I reached between her mattress and box spring for the condoms I knew she hid for Jake’s visits. I pocketed them, and then went over to her dresser, searching through her underwear for hidden bottles of liquor or sex toys or God knows what. I found nothing. And then I settled on the books, staring at them stacked on their sides, spines out, the haphazard collection of literature that was Alaska. There was one book I wanted to take with me, but I couldn’t find it.
The Colonel was sitting on the floor next to her bed, his head bent toward the floor, looking under her bed frame. “She sure didn’t leave any booze, did she?” he asked.
And I almost said, She buried it in the woods out by the soccer field, but I realized that the Colonel didn’t know, that she never took him to the edge of the woods and told him to dig for buried treasure, that she and I had shared that alone, and I kept it for myself like a keepsake, as if sharing the memory might lead to its dissipation.
“Do you see The General in His Labyrinth anywhere?” I asked while scanning the titles on the book spines. “It has a lot of green on the cover, I think. It’s a paperback, and it got flooded, so the pages are probably bloated, but I don’t think she—” and then he cut me off with, “Yeah, it’s right here,” and I turned around and he was holding it, the pages fanned out like an accordion from Longwell, Jeff, and Kevin’s prank, and I walked over to him and took it and sat down on her bed. The places she’d underlined and the little notes she’d written had all been blurred out by the soaking, but the book was still mostly readable, and I was thinking I would take it back to my room and try to read it even though it wasn’t a biography when I flipped to that page, toward the back:
He was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. “Damn it,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”
The whole passage was underlined in bleeding, water-soaked black ink. But there was another ink, this one a crisp blue, post-flood, and an arrow led from “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” to a margin note written in her loop-heavy cursive: Straight & Fast.
“Hey, she wrote something in here after the flood,” I said. “But it’s weird. Look. Page one ninety-two.”
I tossed the book to the Colonel, and he flipped to the page and then looked up at me. “Straight and fast,” he said.
“Yeah. Weird, huh? The way out of the labyrinth, I guess.”
“Wait, how did it happen? What happened?”
And because there was only one it, I knew to what he was referring. “I told you what the Eagle told me. A truck jackknifed on the road. A cop car showed up to stop traffic, and she ran into the cop car. She was so drunk she didn’t even swerve.”
“So drunk? So drunk? The cop car would have had its lights on. Pudge, she ran into a cop car that had its lights on,” he said hurriedly. “Straight and fast. Straight and fast. Out of the labyrinth.”
“No,” I said, but even as I said it, I could see it. I could see her drunk enough and pissed off enough. (About what—about cheating on Jake? About hurting me? About wanting me and not him? Still pissed about ratting out Marya?) I could see her staring down the cop car and aiming for it and not giving a shit about anyone else, not thinking of her promise to me, not thinking of her father or anyone, and that bitch, that bitch, she killed herself. But no. No. That was not her. No. She said To be continued. Of course. “No.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” the Colonel said. He dropped the book, sat down on the bed next to me, and put his forehead in his hands. “Who drives six miles off campus to kill herself? Doesn’t make any sense. But ‘straight and fast.’ Bit of an odd premonition, isn’t it? And we still don’t really know what happened, if you think about it. Where she was going, why. Who called. Someone called, right, or did I make—”
And the Colonel kept talking, puzzling it out, while I picked up the book and found my way to that page where the general’s headlong race came to its end, and we were both stuck in our heads, the distance between us unbridgeable, and I could not listen to the Colonel, because I was busy trying to get the last hints of her smell, busy telling myself that of course she had not done it. It was me—I had done it, and so had the Colonel. He could try to puzzle his way out of it, but I knew better, knew that we could never be anything but wholly, unforgivably guilty.
eight days after
TUESDAY—WE HAD SCHOOL for the first time. Madame O’Malley had a moment of silence at the beginning of French class, a class that was always punctuated with long moments of silence, and then asked us how we were feeling.
“Awful,” a girl said.
“En franCais,” Madame O’Malley replied. “En franCais.”
Everything looked the same, but more still: the Weekday Warriors still sat on the benches outside the library, but their gossip was quiet, understated. The cafeteria clamored with the sounds of plastic trays against wooden tables and forks scraping plates, but any conversations were muted. But more than the noiselessness of everyone else was the silence where she should have been, the bubbling bursting storytelling Alaska, but instead it felt like those times when she had withdrawn into herself, like she was refusing to answer how or why questions, only this time for good.
The Colonel sat down next to me in religion class, sighed, and said, “You reek of smoke, Pudge.”
“Ask me if I give a shit.”
Dr. Hyde shuffled into class then, our final exams stacked underneath one arm. He sat down, took a series of labored breaths, and began to talk. “It is a law that parents should not have to bury their children,” he said. “And someone should enforce it. This semester, we’re going to continue studying the religious traditions to which you were introduced this fall. But there’s no doubting that the questions we’ll be asking have more immediacy now than they did just a few days ago. What happens to us after we die, for instance, is no longer a question of idle philosophical interest. It is a question we must ask about our classmate. And how to live in the shadow of grief is not something nameless Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims have to explore. The questions of religious thought have become, I suspect, personal.”
He shuffled through our exams, pulling one out from the pile before him. “I have here Alaska’s final. You’ll recall that you were asked what the most important question facing people is, and how the three traditions we’re studying this year address that question. This was Alaska’s question.”
With a sigh, he grabbed hold of his chair and lifted himself out of it, then wrote on the blackboard: How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?—A. Y.
“I’m going to leave that up for the rest of the semester,” he said. “Because everybody who has ever lost their way in life has felt the nagging insistence of that question. At some point we all look up and realize we are lost in a maze, and I don’t want us to forget Alaska, and I don’t want to forget that even when the material we study seems boring, we’re trying to understand how people have answered that question and the questions each of you posed in your papers—how different traditions have come to terms with what Chip, in his final, called ‘people’s rotten lots in life.’ ”
Hyde sat down. “So, how are you guys doing?”
