Lara stood up again and shouted, “I’m not keeding! Take off your clothes.”
He nervously looked down at the paper, and then looked up at all of us, smiling. “Well, it is certainly important to subvert the patriarchal paradigm, and I suppose this is a way. All right, then,” he said, stepping to the left of the podium. And then he shouted, loud enough that Takumi could hear him upstairs, “This one’s for Alaska Young.”
As the fast, pumping bass of Prince’s “Get Off” started from the loudspeakers, Dr. William Morse grabbed the leg of his pants with one hand and the lapel of his coat with the other, and the Velcro parted and his stage costume came apart, revealing Maxx with two x’s, a stunningly muscular man with an eight-pack in his stomach and bulging pec muscles, and Maxx stood before us, smiling, wearing only briefs that were surely tighty, but not whitey—black leather.
His feet in place, Maxx swayed his arms to the music, and the crowd erupted with laughter and deafening, sustained applause—the largest ovation by a good measure in Speaker Day history. The Eagle was up in a flash, and as soon as he stood, Maxx stopped dancing, but he flexed his pec muscles so that they jumped up and down quickly in time to the music before the Eagle, not smiling but sucking his lips in as if not smiling required effort, indicated with a thumb that Maxx should go on home, and Maxx did.
My eyes followed Maxx out the door, and I saw Takumi standing in the doorway, fists raised in the air in triumph, before he ran back upstairs to cut the music. I was glad he’d gotten to see at least a bit of the show.
Takumi had plenty of time to get his equipment out, because the laughing and talking went on for several minutes while the Eagle kept repeating, “Okay. Okay. Let’s settle down now. Settle down, y’all. Let’s settle down.”
The senior-class speaker spoke next. He blew. And as we left the gym, nonjuniors crowded around us, asking, “Was it you?” and I just smiled and said no, for it had not been me, or the Colonel or Takumi or Lara or Longwell Chase or anyone else in that gym. It had been Alaska’s prank through and through. The hardest part about pranking, Alaska told me once, is not being able to confess. But I could confess on her behalf now. And as I slowly made my way out of the gym, I told anyone who would listen, “No. It wasn’t us. It was Alaska.”
The four of us returned to Room 43, aglow in the success of it, convinced that the Creek would never again see such a prank, and it didn’t even occur to me that I might get in trouble until the Eagle opened the door to our room and stood above us, and shook his head disdainfully.
“I know it was y’all,” said the Eagle.
We looked at him silently. He often bluffed. Maybe he was bluffing. “Don’t ever do anything like that again,” he said. “But, Lord, ‘subverting the patriarchal paradigm’—it’s like she wrote the speech.” He smiled and closed the door.
one hundred fourteen days after
A WEEK AND A HALF LATER, I walked back from my afternoon classes, the sun bearing down on my skin in a constant reminder that spring in Alabama had come and gone in a matter of hours, and now, early May, summer had returned for a six-month visit, and I felt the sweat dribble down my back and longed for the bitter winds of January. When I got to my room, I found Takumi sitting on the couch, reading my biography of Tolstoy.
“Uh, hi,” I said.
He closed the book and placed it beside him and said, “January 10.”
“What?” I asked.
“January 10. That date ring a bell?”
“Yeah, it’s the day Alaska died.” Technically, she died three hours into January 11, but it was still, to us anyway, Monday night, January 10.
“Yeah, but something else, Pudge. January 9. Alaska’s mom took her to the zoo.”
“Wait. No. How do you know that?”
“She told us at Barn Night. Remember?”
Of course I didn’t remember. If I could remember numbers, I wouldn’t be struggling toward a C-plus in precalc.
“Holy shit,” I said as the Colonel walked in.
“What?” the Colonel asked.
“January 9, 1997,” I told him. “Alaska liked the bears. Her mom liked the monkeys.” The Colonel looked at me blankly for a moment and then took his backpack off and slung it across the room in a single motion.
“Holy shit,” he said. “WHY THE HELL DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT!”
