I sat down on the edge of the sidewalk, scuffing the toes of my new shoes as I pulled my knees to my chest. A resigned sigh leaked from my chest as I shook my head, understanding the consequences of this test had no reflection upon my study habits as I sat nearly ten hours the day before the test studying every chemical I could find in that stupid textbook, but I obviously receive no reward for my efforts. A wretched 76 polluted the front of my Chemistry III exam like a taunting bully. My mother always mentioned how I should love chemistry since I want to be a chemical engineer, but I hate the subject all together.
And then I realized the lecture I would receive upon coming home with this grade. I thought you studied, Ned; this is such a poor reflection of your intelligence. Did you even read the sections? C’mon, don’t blame this on your teacher. This is you we are talking about, not her. My mom is a wonderful person I swear, but sometimes I feel as though she pushes me too hard.
“Aw, shit,” I mumbled under my breath. I put my face in my hands, rubbing my temples as I felt a headache simmer into the edges of my brain.
“Hey, you okay?” Devin nested herself beside me, resting her elbows on her knees with her loaded back-pack rustling with loose papers and books. She plaited her fingers together and casually stared at me, evaluating, I guess, my situation.
“Yeah,” I moaned as I sat up to stare at her. “I just really screwed my grade over in Chemistry.” I showed her the piece of paper, and her eyes gazed over the paper, sliding back and forth with each line. Her lips slightly moved as she read the formulas and explanations from the test.
She turned back to me and asked, “Please tell me you just forgot that sugar’s chemical formula is not identical to ethanol’s formula.”
I snatched my paper away and shoved it blindly in my backpack as I glared angrily at Devin. “I had a bad day I guess. We cannot all be geniuses like you, Devin. What you make? A 105? Five bonus points for just being a fantastic science nerd?”
She smirked and shook her head innocently. “How about a 63?”
Shocked, I stared at her incredulously. She didn’t break from her smile or look gloomy about her grade at all. I was sure she was not satisfied with that grade because she must have known every answer in class and on the study guide. The teacher even held her back after class the other day because she felt that Devin “wasn’t applying herself in class when she can obviously answer the questions.” I stuttered, “What? How? What happened?”
Her gaze turned to the empty parking lot of the school. It amazed me how students so quickly whipped out of school as soon as possible. I hated school, but I was in no rush to go anywhere else. There was nowhere else to go in this freaking town.
“I fell asleep after answering about half the exam,” she admitted. She shrugged nonchalantly. “What can you do?”
I whistled, mocking the cartoonish sound of a missile falling on top of its target.
She laughed quietly. “Yeah, yeah, I know my grade is going to suffer. No need to rub it in. At least I can get an A in it while you’re precariously straddling a B.”
I scoffed, “How’s Economics for you?”
She turned to me and punched me in the shoulder. “Fuck off. Maybe if it was a little bit more interesting I could handle learning about it. I honestly could not care less about that stuff!”
I turned away from her to look at my car parked by one of the few islands in our school’s parking lot. “Yeah, you probably should care more about it, and I should probably start studying for the next exam in chemistry or I’m losing any chance of a scholarship.”
A silence fell upon us, and I half-expected Devin to get up and walk to the soccer fields or her job or her house or wherever she goes after school. Now that I think about it, I never knew where she went after school; she just became a head in the mosh pit of students thunderously parading out of the doors to be free of the tyranny that is the education system.
“C’mon,” Devin chided as she hopped to her feet as if she was not wearing a backpack that probably weighed more than she did.
“Fine, where are we going?” I pulled my keys out of my pocket, and I looked for the car key amidst the house key, a garage key, a key that I have no clue why I had it, and other needless keys people obtain through life.
Devin whipped around and snatched my keys out of my hand before I even peeled off the concrete. She waved the keys in front of me and cooed, “No car.”
I furrowed my brow and felt a grimace sweep across my face. I put out my hand, waiting for the cool touch of metal to fall into my welcoming palm. “We are not walking to wherever we are going.”
She shoved the keys in her front pocket, her soccer tournament t-shirt folding over her wrist as she moved. “Nope, we are walking.”
“Then I’m not going.”
“C’mon! I have something to show you,” she groaned as she snatched my hand and pulled me to my feet.
Blood rushed to my face as her warmth melded into my hand, and my fingers involuntarily wrapped around hers as she dragged me across the black asphalt of the school, leaving behind my car, leaving behind classwork, leaving behind worries. Her blonde hair bounced rhythmically as her feet padded across the threshold of asphalt into the mud, wood chips, and grass of the wood just beyond our school. I never had been back there, but then I hadn’t done a lot of things before Devin made me do those things.
