On the coldest January night on record, my best friend ran away with three jars of peanut butter and a bottle of Jack. He brought his guitar, too: a junky acoustic thing from the thrift shop with his new runaway name printed around the sound hole. MICAH B.
We were seventeen.
I saw him the night before he ran. It was a Sunday filled with more dusk than religion and we were walking down the railroad tracks using his cigarettes as flashlights. A girl had died on the tracks a few years ago. Her name was Kelley.
We were talking about Kelley. He was sucking on smoke and saying vague things to the stars, and I was losing patience with the stubborn way he romanticized destruction.
“Well,” he said, “why wouldn’t she kill herself? There’s nothing in this shitty town.”
“Because maybe she wasn’t as pessimistic as you seem to think she was,” I said.
“Maybe she wasn’t getting laid.”
“Maybe she was tired,” he said.
“Maybe we all are.”
He rolled the Marlboro between his fingers, powdering the tops of his sneakers with ash. He looked over at me and I bit my tongue.
“Do you really think that all this gets better?” He gestured vaguely to the stars and the condom wrappers and the rusting railroad spikes, and despite the fact that he stuck the cigarette back in his mouth, his hands were shaking.
He was hoping, I could tell. Hoping I would reach through his ribs and squeeze his heart until he felt alive again.
“Yeah,” I said, watching his face. “I believe it gets better as we get older.”
He continued walking, not looking at me, not giving any indication he had heard until he took the cigarette out of his mouth and pressed it into his thumb.
“I’d love to believe you,” he said as he watched the flesh bubble. “But my entire life experience has been evidence to the contrary.”
He left at five the next morning with scars on his arms and stars in his head. Shakespeare had told him that the constellations spell out our unavoidable and patient fates, like the nutrition facts listed on the side of a soup can, and the idea sickened him so much that he abandoned the civilized lifestyle altogether and made up his own. He was a guilty suburbanite; the worst kind, the kind who stays up at night to curse water-heaters and neatly lined prescriptions. He resented his resentment.
He resented me because I knew he was not a mystery or an artist.
He resented me because I knew he was just scared.
That night his mother and his father and I watched the late night news program. We ate pancakes and drank hard liquor, pretending we couldn’t hear January’s claws of ice and chalk scratching at the window panes, pretending there was no plaster caking the kitchen floor where his father had punched a hole in the wall.
The weatherman told us tonight would be the coldest night in at least a decade. Big letters, flashing. Stay inside. Layer up.
I threw up quietly into the sink as the weatherman showed his maps and color-coded charts, all spelling out the horrible idea that even if my best friend hadn’t meant to die, even if he hadn’t ventured into the woods to put a pistol in his mouth, he was probably going to die anyway.
A train-wrecked sister, a frozen best friend. They’d call me the girl twice destroyed. The ones left behind are those who suffer most, after all.
Kelley was my sister. She was either very happy or very unhappy—I was too young to tell which. She had a smile that looked like a sunrise, and I’ve never met anyone else who smiles like that. I know I don’t, but I look enough like her that it’s hard for Mom to look me in the eyes and when Dad gets drunk he yells at me. I’m Kelley’s ghost, come back to torment him—them—with parental inadequacy one more time.
She died in room 713 of the intensive care unit. Closed casket. Hundreds of mourners. Too many casseroles. And the poor little sister, the dressed-up funeral doll, standing in the middle of the roses and not knowing.
I still don’t know if she kissed the train’s metal grate on purpose, or she has been canonized as the result of a fatal accident, but I think about it all the time.
I drove to the Red Wing bridge at dawn because I didn’t want to see his mother’s nervous fingers or the crater his father had made in the kitchen wall.
Going back to my own house was never really an option, because it was exhausting watching my mother avoid my eyes so studiously, just so she could go and dry the tears on the prom dress Kelley never wore.
He’d kissed me once. He was drunk and I was impulsive and it would have been Kelley’s twenty-fifth birthday and he didn’t know that. It was a summer night, the kind with air like peach fuzz and a sunset just as soft. We’d filched a few beers from my father’s garage and sat on the bridge, twenty feet above the Charles with hot skin and wet noodle legs dangling off the side.
“You know what?” he asked.
“What?” The beer felt like electricity in my veins.
“I feel good.”
“Yeah.” He tilted his head back as if he expected the stars to fall down into his mouth so he could chew on all that they’d ever seen, coat his insides with silver. “I feel free.”
He looked over at me, and I saw that the stars hadn’t fallen into his mouth, but into his eyes. They were studded.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
I blinked. “No.”
“Yes!” he said, punctuating his belief with a kick of the legs, and then turned to look at me with a fierce glint in his eyes, steel and fire, and I knew then that he was a boy who lived life in the same manner other people rode roller coasters.
“You are,” he said quietly.
I laughed a little. “You’re drunk.”
“My inhibitions are significantly lowered, true.” He drained his beer and flung it into the river. I watched the bottle as he said, “Low enough to let me do this,” and then, without quite meaning to, we were kissing.
And after, he had a look in his eyes like he’d just been shot and jumped into the muddy river, his elastic yell spiraling as he fell.
And I jumped after him.
They found him, half-starved, underneath a lean-to in the western state forest. He stayed in the hospital for two weeks, and had one pinky and two toes chopped off. I brought him flowers. Morphine slurred his speech and all I could think about was the viral video of the narcoleptic dog, and how I had never seen anything more pitiful than that until now.
I went to see him the day he got home. He told me about making fires and eating berries and bathing in the streams and a bunch of Kumbaya shit like that, repeating phrases that were worn thin when Thoreau used them and all but fell apart in his mouth. We ate his Oreo pancakes as his eyes glistened with a sickish fervor, his blood boiled to the impassioned pitch of his own self-inflated heart. His Oreo pancakes didn’t taste the same. He’s managed to poison them with his fingers, the same fingers which had dug into the Earth and into the flesh of his loved ones and ripped out everything he could use.
I had nothing left for him.
I kissed him, hard, just to shut him up. I let him have all the vinegar I tasted whenever I bit my tongue to save his feelings.
I stood up to leave with the car keys knives in-between my fingers.
He looked at me and I noticed, despite the way his mouth puckered around the inevitable question mark, that his eyes were graphite. Flat. Chipped. Narrow.
Maybe they always had been. Maybe I’d been too blinded by the summertime and the urge to save someone as penance for not being able to save my sister.
“Your name is not Micah,” I told him, and when he opened his mouth I saw the jailbird bars between his teeth, thick and steel and entirely of his own design.
“And you were wrong about Kelley,” I added. Her name was the thorn on the stem of a Valentine rose, but the iron around my heart rusted into nostalgia when I said it out loud, finally, out loud.
We looked at each other, the caged boy and the uncaged girl with nothing more than breakfast food and one kiss between us. I picked up the package of Double-Stuff Oreos and walked out, leaving him and his arrowhead eyes and the belief that self-sacrifice was worth the cross.
I wound up at the Red Wing bridge again, eating his Oreos and looking down at the stiff river, frozen into marble patterns of grey and white. I waited for it to start cracking again, waited for that tiny breath to be exhaled from the antiseptic air.
January was almost over.