One time, I guess it was about two weeks before graduation, I was hanging out in Lucas’ room with some remnants of the group in a kind of rag-tag reunion of sorts. Dustin and another buddy of ours, Noah, had come back to visit before everybody moved on, but before they’d have to sit around and fight the extra crowd and watch the actual graduation. My parents had decided to come down for it, for some reason. I’d told them not to bother, repeatedly, that there was no sense in driving almost eight hours to watch me walk fifty feet and grab a rolled-up paper with a ribbon on it from some guy. But I guess they were wound up about seeing me in Ye Olde Academicals (though I’d been specifically told to not chuck my mortarboard. Lame. I was ready to toss everything at that point). Even my grandparents wanted to make the stupid trip.
So, before we got overrun with relatives that nobody ever saw, and were ripped away from spending a little more time with the people we all actually sort of liked, Dustin, Noah, Lucas, Greg, me, and a fringe buddy name Marcus were milling about in Lucas’ room, taking advantage of his roommate being gone for the weekend. It had been hyped-up way beyond what we were then experiencing, but for my part, I was just happy people had actually gotten together this time and it wasn’t a repeat of Uncle Alex’s.
Granted, with a smaller crowd, it probably wouldn’t’ve gotten quite so out of hand, but, as I’d been informed not long before, anything could happen when Lucas and I were together (and that it was rarely as good as the two of us thought). Dustin and Noah had both made pit stops somewhere on the way to campus, jamming beer and liquor bottles in their respective backpacks before locking themselves inside the dorm room with us. I’d brought a few orphans as well, and Greg earned some serious points by climbing up on the roommate’s desk, moving a piece of drop tile ceiling, and pulling a full handle of vodka out of the ceiling that even Lucas didn’t know was there.
So, despite this being a potentially great start to things, after almost two hours we were all sort of just sprawled about, half watching an old action movie, and teetering on the dangerous edge of slow drinking. Occasionally, someone would gather up quarters and bills and head down to the lobby for pop or Gatorade, some kind of snack. (Alcohol we always remembered, things that might go with it, rarely.) Once or twice people had wandered out to smoke a cigarette. As the movie seamlessly transitioned into another equally forgettable one, the quiet, low-key atmosphere was clearly beginning to get to Lucas. And myself as well, truth be told.
After a half-hearted attempt to walk around and shake everyone by the shoulders, apparently trying to wake them up by just being super antsy himself, Lucas went over and stood in front of the tv, forcing people to either look at him or expend all the energy it would take to turn their heads.
Someone said, “Where?”
“I don’t know. Maybe nowhere, but jiminy, this is ridiculous. This is the last time we’re all gonna be here and all we’re doing--”
(Rarely in life can you pinpoint a phrase that changes everything. I mean, I don’t really know if MLK actually said the “if you can’t fly, then run” thing, or Disney and his “all dreams come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” Shoot, even that “journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” deal. I mean, I’ve heard all these before, but I’ve also heard “don’t use the popcorn button on the microwave” at least as many times and I couldn’t tell you who was the first to say any of these. What I can tell you though, is what Lucas said, the unassuming, normal, off-the-cuff comment with which he flipped the night. It was simply this.)
“--is watch these guys on tv punch stuff.”
I’d say you know where this is going, but I would like to point out our “Fight Club” plan only lasted about four minutes. The room was too small, nobody wanted to break Lucas’ stuff, and plus, as I’ve mentioned, everybody was pretty sluggish anyway. It was more like “Lackadaisical Swat Club.” Frustrated, Lucas grabbed his cigarettes from the desk and headed outside. After getting a quick, unexpected swat in the back of the head, I suddenly realized I wouldn’t mind leaving the area as well.
Outside, we sat in the stairwell at the end of the building. His room was on the second floor, giving us a reasonable view of most of campus. Yet another moment that, well, had we walked all the way down to the parking lot, things might’ve been totally different.
“Dude. This blows.”
I laughed. “Yeah it’s a little tamer than I expected. But, I don’t know, at least they’re here.”
He looked over at me. “Who the hell are you? What happened to the last big hurrah? Getting everybody together? I thought you were all wound up about being single again.”
I’d almost forgotten about it for a second. The fact that we were at the dorms instead of in the townhouse was something I’d been convincing myself was normal, that a change of venue could be fun. Thankfully, nobody mentioned the move (despite the fact I’m pretty sure there was only one person hanging out at my house) but I could constantly feel its weight. I wasn’t mad at him for saying it, but I also wasn’t about to let that shit slide.
I took a drag off my cigarette and looked out at the campus, trying to think of some incredible way to cap our college experience. All I saw was the same thing we’d seen for four years. The main buildings. The lib. Some double-wide married student housing and the trailer graveyard where the worn-out ones went to die. A girl we kind of knew was hanging out on a bench, reading under a street lamp while the dusk settled in. A couple people were wandering out to cars or going somewhere deeper into the circle of buildings.
I tried to think of the girl’s name. Supposedly it was something weird, but I’d never heard what it was. I couldn’t think of what she went by off the top of my head either, though, so… I knew she’d worked with me in the kitchen for awhile and seemed pretty cool, but neither her nor work-study freshman year gave me a whole lot of ideas. Lucas flicked his cigarette over the railing, not really checking to see if anyone was below us. He wasn’t *angry* per se, but he wasn’t exuberant either.
“C’mon,” I said. “We’ll think of something. Or not. I heard the other day that thinking isn’t my strong suit, anyway.”
He laughed, standing and stretching. “Fuuuuuuuuuck… All right. Let’s go not think.”
Back inside, the Swat Club had gotten a little more rowdy, people standing up and morphing it into a “Lackadaisical Shove Club,” which was at least a step in the right direction. They paused for a second when we walked in, then, just as the lock clicked shut, Noah gave Dustin a surprise shove that knocked him over the arm of the couch and onto the floor in the middle of the room.
Laying on the carpet, laughing, Dustin said, “All right. That was pretty good. I’ll pour.”
Apparently a new rule had been added, though none of us ever really understood what the point was. Nevertheless, the gang had somehow decided that if you got “bitch-shoved” you had to get the other guy a drink. The fact that this just meant you were pouring two shots instead of one, which is maybe the one skill we all practiced with frequency, seemed to be ignored. In fact, after Dustin clinked glasses with Noah, Greg and Marcus were pouring drinks for both themselves and Lucas and me.
And this is when things began to take a turn.
Less than an hour later, everyone had picked up a gale-force second wind, the tv constantly turned up louder, drinks spilled and refilled, bitch-shoves being perfectly timed where, just when you forgot about the game, you found yourself stumbling for balance. I’d taken up a seat on the back of the couch, not because I didn’t like getting shoved (I swear…) but because I could see everyone that way. People milled in and out fairly regularly, and how no one knew what we were doing is beyond me. I have to assume either most people in that wing were gone, or they were just basking in the delight that this was the last time they’d have to listen to us jackasses.