Some trees were young, and some were ancient. A canopy of green and browning leaves shadowed the differing trunks. Birds and squirrels stared at us curiously as we ventured deeper into their environment. I could not fully absorb the way the light seeped through the porous canopy of the wood or how it speckled the ground with what almost was like constellations littering the ground.
And then my face hit dirt as my feet tangled under a brash root. My hand ripped out of Devin’s so I could catch myself from knocking out my teeth. “Holy crap,” I muttered as I pulled myself off the ground, leaves and sticks attaching to me like Velcro.
Next thing I know, Devin was clenching her abdomen with a look of strain and pursed lips distorting her face. I was initially terrified her appendix burst or spleen ruptured or aorta hemorrhaged, and then she laughed so enthusiastically at my fall. “I’m glad I have so much support from a friend,” I snarled.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Here.” She once again pulled me off the ground, and then a rancid stench clung to my nostrils. Devin glanced at me and then burst into laughter again.
My hands hung in the air as I realized where I had fallen. I glanced down at my button-up polo and then to the ground. “You have got to be kidding me!” A blossoming tawny stain seeped in the middle of my chest as though my heart exploded. A fresh, warm pile of manure sat just below my feet.
Devin shuffled over, choking back giggles, and she patted me gently on the shoulder. “It’s okay. If the animal is anywhere in the vicinity, I’m sure he is either very guilty or very pleased with himself.”
I slipped off my backpack and tore my soiled shirt off. “I’m sure he is laughing and telling his buddies at the bar.” I rolled up the cloth and realized I had nowhere to stuff the shirt. I nonchalantly threw it at the base of a tree and wrestled with my white t-shirt’s wrinkles, untucking it and scouring for a hint of the bowel movement.
Devin grabbed the shirt from the ground and just held it in her left hand.
“Devin, just leave it. It’ll be used for a nest or something.”
She put the collar in between her teeth and tore the shirt down into the stain. She carefully rotated the shirt to tear around the stain, leaving a vacant hole in the chest of the shirt as if an asteroid hit me in the chest. She left the pungently marked circle back where the original bowel movement had been, burying the shirt deep into the pile with the help of a stick.
My chest felt tight as I watched her concentrate solely on just a simple task at a time. She was so prone to multi-tasking, but she always dissected tasks into sole steps—even if that meant she suffered from “wasting too much time.” Her blue eyes meticulously observed her task and quietly completed it without even noticing me watch her so closely. And then I wondered if she forgot about me consciously to not feel as if she was under evaluation or just subconsciously due to extreme concentration.
Devin put my shirt back in my hands as if she did absolutely nothing. I guess she thought this was totally normal, but it was so queer and unusual. She smirked at my no doubt awe-stricken face. “We’re almost there, Lewis.”
I scoffed as I shoved my newly tailored shirt into my backpack, “We better be, Clark.”
With a sly smirk she turned and just burst into a run. The balls of her feet beat against the dirt like a drum, and I could almost hear her laughing amongst her heavy breathing.
I propelled myself into a run that I could barely muster, and she was obviously too fast for me and used to running with a backpack abusing her back like a swaying wrecking ball. The trunks flew past me in a brown blur, and the lights ran into long streaks of white.
And then the woods peeled away from us.
A still lake expanded to my horizon, lined with jagged rocks obviously placed by hand, and birds flew silently over the lake, glancing down in hopes of a meal. Vines intertwined in and under rocks, connecting them through a complex web of embraces and entrapments like a Stockholm syndrome victim. A bridge branched across the lake in the distance with tiny, colorful dots driving down the expanse of road without noticing the two teenagers in their periphery. The woods continued across the lake in a mirror reflection of what we just explored. A sweet musk accentuated the green algae that gently floated across the still surface along with sticks. Tiny ripples appeared as fish tipped their noses above their world, expecting a bug or algae. A ten-point buck stood maybe twenty yards to my left, rubbing his antlers against the bark of a tree before nonchalantly sauntering into the depths of the woods.
The strap of my backpack slid off my shoulder and fell to my heels.
A pair of high-tops sat a couple feet away from me with white socks stuffed inside the vacancy. A black backpack sank into the soft mud next to the shoes.
Frogs croaked in the water absently, staring blankly at nothing. Their massive bodies nestled deeply into the muddy shore, perhaps pondering an escape route if I came close. The green water seeped back and forth on their legs, gently bidding them into the deeper depths.
I finally laid back upon my backpack, observing the cloudless sky enveloping everything.
