E. Christopher Clark
The halfway point is where she found her brother in the ditch all those years ago, his body twisted, his chest caved in where the truck had hit him. Only half of him was mangled, but it was the wrong half, so their mother kept the casket closed anyway.
When she turns here for the jog home, she doesn’t stop moving, but she can’t resist a moment to stare. Some mornings she shifts her weight back and forth from one leg to the other. Other days she stretches, standing on one foot then the other, bending the free leg at the knee and holding it behind her by the ankle. She might even run in place a few seconds, but she never lets herself go still.
When she looks at the leaves gathered there this morning, at the frost weighing them down, she imagines his cheek pressed against them: his warm flesh driving out the cold, bequeathing what life he had left to something that was already dead. Her mother called her morbid for thinking such things, but her mother had never had to see them. It had been Lauren who found Sammy there by the side of the road; Mom hadn’t looked upon the corpse until the moment at the funeral home when there were decisions to be made. And at that point, after not much more than a fleeting glance, she had left the room and left the rest to her daughter.
Lauren turns and starts back toward home.
All her life she has lived this town, minus the few years she spent tending to a marriage that never took root, and so the glistening pond nestled amongst the trees to her left is no balm for frayed nerves. The pasture to her right and the cattle grazing there, they are no reminder of a simpler age. And the horse paddocks, where she once watched her friends drive those animals over hurdle after hurdle, they offer no inspiration. She can’t remember what they looked like when they leapt, can’t imagine the wind in their manes and the look in their eyes as they dared to fly; all she can see now are the fences that keep them where they are, forever keep them where they are.
“If you hate it so much,” Mom keeps telling her, “then why don’t you leave?”
Lauren raises her wrist toward her face and the screen on her watch lights up to tell her how hard her heart is beating. She knows, of course—she can feel it—but she doesn’t trust herself. She knows she’s not as impartial as the sensor pressed against her skin.
As she crests the last of the modest hills on her route, the house looms large before her. Mom is on the porch in her rocking chair, an afghan laid across her lap, looking ten years older than she is. Ten years at least.
When she reaches the front steps, she holds onto the handrail and doubles over. Checking her watch, she realizes she’s attacked the second half of her run with a bit too much vigor and perhaps too much vim; she made great time, but she wasn’t ready. Tomorrow, she realizes, sucking air through her nose and nearly choking on it, she may need to take the day off.
On the porch, Mom scoffs, mumbling something about the path out back, the bike trail the town has paved atop its old train tracks.
“Too flat,” she tells her mother, still panting, though strong enough to stand upright now. “Not enough of a challenge.”
Mom shakes her head as Lauren mounts the steps. “Breathing is a challenge,” she says. “That’s not enough for you?”
Mom sits outside while Lauren is making breakfast, and though Lauren can see her shuddering harder every time she takes a peek through the kitchen window, though she wanted to tell her mother “You’ll catch your death of cold” when the old woman insisted staying out for a few minutes more, she doesn’t say anything. Lauren knows well enough to pick her battles.
At the kitchen table, over eggs and Canadian bacon, Mom wonders about pancakes. “Did I never teach you how to make them?” she asks.
“Reunion’s on Saturday night,” Lauren tells her. “I need to fit into my dress.”
“Fit schmit,” says Mom. “You could wear a potato sack and you’d still be the one to go home with.”
“Mom,” says Lauren, rolling her eyes. “It’s been twenty years. Most of the people there went home with someone ages ago. And certainly those worth—”
“Picky,” says Mom, cutting her off. “Always picky.”
“Not always,” says Lauren, rubbing her thumb along the underside of her ring finger, an old habit that’s dying hard.
The truck hit Sammy the day before Lauren’s prom. There’d been a small fire at the school, the pungent stink of rubber filling the halls, and everyone was dismissed. Sammy caught a ride to a buddy’s house for a few hands of Magic cards, but a few hands turned into staying for dinner and an angry phone call from Mom and the decision that Sammy, the “most inconsiderate son in the world,” would walk home when he was done.
