Garberville, Humboldt County, CA 08/26/1987
Those who are meant to stay go to Humboldt State University. Those who are meant to go get the hell out without so much as a forlorn glance behind them. That’s the thing--Humboldt has a strange way of escorting those who don’t belong right out the door. Some, kindly. Others, less so.
When you’ve lived here your whole life, things aren’t so cut and dry. Even the smallest towns have their politics and pissing contests. Gaara waters the shriveled fern next to his bed. It seems to ball even further into itself, uninterested in his offering. You too, huh?
He’s tempted to shove the dying plant into the trash. Instead, he plucks off the dead leaves, little more than the plant’s struggling stem left behind.
Their silent house, save for the sound of his ticking clock, is a ball and chain. Soon, even more so. Temari and Kankuro will be going back to university. For the next few weeks, they’ll spend their days at the lake with friends and at the bars in town. Companionship came easy to them while Gaara tumbled to the sidelines, eyes downcast and teeth bared.
He, instead, has the Police Academy to look forward to. Their county isn’t progressive enough for female officers and Kankuro dodged that bullet with a degree in criminal justice. Process of elimination gives the youngest the shit end of the stick.
Gaara says no, but no isn’t an option. This is an honor that’s been passed down from his father’s father to him. It’s a noxious curse that sandpapers his mouth. His father is a man obsessed with pride and tradition, cracking his hands down on the table and screaming until Gaara is quieted into submission. He’d asked for this opportunity about as eagerly as he asked for the fists Rasa distributed after a long overtime shift and a few drinks too many.
The first he hears of it, Gaara’s grounded the rest of the summer after nearly bashing in Dosu’s ribs with a rusted pipe.
He will be polite, he will be respectful, he will be proper, so his father says.
This is his last chance, so he’d better damn well keep himself in line.
Gaara celebrates by draining a bottle of Goldschlager tucked away at the bottom of Kankuro’s closet. Too sweet, the liquor coats a thick cinnamon film over his tongue and threatens, when he takes too large a gulp, to come back up. Goes down easier than whiskey, though. Kankuro has never been a classy drinker and it sure is saving him now.
Kankuro’s done him another favor by leaving his truck in the driveway.
What’s he waiting for? He’s going to get the hell out of this piss town. No one’s home to stop him. Swimming vision, Gaara packs a bag of belongings that don’t make sense—no shirts, three pairs of pants, mismatched socks, and his hygiene products swept unceremoniously from his desk into his duffel bag. He’ll ditch the truck downtown and catch the bus. Kankuro can know after he’s well out of town.
He changes into fresh clothes for the trip, tugging on ripped black jeans, an oversized Slayer t-shirt, and fingerless gloves lined with spikes along the wrist. With his chipped nails, he picks at his eyebrows. Or, where they’d been. His thumbnail scrapes over the plucked skin, itching instead. A wince, and he plucks out one of the few remaining hairs.
In the mirror, his eyes dart around, trying to find his face. They’ll catch up in a second.
Damn, he’s wasted.
The sun’s setting. He should get going before everyone gets home. Keys are nowhere to be found, but that’s not a problem. Without thinking twice, he jerks the wires from inside Kankuro’s Ford, striking the reds together and kick starting the engine to life. Gaara accidentally whips the truck into reverse, slamming into the tree beside their driveway. The whiplash erupts black spots over his vision, but it doesn’t set the airbag off. Lucky.
He’s going to miss the bus.
In drive this time, Gaara peels off their property and towards Garberville, ricocheting down Route 101. No one’s out around now. Not for a few miles, where civilization starts to creep back up. The wind whips his hair in his face, and he breathes out a sigh of relief.
Ditch the truck, leave some money in the glove compartment. No way the truck went unharmed.
Soon as Gaara turns on the radio, he blacks out.
Lee graduates high school as the track team’s captain. With a full ride to Boston College, he has a bright future and a team that insists on throwing him a party in celebration of his relentless training and expansive future.
A party isn’t much without food or drinks. Always happy to, Lee volunteers to pick up pizza from The Humboldt Bar and Grill.
“It’s pretty lame to pick up food for your own party,” Naruto says with his hands tucked behind his head. Hardly a surprise when it falls on deaf ears.
“It is no problem!” Lee brushes off. “I would like to finish my cool down on the way over,” he insists, stretching his arm over his head, easing it back with his free hand. Sunset is starting to burst in heaps over their silent town, illuminating the crooked teeth of surrounding bushels of pine trees.
Naruto shrugs and kicks an orphaned rock into the street. A car whizzing by runs it over, bouncing it into a storm drain. “You sure you don’t want a ride?”
Lee waves his hand in front of his face. “I insist. It will only take me a few minutes.”
With the sky kissed sherbert, he takes off to the center of town with a brisk jog. Wouldn’t it be sinful not to take advantage of such a lovely day? He keeps his breaths in even, trained breaths and his eyes set straight ahead.
For Humboldt, this time of year is busy. Still, busy doesn’t mean much with the streets still left largely empty on his trek. His father tells him the east coast has cities filled wall to wall with people. Something new to Lee that has him giddy and apprehensive.
At the grill, pizza takes twenty-five minutes.
If he can get back in fifteen minutes, that would be faster than last month. The food means he can’t jog, though. Lee spends his time trying to step on the breaks in the pavement, making his way down the sidewalk in too long strides that leave the tourists staring. Most everyone else’s used to him by now.
The crossing signal blinks for him to go, and he starts to bounce across, hopping from one white line to the next. Lee sees the flashing headlights too late, already in the middle of the road when the truck lays on its horn.
Doesn’t lay so much on the breaks.
The Ford flying through town hits Lee’s left side and his body shatters rings across the windshield on impact.
