The soil was the color of blood mixed with dirt.
“He just said he was itchy,” Trip heard someone say as he looked up from the ground. He was sitting in a circle with six other 17-year-olds, smoking a joint.
They were holed up in the woods of Pondside Park. To get there, you had to walk down a steep hill past the pond, hop across a stream, and climb up another hill through a mix of shrubs and ivy. Once you got there, it was beautiful. There was a forest and a clearing of grass in the center of it. That was Pondside.
Tall trees hung overhead as bright moonlight danced through the branches. Pondside was the six teenagers’ soft cocoon away from the world. Pondside’s ambience made it the perfect place to get stoned.
The teens in the circle were an eclectic bunch of losers, overachievers, and sports fans. There was Jesse, the resident spiritual guru. He was tall and wore a massive head of dirty dreadlocks. Beside him was Gavin, a skinny guy with a patchy beard. He was always in an oversized T-shirt and had headphones around his neck. Kali was sitting next to him. She was small and had a lip piercing. Her past was mysterious, and she didn’t talk much. She wasn’t from the island. Then was Chad. He was the jack-off of the group, a meathead with a chip on his shoulder no doubt inherited from his love of team sports.
Next to him was Trip’s best friend, Ree Forto. She was a morbid, obsessed girl with jet-black hair and a razor-sharp stroke of pride. She was very open, sometimes sassy, and oftentimes called a bitch. She was always puffing away at the root of her personality with a cigarette.
The circle passed the joint around. Jesse skipped taking a hit and passed the smoking butt to Gavin. Trip watched him bite down on the filter and suck the smoke through his teeth. Fucking disgusting, he thought.
Gavin exhaled through his nose and said, “I heard his finger fell off.” He handed the joint to Kali.
Kali took a hit and said, “Yeah, and he coughed up his lung. Came out sharp like a knife.”
“That’s why they took him to the hook?” Chad asked.
“It was either that or become a Lich,” Trip said. Chad shot him a dirty look. The ugly grimace would go down as the legend of the night. Trip didn’t get along with Chad and everybody knew it.
Chad spit on the ground. “Fucking despicable that they’d do that shit.”
Gavin chimed in, “Well, at least the Lich can fuck.”
“Can they?” Kali asked with noted sarcasm.
“I’d rather take the hook then spend my life as a slave,” Ree said, reaching over Chad and grabbing the smoldering joint from Kali. She took a long pull and passed the weed to Trip without exhaling.
“What’s the point of having sex then, if they just put you on the hook?” Trip asked the circle.
Jesse’s face grew dark. “Keep us from spreading the infection. I saw him before he was recycled. It was sinister. His skin was decaying. He had the hollow.”
“You’re kidding,” Chad said to the group.
“No,” Jesse leaned forward. “There is no life after sex.”
“Bullshit!” Chad yelled.
Trip watched the two alpha males hash it out as he reveled in the joint. This was the nature of his friends. No one could quite agree on whether or not sex bred death. The state mandated that those who have had sex were to be forcefully recycled to prevent the spread of infection. An infection the six of them carried. That’s why they sat there in that circle. Each of them supposedly carried a harmful sexually transmitted infection that only activated with sexual contact. To prevent the spread, those who have had sex were publically executed, which was called recycling. Many believed it was the only humane option left for the infected. Trip thought it was bullshit.
As smoke curled from his lips, Trip put his hand to his mouth. The joint made him gag and the stench of perspiration on his fingers didn’t make it any better. The thought of being recycled drove him to nausea, and the fresh sensations brought on by the joint weren’t doing him any favors.
There was a hand on his shoulder. Ree’s finger’s rubbed the base of his neck. She moved her hand in time with his every drawn breath. He looked over to her, and she smiled back with sensitivity. It was clear she noticed his distress. She leaned into his ear and whispered, “What’s up? You look spooked.”
He whispered back, “I don’t like talking about this shit. Makes me sick.”
With that, Ree cleared her throat and looked out at the group. “New arrivals tomorrow. Who’s excited?”
The circle of friends shared indifferent looks. Gavin shrugged as silence hung in the trees above them.
Kali was the first to speak. “I’m just hoping a friend shows up.” She rubbed her neck as the words left her lips.
Trip stared at Kali’s neck. There was an uppercase “A” burned into her flesh. This was the mark of an arrival kid. It was a way to track those who weren’t born on the island. Arrival kids were said to have insatiable sexual appetites. They had a higher tendency to become sexual delinquents. “I’m not excited,” Trip said scanning his tight circle of friends. “I don’t want to stick any more of ‘em with that A.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Jesse chimed in. “They’re branded for our own good.”
Kali shot Jesse a dirty look.
