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Issue #10 |

Outside the Mayan

denver union station

The Mayan showed John Woo’s “Bullet in the Head” at midnight one Saturday during our Christmas break. We had a couple of weeks before school would start up again. Snow had been falling all day, since the afternoon before, and thick flakes swarmed the windshield, furry and unwieldy, yet graceful, too. Our tires slid and scudded through other cars’ tracks. A couple of times Celeste told us that the steering wheel locked up and we had to glide, her brother Neal in back saying whoa whoa, as he nervously gripped my seat.

Past Santa Fe on Broadway in Denver, the Mayan stared out on old drugstore signs and short flat architecture from the 60s. It was past the camera warehouse and vintage dress shops but not as far downtown as the real skyscrapers. We gravitated toward the industrial, warehousey neighborhoods then, drawn in by decay that wasn’t forced but had come with age, so different from our suburb. The Mayan had that Old Hollywood glow, from an era when theaters cared less about efficiency and more about experience. It was musty, though, and needed a good vacuuming.

None of us really knew who John Woo was at the time, except for the friend of a friend who’d seen the movie four times already, plus all of Woo’s other ones: Jared. It was Jared who’d called us down there that night, saying midnight was the best time for a movie, when the quiet outside afterward allowed the movie to play longer in your mind.

It was projected in one of the small theaters, the kind so vertical and narrow your knees crowd right up against the back of the person in front of you. “Bullet in the Head” was loud and subtitled and I nodded off during part of it. I had missed an important scene, I gathered, because when I woke, I found Jared staring. I blinked through my blue mascara. He didn’t say anything, but his pupils, visible behind the white light reflecting off his glasses, made me feel guilty.

Jared hadn’t driven with us that night. He was living up near Boulder, so he met us downtown after the rest of us carpooled over from Littleton. He was finished with his parents’ house already, he told us. He was our age—about sixteen—and his mom let him rent a crusty, orange-carpeted apartment near CU even though he wasn’t going there. I don’t know how he paid rent, but he went to the alternative school in Englewood that let him skip class and spend hours on the CU campus, studying sculpture and surveying snails for all I knew. He was somewhat of a film prodigy, and I wanted to consider myself an artist. I didn’t know what kind. My drawing teacher had lamented once that students didn’t see art as a career and he wished I’d consider it. “You can do something,” he’d said, staring over my shoulder at my sketchbook. I wanted to do something.

Mom was going through a long religious phase at the time, since my dad had divorced her to live with my male French teacher. My own phase was medical: the doctor detected a giant root-shaped ovarian cyst that was probably benign but might not be. I wasn’t sleeping, barely resting at all, because maybe that lump would be what killed me. The specialist was Jared’s dad, a detail I didn’t advertise. He was shy but strict and his office always played Simon and Garfunkel Muzak that was a little too slow. I’d see him again Monday.

We left the Mayan dazed, close to two a.m. The snow had piled up into white mounds on windshield wipers. It was cold enough to wake you up again, calm enough for that hush you get in snow, but we were too far downtown to feel settled—even though it was Denver and not too large or crime-filled or vicious. We’d parked on the street since bargoers had illegally piled into the theater lot. “Open the door already,” Neal said.

Celeste blew on her hands. “Key’s not working yet.”

Jared mom’s old Volvo sat down the street, but he followed me to the front passenger side of Celeste’s. “You fell asleep.”

“I know. Sorry.” The Mayan’s marquee lights reflected red and orange off the wide white street. “I’m not good at midnight movies,” I said—a lie. The movie was boring.

“You should be sorry.” His delivery was flat so I couldn’t tell if he was joking or flirting. He picked up my hand in an old-fashioned way, sort of courtly, said it looked cold. “I expected more from you.”

