Crossing Decembers: Chapter 7 – 7:41
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Chapter 7 – 7:41
“Mr. Greenburke? Hi, it’s Joshua Kendall, from Florida – yeah, the peanut butter guy.” (He remembered!) “I’m in Columbus for a day or two, and I don’t have Kallie’s number.”
I held on for a minute, heard: “- her friend Josh – where’s it written down again? Got it.”
I’d waited until eight in the morning to call her mom and dad, so I’d stopped at a White Castle for breakfast. Those oniony little burgers sounded so good, and I wound up eating five of them before calling her parents from a pay phone.
I wrote her Columbus numbers down – her Dad had pointed out that she’d likely be at work, so he gave me the number for some communications office in addition to her home phone – and two minutes later, I was jabbing at the silver keypad, trying to keep my breath from shivering while her office phone rang.
After two rings, my chest was tight, practically spasming.
“Telemetry Communications, this is Cynthia, how may I help you?”
“Yes, is,” – throat catch, and a passing shadow thought of ‘oh my God what am I doing, hang up and pray, hang up and pray, hang up and – “May I speak with Kallie Greenburke, please?”
It was like watching myself stand in the open door of an airplane, and feeling my feet leave the deck and my ears swallowed in the tornado of descent before my mind was ready.
She transferred my call with a snick before she had even finished saying “Hold, please.” There was no discernible pause in Cynthia’s voice, and after all, why should there be? It was March 30, 1994, and I was the only person in the world who felt the air thick with a distant static crackle of lighting.
And then I heard her voice for the first time in five years.
“Hello, Kallie speaking.”
It was like spring.
“Kallie? It’s Josh.” My heart clacked and thudded like that train long gone.
“Josh! Josh Kendall?! Oh my God, what in the world…?” There was joy, I could hear it, and I squeezed my eyes shut at the thought that she would be silent forever in less than a day.
Then I remembered that I was going to change that.
“You are not gonna believe where I am, Kallie. I’m here , in Columbus, at- ” I looked around. “Well, somewhere over by campus, anyway, and I’m here for the day, until just after dinner (that will be long enough, I hope) , and I wondered if you wanted to hang out after you got off work or something.”
“You are kidding me! That’s awesome – I’m off around 4:30 or so, well, I can be if I take a short lunch, which I definitely will now, and – oh.” The last was an interruption of thought. She was realizing what I already knew, although there was no way I could have:
“I’m supposed to sing tonight with this guy, at a coffee place, kind of goofy, but – ”
I broke in: “No, that’s fine, we can just hang for an hour or so.”
“- buuut,” she re-interrupted, “I’ll have him set it up so we can go last. That way I don’t have to be there until like 9:00 or so.”
“Sure you don’t mind?”
“It’s not a big deal. Please, it’s a coffeehouse – like there’s any structure there anyway.”
“All right, cool. You want me to meet you at your place – which I don’t know where it is – or what?”
“What’re you going to do all day?”
“Probably wander around and check out a record store or two. I’ve been trying to get hold of Jen Carmen but she’s not home.” Lie. If you get hold of Sniffer, it’s like throwing a jackhammer in with the wrench you’re already tossing into the works.
“If you want, you could swing by here and I’ll give you the key to my apartment, and you can hang out there. My roommate’s probably going to be at work until six or seven anyway.”
“Well, if that’s okay with you, it sounds great. Frankly, I’m likely to crash on your couch for a couple of hours – I’m beat. Where’s your office?”
“Right downtown. Why don’t you just meet me at the Wendy’s across from COSI there on Broad Street in, what, twenty minutes or so?”
“Sure thing,” I hesitated once more, “You sure this is okay?”
“Joshua Kendall, please. Just don’t go opening all our jars of peanut butter.”
As I hung up the phone, I looked towards the Ohio State University campus nearby, felt a twinge in my gut.
When I was 16, Denise Kritsen, a girl who would wind up breaking my heart, came down to OSU for a summer theatre program.
She was the kind of girl you found yourself thinking, “Oh, I trust her , I just don’t trust other guys when they’re around her.”
