Thirty-eight

The answer to Lexi’s question, “why won’t you let anyone be your friend?” was one I already knew, but didn’t want to tell her.  I don’t want friends because they’re too easy to lose.  And it hurts too much to lose them.

After the car crash that killed all of my new friends, I was left with a back that hurt all the time, the Price family who was just beginning to see that I wasn’t Birmingham, Michigan material even if I was related to them, a grim sort of notoriety, and a metric ton of schoolwork to catch up on if I wanted to graduate.  That was all there was in my life.  It was enough.  I had reached a place where I was ready to simply accept anything that happened to me, live through it, and never show anyone how much anything hurt.  Anything could come in; nothing went out.

Mikey and Liz screwed that up though.  In a good way.  I was deep inside my little shell when I met them, on a warmish March day.  I stopped by Oakland Mall on the way home from the chiropractor (never could tell if I was in more pain before or after those visits) and dove into a record store that smelled of overwarm vinyl.  I saw them when they came in, like a rip in everything mundane.  Liz was wearing gray camouflage pants and a lime green t-shirt, and her hair was dyed lime green.  I never saw it any other color.  Mikey had curly dark hair and an ancient, half-shredded Bauhaus shirt over a thermal undershirt.  He was wearing eyeliner.  I noticed them instantly.  They were more alive than anyone else in the store.  I watched them over the aisles, forgetting what I was looking for.  I wondered if they’d see me.  At the same time, I hated myself for wishing they would.

Mikey found me thumbing through the Sisters of Mercy CDs.  I took out Enter the Sisters to look at it and he said suddenly, “Don’t bother.  Floodland’s the best.” I looked at him.  “Hi.  I’m Mikey Arrington.  You liked Floodland, didn’t you?”

I raised an eyebrow, then nodded.  His eyes were so open and friendly they made me shy.  He had a smile that was friendly and sarcastic, like he was laughing at the whole world and maybe wanted me in on the joke.

“Me too.  Vision Thing’s okay, but the old stuff’s a step down.  Save your money.  I’ll let you borrow it if you want.  What’s your name?”

He made me smile inside but it never reached my face.  As much as I wanted him to talk to me, to make me feel like I belonged there somehow, I felt like it wasn’t possible.  He and Liz were on a level I couldn’t reach up to.  They were real; I wasn’t.

I told him my name anyway.  “I might get it anyway.” I said.

“Why?  Just to have it?  I’ll let you borrow it.  I promise you’ll be underwhelmed.”

“Do you always loan shit to people you don’t know?”

He shrugged, tilting his head to the left and rolling his eyes.  “Only on Sundays.”

“It’s Saturday,” I said.

That smile came back, triumphant.  “Then I guess I’ll have to get to know you.”  There was just a hint of salaciousness in his voice, but his smile kept it from being enough to make me mad.

“I walked right into that, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did, Nikki.  You want to come get a cup of coffee and a smoke with me and my platonic best friend Liz?”

“The girl with the green hair?”  He nodded.  “I don’t know.  I’m not very friendly,” I said, being honest.  I didn’t feel friendly.  He seemed nice, but it’s always my reflex to shy away from people, even when I want to know them better.

“Aw, come on.  You look like you need to get off your feet anyway.  You’re kind of limping.”

“I’m fine,” I said, a little bit harshly.  I dropped the CD back into the rack, punctuating my annoyance with a rattle, and moved a few steps away.

Mikey followed me, bending a little to try and catch my eye.  “Is your leg hurt?”

“No, I broke my back.”

He started laughing, then realized that I wasn’t.  “Serious?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” His face fell.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to–“

“Forget it,” I said.  “No one needs to be sorry for something that was my fault.”  He was peering deep into my shell, and I wanted to be farther away.  I started up the aisle with a vague thought of looking for some old Shriekback.  Mikey followed me again.

“So, um, what happened? To your back.”

“I was in a car crash three months ago.”

“There was a big one out in Canton, some place like that.  Right after it snowed.”

“That was it.”

“Seven high school kids got killed…”

“And one didn’t.  Nice to meet you.”

