by Nicole Reinholdt   Wednesday morning, when Kyle picked me up for school in his dad’s grey Buick Skylark, he had Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere playing over the stereo. Since the two of us had started seeing each other sophomore year, it had become ‘our’ album—he called me ‘Cinnamon Girl’ because I had red hair, and both of us loved the title track because we lived in a very small town that no one cared about. That’s what was on when I got into the passenger’s seat. “Good morning,” I said to Kyle.

“Good mor-morning to you, too,” he said. His stammer was always worse when he was tired.

I buckled the worn seatbelt as we pulled onto the road. Right on cue, Neil’s mournful voice pleaded, “Gotta get away from this day-to-day running around/ everybody knows this is nowhere…” I squeezed Kyle’s wiry right arm. “You didn’t sleep well, did you?” I asked him.

He sighed. He was wearing his dad’s sheepskin jacket, so he smelled (not unpleasantly) like cigarettes. “Not r-really. I woke up when Dad got home, and then I couldn’t fall back asleep.” Kyle’s dad, Bill, was a cashier at the Holiday gas station, and lately, they’d been putting him on the night shift, eight PM to four AM. “How about you?”

“I was cold at first, but then Rufus came in and got on the bed.” Rufus was the family dog—a four-year-old Wheaten Terrier. “He was a good boy, he just laid there by my feet all night.”

We drove on through the cold blue morning. There was frost on the aspen trees and the windows of people’s cars. Some houses still had their Christmas decorations up, even though it was almost Valentine’s Day. We pulled into the school’s parking lot just as “Down by the River” was ending. That song had always made me uncomfortable; to me, it wasn’t literally about murder, but about love turned into a destructive force. It was perilous territory.

Our school was pretty much the only impressive building in town—three stories, made of white stone. When it was built, it was solely intended to be the high school, and it still had ‘Hepburn High School’ in sharp black Roman letters above the main door. But these days, it served grades six through twelve, and I’d read an article in the paper saying it might merge with the elementary school soon.

Kyle parked, and pulled the key out of the ignition. “Well, here we go,” he said. Then he yawned. “Looks like I’m sleeping through Algebra again.” He ran a hand through his light-brown hair. Sometimes he put gel in it to make it stand up, but today it was just silky and clean.

I leaned over against him. “Don’t do that.”

“Why not? It’s not like Janovich cares.” Mr. Janovich was brusque and seemed frustrated with life in general. He was hard on Kyle, calling on him when he knew Kyle hadn’t been paying attention.

“He does care, though,” I said. “He knows you could do better.”

Kyle frowned and rounded his shoulders obstinately. “I thought you were on my side, Allie.”

“Kyle, I don’t like it when you say things like that.” He didn’t quite understand how his words affected other people, so I tried to remind him as much as possible.

He put his hand on my head, stroking my hair. “Sorry. I just- I just- I hate it so much. I just want it to be over.” We were seniors, but June felt like a long way off.

I cuddled against him for a second, and then straightened up. “I know. I’ll see you on break.” At 10:45 every day, the whole school had a fifteen-minute break—a holdover from the days when everyone smoked. It was a good chance to check in and see how things were going. I kissed him on the cheek, and then we went inside.

In homeroom, I sat down next to my friend Sarah Pulaski. Sarah looked like Patti Smith—wild, feathery dark hair, a thin face, and cool clothes. Today, she had on a Sonic Youth T-shirt, ripped jeans with black leggings underneath, and a loose green flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, showing her gangly forearms. She smiled at me. “Hey,” she said. “What’s the weather report?” That was our code for talking about Kyle.

“Cloudy with a chance of Janovich,” I said.

She quirked her lips consolingly. “Rough night?”

“Well, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there.” Then I blushed, realizing the implication of what I’d said.

She pounced on it, her hazel eyes squinting with glee. “What? I thought for sure you guys were doing the blanket hornpipe by now!”

I clapped a hand over my mouth, trying not to burst out laughing. “The what?” I whispered.