 

Until that winter break, Jared and I had a strange relationship: polite but with a line of cool weirdness running underneath. Maybe because he was my doctor’s son—and so had close proximity to my intimate details—but I didn’t think so. I had trouble getting at it. I’d only hung out with him alone once, a Friday night at the start of break when everyone else had paid $60 for a Smashing Pumpkins concert.

I’d driven the hour up the ridge, past Rocky Flats, into Boulder. I picture the area as sweeping grassland, except for the nuclear facility, but it’s probably all subdivisions now. Then it was wild and empty and desolate. Jared’s apartment managers hadn’t shoveled the parking lot, and he came down to help me navigate the hills of gray slush.

“Your mind isn’t here yet.” He said things like that.

“I just got here.” I pushed my scarf over my shoulder.

He’d scrabbled together plates of wilted celery and canned chili beans. He also boiled an egg which he split in half with his thumb. He expressed no pride when he handed me a plate but no apology either. We sat on lawn chairs in his living room, and I read the spines of his books, mostly garage sale painting books and graphic design, plus a long alphabetized shelf of film director biographies. We watched his three brown fish circle a fake treasure chest. Before I left, he sketched my face in charcoal—it was weird—and swung his forehead to mine, like a pendulum. Then he tried to kiss me.

I moved to take a long convenient sip of soda instead. I don’t know why. I knew quickly I’d made a mistake. He withdrew but didn’t seem affected. Maybe that’s how he processed things: connections and disconnections, and not being bothered by any of it.

“I’m sorry.” I moved closer, leaned in. “Here.”

But by then he was in a different sphere. He touched my lips with his fingers. “It’s okay.” Later in the car mirror I saw he’d left black charcoal marks.

 

In Celeste’s car, the cold felt like hands scraping our skin. Her radio mumbled. The legs of my jeans felt like frozen aluminum, that prickly needlepoint sensation. Celeste had turned on the heater but nothing was coming out yet. Jared had already driven off to Boulder.

“Body-count in the movie,” Neal said, “What’s your guess?”

“Five million.” Celeste put the heater on high, our breath clouding the windows as a gas station coffee started to thaw in the cup holder.

I remembered the movie’s nonstop bullet soundtrack and the incongruous Van Gogh “The Starry Night” hanging behind some guy’s head because I had one like it in my bedroom. His blood had splattered all over it when they shot him.

I turned to Celeste. “Jared saw me sleeping.”

“Uh oh. He’ll never invite you to a midnight movie again,” she said. “Or he’ll invite you every time to practice.”

“Let’s go already,” Neal said, and Celeste shoved an ice scraper at him. He tumbled out without it, brushing tsunamis of snow off the back window with his sleeve. We were suburban kids with our parents’ warnings still loud in our heads: you never know who’s out there.

“He’s not even wearing gloves,” Celeste said.

“Does your tape-player work yet?” I asked. We’d gotten Peter Gabriel stuck in it on the ride over. I jammed a pen in it, then looked up—a tall bearded figure across the street stared back. He wore a muddy brown coat, blank face trained on us like a spotlight. Did he even register my look? I knocked on the side window. “Neal,” I snapped.

“What’s wrong with you?” Celeste asked.

“Look outside.”

She was digging in her purse. “Just a minute.”

I lowered my voice. “Look. Outside.”

She fumbled through her bag too long. I turned away for like twenty seconds—but when I looked back outside, the man stood huge at my window, hand on my door handle.

I scrambled for the lock. Celeste dropped her Chapstick, grabbing at the wheel. The man’s eyes were hollow. His torso was huge and blocked everything. Frost bloomed below his nostrils—that’s how I knew he was breathing.

“Neal!” We yelled.

Neal’s door opened. He flopped on the seat trailing snow. We pawed at the door locks as fear took over, but the snow was coming down hard and our emergency brake was still latched. When Celeste hit the gas, we leaped up then slid out and spun. We would have slammed into passing cars had there been any.

“What are you doing? Go go go.” Neal’s cheeks were red, sleeves wet.