A frail shriek tore through the serene environment suddenly, and the water splashed violently. My eyes fell to the commotion to my left near the shallow end of the lake.
Devin had rolled her jeans to her knee, unveiling light scars worn without insecurity; her sleeves tucked inside her shirt to unveil freckles mottling the tops of her shoulders like tawny rain droplets. Her delicate hands cradled a large amphibian, pulling him closer to her face to just look at him. Her blue eyes lit with curiosity and a childish joy, gently twisting her neck and torso to see him from various perspectives. “Ned, come look at him!” she squealed, lightly jumping up and down—careful to not hurt her treasure. She lightly pulled her feet from the mud and shimmied to the rock barricade, which would have fallen to my stomach but almost fell to her collar bones.
I leaned over to see her caged hands entrapping a young, brown frog staring fearlessly at me. Devin’s thumbs rubbed his neck gently, whispering sweet nothings as I observed him, and I initially thought she was calling me a “good boy” and “handsome man,” which, admittedly, startled but thrilled me. Then the stupid frog had to get in the way.
“What about him?” I asked.
“Oh, you’ll stay still for Ned, right?” Devin gently pulled her fingers away from him, forming a platform so he could regale his pride and bravery to every species in the vicinity.
He marched proudly, cocking his head back and wailing boisterously. His muscular thighs flexed as he began to just shuffle on Devin’s soft forearms, adjusting to the new surface. He turned away from me and laid flat upon Devin’s arms and slid toward her bent elbows. He shoved his face in the space between her elbows and just rocked his legs as if he was in a hammock. He shimmied too far and fell forward, his back legs shooting into the air, flailing like mad.
And then I noticed a tiny stump of a tail in between his legs.
“Oops! Here you go, big man.” Devin straightened her arms, popping him back onto his stomach.
“He’s got a tail!” I cracked a smile and looked back into her mesmerized eyes.
She smirked and chuckled at my immature reaction, but it was somehow supposed to be expected in this place. Her eyes glanced at the frog and then trailed up her arms back to me. She pointed her chin toward the immature frog. “You can pet him on his back. He didn’t mind when I did it.”
I finally stood and knelt before the pit. Devin quietly watched me as if she was afraid I would hurt this little creature, like she was his deigned protector. My fingers barely grazed him before he let out a shrill shriek and exploded out of Devin’s hands like a slippery missile. A huge smile swept across her face as she watched the ripples of the water as he swam fairly undetected under the cloudy green lake’s shroud.
My smile melted as light began to fade on the lake. I turned to my phone in my pocket and saw it was nearly seven—and I thought I had only sat here for a minute. “Shit, Dev, I gotta get back. My parents are going to be so pissed.” I slipped the straps of my book bag up my arms and initiated the venture back to the parking lot.
Devin leapt to the middle of the rock pile and grabbed one of the straps of my backpack. She leaned back at a forty-five degree angle to anchor me to the edge of the lake.
“Dev, I gotta head home,” I pleaded, twisting my strap out of her hand abruptly.
She pulled herself to the top of the rocks and then to solid ground. “I just want you to see one more thing, okay?” She dusted her hands against her thighs and stood up, her eyes begging for me to just stay.
“Dev…” I tilted my head and glared at her pleadingly.
“Oh, I guess I have to make you stay…” Her fingers gripped the bottom of her t-shirt and pulled up slowly, revealing her abdomen. “I’ll just strip!” She shook her hips back and forth as she continued to take off her shirt. She turned around and pushed her butt towards me provocatively. She hummed some sensual music quietly.
I groaned and dropped my bag, even though I wanted this to continue, but I knew better than to let Devin just do this. She needed it for emphasis. “Okay, okay, put on your clothes, whore. Where are you taking me now?”
Devin shoved her shirt down and grinned smugly. She swiveled on her heels and quietly walked toward the sun down a hill. I willingly followed as a sheep to his shepherd, naively desiring to please this girl.
A frail dock appeared that stretched to the middle of the lake, and that must have been why no commercial boats or leisure boats scared off the animals. Even from far away, a tinge of green regaled the moss covering the north side of the dock while some invasive vine failed to wilt amongst the cracks of the boards. This area was all together abandoned for the clearer lakes in the next towns where fish exceeded records and fishermen drooled. Homely nature could not compare to the artificial beauty of filtering and replacing, and so nature was left for “beauty.” Vacancy was our only company beyond the native creatures.
We finally made it to the dock, and I did not realize how long the dock was, stretching far into the lake, dwarfing the huge mass of water. Devin mentioned something about the lake’s width exceeding three miles, so the dock had to reach a mile and a half, if not more. And, like most individuals, the width of the dock made up for the length of it. The dock was perhaps five feet across, and many planks cracked from perhaps floods and other natural occurrences, forcing one to slither hesitantly around the obstacles.
