I FLICKED A cigarette butt into the dried-up concrete bird bath at Triangle Park. It landed a couple of inches away from the previous one.
A tiny ant crawled across the top of the picnic bench where I was sitting, struggling blindly to figure out where it was going in the wind. I considered squashing it with my thumb for a second—putting it out of its misery—but then I decided against it and let it continue on its way.
Leaning forward, I pulled my pack of cigarettes out of my back pocket. I took one out and spun it slowly between my fingers. I stared into the box, counting how many I had left. Five.
It was ten in the morning. I'd gotten to the park and started smoking at nine. I'd checked my wallet when I'd smoked the previous one, so I knew I had about ten dollars. Since a pack of cigarettes was eight dollars and change, that meant I could afford one more.
I flipped on my lighter, watching the flame dance for a second before the wind snuffed it out. I lit it again, this time shielding the fire with my hand long enough to light my cigarette. I put it in my mouth, and the end glowed red as I drew oxygen through it.
The wind stormed through the pine trees, shaking them and making them moan like they were crying. No one ever came to Triangle Park. It was too small for any useful outdoor activities, and too close to the street for any illicit ones. The entire green space was an isosceles triangle. The short leg butted up against a block of residential houses. Main Street ran along one of the longer edges, and pines bordered the other.
The only time you ever saw people in Triangle Park was Millstone Day, which was a horrible made-up holiday in May. The town's parade route went down Main Street, finally ending up in the park. I doubted the parade was happening this year, but I had never really liked it anyway, so it wasn't like it mattered.
I coughed as smoke drifted out of my lungs and towards the houses on my right. My leg pulsed in pain, but an angry calmness had taken over me since I'd watched the sun rise that morning. I wasn't going to give my injury any satisfaction by moaning about it.
The sound of feet shuffling through dead grass drifted towards me. I didn't turn to see who it was. I figured the spot was open enough that someone would find me here eventually, but as long as it wasn't Joshua, I didn't much care who. Joshua wouldn't be coming after me anyway, or at least not yet. If he'd wanted to do something to me, he would have done it at the gas station last night. If he'd wanted me dead, he wouldn't have checked to make sure I wasn't home before he burned down the house.
Joshua wanted me alive... but for what I had no idea.
The picnic bench creaked as I felt someone sit down next to me. I turned to look. Vee sat there quietly, staring out into the woods in front of us.
"Hey," she finally said, making eye contact as she tucked her scarlet hair behind her ears, trying to keep the wind from blowing it in her face. It didn't help much. Strands of it flew everywhere, the wind tangling them together into a rat's nest.
I held out my pack of cigarettes, offering her one without saying anything. She slid one out of the box and put it in her mouth. I lit it for her off the end of mine, and then we smoked in silence for a few minutes.
"How did you find me here?" I finally asked.
"Your car is parked on the street over there." She gestured behind herself as a plume of smoke drifted out of her mouth. She coughed. "You didn't get very close to the curb, Harper. It's going to get hit."
She leaned over towards me, placing her hand on my shoulder. She kissed me lightly on the cheek. Her lips felt warm. "I'm sorry," she whispered after she pulled away.
"It's not your fault," I told her.
She didn't say anything else. She put her arm around me and held me. If I'd had any tears left, I probably would have started crying again, but I didn't. The physical contact felt nice, even though it was brief. After another minute passed, she pulled away and went back to smoking her cigarette. I finished mine. I tossed it into the bird bath along with the rest, coughing heavily and wheezing as I tried to catch my breath.
"I talked to Gina this morning," Vee finally broke the silence, staring off into the pines and not looking at me. "She said you ran out of the gas station last night. Said she tried to go after you. Looked for you for an hour but couldn't find you."
I didn't say anything in response. I didn't look at her.
"What the hell were you and Jeremey into, Harper?"
I snapped my eyes to her at that. She stared at me, her gaze burning through me.
"I don't want to talk about it," I replied stoically. Mechanically. I looked down at my feet. I kicked at the dirt with my good leg, knocking a small rock a couple of inches across the grass.
She looked down too. "What happened to your ankle?"
"It's nothing. Just a dog bite. I'm fine." I crossed my bad leg behind the other one in a poor attempt to hide the injury.
"Are you sure?" She adjusted herself like she was about to stand up. "Let me look at it."
"I said it's fine," I replied sternly.
She backed off, and we were silent for another minute or two while she finished her cigarette. She put it out on the picnic table and then tossed it into the bird bath along with mine. She met my eyes again. "Harper, is there anything I can do to help?"
I sighed heavily and ran my fingers back through my hair, considering how I wanted to handle her question. I brought my hand to my face, pressing my thumb and index finger into the corners of my eyes. "Everything I own burned up in the fire," I finally started. "All I have left are the things I had in my car, and they aren't much. I had a fair bit of cash saved up, but that was all at the house, so it's gone now too." I exhaled heavily. My breath condensed in the cold air in front of me like a ghost, trailing off into the wind. "I've only got ten dollars right now."
I looked at Vee and tried to read her. Her eyebrows were turned down in a frown, and she pouted slightly. She was calm, listening to me.
"I can't afford food," I continued. "I slept in my car last night. It was... cold. I get paid on Friday, so you know I'm good for it, but do you think I could borrow some money? Just so I can get something to eat and a hotel room?" The wind gusted through the park, shaking the trees in the woods. Vee shivered, and I pulled my sweatshirt tight around myself. I'd been shivering for so long that my body was sore from it and had given up the futile attempts to keep warm. "I don't want to have to sleep in my car again."
Vee was silent for a second. Finally, she asked, "About how much money do you think you need?"
I paused before I answered, pretending that I was checking a calculation in my head. "I was thinking about $430."
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•• Wattys 2018 Winner •• Wattpad Featured Story •• One day, a wind blew into the town of Millstone and didn't stop. Slowly people moved away. It was like the town was trying to clear itself out, as though it was preparing for something sinister. Whe...