You walk up the gravel driveway, the small gray stones crunching beneath your boots. The sun is hot and beats down on the back of your neck, stinging your skin. Sweat beads along your brow, though not from the August heat alone – you are nervous, terrified. The future scares you most of all, but this moment, right now, seems as dangerous as whatever will happen when they arrive.

The house is exactly how you remember. Her brother’s pickup parked haphazardly underneath the sprawling apple tree; the green lawns perfectly trimmed and the hedges exactly square, thanks to her father’s pedantic obsession with gardening.

The purple door is new. It was the last thing you saw when you stormed out of the house, and your knuckles still hurt from where you punched through the inset window. This door is solid timber – a better choice.

You stand on the porch, your heart fluttering nervously.

You don’t have much time. They are coming for you, and quickly. It is now or never, but never seems like much better than right now. You raise your fist – your good one – and hover over the door, your insides squirming.

The bench seat is right beside you. The place where you first kissed her while the Fourth of July turned the skies into an explosion of light and color – you don’t remember much of the fireworks, but you remember her mouth on your lips, the smell of her hair; the almost indescribable way that you had felt completely safe. As though she was the missing piece to your life, and without her, you would be broken and lost.

The way you feel now.

You knock twice.

You regret the action immediately. You turn around, cursing yourself for wasting this much time, for detouring so far and risking so much. It was stupid and misguided. She’s probably not at home, and even if she was, what would you say? It’s pointless.

You turn around, the sunlight sapping your energy almost immediately. Your crappy, stolen sedan is right where you left it, the keys still in the ignition. Ready for a quick getaway, though the half-tank of gas won’t get you much further than the interstate.

You should have been long gone already. So why are you still here?

Crunch goes the gravel beneath your feet.

“Ashton?”

Her voice stops you dead. Her tone trembles when she says your name. You can’t see her yet, but you can picture her, and your knees shake. Part of you cringes, desperately wanting to get back into the sedan. It’s only twenty feet away, and they’re closing in on you – is that your imagination, or can you hear the sirens?

The other part of you, the part that didn’t break the door, the part that didn’t drive out into the woods with a shovel on the backseat and a bodybag in the trunk; the part that remembers the Fourth of July two year ago and almost every day after that until the night when she was crying at the kitchen table, begging you to leave — that part forces you to turn around.

The sunlight catches her hair and throws a golden glow against the purple door. Your heart hitches in your throat, and you can’t help but stare at her, standing in a white dress with a blue sash around her waist. You can’t remember why you came anymore. Perhaps it was just for this moment, so that you could see her one last time. You couldn’t live with yourself otherwise.

She hesitates, one foot on the porch. She wants to come to you, and your heart aches for her. You want to hold her and kiss her the way you had all those years ago, when things had been simpler and you had both been innocent. Only one of you is innocent now.

Her brother looms behind her, and any thought of going to her is crushed.

He glares daggers at you, and you take a step back. He is everything you are not – taller, broader, fiercer; you pulled the trigger when he, a better man like him, would have let justice take its course. He is her protector too, and you were not. You could not protect her when she needed you most, and all your anger could not change anything. You couldn’t undo what that monster had done to her, though you tried.

In retrospect, a bullet had been too kind.

You wonder if she has nightmares, like you do. Hers would be different. Hers would be filled with darkness and terror, of unspeakable horrors that only humanity can bring forth. Hers would be of liquor and sweat, and being utterly powerless, defenceless and alone.

Your nightmares are filled with the pitiful sobs of that wretch, his audacity to beg and plead, groveling on his knees. Your nightmares are of staring into his eyes and seeing yourself reflected back, a monster just the same as him, incapable of remorse. Perhaps even worse – at least he’d had the decency to apologize, even if had been with a gun pointed to his head.

They turn the sirens on when they enter the street.

You can’t run. There’s no point. They will catch you. They have been chasing you for months, and you’re tired, defeated. This was the end of the road all along – somehow you knew that, but you were lying to yourself the whole time.

The SUVs tear up her father’s front lawn, and then you run.

You don’t get far.

Your face is suddenly against the asphalt, tearing your cheek apart, and they’re shouting at you, telling you things you don’t understand. Her face is there in your mind, the only thing you can see. They haul you upright and you look at the house, the handcuffs clicking around your wrists, cold and restrictive.

Her brother shakes his head and mutters something to her. He pulls her inside and closes the door, but her eyes stay on you until the door bangs shut.

They duck your head and force you into the backseat. You squint through the tinted windows and see her peering through the curtain, her eyes on the car, though she can’t possibly see you. A man sits beside you, and another in the driver’s seat, and the SUV pulls away from the house.

Suburbia flashes past the windows, but you don’t bother looking. There is nothing out there you want – what you want, you left behind at that house. In fact, you left it behind long ago.

The detective isn’t watching you. You fumble in your pocket, suddenly afraid that you left it behind in the stolen sedan. You remember leaving it atop the pile of dirty old blankets one night, when only that memory had kept you warm–

Your hands find the crumpled photograph and you breathe a sigh of relief. You pull it out, the handcuffs clinking. The detective glances at you, but makes no comment. You flatten the picture, though the wrinkles and stains will never be truly gone. The photo is old, faded, well-worn. Every dot of color is familiar to you, because you went to sleep with it in your hands every night since you left her, and now you’ll sleep with it for much longer indeed.

As the suburbs turn into the city, and the Police Station grows nearer, her face stares up at you. She is smiling and happy, wearing that same white dress with the blue sash. She looks radiant, perfect, unscarred. Her arm is around your shoulder, and you stare at the camera as though you have won the lottery – and in a sense, you had.

The SUV comes to a stop.

This was never a detour – it was the end of the road, and you knew that all along.

You tear the photograph in half and leave your still-frame copy on the backseat. Whatever – whoever – that person was, you don’t recognize him anymore. He died, like that monster, like your chance at a normal life, when you pulled the trigger. You place the other half of the photo in your pocket. Where you’re going, she cannot follow, but her memory can – a memory of what you once had, of what you can never hope to recapture.

You take a deep breath, and swing your legs out of the car.

The asphalt crunches beneath your boots.

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