I’d given her my high school ring, something I think she found a little kitschy and small-town. Big aspirations were her thing – I met her doing community theater in North Canton, and when we started dating, she made up stage names for us. (Jonathan Joel and Kristine London – yes, I swear.) Anyway, I was pretty sure she cheated on me while she was down at OSU, because she lost my ring that summer.
Because of her, I never quite felt comfortable around OSU. Ever.
I started for Broad Street, but that tugging in my gut didn’t fade as fast as I wanted it to.
I saw Kallie’s hair in the morning sunlight, caught in the glare from a high, glassy office building long before I could make out her face. She was standing in front of the Wendy’s looking the other way up Broad Street, and I felt all the blood drain from my head, went completely numb and froze in my steps.
I remembered her puffy, bruised face against the satin pillow in the casket, her pale hands, her hair brushed back stiffly from her forehead, her eyes closed, her utter stillness.
And there she was in front of me, small against the skyscrapers and the crowds on the sidewalk, but vivid and…real.
I put my hands in my pockets to keep them from shaking, managed to start walking toward her again, played a dozen funny greetings over in my head, and another dozen that were nothing more than saying “I love you,” and gathering her to me.
When I was within two steps, she turned and saw me, and my mind went blank, and all I could do was smile.
“Josh Kendall!” she cried, and her arms were tight around my neck, and she shook like that day in the hallway when she’d read my poem.
When my family used to visit Florida over Easter break when I was growing up, my best friend Allen and I would talk every year about how we couldn’t wait to smell the air on the Gulf of Mexico: the salt breath and the vastness of the water mingling with a million inland groves of orange blossoms and cabbage palms. We drank those breezes every year, sucking them in lungfuls all week long to saturate our blood enough to last the trip back to Ohio and the whole year until the next vacation.
And every year, we found when we reached Florida, the air was a hundred times better than we’d ever remembered. Back home, we’d try to keep the memory, the sensation of that air, but over and over, it was miraculous when we’d catch that first inhalation, that taste.
That’s what happened to my memory of Kallie’s embrace as she hugged me in the sunlight.
She was real. This was real. It was all happening.
“Oh, my God, Kallie, Kallie, Kallie,” was all I could manage. “It’s good to see you. You have no idea…”
We pulled away, and she held my wrists. “What is it?”
I was just staring with wonder and relief and hope, and I shook my head and blinked, and I could suddenly feel the ache of exhaustion as the adrenaline of the past nine hours fled my system. The sun felt too bright, the morning uncomfortably warm, and all I wished for was a couch in a cool room where I could pull the blinds and throw my forearm over my eyes.
“Sorry,” I said, grinning lopsidedly. “I got no sleep at all last night. Weird, amazing, strange stuff, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it – and, while I’m at it, I have a present for you, but it’s in my car, so you’ll have to wait until this afternoon – but really, what I need, my friend, is a nap. God, it’s good to see you,” I finished, out of breath.
She just laughed, and it was like rain running down windows and rattling quietly on the roof.
“I gotta get back to work,” she said. “Go take your nap, and we’ll spend a few hours talking later.”
She handed me her apartment key. “It’s over on Ninth Street, just about five minutes from here. Third house on the left, apartment B. Help yourself to whatever’s in the ’fridge, okay? My room’s the one closest to the kitchen – crash wherever you want.”
She stopped, then added, almost in a whisper, “I’m really, really glad you went out of your way to stop in. Thanks.” She gave my hand a squeeze, and then was jogging across the street through a break in traffic.
I watched her disappear through a chrome and glass revolving door, and then walked back to my car in a daze.
Her apartment took up half the first floor of a brown brick house. On the gray front door, there was a painted wood carving of a bright yellow crescent moon, with deep wrinkles at the corners of its eyes.
The living room was small and blue, and there was a bricked-in fireplace framed by a dark, gleaming wooden mantle. On one wall was a framed print of a piano keyboard with a droplet of ink beaded on one of the ivory keys. I remembered that picture from her dorm in Rodgers and thought it was strange to see it someplace else.
There was a fresh orange kitchen, glowing with sunlight, and the door to her bedroom stood open just beyond.
I went in, and sat on the edge of her bed.
The room smelled like her college dorm: lavender candles, clean laundry, strawberry shampoo.
