Okay, book nerds. With Be Not Far From Me, Mindy McGinnis has done it again. If you’ve read her previous books like The Female of the Species and Heroine, you know you’re in for a searing, can’t-look-away story. We’re here to tell you that Mindy does. not. disappoint.
If you ever needed more proof that being a teen in the world is rough (to say the LEAST), Be Not Far From Me is the harrowing YA survival story that needs to be on your TBR for 2020. After Ashley goes hiking in the woods with her friends for a night of partying, she catches her boyfriend with another girl and it sends her running into the night. Ashley’s far off the trail, alone, drunk, and badly injured after a nasty fall into a ravine. Can she find her way back while figuring out how to survive with an infection creeping up her leg?
Be Not Far From Me is the lost-in-the-wilderness story you’ll hold onto long after it ends. Start reading an excerpt below!
BEFORE I WAS LOST
The world is not tame.
People forget that. The glossy brochures for state parks show nature at its most photogenic, like a senior picture with all the pores airbrushed away. Never do the brochures show a coyote muzzle-deep in the belly of a still-living deer, or a chipmunk punctured by an eagle’s talons, squirming as it perishes in midair.
If you’re quiet in the woods long enough, you’ll hear something die. Then it’s quiet again. There’s no outrage about injustice, or even mourning. One animal’s death is another’s dinner; that’s just the way it is. What remains will go to the earth, yesterday’s bones sinking into today’s dirt, the only bit of life left where a mouse nibbled, leaving tiny indentations that say there was once something of worth here.
“Gross,” Meredith says, proving my point as I lift a deer skull out from under a layer of dead leaves.
“I thought it was just a drop,” I say, giving her a chance to catch her breath at the side of the trail while I check if there’s any spinal cord left. Usually the vertebrae are carried off by mice and squirrels, little midnight snacks for them to stash in their burrows.
“A what?” She slips the straps of her backpack off as Kavita catches up to us, holding her jet-black hair in a pile on top of her head, beads of sweat forming on her upper lip.
“A drop,” I explain to Meredith. “Bucks lose their antlers every spring, but they’re really hard to spot on the forest floor.”
I’d been lucky to see this one, mistaking it at first for the bleached white of a dead ash branch. When the entire skull had come up along with the antler I’d barely suppressed my excitement, something that didn’t escape notice.
“Why’d we stop?” Kavita asks, dropping her hair so that it falls around her shoulders.
“Ashley’s having a National Geographic moment,” Meredith says.
“Damn straight,” I tell her.
“Good thing she knows that shit too,” Kavita says, coming to my defense. “Or else we’d die out here.”
That’s true enough. Meredith had spotted a mushroom and, assuming that anything that can go on a pizza in the civilized world is safe in the natural one, was about to chow down on a destroying angel. I told her that if I hadn’t stopped her in time in about five hours she’d be vomiting and become delirious. But since we’re planning on vomiting and being delirious tonight anyway, I don’t know that anyone would have even noticed until she started convulsing.
In other words, way too late.
Meredith had sniffed and said, “Then why are they even allowed to grow in a state park, anyway?”
Luckily Kavita was there to defuse the situation and stop me from saying something shitty. I guess being the only person in our school who isn’t white has probably taught her a lot about handling confrontation. Me, I just get mad. I’d wanted to tell Meredith we aren’t in a state park—we’re in a state forest—which means that the trails aren’t maintained as well, something she’d complained about the first time we had to straddle a downed tree to stay on the path, and nobody gets to tell poisonous mushrooms where to grow or not grow. It’s our job to learn not to eat them.
We live in a place where geography can not only kill you, but also dictates your friends. I don’t like many people, and while Meredith has made the cut since kindergarten, it’s by a slim margin. She is constantly horrified by the bruises on my legs that blossom under poison ivy rashes; I’m equally turned off by her manicures and the fact that she wing-tipped her eyeliner before coming on this hike. Past our skin, we genuinely like each other. But days like today I have to actually remind myself of that fact.
To be fair, I bet she does too.
“What’cha got?” Kavita asks, motioning toward the skull in my hands.
“A dead animal,” Meredith answers for me. “Ash found a dead animal. Please tell me you’re not taking that to the party.”