Within a minute, the Colonel had the best solution either of us would ever come up with. “Okay. She’s sleeping. Jake calls, and she talks to him, and she’s doodling, and she looks at her white flower, and ‘Oh God my mom liked white flowers and put them in my hair when I was little,’ and then she flips out. She comes back into her room and starts screaming at us that she forgot—forgot about her mom, of course—so she takes the flowers, drives off campus, on her way to—what?” He looked at me. “What? Her mom’s grave?”
And I said, “Yeah, probably. Yeah. So she gets into the car, and she just wants to get to her mom’s grave, but there’s this jackknifed truck and the cops there, and she’s drunk and pissed off and she’s in a hurry, so she thinks she can squeeze past the cop car, and she’s not even thinking straight, but she has to get to her mom, and she thinks she can get past it somehow and POOF.”
Takumi nods slowly, thinking, and then says, “Or, she gets into the car with the flowers. But she’s already missed the anniversary. She’s probably thinking that she screwed things up with her mom again—first she doesn’t call 911, and now she can’t even remember the freaking anniversary. And she’s furious and she hates herself, and she decides, ‘That’s it, I’m doing it,’ and she sees the cop car and there’s her chance and she just floors it.”
The Colonel reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, tapping it upside down against the COFFEE TABLE. “Well,” he said. “That clears things up nicely.”
one hundred eighteen days after
SO WE GAVE UP. I’d finally had enough of chasing after a ghost who did not want to be discovered. We’d failed, maybe, but some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved. I still did not know her as I wanted to, but I never could. She made it impossible for me. And the accicide, the suident, would never be anything else, and I was left to ask, Did I help you toward a fate you didn’t want, Alaska, or did I just assist in your willful self-destruction? Because they are different crimes, and I didn’t know whether to feel angry at her for making me part of her suicide or just to feel angry at myself for letting her go.
But we knew what could be found out, and in finding it out, she had made us closer—the Colonel and Takumi and me, anyway. And that was it. She didn’t leave me enough to discover her, but she left me enough to rediscover the Great Perhaps.
“There’s one more thing we should do,” the Colonel said as we played a video game together with the sound on—just the two of us, like in the first days of the Investigation.
“There’s nothing more we can do.”
“I want to drive through it,” he said. “Like she did.”
We couldn’t risk leaving campus in the middle of the night like she had, so we left about twelve hours earlier, at 3:00 in the afternoon, with the Colonel behind the wheel of Takumi’s SUV. We asked Lara and Takumi to come along, but they were tired of chasing ghosts, and besides, finals were coming.
It was a bright afternoon, and the sun bore down on the asphalt so that the ribbon of road before us quivered with heat. We drove a mile down Highway 119 and then merged onto I-65 northbound, heading toward the accident scene and Vine Station.
The Colonel drove fast, and we were quiet, staring straight ahead. I tried to imagine what she might have been thinking, trying again to see through time and space, to get inside her head just for a moment. An ambulance, lights and sirens blaring, sped past us, going in the opposite direction, toward school, and for an instant, I felt a nervous excitement and thought, It could be someone I know. I almost wished it was someone I knew, to give new form and depth to the sadness I still felt.
The silence broke: “Sometimes I liked it,” I said. “Sometimes I liked it that she was dead.”
“You mean it felt good?”
“No. I don’t know. It felt . . . pure.”
“Yeah,” he said, dropping his usual eloquence. “Yeah. I know. Me, too. It’s natural. I mean, it must be natural.”
It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.
Five miles north of school, the Colonel moved into the left lane of the interstate and began to accelerate. I gritted my teeth, and then before us, broken glass glittered in the blare of the sun like the road was wearing jewelry, and that spot must be the spot. He was still accelerating.
I thought: This would not be a bad way to go.
I thought: Straight and fast. Maybe she just decided at the last second.
And POOF we are through the moment of her death. We are driving through the place that she could not drive through, passing onto asphalt she never saw, and we are not dead. We are not dead! We are breathing and we are crying and now slowing down and moving back into the right lane.