Greg and Dustin had run into town for pop, refills, an actual carton of cigarettes. While they unloaded inside, Lucas, Marcus, and I had made a quick step outside (a shove-free zone) and were smoking. The girl was still on the bench, which I thought was weird. That fuzzy alcohol time made me think she’d either been there for hours or Lucas and I had just been out five minutes ago. Probably neither was true, but it was a moonless night so it was kind of hard to tell. L and M were laughing about something, accidentally shoving someone through the window I think, when I had an idea.
“Dude! Guys! I’ve got it!” I flicked my cigarette over the railing and headed back in, almost laughing at my brilliant insight.
I gathered the group for a round of shots, a truce called on shoving for the time, and I laid out the plan. Part challenge, part release, part why-the-hell-not, we each had a couple more shots, emptied beer bottles, grabbed shoes and hats, stuffed cigarette packs in our pockets. Once everyone seemed halfway ready to go, I lit one more cigarette, said “Ready?”, and was promptly dragged out of the dorm. Nobody might’ve noticed the smell of alcohol, but cigarette smoke was a no-go. Appaaaaaarently…
We stumbled down the steps and started across campus, an obvious pack of what one would likely call idiots. But, at that point, none of us could’ve cared less. We were on our way to do something, together, maybe for the last time.
We walked by the girl, her looking up and putting a bookmark between her pages, apparently getting ready to head back in. A few of the guys said hi, or invited her with us (though refusing to tell her where we were going, so, I’m sure *that* was a tempting offer). About thirty feet down the sidewalk, I turned back.
She looked over at us.
“Um, nevermind! I don’t have anything to say!” I said. “But that’s your name right?!”
She laughed. “Yeah.”
“Okay! See ya after bit!”
We slipped across the grass, through some trees, Marcus and Noah giving me a hard time about the girl.
“Kinda late to be putting the moves on somebody isn’t it?”
“Oh but he’s single now.”
“Yeah, man, that’s crazy.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No, dude. I mean it’s crazy you tricked her into hanging out with you that long.”
“Fuck you,” I laughed. “I can be charming.”
About ten minutes later, we were standing (or maybe more accurately, crouching and hiding) between a pair of trailers in the middle of the graveyard.
Dustin-- “Told you.”
Me-- “Just a hiccup. Besides, you’re a problem-solver. Wow us. This is a group effort after all.”
He looked around a minute. “All right. Hang on.”
Greg lit a cigarette, Lucas immediately swatting his hand down. “Cup that shit, dude.”
“You act like we’re robbing a fucking bank man. Relax.”
“I’m just saying.”
For clarification’s sake, it wasn’t a huge deal that we were out wandering around. It was kind of secretly frowned on, being in the graveyard. It maybe made us delinquents or something, but there was no hard and fast rule about it, as far as anyone could recall. Just the “No Trespassing” signs dangling from a wire fence that circled the dead single- and double-wides. But those could mean anything.
“This is so stupid,” Noah laughed.
“Backing out?” Marcus.
“No, no. Just saying. But, then again, it sort of makes perfect sense, given who all is sitting here.”
Laughs all around, just as Dustin reappeared from around the end of the trailer.
“Shit, dude,” Lucas. “That was fast.”
Dustin smiled a little, way more proud of his bizarre skills than he wanted even us to know. “Well, I didn’t really have to do much.”
“You pick the lock? Or wait, are they just open?” Noah looked around. “We only checked that one,” he laughed.
“No, not anything like that. I mean they aren’t open for sure, even the windows are locked,” he barely kept a laugh in at this bit of info, “But we don’t need to bother with that route. These things have been sitting here for years. Nobody really cares what happens to them, so from what it looks like, this has basically become a high-end resort for raccoons and squirrels and whatever other little woodland creatures are looking for a more sophisticated hang-out.”
He led us toward the dirt road in the center of the dump, and then down a few trailers. Picking one, he kept ducking down, looking underneath, finally stopping just past the front door. He knelt down in the tall grass beside it. “Check this out.”
He disappeared under the trailer, Lucas looking at me with “are we supposed to follow” type eyes, the others just kind of milling about. We were basically used to these types of moves from Dustin, though random, like, trailer-spelunking was certainly a new one. A few seconds later, the front door popped open.
“Make yourselves at home.”
We scrambled up into the trailer, boosting and shoving one another through the door which, without the usual steps (they were all in a heap at the back of the lot), was a little over waist high on most of us. Inside, Dustin flicked on a flashlight (because, of course, he’d have one) and led us around. Marcus and Noah turned the lights on their cell phones on and we took the grand tour.
“They’re all basically the same, I’m pretty sure,” Dustin was saying. “I mean, not exactly, but I bet there’s gotta be at least a few more like this. Just be careful where you’re walking. He shone the light down on the floor, illuminating a two foot empty space and the grass beneath us. So simple.
We wandered around for a bit, slipping in and out of trailers, in pairs and groups, looking through cupboards and closets, somehow believing we were going to find some random thing, some forgotten item that would just blow our minds. In the end, of course, it was a lot of old syllabi with mouse crap on them, garbage the coons had dragged in or the people had left behind, an occasional left-over utensil or dish in the kitchens. Greg made the big find--an old condom wrapper in a back bedroom, which obviously started the grand debate of whether it was from the people who’d lived there, or someone else later, and if so, what girl would actually want to have sex in a busted up trailer graveyard? The list of names was longer than we expected, though half of them were said just to put the cringing image in our heads.
After about an hour, we all gathered in the living room of one of the more centrally located abandoned homes. Apparently, everyone had pocketed a souvenir without telling the others. A bent spoon (“Dudes, Uri Gellar went here?”). A nickel. Even I had a black hair tie around my wrist. Relics were compared and traded like we were in a secret clubhouse. After a minute, I broke up the negotiations.
“Okay, okay. We can barter later. It feels like it’s time.” I looked out the window at the far side of the trailer. “Before we get carried away, and not because I’m being a pansy, but because, I don’t know, this just makes sense to do, here’s the plan. Aw shit, *this* is why we should’ve brought Elsby. Haha.” I gave a brief rundown of my thoughts, amended only slightly by the others, and we lined up.
“Okay,” Dustin stood off to the side, apparently our new master of ceremonies. “Everybody gets one turn, and then we move on to the next one. I can’t imagine it’ll take more than that but, I mean, has anyone done this before?”
For some reason all eyes went to Lucas.
He laughed, exhaling cigarette smoke. “Really? I mean, okay, I guess it makes sense, but no. How hard can it be though? Those guys in that movie were kicking ass earlier.”
I smiled. “Well, hey, there you go. Documented evidence. We’re really gonna look like jackasses if this doesn’t work now, though. So, thanks.”
Dustin started to say something, using his big science-y brain, but was immediately boo-ed by everyone. “Just sayin’,” he stage-whispered.
“Okay, guys, c’mon” I said. “Surely that’s all anyone has to say. Good grief. Well, that and please, please will someone, or maybe more-so, everyone, try and keep an eye out for that stupid security truck. Oh, and, I know this sounds stupid, but if things do go that way, it’s every man for himself. Scatter like…” I came up short. Thankfully my wonderful pals were there.
