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NINE

May 10th

Stupid Girl, Garbage

The Volvo sped down the highway at an impressive clip. His father was no doubt excited. Behind it trailed the tan van, which matched their speed and general meanderings. His mother was excited as well. The sun shone warmly through the windshield. Picking up speed and rounding the curve of the empty on-ramp, the two vehicles merged onto the highway, leaving RPI in their wake. It was official now. The era was over.

The drive back to Connecticut took four hours and for that length of time, the weather stayed chilly but sedate, though every once in a while, a wind gust would move the car to the side. The graduation was in the afternoon so they got home in the evening. Pulling into Tolland was accompanied by a predictable mix of emotions that could essentially be distilled down to: Hurray, I’m home. Fuck. And then there was pulling into the driveway. That was really strange. John’s mom tapped the buttons on the overhead garage door openers and like upper middle class sorcery, the front of the garage lifted in two places to reveal the brightening interior of the two-car parking space. The car pulled into the left space and the van pulled into the right.

Climbing out, John stretched and slammed the door shut behind him. It echoed sharply in the semi-enclosed space. His sister climbed out of the front passenger seat of the van. Their uncle, who was spending the night, climbed out of the van a few moments later and slowly drew on his jacket. He and John’s father were identical twins, though his uncle looked older and had grayer hair. Uncle Bob always claimed it was because their father secretly dyed his hair. Of course, no one believed him. Someone opened the door to the rest of the house.

Elle, his sister, spoke to him from the other side of the garage.

“Hey John, do you want to start moving your stuff inside now?”

“Yeah sure,” John said. He walked to the driver’s side of the car and popped the trunk. He went to the back of the car and looked at the trunk’s highly organized contents. He supposed the duffel bag was a good place to start. He handed this to his sister who accepted it helpfully and then turned back to ponder what to take out next. Decisions decisions. How about, um… the printer. No, the crate of books. Yes.

“Hey, could we speed this up a bit?” his sister asked.

“I’m coming, keep your shorts on.” He’d have preferred a substitution for shorts but his uncle was here and he wanted to keep up good appearances. He didn’t look up to see what her reaction was. He leaned over the back bumper and shimmied the crate of books to the back of the trunk. It was very heavy. He lifted it up. And they were off.

The house looked different. Every detail was more eye-catching. Old memories coalesced with new observations and false memories to produce an eerily heightened experience. The green digital clock above the stove. The total silence of the house. The big silver television in the corner of the family room. The shiny linoleum floor. From the dining room, the chime of the grandfather clock. Through the corridors of refreshed memories, they made their way upstairs.

John’s room was as he remembered it, just missing some things. He put the crate on the floor and looked at Elle.

“You can just drop that anywhere.” She lowered his bag to the floor. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” He was looking around his room when he suddenly realized she was looking at him.

“How does it feel to be back?” The question made him uneasy.

“Good.” This wasn’t the whole truth but he didn’t feel like giving her any info to use against him later. “Shall we?” They went back the way they came. Back through the dark corridors. Down the muffled steps, through the kitchen, where a light over the stove had been turned on. They went into the garage again, where his parents were unloading things from the car. John took a bag from them and his sister took one as well. They about faced and returned to the darkness. They didn’t talk as they went up the stairs, just made the sojourn as quickly as possible and then about faced again for the return trip. This went on for the next twenty minutes until finally they finished. John climbed inside the van to be sure and then climbed over the back seat, hopped out the back, and pulled down the rear door with the sound of exhaling pneumatics.

“All set?” his sister asked.

“Yep.” John went into the house. An instant later, he heard the sound of the garage door closing. He snapped off the garage light and went into the kitchen. His sister came in a moment later as he was taking off his shoes.

“Why did you turn the light off while I was still in there?”

John sighed. “I don’t know, I just did it. Habit.” John’s parents were walking upstairs and John went to follow their voices. He unzipped his jacket as he went. Sought the privacy of his own room. As he stepped into his room, the voices from up the hall died down. Good sound suppression. He let his jacket lie on the bed and sank into the swivel chair he had bought at college. It was gray and padded in all the right places. He lay back and sat in the low light, his eyes half closed. His breathing was slow. Ever so slowly, his eyes drifted to the box of stress balls on his desk.

He had a pleasant few days. Continued to wake up early. Ate a balanced breakfast. Yadda yadda yadda. In other words, maintained the mindset of a structured life that was engrained into all successful students over the course of a semester of sleepless nights, chemical stimulation, repetition and tasteless cafeteria food.

Sooner than he would have liked, a letter came in the mail. His name was typed in what looked like Ariel font. In the upper right corner of the white envelope it said, U.S. OFFICIAL MAIL U.S. POSTAGE. PENALTY FOR PERSONAL USE $300. A little left of that it said, Silver Spring MD in a red circle. And in the upper left, in an unambiguously federal font, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION. His eyes drooled downward. Immediately beneath, written in surprisingly casual handwriting, was Commissioned Personnel Center CPC. John’s pulse raced. His mouth went dry. His stomach drained of blood. And he had to reach over for the remote and turn off the television because all of a sudden, he couldn’t concentrate. Holy shit. This was it. This was it. He turned the envelope over in his hand a few times. His parents were at work. He was home alone. An egg was cooking on the stove. In the background, it sizzled.