Lauren was sitting in her room that night when her mother knocked on her door. She was in her underwear, at the foot of her bed, staring at the dress hanging in her closet, at the zipper in particular. When her mother knocked a second time, Lauren had to brush a tear away before she could manage the words “Come in.”
Mom opened the door and had begun to speak before she noticed the state of Lauren. She averted her eyes and said, “You could’ve taken a moment to get dressed.”
“It sounded urgent,” said Lauren, looking down now at her stomach, at her thighs, searching for something to blame.
“Your brother’s not home yet,” said Mom.
“You did yell wicked loud,” said Lauren, standing up and crossing to her dresser, knowing already what was going to be asked of her.
“Could you go out and see if you can track him down?”
Lauren pulled open her drawer of t-shirts. “Where was he at?”
“Kevin’s,” said Mom. “Just down 27.”
“Okay,” said Lauren, pulling on the baggy Incesticide shirt her boyfriend had left the last time he’d snuck in.
“It’s just that I don’t think he’d take a ride from me right now.”
“I’ll find him,” said Lauren, stepping into a pair of sweats.
And find him she did. She found him then like she finds the dress now: in the dark, forgotten and cast aside.
She pulls the dress from the back of the closet and into the light, surprised she remembered to put it back in its bag way back when. The funeral was one day, graduation the next, and her break-up the day after that. The guy said he understood why she’d bailed on prom, and maybe he did, but he said it with a hunger in his eyes. A hunger to heal her maybe, but a hunger nevertheless, and she couldn’t stand to be looked at like that. She couldn’t stand to think of her pain as something to be devoured, to imagine him chewing away at her anguish until he found something worth saving at the center.
Mom is knocking again. Lauren invites her in.
Mom asks: “You’re going to wear that?”
“I thought it would be funny,” says Lauren.
“You’re trying to be funny?” says Mom, shaking her head. “I thought you were trying to get laid.”
Mom shudders for a moment, and Lauren extends a hand to steady her, but she just shoos Lauren off. She grabs hold of the door knob and closes her eyes until she is still.
The old woman opens her eyes and forces a smile. “I can be at Elaine’s,” she says, “if you’d like the house to yourself.”
“Mom,” says Lauren, “that’s not why I’m—”
“It should be,” says Mom as she turns on the spot and starts back down the hall, her hand on the chair rail the whole way.
When she pulls into the restaurant’s parking lot, the party is already in full swing. The smokers have congregated around the side of the building, in front of the plate glass window for some shop that has its lights off—a dry cleaner maybe, but she doesn’t get close enough to check — and a few of them offer waves and smiles; one shouts “Hey!” but stops short when he can’t remember her name.
Inside, the bar is surrounded by kids she’s known since she was five, but who she hasn’t seen, for the most part, since they were throwing their tasseled caps into the air. They’re exchanging tiny paper tickets with the harried bartenders, the kind they used to sell at football games to raffle off VCRs and CD boxed sets. It occurs to Lauren that she’s paid in advance for a couple of these herself, and that she should probably drink before she goes any further.
The man with the wheel of tickets was their class president, and time has treated him well. The gray that flecks his hair now serves only to bolster the air of confidence he scarfed about him in those days gone by. He greets her with a warm smile and a hug, her name ready on his lips from the moment he saw her across the room. Every name seems to be ready on his lips, she realizes as she takes her tickets and makes way for the next in line, but that doesn’t diminish her affection for him in this moment; it simply confirms that they all made at least one sane decision in high school. This guy was the only one for this job; she can’t even remember his name, for Christ’s sake, and she was just staring at the name tag stuck to his still impressive pecs.
