The Colonel sighed and pulled a pack of Pudge Fund cigarettes of his jeans pocket. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to! Do I have provide you with an in-depth analysis of every decision I make?”
The Colonel lit the cigarette with a lighter I’d paid for and took a drag. “Whatever. It needs to be figured out, and I need your help to do it, because between the two of us we knew her pretty well. So that’s that.”
I stood up and stared down at him sitting smugly, and he blew a thin stream of smoke at my face, and I’d had enough. “I’m tired of following orders, asshole! I’m not going to sit with you and discuss the finer points of her relationship with Jake, goddamn it. I can’t say it any clearer: I don’t want to know about them. I already know what she told me, and that’s all I need to know, and you can be a condescending prick as long as you’d like, but I’m not going to sit around and chat with you about how goddamned much she loved Jake! Now give me my cigarettes.” The Colonel threw the pack on the ground and was up in a flash, a fistful of my sweater in his hand, trying but failing to pull me down to his height.
“You don’t even care about her!” he shouted. “All that matters is you and your precious fucking fantasy that you and Alaska had this goddamned secret love affair and she was going to leave Jake for you and you’d live happily ever after. But she kissed a lot of guys, Pudge. And if she were here, we both know that she would still be Jake’s girlfriend and that there’d be nothing but drama between the two of you—not love, not sex, just you pining after her and her like, ‘You’re cute, Pudge, but I love Jake.’ If she loved you so much, why did she leave you that night? And if you loved her so much, why’d you help her go? I was drunk. What’s your excuse?”
The Colonel let go of my sweater, and I reached down and picked up the cigarettes. Not screaming, not through clenched teeth, not with the veins pulsing in my forehead, but calmly. Calmly. I looked down at the Colonel and said, “Fuck you.”
The vein-pulsing screaming came later, after I had jogged across Highway 119 and through the dorm circle and across the soccer field and down the dirt road to the bridge, when I found myself at the Smoking Hole. I picked up a blue chair and threw it against the concrete wall, and the clang of plastic on concrete echoed beneath the bridge as the chair fell limply on its side, and then I lay on my back with my knees hanging over the precipice and screamed. I screamed because the Colonel was a self-satisfied, condescending bastard, and I screamed because he was right, for I did want to believe that I’d had a secret love affair with Alaska. Did she love me? Would she have left Jake for me? Or was it just another impulsive Alaska moment? It was not enough to be the last guy she kissed. I wanted to be the last one she loved. And I knew I wasn’t. I knew it, and I hated her for it. I hated her for not caring about me. I hated her for leaving that night, and I hated myself, too, not only because I let her go but because if I had been enough for her, she wouldn’t have even wanted to leave. She would have just lain with me and talked and cried, and I would have listened and kissed at her tears as they pooled in her eyes.
I turned my head and looked at one of the little blue plastic chairs on its side. I wondered if there would ever be a day when I didn’t think about Alaska, wondered whether I should hope for a time when she would be a distant memory—recalled only on the anniversary of her death, or maybe a couple of weeks after, remembering only after having forgotten.
I knew that I would know more dead people. The bodies pile up. Could there be a space in my memory for each of them, or would I forget a little of Alaska every day for the rest of my life?
Once, early on in the year, she and I had walked down to the Smoking Hole, and she jumped into Culver Creek with her flip-flops still on. She stepped across the creek, picking her steps carefully over the mossy rocks, and grabbed a waterlogged stick from the creek bank. As I sat on the concrete, my feet dangling toward the water, she overturned rocks with the stick and pointed out the skittering crawfish.
“You boil ’em and then suck the heads out,” she said excitedly. “That’s where all the good stuff is—the heads.”
She taught me everything I knew about crawfish and kissing and pink wine and poetry. She made me different.