“You heard me!” she whispered back. The bell rang, and we tried to get it together (or at least I did), but it was useless. Every five seconds, one of us glanced over at the other, each thinking of that ridiculous phrase, until we were practically bent over with silent laughter. Fortunately, homeroom was more or less a free period, so once Ms. Jenkins had taken attendance, we could talk again. Sarah started to form the word “Blanket,” but I held my hand up to ‘shush’ her.

“Don’t start!” I said. “I have something to tell you. Something serious.”

She tilted her head, the mischief gone from her eyes. “What’s up?”

I bit my lip. “I got into Whitman,” I said. “Full scholarship for the first year.”

She brightened up. “Congratulations! That’s exciting.”

“Yeah,” I wavered. “Yeah, it’s just… I haven’t told Kyle. He knows I applied out of state, but I just sort of let him assume I’d be going to the university in Missoula.”

Sarah leaned toward me, suddenly grave. “Allie, you need to tell him. And you need to do it soon.”

“I mean, I might not go,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with going to Missoula. That way he could come visit on the weekends.”

Sarah folded her bony arms. “Allie,” she said sternly. “Don’t do it. You are going to go to Whitman College, just like your mom, major in English, and be a school librarian on the Oregon coast. You’ve been talking about it since I’ve known you.” Sarah and I had only really started hanging out freshman year; it was through her that I’d gotten closer to Kyle. “Have you not talked about that with Kyle?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, but we’ve also talked about how I’m going to become the first woman president,” I said. “I never wanted it to seem like that was the only option.”

“So what’s the other option?” she asked pointedly. “What, you go to Missoula, you see each other on weekends, you drop out because he says he misses you, you come back here and get married when you’re nineteen?” She flipped her flat bangs out of her eyes. “You spend the rest of your life taking care of him?”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” I wasn’t sure whether or not I was joking.

Sarah shook her head at me. “Allie, you’re his girlfriend, not his mom. I mean that’s-” She looked around, as if she were afraid he was in the room, and dropped her voice. “That’s why I’ve kind of distanced myself from him. He’s not a bad person, I still really like him and I want him to be OK or whatever, but he just needs so much from people.”

My heart dropped, and suddenly, I thought I might cry. She was right. (She usually was.) It seemed different for me because I loved him. I knew I made sacrifices for him that I never would have made for other people, because lying on his narrow chest with his hand against the side of my head was the best thing in my world. Looking in his dark grey eyes and seeing myself reflected back as something special and beautiful, feeling his stubble against my lips when he kissed me… I kept telling myself it was worth it. But was it? I didn’t want our relationship to end, but when I really thought about it, I didn’t know how we’d make it work outside of the protective bubble of high school.On break, Kyle came up behind me at my locker, put his arms around my waist, and lifted me into the air for a second. I gasped and laughed, swatting at him. “You’re lucky I know you,” I scolded as he set me down. Mostly I liked it when he did things like that, but it was a reminder of how much physical power he actually had.

He nuzzled his head against my neck. “You can say that again,” he murmured. Then he let out a groan. “I wanna go home.”

I turned and put my hands on his upper arms, lightly pushing him away so that I could look up into his face. “Kyle, it’s not even lunchtime yet. And you don’t want to miss Art, do you?” Our art teacher, Mr. Gregory, was one of the few teachers Kyle got along with.

Kyle sighed. “No, I guess not. But do I have to sit through English first?”

“Yes, and if you fall asleep, I’ll whack you,” I said playfully.

He made a pouty face. “You shouldn’t hit people; it’s mean.” Then he yawned. “I need a soda or something.”

As we walked down to the vending machines, we passed Ben Knudsen and some other jocks. Ben was J.C. Penney handsome—beefy and blond with a smarmy smile. “Hey Talbot,” he said. “Saw your dad at the gas station last night.” He emphasized at the gas station so that everyone could hear. (As if everyone didn’t know that’s where Bill Talbot worked; there were only 2,000 people in this town.)

Kyle stared at him impassively. “And?” he asked.

Ben tilted his head. “Yeah, funny thing. He wouldn’t sell me a beer. What do you think about that?”

“He knows you’re not old enough, Benjamin,” I broke in. “Unless you actually are twenty-one, in which case, what are you doing in high school?” My heart was pounding.

