A short story by Stephen Moles from our latest issue. Photography by Ninja Hanna and fashion by Hanna Holmgren. Click to read the whole story.
For the first time, the electronic score board, the pride of the 2008 Booster Club, did not read “GO WILD BOARS!!!” or “REFRESHMENTS ON SALE IN THE CAFETERIA!!” Instead, it wailed “WE MISS YOU AMY!!” The gymnasium’s bleachers, which were typically filled with gold and maroon t-shirts on game days, were a flood of black cotton and nylon. That day, soft weeping echoed through the rafters rather than the skid of basketball sneakers.
The only two people at the school who did not attend Amy’s funeral were Carla and Charlie. They both stood in the school parking lot, smoking cigarettes. They had never talked to one another, due to Carla being a recent transfer and Charlie’s tendency to shun eye contact. Their encounter seemed something akin to kismet, so they joined forces for the mutual enjoyment of nicotine and silence.
Carla spoke first. “Never met the girl. It seemed rude to show up at her funeral.”
“She beat up my little sister,” Charlie said, puffing his cigarette. “Stupid, boy shit, but still. Thirteen stiches in her head and fractured ribs.” Carla flinched.
“Where’s your sister?”
“At the funeral,” he replied. Then, like answering an unasked question, “I don’t forgive as easily.” Carla was slightly bored by his answer–his words must have been bravado–and so she turned the head to gaze across the school’s parking lot: pick-up trucks surrounded by crops. That was what Carla hated about Soil, Iowa. No matter where you went in the city, wilderness always seemed to be on the periphery. Though it was innocuous enough—how dangerous are soybeans, anyway?—it always seemed as if the overgrowth was on the verge of boxing her in. Carla couldn’t shake that feeling. Both Carla and Charlie wore shirts that draped on them like tents. Charlie’s was a black, Metallica t-shirt, while Carla’s was a soft gray sweatshirt that obscured her features.
Before the funeral, a group of seven boys all drank “in honor” of Amy. They squatted behind an old Dodge Ram, downing cans of warm beer. All of them claimed to have slept with Amy, though only one of them had. Jason, shaggy-headed and the dopiest of the group, asked, “How did she die?”
“Hit-and-run,” chug chug chug, “two blocks from her house.”
Three minutes of silence passed. Carla felt the need to fill the empty lot. “You must feel vindicated,” she said.
“Why?” just slid out of Charlie’s mouth. It was a well-formed question, containing not a trace of condescension, malice, or affectation. Charlie tried to act disinterested—he thought it made him seem more mature–but when caught off guard, his naiveté became obvious. Carla pointed to Charlie’s car, a hatchback station wagon, and said, “Let’s ride.”
They skirted the perimeter of Soil for hours. The town’s limit was a square with steep forty-five degree angles at each corner. On their left were corner stores, trailer parks and churches while to their right was always the forest. Each time they completed the square, another piece of sunlight was stripped away.
“I’ve never had a girl in my car before,” Charlie said, taking his left hand off the steering wheel and popping his knuckles, “other than, like, my mom and sister.” Carla inspected him, trying to uncover what was beneath his shirt. He was thin, and probably wiry, with big hands and veins that ran along his forearms. He had saucer eyes, a chunky nose, bubble lips, an Adam’s apple that hung like a baseball in a tube sock. His features weren’t bad, per se, but every time Carla returned to him after staring out the window, she was shocked by their prominence.
“That’s not surprising,” she said, resting her heels on the dashboard.
“Whattadya mean by that?” His eyes darted back and forth between the road and Carla.
“I’m just teasing you,” she said, “I just mean, you’re cute,” he blushed, “but shrimpy,” his blush deepened, “and you’ve still never looked me in the face.”
“People always make fun of my eyes. My gran says I’m a ‘kewpie doll.’”
“So you grew out your bangs.” Another fact about him that was boring. She tapped on the window. “You know, they’re going to dedicate the homecoming promenade to her?”
“What’s a promenade?” Charlie asked. Carla sighed.
“I heard a lot of things about that girl,” Carla said. “That she was kinda wild, a bit of a whore.”
Charlie mulled it over for a second, his brows furrowed, and then said, “Nothing this town hasn’t seen before.” Carla laughed. “Why do you keep talking about her?” No reply. “Are you a bad girl too?” She didn’t answer, instead she opened the window, letting the wind beat against her face and drown out any conversation. Charlie took a right onto a dirt road that took them away from town.
Carla was uncomfortable with this. She wasn’t afraid of Charlie. He seemed quite sweet, if dull. But the dirt roads took her beyond the fields and into a dense wooded area. Trees arched their limbs over the road, obscuring the stars, blocking all means of escape. It only served to intensify her anxiety.
