Memories of Alex Carter were like faded Polaroid pictures: worn and hopelessly out of date.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t recapture the colour of his eyes, even though I knew them to be the kind of dark blue found in paint, or colouring pastels. It was futile to remember that mop of curly chestnut hair, that crease on his forehead when he got angry, or those small dimples that used to form on the sides of his cheeks when he laughed too much. For all I knew, Alex Carter might have grown out of all of these things.
Memories of Alex Carter were like billboard advertisements: obnoxious and hard to ignore.
You might be driving along without a care in the world, thinking of nothing, and then…BAM! You look up at the skyline, and the images hit you. They hit you like bullets; right where it hurts, and right when you least expected them to.
More than anything else though, memories of Alex Carter were like ribbons.
They were like a never-ending spiral of red silk spinning around me, wrapping their length around my skin. They forever encircled me, enfolding me in soft tendrils of fabric, cocooning me in a sweet bliss of childhood innocence. But they also suffocated. They wrapped a noose around my neck, and they chained me up so tightly that I could not escape.
So many questions surrounded his disappearance.
Where did you go?
Why did you leave without saying goodbye?
Who are you now?
No closure. No ending. A comma rather than a full stop. I burned with the pain of infinity: the infinite possible whereabouts, the infinite set of answers to the questions I’ve asked myself.
Memories of Alex Carter were just that: memories.
That was all they were.
They didn’t exist outside of my mind. Only I could give them life, or deprive them of it. They were the monsters under my bed that no longer existed. They were things I needed to grow out of.
It all began in the summer. The warmest day of the summer, to be exact. I remember the day as if it were yesterday.
A layer of heat spread out across the tarmac road I was playing on. The grass of the nearby suburban houses was dry and hard. There was not a single cloud in the sky.
He was a foot taller than me when I first met him. For people so different, we looked incredibly alike. We both had a ‘wild’ look about us. He had tangled, chestnut brown hair, which grew too fast and never stuck where to it should. I had frizzy blond hair which never grew past my shoulders, no matter how hard I tried.
The first words he said to me were a challenge. “Hey girl, I bet you can’t beat me in a race.”
He really had no idea what he was letting himself in for. I was Eleanor Pierce – the fastest runner in our year. I remember what I was wearing that day: a pair of overalls stained with paint and muddy sneakers to match.
One day, I promised myself, I would be the best track athlete in the county.
I was never one to back down from a dare - I once ate snails when my older brother, Luke, told me to. So, I flexed out my muscles, rolled my shoulders back, and said, “You’re on.”
We raced down the road. I remember the feeling of the air on my sticky face as I reached out and pulled it and pulled it towards me. The finish line was the old barn at the end of the road, and I reached it first with a triumphal grin on my face.
He had that look in his eyes – the one where he stared at me as if I’d come down from heaven. Bewilderment. That’s what you might call it. My four-year-old self didn’t know the meaning of that word yet.
“I’m Alex,” he said, “Alex James Carter.”
“Eleanor,” I replied as I reached out to shake his already extended hand.
I found it funny that he said his full name. He was so strange, so unusual. I’d seen him at preschool a couple times before now, but he’d never once approached me. He mainly just played on his own.
“Eleanor,” Alex ran the name across his tongue as if he was trying to work out what it tasted like.
“Have you got something in your ears? I already said that!” I replied hotly.
I was always such a hot-head, such a brave little kid. That feeling only escalated when I was around Alex. I regret now that those were my first words to him. I regret my initial hostility.
Two weeks passed before I saw him again.
We were down at the beach. He came up to me whilst I was sitting on my towel. I remember the sound of the seagulls from somewhere nearby, as well as the crying child who got sand stuck in his eyes.
“Hey, girl, I bet you can’t swim faster than me,” Alex said.
“You’re getting my towel wet,” I grimaced.
I was the kind of kid who tried every sport growing up, swimming included. I hadn’t enjoyed it, but there was no way I was going to back down from a bet.
I remember how we ran down the sandy path to the ocean, and how he cheated, pushing me into the water headfirst when I’d shouted “go.” I still won though. I remember the feeling of my lungs heaving as I victoriously threw my hands up in the air, splashing water down into his face.
“You’re going to have to do better than that, Alex Carter!” I hollered.
Alex mumbled, “Oh just you wait, girl…”
And I did wait. I waited five days before I saw him again. When I finally did, he appeared at my front porch with a soccer ball in his hand.
“Bet you can’t kick as far as I can,” he said. That same challenge was in his blue eyes.
“You’re on,” I replied.
I won that one too.
After that, Alex Carter stood on my porch every morning with a new challenge. “Bet you can’t throw a football as far as I can;” “bet you can’t fish like me;” “bet you can’t lift this rock.” The list was endless. I won every single one of those challenges. I remember the look of appraisal in his eyes after every defeat. He was never angry that he hadn’t won.
It took almost two weeks for him to beat me at something.
That something was tree-climbing. Of all the things, I hated heights.
As he extended a hand to help me up the oak tree in my backyard, Alex Carter said, “So I finally found something you’re not good at.”
“Bite me,” I muttered as I sat down on the same branch as him.
I didn’t mean literally, but Alex took that as in invitation. I almost pushed him off the tree when I felt his slobbering saliva on my forearm.
I didn’t see him again until school started.
Chase Evans, the school bully, was doing his daily round-up of lunch money, and I refused to hand mine over. This escalated into me kicking him in the shins and running across the playground to escape him. Halfway across and I stumbled onto the gravelly floor. I anticipated the feeling of blows and kicks, but they never came.
When I finally stood up, I was staring at a very enraged Chase. He was being held in a restraining position by Alex. I dusted off the loose pieces of gravel from my body. When Alex asked if I was okay, I knew right then that I wanted him to be my friend.
I did it strategically. Alex was always so reserved, and I didn’t want to scare him off. I made sure to queue with him at lunchtime, or to choose to work with him in art classes. When we caught the bus together, I made sure I got the seat next to him. Eventually, he got the subtle message. We weren’t exactly friends by this stage. But we were certainly one another’s first choices for all things school related.
I remember the first Christmas present I ever gave him. I thought that he would laugh at it: the handmade angel I carved with my parents. Luke had. But Alex told me it was beautiful and carefully tucked it into his jacket pocket on the last day of semester.
After a while, we started to walk to school with one another. Well, it wasn’t really walking. We raced one another most of the way.
That’s what it was like with Alex James Carter. It was like feeling the wind run through your hair. It was freedom.
It was a challenge.
When we weren’t racing one another, or daring one another to do things, we talked. I remember that our conversations were as wild as we were.
Nobody could understand us. The teachers despaired when we came back from recess with mud smeared on our faces from the endless fights we got in. Even my parents questioned my sanity at times; especially when Alex and I had decided to build a treehouse for the old oak tree in my backyard. We pretended it was a spaceship most days.
Alex was my sense of adventure.
The best part of my day was waiting for him at the end of my street before we walked to school with one another. The worst part of my day was saying goodbye to him.
I should have realised that something was wrong that day.
It was his birthday in a month’s time; he would be ten. I had bought him a present and everything. Maybe that’s why I never noticed…
I remember the way his mother’s face had twisted in anguish as she picked him up from school. There were tears in her eyes.
He clutched the pendant he always wore around his neck - the one with all the number on it. He clutched it as if it was a lifeline. His face contorted in pain, and I noticed his blue eyes start to shimmer as if he was about to cry.
His mom screamed at him to get in the car. She said only one word after that: one word which she kept repeating, more to herself than anyone else.
He never said goodbye to me.
That’s what I remember more than anything else.