Excerpt: The Pyre Starter

Two more steps, and it would be over. Though his tears fell few and far between, some rolled down his cheeks now. He made no attempt to wipe them away. Only two more steps, he told himself, staring down at his worn sneakers. Just two more.

He heard the rumble and whine of a familiar motorcycle in the distance. One of those plastic Japanese things. A step up from a bicycle attached to a lawnmower engine. Despite all his attempts to slip out of that aging concrete prison undetected, he failed. He failed at so many things. Why not add one more? But the path to this secluded spot was thick and covered in thorny weeds. With his bad knee, Terrell would have an awful time getting through it, even if he knew where he was going.

Terrell. Fucking bastard, he thought. Only one person on campus owned a machine that sounded like that, and he doubted it was a townie.

His head dropped, and he squeezed his eyelids shut. He silently hoped that the art history major, two levels his senior, wouldn’t arrive before he finished talking himself into it. He thought about taking another swig of the cheap bottle of brown battery acid, but his weak stomach kept twisting into knots. What a waste of the money his sister sent! In a store, that bottle would be worth one-third what he paid his roommate’s drunk girlfriend. And it didn’t even taste good. Last thing on earth to go into his system, and he didn’t enjoy it at all.

The plan, to quiet the one remaining internal voice that said he shouldn’t make the dive, didn’t appear all that successful. Wouldn’t people miss him? The handful of friends? His sister? No matter how busy she was raising her family, she would. Over the last year, she invited him to holidays and dinners and even a vacation. She tried to fold him into her life. She was the best family he had, she always reminded him. And what would she be without her baby brother?

Better off. He didn’t go to class, didn’t care about his grades. He never called her even though she worried all the time. When she sent him money and supplies, he simply blew through them as fast as he could. Only one thing on the whole planet made him even remotely happy. The clueless stare of an unattainable love interest, who became the unwitting subject of countless impossible fantasies.

Otherwise, he hated this place almost as much as himself. Rich kids, cliques, meaningless bullshit treated like actual life problems. His fellow students just wanted to party and work as little as possible to earn a piece of paper.

He couldn’t be more different from his assigned roommate, the sports hero. One hundred percent white, affluent, and sociable. The guy had an on-campus girlfriend within a few days of arrival and an endless supply of friends. Everybody liked him and wanted to get to know him. He was nice enough, leaving the cohabitating hermit to his own devices. Meanwhile, his counterpart could barely be compelled to put on unwrinkled clothes most days. Apart from the rare occasion where he attended class, he only left the dorm for food and a half-assed attempt to socialize once a week. At a student club, of all things.

“Dakota?!” called a voice from the forest behind him. It was close. A lot closer than he’d hoped Terrell would be this soon. He didn’t want any witnesses. In fact, he hoped no one would ever find him, or if they did, the only thing left would be a few unrecognizable bones scattered amongst the rocks.

If he really intended on jumping, he’d better do it now. No way would that nosy jackass—arguably one of the few acquaintances Dakota managed to make since arriving on campus—no way was he going to let him die. Hell, he’d obviously followed him all the way here. For what reason, the freshman had no clue. The two hadn’t known each other for very long, and he’d tried to leave without alerting anyone. But Terrell was an active member of the one group Dakota had any interest in, and he’d labored extensively to ensure Dakota felt welcomed. Perhaps he’d gone looking for the younger student at exactly the worst possible time.

“Uh, ‘If I could free my hands,'” he said to the dry riverbed beneath him. A line from his favorite story that he’d rehearsed for this moment. “‘I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream.'”

With a sigh, he took a small step forward and then one more into the air. It was something like seventy meters to the ground. More than enough to kill him.

But his hurried trip toward certain demise was abruptly halted by a fleshy hook, which snagged him across the chest and under one arm. The culprit let out a cry of pain as his knee—forever damaged thanks to some sort of violent accident in his teens—connected with one of the railroad ties. But his grip didn’t loosen, even with Dakota struggling to free himself and plummet the rest of the way down.

“You fucking asshole!” he shouted with a voice that cracked. “Terrell! You stupid piece of shit, let me go!”

This “good” Samaritan was no athlete. No pretty boy with a hoard of groupies. His various permanent injuries, mostly to the right side of his body, disabled him, and the cold November weather probably worsened it. On a good day, he still walked with an obvious limp, and while his damaged arm worked somewhat, it rested lifelessly on his leg or a desk whenever he sat down.

But he was at least forty pounds heavier and five inches taller, and he leveraged himself against a rusty rail so that he wouldn’t tumble over the edge, too.

It was his fully functional arm that grabbed Dakota by the abdomen and began hauling him back up to the bridge platform. Terrell groaned and winced at the clear pain this act caused, but he didn’t relent, and the suicidal young man soon lay on his side between the old steel train tracks. He was “safe” for now. No freight engine had crossed this aging wooden structure in almost a decade. And Terrell wasn’t about to let him make another attempt. “Sorry, man, I can’t let you do that.”

“Why the fuck not?!” His hands began searching for that neglected bottle of liquor. He may not have liked the taste, but he could at least throw it at the do-gooder who thwarted his plans.

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