, to help me fall asleep? Suddenly, it was like I was a part of your world instead of mine. Then we grew up, and you started hating me. I didn’t know why.
Don’t be dumb, I think. I only hated you because you hated me first.
Well, anyway, I started doing bad in school, because I just didn’t care anymore. That made Ms. Wilson mad at me. I had friends now, sure, but it was almost as if you had left a hole in my wall that started to allow all the bad feelings back inside. I could have been nicer to you, I know, but it’s too late now. I’m sorry, kid. I’ll miss you, even if you won’t miss me. You’re like the brother I never had, but always needed.
~ Victor Moore
p.s. You don't need to prove yourself to anyone. Especially not those boys who tried to kill you by making you swim in that river. Don't you know it's January?
I blink back tears. I should be glad that he’s gone, shouldn’t I? He was a jerk who always seemed to be the lucky one. But now, it seemed like he had thought the same exact thing.
“Cato! Get down here!”
I hurry down the stairs. Everyone else has already gathered in the main room. Ms. Wilson paced in front of them.
“Where is Victor?” she demanded.
“I… I don’t know.”
“So he just up and left, without telling anyone? Is that what you’re saying?”
“He’s seventeen. He’s old enough to make decisions by himself.”
“He’s just a boy! He’s never been reckless like this before, he’s not like…” He’s not like me, I finish for her.
Except, he is. In the ways that truly counted, Victor and I are the same. We both make up stories because living in just the real world is too hard. We are both just two kids who thought we were alone, and desperately needed a parent’s love.
I need to tell him. I need to tell him that I’m sorry. I need… I need to find him. I need to find him, and tell him that wherever he’s going, I want to be there.