“Shut up.” Celeste shot the car in a zigzag. “I am.”

We slid across the icy expanse of Broadway, careening into a snowbank on the other side. The back tires were turning too much, putting in too much effort for no payoff. “We’re stuck,” she said.

“No we’re not.” Neal opened his door again, hugging a bag of cat litter like a baby. Celeste kept it under her seat just in case.

“No time,” she said.

The stranger slid forward in heavy boots, hardcore mountain boots of the steel-toed variety, the kind you can drop a pickax on without losing your whole foot. His coat flapped back, revealing a green t-shirt beneath. Now stationed in the middle of the road, he stared right at me.

 

My first nightmares came from “Jaws” and “The Blob.” Also, from a book Mom gave me about angel visits—people were way into angels then—but in this book, instead of angels, it was Jesus who swooped in to visit. Jesus who walked down your hallway and into your room, wiping that tear off your cheek. He’d materialize on the skating rink when you fell or the river when you thought you were drowning. He was known to stop car crashes and find runaways and summon neighbors when your house caught on fire. I guess He meant well but His goodness terrified me. He had too much power and I had none. After I read the Jesus-visit book, I prayed: “Please just leave me alone, Jesus. Don’t show up at our house. Don’t knock on my door late at night. I think you’d give me a heart attack.” That’s what I feared before sixteen—

This creepy dude outside the Mayan on that snow-clogged night set off a different kind of fear. He wanted something bodily, I thought. Maybe not harm, but possession. He was closer to the Blob or Jaws, existing to devour. Because his eyes didn’t register—like those vacant white-circled cartoon eyes, those Orphan Annie eyes—all his energy seemed trained on his other senses, smell perhaps, the brute predatory force of him.

Neal was out there pouring kitty litter under our tires.

“Get in! Get in!” we screamed.

The snowbank reluctantly let go. Broadway was so slick we skidded again.

“I think it worked,” Neal said.

I tried to see through the snow blur. And there—“He’s walking this way.”

But the man couldn’t get ahold of us anymore than our tires could grip the ice-sheen on the snow. He was close and then slipped himself, head dropping below the window line. We searched the mirrors and side windows and gained traction. He stood up again, but this time he looked smaller, as we were finally moving forward. We picked up speed and Celeste smashed through the red light.

“What the fuck?” Celeste exclaimed, “What the fuck was that?”

Neal leaned forward. “He almost took you.”

“Neal,” Celeste barked.

I tried to find the horizon line that was now obscured by snow, not wanting to feel the electric jolt of adrenaline. The sky had that orange-gray ghost glow, all the trees were completely white.

“He probably just wanted to talk or something,” Neal said, “not drag us under a bridge.”

“Come on,” Celeste said. “He probably just wanted some change.”

By then we’d passed Southwest Plaza and Target and several chain restaurants. This was eight or ten blocks from home. Parking lots were transformed into vacant white fields, lonely and untouched. Neal started having fun with it. “He probably wanted to take us to a nice dinner. Red Lobster? Sea Galley?”

I thought about the growing cyst, the cells morphing beyond my control. Could I feel it puffed up in my abdomen? This invading thing that was me and not me.

“Probably make us order from the kids’ menu,” Neal said, “get us those drinks with the pirate flags.”

Nobody paid attention to him. I think that’s why he kept going.

“Maybe today’s his birthday. Or the last day of his life and he needed people to spend it with. He’s dying and nobody knows, and tomorrow he’ll be gone.”

“Okay, enough,” I said louder than I meant to.

Celeste adjusted her hands on the wheel, leaning forward like a jockey to see.

We lost control again, sliding into the back of a truck stopped at the intersection on Coal Mine. Hardly a tap but hardly anything we could control. The driver waved us on. A woman’s red face appeared behind his in the window, both stunned by snow.