A whiskey sour in each hand, Lauren makes her way into the back room where most of the commotion seems to be centered. There are hors d’oeuvres on tables pushed against the walls, a small cart of booze manned by a perky blonde who’s being ogled by grown men in backwards ball caps, and cluster upon cluster of classmates. Some have sequestered themselves amongst the same cliques they called home in the days of yore, but others have broken ranks. There’s a cheerleader chatting up a kid who never left the art room, there’s a dude who spent half of senior year doing time in detention spinning a yarn for the kid he pantsed relentlessly in the sixth grade.
“Ren’s not time’s fool,” says a guy she once had English with, “though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come.”
Lauren hugs him, kisses him on the cheek, asks, “Does Shakespeare get you much play, Ian?”
He laughs. “Not with the women who can spot it.”
They chat for a while, as Lauren finishes her first drink and then her second, about everything from that one time Lauren did theater with Ian (“The children’s play!” she says, wondering what it was that year; “Hansel & Gretel,” he tells her), everything from that to who’s died from their class and when.
Morbid, she thinks, her mother’s words in her ears.
“Was Robin Gates our year?” she asks Ian, pretty sure Robin wasn’t, but not ready to let the conversation go. She’s looked around the room a half-dozen times by now, and she’s spotted no one else worth talking to. She’s also pretty sure she’s getting drunk. Lauren eyeballs the tables of food, the supply of hors d’oeuvres nearly depleted, and she thinks to grab something before her chance is gone, but decides against it. If drunk is what she’s going to be, then drunk she will be.
“Robin? Nope,” says Ian. “Year after. Same as your—”
She watches him stop himself, watches him realize what he was about to say. Then he ducks his head and shakes it.
“It’s okay,” she tells him, squeezing his arm.
“No,” he says, stuttering. “I’m… I—”
“It’s okay, Ian. We’ve all lost people.”
He finally looks at her again, managing a weak smile. “It’s just,” he says, “it’s just that I just did the same thing with Michael over there.” He nods his head toward the other side of the room. “I mentioned his sister without thinking about it, that is. Only that was probably worse, since she died 2 years ago and not 20.”
“Which one is Michael?” asks Lauren.
Ian points him out, and the bearded fellow in the tweed coat is so far removed from the mopey kid who meandered past her house on his paper route that she’d thought him someone’s husband on first glance. He’s holding court with a couple of guys, telling a story with his hands as much as his mouth, and people on his periphery are starting to get sucked in. The cheerleader and the artist, who’d been getting rather cozy with each other over in the corner, they turn to Michael now too.
“I don’t remember him being that charismatic,” she says to Ian.
“Well,” says Ian. “He’s a professor now.”
“Art,” says Ian. “Out in Hawaii. Tenured and everything.”
Ian is saying something else now, but Lauren is focused on the two drink tickets he’s been fiddling with since they started talking. Her gaze passes between the tickets and Michael, Michael and the tickets, the tickets and—
I’ll be at Elaine’s, her mother is repeating in her head now. If you’d like the house to yourself.
“Ian,” she says, squeezing his arm again. “You going to use those?”
Ian raises an eyebrow, confused.
“Your tickets,” says Lauren, taking hold of his wrist, shaking the hand and the tickets playfully in front of his face.
“Oh,” says Ian. “No. But haven’t you, like, haven’t you had enough?”
“Not for what I have in mind,” she says, plucking the tickets from his hand and heading for the perky blonde at the drink cart.
“What do you have in mind?” says Ian.
“Drink, sir,” she says, patting his cheek, “is a great provoker.”
“And what are you hoping it will provoke?”
“Lechery, sir. Lechery.”
“But lechery,” says Ian, as she collects her drinks, “it provokes and it unprovokes. Remember?”
“For men maybe,” she says, downing the first drink in one hard swallow.
“And, besides,” says Ian, “lechery with who?”
“Who do you think?” she says, downing the second drink and handing both empty glasses to Ian.
“But I’ve told you,” he seems to be saying, but what he’s told her is something she didn’t hear before, something she doesn’t hear this time either.
