I don’t remember where or when it was that I first met Alex. As far back as I can remember, she and I have been close. Her mom, Patricia, and my mom, Sue, had known each other from something back in the day, and when Patricia told my mom she was moving back to Archville, my mom, as far as I know, instantly decided to move home, too. This would have probably been when I was two or three years old, we think, but time seems to move differently here. It honestly feels like I was born here.
I do remember, however, that Alex and I hadn’t really gotten along all that well at first. I showed up for our first playdate wearing a Dora the Explorer t-shirt, and Alex already had some choice words,
“Dora’s for babies.”
I tried to protest a little, but it was no use. I knew it was true. I tried to hide how I felt by taking off my shirt and turning it inside out, but that just freaked Alex out. She kept saying that I looked weird, and she started crying. After Patricia was able to calm her down, Alex and I played together the rest of the time the adults were doing whatever it is they do during a kids’ playdate. Alex called me Weird Baby the rest of that afternoon, and for a time after that.
Why did Harry want me to come out here, today? It’s cold as balls, like every February day in Montana, but on top of that the snow seems to be actively trying to screw us over today. The cold is sinking into my bones as I wait outside my house for him to come by and pick me up.
Harry pulls around in his beat-up old Chevy. He’s got one of those little two-seater trucks, the kind where it’s got two doors on either side so you can slide junk behind the seats, and there’s a topper on the back that makes it look like the least functional station wagon of all time. The tinted windows do not help. He honks the horn as he drives up, and rolls down the window so we can greet each other. I jog down from the porch, get in the passenger seat, and wait for him to drive us off.
“Hey, look what I snagged.”
“Look in the glovebox.”
I open it up and pull out the only object inside. It’s a short, flat bottle of brown glass, with a tropical scene painted on the front. The label says, “Made in Jamaica.”
“Where’d you…? How..?”
“I snagged it from my parents’ liquor cabinet on the way out of the door. It was all the way in the back. They won’t miss it.”
I turn the rum over in my hand, examining the round smoothness of the bottle. I crack open the lid and take a sniff. The smell is funky and sweet, reminding me of the bananas my parents often leave in the kitchen for me and my siblings to eat for breakfast. The alcohol cuts through it, though, clear and strong. Harry can smell it, too.
“Hey, put that thing away,” he says. “Do you realize how much trouble we’ll be in if someone sees us with that before we leave town?”
“Before we leave town?”
“Shit. I didn’t mean to spoil the surprise.”
“Where are we going, Harry?”
He turns to me with a loving smirk, “You’ll see soon enough.”
I pull into a clearing off a side road no one ever goes down. I have to get out and open the gate, letting the frigid Montana air into the cabin of the truck. I see Alex shiver, and as I step to the blockade, I mutter a small prayer to no one in particular. I need Alex to like this spot. It means a lot to me; it’s been a refuge for me ever since I found it a couple of years back. It’s this long, wide break in the treeline, with the forest running in parallel on either side of this hundred-yard chasm, all the way to either horizon. And on a day like today, it’s all covered in a thick, snowy slush.
“Wow.” She says.
Alex really does look great today. He brick-red hair falls on her shoulders in the lightest suggestion of a curl, her brown eyes surveying the endless majesty outside my windshield. But, as she sheds her coat to reveal a simple plaid, green flannel underneath, I can’t think of anything else more lovely than her. I hope to God she doesn’t catch me staring, but in reality, I don’t care, because looking at her in this moment is wholly worth it.
“So, should I break out the booze now?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I don’t think anyone will find us here.”
She takes a tepid sip from the bottle and hands it over to me. I take a harder pull, and I feel it burn the back of my throat slightly as I swallow. I burp, and she calls me banana breath.
“It’s really too bad we won’t get to do this anymore, soon.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” I say, “You’re leaving…”
Alex just got word of a cross-country running scholarship to a school in Florida a few days ago. Unlike her, I didn’t apply anywhere at all. My grades were too bad, and I never really understood anything in any math class since middle school. Besides, my parents had the service station to take care of, and like Dad always said, “It’s a living.”
She shifts uncomfortably in her seat, before taking another drink from the bottle. This time, it’s more in line with the shot I took.
“You know,” she says, “Different regions are supposed to have different kinds of rum. Like, I was reading, and apparently in Florida they drink Cuban rum, which doesn’t taste so much like bananas. That’s probably because they make it out of—”
“I like the bananas.”
“Me too. Of course, I do too. Just, it’s kinda cool there’s more than just bananas out there, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so…”
Harry has this really weird look on his face right now. I can’t quite tell what’s going through his head, but I can tell that it isn’t good. He doesn’t usually seem so closed off and distant. We’ve been friends a long time, and usually when you know someone this long you can tell what their thinking at any given moment, to a certain extent. But right now, Harry is a blank page, and I can’t read him at all.