He looked like he’d just stepped on my pet mouse.  “Oh.  Shit.  Sorry.  I didn’t know it was, I mean, I didn’t think you were…I mean, you don’t look that young.  Enough to be in high school.  I mean.” His energy collapsed in on itself, looking for a way out of the embarrassment.  He blushed, and I instantly liked him better.  He looked at his feet, shuffling them in a display of contrition that was straight out of a Saturday morning TV special.  “So, um, I bet you want to kick me in the nuts now, don’t you?”

“Not really.”

He brightened a little.  “Then do you want to go and get coffee or something? You and me and Liz?”

I agreed and we did; Liz got coffee, Mikey and I hot chocolate, from a forgettable coffee shop in the mall and then we went out into the parking lot and sat on the curb.  Hot chocolate tastes best when the weather is slightly cold, and the early spring chill outside was perfect.  The Michigan winter was reluctant to let go, even at the end of March.

Liz intimidated me at first but she was just as friendly as Mikey.  She was a foot taller than me, and was as self-conscious about being tall as I am about being short.  When I realized that, I felt more comfortable around her.  We talked about music and movies and food for a while.  We had a lot of the same tastes.  Mikey joked that we could move in together and be a goth-industrial sitcom.

“So can I ask you about the crash?” Mikey asked, finally.  I knew he’d been wanting to.

“Michael, please,” Liz said.  She rolled her eyes.

“I’d rather not.  I don’t like to…” I stopped.  I didn’t quite believe in what I was about to say.

He looked apologetic again.  “I guess your friends already made you talk yourself sick about it, eh?”

“No, they didn’t.”  I didn’t want to tell him I didn’t have any friends; it would have been too melodramatic.  I changed the subject a little bit.  “There were hundreds of flowers sent to my hospital room.  None of them meant anything.  They didn’t make me feel better.  My family, all the students who sent shit and don’t even know me.  This whole fake outpouring of sympathy, but I never had anyone to talk to about it.  No one real.  When the next tragedy came along they all forgot about me.  And I didn’t care.” My sinuses tickled.  I was on the edge of tears.  I took a breath and held them back.

Mikey and Liz didn’t know what to say.  Liz chose not to say anything.  Mikey said, “I would’ve listened,” and managed not to sound like he was just saying what I wanted to hear.  He wasn’t smiling any more.  I suddenly wished he’d put his hand on my shoulder or something.

“You know what I really would have wanted? Someone with the balls to walk into my hospital room and call me a fucking idiot for getting in that truck with all those drunk kids, and me drunk off my ass too.  I wish someone had come to me and said, ‘Nikki Saxen, you did a stupid thing, it almost got you killed, and I don’t feel the least bit sorry for you.  Not a bit.'”

“If someone had said that to you,” Liz said, “you wouldn’t have had to say it to yourself.  It’s harder to punish yourself.  You never know when to stop, do you?”

I teared up again.  “No, you don’t.”

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have brought it up, should I?” Mikey asked.

“No, s’okay.  I needed to talk about it.  Maybe.” I sniffled loudly, and there was a long silence.  I felt like they were making decisions about me; was I too bitter and hateful and crazy to get to know, or not?

“Well,” Liz said, “we should probably get going.”

Mikey looked at her, then back at me.  “You want a ride home or something? I have an extra helmet.”

“Helmet? You’re riding motorcycles?”

“Yup.  Beautiful day for it.”

“It’s fifty degrees!”

Liz smiled.  “You get used to it.” Mikey laughed.

I shook my head.  “That’s okay.  But thank you.”

“No problem.  Some other time, maybe?”

“Maybe.”

He didn’t want me to go just yet.  “Hey, you ever go out dancing?”

“No.”

“No? Why?”

I gave him an incredulous look.  “Fuck, I don’t know.  Because I’m only seventeen? I can’t get into most places.”

Liz cracked up.  Mikey looked sheepish.  “Oh yeah.  Duh.  Well, okay then, see you around.”

“Phone,” Liz said.

“Huh?”