“Like your ass depends on it.” Greg.
“Like chaff before the wind.” I’ll let you guess that one.
“Pocket change in front of beggars.” Marcus, bringing us all down.
“Like the bones of dead bodies. Torn from one another by wolves. After a battle.”
“Lucas, what the fuck?”
“Anyway, scatter like whatever you want, though hopefully not like whatever the hell Lucas is talking about. Point is, whoever gets back to the dorm first, please turn the damn lights off. We’re probably already on the top of the shit list for tonight as is.”
“Whatever man. It doesn’t make me wrong.”
“All right!” Greg said, pumped up in a way that was both a little strange and a lot contagious. “Let’s go!”
He whirled around, shoved Dustin out of the way, and threw a haymaker at one of the small windows above where I guess a couch would have been. It was a pretty good swing, and I imagine he’d’ve popped the window without any trouble. Had his aim been a little better anyway. He connected with the metal frame dead center between the panes, immediately letting loose a string of profanity and laughter.
“Nice shot there, Mr. Lee.”
“Fuck, dude,” he laughed. “Shine the fucking light on it at least.”
“Just aim, jackass.”
Marcus pushed him back a bit. He shook his head a bit, a slight grin on his face. “Well, here goes nothing.” He was lightning fast, something I don’t think anyone realized until that very second. The glass shattered, he checked his knuckles, smiled, and all hell broke loose.
The reasonable plan of people keeping an eye out for security was immediately forgotten as we scrambled over one another, looking for the perfect window, challenging one another to made-up-on-the-spot dares and bets, laughing when someone threw a wild punch into the frame or, worse, the panelling, but then immediately trying to punch a hole in the panelling. Minus the pig head and the murder, we were all suddenly living “The Lord of the Flies.”
We slipped in and out of holes in floors, shoving each other out of the way to be the first into a fresh trailer, separating and colliding, flowing through the graveyard like ghosts. If ghosts were half-drunk, profane, and cracking themselves up like they were eleven years old and somebody had just made a fart joke. I’d paired off with Lucas initially, though at some point he disappeared. Noah and I took out one whole trailer on our own, and then Marcus joined us in the next, making it a race to see who could break the most glass.
After a manic twenty minutes, we’d all assembled on the dirt path, laughing, panting, extremely proud of ourselves for not one single good reason. We looked around the small circle, not intentionally savoring the moment, but each of us taking a mental snapshot, feeling the feelings, grabbing the second in a deathgrip, bonding over nothing. And it was good.
“Okay,” Noah said. “I’ve got an idea. Well, two actually. First of all, we are loud as fuck. So I don’t know how long we should stick around here. Two, let’s get in that guy over there.”
He led us back to a dingy, sagging trailer. It looked like it used to be blue, but it was anybody’s guess, really. He and Dustin crawled underneath, mutterings of “shit” and “hang on” and “seriously?” being the only preview to the crunching and tearing sound that followed. It was all laughter after that. Pieces of flooring were thrown out at our feet, banging off shins, scratching us with old nails. A minute later the door opened.
“It ain’t the purtiest thing, but if ya’ll wanna try the new trap-door, ya’ll better get to gettin’.” Noah slammed the door shut, the click of the lock, while completely irrelevant by this point, somehow presented a challenge and we scrambled underneath, slipping through the hole, ripping t-shirts and cutting arms as we clambered up inside.
Noah was standing dead center, directing each of us as we were birthed through the floor. Lucas came in last, following Noah’s guidance like it was the most normal thing in the world. He took his position next to me at the giant plate glass window, the only one we’d found so far. Throughout the trailer, the other four were posted up by their own individual panes.
“All right,” Noah hollered from behind us, loud enough for basically God and everybody to hear him, “On three! One! Two!”
“Oh, fuck!” This was from Marcus, who was positioned toward the front of the trailer. And more importantly, positioned in the one spot where you could see the headlights making their way down the gravel path from the campus to the graveyard.
Immediately, despite where we were each standing (Greg and Dustin were in the back bedroom and basically blind to everything), everyone knew. And a split-second after that, everyone started laughing.
Six fists met glass, five windows exploded, and half a dozen men-children about peed themselves with laughter.
“Now get the fuck home!”
Despite being mocked earlier, and choose your favorite simile here, we scattered like we’d been practicing it all our lives. Bodies slipped down through the hole in the floor with the precision of acrobats. The front door was nearly torn off the hinges as we scrambled to get to the ground, trying to either race back, or at least get out of sight. I could be wrong, but I swear it couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds until I was alone, crouched behind a trailer, seeing one silhouette quickly dive behind a pile of old tires and broken appliances, and the graveyard went silent.
The truck made its way to the middle of the area, stopping between the ends of two trailers. I crouched lower, practically laying on the ground. I heard the door open, saw the feet step out, and hazarded a peek around the end of my cover. He (whoever he was, most of the “security” was just work-study kids, but I didn’t recognize this guy) flicked on a flashlight, said something into his walkie-talkie, and shone the beam around in a slow circle. Seeing nothing (which baffled me) he started walking up the road, shining the light back and forth as he went.
In what was probably the exact kind of stupid thing the girl would’ve laid into me for, I had the brilliant idea to follow him, slipping from trailer to trailer, for no real reason other than I thought I could. After about eight or ten, we were getting close to the end of the graveyard. Behind me, an old tree reached up and out over the back corner of the lot. Feeling froggy, I slipped around behind it, grabbed a low-hanging branch, and ever so slowly pulled myself up. It wasn’t my best plan ever, but surprisingly, the leaves didn’t rustle terribly, and they did give me fairly decent cover.
Sap, or something was leaking out of it, and I had to continually wipe my hands on my pants to get rid of the feeling, but from where I was perched, I could see the whole place. The guard was making his way back to the truck, still talking into his walkie, still shining the light around like he was an actual cop. The most amazing part, though, was that I didn’t see another breathing soul. We’d vanished. We were invisible men.
I watched him as he climbed in the truck and crept back down my way, still shining his flashlight out the driver’s side. The truck made a slow turn in my direction, heading straight for the tree. At about two miles an hour, he began an agonizingly slow U-turn underneath me and pointed the truck back at campus. I could’ve jumped in the bed as long as he sat there. Finally, (bored, I assume) he pulled out, back up the dirt path, past the little poles marking the entryway, and up toward campus again.
As the tail lights dimmed with distance, I couldn’t suppress a laugh. I wiped my hands off again, climbed down a few branches, and hopped down to the ground. I began picking my way back through the trees to a small creek that followed the perimeter of the campus. It wasn’t the most direct route, but the darkness and tree trunks kept me hidden, and, besides snagging my clothes and scratching my arms on some thorn bushes, I made it nearly back to the dorms without much trouble. A quick dash across an open field and through the parking lot (making sure to give the lights a wide berth), and I was basically home. I glanced up at Lucas’ room as I made my way to the stairwell. Dark as could be.
