We drink Cherry Coke on nights when the moon paints stripes across Cherokee Lake. As I hold a bottle in my hand, water licks cold against my pink-painted toes, and Ryder holds a cigarette between his thumb and pointer finger. He has no idea what to do with it. A laugh trips out of my mouth and splashes in the water.
Ryder tosses the cigarette and shrugs, “Eh, I’d rather live.”
“It wouldn’t kill you today, genius.”
His deep brown hair falls into his eyes as he looks at our dangling bare feet. “Next week I’ll spring for the cokes.”
“Don’t.” I can’t do this with him right now. He knows I’m leaving. That was the plan since I started high school. My dad’s plan, I guess. Work hard, get good grades, go to a good college far away.
Ryder takes my hand, touches my scar – the one I got the night we met at the Shell station on Murfreesboro Drive. First thing he ever said to me was “That’s not a twist off cap, you know” as blood trickled down the palm of my hand and onto my Cherry Coke. It didn’t hurt. Not looking at a smile like Ryder’s.
Two years of being together ends now. Earlier today, I loaded my Dad’s old Ford with sneakers and hoodies and secret words from Ryder penned for me.
I’m tripping and I’m falling.
You scare me.
A clean break would be better, but I could never leave his words behind. Never. Even if I have to leave him. I want him to come with me to college in Massachusetts, but he can’t leave his little brother and sister. He’s supported them for years.
Ryder stares out across the lake, face blank and beautiful. I want to kiss, kiss, kiss him. My last chance, but he ducks his head. My lips barely brushed his.
I need him to kiss me.
“I’ll buy the cokes next week,” I say, and mean it somehow.
“Abby.” He turns and smiles like there is something to hope for.
The pause weighs a million pounds before he leans in to me. His thumb traces my blond braid, moves underneath my chin and to the corner of my mouth. Ryder’s lips cover mine.
My hands run over his hipbones and sneak under his white t-shirt. Goosebumps follow my fingers as they move up his chest. My Cherry Coke spills into the lakeside dirt and into my denim shorts. Ryder holds himself over me, and he’s wonderful. His body tenses, all unmovable, hard lines.
Ryder tears away from me.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, sitting up.
“Go.” He stands up, grips his hair, paces in the dirt. “I won’t let you throw away your life.” He throws the coke bottle against the tree. It shatters, and I gasp. “I’ve been selfish!”
Ryder never yells, and fear jolts through me. Where is this coming from? I jump to my feet. Look him in the eye, those beautiful eyes, and the fear is gone. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Ryder is anything but selfish.
I’ve spent my whole life doing what I’m told, always following the rules because they’re the rules and not knowing why. All I know now is that those rules: get good grades, go to college, get out of this town. All those rules keep me from Ryder and I won’t let them anymore.
I blink slowly, watching Ryder breathe heavily, the moon painting stripes across his face. This whole time I’ve been running from something I’m not afraid of. When I say it, I know it could be the biggest mistake of my life, but it’s also true. The truest thing I’ve said in my life.
“I love you and Cherry Coke.”
And I’m staying.
Ashley Bacon is a fan of science fiction, fantasy and writing for young people. She hopes to one day become an English teacher and inspire a new generation of writers and readers.