The crowd has thinned out around him by the time she gets there, so Lauren is free to make whatever move she wants. But she can’t decide if he’s a hugger, and he has his hands in his pockets besides, so she simply gets close enough that he might hear her through the din, and she leans in to check his name tag (something she’s seen countless people do tonight as a way of getting things going).
“Michael,” she says. “Michael, Michael, Michael.”
“Hey, Lauren,” he says with a smile.
She’s pretty sure he didn’t look to her chest for her name, and she’s suddenly sad that, even if he did remember her name, he didn’t use the logistics of the event as an excuse to take a free peek. She’s also not sure why she said his name four times, and she’s about to walk away when he speaks again.
“How you been?” he says.
She puts a hand on his arm as she says, “You’re so sweet to ask,” and then, feeling just the slightest hint of muscle on an arm where she expected to find none, she adds, “My god, you’re hot.”
Lauren cannot understand why she’s said it, but he laughs, and that seems a good enough reason to say it again. “No, seriously,” she says, waving a finger around and nodding in the direction of everyone else. “You’re the hottest guy in this room.”
Michael looks down, still grinning, but blushing now too.
She draws closer, lowering her voice as she leans in. “No,” she says, cupping her hand over his ear. “Seriously. Don’t be embarrassed.”
“I’m not, Lauren,” is what he says, looking at her again, a kind look in his eyes, the kind of look she hopes he will give her when they’re back at her place and she’s on top of him.
She hopes she has not just said that out loud.
“It’s just,” he says, but she doesn’t let him finish.
“What?” she says. “Are you—are you gay? I thought that was your cousin.”
“That was my cousin,” he says. “Two of them, actually. Me, I’m — ”
She puts a finger to his lips and then holds her free hand to his chest. “The hottest guy in the room,” she says. “That’s what you are.”
“Lauren,” he says, “how much have you—?”
“No one’s asked me,” she says, drawing closer to him, a hand on both arms now and both hands squeezing. “No one’s asked me why I’m wearing this dress. No one remembers. No one remembers, Michael. But you—”
“Your brother,” he says.
“See!” she says, walking a pair of fingers up his tie, from his chest to his chin, the fingers like the legs of the itsy bitsy spider they imagined when they were kids. “See,” she says, “I knew you knew.”
Behind her, she suddenly feels a hand on her shoulder, a thick, meaty hand.
“Lauren,” says Ian. “Come on.”
“What?” says Lauren, shrugging Ian’s hand off her shoulder. “I haven’t even asked him yet.”
“Lauren,” says Ian.
“Asked me what?” says Michael.
“If you’ll come home with me,” says Lauren. “My mother’s gone. I have the house to—”
“Lauren,” says Ian. “He’s married!”
Lauren stares into Michael’s eyes, hoping they’ll tell her the truth she’d rather hear. But eyes can’t speak, she knows. She knows that, even through the fog that’s lifting now, lifting faster than it ever has before. She lets go of the arm she still has hold of, pulls her other hand from his face, and stands there before him, waiting to be judged. She looks around her, searching for other judges, other verdicts about her being cast down from on high, but no one else is paying her any attention at all.
“I’m sorry,” says Michael.
“Sorry for being married?” says Lauren, hating the still-playful tone in her voice, hating the corner of her lip that twitches ever so slightly upward as she speaks this terrible line, hating too the eyebrow that arches in invitation.
“No,” he starts to say, but she cuts him off.
“Because if you’re sorry about that,” she begins, wishing she would shut up but unable to stop the words from spilling out of her, “if you’re sorry about that, the offer still stands.”
“Lauren,” says Ian, his hand on her shoulder again, now with a firmer grip. “Let me take you home.”
“You’re married too,” she says as she turns on him. She gives him a raspberry, her spit showering his un-expectant face. And then, finally, she storms out.
Her shoes in hand, she walks in stocking feet through the center of town toward home. It is cold, sobering. She smiles at that thought, at her second great pun of the night, but then she is crying. It isn’t until the river of tears and mascara and snot finally trickles into her mouth that she stops. She gags, coughing for a moment, and she stumbles into the shrubbery at the back of the old Quick Mart’s parking lot. It’s closed now, so there’s no one to laugh at her, and that makes the decision to sit so much easier. Sure, she’s almost home, but she’s not sure that’s where she belongs. At least not yet.