I smiled and took the stairs two at a time, easing into the building and up to the dorm door without seeing a soul. I was just turning the handle when I started to hear the voices. The laughter. The completely unsuccessful attempt of drunk kids trying to whisper. I slipped inside, my hand on the light switch.
“So who all’s here?”
“Me.” “Me.” “I am.”
“Thanks, ya jackasses.”
“Dude it’s all of us. We were just waiting on you. Turn the damn light on already.”
I’ll save you the next few hours. In a way that only a half a dozen bouncing-off-the-wall guys can, we reenacted, talked over one another, probably embellished, laughed, and cheered ourselves on with any bit of liquor within arm’s reach. Each story was different, each story was the same. Each story was totally unique and yet belonged to all of us. At some point, Lucas drew my attention to the fact that it wasn’t sap on my hands, rather I had apparently sliced my knuckles open, presumably on the last window.
“You look like a damn murder victim,” he laughed.
I looked down at my clothes. Blood was smeared across my shirt, my pant legs, my arms.
“It’s on your head, dude!”
I walked over to the mirror above a little sink in the corner. “Holy shit,” I laughed, running the water and trying to clean off. “It won’t stop!” Somehow, this was the funniest part of the night as we all wet paper towels and tried to clean up the crime scene I had inadvertently turned the room into. “What’d you expect?” Dustin laughed. “You just gashed your hand open after ingesting blood thinner for three hours.”
Of course, none of us could think of anything funnier than that. I ended up running down to the lobby and nicking more paper towels from the kitchenette, wrapping my hand as best I could, and rejoining the festivities.
As the clock pushed ahead, and the bottles emptied, the soldiers in our little troop slowly knocked off. Lucas, the last to go, eventually crashed mid-sentence, hanging halfway off the bed bunked above his desk.
I clambered over the bodies, moving full cups and empty bottles over by the sink, basically the only safe place I could think of. I thought about trying to arrange everyone, but realized I’d likely just smear blood on them from my still slowly leaking hand. I sat down, leaning back against the door, sipping a drink that was basically straight rum with a tear-drop of gatorade in it. The clock said 3:40. I smiled a little, shaking my head.
After a few minutes, I downed what remained of my drink, mixed another, and promptly forgot about it in my search for a pack of cigarettes that still had any in it. Someone had left a new box of Pall-Malls sitting on top of the tv. It was a communal group, I figured, so, thanking the mysterious Vonnegut fan in the room, I slipped the pack in my pocket, grabbed a lighter off the desk and headed out to the stairwell, tossing my bloody paper towels in a trash can at the end of the hall.
I walked down to the sidewalk in front of the building, a little more wobbly than I’d expected. I sat down on the curb, almost tipped over backwards while digging the cigarettes out of my pocket, and then decided I had meant to lay down anyway. I stuck a cigarette in my mouth, lit it, and dripped blood on my cheek. I laughed a little as I rubbed it away, but in the moment, it felt too similar to wiping away a tear. I wasn’t sappy (in either way). I had people around. I didn’t need the girl. I didn’t need a plan. I could just be happy that a good thing had happened, even if it was a little weird.
I looked up at the sky, letting the liquor flow in me, spiralling me down, twisting me back up, off to the side, slipping me into dark, familiar, disorienting places. I watched the stars, letting them go in and out of focus, thinking about the last four years. In some ways they felt like a complete waste. Yes, I had a degree, or was about to, assuming we didn’t get expelled twelve days before escaping. And I had picked up some fun facts along the way. But in the end, it sort of felt like the world’s most expensive sleepover.
I hadn’t really grown. I had changed, I guess, but after two years of hitting it pretty heavy, I was already beginning to feel like this was who I’d always been. Always chasing something, always feeling a step behind. Never understanding other people, what I was supposed to do, how to make it out of the limbo.
And despite what everyone kept saying, this wasn’t the liquor’s fault. Liquor was just the scapegoat, something others, and even myself, used as an excuse. A way to say “if you just stop this, things will be okay.” But no one seemed to see how this was just a crutch. Or at least they didn’t see it in the right light. Alcohol wasn’t there to help me through, but to give me a battle to pretend to fight. Because I at least knew the rules here. I at least understood how it worked. If the drink was “to blame” for anything, it was just for allowing me to see all this. Maybe not even see things, though. Maybe just admit what I’d known all along. This wasn’t a life from a bottle. This was all in me. Of me. From me. Mine. Autochthonous.
It was dark, and somehow I revelled in it. This was the end of something and I had no idea how to find a way to the next beginning. This was basically it. I came alone and I’d leave alone. Kind of a decent metaphor, I guess.
I’d always wondered about people who buy their burial plots ahead of time. I guess a lot of people do, but it’s got to be a real mind-fuck when you sign the papers and see the spot for the first time. No matter what you do after that, you could save a hundred kids from a burning building or just watch the flames, but no matter where you fell on the spectrum, you’d end up in that hole. Travel all you want, run anywhere you can, but you have reserved your ending already. One major mystery in life, what happens after you die, was simply and succinctly solved. You get your guts pulled out, your blood drained. Your family dresses you up in something; everybody is mad or sad or indifferent. They lug your literal dead weight around in an even heavier box, and they drop you in that hole. Cover you up with dirt, brush off their hands, and it’s back to life. Really, in the end, your final gift to the world is making other people clean up your mess.
I guess I at least didn’t need to worry about them being surprised.
I flicked the cigarette off to the side, not bothering to look where it went, just fumbling around in my pocket to find the pack I’d forgotten was sitting on the sidewalk beside me.
“Hey. You trying to light me on fire?”
I rolled my head over to the right, surprised, but so deadened by the night and the rum that it didn’t really register for a second. Somebody was standing there, backlit, looking down at me.
“Sorry man,” I slowly sat up, finally noticing the cigarettes beside me.
“What’re you doing? Just hanging out?”
“Yeah, pretty much I guess.” I put another cigarette between my lips, flicking the lighter.
“I assume you know you’re bleeding all over the place, right?”
I looked at my hand. “Yeah, it’s been doing that off and on. It’ll stop soon. Or eventually, one way or the other.”
She (I could finally see as she approached) came over and sat down beside me. “Are you all right? I mean, besides the hand.”
“Yeah.” I looked down at my feet. “I’m all right. You?”
“Not bad. Can’t sleep.”
“Yeah it’s pretty late. Or early. Whatever you mean. Or, I mean. I mean.”
She laughed a little, toying with the cuffs of an unbuttoned old work shirt she was apparently using as a jacket. “I heard rumors things were getting a little rowdy on the second floor this evening. Looks like they were right.”
“God takes care of drunks and children,” I said. “Though I’m not real sure which side of the line we came down on there tonight.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it; it’s practically the same. They even both have last bottles, when you think about it.”
I exhaled smoke, smiling. “I never thought of that, but yeah I guess you’re right. I’m sure I will someday. Someday has to be the first day, right?”