“Get her phone number, schmuckboy.  You know you want it.” She looked at me.  “He wants it.  Would you be willing to give it to him?” I liked the way she looked at me.  Most of the feeling of inferiority evaporated.  I felt like I was an equal in her eyes.  Like I was already her friend, even though she was older and had only known me a few minutes.  Being in a sitcom with her sounded like it would be fun.

Even though I wanted to stay and get to know them better, there was still the powerful urge to shrink away.  I managed to give Mikey my phone number, but after that I had to get away from them.

The urge to hide from them eventually disappeared; I spent my time with Liz and Mikey and Robert and Dennis and Andrew and Pietro to escape the increasingly suffocating air at the Prices’.  Robert got me a fake ID so I could go dancing with them, and things were almost like they had been before the crash.  Almost.  I felt as much at home as I thought I could feel any more.

Mikey died at the beginning of June.  It was a stupid accident, like most of them are.  He wasn’t even on his bike; he was taking his mother’s car to get the oil changed and a dump truck ran a red light.  That was the end of Mikey Arrington.  It would have hurt even if I wasn’t falling in love with him, but I was.  I don’t think he loved me back.  Not quite.  He always felt funny because I was seven years younger than him, and that stopped him from actually falling in love.  It hurt to lose him anyway.  It also reminded me of what always happened to people I cared for.  I left Michigan not too long after that.

Thirty-eight

I shine the light around a bit, half hoping that Nikki will jump down and follow me, too, but she doesn’t.  I’m at one rubble strewn end of a cavern that disappears into darkness.  It’s a crazy-angled jumble of broken concrete, dirt and what looks like ceramic tiles, just like I dreamed.  It goes down, angling deeper into the earth, and I follow it.  The roof changes from cement slabs to frozen dirt and pale yellow tile after about a hundred feet.  Thick brown icicles hang down between the gaps in the tiles, which have been pushed all out of arrangement by the years.  It has the feel of an ancient subway station, except it’s smaller.  The ground is frozen solid, of course, and my boots are unsteady on the unyielding, irregular surface.  There aren’t any footprints, just rolling waves of frozen, water-smooth dirt.  If anyone else has been down here, it was a long time ago.  I like exploring.

The tunnel seems to end; I’ve come up against a tangle of dead roots spitting down from the ceiling.  I push through, and find another car.

It’s a coffin-nosed Cord, a 1937 Beverly sedan to be specific, and it’s staring blindly back at me because its retractable headlights are locked open.  It scares the shit out of me at first in fact, so startling is its stare.  The floor slopes steeper here, and I go skidding toward the car, half out of control.  I skid into the side of it and catch myself, and there’s probably a delirious smile on my face.  The art-deco design sedan is just as complete as the Packard up in the carriage house behind me, and just as abandoned.  The roof’s dented, and the glass is misted opaque with dirty ice, but the rust is only surface rust and nothing’s missing.  I walk around it, my breath turning to steam in front of me.  It’s sunk past the axles in frozen dirt, so there’s no way I’m getting it out before spring, but that doesn’ t matter…

Or does it?  I look back up the tunnel I just half-slid down.  It looks too narrow to accommodate the car, never mind the erratic forty-foot slope up to a ten-foot vertical drop which it’ll have to be lifted over.  And I’ll have to tear up the carriage house floor, unless I want to disassemble it to take it out.  For that matter, how did it get down here?  I sit down behind the car and play the light over it, looking closely at the rear fenders and back end.  There’s no body damage, except for the prang in the roof, not even a scrape.  The Cord didn’t fall down here, and it doesn’ t make sense that someone would’ve assembled it underground.  “How’d you get down here?” I ask it.  It doesn’t have an answer for me, of course.  I dreamed about the tunnel, but not about another car.  Why didn’t Marion tell me?

No matter, not for now.  I don’t know how I’m going to get it out, but I will.  I spend a while inspecting the car, turning the door handles (they open) and daydreaming about driving it when it’s done.  After a while I become aware of the cut in my hand again, and it’s not all that warm down here, either.  Time to move on.  I dance the flashlight across the car’s flanks once more and then start working my way past it.  There’s more tunnel to explore, after all.  It gets even steeper beyond the Cord. 