Truth is, I’m thinking about it. It’s rare to find one in this good of shape, and it’s an eight-point, the sharp edges of the antlers still intact. I’m rubbing my thumb along a smooth curve, debating, finally choosing to toss the skull into the leaves. Maybe someone else will find it, hang it on their living room wall or zip-tie it to the grille of their truck.
We head uphill, and I set a pace that will leave Meredith gasping, though Kavita stays steady at my heels. I hold a branch back for her, and she smiles at me as I do, though none of us are talking. We need our energy, need our breath for the long walk to the campsite where the boys and the beers are, somewhere secluded enough that we can get rowdy. It’ll be loud later, when we celebrate the beginning of summer vacation, talk about how crazy it is that we’ll be seniors next year, the bittersweet tang of something good coming to an end filling our mouths.
But right now it’s quiet, and I’m grateful for the silence. In it I can think about what I saw as I turned to go, a perfectly aligned spinal column pressed into the dirt, undisturbed by hungry mouths or digging paws. To be in that kind of condition the deer must not have gone violently, or its bones would have been tossed about by the teeth that took its life. Instead it lay down and died quietly of old age, either dappled by the sun or with soft snowflakes that landed on closing eyes.
It died quiet, under the trees.
I think that’s how I’d want to go too.
Hiking—much like drinking—is something that sounds more fun to the uninitiated than it actually is. I’d doubted the intelligence of combining the two ever since Meredith came up with the idea. A party far enough into the Smokies that nobody bothers us might sound like a good time, but both hiking and drinking require enough common sense to get through without seriously injuring yourself, and I’ve known enough people to prove common sense is anything but common.
I try to remind myself of Meredith’s finer points when I spot the electrical cord for a curler trailing out of her pack as she digs for a granola bar. Kavita sees it too and hides a smile. I decide not to tell her that outlets don’t grow on trees. I love Meredith. I swear I do. She’s just not on my apocalypse-survival team. I, on the other hand, am on everyone’s, despite the fact that I keep telling them that in any such scenario I’m striking out on my own because they’re deadweight.
“How much longer?” Meredith asks, and I realize she’s done me the favor of not asking until now.
I know better than to pull out my phone. There’s no more cell service out here than there is the magical electrical current that Meredith is relying on to fix her hair once we’re at the campsite. I take a second to get my bearings. The trek we’re on is a small leg of the Appalachian Trail, and I’ve gone it enough that a casual glance tells me where I am. I’d love to do the whole AT someday, when I’m older. Or have enough money for a decent kit. Whichever comes first. Probably the older part.
“The guys headed out yesterday,” I tell her, eyeing the heavy brush where it’s clear someone crashed off the path, probably to take a piss. “They wanted to fish for a bit and set up camp. It’s not far, maybe a mile. We’ll be able to hear them soon, drunk or sober.”
“Drunk, I bet,” Kavita says.
“Long as they save some for me,” Meredith says, coming to her feet with a rush of energy at the promise of beer. She gives me a smile, and I know I’m forgiven for being . . . myself.
“They’ll save some,” I assure her, knowing it’s true. If not, one of them will probably find a way to brew it on the spot. People like to keep Meredith happy, especially boys. It doesn’t matter if her hair looks perfect or not.
She just prefers it that way.
Meredith might not be on my apocalypse-survival team, but I’m probably not on her beauty-pageant roster either, so I guess we’ve all got our weapons. I might weigh mine before I head out on the trail so that I’m not carrying an ounce more than necessary, and she might keep hers in her bra, but we both get along, in our way.
“Last leg,” I reassure her as she winces, the blister she was nursing not twenty yards off the road undoubtedly like a hot needle at her heel.
“I’m fine,” she says, wiping the sweat from her brow.
And I think maybe I might put her on my apocalypse team as an alternate.
The boys are already lit when we get there, which is more than I can say for the fire. Their priorities definitely went in this order—beer, weed, boobs, fire, tent. The first two they supplied, we’ve brought the third, and I’m responsible for everything else. It doesn’t look like they went fishing yesterday, or much of anything other than get high and pass out in sleeping bags under the open sky.