“‘One way or the other,’” she laughed.
“I don’t know if anything I said tonight ever needs to be quoted.”
“What do you mean? You guys looked like you were going on a grand adventure when you took off for, well, wherever you all went.”
I looked over. “Oh. Shit. I mean shoot. Dang. Hey…”
“Elsby, is I believe what you were hollering earlier,” she pushed up the brim of an Expos ball cap so I could see her face.
“Yeah, I knew,” I lied.
She deftly saved us from an awkward pause where I just sat and second-guessed myself.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I just don’t usually go by my last name. I guess I could try it out. Makes me feel like a jock.”
“Yeah, you’re right. You have a weird name, don’t you?”
“Elsby? I don’t know. My dad said it’s English. That’s not super weird, is it?”
“No,” I flicked some ash, trying to pull it together. “Sorry, I’m not usually up this late. And that’s not what I meant. Maybe I’m thinking of someone else.”
She smiled a little. “No, you’re right. I do have a weird name. But, I’ve been going by Elizabeth. Seems a bit less of an attention-grabber.”
“You just picked a new name? Shit. You can do that?”
“Well, I mean, technically I suppose, yes. But, that’s just my middle name. It’s not like I gave myself a new nickname. Or if I had, and I’d picked Elizabeth, you would officially have my permission to shun me for glaring lack of creativity.”
I laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind. Oh, sorry. I’m Cole. I’d shake your hand, but…”
“I know who you are, Cole. Or should I follow suit?” To my very evident surprise, she leaned back and yelled, “Porter! Hey man! That’s your name!” at the sky.
“Okay, okay, geez. You’re gonna wake everybody and their monkey. I was just excited. Gimme a break.”
“Wow. I didn’t realize I had that effect on people.”
“No, not about you.”
“Sorry, not like that. I mean, just. Well, like…”
“Relax. I’m just screwing around. I try to keep a low-profile anyway.”
“Keep the suitors at bay?”
She glanced over at me. “Yeah. That’s toooootally it.”
Honestly, and I really don’t think it was beer goggles, I was sort of realizing for the first time she was actually a very attractive young lady. Even in the most pedestrian outfit. Gold and brown plaid over a green tank top. Cut-off jeans shorts. Shoes with no socks, and of course, the hat.Thinking back to our kitchen days, to her in an apron with her hair pulled back and the required few strands of hair plastered to her forehead with sweat and steam, she still somehow pulled off the look. I was wondering how I’d been there for four years and never seen it before. Girl blinders maybe.
“Dude. It was a joke. Quit staring at me. You’re freakin’ me out.”
I laughed. “Sorry, sorry. I was just thinking. Well, one, are the Expos even a team anymore?”
She shrugged. “I just liked the hat. Did you ever notice it’s an M?” She took it off and looked at it, showing me. “I just realized that like six months ago.”
“Um, yeah. But maybe you can share that with people if you’re ever afraid they’re thinking you’re too jock-ish.”
She grinned and put the hat back on. “Noted.”
“Anyway,” I started again, resisting the urge to point out that, on other apparel, she might see a big C, and that it stood for Cubs. She was being nice, though. “So, but, this is kind of weird though, right? Like, we’ve known each other since basically the first day of college and I think this is the only conversation we’ve ever had that didn’t involve the term ‘chicken fingers.’”
“Well, I mean, I’m sure we could work it in if need be. They are pretty tasty in this joint.”
“That’s weird too, actually. Now that you say it, I mean. They are good here. We should go get some.”
“Oh, okay,” she reached over and grabbed the cigarettes, a ‘may I?’ look from her eyebrows. I passed her the lighter. “So, that’s your plan then? Have a smoke, scale the building, kick on the fryers and have ourselves a little picnic?”
“I’m sure there’s a way in. It can’t be that hard.” I almost, but not quite, barrelled into the story of the evening. Instead I settled for, “You just have to know where to look.”
“Could be,” she said. “But I’m okay for now, I think. One problem at a time. And my current one is wondering if I’m ever going to fall asleep. I guess getting dressed was somewhat counter-productive, but wandering around in pjs and slippers didn’t seem exactly classy.”
I sat for a second, then figured, why not? “I know it’s not technically viewed as a wonderful pastime here, but I guess I left a drink upstairs. I was gonna go grab it, if you’d care to join. Out here I mean, though. It’s kind of a disaster up there.”
She whispered something off to the side I couldn’t catch.
“Hm? Oh,” she hugged her knees a little. “It’s just a thing I heard one time. ’Come on by and pick your poison; the list is endless and there’s plenty to go ‘round.’”
“What is that? A poem?”
She looked over at me and smiled a little. “No. Or maybe. I don’t really know, I guess.”
“Well,” I said, “hopefully there is plenty to go ’round, now that I’m making offers. But we oughtta try. I mean, you’re already quoting poetry, in regular clothes even, so you’ve *really* got the jump on your classy thing, if that worries you.”
“Haha. Cocktails on the sidewalk. Tres chic.”
“All right, fancy pants. Would it help if I dressed it up?” I cleared my throat. “Could I interest you in a nightcap, or...something, madam? We’ve got some, um, libations upstairs.”
“What? Surely you jest,” she laughed, putting a hand to her chest in a dainty gesture. “Are you perchance alluding to aqua vitae?”
“Ardent spirits, even.”
“Well my dearie me. It has been well-nigh a fortnight since John Barleycorn has deigned to call.”
“Most certainly not.”
I laughed. “Do you want anything or not, ya weirdo.”
“Jeepers. Tis a hair-trigger on m’lord’s blunderbuss this fair eventide. May a lady request a snifter of brandy?”
“I kind of doubt it.”
“Heavens. Fie to me, indeed. My, my, my, my, my. It nearly causes one to dash one’s madeleine, sir,” she laid the back of her hand across her forehead, heaving a sigh to the stars. “Crumble me crumpets, even.”
“Hey, just be happy if there’s anything left. Also that last bit makes you sound like a very un-feared pirate.”
“Haha. Very true. Really I’d be interested in finding out just how much *is* actually left. You guys looked to be in quite the fine mood last time I saw ya.”
I kind of looked around. “Well, y’know. Guys in from out of town and all.”
“It’s okay. Seriously. No judgment here. I thought I saw Dustin. And then was that Noah?”
“Yeah.” For some reason, I felt a little pang of jealousy. Unbeknownst to me, I’d already begun debating on whether I’d share this little tryst as the end-of-the-night story for the guys, or keep it as a secret, totally mine and hers. “They came down to visit before graduation gets all wack-a-doodle.”
She let out a laugh, puffing smoke up into the air, coughing a little. “You know, given the spectrum of stories I’ve heard about you over the years, wack-a-doodle has never once come up.”
I smiled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, I mean, come on, you don’t think you’re really that sneaky do you?”
“This is really weird.”
“Well, yeah, kinda. I thought I always kept to myself mostly.”