In fact, steeper may be too mild a word.  I discover shortly that it’s pretty much impossible to walk down a thirty-percent-ish grade that’s made of ice.  I try to hold on to the car’s fender and let myself down gently.  This fails miserably, and shortly I’m sliding across rock-hard mud and flailing for a grip on something, the tunnel wall, a root, anything before I pick up too much speed.  There isn’t one; I fetch up feet-first against more dirt, thirty-feet down, and the rod in my right leg gives a painful throb, like it always does when I hit it on something.

I’m surprised to find that I’m actually laughing, as I roll over to get my breath and my equilibrium back.  What a fun tumble!  When I’m ready, I get to my feet again.  The light tells me that dirt and broken rock are half-blocking the tunnel ahead of me.  There’s a narrow enough space to squirm through, and Ren and I have been caving a few times, so I get down on my knees and squiggle in with the light pushed out in front of me so I can see.  There’s about eighteen inches of space above me, so I crawl on my belly and man is it cold.  I’m hardly noticing it, though.  I wonder how far underground I am?

I break an icicle out of my way, and sing/growl, “Hello me, it’s me again,” to chase the silence away.  “You can subdue but never tame me!” Neh, I don’t feel like singing Megadeth, so I change to Siouxsie.  “My so-called friends say you’re not alive.”  That’s better.  “I’ll bake their bones for telling lies.”  I have to stop singing to squeeze through an even narrower opening, and as soon as I’m through it I feel that colder-than-cold temperature twitch that I usually feel in the house when Marion is around.  “Marion?” I ask.  It’s not as though she’s ever spoken to me, but I’m in her tunnel, maybe we can take our relationship to a new level, as it were.

Cold is beginning to creep into my fingers and knees, and my cut hand is burning like crazy.  Several dozen feet ahead, at the very edge of the light’s reach, the already-narrow tunnel constricts again, and I wonder if I’m crawling down a dead end.  It doesn’t seem like I am, it doesn’t feel like a dead end, but from the looks of it the hole ahead is big enough for my head to go through, and not much more.

No, there’s air coming from up there, a frigid cough of crypt breath.  I sneeze; there’s dust in it. 

More dust blows in my face–maybe it’s powdered ice, actually.  It’s so cold.  I stop to blink the grit out of my eyes, an unnecessary reflex as it’s already melting.  As soon as I start moving again, I see Ren. 

God, yes, please.

I stop cold, and look at him. He’s reclining comfortably in the tunnel, somehow full-size and yet reposing easily even though I barely had room for my shoulders.  He’s wearing the pinstripe suit he wore at the auto show, and bright orange Converse All-Stars that don’t match it at all.  Somehow, I’m not surprised to see him, even though I blink and expect him to disappear.  My heart gives a jump as I realize he’s really there,  and I smile, biting my lip.  It’s good to see him but I’m shy.  He’s been dead all summer and hasn’t visited yet, and I’m not sure why.

“Hey, sweetness.” he says.  “How are you?”

It’s so so good to see him.  “Cold and intrigued,” I reply, resting on my elbows.  Goodness, I’m tired.  Spelunking is exhausting in a way that sneaks up on you without warning.  “How are you?”

“Still dead,” he says, and smiles.  He manages to make it sound almost cheerful. 

I get a mild sense of deja vu, like I’ve dreamt a scene, a situation like this.  I try to remember how it ended.  It’s hard, because my mind is whirling with happiness and confusion at the same time.  “What’re you doing here?” I ask.

“I go where the hell it suits me to go.  Do you remember the giant spinning carousel-wheel of life?”

“Oh, yes.”  Ren read Decline and Fall to me once.

“I’ve been trying to find out who’s playing the music.”  He changes position slightly, tossing his head.  His glasses are missing.  He probably can’t even see me without them.  “But, as usual, I’ve gotten distracted, coming to help you.”

That hurts.  What did I do?  “What?  Why?”

He waves his hand.  “Look at this, all the trouble you’re in.  And don’t even realize it, I might add.”

