I wanted to ask her about it, but she lay back down behind the piles of hay, invisible again. Alaska was done talking, and when she was done talking, that was it. We didn’t coax her out for two hours, until the Colonel unscrewed a bottle of wine. We passed around the bottle till I could feel it in my stomach, sour and warm.
I wanted to like booze more than I actually did (which is more or less the precise opposite of how I felt about Alaska). But that night, the booze felt great, as the warmth of the wine in my stomach spread through my body. I didn’t like feeling stupid or out of control, but I liked the way it made everything (laughing, crying, peeing in front of your friends) easier. Why did we drink? For me, it was just fun, particularly since we were risking expulsion. The nice thing about the constant threat of expulsion at Culver Creek is that it lends excitement to every moment of illicit pleasure. The bad thing, of course, is that there is always the possibility of actual expulsion.
two days before
I WOKE UP EARLY the next morning, my lips dry and my breath visible in the crisp air. Takumi had brought a camp stove in his backpack, and the Colonel was huddled over it, heating instant coffee. The sun shone bright but could not combat the cold, and I sat with the Colonel and sipped the coffee (“The thing about instant coffee is that it smells pretty good but tastes like stomach bile,” the Colonel said), and then one by one, Takumi and Lara and Alaska woke up, and we spent the day hiding out, but loudly. Hiding out loud.
At the barn that afternoon, Takumi decided we needed to have a freestyle contest.
“You start, Pudge,” Takumi said. “Colonel Catastrophe, you’re our beat box.”
“Dude, I can’t rap,” I pled.
“That’s okay. The Colonel can’t drop beats, either. Just try and rhyme a little and then send it over to me.”
With his hand cupped over his mouth, the Colonel started to make absurd noises that sounded more like farting than bass beats, and I, uh, rapped.
“Um, we’re sittin’ in the barn and the sun’s goin’ down / when I was a kid at Burger King I wore a crown / dude, I can’t rhyme for shit / so I’ll let my boy Takumi rip it.”
Takumi took over without pausing. “Damn, Pudge, I’m not sure I’m quite ready / but like Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy / I’ve always got the goods to rip shit up / last night I drank wine it was like hiccup hiccup / the Colonel’s beats are sick like malaria / when I rock the mike the ladies suffer hysteria / I represent Japan as well as Birmingham / when I was a kid they called me yellow man / but I ain’t ashamed a’ my skin color / and neither are the countless bitches that call me lover.”
Alaska jumped in.
“Oh shit did you just diss the feminine gender / I’ll pummel your ass then stick you in a blender / you think I like Tori and Ani so I can’t rhyme / but I got flow like Ghostbusters got slime / objectify women and it’s fuckin’ on / you’ll be dead and gone like ancient Babylon.”
Takumi picked it up again.
“If my eye offends me I will pluck it out / I got props for girls like old men got gout / oh shit now my rhyming got all whack / Lara help me out and pick up the slack.”
Lara rhymed quietly and nervously—and with even more flagrant disregard for the beat than me. “My name’s Lara and I’m from Romania / thees is pretty hard, um, I once visited Albania / I love riding in Alaska’s Geo / My two best vowels in English are EO / I’m not so good weeth the leetle i’s / but they make me sound cosmopoleeteen, right? / Oh, Takumi, I think I’m done / end thees game weeth some fun.”
“I drop bombs like Hiroshima, or better yet Nagasaki / when girls hear me flow they think that I’m Rocky / to represent my homeland I still drink sake / the kids don’t get my rhymin’ so sometimes they mock me / my build ain’t small but I wouldn’t call it stocky / then again, unlike Pudge, I’m not super gawky / I’m the fuckin’ fox and this is my crew / our freestyle’s infused with funk like my gym shoes. And we’re out.”
The Colonel rapped it up with freestyle beat-boxing, and we gave ourselves a round of applause.
“You ripped it up, Alaska,” Takumi says, laughing.
“I do what I can to represent the ladies. Lara had my back.”
“Yeah, I deed.”
And then Alaska decided that although it wasn’t nearly dark yet, it was time for us to get shitfaced.
“Two nights in a row is maybe pushing our luck,” Takumi said as Alaska opened the wine.