After leaving the funeral, the boys continued to drink. It seemed right, since they had the day off from school. They slid around the back roads of Soil in Jason’s truck, depleting cans of beer, which they threw to the floor of the truck, so that the bed became a wading pool of aluminum. And it was fun for a while, but the smell of guilt and cheap beer seemed to take over any type of conversation. They cruised deeper into the outer roads of Soil, down dirt paths that could only be traversed by one car in either direction. After driving in silence for about 30 minutes, another set of headlights came at them in the distance. Suddenly, Travis, who lied about most girls he slept with, perked up. “Jason, ram that car.”
Jason, drunk and impressionable, scoffed. “What? No.”
“No, seriously, ram the mutherfuckin’ car.”
“What if I just speed up a little?”
“Jason, you’re such a fucking dweeb sometimes. We’re just going to scare them.” Jason felt unsure, but someone yelled, “Floor it!” and punched his arm.
After scaring the other car off the road, the boys hollered, intoxicated by their power. “Did you see who it was, Charlie with the new girl.”
“Did you hear she pulled a knife on Dave?”
“Dude, she’s a bitch,” yelled Dave from the back of the truck. “I hope she shivs that fag.”
To avoid the Dodge Ram, Charlie pulled a hard right and swerved his car into a nearby clearing. The moment he left the dirt road, he felt like a rollercoaster jumping its tracks. It was a guilty thrill for him to be so derailed. It seemed so sexy to be dodging another car, bounding into an unknown forest at breakneck speed. It made sense to him why people bungee-jumped and climbed mountains and robbed banks. And he knew that soon after this, he would need to find the next thrill. But before Charlie could contemplate that much further, his car slapped against the stump of a large tree—the back end of his car spinning out in a one-quarter arc. The right front tire popped and all thoughts shook out of his head. He clutched the steering wheel with his wide eyes drawn open. As soon as he could process, Carla, and he whipped his head to the right. The passenger’s seat was empty. The door was open.
Bile crept up Charlie’s throat as he imagined her thrown out of the car by the impact. He stared at what his headlights touched, but it was hard to make out anything. The light didn’t seem to illuminate, rather it bleached. But then he saw something at the tip of his headlights. It was girl-shaped, crouched and unharmed. Carla seemed almost like a part of the landscape—a bright spot that blended into the grass and dirt. He switched off his high beams and ran to her. She was shaking, and so was he. If Charlie hadn’t been addled with adrenaline, he would have stopped inches from her shoulders, doubting it was right to comfort her. He draped his arms around her and said, “You’re safe, it’s okay.” Unreactive, Carla fixated on the forest’s depth. She wasn’t crying, but kept jittering. He squeezed his arms around her a little tighter, finding her frame inside her large sweatshirt. They stayed like that, Charlie was unsure for how long. It may have been minutes or hours. Finally, Carla shrugged him off. Charlie began to rise, but Carla said, “Stay there!” He sat in the grass and the night dew damped his jeans.
“My way,” she said, trying to steady her voice. She walked back to the car, opened the driver’s side door.
She turned on the radio, jacked up the volume. Angry pundits, preening guitar solos, and hip hop beats filled the clearing as she flipped through the stations. The aggressiveness of the noise made the skin on Charlie’s arms tighten. Carla ended her search, landing upon “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” The Shirelles—60s girl group gold—warmed the entire area.
Carla sauntered in front of the headlights. She shook herself out of her oversized sweatshirt and discarded it on the hood of the car. Underneath were a tank top and a pair of jeans. She came toward him, backlit, her shape distorted by the light. Charlie couldn’t see if she was smiling or angry. She came up to him, brushed the hair out of his eyes. They were so big and wondering and bloodshot from tears. She offered her hand. Charlie complied, standing up. She led him to her waist and they began to sway.
“You know, I didn’t hate that girl,” he said.
“Amy,” she said, “we need to remember her name.”
Her hands reached under his shirt, searching for warmth. She felt his ribs, his stomach, and his shoulder blades. He anchored her to that moment. His warmth hid all the trees and death and loneliness. What she didn’t know was that her small frame did the same for him.
“…Amy,” said Charlie, “I’m sorry.” And they let their ragged breath and heartbeats slow to the tempo of the Shirelles. Carla pressed against Charlie. The sound from the radio covered up cars passing in the far distance, the gravel roads crunching under tires. Other headlights pilgrimaging through bleak night.
Stephen Moles is a writer based in Harlem and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. His critical nonfiction has been featured on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and in Line Zero Magazine. He thanks you for taking the time to read his work. Photography by Ninja Hanna, fashion by Hanna Holmgren, hair by Sherin@Linkdetails, make up by Johanna Sylvan@linkdetails and modeling by Lovisa Axelsson Hager@Mikas.