I lit a cigarette and spit into the creek. “You can’t just make me different and then leave,” I said out loud to her. “Because I was fine before, Alaska. I was fine with just me and last words and school friends, and you can’t just make me different and then die.” For she had embodied the Great Perhaps—she had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes, and now she was gone and with her my faith in perhaps. I could call everything the Colonel said and did “fine.” I could try to pretend that I didn’t care anymore, but it could never be true again. You can’t just make yourself matter and then die, Alaska, because now I am irretrievably different, and I’m sorry I let you go, yes, but you made the choice. You left me Perhapsless, stuck in your goddamned labyrinth. And now I don’t even know if you chose the straight and fast way out, if you left me like this on purpose. And so I never knew you, did I? I can’t remember, because I never knew.
And as I stood up to walk home and make my peace with the Colonel, I tried to imagine her in that chair, but I could not remember whether she crossed her legs. I could still see her smiling at me with half of Mona Lisa’s smirk, but I couldn’t picture her hands well enough to see her holding a cigarette. I needed, I decided, to really know her, because I needed more to remember. Before I could begin the shameful process of forgetting the how and the why of her living and dying, I needed to learn it: How. Why. When. Where. What.
At Room 43, after quickly offered and accepted apologies, the Colonel said, “We’ve made a tactical decision to push back calling Jake. We’re going to pursue some other avenues first.”
twenty-one days after
AS DR. HYDE shuffled into class the next morning, Takumi sat down next to me and wrote a note on the edge of his notebook. Lunch at McInedible, it read.
I scribbled Okay on my own notebook and then turned to a blank page as Dr. Hyde started talking about Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam. I’d only scanned through the reading—I’d been studying only enough not to fail—but in my scanning, I’d come across great last words. This poor Sufi dressed in rags walked into a jewelry store owned by a rich merchant and asked him, “Do you know how you’re going to die?” The merchant answered, “No. No one knows how they’re going to die.” And the Sufi said, “I do.”
“How?” asked the merchant.
And the Sufi lay down, crossed his arms, said, “Like this,” and died, whereupon the merchant promptly gave up his store to live a life of poverty in pursuit of the kind of spiritual wealth the dead Sufi had acquired.
But Dr. Hyde was telling a different story, one that I’d skipped. “Karl Marx famously called religion ‘the opiate of the masses.’ Buddhism, particularly as it is popularly practiced, promises improvement through karma. Islam and Christianity promise eternal paradise to the faithful. And that is a powerful opiate, certainly, the hope of a better life to come. But there’s a Sufi story that challenges the notion that people believe only because they need an opiate. Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, ‘I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.’ ”
A woman so strong she burns heaven and drenches hell. Alaska would have liked this Rabe’a woman, I wrote in my notebook. But even so, the afterlife mattered to me. Heaven and hell and reincarnation. As much as I wanted to know how Alaska had died, I wanted to know where she was now, if anywhere. I liked to imagine her looking down on us, still aware of us, but it seemed like a fantasy, and I never really felt it—just as the Colonel had said at the funeral that she wasn’t there, wasn’t anywhere. I couldn’t honestly imagine her as anything but dead, her body rotting in Vine Station, the rest of her just a ghost alive only in our remembering. Like Rabe’a, I didn’t think people should believe in God because of heaven and hell. But I didn’t feel a need to run around with a torch. You can’t burn down a made-up place.
After class, as Takumi picked through his fries at McInedible, eating only the crunchiest, I felt the total loss of her, still reeling from the idea that she was not only gone from this world but from all of them.
“How have you been?” I asked.
“Uh,” he said, a mouth full of fries, “nah good. You?”
“Not good.” I took a bite of cheeseburger. I’d gotten a plastic stock car with my Happy Meal, and it sat overturned on the table. I spun the wheels.
“I miss her,” Takumi said, pushing away his tray, uninterested in the remaining soggy fries.