“Luck is for suckers.” She smiled and put the bottle to her lips. We had saltines and a hunk of Cheddar cheese provided by the Colonel for dinner, and sipping the warm pink wine out of the bottle with our cheese and saltines made for a fine dinner. And when we ran out of cheese, well, all the more room for Strawberry Hill.
“We have to slow down or I’ll puke,” I remarked after we finished the first bottle.
“I’m sorry, Pudge. I wasn’t aware that someone was holding open your throat and pouring wine down it,” the Colonel responded, tossing me a bottle of Mountain Dew.
“It’s a little charitable to call this shit wine,” Takumi cracked.
And then, as if out of nowhere, Alaska announced, “Best Day/Worst Day!”
“Huh?” I asked.
“We are all going to puke if we just drink. So we’ll slow it down with a drinking game. Best Day/Worst Day.”
“Never heard of it,” the Colonel said.
“ ’Cause I just made it up.” She smiled. She lay on her side across two bales of hay, the afternoon light brightening the green in her eyes, her tan skin the last memory of fall. With her mouth half open, it occurred to me that she must already be drunk as I noticed the far-off look in her eyes. The thousand-yard stare of intoxication, I thought, and as I watched her with an idle fascination, it occurred to me that, yeah, I was a little drunk, too.
“Fun! What are the rules?” Lara asked.
“Everybody tells the story of their best day. The best storyteller doesn’t have to drink. Then everybody tells the story of their worst day, and the best storyteller doesn’t have to drink. Then we keep going, second best day, second worst day, until one of y’all quits.”
“How do you know it’ll be one of us?” Takumi asked.
“ ’Cause I’m the best drinker and the best storyteller,” she answered. Hard to disagree with that logic. “You start, Pudge. Best day of your life.”
“Um. Can I take a minute to think of one?”
“Couldn’ta been that good if you have to think about it,” the Colonel said.
“Fuck you, dude.”
“Best day of my life was today,” I said. “And the story is that I woke up next to a very pretty Hungarian girl and it was cold but not too cold and I had a cup of lukewarm instant coffee and ate Cheerios without milk and then walked through the woods with Alaska and Takumi. We skipped stones across the creek, which sounds dumb but it wasn’t. I don’t know. Like the way the sun is right now, with the long shadows and that kind of bright, soft light you get when the sun isn’t quite setting? That’s the light that makes everything better, everything prettier, and today, everything just seemed to be in that light. I mean, I didn’t do anything. But just sitting here, even if I’m watching the Colonel whittle, or whatever. Whatever. Great day. Today. Best day of my life.”
“You think I’m pretty?” Lara said, and laughed, bashful. I thought, It’d be good to make eye contact with her now, but I couldn’t. “And I’m Romaneean!”
“That story ended up being a hell of a lot better than I thought it would be,” Alaska said, “but I’ve still got you beat.”
“Bring it on, baby,” I said. A breeze picked up, the tall grass outside the barn tilting away from it, and I pulled my sleeping bag over my shoulders to stay warm.
“Best day of my life was January 9, 1997. I was eight years old, and my mom and I went to the zoo on a class trip. I liked the bears. She liked the monkeys. Best day ever. End of story.”
“That’s it?!” the Colonel said. “That’s the best day of your whole life?!”
“I liked eet,” Lara said. “I like the monkeys, too.”
“Lame,” said the Colonel. I didn’t think it was lame so much as more of Alaska’s intentional vagueness, another example of her furthering her own mysteriousness. But still, even though I knew it was intentional, I couldn’t help but wonder: What’s so fucking great about the zoo? But before I could ask, Lara spoke.
“’Kay, my turn,” said Lara. “Eet’s easy. The day I came here. I knew Engleesh and my parents deedn’t, and we came off the airplane and my relatives were here, aunts and uncles I had not ever seen, in the airport, and my parents were so happy. I was twelve, and I had always been the leetle baby, but that was the first day that my parents needed me and treated me like a grown-up. Because they did not know the language, right? They need me to order food and to translate tax and immigration forms and everytheeng else, and that was the day they stopped treating me like a keed. Also, in Romania, we were poor. And here, we’re kinda reech.” She laughed.