Devin and I just stared at the dock until she finally explained, “We would always go here when we were upset.” She faced me and hinted toward the dock. “You want to see it? I promise it looks better if you are on it.”
Without an answer, she sauntered down the dock, and I of course followed her, curious as to what she was talking about it. The end stopped us, and I really noticed the wind whipping through the area without the trees or walls of rock to muffle the gales. Devin twisted her neck, absorbing this all, I guessed. I sat down, hanging my legs down towards the water. My hands rested on my lap as the orange reflection of the sun painted the calm waves of this strange land. The sweet hum of the waves became more evident too as the birds seemed to stray away from the dock and remain in the open.
I glanced at Devin, still trapped inside her mind as she evaluated the environment. I debated whether to ask or just remain quiet, and, against my better judgment, I resigned to my curiosity. “Was this where you and Heath would go?”
Devin abruptly turned to me, startled by my voice after the infinite silence we had shared. Her eyes appeared glazed by the sheen of tears, and I could tell by her red cheeks she had been choking back cries. “Huh?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m just being stupid.” She wiped her eyes and sat down beside me. “Yep, Heath loved this spot.” Her hands rested behind her, and she leaned back on them, creating creases around her wrists from the pressure. Her eyes fell back to the lake, and her face eventually turned back to its normal, tawny complexion.
I turned back to the lake and stared out into the endless water. “You haven’t visit this spot since he died?”
She choked a laugh and nodded. “I wish. I just get like that every time. I sometimes feel like he’d be mad if he knew how many times I came here the week he died.”
“How many times did you come here then?”
She turned to me and shrugged. “You’re going to think I’m crazy I even counted.” A shy smile—not as exuberant as before but sparkled the same—split across her face. Somehow, pain did hover across her face as she recollected the majesty of both this place and my best friend.
I faced her and confided, “I promise you probably aren’t crazy.”
“That’s an oxymoronic sentence.”
Shock slapped me in the face as all of the humor fell out of the situation because I finally realized how Heath monumentally affected people. My best friend could heighten your confidence while enlightening you about science and the news, which normally made you feel like an ignorant caveman. He would teach you but never lecture. He was a leader that remained in the shadows with many loyal followers who almost failed to grieve his death like adults, even if Devin still thought we were kids. We were going to college next year, and here we were just failing to cope without Heath, like he was everything.
And then to some, he literally was everything.
Devin stopped my train of thought as she suddenly stood up. My chin tipped up as I saw her close her eyes. “What’s up, Dev?”
Her eyes opened and stared determinedly at her horizons. “Okay, this is going to sound so stupid, but I really feel better after every time I do this.” She threw her arms to her side as if she expected feathers to burst from her pores. She clenched her eyes shut and let out a loud whoop.
I jumped at the sudden wail.
The wind whipped through us again, and I expected Devin to step back from the pull but no. Her blonde hair swept back, and her t-shirt billowed, exposing her alabaster abdomen and burn scars. A calm fell across her face as her eyes opened and a smile separated her lips. She stole the breath from her lungs and let out another triumphant cry, and her skin just illuminated. All of the darkness that burdened her fell away from her like a baptism. Her chest expanded again as she inhaled a deep breath.
I was mesmerized and not by a singular factor. Her vanity and imagination riveted me in my place, and I was ensnared by her magic. I couldn’t even force myself to blink as just seeing her this happy made me happy, and I wanted her to be this happy the rest of her life.
And I wanted to be the one to make her this happy.
She gently closed her eyes and let out another triumphant call that took the energy from the tips of her fingers and toes through her limbs and through her trunk through her spirit into the world. And then she just stood majestically like that, giggling and laughing at whatever she imagined or thought, abandoning the outside world from her entertainment.
Her emerald eyes opened, and she glanced at me from over her shoulder. She gave me a small smile and then critiqued, “Shit mating call, am I right?”
I shoved her knee beside me, and she stumbled to the right. Once she regained her composure, she just soaked up the sun, standing there with her arms at her sides, her fingertips curling from the chill, eyes closed to the outside world, the girl gone from the physical world for a moment, freezing time in her own world.
A sudden fear tightened my chest as I watched her elegantly just meditate in nothing, and I knew I was not going to be the same as before this instant. This one moment led me to a bittersweet conclusion, and I was terrified of the consequences. But when I saw the way she smiled, I expected everything to be okay. I would try to make everything okay.
Because this was when I knew I loved Devin Sebold.