Chad stood up from his place in the dirt. “Look, Jesse, I don’t want to walk you through what it’s like to become a man, but you sound like an idiot right now.” Chad looked over at Ree and Trip. “I’m sick of this shit. You two want to get out of here?”
Trip looked at Ree. She smiled and nodded. He brought himself to his feet and waved goodbye to the group.
Chad cursed under his breath as he lead the way through the forest. They walked single file, sharing a pregnant silence as the trees watched their movements.
Trip knew he wanted to keep the conversation going, but he didn’t know what to say.
They reached the clearing just outside the woods. It was a flat patch of grass beside the pond. About fifty feet ahead, the dead silence of the dark highway offered the path home. Walking up the sidewalk was the only way back to the subdivision they all lived in. Their parents lived on Rosebank Road, a fifteen-minute walk up the hill to the east.
Trip could tell that something was off with Ree. She usually walked in time with Trip’s steps. Typically, they went everywhere together, but this was different. She was walking toward the highway a few steps ahead with Chad. Her fingers gently grazed Chad’s upper thigh.
The slight touch sent off alarms in Trip’s head. They were too close for comfort. Trip suspected that they might have a thing, but he didn’t usually talk to Ree about her boyfriends. They tended to come and go with the seasons, but tonight still seemed odd. Ree and Chad stopped just before the sidewalk that would lead the three of them home. Ree turned and looked at Trip.
“We’re going to stay out for a bit,” Ree said.
Trip smiled and said, “Cool. What do you want to do?”
The empty night offered a strange instant of silence before a bullfrog’s gurgle rung out over the pond.
Chad took a step forward. “She means just us, man.”
Trip grunted. “Why can’t I stay out with you guys?”
“Because it’s just us, Trip,” Ree said.
“Now that . . . ” Trip said looking down at his hands, “that is so much bullshit.”
Trip walked home alone in the dark.
The highway that cut the state in half was cracked by the harsh embrace of the changing seasons. The red dirt peeked through the grooves in the aged pavement, making veins that danced the length of the island. Trip followed the veins with his eyes, thinking about the cracks and the stories the infected residents of Truog had. Eventually each crack fed into the quieter suburban streets that snaked off the highway and made up the Truog Island suburbs.
The suburbs in Avon State were forgotten by the people in power. The houses were at their height thirty years ago. Now the bright white vinyl siding on most of the split-entry homes wept yellow. A lack of proper housing meant that most old residences were split into multiple apartment units. Most families lived on a single floor of a multi-floor home. It wasn’t glamorous, but nothing in Avon was glamorous. Especially in Trip’s neighborhood.
Trip turned onto Rosebank Road. It was a straight line that eventually fed into the beach if you followed it long enough. The houses decayed the closer they got to the coast. Most of them were left abandoned and Trip wasn’t brave enough to explore the lower blocks of Rosebank. He didn’t have time for the ocean anymore. When he was a child, the current gave him echoes of freedom. Now it was a painful reminder that he was trapped on an island. He didn’t bother with the illusion of freedom.
He didn’t bother with much anymore.
He drug his feet on the asphalt as he reached his giant yellow home. His parents’ house was erected in the eighties. It was three stories of mustard-yellow vinyl siding, sitting on half an acre of land. A property on that much land was almost unheard of, but Trip’s parents came to the island years ago. They settled there early and invested, which paid off with a giant house and a nice garden.
A few curtains in the home were twitched aside. Trip’s parents were waiting for him. He sighed and headed to the front door. He went to reach for the doorknob and, as if by magic, the door opened.
Trip’s father, Danny, stood in the doorframe. He was a muscular man with gold rings on his fingers. His skin was tight and tanned. Trip looked pale next to him.
“Out late fucking about in the woods, were you?” Danny asked with beer on his breath.
Trip winced. He knew to watch his words around his father. “What piqued your curiosity?”
“I don’t want you getting recycled. If you were smart, you’d hang out at home instead of surrounding yourself with sex. You’re cruising for it.”
“And how do you explain how you had me, again?”
Danny looked perplexed by this question. “If I knew how the hollow worked, I’d be a millionaire, kid. Don’t you think I’d like to fuck your mom again?”
Trip felt bile in his throat. “Jesus, dad. That’s disgusting.”
“I’m just saying, you’re not the only one suffering, kid.”
“Yeah, you’re really the one suffering,” Trip said. He hated when his father played the victim.
Danny’s hands balled into fists. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“People can’t have kids and teens can’t lose their virginity—you’re preaching to the choir, Dad.” Trip said as he shouldered his way through the door and past his father.
Danny called out to him, “Sex is a middleman to compassion, Trip. A middleman’s business is to make himself a necessary evil. Don’t get turned into a gun, just to bust a nut.”