by Donald Collins
She was the Mail Lady, an aging bleach-blonde in jeans and bright fleece. All around campus there are poorly cropped images of her smiling face like “missing” flyers. I pass by one fast, and realize I am running.
My run finds me on the precise, mile-long road that surrounds our high school campus. The sun is rising, and everything is so beautiful and shines so brightly that I have to keep blinking. I don’t remember starting the run, but it’s easy to forget things you’ve done many times. There is something else I’m forgetting . . .
I cut my loop short, sprinting through our common up to the front of my dorm. I tug on the resistant handle, locked out, and recall the picture of my ID sitting on my desk.
There’s no one around so I break in, scaling the familiar lattice up to the second floor balcony. I pop the summer screen, and shiver through a thirty-second shower.
At 8:30 a.m. there is a memorial assembly for Jackie, our Mail Lady, who is dead.
The clipping in the local paper read:
Beaumont Police report one dead after car accident on S. Palisade Avenue.
The accident took place around 5 o’clock Thursday afternoon on the intersection of S. Palisade and Main.
Police say a Jeep, red, ran the Avenue stop sign and collided with an oncoming car, whose driver was killed instantly.
Names are being withheld at the family’s request. Police investigation is ongoing.
Only a day later there is a nice long article up on the school website, a formal obituary. It paints Jackie as an angel of patience and warmth. It quotes students who considered her a mother-away-from-home, and tells of the unfillable hole her passing leaves behind. Reading it makes me feel as if my whole body is dripping in honey, but I cannot deny its truths, and this: I loved her too.
The afternoon she died, I had run late to the mailroom with a package. It was an essay for a statewide contest—a contest with a scholarship prize of $1500. In my last minute rush to meet the deadline, I had botched the address.
“I’ll take care of it,” Jackie promised me. “It’ll get there in time.”
“Now hold on a minute!”
“C’mere, I got something I think you’ll like. It’ll only be a sec; I know you’re busy. But they brought it in today and I said, ‘I’ve got a few kids who will get a kick outta this.’ You gotta see it.”
“Jackie, you’re winding me up.”
“Take one of these.”
She foisted a tootsie roll on me, and led me around to the back.
In the far left corner, the narrow, cement-colored room turned into a set of double doors. An old keypad armed with a red light hung on the wall next to them, and she lazily punched in the code “1-2-3-4.” Inside was a long row of laundry carts, some large packages, and then . . .
The school had ordered a new mascot suit, a fresh-smelling upgrade of our customary owl in a heather grey jersey. The costume was laid out on a plastic table like a disappointing autopsy, its open, man-sized box on the ground. The head was an owl’s all right, but the body was green with a yellow stomach and long, spiked tail. An alligator.
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“I wish I was. It arrived that way.”
Disembodied in the low light, the animal appeared more sinister than I originally noticed. I certainly didn’t trust it, and couldn’t believe Jackie had just left it here all day while she went about her business.
“I don’t know how they got it so wrong,” Jackie said obliviously, shaking her head. “I mean, what were they thinking? You’re not gonna want that at a game now are you?”
I held up the creature’s plush, wire-fortified tail while Jackie snapped a Polaroid for the bulletin board. I couldn’t wear it; that would spoil the return, she said.
And then, within four hours of my departure, Jackie was dead.
Somewhere between putting on pants and brushing my teeth, I have managed to doze off. I open my mouth to the morning air and find I am standing in the middle of the common, half-dressed, hair wet.
I squint my eyes and can barely make out something moving in the distant field. Out across waves of green-gold, a monster flees into the woods, slowly and clumsily making his escape from that grey room where we met.
The morning is a slow start for everyone. It’s one of those days where all excuses are accepted, and you’ve been so overworked and put out you’re almost grateful such an awful thing has happened.
Our gymnasium-turned-auditorium is filled with 800 chattering faces, but the stage is empty. I settle into the cramped plastic seat that has been saved for me, noticing too late my baseball team, sitting like a clique in the first row.
My friend Valerie is slumped beside me, and I gently bump her awake. The assembly is taking up her morning free period.
“What?” she asks, annoyed.
“It’s only forty-five minutes.”
“You’re late. And besides, you wake up with the sun every day.”
She brushes back her hair, adding, “She’d still be dead if I’d slept in an hour.”
We fight an unexpected urge to laugh, and several rows below us look up in disgust. I feel myself flattening into a grotesque image.
“Shhh!” someone hisses.
“I’m allowed to laugh!” Valerie snaps back.
“You’re such a fucking bitch, Valerie,” a girl in front of us says.
Valerie opens her mouth but the headmaster is tapping on the microphone.