“All right.” Takumi smiled, grabbing the bottle of wine. “I lose. Because the best day of my life was the day I lost my virginity. And if you think I’m going to tell you that story, you’re gonna have to get me drunker than this.”
“Not bad,” the Colonel said. “That’s not bad. Want to know my best day?”
“That’s the game, Chip,” Alaska said, clearly annoyed.
“Best day of my life hasn’t happened yet. But I know it. I see it every day. The best day of my life is the day I buy my mom a huge fucking house. And not just like out in the woods, but in the middle of Mountain Brook, with all the Weekday Warriors’ parents. With all y’all’s parents. And I’m not buying it with a mortgage either. I’m buying it with cash money, and I am driving my mom there, and I’m going to open her side of the car door and she’ll get out and look at this house—this house is like picket fence and two stories and everything, you know—and I’m going to hand her the keys to her house and I’ll say, ‘Thanks.’ Man, she helped fill out my application to this place. And she let me come here, and that’s no easy thing when you come from where we do, to let your son go away to school. So that’s the best day of my life.”
Takumi tilted the bottle up and swallowed a few times, then handed it to me. I drank, and so did Lara, and then Alaska put her head back and turned the bottle upside down, quickly downing the last quarter of the bottle.
As she unscrewed the next bottle, Alaska smiled at the Colonel. “You won that round. Now what’s your worst day?”
“Worst day was when my dad left. He’s old—he’s like seventy now—and he was old when he married my mom, and he still cheated on her. And she caught him, and she got pissed, so he hit her. And then she kicked him out, and he left. I was here, and my mom called, and she didn’t tell me the whole story with the cheating and everything and the hitting until later. She just said that he was gone and not coming back. And I haven’t seen him since. All that day, I kept waiting for him to call me and explain it, but he never did. He never called at all. I at least thought he would say good-bye or something. That was the worst day.”
“Shit, you got me beat again,” I said. “My worst day was in seventh grade, when Tommy Hewitt pissed on my gym clothes and then the gym teacher said I had to wear my uniform or I’d fail the class. Seventh-grade gym, right? There are worse things to fail. But it was a big deal then, and I was crying, and trying to explain to the teacher what happened, but it was so embarrassing, and he just yelled and yelled and yelled until I put on these piss-soaked shorts and T-shirt. That was the day I stopped caring what people did. I just never cared anymore, about being a loser or not having friends or any of that. So I guess it was good for me in a way, but that moment was awful. I mean, imagine me playing volleyball or whatever in pee-soaked gym clothes while Tommy Hewitt tells everyone what he did. That was the worst day.”
Lara was laughing. “I’m sorry, Miles.”
“All good,” I said. “Just tell me yours so I can laugh at your pain,” and I smiled, and we laughed together.
“My worst day was probably the same day as my best. Because I left everytheeng. I mean, eet sounds dumb, but my childhood, too, because most twelve-year-olds do not, you know, have to feegure out W-2 forms.”
“What’s a W-2 form?” I asked.
“That’s my point. Eet’s for taxes. So. Same day.”
Lara had always needed to talk for her parents, I thought, and so maybe she never learned how to talk for herself. And I wasn’t great at talking for myself either. We had something important in common, then, a personality quirk I didn’t share with Alaska or anybody else, although almost by definition Lara and I couldn’t express it to each other. So maybe it was just the way the not-yet-setting sun shone against her lazy dark curls, but at that moment, I wanted to kiss her, and we did not need to talk in order to kiss, and the puking on her jeans and the months of mutual avoidance melted away.
“Eet’s your turn, Takumi.”
“Worst day of my life,” Takumi said. “June 9, 2000. My grand-mother died in Japan. She died in a car accident, and I was supposed to leave to go see her two days later. I was going to spend the whole summer with her and my grandfather, but instead I flew over for her funeral, and the only time I really saw what she looked like, I mean other than in pictures, was at her funeral. She had a Buddhist funeral, and they cremated her, but before they did she was on this, like—well, it’s not really Buddhist. I mean, religion is complicated there, so it’s a little Buddhist and a little Shinto, but y’all don’t care—point being that she was on this, like, funeral pyre or whatever. And that’s the only time I ever saw her, was just before they burned her up. That was the worst day.”