As strong as he can make me, there’s a flip side.  Until now, he’s only gone there once.  “I didn’t do anything!  I’m not in trouble!” I insist reflexively, denying the reality of my surroundings and clenching my fists.  “Everything’s good.  Getting better.”  I don’t sound convincing, do I?

“Yeah, right.  Where are our cars?”

I can’t speak above a whisper.  I feel like I’m shriveling, like toilet paper in a fire.  “I don’t know.  Someone bought them away.  But that’s Ian’s fault–“

“Right, right, right,” Ren says, completely disinterested, waving his hand.  “I don’t want to talk about cars right now, Lexi.  Not now, not ever.”

“Why not?”

“I never liked cars.  Hated the things.  Mostly I said that just to get you in bed.”

He’s supposed to laugh and say he’s joking.  That’s how the joke ends.  But he’s not saying it.  He’s not kidding.  There’s a frown on his face and he never frowns, not at me.  I reach out and try to smooth his brow.  I can’t seem to reach him though.  I talk in a cartoon voice, a mellow Animaniacs trill that always makes him laugh.  “Don’t be like that,” I coo.  “I’m happy to see you, be happy for me.  I miss you.”

He pushes my hand away.  “Screw that!  Do you want me to tell you what I’m supposed to tell you or not?” Ren snaps.

“Stop it!  It’s me, Ren.  I need you.”

He snorts a laugh.  “I’m sure you do, but now I’m dead and there aren’t any cars in hell.  You’ll see.  And you’re in a world of shit, you might be here before too long.  The world’s gone balls-up since I stopped hanging around, hasn’t it?  Who are your friends these days, Lexi, who’s saying they like cars to get in your pants?”

Ren has yelled at me exactly once in all the time I’ve known him, and it nearly brought my whole world down around my ears when he did.  It’s happening again.  “Ren, don’t yell.  Please.  I’m making a car for you, will that make it better?”

He still won’t smile!  “I already told you, Mr. Dead’s had a grand old time with me, and fuck you if you think I’m going to give you any good news now.  I’m out of here.”

I try to reach him again, to hug him, to hold on to him, and my fingers grab open air.  I bow my head, struggling forward through the tunnel, which seems to be constricting around me, and when I stop he’s the same distance away.  My nose and ears have gone completely numb from the cold.  “Stop moving away from me, Ren!  Don’t go!”  I try to crab forward faster.

“Everything’s moving away from you, babe.  Think about where you’re going for once.  That’s a big reason you were never much of a co-driver, by the way.”

“Please.”  I can’t even touch his orange All-Stars.  “Please.  Don’t leave me.”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“I love you.  I miss you.  Nothing’s right without you here.”

“What’m I supposed to care about that?  I’m dead, you’re not.  If you want me to care you’re going to have to die too.  Otherwise, forget it.”

“I can’t die, Ren.  I already tried.  People need me, I can’t die, not even to be with you.  Nikki needs me, and Glen, and Molly and Cygnet.  I’m going to make a car for you though, I promise.  I promise.”

“I don’t give a shit about a car,” he says again, sneering, and that’s when I know it isn’t Ren.

Being played with pisses me off.  “You’re not Ren!” I yell.  “Go away!  It’s my house now and I’m going to take care of it, so don’t fuck with me!”  I crawl forward again, not trying to touch the fake Ren this time, just trying to get past it.  The air gets colder.  This isn’t Marion, it’s one of the others.  I don’t know why she’s underground but I’m in her place and it’s time to leave.

“What’s real?” the thing in the pinstripe suit shouts.  Its voice has changed; now it sounds like Darron.  “Hm?  What’s real, Lexi?”

“You can’t take Darron’s face,” I say, looking down at the ice below my hands and pulling myself forward.  “He isn’t dead yet.”  I sound tough, but I’m really afraid to look up again.  The sight of Darron’s leering face might be enough to make me crawl backward instead of forward.  The last time I saw Darron, Ren was by my side.  I don’t think I can face him alone, even if I know he isn’t real.

