Fiction · 07/22/2009

The Friends

January 19, 1996

The day was cold, but the starter had not frozen over. Not entirely. A thin skin of ice veiled the ignition, but not so deeply that they couldn’t smash through with a key.

It happened like this: Abby swiped the key from her father’s den and took Charlie by the hand.

“Be quiet,” she murmured.

They crept down the stairs to the barn.

They were not in love, “just friends,” and the sweat that collected in the palm of his hand had nothing to do with his nerves. Abby’s house was a sauna. It had always been a sauna, and in the past months, as they grew closer—as the casual afterschool encounters turned to planned meetings, as they memorized phone numbers, created inside jokes—Charlie had gotten into the habit of wearing layers: a sweatshirt, a fleece—anything that could be easily removed.

They took the key, they walked to the barn, and they closed the doors behind him. It was cluttered with frozen hay bales and rusted farm equipment they no longer had any use for. There were a few empty stalls for the horses they’d sold, and in the center, a snowmobile under a tarp.

“He lets me,” she promised, removing the tarp. “If he was home, I’d ask him.”

Charlie eyed it, brushing a hand over its frame, kicking at the ski blades up front and the taillights near the back.

“Grab that gas tank, would you?”

Charlie shuffled to the red plastic tank and tried reading the word scrawled on top.

“This one?”

“Does it say gas?”

“It might say gas, I’m not sure.”

She nodded, then unscrewed the lid on the snowmobile’s tank and showed him where to pour. She sat down on the vinyl seat and began chipping away at the ice on the starter.

The ice fell away and the machine started on the very first try.

“Heaviest in back,” she motioned, and he climbed on board behind her.

“Now get close,” she ordered, so Charlie scooted close. “Okay,” she laughed, “only this time get really get close.”

It was dusk. They’d dedicated most of the afternoon to cramming for a bio quiz they’d most likely fail regardless. Kingdom, phylum, genus, species—neither of them could keep anything straight.

“What the hell’s a mollusk?” he’d moaned, and after nearly spitting out her water, they gave up on studying.

Just beyond the barn doors, a flat, powdered field awaited. The soybeans had been harvested months before, and now, the ground sat frozen, depleted. Far off, a country road stood empty. Abby couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen the plow trucks hurl through the banks.

“Do you want to drive or should I?”

“You can,” he said, positioning himself to the back of the seat.

“Nah, you can,” she said shoving him forward. “At least you might as well try.”

She demonstrated: how the toggle on the right handle gave them speed, how the left one took it away.

“Got it?”

They zipped from the barn, hiccupping across the field as he got the hang of the handles.

For the first ten minutes, they sailed across the emptiness, never breaking 20.

“You know, you can speed up,” she urged. “You can really cut loose if you want.”

“Nah,” he said, “but you can cut loose if you want.”

She didn’t hear him. She took the handles and moved his hands to her hips.

“Like this?” he asked, but she shook her head no.

“Closer, Charlie, I mean it.”

It happened like this: with the mollusk, and the gas tank, and the starter only half frozen over.

“Closer, Charlie!” so he got closer still.

She tore through the fields, the wind burning their ears bright red.

They hit the ice and then they hit the tree.

It was not so dark that the police couldn’t follow the tracks.

They bled on the edge of a frozen creek bed.

It happened just like that.

+

February 1996

The friends, who were not in love, “just friends,” didn’t make it to bio the next day. Or the next week. Or the month after. They just took the incomplete and said they’d try again the next year. The doctors were busy pushing pins into their knees and elbows anyway, teaching them which bones took the longest to heal.

Charlie broke both legs; his body slammed hard against the evergreen trees. He tore a ligament and spent three weeks propped in a hospital bed, then three and a half months in a chair.

Abby broke one leg, both arms and her nose. Her face purpled for the first month, but the swelling went down after that.

Everyone told them how lucky they were that their heavy coats blunted the force.

“Lug-y,” Charlie rolled the word out of thick lips. “Lug-y.”

Their school friends made lighthearted jokes in one room and then the other.

“Get it?” they asked, not understanding how much it hurt to laugh.

Charlie and Abby remained in the same hospital for three full weeks, but only saw each other once.

In the hallway. The day before her release.

Charlie maneuvered in his wheelchair while Abby worked up and down the hall with her crutches.

“How are you?” she asked, but he couldn’t say anything back. Her face was rotten, a dying jellyfish, and he was afraid of his answer.

“Be my Valentine?” she joked, sticking out her tongue from between her bloated lips.

He wheeled himself down the freshly-mopped hall, paging the nurse for help.

+

Summer 1996

The friends were not in love, they said, “just friends.”

Every Wednesday night that summer, he drove to her house to watch the show they’d decided was their favorite. It wasn’t, but it came on every Wednesday. They appreciated the routine.

Abby’s house was a sauna still, even in the summers. On Wednesdays, her mother prepared tacos and Charlie looked forward to them. Sometimes Abby’s father watched the show too, or pretended, leafing through the newspaper and laughing whenever he heard them laugh.

“That damn…what’s his name?” he chuckled. “You know, the one with the beret?”

“Victor,” Abby told him.

