I was killing guilt through my second bag of Cheetos when Alex Gregson said we should do something that night. It was already 10pm; the sky loomed eerily similar to the flat-black pavement that it sank into, and the old Acura Integra we lounged in reeked of burning pot. I had passed the “stoned” benchmark a while ago, and while I wish I could’ve blamed Alex or Jameer for this, it was I who had been so quick to grab that smoking pipe.
“Let’s get some beers,” Alex said nonchalantly. Wiping my radioactive-orange fingers onto my jeans, I burped before lazily questioning if us being here wasn’t enough for them. Jameer, taking Alex’s side, asked if this was how I wanted to spend my Friday night, and when I said yes, he declared me pussy. This was how I got dragged into a beer run.
On the contrary, it’s worth noting that this had been no ordinary Friday night. A girl at our high school had just killed herself. Not that Friday – it had been around a week or two ago, but that Friday is when we had just come from the candlelight vigil. After the service, I had been walking home alone when Alex and Jameer, two older kids from school, pulled up beside me, asking if I needed a ride home. I didn’t know Alex and Jameer that well. I mean I knew of them through mutual friends and had seen them play in a handful of the football games earlier that year. But it was also getting cold outside and their shining smiles and promises were calling my name. Mom always said to not get into the car with strangers. 30 minutes later, my brain cells are all but burnt out and simmering on the other side of town. She’d be disappointed.
“How are we going to get it?” For some reason I hadn’t thought to ask this until we were parked outside the store. A glaring neon “Lou’s Liquor” sign loomed over us illegal perpetrators. They were 18 and I was a year younger. Jameer removed a card from his wallet and showed it to me. It was dark in the car but I could see that it was some kind of ID featuring his square face.
“Watch and learn kiddos,” he grinned as he stepped out onto the pavement. Alex and I studied Jameer through the glass windows as he disappeared into the cereal aisle. It wasn’t long before he was back holding a 12 pack of Coors in one hand, and his wallet in the other, walking towards the register.
Jameer flashed us a smile. He trotted with a confidence that fit his six-foot frame and for a second, I thought about how cool it was going to be to crack open and share a cold one with these seniors. It definitely would be something that my father would be proud of; but before I could finish that thought Jameer took a sharp turn and busted straight for the door! “Start the car!” he hollered, and the engine roared alive as if this had really been the plan all along. Jameer threw open the car door, thrusting the pack of beers onto me and jumped into the passenger seat. “Let’s go!” Jameer slammed his door and Alex reversed out as the ear-wrangling sound of burning rubber offended the air. We sped out of the parking lot with lightning urgency. As the guys cheered, I couldn’t help but peer out the back window and catch the cashier out on the sidewalk shaking his fist at us, shouting curses into the flat-black sky.
Not too long ago, I had been going through a rough patch. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. Most nights, I could be found in front of a glowing screen watching whatever movie was rerunning on TBS, as my eyes rotted and brain molded like a zombie’s. My grades plummeted. I had just begun staying with my father after living exclusively with mom for the past 4 years following the divorce. I thought we had a good thing going, just me and her. We ate dinner every night and were nice to one another but I guess dinner and kindness aren’t more important than a job. At my father’s I have a lot more freedom to do whatever I want. Not coincidentally, that’s around the time I started going out more and making poor decisions.
Over the summer, my best friend, Madeline, had called me self-destructive. I told her she was really smart for that one in the most sarcastic manner possible, trying to hide my reddening face. It was one of those gone summer nights and we were lying in-between the blades of wild grass in Jefferson Park, taking in the cooling breeze and the stars which seemed to shine for us, and only us. Madeline loved that park because of its openness that made good stargazing. She punched me on the arm as if to say shut up.
“At least I don’t hate myself,” she retorted. I told her to decide if I was self-destructive or hated myself. Madeline laughed. “Both.” We went quiet, enjoying the full silence, until she broke in again. “I kind of do hate myself, though.”
Her comment stunned me. Was this another one of her cruel dry jokes, or was she being serious? I felt my throat grow hot and rough, and eventually still. It’s not just that I didn’t understand what she meant. It’s just what can you say to someone you love in those moments? Tell them that they don’t hate themselves when really you can’t possibly know how they feel? Get mad that they put you in this position to decide for them? Perhaps you tell them everything will be alright when you don’t even know yourself if it will be. I couldn’t.
“I guess we can both hate ourselves together,” I finally said. We both laughed, but it was forced and not the same.
It was around 11:30 and the guys and I were sitting on the edge of a highway overpass, legs shot through the railings, watching the infinite lights moving, rushing towards, away, and under our worn-out sneakers.
