Hot, stuffy air surrounded him, its familiarity bringing him a strange sort of comfort. Jasper opened his eyes just to make sure everything else about the room was normal. His eyes darted over the dark room, and as he exhaled he let himself sink deeper into the mattress. All was well. Then his eyes landed on the photo on the wall across from where he lay. An odd shaped image was reflected in the glass of the frame, next to the boy on the horse. Was it an item in the room? As his eyes dilated further the dark image came into focus.
Jasper’s heart skipped a beat. The image was in the shape of a person. And he could just make out the features in the reflection enough to know that the person was none other than Brody Baxter.
Only one of two options was possible at this moment: one, Jasper was seeing a ghost, or two, his mind had gone off the deep end. It had to be the latter, though the prospect wasn’t comforting. Surely this place was messing with his head. These thoughts all went through his brain before he gathered the courage to sit up and look behind him to where the boy would be standing if the image rendered the truth.
Heart hammering in his chest, Jasper pushed himself up off the bed using his elbows and slowly turned around, his vacillating eyes following behind his head.
The familiar voice projected from the empty wall that his eyes had landed on. He continued to look around in the darkness, expecting to see him, but it was only the voice. Finally he looked at the photo again. There! Brody’s reflection was still there! Jasper whipped his head back around to the wall but found no boy. He quickly looked at the picture again. The image remained, mocking him.
“Hello?” Jasper managed. His voice came out barely above a whisper. “Hello?” he said louder this time. He stared at the image in the glass. “Where are you? Are you real?”
“That’s only a question you can ask yourself.” It was Brody’s pubescent voice.
“No, no, I’m not going crazy. Why are you here?”
The image in the glass shifted its weight.
“You know why I’m here, Jase. Unless you wanna believe I’m not, because that may be easier for you to accept than the truth.”
“That my dad was devastated when you never came back or even tried to call after the accident. You were like a son to him, you know. You could have saved him a lot of heartache.” Brody paused as Jasper’s chest tightened at his harsh words. “Also that my mom blames you for my death. After all, I’d been on my way to see you when it happened. I had to see you—I didn’t know who else to go to when my parents fought like that…”
You had been on your way to see me? On a bike?! And I can’t remember your parents ever fighting.
“And Jasper…” Brody’s voice suddenly changed, shifting into a deeper and more baleful version of the youthful timbre. “The truth is, you’re a failure. You’ve failed all of us…”
Unable to take in any more, Jasper clamped his hands over his ears and shut his eyes, letting out a raw yell. Frankly he didn’t care at the moment if anyone heard him. He just had to get rid of this voice, this image, this terror. His chest constricted again, as if it were dough being kneaded into a tight wad.
A quick hum like a dark being thrown split through the sound of his scream. The noise was immediately followed by a sensation reminiscent of a clamp around his chest, as if a giant claw had seized his entire upper torso. Jasper panicked and opened his eyes. He was alone in the dark room, but something had changed. A faint glow flickered around him. But the light was dark like midnight blue. He couldn’t decipher the origin of the light because he saw that it only surrounded his body, as if he himself were—
Jasper looked down at his chest and to his horror saw that the dark light seemed to come from under his shirt. He quickly tore off the shirt and placed a hand on the exposed skin right over his heart. His eyes made out a word that looked like a glowing tattoo emblazoned on his skin. Renegade.
Jasper’s mind frantically groped for reason, but his body told him none was to be found. If his eyes betrayed him, the tightness in his torso did not, and neither did the truth resounding through the stamp on his skin. He could only hope this was a nightmare; but even if it was, would he ever be able to escape the reality of who he was? He was a renegade, a turncoat, a traitor on the run from his guilt. But it had found him, here at Promise River Ranch in the middle of Oklahoma, and no matter how far he ran or how secluded he became, it would always be his constant companion.
Jasper screamed again and dug his fingernails into the word on his chest, heaving. He tore at it, yet the action only drew blood but left the word intact. Jasper screamed against the pain and the hopelessness that ravaged his body and mind. He didn’t realize he had eventually fallen asleep until sunlight filtering in through the one small window in the room made his eyes flutter open. All the memories came rushing back as if they had just happened. But surely he had slept through the night? He sat up dazed and confused, blinking slowly a few times to allow his eyes to refocus.
He instinctively looked down at his bare chest. The word was gone but his skin glistened with sweat. So it had been a dream, then. Jasper looked down at the floor and saw his rumpled polo shirt by the bed. Everything that he had spoken or done last night happened, but the boy and the word had to be figments of his imagination. He suddenly had a strong yearning for fresh air. He needed to clear his mind and somehow assure himself that he wasn’t losing it, that he could still go on as if nothing happened. That nothing around him had changed even though his insides had decided to go to war.
His entire body felt wet—this heat was treacherous but he knew it was more than just the humidity causing him to sweat profusely. Jasper could feel the moisture seeping through the bandage around his head, particularly in the back. He needed a shower, he thought, and perhaps a dressing change. Jasper swung his legs to the floor and reached a hand to the back of the band around his head as pain shot through his brain and his vision swam. He pulled his fingers away wet, and when he got a glimpse at them he saw that the liquid was red.
Crap. I’m bleeding.
Jasper figured that the terror he had experienced last night created enough stress in his body to make the wound on his head open up and discharge more blood. He pushed himself off the bed using a hand on the mattress to steady himself. Stars dotted his sight but he didn’t black out, so he just waited a moment and then slowly bent down and retrieved the black polo he had hastily thrown to the wood floor the night before. He pulled it on and took a deep breath. He was still wearing his boots, having never bothered to take them off. Jasper quickly grabbed his travel sized toothpaste and shampoo plus a razor from his bag and walked toward the door.
As he made his way down the stairs, he realized he had no idea what time it was, only that it was day, judging by the sun. It seemed that no time had passed between his “dream” and now, but he knew somehow it had. His foot hesitated stepping onto the level floor at the bottom of the stairwell as he thought of the family. To say he wasn’t presentable was an understatement, the fact accentuated by his sweating and bleeding. Had they heard his screams at all last night or had they still been preoccupied with the fireworks display at the time? How would he explain? He let his right foot fall to the floor and his left followed. He would head to the bathroom for a shower and try to avoid an exchange with anyone until that task was complete.
As it turned out, Jasper was lucky. The house was as abandoned as it had been last night after he had left the celebration and went to his room alone. It was both relieving and unnerving. As he passed through the living area to get to the bathroom, he could smell the lingering scents of breakfast floating in from the kitchen to his right. Eggs. Sausage. Pancakes, maybe? And coffee. His stomach grumbled impatiently. There was an eeriness in the emptiness and silence of the living room and the house. On a stand next to a large leather armchair a bulky book lay open exposing tiny lettering, and next to it a half full mug of coffee. It was as if the place had been abandoned on short notice. Jasper shook the ridiculous notion and walked to the bathroom.
His eyes remained fixed on the shower drain as the steaming water spilled down over his body. Red swirls mixed with the draining water. Though his head throbbed under the hot rain, he figured that a good cleansing was what his wound needed the most, so he gently massaged the back of his head attempting to remove all last traces of blood. It had bled last night into Flint’s bandage, but at some point it had coagulated.
Jasper let his body relax under the weight of the water, let it wash him of his journey. He hadn’t been so fortunate to have such a nice shower until now. As the drain thirstily drank up the water, he closed his eyes and let it take the memories of last night with it. He had been too worked up, and being at this ranch was stirring up some old memories, that was all. He trusted it wouldn’t happen again. It was best to forget and to move on.