I tapped the Colonel on the shoulder and said, “Hyde’s here,” and the Colonel said, “Oh shit,” and I said, “What?” and he said, “Where’s Alaska?” and I said, “No,” and he said, “Pudge, is she here or not?” and then we both stood up and scanned the faces in the gym.
The Eagle walked up to the podium and said, “Is everyone here?”
“No,” I said to him. “Alaska isn’t here.”
The Eagle looked down. “Is everyone else here?”
“Alaska isn’t here!”
“Okay, Miles. Thank you.”
“We can’t start without Alaska.”
The Eagle looked at me. He was crying, noiselessly. Tears just rolled from his eyes to his chin and then fell onto his corduroy pants. He stared at me, but it was not the Look of Doom. His eyes blinking the tears down his face, the Eagle looked, for all the world, sorry.
“Please, sir,” I said. “Can we please wait for Alaska?” I felt all of them staring at us, trying to understand what I now knew, but didn’t quite believe.
The Eagle looked down and bit his lower lip. “Last night, Alaska Young was in a terrible accident.” His tears came faster, then. “And she was killed. Alaska has passed away.”
For a moment, everyone in the gym was silent, and the place had never been so quiet, not even in the moments before the Colonel ridiculed opponents at the free-throw stripe. I stared down at the back of the Colonel’s head. I just stared, looking at his thick and bushy hair. For a moment, it was so quiet that you could hear the sound of not-breathing, the vacuum created by 190 students shocked out of air.
I thought: It’s all my fault.
I thought: I don’t feel very good.
I thought: I’m going to throw up.
I stood up and ran outside. I made it to a trash can outside the gym, five feet from the double doors, and heaved toward Gatorade bottles and half-eaten McDonald’s. But nothing much came out. I just heaved, my stomach muscles tightening and my throat opening and a gasping, guttural blech, going through the motions of vomiting over and over again. In between gags and coughs, I sucked air in hard. Her mouth. Her dead, cold mouth. To not be continued. I knew she was drunk. Upset. Obviously you don’t let someone drive drunk and pissed off. Obviously. And Christ, Miles, what the hell is wrong with you? And then comes the puke, finally, splashing onto the trash. And here is whatever of her I had left in my mouth, here in this trash can. And then it comes again, more—and then okay, calm down, okay, seriously, she’s not dead.
She’s not dead. She’s alive. She’s alive somewhere. She’s in the woods. Alaska is hiding in the woods and she’s not dead, she’s just hiding. She’s just playing a trick on us. This is just an Alaska Young Prank Extraordinaire. It’s Alaska being Alaska, funny and playful and not knowing when or how to put on the brakes.
And then I felt much better, because she had not died at all.
I walked back into the gym, and everyone seemed to be in various stages of disintegration. It was like something you see on TV, like a National Geographic special on funeral rituals. I saw Takumi standing over Lara, his hands on her shoulders. I saw Kevin with his crew cut, his head buried between his knees. A girl named Molly Tan, who’d studied with us for precalc, wailed, beating balled fists against her thighs. All these people I sort of knew and sort of didn’t, and all of them disintegrating, and then I saw the Colonel, his knees tucked into his chest, lying on his side on the bleachers, Madame O’Malley sitting next to him, reaching toward his shoulder but not actually touching it. The Colonel was screaming. He would inhale, and then scream. Inhale. Scream. Inhale. Scream.
I thought, at first, that it was only yelling. But after a few breaths, I noticed a rhythm. And after a few more, I realized that the Colonel was saying words. He was screaming, “I’m so sorry.”
Madame O’Malley grabbed his hand. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, Chip. There was nothing you could have done.” But if only she knew.
And I just stood there, looking at the scene, thinking about her not dead, and I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to see the Eagle, and I said, “I think she’s playing a dumb prank,” and he said, “No, Miles, no, I’m sorry,” and I felt the heat in my cheeks and said, “She’s really good. She could pull this off,” and he said, “I saw her. I’m sorry.”