“Everybody’s got ears to hear and lips to gossip.”
I sat for a second, thinking. “Is it weird if I ask what you’ve heard?”
“Revel in your own legend?” she laughed. “Not at all. Lemme think.”
“Take your time,” I stood up, a little shaky but mostly under control. “I’m gonna go get that drink. And probably some paper towels. Sure you don’t want anything?”
“Technically I never said I didn’t, my liege. Whatcha got? Actually, no. Surprise me. If I’m gonna have a drink with Cole Porter, I want the full experience. Except just the little baby girl size experience. I want to sleep, but not all the way through tomorrow.”
I shook my head a little. “This is going to be a real interesting chat, I think.”
She smiled. “We shall see.”
About forty-five minutes and another drink later, after she’d picked glass out of two of my knuckles (promptly starting a fresh flow of blood) we were both laughing at me. And really, I didn’t mind it so much. “Man,” I said, “I had no idea I’d been this busy.”
“I know. It’s really pretty impressive when you get down to it. One would never think you could’ve crammed all that into four years.”
I shook my head. “You know basically none of that is true, right? I don’t know how it got started, or if I just became the scapegoat for anything anyone thought of, but I’m almost disappointed in myself.”
“Oooohh nowww. Don’t say that. I mean, the one about the church bells,” (apparently at some point I had snuck into the campus church and changed the recording of bells to some rave tune, which, c’mon), “that one I wouldn’t mind claiming. Minus the one glaring problem of course.”
“That we have both been here for four years and that has never happened?”
“Pretty much. But who knows? A guy that slept in the president’s house, while he was there.... That guy would have to be pretty sneaky.”
“This is just too weird.”
“Well, if it helps,” she rubbed a cigarette out on the asphalt, “I didn’t really believe any of them. In fact,” she giggled a little, “I very well might have made some of them up.”
“What? You’ve been stringing me along?”
“Oh c’mon. People wouldn’t have time to do anything *except* talk about you if all these had been accurate. You can’t be that much of a narcissist.”
“The best one you know. I mean, if you’re not gonna make a spectacle of yourself, who’s gonna?”
“Hm,” she put her chin on her hand. “That doesn’t sound like the Cole I’ve heard so much about.”
“You caught me. It’s from a piece of inspirational wall-art I have over my desk.”
“Not something your granny used to say?”
“Well, now it is,” I shoved her a little, surprised at my forwardness. “Besides, narcissistic or not, whatever you wanna label me with, it’s not my fault anyway.” This was my secret pet theory that I swore was a joke, but was also kind of starting to believe.
“Go ahead. I’ll bite. Oh but first, what exactly am I drinking here, by the way?”
“Um…” I scratched my neck, prompting her to a) laugh more, and then b) start rubbing paper towels all over me.
“We didn’t bring these down here for nothin’, man,” she deftly dodged my attempts to swat her hands away. “You don’t have some weird disease, right?”
“You oughtta know. Consult your notes.”
“I’ll ask around.”
“Please don’t. I like believing I’m healthy. Ish. Anyway, you are drinking what I guess Lucas would call a Suicide. It’s kind of, well, it’s--”
“Whatever you found left over? I’ve seen a fountain drink machine before.”
“I mean, technically, yeah. But it has a name at least.”
“Which oddly does make it seem either very much less, or very much more, po’ boy. Anyway, on with the scoop. Who am I to blame for you?”
I winced a little but carried on, sure this would wow her. “S.E. Hinton.”
She looked over at me, actually appearing to think on it.
“From ’The Outsiders.””
“Yeah, I know. I’m just trying to figure out how a high school girl is to blame here.”
“She set the bar too high, man. Nobody should be writing classic novels before they graduate high school. What are guys like me supposed to do then? I’ve spent my whole life, or at least since somebody so kindly shared that little fun fact with me, trying to catch up to a girl from the ’60s. It’s not right.”
“Well, obviously. I mean, one couldn’t just be happy for her. Appreciate her work and such.”
“Of course not. Geez, dude. Do you see the kind of pressure that puts on every other kid, ever? Of course I’m narcissistic. If I didn’t spend all day thinking about myself and trying to believe I’m destined for great things, I wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance of accidentally doing something.”
She raised an eyebrow, kind of bobbing her head back and forth noncommittally.
“Okay, look,” I decided to try a new angle, “do you want to hear something weird? I’ve never actually told anybody this.”
I took a drag off my cigarette.“So, I was home a while back, and we were going through this file of crap my parents had kept with like my birth certificate and all that junk in it. They were basically trying to spring clean by giving me all my shit, cleverly disguised as helping me be independent, of course. Anyway, for some unknown reason, my folks had kept all my report cards and standardized test evaluations and junk. So I’m looking through them for no good reason really, and you know what I found?”
“Not a clue.”
“I peaked already. I’m not even out of college and I’ve peaked.”
“Interesting. When was this?”
I sighed a little, rubbing my eyes and hoping this sounded more mirthful than pathetic. “Second. Fuckin’. Grade.”
She laughed. Loud. “What? That doesn’t even make sense. How could you have peaked when you didn’t even know, like, cursive yet?”
“Because that is indeed the sign of a truly well-rounded education. I don’t know,” I said. “But you can’t really argue with the numbers. In second grade I was in the ninety-ninth percentile in nearly every area they tested. I think my lowest number was ninety-seven.”
She laughed again, doing a fake little bowing-to-the-gods impression. “I am truly humbled to be in your presence, O Great One. Please, please, don’t smite me when I beg you to perchance enlighten me on the eternal mysteries of which are fruits and which are vegetables…”
I shook my head, taking a drink. “Just sayin’.”
“Yeah me too, ya turd. But since we’re getting all real here, do *you* wanna know a secret?”
“My lowest number was ninety-eight! Hahahaha!”
“Dead serious, man. Scouts honor. I can’t guarantee you it was second grade, but somewhere in there I got a ninety-eight. Once.”
“Fuckin’ of course. So you’re my new Hinton, huh?”
“Oh relax. Do you not see the point here?”
“No, I guess not. Must be that one point difference.” I flicked my fingers, sending droplets of blood out in the parking lot.
“Cole, relax. Seriously. Look, we’ve spent at least an hour, and a really nice hour actually, hanging out in the middle of the night. There’s no reason to be here, but here we are. You claim you peaked in second grade; I was just boringly consistent, and at the end of it all, we are eighteen inches apart, at the same school, drinking Thunder Elixir--”
“Ugh, fine, but mine’s better. Drinking ‘Suicides’ and enjoying an evening. I don’t think one point has made a huge difference in our lives. Besides, if you were the next S.E. Hinton I’d be sitting here by myself right now, and I don’t see that as being quite so entertaining.”
“You sound like my mom.”
“Yeah. It’s like health class in sixth grade. In college all the girls have a special course we go to where they make us practice our diction and memorize our lines. I’m not sure what you guys are doing then. Dodgeball maybe.”
I didn’t say anything for a second, watching the blood slowly drip off my finger. Surely I had to be running out.