The Colonel and I said nothing, while a bunch of people who didn’t know Alaska extolled her virtues and professed to be devastated, and at first, it bothered me. I didn’t want the people she didn’t know—and the people she didn’t like—to be sad. They’d never cared about her, and now they were carrying on as if she were a sister. But I guess I didn’t know her completely, either. If I had, I’d have known what she’d meant by “To be continued?” And if I had cared about her as I should have, as I thought I did, how could I have let her go?
So they didn’t bother me, really. But next to me, the Colonel breathed slowly and deeply through his nose like a bull about to charge.
He actually rolled his eyes when Weekday Warrior Brooke Blakely, whose parents had received a progress report courtesy of Alaska, said, “I’m just sad I never told her I loved her. I just don’t understand why.”
“That’s such bullshit,” the Colonel said as we walked to lunch. “As if Brooke Blakely gives two shits about Alaska.”
“If Brooke Blakely died, wouldn’t you be sad?” I asked.
“I guess, but I wouldn’t bemoan the fact I never told her I loved her. I don’t love her. She’s an idiot.”
I thought everyone else had a better excuse to grieve than we did—after all, they hadn’t killed her—but I knew better than to try to talk to the Colonel when he was mad.
nine days after
“I’VE GOT A THEORY,” the Colonel said as I walked in the door after a miserable day of classes. The cold had begun to let up, but word had not spread to whoever ran the furnaces, so the classrooms were all stuffy and overheated, and I just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep until the time came to do it all over again.
“Missed you in class today,” I noted as I sat down on my bed. The Colonel sat at his desk, hunched over a notebook. I lay down on my back and pulled the covers up over my head, but the Colonel was undiscouraged.
“Right, well, I was busy coming up with the theory, which isn’t terribly likely, admittedly, but it’s plausible. So, listen. She kisses you. That night, someone calls. Jake, I imagine. They have a fight—about cheating or about something else—who knows. So she’s upset, and she wants to go see him. She comes back to the room crying, and she tells us to help her get off campus. And she’s freaked out, because, I don’t know, let’s say because if she can’t go visit him, Jake will break up with her. That’s just a hypothetical reason. So she gets off campus, drunk and all pissed off, and she’s furious at herself over whatever it is, and she’s driving along and sees the cop car and then in a flash everything comes together and the end to her labyrinthine mystery is staring her right in the face and she just does it, straight and fast, just aims at the cop car and never swerves, not because she’s drunk but because she killed herself.”
“That’s ridiculous. She wasn’t thinking about Jake or fighting with Jake. She was making out with me. I tried to bring up the whole Jake thing, but she just shushed me.”
“So who called her?”
I kicked off my comforter and, my fist balled, smashed my hand against the wall with each syllable as I said, “I! DON’T! KNOW! And you know what, it doesn’t matter. She’s dead. Is the brilliant Colonel going to figure out something that’s gonna make her less freaking dead?” But it did matter, of course, which is why I kept pounding at our cinder-block walls and why the questions had floated beneath the surface for a week. Who’d called? What was wrong? Why did she leave? Jake had not gone to her funeral. Nor had he called us to say he was sorry, or to ask us what happened. He had just disappeared, and of course, I had wondered. I had wondered if she had any intention of keeping her promise that we would be continued. I had wondered who called, and why, and what made her so upset. But I’d rather wonder than get answers I couldn’t live with.
“Maybe she was driving there to break up with Jake, then,” the Colonel said, his voice suddenly edgeless. He sat down on the corner of my bed.
“I don’t know. I don’t really want to know.”
“Yeah, well,” he said. “I want to know. Because if she knew what she was doing, Pudge, she made us accomplices. And I hate her for that. I mean, God, look at us. We can’t even talk to anyone anymore. So listen, I wrote out a game plan: One. Talk to eyewitnesses. Two. Figure out how drunk she was. Three. Figure out where she was going, and why.”
“I don’t want to talk to Jake,” I said halfheartedly, already resigned to the Colonel’s incessant planning.“If he knows, I definitely don’t want to talk to him. And if he doesn’t, I don’t want to pretend like it didn’t happen.”
The Colonel stood up and sighed. “You know what, Pudge? I feel bad for you. I do. I know you kissed her, and I know you’re broken up about it. But honestly, shut up. If Jake knows, you’re not gonna make it any worse. And if he doesn’t, he won’t find out. So just stop worrying about your goddamned self for one minute and think about your dead friend. Sorry. Long day.”
“It’s fine,” I said, pulling the covers back over my head. “It’s fine,” I repeated. And, whatever. It was fine. It had to be. I couldn’t afford to lose the Colonel.
thirteen days after
BECAUSE OUR MAIN SOURCE of vehicular transportation was interred in Vine Station, Alabama, the Colonel and I were forced to walk to the Pelham Police Department to search for eyewitnesses. We left after eating dinner in the cafeteria, the night falling fast and early, and trudged up Highway 119 for a mile and a half before coming to a single-story stucco building situated between a Waffle House and a gas station.
Inside, a long desk that rose to the Colonel’s solar plexus separated us from the police station proper, which seemed to consist of three uniformed officers sitting at three desks, all of them talking on the phone.
“I’m Alaska Young’s brother,” the Colonel announced brazenly. “And I want to talk to the cop who saw her die.”
A pale, thin man with a reddish blond beard spoke quickly into the phone and then hung up.“I seen ’er,” he said. “She hit mah cruiser.”
“Can we talk to you outside?” the Colonel asked.