There were other pieces from her Rodgers room, too: a nameplate she had from the bank in Bryan where she worked summers as a teller, a pair of misshapen multi-colored candles the size of softballs (“So ugly,” she once told me, “that I had to have them.”), a giant Midnight Oil poster of the Australian desert.
Jesus, I thought, all these things are so familiar to me, but how well do I really know her?
I remembered the last time I had sat on the edge of that bed, just before I left Bowling Green for Florida. I had stopped over with a gift for Kallie: the skeeball from Cedar Point. (Was it here somewhere?) She had something for me, too: a plain, black T-shirt with an extreme close-up of the face of Bullwinkle J. Moose. (“I don’t know, Josh, but when I saw this, there was nothing I could do but buy it for you. It was a force of nature.”)
We were sitting side by side, the afternoon sun slanting into the room.
That shirt, rarely worn, is still in my dresser, folded neatly. Every spring or so, when my wife and I go through the house for Goodwill donatables, Bullwinkle is set aside in the pile of keepers, and returned to the drawer. There is no doubt in my mind I will pass it onto my kids someday, not by design, but through my inability to part with it.
I would not see Kallie again until the days she visited me in Orlando – the last time I saw her alive.
Until this morning.
Oh, my God, what was I doing?
What right did I have? I looked again at the fingerprints of Kallie’s life: a picture of her with her parents in their backyard, with a red and yellow swingset just behind them, and a smeared sunset glare; a silver glass vase barely bigger than my thumb, shaped like a narrow trumpet bell, sitting on a corner of her dresser.
You barely knew her – you say you want to save her life, but what are you really after? You want to find out she loved you or something? You have a life, and it’s pretty damn good, you selfish bastard. Sometime you gotta stop pitying yourself – she’s the dead one, not you.
I shook my head, hoped and prayed I was just overtired.
I walked into the bathroom, squeezed some toothpaste onto my finger, and swished it around in my mouth with a handful of tap water. I winced, looking in the mirror at how puffed and sagging my eyes were, the dirty stubble in the hollows of my cheeks.
But I washed my face and hands in bracing cold water, scrubbed off the sticky grunge feeling I’d gotten staying up all night, and when I looked again, I felt a thrill once more: Kallie was alive, and in a few hours, I’d be saving her life.
And she’d never know it.
I took a pillow from her bed – the one furthest from the nightstand where her alarm clock sat – and headed for the living room couch. There was a knitted afghan there that reminded me of my grandma’s house, and in less than five minutes, I was asleep, the sound of traffic outside humming softly in my ears.
Rodgers Quad was empty, the air still and silent and stale.
I stood in a third floor junction, looked down one long, vacant hall, and then another, the dorm room doors all hanging half open. My heart began to beat a little faster – I imagined figures, hidden, softly slipping their heads in and out of the doorways, ducking back out of the corner of my eye as I looked back and forth down the pair of hallways.
When my footfalls echoed in the stairwell, I heard others, but they silenced themselves each time I froze to listen.
Down in the main lobby, I ran my hands over the wall of campus mailboxes, each with its small metal knob and thumbnail plastic window to peek through.
I half-expected some weird, prophetic note in my mailbox, an omen among the empty rows.
There wasn’t one.
The laundry room, by the back loading dock, still smelled like detergent and dryer softener sheets, and the coin slots on the second washer from the wall were still jammed with hard, dirty gum.
I walked back to the room that had been mine, overlooking East Wooster Street and a large maple tree next to the building.
I had a torch in my hand, and I glanced furtively around once more. I could feel eyes, hear whispers, even though I knew the building was vacant.
And I dropped the flame on the gray-brown carpet and headed outside. A crackling rose behind me.
Kallie was in the courtyard, staring at the smoke suddenly pouring into the glaring blue sky. She had black hair though, cut short and straight at her jawline, and her eyes were dark.
An inexplicable sense of relief, tension flooding itself out of my pores, the muscles in my neck and shoulders suddenly loose and capable of flight.
I ran and threw my arms around her, but she stood stiffly, her breathing shallow.
I tried to kiss her, but she wouldn’t look at me, and as she turned her face, I saw a small, brown mole under the left side of her chin, just where my wife has one.