If John was the type to bite his nails, he probably would have at that moment. He opened it. Took out the single piece of heavy manuscript paper.

Dear Mr. Marshall,

Thank you for applying to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps. We regret to inform you that due to medical reasons, we cannot accept you for a position.

He read on…

Ordinarily, John would have laughed. But this time he just sat silently on the couch. In the back of the kitchen, the stove continued to sizzle. The room drained of color. With it, the sound of the outside world. The stove, the washing machine in the faraway distance. He looked at his fingers. His smooth, unblemished, overworked fingers. His head lay back against the sofa and he stared forward. Until all he saw was the sun. The intense, blinding sun. He sank into numbness. He smelled smoke. His egg was burned.

Leaving the pan on the stove, John hopped onto his bike and rode down his driveway, into the street. It was getting to be evening. Accompanied by the light of a dying sun, he converged with a path leading into the woods. To one place he could get away from his life. His fucking life. It wasn’t a long ride which was just as well. At the entrance to the woods, there was a blue rectangle on one of the trees. John rubbed his right eye with his sleeve. All of a sudden, he found himself shouting. And as he did, the shouting got louder, until he was flat out screaming.

“Fucker! Fucking mother fucker! Fucking mother fucking cock ball crap shit cunt fuck! FUCK!” His voice echoed into the void as a flock of birds sprung from a nearby tree. He breathed heavily for a moment. As he did, his eyes locked onto the woods ahead. The trail vectored to the right, behind an outcrop. Overhead, the sky was streaked with high altitude clouds of ice crystals. He walked on.

The ground was slightly slippery. John didn’t hike really. Didn’t have the equipment hikers used, like lights or anything. All he had was a pair of sneakers. The trees stood over him like ancient obelisks. The wind whispered for him to turn back, because he would soon be unable to see. John ignored it. Ignored his own quickening heartbeat. Didn’t want to feel it. Wanted to sulk. The brightness of the woods was diminishing rapidly. Let it. The path arced upward, becoming free of detritus and revealing rock. Green moss grew on it. John summited the small rise in the path and started downward again. Behind him, the rear wheel of his bike chattered. Click click click click. He pressed on. To the left was another outcrop. Green lichen coated its gray surface. It was made up of two stone blocks, dipping away from him and to the left. The two blocks had separated from God knew how many years of erosion and wedging. And between them yawned a pitch black maw.

John suddenly realized how late it was. He looked to his right. The trees were bare. There was no living vegetation. Only decaying leaves and unsympathetic bark. In the far distance, rocks were stacked as part of an ancient stone wall. But the building it had encompassed and the people who had stacked it were long since gone from this Earth. Up the hill, behind the wall, a pale light emanated. Overhead, a bird called. John turned back towards the path up which he’d come. He could barely see it now. He took a step and a wet leaf disintegrated under his foot. He looked forward, daring himself to keep going, but knew he was too scared to go any farther. Ever so slowly, his heart rate steadied.

And that was when the bear walked into the path. It was black, maybe seven feet long. Its mouth was lighter than the rest of it and it was hunched over on all fours. Its snout bore two nostrils from which air inhaled and exhaled with jarring whooshes. Another black form emerged from the woods behind it. This one littler. It was a cub. Oh my God… Some part of the bike clinked. The cub stopped. As it did, the adult’s broad head turned around and its face locked onto John, who was starting to shake. The breathing through the bear’s nostrils got louder and John was still. Absolutely still. The animal regarded him. As it did, it got darker, until at last, he could barely see the bears at all, only managing to discern the mother’s outline, only hear its deep breathing.

John’s fingers tightened around the handlebars and he knew that that was how they would find him. Just after graduating from a prestigious university, the prodigy John Marshall was going to be mauled by a black bear. It would be tragic. Just like that. Just like his life. Game over. He couldn’t see his condensed breath but he knew it was there, dispersing from his face in a warm cloud. His fingers had begun to go numb and he knew he wasn’t able to dial his telephone for help any longer. He wondered if the bear knew how scared he was. Perhaps she was just as scared of him. How many hunters had killed harmless wolves because they frightened them? John suddenly felt very bad for those wolves. Wolves had families too.

Suddenly, the bear started on. John’s bike clicked again and it stopped. But then it started again. Another cub emerged from the woods and scampered after it. Her. Mom. They rumbled into the woods noisily. A stick snapped. Before long, the noise dissipated. But then another stick would snap and it would seem like they really hadn’t gone that far at all. She was giving him a wide berth. Spared. John was tempted to call it professional courtesy.

Whatever the case, what happened next was beyond his control. It was governed by something buried underneath his consciousness. Something primordial… Something even he was barely aware of. Something he had forgotten. Something that wasn’t directed by anxieties or logistics. Something free from them. Something that freed him as well. Something buried under years of ice and snow. Something she had made him forget. Something that only came to a person following a near death experience. Or a mental breakdown. It took control of his lips. And it made him smile.

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