“Hey, man is something up?”
Harry kind of shakes his head, almost like he had been underwater and just come up for air. His eyes bug out in the way you only see when someone gets woken up suddenly from a deep sleep, the kind where your dreams and your reality seem to blend into one all at once. But Harry wasn’t dreaming; he was just sitting here in the car, having a drink, talking to me.
“I’m… I’m scared Alex.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
I had a feeling this was coming. Harry and I, we don’t really have any other friends. I mean, the town only has a population of a couple of hundred, and our graduating class has a whole whopping 10 students in it. Most of the rest of them thought we were weird, since we were the only guy and girl who weren’t dating each other. Not that either of us have any aversion to the idea of dating in general or anything. We were just old friends, and neither of us were each other’s type. We agreed the whole thing was a little silly a long time ago.
I can see the look in Harry’s eyes right now. It’s the same look I’ve seen Derek give Charnice a hundred times. Or any of the other guys in our class give their girlfriends. He really is looking for something, some sign, some moment that means I won’t forget him, that he won’t be left behind here in Archville to die sad and alone, while I move away and join the real world.
So, I lean over, and I kiss him.
Harry isn’t ready for that. He recoils a little at first, clearly surprised and trying to show some sense of dignity, but quickly he kisses me back, and I can feel the rush of his repressed desire coming forth all at once. The tidal wave threatens to overwhelm me, as though this is something that he has been thinking deeply and intensely about for a long time. Part of me wants to stop, to check in, to make sure that he’s alright, but part of me recognizes that it’s maybe the only thing making him feel o.k. right now. So, I keep kissing him.
After a bit he pulls away for real.
“So, the clearing’s nice and all, but it isn’t what I really came out here to show you.”
He opens the door and hops out of the truck. I look at him in confusion, like I just kissed you and you have not a damn thing to say about it? Nothing?
I step out of my door, too.
I knew it! I can’t believe it was so hard for me to figure out! I knew that Alex must love me, too! I can’t contain how happy I feel for her, for me, for us! The future doesn’t have to be just sitting around my dad’s gas station, thinking forever about what might have been. No, I can be with Alex! I can be the long distance boyfriend. I can be the fiancé who comes into town every couple of months and rocks her world for a few days. We can finally settle into the rhythm of being a team forever, just like we always have!
I am so excited by the kiss that I hop out the truck. There’s something special I cooked up for just this occasion in the back of the truck. I know this isn’t romantic in the way they teach you in Shakespeare or whatever, but most of those idiots end up dying anyways. Alex and I are going to live! And we’re going to be happy!
I walk around the side of the truck to the back, where Harry is waiting, his key in the lock that lifts the window and lowers the gate. He looks like a nervous puppy, all shaking from the snowflakes accumulating on his ungloved hands, his breath coming forth in quick, excitable bursts. He is practically bouncing on his toes by the time I make it to the back.
“Harry, what’s this about?”
“Alex, this afternoon has already been incredibly special. It’s something I think I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
“Shh. Don’t say anything yet. Just take a look, first.”
And he opens the gate.
The back has been completely made to look like a teenage boy’s idea of a honeymoon suite. An air mattress, the battery-powered pump still running in the corner, takes up the majority of the space. It’s dressed with garish pink sheets with little hearts all over them, and the roof is lined with Christmas lights, which Harry flicks on by turning a little knob. There’s a wireless speaker in the back, near the oversized “I,” “<3,” and “U” pillows, and it seems to be playing an early 2000’s pop rock slow jam. The snow begins coming down at an angle, making the air mattress get a little damp on the edge facing us, and the increasing wild wind pushes a few rose petals off the bed and into the snow at our feet.
“Alex, I know this is a big change for us. But now is the time for big changes. You’re moving to Florida! We’re a couple! And now, we’ll have sex, too. It’s just the way to celebrate.”
“Harry, I didn’t kiss you because I want to be your girlfriend.”
“Then…what was that?”
“You looked…lonely. I just thought…I just thought that it might be one way for you to feel like we were more connected you know? Because six months from now, we’re not going to be seeing each other every day anymore.”
I try to grab Alex’s hand, to hold it in some kind of a way that will make her feel safe, secure, like this is the right way for our lives to go, but she pulls away quickly. I try again, and she asks me what the hell my deal is, and I try to tell her that I just want to be a couple, just to go back to a couple of minutes ago when we were kissing and we were happy, and she tells me to get away from her. I ask her to at least be reasonable, to let me give her a ride back into town, and she tells me no, she’d rather hike the three miles herself. And then she turned and ran.