“Somebody was setting off firecrackers in the woods,” he said, and I closed my eyes tight, the ineluctable fact of the matter at hand: I had killed her. “I went out after them, and I guess she drove off campus. It was late. She was on I-65 just south of downtown. A truck had jackknifed, blocking both lanes. A police car had just gotten to the scene. She hit the cruiser without ever swerving. I believe she must have been very intoxicated. The police said they smelled alcohol.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I saw her, Miles. I talked to the police. It was instant. The steering wheel hit her chest. I’m so sorry.”
And I said, you saw her and he said yes and I said how did she look and he said, just a bit of blood coming out of her nose, and I sat down on the floor of the gym. I could hear the Colonel still screaming, and I could feel hands on my back as I hunched forward, but I could only see her lying naked on a metal table, a small trickle of blood falling out of her half-teardrop nose, her green eyes open, staring off into the distance, her mouth turned up just enough to suggest the idea of a smile, and she had felt so warm against me, her mouth soft and warm on mine.
The Colonel and I are walking back to our dorm room in silence. I am staring at the ground beneath me. I cannot stop thinking that she is dead, and I cannot stop thinking that she cannot possibly be dead. People do not just die. I can’t catch my breath. I feel afraid, like someone has told me they’re going to kick my ass after school and now it’s sixth period and I know full well what’s coming. It is so cold today—literally freezing—and I imagine running to the creek and diving in headfirst, the creek so shallow that my hands scrape against the rocks, and my body slides into the cold water, the shock of the cold giving way to numbness, and I would stay there, float down with that water first to the Cahaba River, then to the Alabama River, then to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
I want to melt into the brown, crunchy grass that the Colonel and I step on as we silently make our way back to our room. His feet are so large, too large for his short body, and the new generic tennis shoes he wears since his old ones were pissed in look almost like clown shoes. I think of Alaska’s flip-flops clinging to her blue toes as we swung on the swing down by the lake. Will the casket be open? Can a mortician re-create her smile? I could still hear her saying it: “This is so fun, but I’m so sleepy. To be continued?”
Nineteenth-century preacher Henry Ward Beecher’s last words were “Now comes the mystery.” The poet Dylan Thomas, who liked a good drink at least as much as Alaska, said, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskeys. I do believe that’s a record,” before dying. Alaska’s favorite was playwright Eugene O’Neill: “Born in a hotel room, and—God damn it—died in a hotel room.” Even car-accident victims sometimes have time for last words. Princess Diana said, “Oh God. What’s happened?” Movie star James Dean said, “They’ve got to see us,” just before slamming his Porsche into another car. I know so many last words. But I will never know hers.
I am several steps in front of him before I realize that the Colonel has fallen down. I turn around, and he is lying on his face. “We have to get up, Chip. We have to get up. We just have to get to the room.”
The Colonel turns his face from the ground to me and looks me dead in the eye and says, “I. Can’t. Breathe.”
But he can breathe, and I know this because he is hyperventilating, breathing as if trying to blow air back into the dead. I pick him up, and he grabs onto me and starts sobbing, again saying, “I’m so sorry,” over and over again. We have never hugged before, me and the Colonel, and there is nothing much to say, because he ought to be sorry, and I just put my hand on the back of his head and say the only true thing. “I’m sorry, too.”
two days after
I DIDN’T SLEEP THAT NIGHT. Dawn was slow in coming, and even when it did, the sun shining bright through the blinds, the rickety radiator couldn’t keep us warm, so the Colonel and I sat wordlessly on the couch. He read the almanac.
The night before, I’d braved the cold to call my parents, and this time when I said, “Hey, it’s Miles,” and my mom answered with, “What’s wrong? Is everything okay?” I could safely tell her no, everything was not okay. My dad picked up the line then.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Don’t yell,” my mother said.
“I’m not yelling; it’s just the phone.”