I could no longer feel her embrace, she was so distant, and in her unblinking eyes, I saw the blaze and the sky, and I heard the screams of those trapped and dying inside.
I woke up, fitful, burning, sweating, and threw the afghan from the couch.
Why had she looked different? It wasn’t Kallie at all, now that I thought about it – but in the dream, it was her, without question. Awake, I couldn’t even recall if I had seen her face clearly.
As much faith as I have put into some of the dreams I’ve had, I tried to understand: the first thing I thought was, was she warning me to let go? Yes, it was weird, and obvious, and simplistic, and I immediately thought I was trying to see too much.
But even when I backed away, tried not to peer so intently, I couldn’t forget how she wouldn’t look me in the eye.
I dug my fingertips into my eyelids, kneading the dream and the sleep away, pulling at the corners of my eyes, then blinking the world clear again.
The round, green-faced clock on the wall said it was 3:30, and the sun coming in the window was deep afternoon yellow.
My stomach abruptly knotted with a noisy skuuurl.
In the refrigerator – there was a magnet on its door that said Space-time portal inside: Enter With Caution – I found a package of deli ham and some Swiss cheese, and I made a sandwich with the wheat bread I found in a basket beside the microwave.
While I was washing the sandwich down with a cool swig of milk, surreality smacked me upside the head.
In my thrill, in my fervent hope and ecstasy, I had all but forgotten that I carried with me, always, two reminders of Kallie’s passing.
One was simply her signature, in purple ink, on the back of a WBGU business card. I found it in the months after her death, just sifting through the paper flotsam in a shoebox from that summer of ’91. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember why she had ever signed it, but it has been in my wallet ever since.
I set the glass of milk on the bright yellow tabletop, leaned forward slightly and pulled my wallet from my back pocket.
For about ten seconds, I sat there, staring at it, chewing my sandwich, wondering.
I opened it up to find nothing had changed.
There was a picture of my wife and daughter and me, and then one of just me and my little girl, taken when she was about a year and a half old, in a two-dollar photo booth in K-Mart, her tiny fingers clutching a baseball.
In the next slot was a trading card from The Empire Strikes Back, a shot of the heroes – Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca – in an icy cave, with “The Defenders of Freedom!” in boldface red at their feet.
And finally, the WBGU business card, with its blue shark and the yellow 88.1fm logo, and Kallie’s Kallie T. Greenburke on the reverse.
I gingerly slid my second reminder from behind the card and flattened it on the table. It wasn’t even brittle, because it had been opened and re-folded so many times.
COLUMBUS — Kallie Tabitha Greenburke, 23, of 615 W. Ninth Street, died in Columbus at 7:41 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, 1994, of injuries arising from an auto accident.
She was born September 14, 1970, in Bryan, Ohio, a daughter of Todd and Carol Greenburke, and graduated from Bryan High School in 1989.
Miss Greenburke attended Bowling Green State University, where she studied communications and marketing.
Active in the theater since high school, she performed on stage at Bowling Green as well, with roles in University, The Music Man, The Second Shepherd’s Play, and the annual one-act play festival.
Miss Greenburke was a member of First Christian Church of Bryan, and sang in the choir for several years.
After earning her degree, she was employed by Telemetry Communications in Columbus.
She is survived by her parents and two brothers, Thomas and Jeffrey Greenburke, all of Bryan.
Friends may call from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 2, at the Hoffner Memorial Home in Bryan. A service will follow at the First Christian Church.
Burial will be at Shady Elms Cemetery in Ridgeland.
Above the obit was a black-and-white photo of Kallie, close-cropped to show only her face, but with a blur in the corner that looked like a branch on a Christmas tree. She had that genuine sort of goofy grin you find in family snapshots, not posed studio pictures, and her eyes looked sleepy.
I let my fingers caress the newsprint, tried to feel an electric crackle, waited for the shock of sudden wakefulness, listened for the passage of a train whistle – anything to pull me back into my own reality, tell me this was all a dream and not the impossibility presented by that faded newspaper clipping.
