“Runaway”

Short Story: Ava Reiss

Trigger warning: has suggestions of self-harm

Reid looked from the window of the attic in his Aunt’s old farmhouse. It was where he spent most of his time. The sun, low in the sky, set his walls ablaze. Brenna should be arriving soon. He closed his dark-web browser and wheeled his chair to a hanging mirror. He smoothed back a few stray hairs and sniffed his arms. “Good.” His deodorant was holding up.

Reid and Brenna went back to the first grade. They were grouped together for playtime. The two bonded in mischief, teaming up to bully other kids. They had shared many trips to the principal’s office.

All through middle school, they had each other’s backs when things got rough. Brenna was a foster kid hopping from house to house. In their small town, word traveled fast and she often found herself with parents who presumed troubled. Few gave her a chance and it was hard on her.

The two drifted apart when they first started high school. Reid became the quarterback and spent most of his time aiming for a scholarship. Brenna didn’t change much, still looking for trouble.

Pain shot through Reid’s leg. He grunted, grasping his knee. His fingers dug into skin, bracing against the throb. Sweat dripped as he eyed the painkillers on his desk. After a moment of teeth grinding, Reid decided he didn’t need them. The searing faded slowly, and he wiped his brow. Reid carefully wiggled his toes, testing sensitivity.

His chance at a sports scholarship was shot the middle of sophomore year. While going to dinner with his parents for his mother’s birthday, they were t-boned by a distracted driver. Reid’s parents were killed instantly and his spine was crushed. The doctors restored sensation and some control to his lower extremities, but he would never play sports again. Walking, even with crutches, became unbearably painful. He was condemned to spend the rest of his days in a chair.

At the beginning of junior year, Reid had tried to kill himself by taking all his pills at once. He awoke to Brenna’s fist across his cheek and a toothbrush in his mouth. “Stupid asshole, is this how you cop out on going to homecoming with me?”

Reid had lost track of the days and forgotten all about the homecoming dance. “Sorry,” he gagged in disorientation. Pulling the toothbrush from the back of his throat, he saw vomit covering her black satin dress. Brenna had gone on and on in the weeks before about how she loved the lace details.

Brenna rolled him onto his side as heat rose in his throat. More pills came up. Some hadn’t even dissolved. His vision grew fuzzy, and he couldn’t remember why he took them all in the first place.

When Reid awoke hours later with a severely dry mouth and throbbing head, he was on the bathroom floor. An arm draped around his midsection. He turned to see Brenna spooning him, wearing one of his shirts. The black dress hung over the edge of the wastebasket.

A year passed since then. They were in their senior year. Reid moved to live with his Aunt Rita, who didn’t like Brenna. Her friend Alice was once Brenna’s foster mother and said the girl was no good. Reid had bobbled his head through Aunt Rita’s lectures. She was up in her years and always went to bed early. Brenna still swung by.

A knock came at the window. “It’s open,” Reid called over his shoulder.

A sliding sound, then, “How’s it goin’ loser?”

Reid couldn’t help but smile. “You got my stuff?” He turned his chair around.

Brenna tossed him a small, metal tin. “Your shady friends on the dark net can’t get you better pot?”

“You’re the shadiest person I know.” He opened the tin and took time selecting a joint.

“How’s homeschool?”

“Same as last time you asked,” Reid mumbled, searching for his lighter.

“Dunno why you bother. Aren’t you loaded now that you’re some tech genius?”

“I got a few things going. But wouldn’t say loaded.” He was one of the best freelance cyber security consultants in the area. Money was less of a concern for him than other high schoolers.

Brenna flopped cross his armchair and picked up a magazine. She flipped through absentmindedly. “Play some friggin’ music, it’s like a tomb in here.”

“Play it yourself,” he retorted. “My tablet’s under the box on the table.”