“Ka—vit—a!” Jason lifts a bottle in her direction when we break into the clearing. He’s been shouting her name in public since she moved here as a freshman, something Meredith and I have both tried to tell her means he’s interested.
Her response is always, “Ja—son!” with the same tone he uses. He’s never known what to do with that, so they haven’t gone past introductions in two years.
“Hey,” Duke says when he spots me, adding an up-nod that must single me out as his girl to the other two guys with them, because they immediately gravitate to Meredith, but they probably would anyway.
She’s relieved of the burden of her backpack, given a chair, and manages to initiate the beginnings of the tents going up with a few words and a sly smile. I thank her silently and take a lawn chair next to Duke. At our feet is a pile of sticks they had half-heartedly tossed together, skipping the part where it turns into an actual fire.
“Who’re they?” I ask, taking a beer that he pulls from the cooler in between us.
“Couple of brothers. Stephanie’s cousins, I guess,” he says, pushing back his baseball hat to hold a cool can next to his forehead. “They’re visiting, and her mom said to bring them along.”
“They cool?” I ask, watching them struggle with a pop tent.
“Seem okay.” He shrugs, pausing a second before dropping something on me. “Natalie’s coming in later, with Steph.”
“Natalie,” I repeat, my mouth getting tight. I try to force it back into relaxation.
“That okay?” he asks.
“I don’t know, is it?” I shoot back. It doesn’t matter how I feel about his ex-girlfriend being here; it’s how he feels that I’m going to react to.
“Just don’t punch her, or anything,” Duke says. “I know that’s kind of your go-to.”
“Once,” I tell him, raising a finger. “Once, I punched someone on the basketball court. She’d been over my back all night, and they weren’t calling it.”
“Probably better your dad said no more contact sports,” Duke says, eyeing me over the top of his beer, a sly smile showing his crooked incisor. “Cross-country is a good fit for those legs, anyway.”
“Truth,” I agree, unable to stop my answering smile. “And a scholarship rolled up in it, so . . . cheers.”
“Cheers,” he says, touching his can to mine, but we don’t say much past that. The fact that my legs are taking me to college and his wallet won’t let him follow is something that we both know but haven’t talked about yet.
Duke is like this, a lifelong friend that suddenly became something else and knows how to call up that shared history while still making me a little loose in the knees. Meredith could say the same words to me, but she doesn’t have that dimple in her left check, or the glint in his eyes that’s entirely concentrated on me, making me care much less about the imminent arrival of his ex.
“When’s she coming?” I ask, leaning back in my chair.
“They weren’t even packed when we left, so Tom and Cory asked to come with me and Jason.”
“Packed?” I raise my eyebrow, and Duke huffs a small laugh.
“I know, right? Everybody’s acting like we’re going cross-country or something, not spending one night in the woods. Shit, I bet your pack weighs eight pounds.”
“Five,” I correct him. “And half that is tampons.”
He squeezes his eyes shut against that. “Nice, babe.”
“Hey, man, everybody menstruates.”
“Not me,” he says.
“But I bet I can make you bleed,” I tell him, getting a real smile.
“Definitely,” he agrees, and reaches out to rub the back of my neck.
It’s been like this our whole lives, a little push and pull for sure, but somewhere in between there’s a point where we meet, a place no one else is invited. We both grew up in the woods, aware that our friends had other toys like dolls and cars, video games and traveling sports teams our families couldn’t afford. We had rocks and sticks, patches of mud and vernal pools where long lines of mosquito larvae hatched.
We discovered this about each other not long after we started dating three months ago, and while it’s true we don’t always talk a lot, I feel the same way about Duke as I do about the woods. You don’t have to be making sounds to communicate, and there’s a lot that has passed between us under the stars and leaves that I would never say to anyone else, in words or otherwise.
Duke’s mind is following the same track because his hand trails down the edge of my arm to rub the inside of my wrist, the work-worn tips of his fingers leaving a tingling there I’m more than familiar with.
“So you’re . . .” He trails off, leaving an edge of disappointment in the air.
“Yeah, I’m bleeding,” I tell him. Growing up with just my dad taught me a long time ago that I’ve got to be blunt about that kind of stuff if I want tampons added to the grocery list.
