Ventura Freeway


That night, around 2 a.m., I found myself suddenly wide-awake. Creaking sounds in the house sparked an uneasy feeling in me. I wished I were resting upstairs with the others. Not for the first time, I wondered what their sleeping arrangements were.

Feeling dehydrated, I fumbled to turn on the lamp. Rather than reassuring me, the bright halo of light and the shadows it cast boosted my anxiety. It bothered me that most of the windows lacked curtains. Not that anyone was peeping in—certainly, no one should be.

My skin felt hot and a little tender. It looked ruddy in contrast to the bright white undershorts Mama had bought me around graduation time. I hoped it wouldn’t peel.

I wanted some water, but didn’t like the idea of going right up to the windows by the kitchen sink. I wouldn’t mind so much someone accidentally seeing me. I looked okay. I just hated the thought that I might look out and spy some creep peering in. He’d be a sinister older man, in his thirties. His dark, wolfish face would ignite with perverse desire and he would rip the doors and windows off trying to get in.

What this phantom would do once he gained entry, I couldn’t have said, but for sure he wouldn’t follow Aaron’s rules: No going upstairs. No flirting with Bret. No turning on the charm. This guy would do anything he felt like and take whatever he wanted.

I got up and padded over toward the kitchen part of the room, careful not to make noise. I had nearly reached the sink when I realized that there was something wrong in my peripheral vision. Someone was standing in the shadows on the bottom stair step! My heart smashed up into my eye socket so painfully that I might have gone blind. Gasping, I spun around, hands instinctively raised in a protective stance I’d learned in the karate classes my sister Alison had insisted I take the summer before. Too stunned to yell out, I stared wildly between my raised hands at the dimly lit figure.

“No! Sorry! It’s OK!” Aaron hissed, stepping down out of the shadows toward me. To add to my confusion, he was wearing glasses—dark silver wire-rims. I had never seen him with glasses before.

Before my brain could take meaning from his words, I grabbed him into my arms and crushed him against me. I had seen the concern on his intense face. “Scared me so bad…” I spluttered.

“It’s alright,” he whispered, putting one arm around me. His dark, curly hair, right under my nose, smelled subtly of something like banana peel and cut green peppers. The skin on his back felt cool and incredibly soft to the touch. I luxuriated in holding him for a few seconds, before I realized that I shouldn’t take advantage of the situation to get unearned intimacy. I didn’t want to squander what little respect he had for me.

Sighing, I turned loose of him and stepped back. “I was getting some water,” I explained shakily. I was practically apologizing. Why?

“It’s OK. You can have as much water as you want,” Aaron remarked, making a joke. “You don’t have to be scared about it. I mean, it’s not totally free, but we’ve got it covered. We can afford it.”

My terror was too fresh for me to laugh at it. “I told you I’m afraid of everything,” I protested sharply. “At night, I worry about who might be sneaking around in the dark. Anyway, what were you doing, lurking there on the pitch dark stairs?”

“Oh,” he said, perhaps stalling for time. “I was checking to see if you were sleeping okay.”

That sounded encouraging. “Did you have trouble sleeping?” I asked.

His body looked so pale, contrasted with the gold and blue UC Berkeley gym shorts that covered his middle. His smooth chest had a kind of hollow at the center, not because he had huge pectoral muscles but just because he was constructed that way. It occurred to me that it would be a comfortable place to lay my head. A line of wiry black hairs had ventured a little ways out from under his arm—uneasy, like a search party. Jittery and lonely, I urgently wanted to hold him again.

“I always sleep pretty well here,” he said. “I guess I thought maybe I was a little too hard on you today.” He said this looking at his feet, not making eye contact. I looked at his feet too. I had never noticed a guy’s feet before, but his were small and adorable, like him.

When I didn’t answer right away, he finally looked up at me.

“I guess I don’t know what to expect or how it should be,” I said, remembering after I said it that Colby had said something like this about Aaron.

Aaron actually beamed. He wandered over to the door and rattled the handle, checking the lock.

“You’re worried about who could be creeping around out there too,” I noticed.

I could hear him draw a breath. “Well, it’s just that some guys broke out of prison last night, not that far from here, and they haven’t caught them yet.”

A prison break? Was he serious? Even if it was true, this news increased my anxiety only slightly. Current events tended to be irrelevant to my worries.

“I doubt that locking the doors will keep escaped convicts out if they really want to get in,” I observed. To keep him here, talking to me, had become my main goal.

“I’d feel responsible if anything happened and I hadn’t done everything I could,” he revealed. It sounded like he wasn’t kidding about the prison break.

“What kind of criminals are they, anyway? Do you know?”

“Yeah,” Aaron said. “They broke free from a locked ward for the criminally insane. Their MO is to capture brawny young Georgia boys and saw ’em up into little pieces.”

Whoa! Did he see me as brawny? Maybe ten weeks of hoisting boxes in my uncle’s warehouse in Buena Park hadn’t hurt my biceps! Compared to Aaron, at least, I probably had more muscle, but it didn’t make me find him any the less appealing. I loved his compactness and the fact that he was studious. It made him much more suitable for the long term. Everybody knows that the jocks end up selling insurance door to door and never have any money.

Anyway, the compliment made up for the embarrassment I felt at falling for his little joke about escaped convicts.

“I’ve always been totally gullible,” I remarked. “You’ll find there’s not much challenge in it, because I’ll probably always believe anything you say.”

He smiled a little without replying. I started to feel more confident with him. I wanted to ask about his glasses, but I figured it might make him self-conscious.

“You keep threatening all these violent things that are gonna happen to me,” I improvised instead. “The first day you said you were gonna take me out in the woods and kill me. Rip my guts out. Now it’s being sawed into little pieces. But my worst fear is that I’ll get out of here without anything happening at all.”

“What do you want to happen?”

“I don’t think you really want to know.”

“Yes I do. What is it you want?”

How much did I dare to say? “I want to be your friend.”

“What kind of friend?”

I liked that he asked that. “I think I have to take whatever I can get,” I said.

He didn’t say anything.

“Could we maybe do something tomorrow?” I asked. “Just the two of us?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Take a walk or something. Talk.”

“Why do you want to be friends?” he asked.

“Because you’re smart and handsome and because you’re a really good guy, even though you pretend to be an asshole. You know now that I’m afraid of pretty much everything, but I’m not really afraid of you. I’m not afraid of what you’ll do.”

“You looked pretty scared a minute ago,” he said. When I didn’t answer, he added, “I guess I get nervous too sometimes.”

“I know. I remind you of Hank.”

“Maybe it’s not fair,” Aaron said, “but I can’t risk having my heart lacerated again. It’s just too soon. First he seemed perfect, then he jettisoned me and now he’s dead and I’m wondering if somehow it’s my fault.”

“There’s such a thing as taking too much responsibility,” I pointed out.

He wrinkled his nose and tossed his head as if dismissing what I’d said.

“I’d love to know what it’s like being you,” I remarked after a minute.


“You’re just so different from anyone else I know. You already seem to have everything you need.”

He looked up at me just long enough to send a shiver.

“You’ve got that completely wrong.”