“Lazy dipshit,” Brenna climbed to her feet. Reid watched from the corner of his eye as he lit a joint. Taking a slow drag, he saw Brenna lift the floppy box. Its casually tossed on lid fell, revealing dark fabric. Brenna froze. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Nothin’. You can have it if you want,” he played it cool.

Reid watched Brenna lift the dress by the straps. “You didn’t!” She held the gown to her body, identical to the ruined one last year. It hadn’t been easy to find, since the original was purchased at a thrift store. The style was long out of date. Reid had paid quadruple for the replacement.

             “You earned it, kid,” he grinned.

            Brenna ran to him and encircled his neck. Her scent filled his nostrils, and he wished he could breathe it forever. After the short hug, she dashed into the bathroom and emerged moments later, donning the dress. “How do you like my fashion sense?” she teased, showing off dust-covered kicks. “I totally match, don’t I?”

            “Yep, you’re punk through and through.”

            “Here,” she ran to her tote and pulled out an old fashioned camera. “You owe me homecoming pics.”

            “What the hell is that ancient thing?” he laughed.

            “It prints pictures right when you take ‘em. I stole it off my foster mom’s boyfriend. He’s into retro stuff.” Brenna leaned onto the side of Reid’s chair. She faced the contraption towards them and a flash of light flooded the room. Reid watched in amusement as a square ejected from the camera.

            “It’s completely gray,” He reached for it.

            “Don’t touch it! You gotta hold it by the white bar and shake it.”

            “That’s so stupid,” Reid scoffed.

            “Here, you keep it,” she hopped to his corkboard and found a place amid his mess. “When you look at it, you can remember me.”

            Reid’s ears perked. Something in Brenna’s voice was different. “Why would I need that to remember you?”

            She crossed her arms behind her back, head dropping. “I’m turning eighteen next week.”

            “And?”

            Brenna exhaled loudly and pulled a chair from the wall. She turned it around and sat straddled beside Reid. “Remember that new guy in town I told you about, Jimmy?”

            “Yeah?” he gulped.

            “He says he’ll give me a lift to California.”

            “Awesome,” Reid tried to sound enthusiastic. “What about school?”

            “Who gives a shit?” Anger flashed and Brenna quickly averted her gaze.

            Reid looked closer and the small lines on Brenna’s face told him something was amiss. “What happened, Brenna?”

            She shook her head, running fingers through honey blonde curls. “It’s nothing, Reid. I’ve got it handled.”

            They sat in silence as Reid contemplated her comment. Trails of smoke from his joint billowed around them. “No, Brenna. This sounds big and you need to tell me. You owe our friendship that much.”

            “It’s not that big a deal!” she shot in frustration. Brenna pursed her lips and leaned back. Despite her defiance, he could tell she wanted to share.

            “Well if it’s not that big a deal, why can’t you tell me?”

Brenna studied him with dark eyes. “Promise you’ll keep it between us?”

            “Absolutely.” Reid needed to know.

            “I’m pregnant.”

            Reid gulped, careful not to overreact. It was the last thing he expected to hear, and it wasn’t easy. After some time to process the words, he sputtered, “Makes sense you wanna head to Cali. They shut down the clinics around here.”

            Brenna didn’t seem to hear. Her next words floored Reid. “It’s my foster mom’s boyfriend’s. You’re the only one who knows.”

            Reid’s jaw dropped. “Brenna, you need to go to the police.”

            She shook her head. “He already took off. He and my foster mom got into it last month over his ex showing up in the middle of the night.”

            “You sure it’s his?” He felt his brow deepened.

            “Despite rumors around town, I was a virgin until two months ago.” Her gaze cast sideways with shame.

            Reid couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Here was Brenna, the girl he knew since childhood, with a child inside her. “Brenna.”

            “Stop it!” she got up from her seat and paced. “I don’t need your pity.”

            “Let me help you.”

            “NO.” She stopped and turned to Reid. “No,” she repeated softer. “If you want to help, let me do this.”

            “Yeah but you don’t need to be alone.”