“Hey,” she said. “Look. All I’m saying is, if that one point is what brought you here tonight, I’m glad it did. I learned a lot.”
“Haha. That apparently I’m a fraud and the Suicides may as well be Snake Oil?”
“I don’t know about that; the drinks certainly seem to be working. But, it’s true. I mean, like you said. We’ve known each other for four years and this is the first time we’ve ever talked. Maybe it’s hokey, or weird, or whatever, but I’m glad we got to sneak it in before this whole trainwreck comes to an end.”
“That is the perfect description for it.”
“I’m sorry about you and the girl by the way. But you two didn’t really fit. In my head, anyway.”
“Good grief. Is there like a newsletter or something?”
“Nah, just the effects of a small school. I bet you know a lot more than you realize if you’d just sit down and think about it. That probably goes for a lot of things, actually.”
“I don’t know,” I scooted back a little, getting some concrete between my legs and pulling out another cigarette. “I still don’t know your mystery name.”
“Ahhh. A very good point. Now you have a goal. And a timeline.”
“My last assignment, huh?”
“I’d be honored.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes. I was actually comfortable, somehow. There wasn’t the need for the rush, the emptiness of just being regular. She was looking out at the parking lot; I was sipping a warm drink, and it was just, okay. Like, in a decent way.
“Hey,” she said after a minute. “You wanna hear something bizarre? I swear it relates.”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Okay, so, you know roulette, right? Or like the basic idea?”
“Reds and blacks and such?”
“Perfect. That’s all we really need you to get. So, this was like a hundred years ago. Nineteen-thirteen, I think. Not that it matters. But it was in Monte Carlo, not that that matters either. Anyway, this was like one of the biggest gambling flukes in history. So let’s say you’re there and you wanna bet on either red or black. What’re your odds? And it’s not a trick question.”
“Right. So that seems like a pretty safe, or at least fair deal. What do you think are the odds of two of the same color in a row?”
“Um, one in four?”
“Exactly,” then, in a sing-songy voice, “I see your ninety-niiiiinesss showing throooouuugh…”
I rolled my eyes.
She laughed, taking her hat off and running a hand through her hair. “Anyway, so what do you think the odds are of getting, say, twenty-six blacks in a row?”
“I’m not even gonna try and figure it out. Is that okay?”
“Yeah. It’s fine. I looked it up once anyway. It’s about one in sixty-six point six million.”
“Oh. Well, of course. It’s cursed. I don’t know how I didn’t just assume that.”
She swatted me with her ball cap. “Okay, but look. Let’s say you’re there, and you’ve been hanging out with everybody else, and you’re like, peeing your pants because this is just completely unheard of. Black, black, black, blackblackblackblack. All night. You get up to twenty-six blacks in a row. What do you do?”
“I know you’re going to trick me, so I will tell you now, probability is not my strong suit.”
“Don’t worry about it. Trust your gut. What would you do?”
“Well, I mean, red I s’pose. It’s gotta be coming up sooner or later.”
“I don’t know. Because that’s a shit-ton of black, I guess.”
“Eloquent. But you know what the odds are of getting a black versus a red on the next spin?” she paused for effect. “Fifty-fifty.”
I sat there for a second. “No. That’s not right. You just said it was sixty million or something.”
“No, and that’s the thing. The odds of getting *twenty-six* blacks, or reds, or any pattern with twenty-six positions, really, those odds are in the millions. But on a single spin, it’s always fifty-fifty.”
“That doesn’t seem right. I don’t know how, but it doesn’t.”
She smiled at me. “It drove me crazy, too, for a while. But, I mean, it did everyone else too. The casino cleaned up because everyone kept thinking it just *had* to be red soon. But it didn’t *have* to be anything. Regardless of what had happened on the previous spins, they weren’t betting on the twenty-seventh spin. They were betting on one spin at a time. Ye Olde Monte Carlo Fallacy. Well, I added the ‘ye olde’ part.”
“Seems fitting. Okay though, so that’s definitely weird and it’s going to bother me for a while. But you said it would relate? Relate it.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” she turned toward me, sitting Indian-style on the sidewalk. “What do you think the odds are of us sitting here tonight?”
“Based on what? Like every single decision that you or me or anyone has ever made, ever?”
She smiled, shrugging. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll be wrong either way.”
“Hahaha…. No, silly boy, you have a fifty-fifty chance of being wrong. Which coincidentally, is the exact same chance you had of us sitting here.”
“Because you could’ve walked by, or you could’ve sat down.”
“I don’t know if I buy that.”
“Well that’s the pretty part. You don’t have to. Figuring up the odds based on just us, or just you or me even, it’s impossible. No one will ever, ever be able to do that. So I choose to take things as they come, do my best to grasp them, and just see where everything goes. A fifty-fifty choice is a lot easier to fathom. I know it’s a little ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ but I can live with that. And like I was just saying a second ago, I’m glad I chose to stop. Whether you are or not....” she laughed, “I guess I just want to make sure I give myself credit for the good choices, and for the bad ones I figure ‘eh, it was a fifty-fifty shot, coulda happened to anybody.’ Besides, in the end, I think we all end up where we need to be. Even you. Haha.”
She looked up at me, finished, I guess. I pulled a cigarette out of the box, then handed her one without even asking. My hand was dripping on the concrete and I tried to control it while I thought. She made sense in a way. I wasn’t sure how, but it kind of just *felt* right. For all my fluff about philosophy, I was actually awful at it. These types of things tended to paralyse me in never-ending “but was it predestined I even thought that to begin with?” type spots. I looked down at the sidewalk, considering something that felt a lot like trust. I glanced over at her.
She smiled. “You’re not gonna get all weird and like, ‘what do you think lies in our future?’ Right?”
“Oh. Did you want me to look up that ‘Graduation’ song on my phone?”
“Hmmm… that’s a tough one, but I think I’ll pass. Thanks, though. I know it’s all kind of weird and probably dumb, but, I don’t know. You seemed down. I figured it was a fifty-fifty chance that story would make you feel better. Haha.” She looked over at me. “What are you…? Oh for Pete’s sake, really?”
“If it’s for Pete, then, definitely,” I laughed. “I know I’m no artist, but if we never see each other again, you’ll have something to remember me by.”
“Until it rains.”
“Don’t spoil the moment.”
She laid back on the concrete, “Well let me know when you’re done, Picasso. I don’t wanna interrupt you and the muse.”
“Y’know, technically, I think you would be the muse in this situation. Nobody else is here. Plus, I mean, if it weren’t for that one point and the twenty-six blacks none of this would’ve ever even happened. In the history of the world.”
“That I believe. The muse thing not so much. Never really fit the goddess role, I don’t think.”
“Whatever,” and then without even realizing it, added, “You’re super hot, dude.”
She laughed, spitting Elixir straight up, the droplets splattering back down on her face and shirt. She sat up, wiping the drink from her chin and tears from her eyes. “Thanks, dude.”