I wondered if anything would happen to that slip of worn-soft paper when the moment of her death passed, whether it would vanish or crumple itself and flake to powder, or simply lie quietly in my pocket, a remnant of an averted fate.
And what makes you so sure you’ll succeed? I heard myself ask. How do you know you won’t shove her out of the tidal wave’s path so she can get cracked by a lightning bolt on the beach?
I heard, in that second of doubt, a thousand voices of death, whispering to me that across town, in that moment, two men were planning a random robbery that would end here, tonight, with Kallie lying in a tapestry print of blood.
A tomato-faced executive, the whispers taunted, was fuming at his desk, already salivating and craving the comforts of the bar down the street. He would wind up plowing his Mercedes through the gray front door, smashing the yellow moon to bits, crushing Kallie while she sat on her couch.
They kept muttering of spider bites and heart attacks and freak electrocutions, and I saw the words of obituary on the table shifting in a rippling tattoo of letters, black on gold-brown like a crawling, buzzing carpet of bees on a hive as the possibilities plowed through my head.
I squeezed my eyes tight, wrenched my fist over the clipping, crushing the bees, shutting out the whispers.
Any of those fears could be true, yes, I thought, but at least one – the one that ended in a hissing and sliding of tires while slithering demon wisps of steam curled up from the pavement, Kallie’s car twisting into the guardrail to flip once, twice, and finally rest on its side, shattered – that one, I thought, opening my eyes, I could make into a lie.
I folded the clipping and tucked it back into my wallet, burying it in my pocket.
I cupped the glass of milk in both palms until I stopped shaking.
After a while, it occurred to me that I should somehow wrap Kallie’s notebook, so I walked out to my car to get it. I blinked a million times in the sun, squinted in the hot glare coming off the sidewalk. The warm air was still, like mid-June, and the smell of blacktop baking was thick, and it mixed with sweet grass cuttings from the small lawns.
I grabbed the notebook from car.
Just up the block, near the busy intersection at High Street, there was a Columbus Dispatch paperbox, so I fished a pair of quarters out of my pocket and bought a copy.
Back in her room, I found a pair of orange-handled scissors and some masking tape. Pulling out about three full sheets of the Dispatch, I wrapped the notebook with the comics page facing outward, and strapped it in tape like a slab of roast from the butcher.
I clumsily folded the ends over and taped them shut, and as I did, I heard the front door open.
“Josh? You here?” her voice grew louder as she came into the kitchen.
With the package behind my back, I stepped into the hall.
God, she was beautiful.
“Sorry – I had to raid your desk,” I said, “Got a present for you, though.” I held the newspaper bundle toward her. “Nice wrap job, I know. You oughta see me at Christmas. It’s a nightmare.”
She shook her head, arched one eyebrow, smiled and took the gift with both hands, like she was sandwich-catching a Frisbee.
“What are you up to, Simon?”
Simon. The song from that cartoon played in my head: Well you know my name is Simon, and the things I draw come true…
Oh, do they now, my friend? We’ll see…
She ran a palm over the package and turned it over, then looked at me and back to the gift.
“Can I open it now?” she asked. There was a note of eagerness in her voice, an excitement, that, as it always did, made me love everything. Not just about her, but everything.
“No,” I answered, trying to deadpan and failing miserably, breaking into a broad grin.
She punched me on the arm and walked into the living room, where she flopped on the couch and began picking at the wads of masking tape on the present.
I followed her, sat on the floor with my elbows resting on my knees and watched her small fingers peel back the Dispatch pages. She pulled the notebook out with a quizzical look for just a moment, then thumbed the edges.
I caught a glimpse of the ink blur that was page after page of my own handwriting as she lifted one hand to her chin, and with the other, stopped in the middle of the book and looked at me.
“You did not write all this,” she said wonderingly, “just to give to me?” Her eyes were shining and stunned as they fell back to touching page after page, resting on each for just a moment.
“Sure did, my friend, and have I got some stuff to tell you about just how and when I did.” “And now would be the perfect time for that,” she said, closing the book and setting it on the couch. “I’ll read it all later, but for the time being, we’ve got catching up to do, and I am just dying for some blue corn nachos.”
