Gunner—Ten Years Ago
Fire crackled and hissed over the tower of burning logs. Sparks jumped from the flames and floated to the ground, singeing the dry grass. It hadn’t rained a drop in over a month. I tilted the neck of the amber beer bottle toward my lips and let the cool liquid wash down my throat.
“On the count of three,” Marissa shouted, raising her maroon cap in the air.
We’d walked across the graduation stage only hours earlier, and the weird combination of nostalgia and power was taking over my now ex-classmates. A group of girls to my left stood with their arms around each other and silent tears tracking down their faces. On my right was a mixture of guys and girls, but they weren’t shedding tears and they weren’t reminiscing. They were foaming at the mouth, with their graduation caps clenched in their hands, ready for the three count.
“One,” everyone shouted at the same time.
I flicked my itchy polyester graduation cap toward the flames along with everyone else. The fire hungrily grabbed the hats that landed on the bonfire. A few caps fell short and littered the ground around the towering Jenga-like structure that I’d helped build with some of the guys.
“Are you packed?” Declan bumped my shoulder with his beer bottle.
I tugged at the chain around my neck and shrugged. Tomorrow was the day I’d been waiting for and dreaming about since I played T-ball. Declan had been waiting for this day too. We’d been talking about it for as long as I could remember, and it was happening tomorrow night. We weren’t heading off to college like our classmates. We were taking a completely different path.
“Mostly. My mom had my suit pressed at the dry cleaners. We’re picking it up in the morning on the way to the airport. You?”
“Brother, I’ve been packed for days. There’s no way I’m sleeping tonight. I’m ready to go and leave all this shit behind. Except Makenna. I can’t believe we’re going to be on different teams. It’ll be weird crouching behind home plate and not being able to see your ugly mug in the outfield.”
“You don’t know that we won’t be on the same team.” I scratched the label on the bottle with my thumb and turned my attention toward the flames. They were jetting out of some of the holes in the bonfire. It was twice my height. We’d used ladders to build it and kept stacking until it started swaying.
“I know we’re both going first round.”
“No, you don’t.” I pulled at the chain around my neck again.
“Yeah, I do. Who the fuck wouldn’t want us? We’re going first round. I’ve been practicing the face I’ll make when my name is called.”
“I just want my name to be called,” I muttered and took a long swallow of beer.
“It will be.” Declan pushed my shoulder. “Check it out. Which do you think is best?”
I turned toward him and tucked a hand into my pocket while raising an eyebrow. He rubbed his hands in front of him and tilted his face toward the ground, sucking in a deep breath, preparing himself. Just before he spoke he whipped his head around, staring across the field past the bonfire. I followed his gaze, spotting Makenna, Declan’s longtime girlfriend. She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, shooting him a smile. He winked and placed a hand over his heart. I snorted. “I don’t know how she puts up with you.”
“Yeah, I’m definitely playing out of my league with her,” he said and turned his attention back toward me. The corner of his lip twitched before he whispered, “Call out my name.”
“Kinky.” I laughed.
“Shut the fuck up. You wish you could get someone as sexy as me. Just say my name.”
“Declan Young,” I said dryly.
Declan looked up. “With a little more enthusiasm.”
Declan’s head popped up as he put his hand over his heart and looked around, turning his head from left to right. His mouth dropped open and his eyes were wide.
“How was that?” he asked. “It’s a little over the top, but if the cameras are on me, I really want to sell it.”
“Don’t do that,” I said, chuckling and shoving his shoulder as I shook my head. “You look like an ass.”
“It’ll be better than you.” His eyebrows drew in and he mocked a serious scowl. I punched his arm and laughed. The weight that’d been hanging around my neck all day disappeared. He’d always been able to do this, bring me out of whatever funk I was in.
After my dad died, I thought I would never laugh again, but Declan, my best friend since before we could talk, kept making an ass out of himself until I did.
“Cradle to grave,” he said, holding out his fist for a bump.
“Sandbox to the pine box.”
“Home plate to center field,” he finished. I clinked my beer against his and turned back to the fire, taking in the scene around me. It was surreal to have two paths in front of me. The MLB draft or college. If my name was called tomorrow, I’d sign the contract, no matter what team had chosen me, but if it wasn’t, I’d keep my commitment to Louisiana State University.
Declan was the same. We were both committed to LSU if neither of us was drafted.
Logs shifted on the bonfire pile, causing the fire to roar even higher into the sky. Shitty graduation caps were still holding it together in the flames, charring along the edges and slowly burning toward the center.
A loud crack snapped through the air, and a girl screamed. I looked at the bonfire. A branch had snapped under the weight of the others. The crowd hushed. And for a moment the only noises in the field were the country song playing through the speakers and the fire snapping harshly in a slight breeze.
For just a moment time stood still as every pair of eyes focused on the same thing. I broke eye contact with the bonfire and looked at Declan. His face turned toward mine, and confusion was replaced by shock.
And then my world became searing pain at the top of my head and intense and suffocating heat burning my skin and lungs. Weight crashed down on top of me, but my vision was too blurry to see—before my entire world went black.
“He’s barely breathing,” a harsh voice said, breaking me from my sleep. Fingertips were pressed against my neck, and solid weight was on top of me. Heat was still scalding me on all sides. “We have to remove the body from on top of him.”
My eyes slowly opened and settled on the burned face of my best friend. My brother. The single person I trusted most in this world. His face was almost beyond recognition, but I’d spent enough of my life next to him that I would recognize him anywhere. My mind couldn’t focus on the pain or the tiny piece of my brain that was alerting me that our skin was burned and stuck together. The only thing I could focus on was his eyes. His blank blue gaze was on me, but his eyes were unmoving.
Want to know what happens next? Get ready to meet Delilah and Gunner!