He was nodding as we heard the three quick knocks on the front door that meant the Eagle, and I thought, Shit, caught twice in a week, and Takumi pointed into the shower, and so we jumped in together and pulled the curtain shut, the too-low showerhead spitting water onto us from rib cage down. Forced to stand closer together than seemed entirely necessary, we stayed there, silent, the sputtering shower slowly soaking our T-shirts and jeans for a few long minutes, while we waited for the steam to lift the smoke into the vents. But the Eagle never knocked on the bathroom door, and eventually Takumi turned off the shower. I opened the bathroom door a crack and peeked out to see the Colonel sitting on the foam couch, his feet propped up on the COFFEE TABLE, finishing Takumi’s NASCAR race. I opened the door and Takumi and I walked out, fully clothed and dripping wet.
“Well, there’s something you don’t see every day,” the Colonel said nonchalantly.
“What the hell?” I asked.
“I knocked like the Eagle to scare you.” He smiled. “But shit, if y’all need privacy, just leave a note on the door next time.”
Takumi and I laughed, and then Takumi said, “Yeah, Pudge and I were getting a little testy, but man, ever since we showered together, Pudge, I feel really close to you.”
“So how’d it go?” I asked. I sat down on the COFFEE TABLE, and Takumi plopped down on the couch next to the Colonel, both of us wet and vaguely cold but more concerned with the Colonel’s talk with Jake than with getting dry.
“It was interesting. Here’s what you need to know: He gave her those flowers, like we thought. They didn’t fight. He just called because he had promised to call at the exact moment of their eight-month anniversary, which happened to be three-oh-two in the A.M., which—let’s agree—is a little ridiculous, and I guess somehow she heard the phone ringing. So they talked about nothing for like five minutes, and then completely out of nowhere, she freaked out.”
“Completely out of nowhere?” Takumi asked.
“Allow me to consult my notes.” The Colonel flipped through his notebook. “Okay. Jake says, ‘Did you have a nice anniversary?’ and then Alaska says, ‘I had a splendid anniversary,’ ” and I could hear in the Colonel’s reading the excitement of her voice, the way she leaped onto certain words like splendid and fantastic and absolutely. “Then it’s quiet, then Jake says, ‘What are you doing?’ and Alaska says, ‘Nothing, just doodling,’ and then she says, ‘Oh God.’ And then she says, ‘Shit shit shit’ and starts sobbing, and told him she had to go but she’d talk to him later, but she didn’t say she was driving to see him, and Jake doesn’t think she was. He doesn’t know where she was going, but he says she always asked if she could come up and see him, and she didn’t ask, so she must not have been coming. Hold on, lemme find the quote.” He flipped a page in the notebook. “Okay, here: ‘She said she’d talk to me later, not that she’d see me.’”
“She tells me ‘To be continued’ and tells him she’ll talk to him later,” I observed.
“Yes. Noted. Planning for a future. Admittedly inconsistent with suicide. So then she comes back into her room screaming about forgetting something. And then her headlong race comes to its end. So no answers, really.”
“Well, we know where she wasn’t going.”
“Unless she was feeling particularly impulsive,” Takumi said. He looked at me. “And from the sound of things, she was feeling rather impulsive that night.”
The Colonel looked over at me curiously, and I nodded.
“Yeah,” Takumi said. “I know.”
“Okay, then. And you were pissed, but then you took a shower with Pudge and it’s all good. Excellent. So, so that night . . .” the Colonel continued.
And we tried to resurrect the conversation that last night as best we could for Takumi, but neither of us remembered it terribly well, partly because the Colonel was drunk and I wasn’t paying attention until she brought up Truth or Dare. And, anyway, we didn’t know how much it might mean. Last words are always harder to remember when no one knows that someone’s about to die.
“I mean,” the Colonel said, “I think she and I were talking about how much I adored skateboarding on the computer but how it would never even occur to me to try and step on a skateboard in real life, and then she said, ‘Let’s play Truth or Dare’ and then you fucked her.”