            “Yes I do, Reid,” she continued to pace. He could hear tears in her voice. “I’ve been stuck in this godforsaken town too long; not allowed to do anything on my own. I need to be able to see this through by myself. Good or bad, whatever happens, it’s a decision I’d have made for myself! I NEED this!”

            Reid choked as feelings he couldn’t identify welled. He couldn’t imagine what Brenna was going through. “Okay,” was all that came out. It saddened him to know she didn’t open up to him sooner.

            “Thanks, Reid,” she sat back down and took his hand. “You’re shaking!”

            “I can’t help it. I’m pissed for you.”

            “I’m pissed too. At myself mostly.”

            “Brenna, it’s not your fault. You’re a minor. That man needs to go to jail.”

            She shrugged, “I wish I told myself a long time ago that age was just a number. I always wanted to run off but felt I couldn’t, that I’d just come crawling back. I probably would’ve been better off if I did.” Her eyes peered deeply into his. “I don’t want you to blame yourself, but a part of me stayed as long as I did because of you. I didn’t want to leave you.”

Reid blinked. He did blame himself. If he didn’t swallow all those pills last year, maybe Brenna would’ve taken off sooner. The thought was bittersweet. Another person who’d been so integrated in his life was about to depart. Reid suddenly felt vulnerable.

“It’s because you’re the only thing that felt like home…” she added in a small voice.

The words opened an emotional floodgate. Reid couldn’t help it. He reached up and tenderly cupped Brenna’s cheek. She shrank away, eyes dropping. Reid felt terrified he might’ve triggered an unwanted flashback. He quickly withdrew his hand.

“We’ll stay in touch, right?” he asked as evenly as he could. Dull pain throbbed in his leg, and he took a heavy drag on the joint.

            Her eyes peaked guiltily, reaching for the smoke. She inhaled before whispering, “I want to change my identity. Start fresh with none of the infractions I’ve on my permanent record. Jimmy says he knows a guy.” She gave an apologetic grin, handing back the pot. “You’ve been my best friend for so long. People could find me through you.” Brenna squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m sorry Reid. You’re so important to me, but I need to get away.” Her eyes blinked as a tear dropped. “You’re the only thing I’ll miss.”

            Reid swallowed hard, afraid he’d start crying. He cleared his throat, “Well, I’d better give you your birthday present early then.” He pulled away from Brenna and grabbed a large envelope from his desk. “I found this on the dark net.”

            Brenna took the package with a curious glance. Wiping at tears, she tore open the paper. Reid watched from a distance as she studied the contents. A hand clutched his chin as he reflected on Brenna’s earlier words. His stomach flipped. He couldn’t help but feel Brenna’s violation infect him.

“My God!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet. Reid saw her shoulders shake as she read her adoption papers. “My birth parents are named Marjorie and Dale Hampton. My birth name is Madeira.”

Reid forced a smile, “I remember when you were little. You were always wonderin’ about them.”

Brenna sniffled, “It says they gave me up so I wouldn’t live in their destitute situation.” She crumpled up the top page and tossed it in the corner. “So much for that! What did it spare me?”

Reid grew unsure of his present. “Brenna, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“What?” her chin lifted, a wild look in her eyes. “No, no! Reid, this is the best present ever!” She paused, rubbing her nose. “Yeah I’m mad at where I am now, but it still feels good to know they cared enough to do what they felt was right.”

His heart soothed. Brenna poured attention back into the papers. “Says I was born in Wisconsin. Haha!” She looked up, “Thank you, Reid.” Her shoulders shook as her eyes brimmed with joyful tears. Reid looked away, knowing he’d cry if he didn’t distract from the moment. He put out the joint and picked up another. He busied himself lighting it.

Thin fingers softly took it away as Brenna’s skinny arms encircled him again. Closing his eyes, he felt a tear roll down his cheek. “Your secrets are safe with me,” he whispered, wrapping an arm around her.

“I’m so sorry, Reid,” she whispered in his hair. “I wish you could come with me.”