Despite my best efforts, I sleep through the assembly, waking only for a brief measure of “Lean On Me.” By the time Valerie steers me out the door, I notice we have been let go twenty minutes early. Everyone is red-eyed and quiet. I feel cursed for napping, like I’ve marked myself for a slow death and empty funeral. I twist my face into something less blank, and a boy I don’t know puts his hand on my shoulder.
“You look constipated,” Valerie says.
I sit across from Valerie at our student café, and under the glaring indoor light, I notice she doesn’t look very well. Her lips are chapped, and her sweater is backwards.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I’m just tired. I have a headache. Your food’s ready.”
I’m starving, and I return to the table with a large coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. I take a jar of peanut butter out of my backpack.
“There’s no way that tastes good.”
“You should try it sometime.”
“Well, then you’ll never know if it tastes good or not, will you?”
“Ugh.” She puts her head in her hands.
A girl and a boy, somewhat recognizable, walk past us. The girl stops, turns on her heel, and approaches our table. I continue eating with purpose.
“Hey, Valerie?” she asks sharply.
“I want you to know that I didn’t appreciate your lack of respect this morning. This has been a really awful two days, and I worked really hard setting up the orgs for that assembly.”
I recognize the girl as our student body vice president.
Valerie looks up incredulously from her sunken position.
“Look, Patty, I’m sorry if I offended you or whatever. I just had a long night and feel kind of shitty, okay?”
“What about you?”
Patty is looking at me now. I go to speak but my mouth is stuck with peanut butter.
“I didn’t know we had a designated range of emotion to express today,” Valerie says coolly. “You should have included that in those cute little programs.”
A swig of coffee dislodges the peanut butter from the roof of my mouth, and our silence is cut with a loud gulping sound.
“Get fucked.” Patty strides away and grabs the arm of the boy, who’s been watching at a distance.
“What’s going on?” I hear him ask.
I wipe my mouth with a napkin. “She’ll get over it,” I tell Valerie, who is posed defensively, arms crossed.
“We need to go to class,” she replies, and then points to my oatmeal. “Can I have the rest of that? I don’t feel so great.”
I’m on my way to French when Valerie calls me. She’s in the infirmary with a fever of 102. I feel bad for having left her, and skip out to pick up a few things from her unlocked room. A backpack, a phone charger, a box of animal crackers I found in her dresser. The nurses don’t like visiting students to linger, so I tell Valerie I will check back tonight.
She is worried I might catch what she has, and tells me to wash my hands. I promise to, but really I know she is the kind of sick you can’t catch.
I don’t go to class. A half-day has been declared anyway, so I conclude that I am only half-irresponsible. I take a restless nap and spend the early afternoon accomplishing simple errands. I clean my room. I do laundry. I finish a few assignments. It feels strangely like I’m preparing for a trip.
Outside, the all-seeing light of afternoon has gone, and everything is in high contrast. All at once I am overwhelmed with emotion.
When I was a child, maybe seven or eight, I fell into a whirlpool on a tubing trip with my father. The brownish water trapped my body, holding me under for around fifteen seconds. As I began to choke, I opened my eyes. Around me, I saw the currents that gave the river life in their entire truth. It was like the sheen of oil in a parking lot; like the trembling, distorted heat off the road. I understood that I was in the fabric of some great muscle, and, long after my father pulled me out, I could see its power everywhere.
Without realizing it I have begun to walk to practice. I pass the gym and glimpse my teammates converging in on our diamond, moving through trees and between buildings.
Fridays we normally walk into town for barbeque after practice, but today we are glassy-eyed and directionless. Showing up is a formality, and Mr. Wilson, our cheerful, beanstalkish coach, dismisses us almost instantly.
“I know it’s been a hard few days, so make sure you guys rest up, take care of yourselves. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” we say.
“You need anything, you know where to find me. I think Mrs. Wilson is making some of her famous blondies tonight . . .”
“Ooh,” we say.
“So give us a knock. I’ll see you Sunday, five o’clock. Marcy will be taking a few days off, so I’ll need someone to volunteer to pick up the water and equipment.”
“I’ll do it,” Alexander says.
Alexander is the closest thing I have to a best friend. He has a batting average of .701, the ninth best in the league.
Up until last spring, we were just teammates, a kind of competitive distance between us. Alexander is a boarder like myself, like most of the school. We have a few day students, locals, whose redeeming feature is their access to transportation and house parties. It was at such a party that I stumbled into a backroom looking for my coat, instead finding Alexander in a compromised position with Stanley, the editor of our school paper. I left the coat, and Alexander brought it to me the next day, along with a great, misplaced fear.