I saw Rob Haniszewski laugh behind his hand. Ben just did a kind of theatrical double take. “Ooh, check out the mouth on Allie,” he crowed. “Damn, no wonder you’re with her, Kyle. What else she can do with that mouth?”

Kyle’s face turned white. “You don’t speak that way about my… my… my…” He tried to say ‘girlfriend’, but it came out all jumbled, more like ‘grfllrr’.

Ben put up his hands. “Sorry, no hablo El Spazmo,” he sneered.

Rob grabbed Ben by the shoulders. “Hey, lay off,” he scolded. “He’s right; you shouldn’t say stuff like that. Allie’s a nice girl.”

Ben retreated, but not before a parting shot. “Looks like you better watch out, Kylie. Han Solo here likes your girlfriend.” As they walked down the hall, Rob looked back at us and mouthed Sorry.

Kyle slammed his hand against the vending machine. “Fucking asshole!” he growled. He punched in the code for a red Gatorade.

I pressed his back with my palm. “Kyle, take it easy, OK? We have to get to class. It’s no good getting all worked up.”

He grabbed the bottle of juice out of the slot and whirled around. “How can I not?” he yelped. “Talking shit about my dad is one thing, but about you… I’m supposed to protect you, supposed to… You sh-shouldn’t have to hear those things.” He had his hand on my upper arm, almost painfully tight, and there were tears pooling in his eyes.

I put my hand on his chest, feeling the thick red flannel of his shirt. I rubbed it gently up and down. “Deep breaths, Kyle. It wasn’t nice, but it’s over now. Just leave it, all right? Drink some of your juice, and let’s go.”

Soothing him like that, helping him control his oscillating moods, made me feel kind of powerful. I was, like Jane Eyre, ‘poor, obscure, plain, and little’, but I could do something that others couldn’t. I remembered in elementary school, before I really knew him, being afraid of him. It seemed like he was always being hauled off to the principal’s office, or made to sit in the hall. He was like a fox kit, small but fierce.

Everyone knew his story. One night, when he was just two, his mother had fallen asleep with a lit candle next to the bed. Somehow, the candle fell over, and soon the trailer was ablaze. A neighbor saw the flames and rushed over, pulling Kyle out through the window, but Delia was already dead, suffocated by the smoke. Kyle had burns all over his back, which melted and twisted into shiny ropes of scar tissue. The physical scars turned out to be the least of his problems.

In English, we were talking about Orwell’s Animal Farm. Ms. Abbott got on a tangent about British writers and dystopian fiction—saying it was interesting because Britain had never been under that kind of dictatorship. To my surprise, Kyle raised his hand.

“Yes, Kyle?” said Ms. Abbott. She also sounded surprised.

Kyle cleared his throat. “What about… what about in the 80s? With um… that lady… um… Marg- Margaret Thatcher? I thought she was a f-fascist.”

Ms. Abbott made an odd kind of smirk. “Someone’s a punk fan,” she observed. “No, despite what Johnny Rotten might have said about it, Thatcher was not actually a dictator.” A few people laughed. She went on a little more, and then the conversation shifted around to something else.

When the bell rang, Kyle and I walked out together. In the hallway, I stood on tiptoe and put my arms around him, resting my head against his collarbone. “Forty-five minutes,” I said. “Then we can leave.” The school let us go wherever we wanted during lunch (not that there was anywhere to go, but it was a nice gesture).

He let out another groan. “I already know I’m stupid; I don’t need to be reminded every five seconds.”

I tucked my fingers into his hair, playing with the short fuzz at the nape of his neck. “You’re not stupid, Kyle. Anybody could’ve made that mistake.”

“You wouldn’t have,” he said.

“Well, not everyone’s a big giant nerd like me.” I started to sing in his ear—“Round and Round”, the third song on Everybody Knows...

“Round and round and round we spin,

to weave a wall, to hem us in,

it won’t be long…

it won’t be long…” I was singing Robin Lane’s harmony part.