Lauren stares for a long time at the back door of the place, trying to remember a story from her high school days. There was a robbery here, she remembers, and the kids jockeying the register claimed someone had attacked them from the bushes during a smoke break. But then it turned out they did the deed themselves, one of them shooting the other so they could make off with the pittance that was in the safe.
At least she thinks that’s how it went. She’s not sure she trusts her memory right now. Or any other part of herself, for that matter.
A few cars pass, one or two even making the turn on 27 that she was about to make, the turn that would take her home. And suddenly it occurs to her that if Michael wandered by her house delivering papers back in the day, that maybe that meant Michael lived nearby. And that maybe meant that he was staying with his parents while he was home for the reunion. Lauren stands up. She can’t sit here. What if he passes by? She tugs at the hemline of her dress, slaps at her ass to brush the dust away, and is just about to get going when she hears footsteps coming up the hill out of the center. Footsteps and a voice.
“I guess we had the same idea,” says Michael before she can get away.
Lauren wipes at her face, trying to clean it up before he can see her properly, but she can feel the make-up smearing as she does, and she realizes it’s useless.
He stops a few feet from her and offers a kind smile. “Can I walk you home?” he asks.
All she can manage is a nod.
They walk for a minute without saying anything else at all. Then Michael says, “When my sister died a couple of years ago, I thought of you.”
Lauren thinks it an awkward comment, but appreciates his attempt to find common ground. Dead siblings are as good a topic as any for small talk, right?
“I was a mess,” he says. “And I thought about how you got through all of senior week—graduation, and the banquet, and prom—”
“I didn’t go to prom,” says Lauren.
“I know,” says Michael. “Or, well, I know now. Ian told me. But I thought you had. That’s how strong I thought you were.”
“You give me too much credit,” says Lauren.
“I looked you up on Facebook once,” says Michael, “saw that you looked happy, that you were married—”
“Divorced now,” she tells him, correcting him.
He turns and gives her another smile. “And you survived that, too,” he says.
A car passes, headed toward the center, its high beams blinding them as it comes round the bend. And so they stop for a moment, shielding their eyes with an arm a piece. When the light is gone, Lauren lowers her arm and sees her house ahead on the corner.
“You inspired me,” says Michael. “I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.”
“Because I’m a survivor?” asks Lauren, stepping ahead, eager to get home so she can get back to crying, now that he’s given her tear ducts fresh ammunition.
“Yeah,” says Michael. “I figured: if you could get through all of that as a teenager, then through the rest of it as an adult, then maybe I could suck it up and deal too.”
They’re at the fence that circles her house now, her fingers playing with the latch on the gate.
“I’m sorry,” says Michael.
“For being married?” says Lauren.
He chuckles. “No, I’m sorry for rambling. I thought I could make you feel better. With my story, I mean.”
“I’m happy to have survived,” she says, unlatching the gate and stepping into her yard. “But that’s all I’ve ever done, Michael. That’s all I’ve ever done.”
There is snow on the ground when she wakes for her morning run after a few uneasy hours of sleep, but she gets dressed anyway, finds her pedometer on the nightstand amongst empty water bottles and a near-empty bottle of ibuprofen, and then heads downstairs.
Her mother protests, rattles off the list of excuses Lauren has to stay inside this morning, but she plugs her earbuds into her ears, waves goodbye, and gets on her way.
At the spot where her brother died, she does as she usually does and jogs in place long enough to imagine him there in the ditch. But then something changes. She catches a glimpse of what she’s left behind her—a trail of sneaker prints in the snow—and she can’t bear to look at them. So, this morning she doesn’t turn around; she keeps running. Maybe, she thinks, if she’s careful, she’ll never have to stop.