“This shit tastes like piss. Warm beer is gross.” Alex said. I had a Coors in my hand with the lid cracked open but I sipped it periodically, barely drinking. I didn’t like beer. “I don’t understand why you couldn’t just grab a pack out of the fridge,” Alex continued as he finished the last drops of his fourth can, crushing it right after and then throwing it over the railing and onto the highway. I could hear the howling of horns coming from below. I thought about telling Alex that throwing things off the overpass wasn’t a good idea, but I decided against it.
“If you really care that much you should go in and get it next time,” Jameer said.
“I would if someone had their license and could drive us,” Alex spat. It was dark out but I knew Jameer’s face had turned hot as he was slow and unintelligent with his response.
“Well fuck you,” he snapped as he grabbed another can, “It’s too cold out for cold beer anyways.”
Alex made some sly comment in response but I wasn’t listening anymore. I had lost interest. I was too busy being consumed by the highway. The lights. The cars. They all moved in uniform motion. “The flow of traffic” as it was called on my permit test. But every now and then, a single car would defy this flow and zoom past the others. As if the driver didn’t care for rules and normalities. As if he or she was too mighty to move with the rest. A rush of vulnerability filled me. I thought about how if I really wanted to, I could easily slip under the railing and fall into oblivion. More than anything, I thought about who would try to save me.
At the vigil, the dead girl’s mother delivered a speech. She was strangely composed as she eloquently spoke about her daughter and how warm she was to everyone she came across. “It was no one’s fault,” she said solemnly to the audience, even though people there would have disagreed. “She put up a great fight, but maybe sometimes it’s just not meant to be.” It was when she started expressing how much she would miss her daughter that she finally came apart, beginning to weep. At least that’s what I was told. I’d been late in my arrival for a reason unbeknownst to me, and caught the end of the vigil. People noticed and quickly crowded around, clamoring. I could still hear them and the spinning static of the moment.
Ryan, where were you?
Ryan, I’m so sorry.
Are you okay?
“Ryan? Dude.” I snapped back to the moment. It was Jameer. “Are you going to have that last beer?”
I shook my head, “All yours.”
Jameer smiled and began to reach for the lone beer, but Alex grabbed it first. “What the fuck?” Jameer snapped, “I called it.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Alex said, raising the can to his curved lips. He wasn’t as tall as Jameer, but he was clearly stronger and Jameer knew it. Seeing this, Alex became still and smiled behind the can, revealing bleached white teeth. He wagged the beer while pointing at the empty one in Jameer’s hand. “Whoever throws that empty can farther gets this.” He said.
“That’s no fair. You’re a quarterback,” Jameer whined. Alex shrugged. Jameer then turned to me and then so did Alex, resembling how children look to a parent to decide who gets the last piece of Halloween candy. I shrugged too, still not invested into the moment. “Fine,” Jameer finally said, but then looking back at Alex and raising his fist. “But there’s only one empty can.” Alex looked at the ground as if to ponder this dilemma and then smiled again. He nodded towards rocks straddling the gutter.
It was about two months ago when the gutter overflowed and I asked Madeline to be my girlfriend. By then school had been in session for about a month, arriving and hitting us both like raging steel trains. Junior year was the most important year, the adults told us. This is the year colleges look at the most. This year will determine your future so don’t screw up. And remember, there’s absolutely no return from whatever happens here. But no pressure.
We arrived under a bus awning, laughing our asses off. I can’t even remember what was so funny, but her laugh was sweet music to my ears and I couldn’t help but join in the warmth. I glanced at her as she wrung the moisture out of her hair which appeared darker than usual - a product of the rain. A crescent formed from my lips as the moment became clear to me. Madeline and I had been best friends since freshman year but lately I had been feeling as if a different possibility was presenting itself. The way I saw it was that if we were this happy as friends, imagine how much happier we could be as something more. We only had two more years together before setting off to college. Why not make the most of it? This was my chance.
The words came out rushed and sloppy, and I regretted it immediately.
“I just have a lot going on right now. I don’t think I would be able to reciprocate effort. I’m sorry.”
I stood there lost.
I didn’t know what she could possibly be so busy with that I wasn’t also going through. I knew she had issues at home. She never really cared to talk about them, but I had them too! I mean my mom had basically dropped me from her life like an old coat to Goodwill. I didn’t know where my dad was most of the time. Effort was the easy part. I told her it was okay when really I just wanted her to stop so we could revert back to our comfortable silences. Damaged pride and defeat pulsated through my veins, but she kept on going about how she didn’t want to lose me as a friend, and I hated this but she continued until I finally interrupted, demanding her to shut up.
