There’s a 1991 Jeep Wagoneer squealing to a stop on the corner of Sunrise Highway and Prospect. The road’s crowded with drivers dull-eyed and staring into lunch hour traffic. No one’s in a real rush. It’s also beautiful outside. It’s a cloudless day so the sky, with the sun hanging high and out of sight, looks as deep and endless and calm as an ocean from miles above.
The car is idling three full yards from the stop line. The wood paneling along the exterior has been weathered to the color and consistency of balsa. The right taillight has a crack down the middle covered by a single vertical rectangle of faded gray duct tape, frayed and hanging loose along the top.
The light’s green. There’s a plane crashing across the sky and the car’s still idling. Someone a few cars back taps the horn. The Wagoneer’s left blinker flicks on and the car swings out into a left turn.
You’d only have seen the black motorcycle for a second. There’s a boom of metal colliding with metal and glass shattering. A biker is thrown across the hood of the Jeep, orange sparks are shooting from what’s left of the bike skidding across the asphalt and, for only a moment, the biker is flying head first toward the sun that had been behind the car just a minute before. It smells like something’s burning. As the bike comes to a stop all that’s left to hear is the sound of the Wagoneer's left blinker and the brakes coming to the end of a long scream.
Alex is catatonically drunk at a dive bar on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Alex’s friend Nick has somehow had even more to drink than he has, though. Nick is dancing intensely in the middle of the crowd. The crowd is giving Nick a wide berth, so Nick has an island of the dance floor all his own. That island is aboriginal, stomping, and possibly chanting.
Alex is standing with his feet planted firmly at the back of the crowd, far enough from Nick that no one would think that they’re together. While consuming beers one to three, Alex stood here surveying the crowd gathered before the bar’s band. For beers four to six, Alex attempted to talk to every single female in the crowd. For beers seven to nine, Alex forgot he had attempted to talk to every single female in the crowd and attempted again. Now, at beer ten, Alex is standing back where he started and sweating out beers one through nine. His Hawaiian shirt is sticking to him like wet tissue.
It’s dark, but Alex can see Nick working his way back through the crowd toward Alex. Nick is holding eye contact with Alex’s forehead. Nick points to the bar behind Alex and starts waving his arms and shouting help to the bartender. They drink more. The world seems distant, like he’s looking through a keyhole at a movie screen that’s grainy and indistinct and he’s just barely getting a sense of what’s going on. He wonders what time it is.
He wakes up to violet playing across the insides of his eyelids. It feels like it might take pliers to peel his tongue off the roof of his mouth. He’s in a wooden chair dark from dew on the porch of a one-story ranch across from the street from a small lake. He’s partially in the latticed shadow of the radio tower down the street, but the sun, showing no mercy, is peeking through.
He uses the arms of the chair for support to pick himself up and look around. Nick is facedown on the lawn. It’s quiet except for the click of sprinklers. The sky is clear and looks like it goes on forever. Alex pulls out his phone to see several missed calls and text messages, the first of which reads “Mark died in a motorcycle accident.”
Alex walks over to Nick and tries to wake him up.
Within a few hours, Nick and Alex have dug their folding chairs into wet beach sand along the tide line. Nick is pouring tanning oil into his hand. His skin is already leather, but Alex doesn’t say anything. He looks out at the water lapping in, the clouds liminal and fading into a haze along the horizon.
A plane passes the shore pulling along an advertisement for Miller Lite.
“Why are you writing this, Kane?” Nick asks.
“It’s a little early for authorial interjections,” Alex says, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“Bad joke,” Nick says. He’s trying and failing to oil the center of his back.
“I think I need to talk to somebody about what’s going on in my head.”
Nick put the oil away and is rubbing the scruff of dark, hard hairs on his neck.
“But why write about it?” Nick asks.
Another plane passes by with a dental surgery ad.
“My best friend from childhood died, and it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.”
“What do you mean?”
“That I went to his funeral, and after that everything, including me, carried on unchanged.”
“I think that’s the way it works, more or less.”
“It doesn’t seem like it should.”
It had rained the night before. The leaves lining forest floor are slick and glistening and cover tarry mud. Mark is trying his best not to leave a trail of footprints to where he’s hiding a small fleece skullcap. The treads of his hiking boots are barely gripping stones that he’s hopping across toward a tree with a small hollow that he’s just tall enough to reach. Damp bark smells a certain way, fresh and old at the same time. Mark places the hat in the hollow and calls out into the woods that he’s ready. The soft echo sounds distant and dreamlike.
