I laughed. “Yeah. That will be tough to top.” I unwrapped the cream pie and bit into it. Mmm . . . hundreds of delicious calories per bite.
“She’ll think of something,” he said. “Pudge,” he said. “Hmm. Pudge, you need a cigarette. Let’s go for a walk.”
I felt nervous, as I invariably do when someone says my name twice with a hmm in between. But I got up, leaving my books behind, and walked toward the Smoking Hole. But as soon as we got to the edge of the woods, Takumi turned away from the dirt road. “Not sure the Hole is safe,” he said. Not safe? I thought. It’s the safest place to smoke a cigarette in the known universe. But I just followed him through the thick brush, weaving through pine trees and threatening, chest-high brambly bushes. After a while, he just sat down. I cupped my hand around my lighter to protect the flame from the slight breeze and lit up.
“Alaska ratted out Marya,” he said. “So the Eagle might know about the Smoking Hole, too. I don’t know. I’ve never seen him down that way, but who knows what she told him.”
“Wait, how do you know?” I asked, dubious.
“Well, for one thing, I figured it out. And for another, Alaska admitted it. She told me at least part of the truth, that right at the end of school last year, she tried to sneak off campus one night after lights-out to go visit Jake and then got busted. She said she was careful—no headlights or anything—but the Eagle caught her, and she had a bottle of wine in her car, so she was fucked. And the Eagle took her into his house and gave her the same offer he gives to everyone when they get fatally busted. ‘Either tell me everything you know or go to your room and pack up your stuff.’ So Alaska broke and told him that Marya and Paul were drunk and in her room right then. And then she told him God knows what else. And so the Eagle let her go, because he needs rats to do his job. She was smart, really, to rat on one of her friends, because no one ever thinks to blame the friends. That’s why the Colonel is so sure it was Kevin and his boys. I didn’t believe it could be Alaska, either, until I figured out that she was the only person on campus who could’ve known what Marya was doing. I suspected Paul’s roommate, Longwell—one of the guys who pulled the armless-mermaid bit on you. Turns out he was at home that night. His aunt had died. I checked the obit in the paper. Hollis Burnis Chase—hell of a name for a woman.”
“So the Colonel doesn’t know?” I asked, stunned. I put out my cigarette, even though I wasn’t quite finished, because I felt spooked. I’d never suspected Alaska could be disloyal. Moody, yes. But not a rat.
“No, and he can’t know, because he’ll go crazy and get her expelled. The Colonel takes all this honor and loyalty shit pretty seriously, if you haven’t noticed.”
Takumi shook his head, his hands pushing aside leaves to dig into the still-wet dirt beneath. “I just don’t get why she’d be so afraid of getting expelled. I’d hate to get expelled, but you have to take your lumps. I don’t get it.”
“Well, she obviously doesn’t like home.”
“True. She only goes home over Christmas and the summer, when Jake is there. But whatever. I don’t like home, either. But I’d never give the Eagle the satisfaction.” Takumi picked up a twig and dug it into the soft red dirt. “Listen, Pudge. I don’t know what kind of prank Alaska and the Colonel are going to come up with to end this, but I’m sure we’ll both be involved. I’m telling you all this so you can know what you’re getting into, because if you get caught, you had better take it.”
I thought of Florida, of my “school friends,” and realized for the first time how much I would miss the Creek if I ever had to leave it. I stared down at Takumi’s twig sticking erect out of the mud and said, “I swear to God I won’t rat.”
I finally understood that day at the Jury: Alaska wanted to show us that we could trust her. Survival at Culver Creek meant loyalty, and she had ignored that. But then she’d shown me the way. She and the Colonel had taken the fall for me to show me how it was done, so I would know what to do when the time came.
fifty-eight days before
ABOUT A WEEK LATER I woke up at 6:30—6:30 on a Saturday!—to the sweet melody of Decapitation: automatic gunfire blasted out above the menacing, bass-heavy background music of the video game. I rolled over and saw Alaska pulling the controller up and to the right, as if that would help her escape certain death. I had the same bad habit.