“Sorry, that was weird. I didn’t mean to say it.”
“Well don’t take it back now. Dang, man. Let me be cocky for a second.”
“Be my guest.”
She stood up, twirling around me, flapping her shirt and leaping into a decent impersonation of a ballerina, chanting nonsense. “You are so inspiiiiiiiiiiired…Your art will change the wooooooorlllld...You should never stop creaaaatiiinnnng...You’re welcome I’m so hoooooot…”
I flicked blood at her.
“Missed.” She plopped back down beside me. “Seriously, though? Thanks. That was really nice. I didn’t even mind the ‘dude’ part. Haha.”
“You can always count on me for something stupid.”
“Eh. Could’ve been a lot worse. I’ll take it.”
“Well, I appreciate that.”
She flicked her cigarette out into the lot and I knew what was coming before she even began. I thought about talking over her subconscious, attempting to prevent the inevitable, fight against the moon to prolong the evening, but somehow I knew forcing it would never work. This had all been too thoughtless, too natural to be reigned in and controlled.
“’Bout that time?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. I’m thinking so. For what it’s worth, I really don’t want it to be, but it’s gotta be at least five by now.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said. “I’m pretty much done anyway.”
She looked down at the concrete in front of me. “Not bad. Kinda twisted, but not bad. And I will admit, I kind of love that no one else will know where the hell *that* came from.”
“I think the guys might figure it out.”
“Nah. Just be mysterious. It’ll add to your legend. Shoot, I could get it going for you,” she paused just a tick, “but I think I kinda wanna keep this thing between us. Is that weird?”
“Nah,” I mimicked. “I’ll take that deal.”
“All right, kind sir,” she stood up. “Thank you for the best night of insomnia I believe I’ve ever had. We’ve got two weeks left. Maybe I’ll catch you out here again.”
“Maybe,” I said, balling up some paper towels. “I don’t really spend a lot of time at home anymore, so it’s probably a pretty safe bet.”
“I know. And I don’t blame you.”
“This is never going to not be weird.”
She smiled. “Honestly, it’s not nearly as bad as I’ve led you to believe. I’m just kind of a loner, so I notice things. It’s crazy what people will say when they think you’re reading the book in your lap.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“No way, man. This is it. Go out with a bang. If I don’t hear at least three new rumors about you before we cross the stage, I’m gonna set up a website and feed the fire.”
“Let’s, uh, let’s just put a pin in that one, shall we?”
“No promises,” she handed me her cup.
“One more cigarette?”
“I’ll split it with you, then for real, I gotta hit the hay.”
We didn’t say much over the next few minutes. We just kind of stood, just kind of were. Except we were were-ing next to each other, passing the cigarette back and forth and wondering when the sun would rise.
Finally, she spoke up. “Can I be weird for a second?”
I laughed, choking a little on the drink I’d just taken. “You’re asking me now?”
“Fair. Haha. But I figure, it’s been a weird night, no reason to break the pattern at this point.”
“Wait, good-weird? Or?”
“Yes, good-weird. Possibly even great-weird.”
“Okay. I can roll with that.”
“Good.” She gestured at me with the cigarette; I shook my head; she flicked it out into the darkness. “So here’s the thing. Wait, lemme see your hand.”
I held it out. She pulled the cuff of her shirt over her hand and wiped some of the blood off. “Okay,” she said. “Oh, sorry. Did that hurt?”
“Nah. I’m pretty much numb all the time anyway.”
“No drama, buddy. I just didn’t wanna get any more blood all over me. Though I guess I sort of just did.” She laughed.
“Not your fault,” she paused for a second, holding my wrist still and looking up at me, grinning. “Do I even wanna know how it happened?”
I smiled. “Well, depending on how much you’ve lied and how much you’ve been straight with me, there could be a good chance you’ll know by this time tomorrow anyway. It can be your mystery assignment for while I’m skimming the student directory.”
“Nope. You gotta find out on your own. No cheating. Let life pique your curiosity for once. You might like it.”
“Don’t you threaten me.”
“I’m gonna have to ask for proof-of-life tomorrow, aren’t I?”
“Haha, I don’t get the paper.”
“Well, you better go grab a campus edition then.”
“I don’t have your number either.”
“Smooth one, Romeo. I see what ya did there.”
I laughed. “Not like that.”
“No, no. I understand,” she flipped her hair over her shoulder. “You just can’t help yourself. I am rather hot, after all.”
I shook my head. “Is this where I say something about creating a monster?”
“Nah. I’m the good kind. Like Cookie Monster or something. This is however when you realize you get extra credit if you can figure out how to send me proof-of-life without me helping you at all.”
“Another challenge huh?”
“Gotta spice up these last dying days.”
“I’ll be sure and let the guys know.”
“Whatever,” she laughed. I watched her, looking down at her feet, over at the lot, and then she just stood there for a second, finally looking up at me.
“Well…” I started.
She smiled, sniffed a little laugh. “Aw, hell. C’mere.”
She reached up and put her arms around my neck, pulling me in for a hug. It wasn’t romantic, but, despite what she said, it also wasn’t weird. After four years in that place, this felt like the truest moment I’d had. Maybe I’d pushed everything right down to the line, but I’d found it.
She leaned back, her hands still on my shoulders. “Go get some sleep. Maybe we’ll cross paths soon.”
“Y’know, I’d like that.”
“I’ll bring the Witching-Hour Anodynes then.”
And in a moment that surprised even me, and one that I wished I would’ve held onto, I said, “Eh, don’t worry about it. Though we are gonna have to settle on a name someday.”
“Eh,” she grinned. “Keeps you on your toes.”
“We’ll see. But how about maybe just sidewalk chalk and some band aids next time?”
She moved her hands down, squeezed my arms, smiling. “Deal.”
“Well, good night, mystery girl, whoever you are.”
“I can deal with Elsby. For now. Good night, friend.”
I watched her walk off toward her dorm, a wave from her stairwell, and then she’d disappeared inside.
I looked up at the sky a minute longer, and then went in to find a spot in the chaos.
The next day Lucas, an eternal early-riser, was in my face at about eight in the morning. Most of the guys were still asleep, Noah rubbing his eyes and attempting to sit up by the desk.
“That is fucking hilarious.” Lucas.
“What?” Noah and I in unison.
“Outside, man. That *had* to have been you.”
“What are you talking about?”
He looked over at Noah. “At the bottom of the stairwell, dead in the center of the sidewalk, soooomebody did a little pointillism. Appears to be an interpretation of the classic smiley-face. The medium: concrete and blood.”
“Ha,” Noah laughed, sort of. It sounded more like he was just saying the word.
“We’re gonna have to wrap you or something. Not that that’ll really keep the secret.”
I sat up, leaning back against the door. I looked down at my hand, then around for an empty glass for some water, and finally back at Lucas, fighting a smile.
“Buddy, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh c’mon, dude.”
“Seriously, man. Oh, hey, though,” I stood up, stretching. “We need to go find a school paper.”