Was there time for her life to flash before her eyes? Was I there? Was Jake? And she promised, I remembered, she promised to be continued, but I knew, too, that she was driving north when she died, north toward Nashville, toward Jake. Maybe it hadn’t meant anything to her, had been nothing more than another grand impulsivity. And as Hank stood in the doorway, I just looked past him, looking across the too-quiet dorm circle, wondering if it had mattered to her, and I can only tell myself that of course, yes, she had promised. To be continued.
Lara came next, her eyes heavy with swelling. “What happeened?” she asked me as I held her, standing on my tiptoes so I could place my chin on top of her head.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Deed you see her that night?” she asked, speaking into my collarbone.
“She got drunk,” I told her. “The Colonel and I went to sleep, and I guess she drove off campus.” And that became the standard lie.
I felt Lara’s fingers, wet with her tears, press against my palm, and before I could think better of it, I pulled my hand away. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Eet’s okay,” she said. “I’ll be een my room eef you want to come by.” I did not drop by. I didn’t know what to say to her—I was caught in a love triangle with one dead side.
That afternoon, we all filed into the gym again for a town meeting. The Eagle announced that the school would charter a bus on Sunday to the funeral in Vine Station. As we got up to leave, I noticed Takumi and Lara walking toward me. Lara caught my eye and smiled wanly. I smiled back, but quickly turned and hid myself amid the mass of mourners filing out of the gym.
I am sleeping, and Alaska flies into the room. She is naked, and intact. Her breasts, which I felt only very briefly and in the dark, are luminously full as they hang down from her body. She hovers inches above me, her breath warm and sweet against my face like a breeze passing through tall grass.
“Hi,” I say. “I’ve missed you.”
“You look good, Pudge.”
“So do you.”
“I’m so naked,” she says, and laughs. “How did I get so naked?”
“I just want you to stay,” I say.
“No,” she says, and her weight falls dead on me, crushing my chest, stealing away my breath, and she is cold and wet, like melting ice. Her head is split in half and a pink-gray sludge oozes from the fracture in her skull and drips down onto my face, and she stinks of formaldehyde and rotting meat. I gag and push her off me, terrified.
I woke up falling, and landed with a thud on the floor. Thank God I’m a bottom-bunk man. I had slept for fourteen hours. It was morning. Wednesday, I thought. Her funeral Sunday. I wondered if the Colonel would get back by then, where he was. He had to come back for the funeral, because I could not go alone, and going with anyone other than the Colonel would amount to alone.
The cold wind buffeted against the door, and the trees outside the back window shook with such force that I could hear it from our room, and I sat in my bed and thought of the Colonel out there somewhere, his head down, his teeth clenched, walking into the wind.
four days after
IT WAS FIVE IN THE MORNING and I was reading a biography of the explorer Meriwether Lewis (of & Clark fame) and trying to stay awake when the door opened and the Colonel walked in.
His pale hands shook, and the almanac he held looked like a puppet dancing without strings.
“Are you cold?” I asked.
He nodded, slipped off his sneakers, and climbed into my bed on the bottom bunk, pulling up the covers. His teeth chattered like Morse code.
“Jesus. Are you all right?”
“Better now. Warmer,” he said. A small, ghost white hand appeared from beneath the comforter. “Hold my hand, will ya?”
“All right, but that’s it. No kissing.” The quilt shook with his laughter.
“Where have you been?”
“I walked to Montevallo.”
“Forty-two,” he corrected me. “Well. Forty-two there. Forty-two back. Eighty-two miles. No. Eighty-four. Yes. Eighty-four miles in forty-five hours.”
“What the hell’s in Montevallo?” I asked.
“Not much. I just walked till I got too cold, and then I turned around.”
“You didn’t sleep?”
“No! The dreams are terrible. In my dreams, she doesn’t even look like herself anymore. I don’t even remember what she looked like.”
I let go of his hand, grabbed last year’s yearbook, and found her picture. In the black-and-white photograph, she’s wearing her orange tank top and cutoff jeans that stretch halfway down her skinny thighs, her mouth open wide in a frozen laugh as her left arm holds Takumi in a headlock. Her hair falls over her face just enough to obscure her cheeks.