I can’t get away fast enough. I don’t know where any of this is coming from. I get that he clearly has had some feelings for me for a lot longer than I previously realized, but who builds a sex dungeon in the back of their truck? I would die before I got into that thing with anyone, let alone with little Weird Baby.
I am in a full sprint before I can even realize how far away from town I am.
When Alex takes off, I run back around and hop into the driver’s seat. I have to catch her. I just have to, to convince her that this is crazy, that there’s no way she’ll make it back into town safely in time, that she’ll die of hypothermia long before she makes it to any kind of building, or even into cell service to call someone and get a ride. The whole thing is so stupid. Stupid Harry!
I try to start the engine, but it stalls out the first couple of times I try. I check the gearshift, and notice that I accidentally left it in second gear. But resetting it seems to make little difference. It’s the battery. I grab my portable jumper from behind her seat and run around to fix the engine.
Positive to negative, negative to ground. Battery pack on. Back in the car, I turn the ignition again another few times, only for it to stall out. Alex is dozens of yards away by now. Eventually the engine catches. I floor it, spinning my wheel enough to spend the truck 180ing around, flinging the air mattress out behind me. I watch it start to fade in the rear-view mirror as I get up to speed. Her door slams shut, so I open mine, keeping it open with my left leg as I drive to catch up to her.
I go too fast, and a little too close, and the back door clips her femur.
Motherfucker! I swear, I’m going to kill him!
Oh shit oh shit oh shit! Alex is bleeding out in the snow. Fuck me. I can’t believe I let the back door hit her. What did I think was going to happen? I was going so fast—too fucking fast—oh fuck that’s a lot of blood fuck.
I throw up as Alex shrieks in pain. “What the hell’re you doing?” she says. “Are you trying to kill me?” As lightheaded as I am, I start to recognize what she means. This is the kind of thing that could end her career as a runner, could keep her here in Montana forever, to not get to go out and experience the world, something she was clearly looking forward to doing. “My leg is fucking wrecked. Get me in the truck, moron! I need a hospital, now!” My head continues to spin, and I see that her leg is Z-shaped at this point. I try to straighten her femur and she starts to strangle me to stop me from touching her leg. I let up and so does she. “You need to get me into the truck, not solve this yourself. Put me in the bed.” I point to the little blur in the distance, signaling that the mattress is long gone, and she just sighs. “Then put me in the seat. We. Need. To. Go. Now!” I do as she says, and rush to get back on the highway. This time, we break straight through the gate, sending splinters everywhere.
I’m losing a lot of blood… have to stay awake…
Alex starts to moan a lot as I pull back onto the road. “A few minutes!” I shout at her. “You gotta stay awake for a few minutes.”
A loud honk blares in my face as I notice a pair of headlights coming straight at me. Noticing the road, I see that I’ve drifted to the opposite lane of traffic. I swerve back to my space, in time to notice that we just played a game of chicken with an 18 wheeler. I see flashes of light behind me, first yellow, then red and blue. I keep picking up speed as a squad car pulls into the left lane.
“ARCHVILLE P.D. PULL OVER.”
I have no intention to do so, especially when the girl I love is bleeding out in the passenger seat.
“THIS IS NOT A WARNING, SON. PULL OVER NOW.”
Neither the officer nor I notice the snowplow coming through on his lane. The two ram head-on, and I hear the crunch of metal on metal scrape and twist as the cars crash. I keep driving until we make it into town.
I awake in a hospital bed, my whole leg straightened and wrapped in a cast elevated above my bed. My left arm is hooked up to an IV, and my right one is hooked up to some other kind of machine I can’t identify. The door is closed; I have a private room. Beside the door is a table, and on that table sits a large postal package, with a comically oversized teddy bear peeking his small, black nose out of it. My bedside table has a get well soon card, tasteful and simple, with wild pink roses, yellow pansies, and red poppies. It seems to have been signed by everyone in Archville, save for one glaring exception. It’s postmarked from April, and one of the messages is about him, asking where, and if I could give a call to the sheriff’s office when I feel ready to talk about what happened. I don’t know exactly what that is, and I’m not entirely sure I want to even if I did. I put the card down and look over to my mom, napping in the chair by the window, having fallen asleep watching the evening news on the television. I watch long enough to see that it is now June, and the weather forecast for the next day is sunny and sixty degrees.
Ben Shahon is a writer whose work has appeared in Stonecrop Magazine and Free Library of the Internet Void. He is a candidate in Emerson College’s MFA Program in Fiction, and holds BA’s in Philosophy and Creative Writing from ASU. Ben currently lives outside Boston.