I feel myself bumping up against the constriction in the tunnel.  I’m nudging the flashlight along with my fingertips, crawling along on my belly.  I get my head through the hole, then my shoulder, and my hips get stuck for a moment,  and that’s when the laughter starts.  It’s not evil laughter, like you’d expect a malevolent ghost to make.  It’s harsh and mocking, the definition of the word derisive, that flits around inside my head like a confused moth.  It’s the kind of laughter that comes from tripping and knocking over the lunchroom trash can in third grade, for instance.  Who knew those things had wheels? I close my eyes, willing the memory away, and push forward.  It’s a tight squeeze, but I’ve lost weight and I’m able to screw myself through.

On the other side of the tight spot, the air’s warmer.  I still have to crawl on my belly, but there’s elbow room and I can pick up the flashlight.  The laughter stops immediately–I’m past the bad patch, apparently.  I can hear myself breathing in great heaving sobs, and a violent pulse throbs in my neck and ears.  What the hell was that, Marion?  God.

I have to rest for a while, lying full on my belly.  I turn the flashlight off and let the darkness swallow me.  The darkness doesn’t scare me, even knowing that there are ghosts about.  They can’t hurt me.  I’m safer than I was in the house, hypothermia notwithstanding.  If it wasn’t so cold and I wasn’t forced to lie prone, this would be downright prenatal, and probably therapeutic too.  There aren’t any noises that resemble outdoor sounds.  No laughter.  No people.  All I can hear is a faint dripping of falling water, echoing on the tiles over my head, and my heartbeat.

After listening to my heart throb for a while, I break the silence.  I tell it, “There was a young lady from Ryde, who ate some green apples and died.  The apples fermented, inside the lamented, and made cider inside her inside!” 

With that said, I am ready to continue.  I turn the light on and start forward again.  The water-noises get louder, and the debris begins to slope away from the arch of tile above me, dropping gently until I can stand…and–oh joy!–I’m facing another car.  “If I’m dreaming,” I tell whoever’s listening, “I’m going to be really pissed off when I wake.”  It’s a 1934 LaSalle, a roadster whose top is amazingly intact, if incredibly brittle.  I don’t prod it too hard, because it’ll probably crumble into little icy chunks.  Like the Cord, it’s locked in ice up to the axles.  There’s water dripping from the ceiling, too.  And at the other end of the cavern in front of me, impossible of all impossibles, there is a slightly squashed, slightly lopsided, stove-in-on-all-sides-by-rock-and-dirt farmhouse.  In the glow cast by the flashlight it looks as tired as I feel.

Three cars and an extra house!  “Big brown bear, blue bull, beautiful baboon, blowing bubbles biking backwards!  Bullshit!” I yell, laughing and doing a moderately lewd victory celebration that, for the record, Ren named the “Victorious Gorilla.” 

Of course I go into the house first.  The porch creaks ominously, but it’s wedged into the clay and dirt surrounding it so tightly that it couldn’t possibly fall down.  I walk around the first floor, poking into each and every room in stubborn denial of the fact that the whole thing could come down on my head at any moment.  The furniture is still here, what’s left of it, although it’s scattered all over the floor and upended.  I wonder if it’s Dorothy’s house.  I don’t see a pair of witch’s legs poking out from underneath, in any case.  The roof of the house disappears into the dirt that forms the roof of the cavern.  It must have dropped straight into the cave.  Wouldn’t the family have been surprised!  Judging by the volume of personal goods scattered throughout, there were no rescue missions after the house fell into its own basement, and judging by the lack of skeletal remains, the family probably survived. 

The back of the house is flush up against the wall of the cavern, and there’s fresh air coming through the back door.  I open it, and find a pile of trash that’s more modern than the house and an upward-sloping tunnel that goes up about fifty feet, and whose top is blocked with snow and roots.  So there’s a way out.  Good.  After a moment I realize that some of what I thought were roots are actually big fat staples of rebar, like those found in sewers.  So it’s definitely a way out. 

I inspect the LaSalle, too, as thoroughly as I did the Cord and Packard.  It’s in good shape, all things considered.  The beautiful bumpers are intact, and they make me smile.

Behind me, back past the car, I hear noises, a scratching, and then POP POP POP someone’s shooting a gun in the tunnel I just came through.