He let out a long sigh. “Oh god, Allie, I love you. I love you so much.” He squeezed me and let me go, and we walked hand in hand up to the art studio.For lunch, we drove over to Kyle’s house. Ever since Bill had been on the night shift, he would wake up around this time, and it had become a routine to sit at their kitchen table while Bill made ‘brunch’, drinking strong black coffee. I loved that cozy little kitchen, with the yellow curtains in the windows and off-white Formica countertops.

Bill was waiting for us in the living room, wearing a green Western shirt with pearl snaps. His craggy, handsome face seemed straight out of an old frontier newspaper. He bounded over and scooped his son up in a bear hug—Kyle was taller, but Bill was bulkier. “Hiya, kiddo,” he said. Then he saw me. “Hey, Alley Cat!” he exclaimed, holding his hand out. When I took it, he spun me under his arm as if we were dancing. “But you’re not an alley cat, are you?” he corrected himself. “You’re too neat and tidy for that. I like that purple sweater; it’s a pretty one.” Bill’s Kentucky accent had softened after twenty-five years in Montana, but his speech still had a lilting rhythm.

“Thank you,” I said, smiling at him.

“Well, kids, what’ll it be? Ham and eggs all right?” he asked. We nodded, and all three of us went into the kitchen, Kyle and I taking our usual spots at the round maple table. Bill put the coffee on, and soon had the skillet sizzling. He moved quickly, but gently, trying not to startle anyone. A few times, as he passed Kyle, he put a hand on Kyle’s head, as if to reassure himself that Kyle was still there.

Once we’d been served, Bill asked me, “Now, Allison, have you heard from any of those colleges yet? Did Yale call up and say, ‘Get on out here; we can’t wait’?”

My heart hit my throat. “I got something from Whitman, but I haven’t opened it yet,” I fibbed.

He nodded. “Now, where’s that again? The name is familiar, but I can’t remember-”

“Washington,” I said. “It’s in Walla Walla.”

Kyle snorted. “W…” He stopped and shook his head. “I don’t think I could say that even on a good day.”

“It’s a mouthful, that’s for sure,” Bill said. “But that’s not so far away. Nice drive, too—gorgeous country on the way there.”

“Missoula’s pretty, too,” Kyle muttered.

“It is,” I said quickly, “and I know I’ll get in there.”

Bill looked at the two of us. “Yes,” he said in a neutral tone, “I’m sure you will.”

When we finished eating, Bill said he had an errand to run and needed the car. It was only a ten-minute drive back to school, and we still had close to half an hour. He left, and Kyle and I began to clean up. I decided to tell Kyle everything, before I lost my nerve. “Kyle,” I said, scraping out the skillet, “I have something to tell you.”

He set down the plate he was holding. “What?”

I put the skillet in the sink. “I got accepted to Whitman. Full scholarship for the first year.”

“That’s nice. You’re not going, though, right? I mean we talked about this.” He crossed his arms and looked down at me, almost like he was scolding me.

I bit my lip. “Kyle, listen-”

He held up his right hand, stopping me. “No, you listen! Allie, I can’t be without you. Nobody else cares about me, except Dad. People just give up on me. All the teachers, the doctors, even people who tried to be my friend, until you. Do you know why I pick you up for school every day?”

I shook my head, not trusting myself to talk.

“It’s so that I have a reason to get out of bed.” He stretched his hands toward me. “Allie, without you… I’m nothing.”

I wanted to take his hands. I wanted to make it all right. But I kept thinking of Sarah’s warning. Did I really want to stay here forever? Did I want to be like my mom, working in that poky little real-estate office on Pine Street for the next thirty years? Or like my dad, having to drive the forty miles to the hospital in Great Falls four days a week? “Kyle, this isn’t easy for me, either.”

He shook his head and leaned back against the fridge. “Everything’s easy for you,” he mumbled. “You know what I hate? Ben Fucking Knudsen and those guys—they’re not any smarter than me, but they’ve got a ticket out, just cause they can throw a stupid football and run really fast!” As if to support his point, he coughed one of the wheezy little coughs that came over him when he got excited. “But me? What’s going to happen to me? Am I gonna trade shifts with Dad at the gas station, selling beer to those jerks just so I don’t get my ass kicked?” He started to cry. “At least with you, I might have a future.”

I didn’t really believe in hell anymore, but if it did exist, it probably felt something like this. I took a deep breath, making my voice as slow and steady as I could. “Kyle, you’re not stupid. Some things are hard for you, but you’re not stupid. Anybody who loves and appreciates music like you do…” I clamped my mouth together before I lost control of my voice.

He put his hands over his face. “Who do you think I am? Rufus? You think if you say nice things to me, I’ll just wag my tail and forget about it?”

“Kyle, please…” I stepped over and tried to put my hand on his arm, but he slapped it away. “Kyle, I love you, and you know that.”

He stared at me, his grey eyes foggy with tears. “Do I?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Yes, you do! And nothing will ever change that. There’s a place in my heart that’s all yours, that nobody else can ever touch.” Now I had to rip the bandage off. “But Kyle, this is what I want. I want to get out of here and see and do things for myself. The future’s coming for both of us, whether we face it together or not.”

There was a long, horrible silence. I thought of the chorus of “Cowgirl in the Sand”:

“Old enough now to change your name,

when so many love you, is it the same?

It’s the woman in you that makes you want to

play this game…”

The last thing in the world I wanted to do was hurt him, but here I was.

Kyle’s jaw quivered, and his face grew red. “Fuck you, Allie,” he whispered. “Get out of my kitchen. Go get that big shiny future of yours that I’m not part of!” He was yelling now. “Go!” He picked up one of the cups and flung it at me.

It hit me squarely in the cheekbone, and then dropped to the floor and broke. For a second, I was so shocked I almost laughed. I looked down at it where it lay, in shiny blue pieces on the brown linoleum.

Kyle’s legs buckled, and he slid down to the floor, hugging his knees. He started whimpering, ratcheting up to a moan like a wounded calf.

Then I heard the car pull up. Bill’s footsteps up the sidewalk. The door, and the rush of sharp winter air. He came into the kitchen, and I saw him take the scene in. Oddly enough, I wasn’t crying yet. He went over and knelt by his son. “Kyle,” he said, quiet but firm. “Kyle Christopher Talbot, get up off this floor and go to your room.” He grabbed his son’s hand and pulled him to his feet, leading him into the hallway. I got the broom and the dustpan, and started sweeping up the pieces of ceramic. When Bill came back, he strode over, put his hand on my shoulder, and took hold of the broom. “Don’t worry about that, darlin’. I’ll take care of it. What happened?”

“We had a fight,” I said. “I lied earlier—I got into Whitman. I told him and… he freaked out.” I raised my face and looked him in the eye.

His weathered face crinkled with tenderness. “Let’s go sit in the living room,” he said.

I started sobbing. “I’m sorry,” I said, not specifically to Bill.

He led me to the couch and sat me down, clasping my hands gently in his. “Oh, honey. You’ve got nothing to be sorry about. Is anyone home at your place right now? I should call-”

“Probably just Rufus,” I interjected. “And he can’t answer the phone.”

Bill’s laugh lines deepened. “O.K. We’ll sit here a minute and then I’ll drive you home.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want…” I dropped my voice. “I don’t think we should leave Kyle by himself. I’ll walk; it’s not that far.”

“I don’t want you by yourself either,” Bill admonished. “It’s twenty degrees out there, and a storm’s coming in. I could see the clouds. I’ll drive you; it won’t take long.”

I shook my head. “No, really, it’s all right. I think I’d like the cold air. I think it’d feel good.”

Bill brought me my coat, and wrapped my green scarf around my neck. “Have your mom call me later on, all right?” I nodded, and he took a bunch of Kleenex out from the box on the coffee table and stuffed them in my coat pocket. He looked close to crying himself. “You take care, sweet gal. Get home safe.”

Outside, the air was crystalline—the blue sky looking like it would shatter if you touched it. Like the cup. No, don’t think about that. To the west, a bank of violet-grey clouds obscured the peaks of the mountains. It smelled like woodsmoke and dead leaves. I walked along the cracked sidewalk on autopilot, my body propelling itself forward while my mind hovered somewhere… else. It hadn’t hurt that much; possibly it wouldn’t even leave a mark. And it had hurt him to do it.