“Sucks,” Duke says. “I kind of wanted to . . .”
“You only kind of wanted to?” I tease. “I’m not doing anything with a boy who only kind of—”
He cuts me off with a kiss, letting me know that he is more than a little interested in being alone with me, and I’m pretty invested in it too, if it weren’t for my current situation, the fact that somebody needs to start the fire, and that we have an audience.
“Ash—ley!” Jason yells at us from his rock perch overlooking the ridge, a fresh beer raised in toast to me. I push Duke back and flip Jason double birds.
“Later,” I tell Duke, to which he looks dubious. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” I remind him.
“Girl,” he breathes, pulling me close so that I can smell pine resin on him. “You are absolute shit at seduction.”
“We’re here, bitches!” Stephanie yells two hours later, Natalie trailing behind her.
“You’ve got the geography part right, anyway,” I hear Kavita mutter under her breath. Steph and Kavita have never exactly been close, but in a school as small as ours your friends are limited to people you can stand for small amounts of time. Affection is secondary.
“Hey,” Jason says, standing up awkwardly to greet the two girls. He’s unsteady on his feet, and I wonder why he made the effort until I get a good look at Natalie. She graduated last year and went off to cosmetology school, leaving Duke in the dust—but adding about fifteen pounds, most of it in her bra. Natalie had always been pretty, but right now she’s hot in a way we don’t usually see in our corner of the woods, and that extends past the actual limits of the state forest.
Most people here are run-down by thirty, shitty food and cheap beer sagging on their faces and adding to their bellies. The prom kings marry the homecoming queens and age together, telling each other they’re still the hottest thing going while checking out the younger generation to see what they’ve got to offer.
But it’s all the same faces in the end, old genes recycled into new skin. We’re used to looking at each other and spotting which side of the family your nose came from, or whose eyes you’ve got. Sometimes a family trait that isn’t technically in your tree pops up, and we all politely ignore it.
The weight she’s put on hasn’t only gone into her chest. Natalie’s got curves she didn’t have before, and damn if they don’t look good on her. She’s always had cheekbones you could cut yourself on, but somebody taught her how to use eyeliner, and it’s only made her genetic gifts more obvious. Her wide-set eyes always made her look innocent—and while that might have been true at one time, I can tell it’s not anymore. She wastes no time giving Duke the once-over, holding his gaze a second longer than she should.
In nature it’s the male that does the mating dances, but we somehow got that all backward; it’s us girls that learn to do the preening and positioning. And I can tell right off that Natalie’s learned more than how to do hair in the year since she left. I can see it in the way she tilts her body the second she spots Duke, a casual dip of her hip and twist of her shoulders, displaying what she’s got, bold as daylight.
I don’t like it, but I like less that he responds. It’s not something I could call him out on without looking like a total bitch, but it’s there. He keeps it cool, a nod and a wave that’s just two fingers lifted up, nothing more. But something primal inside of him is reaching out in response, and I can feel it, sure as shit, because it’s supposed to be directed at me.
And while I’ve got plenty of self-respect, the pie chart of my personality traits has a huge chunk marked logical, and I would never argue that I’m better-looking than Natalie. But there’s a large area of that chart marked hot-tempered, which is probably why Duke keeps his reaction under control.
“Took your time, coz,” one of Stephanie’s cousins says. I don’t know if it’s Tom or Cory, because I didn’t bother to sort out who was who when I got here and have put away a few beers since then.
“Doesn’t look like we missed much,” she shoots back, eyeing a pile of empty beer cans next to the fire that I finally got started after disentangling myself from Duke.
“You all know Natalie, right?” Stephanie says.
“Nat—a—lie!” Jason says, and Kavita promptly punches him in the back of the knee, which sends him sprawling. It’s the most interaction they’ve ever had, so he seems to take it as the compliment it’s meant to be.
“Natalie . . . that’s perfect,” Kavita says to me. On my other side, Meredith remains quiet, her eyes roaming up and down the intruder in her area. My friend is used to being the prettiest girl in the room, and I know what she’s doing as she dissects Natalie, trying to assess if her new curves are better than Meredith’s, if her skin is smoother now, or her hair glossier since she’s got 24/7 salon access. Whatever element Meredith finds herself the winner of, she’ll accentuate for the night.