“Yeah, Victor,” her father laughed, turning the page. “That Victor’s really something.”

They were healed then, though Charlie still limped when he walked. He would always limp.

When their favorite show ended and the next came on—something about a clumsy detective—they’d sit firmly on the couch and watch it too.

“Sit closer,” he’d whisper, so she did.

They laughed and laughed every time somebody else fell down.

+

Fall 1998

The friends who were “just friends” didn’t love each other, but still, he went to her games. She was captain of the volleyball team, fully recovered, and Charlie liked the way they huddled—their arms outstretched around pony-tailed heads like flamingoes waiting for fish.

“Hey, good game, Abby,” he congratulated her after a win. But surrounded by her parents and teammates and boyfriend, it was often too crowded to hear him over the others. Sometimes she gave him a thumbs up over the crowd and sometimes he gave her one back.

People shoved past, hugging her, telling her she was the best.

Sometimes, when he had her alone, he repeated jokes from their favorite TV show.

“Wait, what?” she’d ask, and when he tried to explain the explanation was never worth the effort.

After awhile her cell phone would ring or she’d stop to check her watch.

“Shoot, I’m late,” she’d say, “see ya, Charlie.”

She’d slip away. His shitty leg couldn’t keep up.

+

Winter 2000

During winter break, the friends (who were not in love, “just friends”) ran into each other at the movies.

“How’ve you been?” he asked.

“Hey, how’ve you been?”

“Yeah, I’m okay.”

“I’m okay too.”

“Great,” he smiled.

“What’s your major?”

He didn’t know his major.

“What’s yours?”

“Business.”

“Great. Wait…like how?”

“What do you mean, Charlie?” she laughed.

“I mean…what kind?”

“I don’t know. Business-business. Everyone on my floor is majoring in business.”

“Oh, well great.”

“Yeah,” she smiled, “it is. Have you met any girls yet?”

“Yeah, I’ve met them.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Oh, not like that, no. They’re all pretty much the same.”

“No one special?”

“Nah, no one great.”

He looked down at his shoes. The theater reeked of popcorn.

“So what movie are you seeing?”

“My dad and I just saw the one where the plane crashes in the woods and there are all those bears.”

“Was it good?”

“Eh. It wasn’t great. What are you seeing?”

“Yeah, that one too.”

She smiled.

“It isn’t great, Charlie.”

“I’ve gathered.”

She smiled again.

“We should get together sometime before classes start up.”

“Yeah, give me a call. That would be great.”

“Great,” she smiled once more. “Later, kid.”

He didn’t want to have to move first, but since she didn’t, he did.

She watched him shuffle into the theater. It wasn’t great to watch.

+

Spring 2004

She spotted her “just friend” friend (whom she did not love) across the room at their five-year reunion.

“Charlie!”

He turned, staring at her as if trying to remember her name.

“It’s me. Abby.”

“Yeah, Abby, hey. How are you?”

“I’ve been good. I’ve been really good. You?”

“I’ve been okay,” he said.

“Well, whatever became of you anyway?”

“Working for the state,” he said. “Geologist.”

“After failing bio!” she laughed. “You really fooled’em.”

“It was an incomplete,” he corrected her. “Remember?”

Abby’s smiled dissipated. She patted his shoulder, excusing herself through the crowd. Charlie watched her mingle, watched as her earrings shimmered, reflecting off the disco ball.

Next, Charlie talked to Karen Wilder, a former lab partner, and she didn’t laugh when he told her he’d become a geologist.

“Well of course you did,” she smiled. “You were always great with rocks.”

The reunion wound down sometime around 2:00, and Charlie cornered Abby in the coatroom.

“Oh, hey,” she said, turning, “you startled me.”

“Sorry, it was an accident.”

“No, it’s okay,” she said, touching his hand, “how’s it going?”

“We always ask that, Abby.”

“How it’s going?”

“Yeah, it’s about all we ever say.”

She was drunk, and he smelled it.

“Well what do you want to say, Charlie? You wanna say we got in a big old wreck and nearly killed ourselves over by that creek? That it fucked up your leg?”

“No, not that either.”

“Then what? Huh, Charlie? Mr. Blabbermouth, what is it you wanna tell me tonight?”

He stayed quiet as her eyes watered. She laid a hand on Charlie’s shoulder.

“Charlie, you’re the one who wanted to go faster. Remember?”

“No, it was you. Wasn’t it?”

Her eyes swam in their sockets.

“All right, I’m gone. See you in another five, huh? Maybe I’ll be pregnant by then, with a big old baby. Who knows, right? Who knows anything?”

Her heels clicked against the cement as she searched for her ride.

Charlie felt nothing as she climbed on the back of the former quarterback’s motorcycle, as the narrow tires skittered against the pavement.

He listened to the hum of the machine as it vanished, imagined the quickening of her heart. He had felt that way, too.

It was hard to remember the details.

+++

B.J. Hollars is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where he’s served as nonfiction editor and assistant fiction editor for Black Warrior Review. He is also the editor of You Must Be This Tall To Ride published by Writer’s Digest Books. He’s published or has work forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, The Bellingham Review, Hobart, among others and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit: www.YouMustBeThisTallToRide.net