“I asked my mom if I could see a therapist,” She blurted out.
“Shut up,” I repeated, receiving this as her playing victim. She immediately looked down and I felt terrible again.
“She said no.”
At least your mom wants you in the house, is what I wanted to say. “Are you depressed?” I asked instead.
She shook her head, and I decided it best to not say anything else. What else was there to say? And under the pounding heresy of rain and in silence, we moved towards home and never talked about it again.
Alex had thrown the rock further. He killed it in 5 large gulps and though we were now beer-less, Alex’s challenge had turned into some kind of cruel game. The two of them laughed like maniacs as they took turns seeing who could throw rocks further, challenging each other to who could hit certain targets first. Cars below sounded off their horns and my spine tingled with each tire screech. I wanted to yell at them. I wanted to tell them to knock it off before someone got hurt, but I couldn’t. It was as
if the air in my lungs had dissipated and my wind pipes clenched. My throat grew hot again. I was petrified.
I looked at Alex with wide eyes that begged him to stop. No more please, I thought. I felt like crying, but I couldn’t show vulnerability to these older boys. If I did, who knew what would happen. From where I sat on the overpass, I could see as the cans flew over and then onto the highway, disappearing into the lights and black pavement. I shrunk into myself, waiting for the scrutinizing boom of metal colliding, forming into one another. Screams. Pain. Lives changing forever right before my eyes. Me waiting, thinking about how I could be the hero but how I chose not to. How I could have saved her too, been there for her more, but wasn’t.
And then we were back in the car driving home.
I sunk into my seat as I stared out the window. The guys were talking about something else, and the tension between them had now passed. It was black outside, and I couldn’t see anything other than the darker outlines of trees and faceless houses. Those faceless houses that seem like homes on the outside but really are no more than scattered pieces. I could have felt bad for myself, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened. This could have meant disaster and I hadn’t done anything to prevent it. I just sat there like a passive idiot again. I was given the opportunity, and I had missed it like a fool.
“You were close to that girl, huh?” Alex said. I didn’t say anything as I continued to look out the glass, but he didn’t catch the hint as he went on. “That sucks, man. I’m sorry.” Jameer looked back at me and when I caught his eyes he quickly turned away. “You know you probably bought her at least 4 more months? I mean whenever I saw her around school with you, she seemed happy.”
I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I felt it as a single tear ran down my cheek.
“You can’t blame yourself. It was going to happen either way. Some people just can’t be saved.”
We continued to drive across town and before I knew it, I was asleep, captured by the heaving hands of pot and guilt. As I manifested in my unconsciousness, there was a jerk and I awoke immediately. Everything was fuzzy and unfamiliar. There was a flashing of light. A high-pitch wailing that sounded like it was coming from some kind of trapped animal. I could hear Alex crying to himself. There was a sense of panic in his whimpers. “I didn’t see him. I swear I didn’t see him.” It was then when I realized that Alex had been slurring his words. Jameer sat dead-still in the passenger seat, and in the rearview, I could see his wide-stretched eyes. I looked through the back window once again. We were at an intersection and there was a car, a mid-sized sedan, wrenched into a stop sign. I opened the door and ran out towards the car.
I could hear Alex and Jameer calling after me, demanding me to get back into the car. I turned and looked at them in disbelief. “Let’s go!” one of them said. “We can’t be here!”
“What about them?” I screamed, pointing at the wrecked car.
“Whoever it is, we can’t save them!” Alex said, “We got to go! Cops will be here soon!”
I looked at them and then at the car, and then at them again and continued on my way. Soon, I heard curses and the sound of doors shutting, and an engine starting and disappearing into the blackness.
I arrived at the sedan. The driver’s side window was smashed, the edges of the glass broken, and the pebbling remains sat like cereal in a pool of blood. There was a man in the passenger seat. The air bag was deflated and covered his lap. His head resting on the wheel. I grabbed his arm. “C’mon,” I said to him and myself, as I unbuckled the seat belt and dragged him onto the pavement.
He was thin, had sandy hair, and couldn’t have been older than my own father. “C’mon,” I kept on whispering to him, but I knew I was the only one who could hear it. He was breathing but barely and in choppy sequences. I tried to thrust my palms onto his chest and breathe into his mouth like they did in the movies but it didn’t help. I found myself choking on my own erratic breathes as well.
I kept at this. Soon, I could hear the distant sounds of sirens in the merciless sky, but I knew it would be too late. I held the man in my arms as we sat on the edge of the world, apologizing, until it really was.