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Don't Panic by Leah Browning

Sutton just meant to tap the back bumper of their car. I mean, he was laughing—we were all laughing. We’d had a couple hits after Sutton picked me up, and everything seemed pretty goddamned funny, if you want to know the truth. We weren’t driving anywhere in particular, and Sutton kept passing his house. The curtains were closed, but you could see that the lights were on inside, and I remember wondering what his parents and his little brother were doing while we were outside, driving around in the rain.

We were arguing about whether to head up to this ridge where you could park and look down at the lights of the whole city. What we really wanted to do was leave the car at the ridge and go hang out in the woods, but we didn’t want to get soaked. Sutton’s stepdad does the weather for channel 11, and Sutton kept saying, “I told you it’d rain,” until one of the guys in the front seat said, “Dude, we get it,” and turned the radio way up, and Sutton acted like this was the most hilarious thing he’d ever heard in his life.

It was already getting late by the time we ran into Bronson. He’d gotten his hands on his dad’s new BMW, and we could see a bunch of other guys from the team crammed in there. Brick was sitting up front next to Bronson, and Brick kept turning around and leaning way over the front seat so that we could see him through the back windshield, flipping us the bird and laughing his ass off.

Sutton kept speeding up and passing the BMW, and as we drove by, we rolled down the windows on the right side of the car and flipped off Bronson and Brick and all of them. We’d won the last game by almost 15 points and we were all feeling pretty good about it. Every time we looped around back toward Sutton’s house, though, Bronson would gun the motor and pass us again. After a while, Brick started thinking up new things to do on their way by, licking the glass and mooning us and stuff like that.

We were almost to Sutton’s house when he sped up again and got so close to the back of the BMW that I thought we would hit it for sure, but then he slowed down. Brick’s face was in the back window, and he was mouthing something at us, but we couldn’t really tell what. Sutton edged up the BMW again, and Brick quickly pulled back into the front seat. The guys in the back of the BMW were laughing at Brick, and we were all laughing, too. Sutton gave the back bumper of the BMW a little tap, and even though it was still raining a little, we could see Brick pretending to get mad, making a face and shaking his fist at us. Sutton laughed and pressed forward again. But this time he must’ve hit the gas a little too hard, because we jerked forward into the BMW. There was a loud crunch of metal on metal.

Bronson pulled the BMW over in front of Sutton’s house, and Sutton pulled up behind him. We all streamed out of Sutton’s car. Right away we could see that the windshield of the BMW was broken, and Brick wasn’t moving.

Bronson and the other guys were out on the street, too, and Bronson said, “Shit. What’re we gonna do?” He kept looking at Sutton, who was standing there in his slacks and white button-down shirt like he was about to deliver the weather to an entire city. Sutton is the one who always knows what to do.

We left the cars parked outside, and Bronson and a couple of other guys pulled Brick out of the BMW and carried him into Sutton’s house. Sutton had to unlock the front door, and it was so quiet inside that I thought nobody was home after all, and they’d just left the lights on. There had been a few break-ins already that fall, and everybody was being extra careful. My parents had started leaving the TV on in the living room when they went out to dinner.

As soon as you came in the house, there was a doorway in the wall on your right. It was just a little room where Sutton’s mother kept her sewing machine and a bunch of quilts. The guys carried Brick into his mother’s sewing room, and Sutton followed them inside and locked the door.

The other guys must’ve stayed outside, or maybe they just left. All I know is, when Sutton closed that door, I was alone in the front hallway. The house was dark except for the living room, and I practically ran toward it.

There was light jazz on the stereo, and a fire in the fireplace. On any other night it might have been relaxing, but as it was I just paced around the room, grabbing handfuls of my hair and pulling them, repeating “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” until I couldn’t even understand what I was saying anymore. I tried taking deep breaths but my legs were shaking and I felt weak all over. It was a cool night, but sweat was running down my sides. I just kept pacing and pacing.

I was interrupted by a tiny voice saying, “What are you doing?” It was Sutton’s brother, Paul, who was wearing a pair of little Batman pajamas and carrying a blanket.

Fear rose in my throat. If Paul was home, that meant Sutton’s parents were home, too, somewhere in the house. I could hear Bronson from behind the locked door, and I knew I had to get Paul out of there. “Hey, remember me?” I whispered. I took Paul’s shoulder and steered him back toward his bedroom. “Remember that time I came over and we played touch football in the back yard?”

“Where’s Matthew?” Paul asked.

I didn’t know what to tell him about Sutton, and I didn’t answer.

But the kid wouldn’t let up. He said, “Why are you here? Where’s Matthew?” in that loud, determined little voice.

“Don’t panic,” I said, but I was really talking to myself.

“I’m still thirsty,” Paul said, and I made him stay in his room while I crept to the kitchen for a glass of water. I had to open the cabinets in the dark, then stand at the sink looking at my own reflection in the window while the glass filled. My buzz had worn off and I was feeling pretty low.

I shut off the faucet. Then I looked up and saw Paul in the doorway. “I’m so thirsty,” he said. “I couldn’t wait anymore.” I just handed him the glass. He took a few big gulps and set it on the kitchen counter.

There was a loud knock at the front door. Paul looked at me, and I looked at him. I couldn’t hear anything from the sewing room.

More knocking, louder this time. I grabbed Paul’s hand, and we ran through the living room and down the hall back to his bedroom. I closed the door. I tried to lock it, but there was nothing on the handle.

“Where’s the lock?” I said, and Paul shook his head.

I could hear shouting now, someone pounding on the front door. I pushed Paul toward the space behind his bed, and when I flopped down on my stomach, he did the same.

My heart was racing. I kept seeing the cars in my mind. Bronson in front of us, Bronson behind. Brick’s face in the back window.

Paul had tons of toys and clothes and other crap under his bed, and right in front were two plastic bottles of bubbles. I pulled them out, practically throwing one at Paul. “Come on,” I said and opened my bottle, blowing a stream of bubbles into the air in front of his face. Outside the room, there was more shouting, footsteps running. Paul was struggling to get his bottle open. I took it from him and twisted off the cap, pressing the wand into his hand.

“Hurry,” I said.