Practice disbands without so much as a warm-up, but I won’t be ready to go inside again for another few hours. Alexander suggests a Drive-In Five, a familiar team exercise we usually do in groups. The race consists of two opposing routes of identical distance (around three miles), and culminates at our local diner.
I know Alexander and all his speeds. I know he will sometimes cross the street only because of the walk sign, even though it actually puts him out of the way. I know he prefers the grass and will adjust for a longer course. But today I am distracted, and he could outpace me if he’s serious about it, which he always is.
“Left or right?” he asks.
“Left,” I say automatically.
“All right, I’ll see you soon.” He backs up to his starting place across the road. “I’ll see you first.”
On the count of three, we are off.
Anyone who has ever set about a run knows there is a supreme feeling when your lungs can hold air and you are capable of not drowning. Coaches and doctors will tell you this is being “in shape,” but it is more than a physical state of the body. I am attuned to a great vibration, a pulse that carries forward my entire being, and frees me from a place where there are such things as death and assemblies.
I pound along white sidewalks, under a bellowing overpass, and up a damp hill, taking in nothing but sound, color, and the feeling of light on my neck.
I am in this state of aligned consciousness when something lunges at me from my right and I lose my balance, slipping down into the muddy hillside. It’s a chocolate lab, pulling a jogger coming the opposite direction. She reins the friendly thing in as I wave off her apologies. I set off again, dirtier, aware of the aching in my left ankle, the soreness of my inner thighs.
As I round the final bend onto Beaumont’s main avenue, I spot the flash of Alexander’s sneakers up the block. Arms flying everywhere to slow his momentum, he comes to a halt in the half-empty parking lot of Dale’s Drive-In Family Restaurant. I am about ten seconds behind. Part of me burns at the loss, but the satisfaction on his face quashes my pride. We both struggle to stand straight.
“Goddamn! I never run like that before.”
“You got me,” I wheeze.
He sees the mud and laughs pitifully.
“What—? Oh, man! C’mon!”
He bends over huffing as I scrub at my clothes.
“Thought I actually had it.”
“You beat me.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t win fair and square.”
“No one ever wins something fair and square; that’s impossible.”
He shakes his head at me, and I know he will try to beat me again and again, until he is satisfied with himself.
Dale’s Drive-In Family Restaurant isn’t really a drive-in—nowadays, the sign just reads “Dale’s”—but the radial parking lot and matching roof refuse to forget. Something about it feels detachable, like a spaceship hiding in plain sight, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. We sit in our usual place, at the very back.
Eating here feels like picnicking in an antique shop. Everything is old and covered in junk. Checker patterns peel from lacquered tables, and the paper menus repeat the same mazes month after month. Post games, our whole team will pile in the back three booths, chatting with the waitresses.
Alexander and I order two burgers and two shakes and fill the air with comfortable, easy conversation about classes and teachers and people who bother us.
When evening sets in, mid-greys and blues blanket our little town. We split the bill and wrench our sore selves out of the booth.
“What time is it?” I yawn.
“We should get back.”
We shake out our bodies and settle into a leisurely pace. But as we begin to cross the intersection, Alexander catches something out of the corner of his eye. He shoves his arm across my chest, bunching my shirt in his fist, stopping me cold.
A car careens past, missing our feet by a few inches.
The sedan coming down the adjacent street with the light is stripped and remade into a ball of foil. The guilty, brick-colored car ricochets into a lamppost, dented, its driver dazed but awake. What little traffic there is comes to a stop around us. There is a light crinkling in the air.
Alexander leaves me on the corner to approach the wreck.
“Ma’am?” I hear him cry. “Ma’am, can you hear me?”
A witness across the street is calling 911, her brown dog straining toward the commotion.
Alexander is quiet, standing above the shattered window. I hear a siren in the distance and slowly begin to walk toward him, closer and closer until the scene comes into focus.
He is holding eye contact with a dead woman, her blonde hair wet from impact. She is stunned with death, and there is something clean about it. I grab his wrist and lead him away.
“We’ve got to tell somebody.”
“It’s all right,” I assure him.
He looks at me and sets off at a run toward campus. I do not call after him, and instead, I begin to run too, my stomach still heavy with food. He will go through the town green, but I know a faster way. With measured breaths, I straighten up, hands behind my head to stop a stitch. I remember that I am supposed to visit Valerie, and wonder if she is waiting for me.
I feel this current pulling me to a bright place where I do not belong.
My legs carry me faster, faster. I am running into the past, willing myself to forget. My memory grows hot with a kind of fever, and I am late, terribly late, for something.
Donald Collins is a transgender advocate and X-Files enthusiast from Virginia. He is currently finishing his B.A. in screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston. His debut short fiction appeared in Literary Orphans #16.