He scoffed, “I know. I’d slow you down.”

She kissed the top of his head. “There’s what our hearts desire, then there’s the fact of life. We both know nothing’s fair. Besides, I’ll just screw you up even more.”

Reid cleared his throat. “When’re you leaving?”

“Day after next.”

He pulled away and wheeled to his computer. If he didn’t, Reid would’ve broken down. He didn’t want Brenna to see him that way. “’Kay, swing by anytime before then,” his voice wavered.

Brenna stood without making a sound. He could sense her befuddlement. Reid wanted to say something, do something, but didn’t trust himself. If she saw how broken he felt, or picked up on his desperate wish for her to stay, she might change her mind. Reid sensed Brenna was at the point he was last year. If she were to stay, she might make an attempt on her life.

Reid knew the best thing for Brenna was for him to let her go.

Brenna shuffled around a bit. Reid could tell she was waiting for him to say more. When he didn’t, a teary voice piped, “See you around.”

A few seconds later, the window slid shut. Brenna was gone. Reid still sat frozen, losing track of time. In his mind, he played memories of Brenna. Turning to the corkboard, he saw a small rectangle where a recent picture developed. Brenna’s dark eyes sparkled as the rest of her face sagged from a suffocating life.

His chest convulsed and sobs tore forward. A flash of anger drove him to sit up straight. He tapped furiously on his keyboard and instantly, a vast, untraceable network was at his fingertips. As Reid tried to remember the foster mom’s ex-boyfriend’s name, he gripped his head.

Reid could create a warrant for the man’s arrest. Hell, he could even take out a hit. “But should I?” Drawing a hand across his face, Reid leaned back. He’d promised he wouldn’t share Brenna’s secret, but he didn’t promise to do nothing.

“What does Brenna want most?” he asked himself. Reid started to calm down. “She wanted to handle it herself. Who am I to interfere?” The name of the ex-boyfriend surfaced and Reid searched for the man. Moments later, he had Larry Putnam’s records. All for the fraction of a crypto currency.

Reid chewed his lip and thought hard. “What should I do? What’s most important?” He picked up a baseball from his desk and tossed it in the air. After a few catches, he leaned forward and deleted the record. At the same moment, he made a vow to not follow Brenna online when she started her new life.

“I’ve already helped Jimmy find her.”

Jimmy was really a private investigator hired by Brenna’s birth parents. He and Reid had come across each other online. Her parents wanted to reach out to Madeira Hampton, but wanted the young woman to decide on her own if she wished to meet them. Thus they hired Jimmy as an intermediary.

Reid followed their example. He would let Brenna decide if and when she wanted to reach out to him again.

Reid messaged a friend one town over, “Hey man, can I crash over for a few days?” Brenna didn’t know him.

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Just gotta clear my head.”

“When’ll you be here?”

“A few hours.”

Reid whipped out his phone and turned on his rideshare app. He was in luck. A wheelchair accessible van was about twenty minutes out. He requested the ride before jotting a quick note for his aunt. He left it vague, but told her not to worry. He’d leave it on the breakfast table. Turning attention to the screen, Reid thought long and hard before drafting a letter.

Brenna, there are somethings too difficult to say in person because we feel them so strongly. I know we never really defined what we are to each other, but it doesn’t matter. I love you completely. No matter what happens, please remember that. To me, you are whole. Nothing can spoil you in my eyes.

I’m blocking your email and phone because I’m not sending this to get your attention. I just want you to know that you’ll always have me. You won’t find me at my house or anywhere in town. I don’t want you to know where I am because I don’t want you to stay. I know you need to go.

When you’re ready, years later when you’ve done all you need to do, I’ll be waiting.

Reid looked up a flower delivery service and attached the letter. Afterwards, he took the recent photo of Brenna off the corkboard and tucked it carefully in his shirt pocket. It still smelled like her.

Silently, he took the stair lift down.

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here

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