“Right,” the Colonel said. “Yeah. I was so tired of her getting upset for no reason. The way she would get sulky and make references to the freaking oppressive weight of tragedy or whatever but then never said what was wrong, never have any goddamned reason to be sad. And I just think you ought to have a reason. My girlfriend dumped me, so I’m sad. I got caught smoking, so I’m pissed off. My head hurts, so I’m cranky. She never had a reason, Pudge. I was just so tired of putting up with her drama. And I just let her go. Christ.”
Her moodiness had annoyed me, too, sometimes, but not that night. That night I let her go because she told me to. It was that simple for me, and that stupid.
The Colonel’s hand was so little, and I grabbed it tight, his cold seeping into me and my warmth into him. “I memorized the populations,” he said.
“Twenty-four million seven hundred fifty-five thousand five hundred and nineteen.”
“Cameroon,” I said, but it was too late. He was asleep, his hand limp in mine. I placed it back under the quilt and climbed up into his bed, a top-bunk man for this night at least. I fell asleep listening to his slow, even breaths, his stubbornness finally melting away in the face of insurmountable fatigue.
six days after
THAT SUNDAY, I got up after three hours of sleep and showered for the first time in a long while. I put on my only suit. I almost hadn’t brought it, but my mom insisted that you never know when you’re going to need a suit, and sure enough.
The Colonel did not own a suit, and by virtue of his stature could not borrow one from anyone at the Creek, so he wore black slacks and a gray button-down.
“I don’t suppose I can wear the flamingo tie,” he said as he pulled on black socks.
“It’s a bit festive, given the occasion,” I responded.
“Can’t wear it to the opera,” said the Colonel, almost smiling. “Can’t wear it to a funeral. Can’t use it to hang myself. It’s a bit useless, as ties go.” I gave him a tie.
The school had chartered buses to ferry students north to Alaska’s hometown of Vine Station, but Lara, the Colonel, Takumi, and I drove in Takumi’s SUV, taking the back roads so we didn’t have to drive past the spot on the highway. I stared out the window, watching as the suburban sprawl surrounding Birmingham faded into the slow-sloping hills and fields of northern Alabama.
Up front, Takumi told Lara about the time Alaska got her boob honked over the summer, and Lara laughed. That was the first time I had seen her, and now we were coming to the last. More than anything, I felt the unfairness of it, the inarguable injustice of loving someone who might have loved you back but can’t due to deadness, and then I leaned forward, my forehead against the back of Takumi’s headrest, and I cried, whimpering, and I didn’t even feel sadness so much as pain. It hurt, and that is not a euphemism. It hurt like a beating.
Meriwether Lewis’s last words were, “I am not a coward, but I am so strong. So hard to die.” I don’t doubt that it is, but it cannot be much harder than being left behind. I thought of Lewis as I followed Lara into the A-frame chapel attached to the single-story funeral home in Vine Station, Alabama, a town every bit as depressed and depressing as Alaska had always made it out to be. The place smelled of mildew and disinfectant, and the yellow wallpaper in the foyer was peeling at the corners.
“Are y’all here for Ms. Young?” a guy asked the Colonel, and the Colonel nodded. We were led to a large room with rows of folding chairs populated by only one man. He knelt before a coffin at the front of the chapel. The coffin was closed. Closed. Never going to see her again. Can’t kiss her forehead. Can’t see her one last time. But I needed to, I needed to see her, and much too loud, I asked, “Why is it closed?” and the man, whose potbelly pushed out from his too-tight suit, turned around and walked toward me.
“Her mother,” he said. “Her mother had an open casket, and Alaska told me, ‘Don’t ever let them see me dead, Daddy,’ and so that’s that. Anyway, son, she’s not in there. She’s with the Lord.”