I couldn’t stop seeing the gnarled dude lurching behind us, staring long after we’d crossed neighborhoods, whole pages of the map. I see him on the brick sidewalk across the street from the Mayan, watching. Lanes of road between us, though who can see the lines in the snow? Even years later: he’s there in the back of my mind, now centimeters tall and permanent.

 

That was the first time I called Jared myself—after Celeste and Neal dropped me off. Those last blocks, Neal and I rehashed the moment again, enough to say uneasily we’d detonated it, slowing the adrenaline to a trickle, then a tiny unintentional leak. I think we had to. Still, when I closed my bedroom door and pulled on a long t-shirt, I felt jarred awake.

The whole house then was thick with sleep, mostly due to my mom’s snoring. Furniture was cloaked by shadows. I was paranoid of eavesdropping, so I took my phone down into the dark unfinished basement. I’d convinced myself plenty of times to be terrified of the basement, but in the winter, with the heat on, it had this warm sawdusty smell. I sat across from the bank of black windows facing the backyard. You could see your reflection and hoped no one was watching you back.

I knew Jared would pick up at 3:30 in the morning. He answered on the second ring, as though three a.m. calls were not only normal but expected.

“You’re still up.”

Twilight Zone marathon,” he said. He waited for me to start the conversation but I didn’t. “You didn’t like the movie, did you?”

I’d forgotten about the movie. I’d forgotten about the theater or falling asleep in the tiny cramped chair. I’d forgotten whether I was supposed to care about it and even then, who was watching? “That many people can’t be killed in one day.”

“Relentless,” he said. “That’s John Woo.”

Was there someone at the window? I felt my voice tighten. “John Woo is insane.”

“You okay?” he said.

“I think so—” It did look like a face, specifically a pair of eyes. “Well, no.” I convinced Jared to drive all the way down from Boulder. I didn’t even want this but I did.

 

He parked down the block so we wouldn’t wake my mom. My footprints would give me away, I thought, crossing the yard, but maybe the snow pouring down would erase them. I climbed into his car—spotless but with a familiar cologney smell and a purple blanket folded neatly on the backseat.

“C-470’s all white,” he said, “Kind of eerie driving down here.”

“Sorry for this,” I told him, but he shrugged it off.

He changed gears and left the subdivision. We were alone on the roads, no trains passing through freight yards, even the Waffle House was empty. We were on some pale lunar landscape with a gray-orange sky.

He drove down Coal Mine into the pricey seventies-style neighborhood where Dad and my old French teacher—Monsieur Gabriel—lived together. I hadn’t told Jared about that. He took me to this spot on the other side, the Quincy side, where a short hill swept down to a manmade lake. It was a magnet for us in summer, whether your dad lived in the subdivision or not, maybe because the water was so dark you could never tell if someone had peed in it. The lake was big enough for a few paddleboats, but not much more than that. Picnic tables were scattered around, a row of spruces fencing them off from the rest of the neighborhood.

Jared pulled up along the dock, turned off the car except for a Pixies song and a bare breath of heat. I didn’t know how long the battery would allow it. Pretty soon he looked over. “Walk?”

Outside, the cold crackled up my sleeves. I should’ve worn boots not sneakers. At least my coat zipped past my chin. The snow, much deeper than I’d thought, plastered our shins like leg warmers. I moved through it like a tentative dog, only to immediately slip. My arms shot out, and there was Jared, holding me up. A scarf made from tight maroon yarn covered half his face.

“Thank you.” I straightened and looked across the lake, where only streetlights hummed. My breath tumbled out like car exhaust, getting caught in my coat and dampening the fabric near my mouth. I tried not to worry about safety. That grizzled face seemed cartoonish by then, or animatronic, a gold miner nodding from the riverbank of an amusement park log ride. The kind of robot whose eyes open on their own in the dark.