We got off at the next exit, quietly, and, switching drivers, we walked in front of the car. We met and I held him, my hands balled into tight fists around his shoulders, and he wrapped his short arms around me and squeezed tight, so that I felt the heaves of his chest as we realized over and over again that we were still alive. I realized it in waves and we held on to each other crying and I thought, God we must look so lame, but it doesn’t much matter when you have just now realized, all the time later, that you are still alive.
one hundred nineteen days after
THE COLONEL AND I threw ourselves into school once we gave up, knowing that we’d both need to ace our finals to achieve our GPA goals (I wanted a 3.0 and the Colonel wouldn’t settle for even a 3.98). Our room became Study Central for the four of us, with Takumi and Lara over till all hours of the night talking about The Sound and the Fury and meiosis and the Battle of the Bulge. The Colonel taught us a semester’s worth of precalc, although he was too good at math to teach it very well—“Of course it makes sense. Just trust me. Christ, it’s not that hard”—and I missed Alaska.
And when I could not catch up, I cheated. Takumi and I shared copies of Cliffs Notes for Things Fall Apart and A Farewell to Arms (“These things are just too damned long!” he exclaimed at one point).
We didn’t talk much. But we didn’t need to.
one hundred twenty-two days after
A COOL BREEZE had beaten back the onslaught of summer, and on the morning the Old Man gave us our final exams, he suggested we have class outside. I wondered why we could have an entire class outside when I’d been kicked out of class last semester for merely glancing outside, but the Old Man wanted to have class outside, so we did. The Old Man sat in a chair that Kevin Richman carried out for him, and we sat on the grass, my notebook at first perched awkwardly in my lap and then against the thick green grass, and the bumpy ground did not lend itself to writing, and the gnats hovered. We were too close to the lake for comfortable sitting, really, but the Old Man seemed happy.
“I have here your final exam. Last semester, I gave you nearly two months to complete your final paper. This time, you get two weeks.” He paused. “Well, nothing to be done about that, I guess.” He laughed. “To be honest, I just decided once and for all to use this paper topic last night. It rather goes against my nature. Anyway, pass these around.” When the pile came to me, I read the question:
How will you—you personally—ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? Now that you’ve wrestled with three major religious traditions, apply your newly enlightened mind to Alaska’s question.
After the exams had been passed out, the Old Man said, “You need not specifically discuss the perspectives of different religions in your essay, so no research is necessary. Your knowledge, or lack thereof, has been established in the quizzes you’ve taken this semester. I am interested in how you are able to fit the uncontestable fact of suffering into your understanding of the world, and how you hope to navigate through life in spite of it.
“Next year, assuming my lungs hold out, we’ll study Taoism, Hinduism, and Judaism together—” The Old Man coughed and then started to laugh, which caused him to cough again. “Lord, maybe I won’t last. But about the three traditions we’ve studied this year, I’d like to say one thing. Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism each have founder figures—Muhammad, Jesus, and the Buddha, respectively. And in thinking about these founder figures, I believe we must finally conclude that each brought a message of radical hope. To seventh-century Arabia, Muhammad brought the promise that anyone could find fulfillment and everlasting life through allegiance to the one true God. The Buddha held out hope that suffering could be transcended. Jesus brought the message that the last shall be first, that even the tax collectors and lepers—the outcasts—had cause for hope. And so that is the question I leave you with in this final: What is your cause for hope?”
Back at Room 43, the Colonel was smoking in the room. Even though I still had one evening left of washing dishes in the cafeteria to work off my smoking conviction, we didn’t much fear the Eagle. We had fifteen days left, and if we got caught, we’d just have to start senior year with some work hours. “So how will we ever get out of this labyrinth, Colonel?” I asked.
“If only I knew,” he said.
“That’s probably not gonna get you an A.”
“Also it doesn’t do much to put my soul to rest.”
“Or hers,” I said.
“Right. I’d forgotten about her.” He shook his head. “That keeps happening.”