“Yeah. I do, too. I’m sorry, Takumi,” and I meant it in the largest possible way. I was sorry we ended up like this, spinning wheels at a McDonald’s. Sorry the person who had brought us together now lay dead between us. I was sorry I let her die. Sorry I haven’t talked to you because you couldn’t know the truth about the Colonel and me, and I hated being around you and having to pretend that my grief is this uncomplicated thing—pretending that she died and I miss her instead of that she died because of me.
“Me too. You’re not dating Lara anymore, are you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay. She was kind of wondering.”
I had been ignoring her, but by then she had begun to ignore me back, so I figured it was over, but maybe not. “Well,” I told Takumi, “I just can’t—I don’t know, man. That’s pretty complicated.”
“Sure. She’ll understand. Sure. All good.”
“Listen, Pudge. I—ah, I don’t know. It sucks, huh?”
twenty-seven days after
SIX DAYS LATER, four Sundays after the last Sunday, the Colonel and I were trying to shoot each other with paintball guns while turning 900s in a half pipe. “We need booze. And we need to borrow the Eagle’s Breathalyzer.”
“Borrow it? Do you know where it is?”
“Yeah. He’s never made you take one?”
“Um. No. He thinks I’m a nerd.”
“You are a nerd, Pudge. But you’re not gonna let a detail like that keep you from drinking.” Actually, I hadn’t drunk since that night, and didn’t feel particularly inclined to ever take it up ever again.
Then I nearly elbowed the Colonel in the face, swinging my arms wildly as if contorting my body in the right ways mattered as much as pressing the right buttons at the right moments—the same video-game-playing delusion that had always gripped Alaska. But the Colonel was so focused on the game he didn’t even notice. “Do you have a plan for how, exactly, we’re going to steal the Breathalyzer from inside the Eagle’s house?”
The Colonel looked over at me and said, “Do you suck at this game?” and then, without turning back to the screen, shot my skater in the balls with a blue paint blast. “But first, we gotta get some liquor, because the ambrosia’s sour and my booze connection is—”
“POOF. Gone,” I finished.
When I opened his door, Takumi was sitting at his desk, boxy headphones surrounding his entire head, bouncing his head to the beat. He seemed oblivious to us. “Hey,” I said. Nothing. “Takumi!” Nothing. “TAKUMI!” He turned around and pulled off his headphones. I closed the door behind me and said, “You got any alcohol?”
“Why?” he asked.
“Uh, because we want to get drunk?” the Colonel answered.
“Great. I’ll join you.”
“Takumi,” the Colonel said. “This is—we need to do this alone.”
“No. I’ve had enough of that shit.” Takumi stood up, walked into his bathroom, and came out with a Gatorade bottle filled with clear liquid. “I keep it in the medicine cabinet,” Takumi said. “On account of how it’s medicine.” He pocketed the bottle and then walked out of the room, leaving the door open behind him. A moment later, he peeked his head back in and, brilliantly mimicking the Colonel’s bossy bass voice, said, “Christ, you comin’ or what?”
“Takumi,” the Colonel said. “Okay. Look, what we’re doing is a little dangerous, and I don’t want you caught up in it. Honestly. But, listen, we’ll tell you everything starting tomorrow.”
“I’m tired of all this secret shit. She was my friend, too.”
He pulled the bottle out of his pocket and tossed it to me. “Tomorrow,” he said.
“I don’t really want him to know,” I said as we walked back to the room, the Gatorade bottle stuffed in the pocket of my sweatshirt. “He’ll hate us.”
“Yeah, well, he’ll hate us more if we keep pretending he doesn’t exist,” the Colonel answered.
Fifteen minutes later, I stood at the Eagle’s doorstep.
He opened the door with a spatula in hand, smiled, and said, “Miles, come in. I was just making an egg sandwich. Want one?”
“No thanks,” I said, following the Eagle into his kitchen.
My job was to keep him out of his living room for thirty seconds so the Colonel could get the Breathalyzer undetected. I coughed loudly to let the Colonel know the coast was clear. The Eagle picked up his egg sandwich and took a bite. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he asked.