Not that she’s got a lot of competition. Tom and Cory have been panting after her all night, but I know Meredith. She doesn’t care if all the boys think she’s the better catch or not—she wants Natalie to know it too. And because of that electrical line of attraction still hanging in the air between Duke and Natalie, I feel the same way.
“What’s going on?” Stephanie asks, plopping into an empty chair.
“Drinking,” Jason says, pulling himself up from the ground, where a mixture of beer and Kavita had landed him.
“That’s it?” Steph surveys our faces like it’s our duty to supply something better.
“What’d you expect?” Meredith bites back, her words slightly slurred. “A dance party? We’re in the woods.”
“Which was your idea,” Steph answers, cracking a beer despite her disappointment in it being the only entertainment.
“Wow, glad I made it,” Natalie says, taking the last seat. “You guys are a good time.”
“You almost didn’t,” either Tom or Cory says, motioning toward the horizon and the dying light there. “Sun goes down on you on this trail, you’re done.”
“It’s marked, dummy,” she says, tipping back her beer.
She’s right about that much. Though the trail out here is thin, there are white blazes painted on trees every few hundred feet. More than once on the way up I’d had to look for a blaze in the distance, the trail itself lost under new spring growth.
“How you gonna see if there’s no sun, genius?” Steph’s other cousin shoots back, but she lifts her phone and turns on the flashlight app, right into his eyes.
“And when the battery dies?”
It’s my voice, dead solemn. Duke’s hand is on me knee, and it flexes just a bit, whether in agreement or warning, I don’t know.
“I guess someone would have to come find me.” She shrugs, eyes gliding not so stealthily to my boyfriend.
“Vomit,” Meredith says.
“Twice,” Kavita agrees.
I don’t say anything, just open another beer and hope that insipid answer was enough to deter any interest Duke might have had. Then I notice his hand isn’t on my leg anymore, and I think maybe a girl’s survival skills aren’t that big of a deal when all you want to do is screw her anyway.
One of the brothers—I think it’s Tom—clears his throat and turns to Kavita. “So where you from?”
If he was looking to break the palpable tension that had spread over the group he picked the wrong person and the worst question. Kavita might not look like the rest of us, but she’s as Tennessee as we are, and is damn sick of any implication otherwise.
“Where you from?” he repeats.
“Here,” Kavita replies stonily, her beer can audibly crumpling in her hand.
“No, I mean originally.”
“She was born in Knoxville, asshole,” Jason says, something that takes everyone who knows him by surprise, since it’s a complete sentence.
“How’d you know that?” Kavita asks.
“You said, one time,” he answers, a blush that the growing shadows can’t quite hide spreading through his cheeks.
“Okay, but where are you, like, from?” Tom pushes, not picking up what the rest of us are throwing down.
“Jesus Christ, just tell him you’re from India,” Duke says, and I don’t know if it’s meant to be insulting to Tom or Kavita. And I don’t like that I don’t know.
“I’m not,” Kavita says stonily.
“I’ve got to pee,” Meredith says, turning to me. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I ask.
Natalie throws a stick onto the fire. “Yep,” she says. “Real glad I’m here.” And she smiles at Duke.
Which really makes me wish she wasn’t.
More beer doesn’t improve things, and a few hours later I’m well aware I need to get away from the fire before I hit someone. I don’t even know who it would be. Kavita has lapsed into a moody silence, though she did scoot a few inches closer to Jason, at which point he apparently held his breath and hasn’t let it out since. Duke is drinking so much so fast that his glances toward Natalie are getting long enough to verge into staring, and he’s not even trying to hide it. Meredith has both Tom and Cory captivated, which leaves me pissed at all three of them for some reason, and Stephanie has settled for making small talk with Natalie, a conversation mostly made up of giggling.