At the lakeshore, the snow was thick where it met the ice. We walked along the edge to a low rocky wall guarding a pool that was now a giant snowdrift. The crust was covered in dog prints, or, perhaps, prints from wilder creatures. But that subdivision—though it tried hard to give the impression of wild land outside the city—sat between two super-busy roads, close to the mall and car dealership floodlights.

Jared wanted to cross the ice. “Cover me.” He took a few steps.

“People die that way,” I said.

He walked farther but holding out his arm and telling me to come with him. “It’s not my time yet.”

I stepped on the hard lake, thought it rocked a little. “How do you know?” I reached for his hand. His fingers felt like Otter Pops.

Jared closed his eyes. Snowflake clumps hit his cheeks and mine, too. They melted and came back again, falling, landing, and falling again on a giant loop. He kept holding my hand. From the middle of the white pond we looked again toward the city, though we couldn’t really see it, only the faint approximation glowing out there.

“Hey,” I said. When he turned, I kissed him. On his frozen lips. Fast like that. He hadn’t even opened his eyes. It was hard to tell if he kissed me back because my lips were numb. But he did smile a closed-eyed smile.

“That was nice,” he said.

My voice came out small. “So I have this thing.”

He opened his eyes, looked over.

I stared enviously at his boots. “I don’t know,” I said, “I might be dying. Probably not, but—” He started to laugh but stopped. “I’m going back to see your dad on Monday.”

“If you need someone to drive you—”

“My mom’s taking me.”

“I was going to say I’d ask around.” He looked at me. “Ha. Ha.”

I shook my head. “She’s taking off work for it.” She was also praying a lot to Jesus.

“You won’t die,” he said quietly. “There’s no way.” He tapped my shoulder lightly like he was playing the piano. I think it was Chopsticks. “My dad’s kind of an asshole but he’ll take care of you.”

I felt my knees starting to shake. It was so cold by then. “No one was scared in the movie,” I said. “Why wasn’t anyone scared?”

“Everyone was scared,” he said, “but these were professionals. They’d learned not to show it.”

 

At the parking lot, his car wouldn’t start. The headlights wouldn’t even turn on, and there was no heat. We sat there before we let it sink in. Jared brought out a thermos of coffee from under his seat, made a show of pouring it into the green plastic cap. He said, “You know how young we are?”

I started to feel a woozy lightheadedness, the pull of sleep.

“It’s four in the morning and everything’s ahead of us,” he said.

I told him we probably had a long walk to my dad’s house ahead of us.

Watching him, I had the weird feeling I wouldn’t always have access to recklessness; the will to do anything at some point would be extinguished, would burn itself out. Instead, I would worry about what time I woke up and does the car have enough gas. And Jared would be gone.

Dad’s house was on the other side of the subdivision, buried in snow. Trudging over to it took some time. Monsieur Gabriel answered the door but not immediately.

“Bonsoir, Monsieur—” I said through chattering teeth.

“You don’t have to speak French to me now.” He scratched his face.

My dad came up behind him. “Leila?”

I hadn’t seen him in a long time. On purpose mostly. Exams always coming, perpetual essays to write. I worked on the school newspaper then, and odd, pointless commentary needed to be cranked out every month. Celeste and I had long ago decided we were brilliant. Our lives were going to be meaningful. We were ridiculous, and my dad wasn’t any part of it. He didn’t even know about the cyst. He was nowhere to me.

He’d never met Jared either, Jared who stood straighter, became more polite, was just short of calling him Sir. We walked uneasily into the living room, met by wine colored couches, white carpet, a high ceiling and a fireplace. It was welcoming, beautiful even. But not home.

“We broke down,” I told him. “Near the lake.”

They wanted us to stay over. Jared accepted the mug of hot cider Monsieur Gabriel offered but said he needed to drive back to Boulder tonight.

They tried to talk him out of it. He said being down here too long made him nervous.

“I just need a jumpstart,” he said. “Can someone give me a jumpstart?”

 

In my mind, the story forks here.

