By Andrew Hughes
It was my only thought as I drove the little blue car over the crest of the snow covered hill. It was not an all encompassing thought, not loud and thrashing out at any that might replace it. The two words were simply heavy, and even though I begged for others to replace them, none came. I turned into Whetshire and urged the car past the finished houses and onward into the cold night.
While many of the houses had been constructed over the past year, the neighborhood was new and hardly lived in past the first street. After the last streetlights faded into darkness in the rearview mirror, the headlights were the only source of illumination save the moon. As they cut white slashes through the night, I focused on the pot holes, dodging them, a menial task I conquered with fierce concentration to avoid any thought. The thought. There were few houses this far, only foundations and long, freshly paved streets. Without using the blinker, I turned left up the familiar hill.
It’d been less than a year since Adrian had discovered the spot, as much as I loved to take credit for the find. The hill stretched high, curved right past empty manholes, and after a straight five hundred feet of pavement, the road ended in a cul-de-sak. I swung the car around the traffic circle at a reasonable speed, and coasted up onto the curb twenty feet back down the road. He hadn’t arrived yet. I checked my phone. Still nothing. I reread the messages again. He knew. He knew? How terrifying that he knew. I put the phone in the cupholder, turned off the car, and looked across the dirt plain at the cliffside.
There were many reasons that we’d loved that spot. When Adrian first discovered it, it was a fun place to drift the Volvo around in circles after long, frustrating nights at the restaurant. Simple blowing off steam. But then, he had showed it to me and I’d loved the cliff. Climbing, it’d always been a great preoccupation of mine, and the spot spoke to me on a primal level. It appeared like the cliff on the side of 840, an ancient rock face blasted away to make room for new creation. At the center, the cliff stretched up fifty feet into the air, towering above the surrounding hills and subdivisions. It tapered at each side where we’d walk up and stand upon its peak, look across the horizon, and just barely be able to see the twinkling lights of the city. We’d seen people up there before, once a pair of girls sunbathing in lawn chairs, and often, if we arrived too soon after class there were prospectors and contractors surveying the land below, but to us, that ground was ours. Our private spot, a place to retreat to for any and all occasions. With Samantha Jade we’d camped in the woods behind the cliff, stoned as we’d ever been. With Dallas we’d driven through the mud, and with Hope we’d descended from the cliff into the farmland beyond to sit on a mound of dirt and yell at the cows. How we’d all laughed. Adrian and her had needed that the most. Then, when William and Hope had started dating, that was still where we went, her and I.
It was cold that night and I pulled my leather jacket tight around me. My breath hovered in the air like smog and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see the gigantic sheets of ice clinging to the crag. My fingers clenched and unclenched nervously.
William and I had been friends for years. Our escapades had never been consistent, and we’d often gone two or three years around other people, but we’d always reunited to laugh and boast. Lately, we’d had a good six months of close friendship, closer than even Adrian and I as he tended to his new child. Yet, it had not felt wrong. I was still staring at the cliff when the lights illuminated my shadow, stretching it off into the dirt before the rays pierced the ice and made the mountain top glitter.
I bit my lip and my conscience shouted for me to run. I thought back to when we’d been here last, William and I. It’d been with Adrian, the day we’d both been fired from our jobs. There had been thick, crusty snow drifts on the ground. We’d all smoked cigarettes. When the call came Adrian and I had left. We said that we’d meet back up later that night but we never had. I turned back towards the road and watched as he parked, but he did not get out. I could not see, but I felt him watch me. Slowly, I began to walk.
They were short steps, short and slow. I urged my brain to think of something to lighten my mood. I thought of that day, how Adrian and I had been let go due to new management. They’d kept the fucking slow kid on though, the regular’s son. The Celiac’s lights flicked off. Okay, and what else? That’s right, they’d already paid us the week before, but it’d been Mary, not this new woman, Bobby’s fucking wife.
The door of the silver car swung open, and a tall figure stumbled out of the driver’s seat.
So yeah, that was funny. They’d paid us the week before, but I acted totally cool about it, totally cool, and said they hadn’t paid us yet. We’d called it severance pay. Serves them right.
And then, I was standing on pavement. He leaned against his passenger door, and I recognized the orange object in his right hand. We’d stolen it together the week before.
“Hey,” I said, my voice unwavering but frail. For a long minute he said nothing, only leaned against the car like a man who’d lost control of his limbs. I noticed that he wore only a thin sweatshirt. I reached for the zipper to my jacket but stopped as he looked into my face. His large, brown eyes were cloudy, and I could tell that he was very drunk. I thought back to the crumpled, half full plastic water bottle of vodka he’d left in my car the week before. Finally, he spoke.
“She wasn’t ready.” His voice was full of sorrow.
“What?” I hadn’t expected this.
“She wasn’t ready.” For a moment I thought he sighed. What was going on?
“Punch me,” I said. I hadn’t expected any of this.
“I don’t want to fight you.”
“Not fight me, punch me.”
“Please.” I took a step forward towards the pathetic figure crumpled against the car, but as I did, he drew himself to his full, rigid height, alert like a whipped stray approached too suddenly. He raised the flare gun and pointed it at my chest. I said nothing, and took the step back slowly. He held the pistol on me for a moment, chuckled once childishly, and lowered the weapon. He turned away from me and began to half stumble, half walk over the lip of the curb and into the dirt.
I wanted to tell him everything, the whole truth of how it’d happened, the poignant details besides the sad facade I’d tried to concoct to protect myself. But I could not. Silently, I followed ten paces behind him across the plain. He made it fifty feet before he stopped, his back to me, and looked up at the mountain.
“What are you doing? Will, it’s freezing, you need a coat.” I had caught up to him now and stopped a pace behind him. Slowly, he raised the pistol, and fired the single cartridge at the cliff. The shell popped with a round, sharp blast, as the ball of fire arced over the plain and crashed into the face of the icy crag. The lump of red phosphorus stuck to the ice and burnt red and hot, so bright it was difficult to focus on. I watched the ice around it, watched it light up and melt away, and in the cold night we observed the burn and simmer, him and I.
As it started to burn out, William turned away and walked back towards the blacktop. In the dying glow of the flare I watched his car fade away into the dark night.