And he put his hands on my shoulders, this man who had grown fat since he’d last had to wear a suit, and I couldn’t believe what I had done to him, his eyes glittering green like Alaska’s but sunk deep into dark sockets, like a green-eyed, still-breathing ghost, and don’t no don’t don’t die, Alaska. Don’t die. And I walked out of his embrace and past Lara and Takumi to her casket and knelt before it and placed my hands on the finished wood, the dark mahogany, the color of her hair. I felt the Colonel’s small hands on my shoulders, and a tear dripped onto my head, and for a few moments, it was just the three of us—the buses of students hadn’t arrived, and Takumi and Lara had faded away, and it was just the three of us—three bodies and two people—the three who knew what had happened and too many layers between all of us, too much keeping us from one another. The Colonel said, “I just want to save her so bad,” and I said, “Chip, she’s gone,” and he said, “I thought I’d feel her looking down on us, but you’re right. She’s just gone,” and I said, “Oh God, Alaska, I love you. I love you,” and the Colonel whispered, “I’m so sorry, Pudge. I know you did,” and I said, “No. Not past tense.” She wasn’t even a person anymore, just flesh rotting, but I loved her present tense. The Colonel knelt down beside me and put his lips to the coffin and whispered, “I am sorry, Alaska. You deserved a better friend.”
Is it so hard to die, Mr. Lewis? Is that labyrinth really worse than this one?
seven days after
I SPENT THE NEXT DAY in our room, playing football on mute, at once unable to do nothing and unable to do anything much. It was Martin Luther King Day, our last day before classes started again, and I could think of nothing but having killed her. The Colonel spent the morning with me, but then he decided to go to the cafeteria for meat loaf.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“You have to eat.”
“Wanna bet?” I asked without looking up from the game.
“Christ. Fine.” He sighed and left, slamming the door behind him. He’s still very angry, I found myself thinking with a bit of pity. No reason to be angry. Anger just distracts from the all-encompassing sadness, the frank knowledge that you killed her and robbed her of a future and a life. Getting pissed wouldn’t fix it. Damn it.
“How’s the meat loaf?” I asked the Colonel when he returned.
“About as you remember it. Neither meaty nor loafy.” The Colonel sat down next to me. “The Eagle ate with me. He wanted to know if we set off the fireworks.” I paused the game and turned to him. With one hand, he picked at one of the last remaining pieces of blue vinyl on our foam couch.
“And you said?” I asked.
“I didn’t rat. Anyway, he said her aunt or something is coming tomorrow to clean out her room. So if there’s anything that’s ours, or anything her aunt wouldn’t want to find . . . ”
I turned back to the game and said, “I’m not up for it today.”
“Then I’ll do it alone,” he answered. He turned and walked outside, leaving the door open, and the bitter remnants of the cold snap quickly overwhelmed the radiator, so I paused the game and stood up to close the door, and when I peeked around the corner to see if the Colonel had entered her room, he was standing there, just outside our door, and he grabbed onto my sweatshirt, smiled, and said, “I knew you wouldn’t make me do that alone. I knew it.” I shook my head and rolled my eyes but followed him down the sidewalk, past the pay phone, and into her room.
I hadn’t thought of her smell since she died. But when the Colonel opened the door, I caught the edge of her scent: wet dirt and grass and cigarette smoke, and beneath that the vestiges of vanilla-scented skin lotion. She flooded into my present, and only tact kept me from burying my face in the dirty laundry overfilling the hamper by her dresser. It looked as I remembered it: hundreds of books stacked against the walls, her lavender comforter crumpled at the foot of her bed, a precarious stack of books on her bedside table, her volcanic candle just peeking out from beneath the bed. It looked as I knew it would, but the smell, unmistakably her, shocked me. I stood in the center of the room, my eyes shut, inhaling slowly through my nose, the vanilla and the uncut autumn grass, but with each slow breath, the smell faded as I became accustomed to it, and soon she was gone again.
“This is unbearable,” I said matter-of-factly, because it was. “God. These books she’ll never read. Her Life’s Library.”
“Bought at garage sales and now probably destined for another one.”
“Ashes to ashes. Garage sale to garage sale,” I said.
“Right. Okay, down to business. Get anything her aunt wouldn’t want to find,” the Colonel said, and I saw him kneeling at her desk, the drawer beneath her computer pulled open, his small fingers pulling out groups of stapled papers. “Christ, she kept every paper she ever wrote. Moby-Dick. Ethan Frome.”