Looking up at the mid-October canopy, red and orange leaves tumbling down at the suggestion of a breeze, Alex hears Mark’s voice from somewhere behind him. He calls out back to Mark and starts walking. Mark walks out from the right, bright red jacket electric against the solemn bark, and says, “Wrong way.”
Mark then looks down at his watch and, adjusting his glasses as he looks up and smiles adds, “Also, you have 4 minutes, 27 seconds left.”
They’re in a small patch of woods alongside a lake in upstate New York. It’s 2006 and they’re Boy Scouts. For three days they will only wear green khakis of varying length. They will not change their socks.
Alex trudges along and Mark, Mark keeping time and letting him know if he’s warmer or colder. Alex asks Mark if he is messing with him. Mark says he is not messing with Alex and that he has 3 minutes. Alex spots a tree hollow low to the ground and looks back at Mark, smiling. Mark says he has 2 minutes 55 seconds. Alex sticks a hand toward a dark form in the hollow but instead of plush fleece he feels something like gristle. Alex turns to look at Mark and feels a violent jolt against his fingers and pulls his hand out, running from the hollow as a vampire bat, flaps in disoriented circles before darting away.
Alex and Mark laugh in a nervous burst and for a minute only say things like “wow” and “Jesus.”
Mark says, “The hat’s actually over here,” pointing to a tree off to the left.
Alex replies, looking at the time, “Maybe we should head back.”
The dark in the western sky is spreading slowly with sundown. Mark hands Alex the hat and they walk back to their campsite, tired and quiet except for the leaves under their feet.
Cargo ships look like toys from so far away. Over the course of the hours they’ve been sitting, watching the surf roll in, they look unmoved too. Nick, with thick black sunglasses, is laying his head back along the top metal bar of the folding chair, looking like he’s straight up at the sun. It smells like sunburn.
Nick scratches his forehead. He says, “Is this story then just supposed to be a statement that the world has, business-as-usual, has continued on its way?”
“I think there are other things that are important to tell.”
“I hadn’t had a true conversation with Mark since the 8th grade. That we went to different high schools and effectively ceased to know one another. That in a meaningful way, Mark exited my life long before he died.”
“OK, and why do you need to share that?”
“Because there needs to be some way to explain the fact that Mark was my childhood and that after receiving that text message and looking around that my world was by all appearances no different. To explain how that is a horrible feeling in itself. How outside of the loss of his life and the sadness of all the people left behind that he had continued to love and be loved by, Mark’s death in my life was a whisper; an echo of memories a decade old. And how preoccupation with that feeling feels in some way deeply selfish.”
“Because it’s numb to people who really are suffering. And instead maybe points to a basic egoism on my part, and maybe speaks to why I'm writing this. I might just want to be listened to. I might just need to demonstrate that I have a vivid internal world that’s worthy of attention and, to that end, that I’m just using Mark.”
“I don’t think you are.”
“I don’t know if you’re right.”
They could hear raindrops hitting the roof of the canvas tent all night. The tent was built on a wooden pallet, with two tall wooden dowels that supported the tent’s peak, which draped down to form a triangular prism. There were four shorter dowels that made the cubic frame of the tent underneath the prism. It looked like one of those tents you saw in cartoons as a kid and then Wes Anderson movies as an adult. It was summer, and each night Mark and Alex would stare up at the walls of the tent and talk from their cots, a few feet apart and encased in the sound of cicadas, until they fell asleep.
That night a large storm passed over their campsite starting around sundown so all they can hear is rain. The canvas is heavy with water. The rivulets running underneath the pallet have turned to small streams.
Mark has a flashlight and it’s casting the light against the tent wall next to his bed, making shadow puppets with his other hand. A bird, a dog, a rabbit, and a rabbit smoking a cigarette.
They play a game of hypotheticals.
“What if school was 3 months and summer was 9 months?”
“What if you could perform onstage with your favorite band?”
“What if it never stops raining?”
They squirm, but they both keep going.
“What if there was no God?”
“What if death is a dark room where you can’t even see your hand in front of your face?”
They pause, the words hanging over them. Mark says, “I’m sorry, that was a terrible thought.”
The game is over. Alex thinks he can hear Mark’s deep and slow breaths over the rain. Alex rolls over to face his side of the canvas tent. In the dark, he to listens to his own thoughts and the trees as they bend in the wind outside.