Gaara wakes to a swarm of paramedics and the toiled wailing of ambulances. Where is he? Freezing gooseflesh runs up his arms, thousands of bumps that make his hair stand on end. He cranes his gaze up and the night sky spins. Nauseous. When did the sun set? His head feels like it’s gotten smashed with a hammer, throbbing and disoriented. Gaara presses his palm to his forehead, covering his tattoo and smearing sweat down his temple.
The Goldschlager runs stale on his breath, a bitter aftertaste in the wake of a bitter accident. Skyward, the stars are a jittered blur. They mock him, pointing to the blood covered tarmac and the last taste of freedom that’s spilled with it.
His duffel bag is five feet from the truck, strewn amidst the bloodied street.
Whose blood? He’s definitely not bleeding. The EMTs haven’t left him with any bandages. Gaara pats at his face. A split lip, but the rest feels like bruising. Or internal. Minus the feeling of an impending explosion inside his skull, he’s fine. Sore, but fine.
“ ‘m okay, ‘m okay,” Gaara slurs, slapping away the EMT’s hand with a disinterested sneer. Nothing’s broken. From the looks of it, emergency services only just showed up. He tries to stand up slow, gags, and throws up on the ground beside him. It comes out of his mouth and should sting his nose, but it’s all white noise. Fuck, his ears are ringing. On his feet, he grasps his head with both hands, blinking himself rapidly to reality.
There’s someone more pressing to attend to. That’s not fucking good.
Gaara opens and closes his fist, staring down the wrinkles on his palm while he begs his vision to go back to normal. His head’s stuck in a world that’s upside down, ice under his skin despite summer’s heated reminders.
Is this his body? Can’t feel myself move .
Around him is pandemonium. Paramedics rush with the state of the scene around them, but they drag along unbearably slow in Gaara’s jittering vision. With ambulances come the fire department and police.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck fuck .
The truck is on its side, the windshield shattered front and center in heaped rings. No doubt, it’s totaled to hell. The back had been messed up from the tree. The side made sense. What’d he hit in front?
They’d left him on a stretcher. Something else must’ve—
Gaara swallows a gasp when his legs, disconnected, brings him closer. Burnt rubber stings his nostrils and iron cuts even through that.
There’s a body in the middle of the street.
Crushed. Is it? Gaara’s inching into the accident despite the screaming in his legs telling him to sit down. He sucks in a shaky breath, but it does him little good. Gaara shouldn’t be looking at this. It churns his stomach and he’s ill. Cottonmouth sticks his tongue to the roof of his mouth, and he wants, more than anything, to scream.
He’s killed someone.
I’m so fucked.
God, and he’s still trashed.
Bitterly, he can’t help laughing to himself that he’s struck out at his chance at the Academy.
Oh, thank God .
They’re still breathing, he reassures himself.
Gaara catches a tanned face and jet-black hair plastered in a wrecked bowl cut against his gnashed face. Foreboding, his stomach tells him not to retch again. I’m dead . Half of his face split open—the windshield? —and gushed blood down his jaw and throat, pooling into the hood of his mustard and green jogger.
Someone tried to use his clothes to stop the bleeding.
“When did he get up? Get him into the ambulance. We have to get this one stabilized!”
I’m dead I’m so screwed I’m so screwed.
They take him away on a stretcher, hooked up in the ambulance with oxygen and an IV in the crook of his elbow.
Rasa’s not the one on the scene, acting as a small blessing on its own. The heaped over pedestrian is taken to the hospital. Gaara’s brought in the back of Fugaku’s cruiser. Reeking of cinnamon schnapps and weed, he’s the family disappointment. The disturbed one.
The ride is graveyard silent, with Gaara’s arms crossed over his chest and fixed on the barely lit road ahead of them.
“Your father doesn’t need this from you , too,” Fugaku chastises, stealing glances in the rear view mirror at defiant eyes. Gaara’s heard the whole song and dance before, whispers of a dysfunctional family surrounded by death that does him no favors.
A redheaded boy spotted in the woods before two high schoolers disappear. Again a year later. Baggies of powder and weed stashed away in gym bags, books, anything. He’s a reminder of the past, and a disturbed man that’d plagued their family near decades ago.
“Do you know how much he does for you? A single dad putting three kids through college. How many kids would pay to be in your shoes, Gaara?”
He doesn’t bother answering Fugaku. The disappointment seems rhetorical, anyway. It’s always about Rasa. His reputation, his future, his goals. Gaara knows that well, from the aged welts on his back and the plumes of bruising they’ve left behind.
Salt in the wound, Fugaku leads him in through the front door, stumbling and vision wavy. Hospitals are always so bright , and their small town emergency room is no different. Chairs covered in ancient patterned cotton.
Greenish linoleum frowns up at him, nodding to the corner of the room. Stuffed into one of the seats is a hulking man with the same shining black hair as the boy he hit, leg trembling and his hands clasped together at his face in a silent prayer. Beside him, a silver haired man in a loose tie-dyed tank top and his hand on the other’s knee.
Gaara can’t wrap his head around it.
Similar to the tarmac, he’s a liability at the hospital. Nurses and doctors whizz around him, trying to avoid a fatality. How fast had he been going? He’d been late for the bus. Well over the speed limit from what Kankuro’s truck looked like.
I’m going to jail.
His stomach sinks, but the shame comes instead with intake questions and the disgusted frowns when the nurses hear about why he’s here and what he’s done. They’ll whisper that he’s pissing away his future and the future of someone else.
While a nurse flashes lights in his eyes to check for a concussion, he watches two doctors rush his victim’s stretcher in for emergency surgery.
The next morning, Gaara is sent to his uncle, Yashamaru, for intensive psychotherapy in Arcata.