“Can you at least mute it?”
“Pudge,” she said, faux-condescending, “the sound is an integral part of the artistic experience of this video game. Muting Decapitation would be like reading only every other word of Jane Eyre. The Colonel woke up about half an hour ago. He seemed a little annoyed, so I told him to go sleep in my room.”
“Maybe I’ll join him,” I said groggily.
Rather than answering my question, she remarked, “So I heard Takumi told you. Yeah, I ratted out Marya, and I’m sorry, and I’ll never do it again. In other news, are you staying here for Thanksgiving? Because I am.”
I rolled back toward the wall and pulled the comforter over my head. I didn’t know whether to trust Alaska, and I’d certainly had enough of her unpredictability—cold one day, sweet the next; irresistibly flirty one moment, resistibly obnoxious the next. I preferred the Colonel: At least when he was cranky, he had a reason.
In a testament to the power of fatigue, I managed to fall asleep quickly, convinced that the shrieking of dying monsters and Alaska’s delighted squeals upon killing them were nothing more than a pleasant sound track by which to dream. I woke up half an hour later, when she sat down on my bed, her butt against my hip. Her underwear, her jeans, the comforter, my corduroys, and my boxers between us, I thought. Five layers, and yet I felt it, the nervous warmth of touching—a pale reflection of the fireworks of one mouth on another, but a reflection nonetheless. And in the almost-ness of the moment, I cared at least enough. I wasn’t sure whether I liked her, and I doubted whether I could trust her, but I cared at least enough to try to find out. Her on my bed, wide green eyes staring down at me. The enduring mystery of her sly, almost smirking, smile. Five layers between us.
She continued as if I hadn’t been asleep. “Jake has to study. So he doesn’t want me in Nashville. Says he can’t pay attention to musicology while staring at me. I said I would wear a burka, but he wasn’t convinced, so I’m staying here.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Oh, don’t be. I’ll have loads to do. There’s a prank to plan. But I was thinking you should stay here, too. In fact, I have composed a list.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a heavily folded piece of notebook paper and began to read.
“Why Pudge Should Stay at the Creek for Thanksgiving: A List, by Alaska Young.
“One. Because he is a very conscientious student, Pudge has been deprived of many wonderful Culver Creek experiences, including but not limited to A. drinking wine with me in the woods, and B. getting up early on a Saturday to eat breakfast at McInedible and then driving through the greater Birmingham area smoking cigarettes and talking about how pathetically boring the greater Birmingham area is, and also C. going out late at night and lying in the dewy soccer field and reading a Kurt Vonnegut book by moonlight.
“Two. Although she certainly does not excel at endeavors such as teaching the French language, Madame O’Malley makes a mean stuffing, and she invites all the students who stay on campus to Thanksgiving dinner. Which is usually just me and the South Korean exchange student, but whatever. Pudge would be welcome.
“Three. I don’t really have a Three, but One and Two were awfully good.”
One and Two appealed to me, certainly, but mostly I liked the idea of just her and just me on campus. “I’ll talk to my parents. Once they wake up,” I said. She coaxed me onto the couch, and we played Decapitation together until she abruptly dropped the controller.
“I’m not flirting. I’m just tired,” she said, kicking off her flip-flops. She pulled her feet onto the foam couch, tucking them behind a cushion, and scooted up to put her head in my lap. My corduroys. My boxers. Two layers. I could feel the warmth of her cheek on my thigh.
There are times when it is appropriate, even preferable, to get an erection when someone’s face is in close proximity to your penis.
This was not one of those times.
So I stopped thinking about the layers and the warmth, muted the TV, and focused on Decapitation.
At 8:30, I turned off the game and scooted out from underneath Alaska. She turned onto her back, still asleep, the lines of my corduroy pants imprinted on her cheek.
I usually only called my parents on Sunday afternoons, so when my mom heard my voice, she instantly overreacted. “What’s wrong, Miles? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Mom. I think—if it’s okay with you, I think I might stay here for Thanksgiving. A lot of my friends are staying”—lie—“and I have a lot of work to do”—double lie. “I had no idea how hard the classes would be, Mom”—truth.
“Oh, sweetie. We miss you so much. And there’s a big Thanksgiving turkey waiting for you. And all the cranberry sauce you can eat.”
I hated cranberry sauce, but for some reason my mom persisted in her lifelong belief that it was my very favorite food, even though every single Thanksgiving I politely declined to include it on my plate.
“I know, Mom. I miss you guys, too. But I really want to do well here”—truth—“and plus it’s really nice to have, like, friends”—truth.
I knew that playing the friend card would sell her on the idea, and it did. So I got her blessing to stay on campus after promising to hang out with them for every minute of Christmas break (as if I had other plans).
I spent the morning at the computer, flipping back and forth between my religion and English papers. There were only two weeks of classes before exams—the coming one and the one after Thanksgiving—and so far, the best personal answer I had to “What happens to people after they die?” was “Well, something. Maybe.”
The Colonel came in at noon, his thick übermath book cradled in his arms.
“I just saw Sara,” he said.
“How’d that work out for ya?”
“Bad. She said she still loved me. God, ‘I love you’ really is the gateway drug of breaking up. Saying ‘I love you’ while walking across the dorm circle inevitably leads to saying ‘I love you’ while you’re doing it. So I just bolted.” I laughed. He pulled out a notebook and sat down at his desk.
“Yeah. Ha-ha. So Alaska said you’re staying here.”
“Yeah. I feel a little guilty about ditching my parents, though.”
“Yeah, well. If you’re staying here in hopes of making out with Alaska, I sure wish you wouldn’t. If you unmoor her from the rock that is Jake, God have mercy on us all. That would be some drama, indeed. And as a rule, I like to avoid drama.”
“It’s not because I want to make out with her.”
“Hold on.” He grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he’d just made a mathematical breakthrough and then looked back up at me. “I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of shit.”
And he was right. How could I abandon my parents, who were nice enough to pay for my education at Culver Creek, my parents who had always loved me, just because I maybe liked some girl with a boyfriend? How could I leave them alone with a giant turkey and mounds of inedible cranberry sauce? So during third period, I called my mom at work. I wanted her to say it was okay, I guess, for me to stay at the Creek for Thanksgiving, but I didn’t quite expect her to excitedly tell me that she and Dad had bought plane tickets to England immediately after I called and were planning to spend Thanksgiving in a castle on their second honeymoon.
“Oh, that—that’s awesome,” I said, and then quickly got off the phone because I did not want her to hear me cry. I guess Alaska heard me slam down the phone from her room, because she opened the door as I turned away, but said nothing. I walked across the dorm circle, and then straight through the soccer field, bush-whacking through the woods, until I ended up on the banks of Culver Creek just down from the bridge. I sat with my butt on a rock and my feet in the dark dirt of the creek bed and tossed pebbles into the clear, shallow water, and they landed with an empty plop, barely audible over the rumbling of the creek as it danced its way south. The light filtered through the leaves and pine needles above as if through lace, the ground spotted in shadow.
I thought of the one thing about home that I missed, my dad’s study with its built-in, floor-to-ceiling shelves sagging with thick biographies, and the black leather chair that kept me just uncomfortable enough to keep from feeling sleepy as I read. It was stupid, to feel as upset as I did. I ditched them, but it felt the other way around. Still, I felt unmistakably homesick.
I looked up toward the bridge and saw Alaska sitting on one of the blue chairs at the Smoking Hole, and though I’d thought I wanted to be alone, I found myself saying, “Hey.” Then, when she did not turn to me, I screamed, “Alaska!” She walked over.
“I was looking for you,” she said, joining me on the rock.
“I’m really sorry, Pudge,” she said, and put her arms around me, resting her head against my shoulder. It occurred to me that she didn’t even know what had happened, but she still sounded sincere.
“What am I going to do?”
“You’ll spend Thanksgiving with me, silly. Here.”