THE PAST LIFE OF JASE BYRNE
Word Count: 65,436
I shield my eyes from the light coming from the lake. It’s blinding me. Ok, not really, but almost. Maybe it’s part of an alien spaceship that crash-landed in my tiny North Carolina town. Or a laser from a missile that’s obviously way off course.
I cross my fingers for luck, say a little “please be something awesome” prayer, and walk to the edge for a better look. My sneakers sink into the mud, but that’s not going to stop me. I go further, reach in, and pull the object out of the muck. Then I step into the freezing water to rinse it off. It’s a gray metal box, dented, and really, really old, probably as old as my parents, but still worth keeping. My fingers tingle when I think of all the things that’ll fit inside: Legos, money, and candy. And, I can hide it in my jacket pocket. It’s the ultimate cure for the boredom of parental errands.
My jeans are wet and muddy, but it’s all in the interest of exploration. At least that’s what I’ll tell my parents when they complain. What did they want me to do anyway, sit and watch Mom’s scrapbook party? It’s just a bunch of mothers drinking coffee and passing around embarrassing pictures. My cheeks get warm when I think about the one of me in the bathtub.
I examine each side of the box, the gold lock, and initials. Too bad they aren’t JB because everyone would think it’s for my name, Jase Byrne. I trace the ET engraved on top; a coldness touches my fingertip, then creeps through my hand and up my arm. An icy breeze tickles my neck, and I whip around. No one’s there.
I’m fumbling with the lock that refuses to open when a booming voice invades my peaceful afternoon. My hands freeze.
It’s the enemy.
“Hey Jase, let me ask you something. Are you sure you’re eleven, because my five-year-old cousin is bigger than you,” Luke taunts.
“Yeah, and can beat him up too,” Ross says and laughs like his friend is some big comedian.
There they are, near the street, in faded jeans that sag so low, if they bend over, they’ll show things no fifth grader wants to see.
“Ha ha, you’re so funny, Luke.” I turn and stuff the box in my pocket. “Don’t you have candy to steal from little kids or something?”
Oh man, did I say that out loud? Why do I tease a kid who’s made it really clear he wants to kill me? And now it’s two against one.
Luke and Ross stand there, two bulldozers ready to dig a hole and bury me. It doesn’t need to be a big one, just one little scoop out of the ground. Maybe I’ll be lucky and only get a face full of mud, or a couple broken bones. Still, it’s more than I want.
Time to find an escape route. First choice is the street, but the boys block my way. I can swim across the lake, but even though the sun is shining, it’s still January, and that brings up the issue of freezing to death.
Luke and Ross walk toward me.
I back up and consider my options again. The street and the lake. A voice in my head whispers, there is a third choice.
“Hey Jase, you wanna go swimming? What do you think Ross, you take his arms and I’ll take his legs?”
“Yeah Luke, great idea. In the lake,” Ross says.
“There’s nowhere else for you to go, Jase.”
Even Luke doesn’t want to think about choice three.
No one goes there.
My stomach churns at the thought. The tunnel itself isn’t the problem; it’s where it ends up that worries me. The woods. Where ghosts and zombies live, and where things happen to anyone who goes there. At least that’s what the rumor is. I heard it from my best friend’s sister, who heard it from her boyfriend’s cousin. Supposedly, a headless girl walks around searching for a new head. And then there’s the coal miner with a pickax. I haven’t believed in that kind of stuff since I was a little kid. But, what if I’m wrong?
The boys move closer; their claws ready for action.
My feet start to freeze in the lake. There’s no other choice. I zip my jacket all the way up and put the hood on to hide my head. A kid can never be too careful. I scamper out of the lake and scoot along the edge into the tunnel’s entrance.
“Hey, where are you going?” Luke yells.
Except for the squish of my sneakers, I’m quiet. I don’t even breathe. I focus more on the path than who’s behind me, or what’s in front. I step over jagged rocks, use the concrete walls for support, and try not to look at the spray-painted pictures of women on them. Except to make sure my hands don’t land on a place they shouldn’t. Maybe they’ll slow Luke and Ross down, but chances are they’ve already seen stuff like this.
“We’re going to follow him in there?” Ross asks.
“What are you scared or something? You’re going to let him go in and be braver than you? Jase, the kid who’d run from a baby in a stroller?”
I would not! Unless you were trying to run me over with it.
“Relax, Ross. Look at this lady, she’s beautiful,” Luke says.
I let out my breath. Luke is so predictable.
“Quit it,” Ross says. “How can you make jokes? Aren’t you scared?”
“No way. Hey Jase, watch out for the boogeyman!” Luke yells.
I freeze and peek over my shoulder. Luke’s practically drooling, probably with the idea of pounding me into the ground. It’s too late to turn back, but I really don’t want to go forward. I look toward the woods hoping to see something inviting. Sunshine, flowers, anything. But it’s dark, and most of the trees are dead. My stomach’s doing flip-flops now. The cement walls are closing in. I have to get out of here.
I run through the tunnel and stop at the end. The path leads deeper into the woods, probably the way the zombies want their prey to go. Lure them into the darkness, snatch them, and suck out their brains. I pull my hood tighter, put my hands in the pockets, and take a deep breath. Then I step off the path.
The rocks turn to leaves and twigs, and I bolt like a racehorse. I leap over logs. Dart around trees. Dodge hanging vines. Behind me are muffled voices. I look back, expecting to see the boys, or maybe the headless girl, but no one jumps out. Still, I run faster, alongside a creek and past groups of rocks. Deeper and deeper into the woods, where the sun won’t go and a blue fog floats through the trees.
There’s a bush full of leaves and I collapse behind it. I take deep breaths to calm myself and try to blend in with the ground. It’s not the best spot, sharp rocks poke all the wrong places and bugs give me the evil eye, but considering the alternative, it’s heaven. I settle in and peer through the branches for any sign of my enemies.
“Do ya mind, kid? Yer squatin’ on me grave.”