Meredith does a hair flip that I suddenly hate her for, along with the fresh eyeliner she snuck off to reapply before the sun went down. I try to get a grip on the rush of anger, reminding myself that Meredith is not a bad person. Under all that makeup is my friend, and she’s played point for me when I’m not in my element. Sophomore year someone nominated me for homecoming attendant and apparently enough people either agreed or thought it would be amusing to see me win that I actually did. I’m more comfortable with a backpack strap across my chest than a sash, so when Meredith helped me pick a dress, perfected my hair and face, and taught me how to walk in heels, it didn’t matter to me that it rained on the parade—literally.
I tried to tell everyone on the float that I smelled a storm and they should maybe put a tarp up, but the other girls didn’t like the idea of not being able to be seen from all sides. They didn’t like looking like drowned rats either, but that was their problem. I was happy enough to be right. Screw my hair.
I grind my teeth and finish the last of my beer, trying not to care that Duke has put some space between us as the night went on. We’ve never been clingy, and he’s always said that his favorite part about me is that I’m not a girly-girl. I don’t play with my hair when I talk or try to drink beer in a sexy way. My hair is usually in a ponytail to keep it out of my face, and the beer belongs in my gut in order to serve its purpose, so why be coy?
But all the stuff he’s always said he likes me not doing seems to look pretty good on Natalie, because all she’s done since she got here is toss her mane around and lick aluminum like it’s got some kind of nutritional content. It’s a show, put on for my boyfriend. And he’s watching.
I can be cool and let it slide. Duke likes that I’m low-drama and that I don’t freak when I see him checking out another girl, and he returns the favor by not giving me shit when I spend a lot of time at the boys’ pole vault during track season. Arms have always been a weakness of mine, and some of those guys have the best triceps I’ve ever seen. Better even than Duke’s, but that doesn’t change the fact his arms are my favorite, the only ones that have ever been around me, or touched me, skin to skin.
Out in the dark, something rustles.
It’s nothing, my bet is an old limb just fell, and the way Duke stays relaxed next to me I can tell he’s thinking the same. But Meredith shoots into the air like somebody set her ass on fire, and Natalie actually makes a move toward Duke, like maybe it’s his job to shield her.
“The fuck?” Jason says, alarmed even though he’s not sober enough to come to his feet to show it.
“It’s nothing,” I tell him.
“Nothing, like actually nothing?” Natalie asks. “Or nothing like that time Duke told me it was nothing and a bear ate all our food?”
I do not like thinking about the fact that Duke has taken Natalie camping and they probably only packed one sleeping bag. I like it less that Duke laughs at the memory.
“Oh my God,” he says, dimple flashing. “Your face when I unzipped the tent in the morning.” He mimics pure shock, and she leans over to smack his arm. I wince at the sound of their flesh meeting.
“It’s nothing,” I say again. “Actually nothing.”
“How you know?” Cory—I finally put a face to the name two beers ago—says to me. And by the way he looks at me, I think maybe if Duke had said it he would’ve just taken it as gospel. From me, it gets questioned.
“Because I know,” I tell him, putting what I’m thinking—This is my woods, pansy-ass—into my tone.
His brother doesn’t care for that.
“Could be something; could be anything,” Tom says. “What’d you say about bears?”
I look to Duke to clarify that what we just heard was not a bear, but catch him holding a hot, smoky stare with Natalie. I’m forcibly reminded that she’s who he lost his virginity to.
“Bears,” Cory repeats his brother. “Shit, yes, there’s bears. That’s what got Davey Beet, right?”
“You shut the fuck up.”
There’s a lot of pissed in my voice, and I don’t know how much of it is because of Duke and Natalie, and how much of it is for Davey Beet, but I’m pointing my beer at Cory with two fingers extended, which is pretty much how you start a fight around here.
“Dude, chill,” Cory says, hands in the air. “All I said was—”
“She knew him,” Duke says. “So shut the fuck up.”
“Oh . . .” Cory looks back at me, belated understanding dawning. “Sorry.”
I don’t respond, aware only that even though Duke backed me up, the distance between us just got wider at the mention of Davey Beet. I get up without saying anything, well aware that if I’m out here much longer somebody is going to get slapped. I’ve built a pyramid of beer cans beside my chair that topples over as I leave the fire ring, what was inside them now sloshing in my belly. At some point Jason and Kavita have disappeared, something that normally would’ve amused me, but right now I’m not finding much funny.