And she hopped off the couch, extending a hand to me, and pulling me up and into a hug for just a second before squeezing my hand and heading toward the front door.
“C’mon,” she said, looking over her shoulder, “I’m driving.”
And won’t that be some irony when the two of you get nailed head-on by a city bus just a few hours before she’s supposed to die anyway? Thanks for the help.
A chill ran up my neck, and was gone a heartbeat later.
I didn’t even try to hide my elation, sitting in the passenger seat of her car, the same one we’d ridden into the fields west of Bryan and onto Five Mile Bridge. I don’t think I stopped smiling or staring at her for more than a second.
“You are an absolute nut, Josh Kendall,” she said, looking over at me as we sat at a traffic light. “When do I get to find out what you’re doing here?”
I shook my head and tightened my smile. My stomach muscles wouldn’t stop quivering. She was sitting right there, within arm’s reach.
“I told you, I was in Bowling Green last night, started thinking about you, and took a road trip. And this,” I dramatized, pounding my fist on the dashboard and wailing, “this is the thanks I get?”
“So,” she said, drawing out the word and pointedly ignoring my theatrics, “when exactly did you write that notebook?”
“Really,” she answered a bit confusedly. “What’s the secret?”
“No secret at all. It’s just goofy. I did it last night.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” I was laughing at myself now. “Until I hit your couch this morning, I hadn’t slept since” – since some rapidly fading night in a far off year, truth be told, but I can’t very well say that – “maybe eight yesterday morning.”
“Have I,” she began, “told you,” she measured a pause, “that you are insane? Do you have someplace to stay tonight? Because you’re sure not getting back behind the wheel without crashing for a good sleep. Jesus!”
And she burst into laughter and put her hand on my knee.
“I love you, Joshua Kendall.”
“Love you too, Kallie.”
Later, we picked at the remnants of an immense heap of bruise-blue corn chips and used our fingertips to scrape at the drippings of Monterey cheese on the plate.
“I swear, I could eat two piles of those myself,” she said, popping a chip into her mouth and pointing at the dish. “Love ’em.”
We were in the King Ave. Coffeehouse – concrete, bare floors, a mishmash of tables in linoleum and chrome, local artist’s paintings hanging from wire on the walls. The place smelled like patchouli, coffee, cookies, and vegetarian sandwiches.
I nodded, wiped my mouth and leaned forward, elbows on the table.
“So, tell me about this place you’re singing tonight,” I asked.
She should have already given her last performance. The people in that bar tonight, they’re not supposed to hear her voice again, you know.
“It’s nothing, really. Seriously,” she said, looking around, “it’s a lot like this place. Casual, open mike stuff. My friend Joe plays his guitar, I play hippie minstrel chick.”
I was resting my chin in the palm of my hand, just staring, listening, remembering. A paragraph from one of my old journals played itself through my head.
“Hey, you in there?”
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head slightly and blinking. “Just zoning.”
“C’mon, what’s going on in there?” she gently tapped the middle of my forehead. “What’re you thinking?”
“Okay,” I grinned. “Be warned: Babble alert.”
“Shoot,” she said, crossing her arms on the table and leaning forward.
“I was thinking about this one night in Florida, when I got off work around 1:30. It was really warm and humid, but the sky was clear, and there was a full moon. Everything was just dripping in that blue moonlight, with shadows as sharp as they would be in the sunshine – sharper, even. It was like I could really feel it, the way you feel sunlight, but this was like cool, liquid sheets pouring down over me, and running over the yards and the streets and the trees.
“And I remember thinking how tired I was, and that I really wanted to go to bed, but I couldn’t make myself go inside, out of that moonlight. And I thought how our whole lives we take for granted that there’s a future, and we leave times too soon and find ourselves looking back and wishing for things we can’t have. That night, even as I turned to go into my apartment, I thought that someday I’d remember that moon and that air and I’d wish I had stayed outside even for just a minute more.”
I had written that in one of my journals two weeks after Kallie had died.
Two weeks from now, are you still going to write it?
She was quietly running her eyes over my face, so I sat back a little and grinned sheepishly. “You asked,” I offered in defense.
Because she remained silent, I asked, “What?”