Cruelly, a flood of happy memories flickered in my mind’s eye. Dancing to “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” at last year’s Snow Ball. Lying on Kyle’s bed, listening to Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left during a thunderstorm. Sharing fry bread at the fair over in Great Falls, strolling the dusty midway as the rides lit up under the evening sky. All that love, all that joy… how was I supposed to walk away from that?

A shiny white Subaru honked and pulled up a few yards down from where I was walking. When I got up close, I realized it was Rob Haniszewski. He rolled down his window. “Hey, you need a ride?”

I hesitated. “I’m not going back to school,” I said, swallowing the tears.

He shrugged. “It’s cold. Just tell me where you need to go.”

I opened the passenger door and climbed in. He had the radio playing—Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain”. “You listen to the Dead?” I asked.

“I like the oldies,” he said. “Where are we going?”

I told him where I lived and settled back against the plush seat. Phil Lesh’s voice, earnest and aggrieved:

“What do you want me to do,

 to do for you, to see you through?

For this is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago…” I sniffled and turned my face toward the window.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Rob asked after a minute or so. “Are you OK?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I told him.

He adjusted his mirror. “Listen, I’m really sorry about earlier. I told Ben not to be such a dick.”

“He’s always treated Kyle like that,” I said.

“I don’t really know Kyle that well. But he must be pretty cool if you like him.” I couldn’t respond. Fortunately, my favorite verse of the song came on:

“Walk into splintered sunlight,

inch your way through dead dreams to another land.

Maybe you’re tired and broken,

your tongue is twisted with words half-spoken and thoughts unclear…”

I held my breath so I wouldn’t sob out loud, exhaling as slowly as possible. I peeked over at Rob. He was handsome—there was no arguing that—with his dark curls and his freckles. And he’d always seemed genuinely nice; actually popular rather than just loud and dominant. I saw, briefly, a different world for myself: being on the prom committee, going to soccer games (I’d always liked soccer), maybe even going to one of the parties in Mary Halvorson’s basement…

But I was leaving. That was the root of this whole mess. In four months, I would graduate. A month after that, I would turn eighteen. And in September, off to Washington. This imagined teenaged idyll had already passed me by. I had to turn toward the world, and see what I could make of it. “Such a long, long time to be gone/ and a short time to be there.”

“Is this it?” Rob asked, shaking me out of my reverie.

Yes, this was it—my little brick house, with the weeping willow in the front yard and the chain-link fence. “Thanks,” I said, unbuckling my seatbelt.

“Sure thing,” he replied. “I hope you feel better.”

I smiled weakly and dashed into the house. Rufus was lying in the green chair by the window, but he sat up as soon as I shut the door, his cropped tail wagging. He followed me into the kitchen as I filled the red teapot and set it on the stove. In that brief space of time, absorbed in my task, I wasn’t upset—just neutral and concentrating. Get down the bag of Red Rose tea from the cupboard. Put the bag in the green souvenir mug from Glacier National Park. Wait for the water to boil. Sometimes I had to break things down like this for Kyle, when he was at his most dysfunctional. Who would do that now?

I knelt down and scratched the silky curls behind Rufus’ ears. “Oh Rufus,” I said, trying to cheer myself up, “who needs a smelly old boyfriend when they have a smelly old dog?” He looked at me, his deep brown eyes full of doggy adoration, and bumped his shaggy head against my shoulder. The teapot began to whistle in G major, so I stood up, turned off the heat, and poured the water into my cup. Then I sat back down on the kitchen floor, pulled Rufus into my lap, and cried into his downy blond fur. The future lay ahead of me, as vast and formless as the oncoming blizzard. But it was mine. I could be my own person for the first time. Was this how freedom felt?        About the Author:Nicole Reinholdt  Nicole Reinholdt was born and raised in Missoula, Montana. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, where she is working on her first novel. Her fiction has appeared in The Marymount Manhattan Review, and she has written about music and film online at Hitsville UK and Love Letters to Rock ‘n’ Roll.