I unzip the tent that Duke and I have taken with us on too many trips to count, sometimes forgoing the canvas to have the stars look down on us. Tonight, I’m in it alone, the unnerving cluster of high-pitched laughter following me as I slip down to the ground, head cradled in my arms.
“What’s the story there, bro?” I hear Cory ask Duke. “Was she banging him?”
“Really? You’re going to ask her boyfriend that?” Meredith says, and I know she’s staring down Natalie when she says boyfriend.
The warm rush of affection I feel is quickly replaced by cold, like someone dropped an ice cube down my throat, when Duke says, “Naw, man. Nothing like that. She just fucking idolizes him.”
And then I hear him crush his beer can.
I don’t know if I pass out or what, but there’s a fair amount of drool on the side of my face when someone crashes beside me. I wipe it away, hoping I’m not too drunk to reclaim my boyfriend’s affections when I roll over to discover it’s Stephanie sprawled out beside me.
“Wrong tent,” I tell her, but she only groans in response.
“Hey.” I give her an elbow, and she slaps at my arm. The next poke gets zero response, so I know she’s out cold and there’s no point trying to move her. Besides, all the beer that was in my stomach has migrated south, and my bladder is on the verge of bursting.
I slip out of the tent, still drunk as hell but awake enough to zip it behind me so that Stephanie doesn’t freeze. It’s spring, and away from the fire the night air has a bite to it that she won’t welcome. If she can even feel it, that is.
A light breeze blows smoke in my eyes, the fire now down to embers and gray ashes, no one crouching near it for warmth any longer. I hear voices up toward the ridge, a mix of male and female, and assume that the others must have wandered there out from under the canopy to look at the stars.
More than once in my life I’ve wished that I were a boy, and every one of those times was when I had to take a piss outdoors. There’s no graceful way to go about it when you’re a girl. And right now I’m not at my most agile, so if I don’t want to smell like urine tomorrow I’m going to have to take everything below the waist off.
I start with my shoes, which apparently I passed out wearing, then strip off my socks. Having wet socks is the absolute worst, and if they’re soaked in your own piss that makes things about a thousand times more terrible. I’ve accidentally peed on my socks enough to know, and though Dad could help me with just about everything in life, that particular problem always left him baffled.
I’m far enough from the tents that I don’t think anyone is going to be able to hear me, so I strip down to my bare ass and crouch. Sure enough, I fall right over, enough beer still in my veins instead of my bladder to make me unsteady. I push myself back up and do what I came out here for, hoping I really did go far enough away that no one can hear because damn.
I’m zipping up my jeans when I hear something that’s not natural. Or, actually it is. It’s the most natural sound in the world, one you can’t hold back no matter how tight you close your throat, the guttural growl of physical pleasure leaking out so that the whole world knows you just had a good time.
I know that noise. And I know exactly who made it because I’m used to hearing it in my own ear, Duke’s body pressed tight to mine. I’m drunk enough that at first it’s a dead kind of feeling as I come up on them. Sticks snap under my feet, and I make no attempt to be quiet, since they didn’t either.
Duke is pulling his pants up over his ass, bare-chested, and Natalie’s shorts are still around her ankles as she sits up, pulling leaves out of her hair.
“What the fuck?” I say.
It’s a dumb-ass question. Nobody needs to tell me what was going on, and there aren’t any words to take it back or fix it. So Duke and I just stare at each other for a beat, Natalie still finger-combing her hair like it’s not her problem.
And I guess it isn’t, really. She’s not the person I want to punch, not the person who promised me good things and honest words. Not the person who told me we’d get out of here together, load the back of his truck up and just go. That wasn’t her; that was him.
“Ashley,” Duke says, taking a step toward me.
It’s all those good things I’m thinking about when my fist flies. I’m pissed, yeah, but not at this last bad thing. It’s all the good stuff I was relying on that just got taken away from me that makes me do it.
I know how to throw a punch. I know where to hit and how hard, my knuckles caving in the bridge of his nose as easily as dry leaves under my boots in the fall. I knock him clean off his feet, the impact jolting up to my elbow as Natalie pulls up her shorts and gets the hell out of there.
Duke just stares up at me, dark blood dripping onto his chest in twin rivers, his hands cupped over his broken nose. He doesn’t yell though. Doesn’t argue or call me a crazy bitch or anything I’ve heard other guys do when their girl gets up in their face about something they totally deserve to be dressed down for. Duke doesn’t do those things, because he’s taken beatings for stuff in his life that weren’t his fault, letting his dad’s fists rain down on him for leaving the trash cans on the curb even though it was his little brother that did it.
This is on him, and he knows it. So he took his beating, and now he’s just sitting there waiting for the rest, maybe a kick to the ribs or a ball-crushing from the arch of my foot. But I don’t have it in me anymore. All the rage pulsed out in that one savage arc that left the smell of blood in the air, tinged with the scent of sex soaking into the forest floor. It’s him I smell around me, every bodily fluid he’s got filling my nose as he starts crying tears to match mine, both of us hitching big sobs that can’t be put back inside.
“Ash . . .” He reaches for me, slow, like I’m an animal in one of his live traps that might bite. And that’s just what I am and exactly where I’ll be if I stay here one more second, because I can’t look at this boy who I hurt in return for hurting me. I can’t hear my name on his lips without loving it, even though another girl’s mouth was just crushed underneath them.
If I stay, he’ll stand up and I’ll go to him, fitting my head into that spot under his chin where I fit so perfectly. And, yeah, I’ll get blood on my face if I do that right now, but he’ll forgive me and I’ll do the same for him and I won’t ever have the courage to walk away because he’s the only boy I ever had for my own.
So I do what any scared animal does. I run.
I have no idea which direction I’m pointed or how far I’m going. All that’s important right now is that I go fast, away from Duke and the smell of him and her. I’m still barefoot, because I never bothered putting my shoes back on after hearing that low hum of satisfaction. Sticks are breaking under my feet, a good sharp jab going into the arch and stealing my breath, but not enough to make me stop crashing through the brush and tearing like a crazy woman down a ridge and back up another one.
It’s a good, hard fall that finally gets me. My bare toes jam underneath a boulder sticking out of the hillside, and the whole thing shifts. I throw myself to the side, pinned foot crushed as the boulder rolls. There’s a moment when my foot resists but then gives under the superior weight of the rock. It’s like stepping on a big spider or smacking a fat winter fly. There’s a moment of resistance and then . . . something gives. Except it’s no bug that just got crushed, but my own bones. The rock tears downhill, taking out saplings as it goes, but I’m stopped for good as the pain takes hold, puncturing the drunkenness.
I try to stand but pitch forward instead, grabbing for a tree so that I don’t roll downhill along with the rock. I hit the ground again, a knotty root getting me right in the stomach so that I’m lying facedown in a cloud of my own stale breath, shoeless.
“Fuck,” I manage to say, rolling over so that I can get a good lungful of air. The first one hurts, like it always does after a good punch to the gut. But I pull it in anyway, forcing everything in there to open up and keep going.
The moon stares down at me from an angle that says daylight’s a long way off. I don’t know how far I ran or which way the camp is. Yelling for my friends and Duke is going to bring a lot of questions about why I took off and what happened to his nose, and where had he and Natalie gone off to in the first place, and why.
I don’t feel like answering those questions right now, maybe not ever, so I pull myself the rest of the way up the ridge and take a look at my foot. It’s smashed to shit, my little toe nearly flat and the two next to it scraped wide-open. It’s dark, and I’m too drunk to feel much, but I know I’ll be hurting in the morning. It’s still bleeding freely, so I pull my shirt off and wrap it around my foot, knowing full well it needs cleaning, but I’m in no shape to do it.
The adrenaline that sent me into a mad dash has faded, and the beer in my bloodstream is reasserting itself, fading the edges of my vision and telling me to lie back down, fast. There’s a stick in my back, and the wind blows a leaf right into my cleavage, frayed edges crackling against my skin as I roll onto my side, exhaustion claiming me. I’ll find everyone in the morning, face Duke and their questions and Natalie’s snide smiles. Right now all I’ve got is self-pity and a throbbing pain in my foot, so I let both take me down into unconsciousness.
Because it’s so much better than being aware right now.