“Wait, you fucked her? In front of the Colonel?” Takumi cried.
“I didn’t fuck her.”
“Calm down, guys,” the Colonel said, throwing up his hands. “It’s a euphemism.”
“For what?” Takumi asked.
“Brilliant euphemism.” Takumi rolled his eyes. “Am I the only one who thinks that might be significant?”
“Yeah, that never occurred to me before,” I deadpanned. “But now I don’t know. She didn’t tell Jake. It couldn’t have been that important.”
“Maybe she was racked with guilt,” he said.
“Jake said she seemed normal on the phone before she freaked out,” the Colonel said. “But it must have been that phone call. Something happened that we aren’t seeing.” The Colonel ran his hands through his thick hair, frustrated. “Christ, something. Something inside of her. And now we just have to figure out what that was.”
“So we just have to read the mind of a dead person,” Takumi said. “Easy enough.”
“Precisely. Want to get shitfaced?” the Colonel asked.
“I don’t feel like drinking,” I said.
The Colonel reached into the foam recesses of the couch and pulled out Takumi’s Gatorade bottle. Takumi didn’t want any either, but the Colonel just smirked and said, “More for me,” and chugged.
thirty-seven days after
THE NEXT WEDNESDAY, I ran into Lara after religion class—literally. I’d seen her, of course. I’d seen her almost every day—in English or sitting in the library whispering to her roommate, Katie. I saw her at lunch and dinner at the cafeteria, and I probably would have seen her at breakfast, if I’d ever gotten up for it. And surely, she saw me as well, but we hadn’t, until that morning, looked at each other simultaneously.
By now, I assumed she’d forgotten me. After all, we only dated for about a day, albeit an eventful one. But when I plowed right into her left shoulder as I hustled toward precalc, she spun around and looked up at me. Angry, and not because of the bump. “I’m sorry,” I blurted out, and she just squinted at me like someone about to either fight or cry, and disappeared silently into a classroom. First two words I’d said to her in a month.
I wanted to want to talk to her. I knew I’d been awful—Imagine, I kept telling myself, if you were Lara, with a dead friend and a silent ex-boyfriend—but I only had room for one true want, and she was dead, and I wanted to know the how and why of it, and Lara couldn’t tell me, and that was all that mattered.
forty-five days after
FOR WEEKS, the Colonel and I had relied on charity to support our cigarette habit—we’d gotten free or cheap packs from everyone from Molly Tan to the once-crew-cutted Longwell Chase. It was as if people wanted to help and couldn’t think of a better way. But by the end of February, we ran out of charity. Just as well, really. I never felt right taking people’s gifts, because they did not know that we’d loaded the bullets and put the gun in her hand.
So after our classes, Takumi drove us to Coosa “We Cater to Your Spiritual Needs” Liquors. That afternoon, Takumi and I had learned the disheartening results of our first major precalc test of the semester. Possibly because Alaska was no longer available to teach us precalc over a pile of McInedible french fries and possibly because neither of us had really studied, we were both in danger of getting progress reports sent home.
“The thing is that I just don’t find precalc very interesting,” Takumi said matter-of-factly.
“It might be hard to explain that to the director of admissions at Harvard,” the Colonel responded.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I find it pretty compelling.”
And we laughed, but the laughs drifted into a thick, pervasive silence, and I knew we were all thinking of her, dead and laughless, cold, no longer Alaska. The idea that Alaska didn’t exist still stunned me every time I thought about it. She’s rotting underground in Vine Station, Alabama, I thought, but even that wasn’t quite it. Her body was there, but she was nowhere, nothing, POOF.
The times that were the most fun seemed always to be followed by sadness now, because it was when life started to feel like it did when she was with us that we realized how utterly, totally gone she was.
I bought the cigarettes. I’d never entered Coosa Liquors, but it was every bit as desolate as Alaska described. The dusty wooden floor creaked as I made my way to the counter, and I saw a large barrel filled with brackish water that purported to contain LIVE BAIT, but in fact contained a veritable school of dead, floating minnows. The woman behind the counter smiled at me with all four of her teeth when I asked her for a carton of Marlboro Lights.