“Well, talk quieter,” she said, and so it took some time before I could say anything, and then once I could, it took some time to say the words in order—my friend Alaska died in a car crash. I stared at the numbers and messages scrawled on the wall by the phone.
“Oh, Miles,” Mom said. “I’m so sorry, Miles. Do you want to come home?”
“No,” I said. “I want to be here . . . I can’t believe it,” which was still partly true.
“That’s just awful,” my dad said. “Her poor parents.” Poor parent, I thought, and wondered about her dad. I couldn’t even imagine what my parents would do if I died. Driving drunk. God, if her father ever found out, he would disembowel the Colonel and me.
“What can we do for you right now?” my mom asked.
“I just needed you to pick up. I just needed you to answer the phone, and you did.” I heard a sniffle behind me—from cold or grief, I didn’t know—and told my parents, “Someone’s waiting for the phone. I gotta go.”
All night, I felt paralyzed into silence, terrorized. What was I so afraid of, anyway? The thing had happened. She was dead. She was warm and soft against my skin, my tongue in her mouth, and she was laughing, trying to teach me, make me better, promising to be continued. And now.
And now she was colder by the hour, more dead with every breath I took. I thought: That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses and went to the glasses store and they told him that the world had run out of glasses and he would just have to do without.
Just before eight in the morning, the Colonel announced to no one in particular, “I think there are bufriedos at lunch today.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Are you hungry?”
“God no. But she named them, you know. They were called fried burritos when we got here, and Alaska started calling them bufriedos, and then everyone did, and then finally Maureen officially changed the name.” He paused. “I don’t know what to do, Miles.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I finished memorizing the capitals,” he said.
“Of the states?”
“No. That was fifth grade. Of the countries. Name a country.”
“Canada,” I said.
“Tashkent.” He didn’t even take a moment to think. It was just there, at the tip of his tongue, as if he’d been waiting for me to say “Uzbekistan” all along. “Let’s smoke.”
We walked to the bathroom and turned on the shower, and the Colonel pulled a pack of matches from his jeans and struck a match against the matchbook. It didn’t light. Again, he tried and failed, and again, smacking at the matchbook with a crescendoing fury until he finally threw the matches to the ground and screamed, “GODDAMN IT!”
“It’s okay,” I said, reaching into my pocket for a lighter.
“No, Pudge, it’s not,” he said, throwing down his cigarette and standing up, suddenly pissed. “Goddamn it! God, how did this happen? How could she be so stupid! She just never thought anything through. So goddamned impulsive. Christ. It is not okay. I can’t believe she was so stupid!”
“We should have stopped her,” I said.
He reached into the stall to turn off the dribbling shower and then pounded an open palm against the tile wall. “Yeah, I know we should have stopped her, damn it. I am shit sure keenly aware that we should have stopped her. But we shouldn’t have had to. You had to watch her like a three-year-old. You do one thing wrong, and then she just dies. Christ! I’m losing it. I’m going on a walk.”
“Okay,” I answered, trying to keep my voice calm.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I feel so screwed up. I feel like I might die.”
“You might,” I said.
“Yeah. Yeah. I might. You never know. It’s just. It’s like. POOF. And you’re gone.”
I followed him into the room. He grabbed the almanac from his bunk, zipped his jacket, closed the door, and POOF. He was gone.
With morning came visitors. An hour after the Colonel left, resident stoner Hank Walsten dropped by to offer me some weed, which I graciously turned down. Hank hugged me and said, “At least it was instant. At least there wasn’t any pain.”
I knew he was only trying to help, but he didn’t get it. There was pain. A dull endless pain in my gut that wouldn’t go away even when I knelt on the stingingly frozen tile of the bathroom, dry-heaving.
And what is an “instant” death anyway? How long is an instant? Is it one second? Ten? The pain of those seconds must have been awful as her heart burst and her lungs collapsed and there was no air and no blood to her brain and only raw panic. What the hell is instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous.