The Colonel lit a cigarette, threw it to me, and lit one of his own. It was eerie, that he could tell when I wanted a cigarette. We were like an old married couple. For a moment, I thought, It’s massively unwise to throw lit cigarettes around a barn full of hay, but then the moment of caution passed, and I just made a sincere effort not to flick ash onto any hay.
“No clear winner yet,” the Colonel said. “The field is wide open. Your turn, buddy.”
Alaska lay on her back, her hands locked behind her head. She spoke softly and quickly, but the quiet day was becoming a quieter night—the bugs gone now with the arrival of winter—and we could hear her clearly.
“The day after my mom took me to the zoo where she liked the monkeys and I liked the bears, it was a Friday. I came home from school. She gave me a hug and told me to go do my homework in my room so I could watch TV later. I went into my room, and she sat down at the kitchen table, I guess, and then she screamed, and I ran out, and she had fallen over. She was lying on the floor, holding her head and jerking. And I freaked out. I should have called 911, but I just started screaming and crying until finally she stopped jerking, and I thought she had fallen asleep and that whatever had hurt didn’t hurt anymore. So I just sat there on the floor with her until my dad got home an hour later, and he’s screaming, ‘Why didn’t you call 911?’ and trying to give her CPR, but by then she was plenty dead. Aneurysm. Worst day. I win. You drink.”
And so we did.
No one talked for a minute, and then Takumi asked, “Your dad blamed you?”
“Well, not after that first moment. But yeah. How could he not?”
“Well, you were a little kid,” Takumi argued. I was too surprised and uncomfortable to talk, trying to fit this into what I knew about Alaska’s family. Her mom told her the knock-knock joke—when Alaska was six. Her mom used to smoke—but didn’t anymore, obviously.
“Yeah. I was a little kid. Little kids can dial 911. They do it all the time. Give me the wine,” she said, deadpan and emotionless. She drank without lifting her head from the hay.
“I’m sorry,” Takumi said.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” the Colonel asked, his voice soft.
“It never came up.” And then we stopped asking questions. What the hell do you say?
In the long quiet that followed, as we passed around the wine and slowly became drunker, I found myself thinking about President William McKinley, the third American president to be assassinated. He lived for several days after he was shot, and toward the end, his wife started crying and screaming, “I want to go, too! I want to go, too!” And with his last measure of strength, McKinley turned to her and spoke his last words: “We are all going.”
It was the central moment of Alaska’s life. When she cried and told me that she fucked everything up, I knew what she meant now. And when she said she failed everyone, I knew whom she meant. It was the everything and the everyone of her life, and so I could not help but imagine it: I imagined a scrawny eight-year-old with dirty fingers, looking down at her mother convulsing. So she sat down with her dead-or-maybe-not mother, who I imagine was not breathing by then but wasn’t yet cold either. And in the time between dying and death, a little Alaska sat with her mother in silence. And then through the silence and my drunkenness, I caught a glimpse of her as she might have been. She must have come to feel so powerless, I thought, that the one thing she might have done—pick up the phone and call an ambulance—never even occurred to her. There comes a time when we realize that our parents cannot save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow—that, in short, we are all going.
So she became impulsive, scared by her inaction into perpetual action. When the Eagle confronted her with expulsion, maybe she blurted out Marya’s name because it was the first that came to mind, because in that moment she didn’t want to get expelled and couldn’t think past that moment. She was scared, sure. But more importantly, maybe she’d been scared of being paralyzed by fear again.
“We are all going,” McKinley said to his wife, and we sure are. There’s your labyrinth of suffering. We are all going. Find your way out of that maze.
None of which I said out loud to her. Not then and not ever. We never said another word about it. Instead, it became just another worst day, albeit the worst of the bunch, and as night fell fast, we continued on, drinking and joking.
Later that night, after Alaska stuck her finger down her throat and made herself puke in front of all of us because she was too drunk to walk into the woods, I lay down in my sleeping bag. Lara was lying beside me, in her bag, which was almost touching mine. I moved my arm to the edge of my bag and pushed it so it slightly overlapped with hers. I pressed my hand against hers. I could feel it, although there were two sleeping bags between us. My plan, which struck me as very slick, was to pull my arm out of my sleeping bag and put it into hers, and then hold her hand. It was a good plan, but when I tried to actually get my arm out of the mummy bag, I flailed around like a fish out of water, and nearly dislocated my shoulder. She was laughing—and not with me, at me—but we still didn’t speak. Having passed the point of no return, I slid my hand into her sleeping bag anyway, and she stifled a giggle as my fingers traced a line from her elbow to her wrist.
“That teekles,” she whispered. So much for me being sexy.
“Sorry,” I whispered.
“No, it’s a nice teekle,” she said, and held my hand. She laced her fingers in mine and squeezed. And then she rolled over and keessed me. I am sure that she tasted like stale booze, but I did not notice, and I’m sure I tasted like stale booze and cigarettes, but she didn’t notice. We were kissing.
I thought: This is good.
I thought: I am not bad at this kissing. Not bad at all.
I thought: I am clearly the greatest kisser in the history of the universe.
Suddenly she laughed and pulled away from me. She wiggled a hand out of her sleeping bag and wiped her face. “You slobbered on my nose,” she said, and laughed.
I laughed, too, trying to give her the impression that my nose-slobbering kissing style was intended to be funny. “I’m sorry.” To borrow the base system from Alaska, I hadn’t hit more than five singles in my entire life, so I tried to chalk it up to inexperience. “I’m a bit new at this,” I said.
“Eet was a nice slobbering,” she said, laughed, and kissed me again. Soon we were entirely out of our sleeping bags, making out quietly. She lay on top of me, and I held her small waist in my hands. I could feel her breasts against my chest, and she moved slowly on top of me, her legs straddling me. “You feel nice,” she said.
“You’re beautiful,” I said, and smiled at her. In the dark, I could make out the outline of her face and her large, round eyes blinking down at me, her eyelashes almost fluttering against my forehead.
“Could the two people who are making out please be quiet?” the Colonel asked loudly from his sleeping bag. “Those of us who are not making out are drunk and tired.”
“Mostly. Drunk,” Alaska said slowly, as if enunciation required great effort.
We had almost never talked, Lara and I, and we didn’t get a chance to talk anymore because of the Colonel. So we kissed quietly and laughed softly with our mouths and our eyes. After so much kissing that it almost started to get boring, I whispered, “Do you want to be my girlfriend?” And she said, “Yes please,” and smiled. We slept together in her sleeping bag, which felt a little crowded, to be honest, but was still nice. I had never felt another person against me as I slept. It was a fine end to the best day of my life.
one day before
THE NEXT MORNING, a term I use loosely since it was not yet dawn, the Colonel shook me awake. Lara was wrapped in my arms, folded into my body.
“We gotta go, Pudge. Time to roll up.”
“You can sleep after we check in. IT’S TIME TO GO!” he shouted.
“All right. All right. No screaming. Head hurts.” And it did. I could feel last night’s wine in my throat and my head throbbed like it had the morning after my concussion. My mouth tasted like a skunk had crawled into my throat and died. I made an effort not to exhale near Lara as she groggily extricated herself from the sleeping bag.
We packed everything quickly, threw our empty bottles into the tall grass of the field—littering was an unfortunate necessity at the Creek, since no one wanted to throw an empty bottle of booze in a campus trash can—and walked away from the barn. Lara grabbed my hand and then shyly let go. Alaska looked like a train wreck, but insisted on pouring the last few sips of Strawberry Hill into her cold instant coffee before chucking the bottle behind her.
“Hair of the dog,” she said.
“How ya doin’?” the Colonel asked her.
“I’ve had better mornings.”
“Like an alcoholic preacher on Sunday morning.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much,” I suggested.
“Pudge.” She shook her head and sipped the cold coffee and wine. “Pudge, what you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person.”
We walked side by side down the washed-out dirt road on our way back to campus. Just after we reached the bridge, Takumi stopped, said “uh-oh,” got on his hands and knees, and puked a volcano of yellow and pink.
“Let it out,” Alaska said. “You’ll be fine.”
He finished, stood up, and said, “I finally found something that can stop the fox. The fox cannot summit Strawberry Hill.”
Alaska and Lara walked to their rooms, planning to check in with the Eagle later in the day, while Takumi and I stood behind the Colonel as he knocked on the Eagle’s door at 9:00 A.M.
“Y’all are home early. Have fun?”
“Yes sir,” the Colonel said.
“How’s your mom, Chip?”
“She’s doing well, sir. She’s in good shape.”
“She feed y’all well?”
“Oh yes sir,” I said. “She tried to fatten me up.”
“You need it. Y’all have a good day.”
“Well, I don’t think he suspected anything,” the Colonel said on our way back to Room 43. “So maybe we actually pulled it off.” I thought about going over to see Lara, but I was pretty tired, so I just went to bed and slept through my hangover.
It was not an eventful day. I should have done extraordinary things. I should have sucked the marrow out of life. But on that day, I slept eighteen hours out of a possible twenty-four.
the last day
THE NEXT MORNING, the first Monday of the new semester, the Colonel came out of the shower just as my alarm went off.
As I pulled on my shoes, Kevin knocked once and then opened the door, stepping inside.
“You’re looking good,” the Colonel said casually. Kevin’s now sported a crew cut, a small patch of short blue hair on each side of his head, just above the ear. His lower lip jutted out—the morning’s first dip. He walked over to our COFFEE TABLE, picked up a can of Coke, and spit into it.
“You almost didn’t get me. I noticed it in my conditioner and got right back in the shower. But I didn’t notice it in my gel. It didn’t show up in Jeff’s hair at all. But Longwell and me, we had to go with the Marine look. Thank God I have clippers.”
“It suits you,” I said, although it didn’t. The short hair accentuated his features, specifically his too-close-together beady eyes, which did not stand up well to accentuation. The Colonel was trying hard to look tough—ready for whatever Kevin might do—but it’s hard to look tough when you’re only wearing an orange towel.
“Well, your troubles aren’t over, I’m afraid,” the Colonel said, referring to the mailed-but-not-yet-received progress reports.
“A’ight. If you say so. We’ll talk when it’s over, I guess.”
“I guess so,” the Colonel said. As Kevin walked out, the Colonel said, “Take the can you spit in, you unhygienic shit.” Kevin just closed the door behind him. The Colonel grabbed the can, opened the door, and threw it at Kevin—missing him by a good margin.
“Jeez, go easy on the guy.”
“No truce yet, Pudge.”
I spent that afternoon with Lara. We were very cutesy, even though we didn’t know the first thing about each other and barely talked. But we made out. She grabbed my butt at one point, and I sort of jumped. I was lying down, but I did the best version of jumping that one can do lying down, and she said, “Sorry,” and I said, “No, it’s okay. It’s just a little sore from the swan.”
We walked to the TV room together, and I locked the door. We were watching The Brady Bunch, which she had never seen. The episode, where the Bradys visit the gold-mining ghost town and they all get locked up in the one-room jail by some crazy old gold panner with a scraggly white beard, was especially horrible, and gave us a lot to laugh about. Which is good, since we didn’t have much to talk about.
Just as the Bradys were getting locked in jail, Lara randomly asked me, “Have you ever gotten a blow job?”
“Um, that’s out of the blue,” I said.
“Like, you know, out of left field.”
“Like, in baseball. Like, out of nowhere. I mean, what made you think of that?”
“I’ve just never geeven one,” she answered, her little voice dripping with seductiveness. It was so brazen. I thought I would explode. I never thought. I mean, from Alaska, hearing that stuff was one thing. But to hear her sweet little Romanian voice go so sexy all of the sudden . . .