“I was just thinking of the last night of ‘Second Shepherd,’ when we were all striking the set, and you went to the bathroom and shaved, because you had a date or something -”
“Yeah, I was kind of seeing this girl Karlie who belonged to a service sorority, and she’d asked me to a date party – ”
“- and because you hadn’t shaved during the last three weeks of production,” she continued, “you nicked up your chin pretty good. But what I really remember was seeing you without that scraggle and thinking, ‘Simon’s back!’ because you looked like that little kid in the cartoons again.”
And then her eyes were deep in my own, and she covered one of my hands with both of hers.
“Missed you, Simon,” she said.
“Come on,” I said, getting up and giving her hands a squeeze. “I want you to read something back at the house before you have to go sing.”
As we walked out to her car, fat raindrops began to spatter, sharply on the sidewalk, the street, and my face. Leaves on nearby trees showed their pale undersides in a gust of wind.
“I love the way the air just crackles before a good storm, don’t you?” she asked, inhaling deeply, closing her eyes and leaning her head back.
Like in one of those National Geographic ultra-slow-motion pictures, I saw a fat pearl of water frozen in the instant it burst on the thin, fluttering skin of her left eyelid. I watched a handful of still smaller droplets spray outward and catch themselves on eyelashes that whipped and recoiled, and still hung onto the jewel.
It started to rain harder as we drove back to her house.
“Hey, before you start reading that, I meant to ask: Do you still have that skeeball I gave you?”
We were on the living room floor, side by side, our backs against the couch. On her lap lay the green notebook.
“Of course I do,” she replied. “It’s on my dresser. Surprised you didn’t see it when you swiped my scissors and tape.”
“Mind if I go get it?”
“Be my guest. Make sure you notice its display stand.”
The talisman of summer was perched in the wide mouth of a plastic Cedar Point souvenir cup. When I picked it up, I could feel my shoulder involuntarily drop and my back bend, preparing to swing the ball like a pendulum back and then forward in a smooth roll up an imaginary lane.
There was a dull gleam from the bottom of the cup, and I suddenly couldn’t stop smiling.
It was a train-flattened penny.
“I need to get another one of these for myself,” I said, flopping back down on the carpet beside Kallie, hefting the skeeball hand to hand. “Dunno why, but they’re just cool. Anyway,” I said, motioning to the notebook, “let me know what you thi-”
Remember the summer you were eleven, and Rick dared you to jump off the roof of the tree fort, fifteen feet down into the edge of the wheat field, and you did? Remember your heart squeezing itself up next to your Adam’s apple the second you realized both feet were planted firmly on nothing but the air rustling the weeds? That’s what no going back is, then and now.
Look at the clock.
It was 7:41, March 30, 1994, and Kallie was dying in a burning, wet scream of a car accident, except she wasn’t, she was there, next to me and I saw her fingers bend back the edge of the notebook cover, caught her eyes focus on the page, watched them flick over one word, maybe two, and then the moment she was supposed to die was upon her –
– me –
I gripped the skeeball in my hands, white-knuckled, like something to hang onto while the walls, the world, the sky, began to quake and fall away.
What have you done?
The second hand on the wall clock swung over the face like the terminator of the Earth bringing nightfall, and a slow glacial shriek split my world, sliding in a great sideways avalanche, the sound of a hundred million tons of ice creaking and groaning and tearing free in a horrific ripping motion.
A train whistle rammed itself into my ears like the unbending fingers of a great hand, pushing, filling, deafening until I could feel it against the back of my eyeballs, and I tightened my grip on the skeeball fighting for consciousness, struggling not to let the spinning, whirring blur of the world go dark, but it was too late, and there was no light save a headlamp receding in the trackless void.
The peak of an iceberg loosed along a crystalline scar, a molecular tap spreading and growing into a rift, a frozen blade scything its refractory rainbows beneath my feet, cold.
My fingers collapsed together, and the skeeball was sawdust running between my hands, and I smelled faintly the oil and dirt of a summer fairgrounds for a second before it was gone in the maelstrom.
And the floor at my feet hung in space for a breath before it and I dropped into a black, silent arctic sea while the iceberg that was my life floated off, higher in the water.
Next: Chapter 8 – Another December
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