“You go t’ Culver Creek?” she asked me, and I did not know whether to answer truthfully, since no high-school student was likely to be nineteen, but she grabbed the carton of cigarettes from beneath her and put it on the counter without asking for an ID, so I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“How’s school?” she asked.
“Pretty good,” I answered.
“Heard y’all had a death up there.”
“Yes’m,” I say.
“I’s awful sorry t’ hear it.”
The woman, whose name I did not know because this was not the sort of commercial establishment to waste money on name tags, had one long, white hair growing from a mole on her left cheek. It wasn’t disgusting, exactly, but I couldn’t stop glancing at it and then looking away.
Back in the car, I handed a pack of cigarettes to the Colonel.
We rolled down the windows, although the February cold bit at my face and the loud wind made conversation impossible. I sat in my quarter of the car and smoked, wondering why the old woman at Coosa Liquors didn’t just pull that one hair out of her mole. The wind blew through Takumi’s rolled-down window in front of me and against my face. I scooted to the middle of the backseat and looked up at the Colonel sitting shotgun, smiling, his face turned to the wind blowing in through his window.
forty-six days after
I DIDN’T WANT TO TALK TO LARA, but the next day at lunch, Takumi pulled the ultimate guilt trip. “How do you think Alaska would feel about this shit?” he asked as he stared across the cafeteria at Lara. She was sitting three tables away from us with her roommate, Katie, who was telling some story, and Lara smiled whenever Katie laughed at one of her own jokes. Lara scooped up a forkful of canned corn and held it above her plate, moving her mouth to it and bowing her head toward her lap as she took the bite from the fork—a quiet eater.
“She could talk to me,” I told Takumi.
Takumi shook his head. His open mouth gooey with mashed potatoes, he said, “Yuh ha’ to.” He swallowed. “Let me ask you a question, Pudge. When you’re old and gray and your grandchildren are sitting on your knee and look up at you and say, ‘Grandpappy, who gave you your first blow job?’ do you want to have to tell them it was some girl you spent the rest of high school ignoring? No!” He smiled. “You want to say, ‘My dear friend Lara Buterskaya. Lovely girl. Prettier than your grandma by a wide margin.’ ” I laughed. So yeah, okay. I had to talk to Lara.
After classes, I walked over to Lara’s room and knocked, and then she stood in the doorway, looking like, What? What now? You’ve done the damage you could, Pudge, and I looked past her, into the room I’d only entered once, where I learned that kissing or no, I couldn’t talk to her—and before the silence could get too uncomfortable, I talked. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what?” she asked, still looking toward me but not quite at me.
“For ignoring you. For everything,” I said.
“You deedn’t have to be my boyfriend.” She looked so pretty, her big eyes blinking fast, her cheeks soft and round, and still the roundness could only remind me of Alaska’s thin face and her high cheekbones. But I could live with it—and, anyway, I had to. “You could have just been my friend,” she said.
“I know. I screwed up. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t forgive that asshole,” Katie cried from inside the room.
“I forgeeve you.” Lara smiled and hugged me, her hands tight around the small of my back. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and smelled violets in her hair.
“I don’t forgive you,” Katie said, appearing in the doorway. And although Katie and I were not well acquainted, she felt comfortable enough to knee me in the balls. She smiled then, and as I crumpled into a bow, Katie said, “Now I forgive you.”
Lara and I took a walk to the lake—sans Katie—and we talked. We talked—about Alaska and about the past month, about how she had to miss me and miss Alaska, while I only had to miss Alaska (which was true enough). I told her as much of the truth as I could, from the firecrackers to the Pelham Police Department and the white tulips.
“I loved her,” I said, and Lara said she loved her, too, and I said, “I know, but that’s why. I loved her, and after she died I couldn’t think about anything else. It felt, like, dishonest. Like cheating.”
“That’s not a good reason,” she said.
“I know,” I answered.