In one fork, Jared becomes filled with doubt and uncertainty, sleepiness, and soon he’s nodding and saying yes, it would be better to stay with them, would be “pretty nice.” My dad says he’ll make crepes for breakfast and points us to their exercise slash guest room with a double bed. In this one, it all starts to feel very strange. Jared and I both climb into bed slowly and mostly clothed. I turn off the lamp. The sheets are cold. Wind pushes around the snow outside. He starts snoring quickly so I let myself drift, but not long after he’s awake again and staring at me.

“I stopped being able to sleep like a normal person recently,” I say.

“I think something’s wrong with me more than half the time.” He laughs. When the sound of his laugh drops away, we listen to the soft whoosh of snowfall.

“What do you think is wrong with you?” I say, my voice low in the dark.

“Sometimes I’m useless,” he says. “Most of the time, really.” He finds my hand under the covers.

For a moment, I forget the murderous lump, the blank figure in the street and his unseen reach for the door handle. I forget, too, that in a shootout, John Woo had held the camera on “The Starry Night”—my same bedroom wall print, though mine would never see that kind of violence.

“What happened tonight?” he says finally, “Why did you call me? Was it the movie? It wasn’t the movie.”

“It wasn’t the movie.” I tell him about the scary dude outside the Mayan. I picture the dude sleeping in someone’s car or in an all-night pharmacy, sprawled on the linoleum beside a crate of shampoo bottles needing price tags. Jared is scooting closer in the bed. He’s kissing my collarbones and fiddling with the elastic of my underwear. He’s tracing the softness of my stomach and smiling with his lips at my ear. Then the sheets aren’t as cold.

The next morning, we eat crepes. A decade later we’re still together. We own a dog. My dad gives me away at the wedding. My mother has become his best friend again instead of avoiding his calls like I used to.

 

The other fork goes someplace else, though.

In the other fork, we do not sleep over. Jared becomes odd, insistent, says he has to get back tonight. Dad gives him the jumpstart, now closer to five in the morning. I’m ready to go upstairs to sleep, but Jared says, “Aren’t you coming with me?” He’ll drop me at my mom’s. I feel bad but tell Dad all my stuff is at her house, I’ll visit soon. “We’ll go sledding,” he tells me—and does that thing where he lets us leave even though he doesn’t want us to.

Jared pulls into a Denny’s parking lot before dropping me off.

I’m too cold to talk. The snow’s too deep around us, and I’m still so tired, I can’t do anything. Jared must have that feeling, too, because soon he starts crying. A soft noise, something small and rounded about it.

“What’s wrong?”

He keeps shaking his head. He doesn’t want to say at first. I can’t force it from him, can’t squeeze too hard and expect anything of value to come out. So I hold his head. That’s all I do. He leans into me, and I hold his head against my chest. You might say cradle it. We don’t kiss. I brush my lips along his hair—fuzzy hair—and just want his head to rest on my chest, as close as possible, comforted.

Finally, he begins to talk.

 

Jared moved to New York around the time that I went to college, and though his name came up during several Christmas breaks, I didn’t see him for many years. Which is why it was disorienting to see him recently after more than a decade.

“I heard about your father’s suicide,” I told him. “I’m so sorry.”

Jared’s dad was introverted as a doctor, largely silent yet very, very smart. He told quiet jokes in the same steady voice Jared used, the even tones and clean lines guiding him forward. You would not expect his clean lines to become so irrevocably tangled.

I’d heard about the suicide—hanging from a tree in the backyard, a maple—but I didn’t attend the funeral. I’d lost touch with Jared by then. But the last time we’d agreed to meet again had been during the holidays. We planned to meet in a pool hall, a shady bar, a coffee shop. None of those meetings happened.

It wasn’t until we were in line at a burrito place on Colfax. He stood in front of me and I didn’t recognize him. My phone rang, and I had a short exchange with a work friend, still paranoid of eavesdroppers. And Jared did overhear. He turned back to me—“It’s you”—and we had a good conversation, a warm one. I still saw the clean lines of his demeanor, not in posture necessarily, but something else, more artistic. He created things for a living, carried a Blackberry. He wore purple Converse low-tops, shoes tied meticulously. And me. My hips had given my body its full adult shape. I was hips and then more hips. I was no longer awkward about them either, and now wore glasses that gave me a sense of being disguised. The cyst stopped being murderous when Jared’s dad removed it. I felt happy, almost. I lived in a large city, but not New York where Jared lived. Not on the East Coast but the West. I felt like I had choices, had a whole group of friends. I navigated public transportation with ease and occasionally bought myself expensive pieces of jewelry, anything to keep building upon myself. Jared probably noticed this part most: I had become a bit ordinary.

We talked about his father, and these other feelings crowded upon me, generous feelings, warmth and also confusion and even hope. All this at once. It was winter then, too. The glass door swung open and Jared took a hold of my coat and pulled it higher on my shoulders, saying, “You must be cold.” Then he left his hands there. I remembered the haze of waking up from surgery and Jared’s dad’s face being the first one I saw, his dad’s face that looked so much like Jared’s now, familiar, expectant, kind. Time slowed for me and sped up and there was the press of his fingers, and meanwhile the burrito man saying, “Sir? Sir?”

 

I remember everything Jared ever told me.

“You assume you’re defective,” he said.

“I had a dog named Olive as a kid,” he said.

“Did I tell you why I moved to Boulder?” he said. That one I didn’t know when he’d asked in the Denny’s parking lot that blizzard-white night, under a sky the color of Necco wafers.

“I can’t make anyone happy,” he said.

“You make plenty of people happy.”

“My dad,” he said. “Nobody can console him.” Jared told me a horrible story. A few months before, he’d found a suicide note his dad had written under a stack of books. His dad hadn’t gone through with it, but still there was this note. So Jared drank some peppermint Schnapps and asked him about it. “He didn’t blow me off,” Jared told me. “I thought he’d dodge the question, but he didn’t. He was honest. He said he’d thought about doing it. He told me that. How do you tell your kid you’re thinking about killing yourself?”

I was holding Jared’s head. We were high schoolers. We should have been hungover or asleep on somebody’s couch.

“I made him promise not to do it,” Jared said, “tried to make him promise, but he wouldn’t.”

I smoothed the top of his head and leaned to hug his shoulders. The Denny’s parking lot had already started attracting early-birds in Buicks.

“He said it would be dishonest to promise,” Jared said. “Said he didn’t know. Didn’t know whether or not he’d kill himself later on. So I said, ‘What about your kids? Wouldn’t you make the promise for your kids?’ and he said—” Jared stopped for a second here. “This is what he said: ‘I want to but I can’t.’”

Jared sat up. “‘I want to, but I can’t.’ He expected me to be fine with that.”

I moved my body as close to his as I could.

“I can’t stop him,” he said.

“I know,” I said, “I know.” A calming noise, a sentiment.

“I can’t.”

I held onto his hand. Finally he turned on the car and apologized. “You’re going to be fine,” he told me, wiping his face. “I’ll take you home now.”

He found a Led Zeppelin tape under his seat and played it too loud on the drive to my mom’s. We sat in my driveway with the lights off until the song ended. I wanted to bring him inside with me, tuck him under covers somewhere, smooth down his hair, but by then he was ready to go. I stood on the porch watching until he turned out of the subdivision. Inside, my mom was scooping ground coffee into a filter, her normal kitchen routine. I don’t think she even knew I was gone.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Surace; view more of his work on Flickr.

corey campbell

Corey Campbell has published stories in The Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Necessary Fiction, and the anthology Buffalo Cactus and other New Stories from the Southwest. A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she has received support from Inprint, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the University of Houston, and the National Academy of Television …

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