She laughed softly. “Well, good then. As long as you know.” I knew I wasn’t going to erase that anger, but we were talking.
As darkness spread that evening, the frogs croaked and a few newly resurrected insects buzzed about campus, and the four of us—Takumi, Lara, the Colonel, and I—walked through the cold gray light of a full moon to the Smoking Hole.
“Hey, Colonel, why do you call eet the Smoking Hole?” Lara asked. “Eet’s, like, a tunnel.”
“It’s like fishing hole,” the Colonel said. “Like, if we fished, we’d fish here. But we smoke. I don’t know. I think Alaska named it.” The Colonel pulled a cigarette out of his pack and threw it into the water.
“What the hell?” I asked.
“For her,” he said.
I half smiled and followed his lead, throwing in a cigarette of my own. I handed Takumi and Lara cigarettes, and they followed suit. The smokes bounced and danced in the stream for a few moments, and then they floated out of sight.
I was not religious, but I liked rituals. I liked the idea of connecting an action with remembering. In China, the Old Man had told us, there are days reserved for grave cleaning, where you make gifts to the dead. And I imagined that Alaska would want a smoke, and so it seemed to me that the Colonel had begun an excellent ritual.
The Colonel spit into the stream and broke the silence. “Funny thing, talking to ghosts,” he said. “You can’t tell if you’re making up their answers or if they are really talking to you.”
“I say we make a list,” Takumi said, steering clear of introspective talk. “What kind of proof do we have of suicide?” The Colonel pulled out his omnipresent notebook.
“She never hit the brakes,” I said, and the Colonel started scribbling.
And she was awfully upset about something, although she’d been awfully upset without committing suicide many times before. We considered that maybe the flowers were some kind of memorial to herself—like a funeral arrangement or something. But that didn’t seem very Alaskan to us. She was cryptic, sure, but if you’re going to plan your suicide down to the flowers, you probably have a plan as to how you’re actually going to die, and Alaska had no way of knowing a police car was going to present itself on I-65 for the occasion.
And the evidence suggesting an accident?
“She was really drunk, so she could have thought she wasn’t going to hit the cop, although I don’t know how,” Takumi said.
“She could have fallen asleep,” Lara offered.
“Yeah, we’ve thought about that,” I said. “But I don’t think you keep driving straight if you fall asleep.”
“I can’t think of a way to find out that does not put our lives in considerable danger,” the Colonel deadpanned. “Anyway, she didn’t show warning signs of suicide. I mean, she didn’t talk about wanting to die or give away her stuff or anything.”
“That’s two. Drunk and no plans to die,” Takumi said. This wasn’t going anywhere. Just a different dance with the same question. What we needed wasn’t more thinking. We needed more evidence.
“We have to find out where she was going,” the Colonel said.
“The last people she talked to were me, you, and Jake,” I said to him. “And we don’t know. So how the hell are we going to find out?”
Takumi looked over at the Colonel and sighed. “I don’t think it would help, to know where she was going. I think that would make it worse for us. Just a gut feeling.”
“Well, my gut wants to know,” Lara said, and only then did I realize what Takumi meant the day we’d showered together—I may have kissed her, but I really didn’t have a monopoly on Alaska; the Colonel and I weren’t the only ones who cared about her, and weren’t alone in trying to figure out how she died and why.
“Well, regardless,” said the Colonel, “we’re at a dead end. So one of you think of something to do. Because I’m out of investigative tools.”
He flicked his cigarette butt into the creek, stood up, and left. We followed him. Even in defeat, he was still the Colonel.
fifty-one days after
THE INVESTIGATION STALLED, I took to reading for religion class again, which seemed to please the Old Man, whose pop quizzes I’d been failing consistently for a solid six weeks. We had one that Wednesday morning: Share an example of a Buddhist koan. A koan is like a riddle that’s supposed to help you toward enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. For my answer, I wrote about this guy Banzan. He was walking through the market one day when he overheard someone ask a butcher for his best piece of meat. The butcher answered, “Everything in my shop is the best. You cannot find a piece of meat that is not the best.” Upon hearing this, Banzan realized that there is no best and no worst, that those judgments have no real meaning because there is only what is, and poof, he reached enlightenment. Reading it the night before, I’d wondered if it would be like that for me—if in one moment, I would finally understand her, know her, and understand the role I’d played in her dying. But I wasn’t convinced enlightenment struck like lightning.
After we’d passed our quizzes, the Old Man, sitting, grabbed his cane and motioned toward Alaska’s fading question on the blackboard. “Let’s look at one sentence on page ninety-four of this very entertaining introduction to Zen that I had you read this week. ‘Everything that comes together falls apart,’” the Old Man said. “Everything. The chair I’m sitting on. It was built, and so it will fall apart. I’m gonna fall apart, probably before this chair. And you’re gonna fall apart. The cells and organs and systems that make you you—they came together, grew together, and so must fall apart. The Buddha knew one thing science didn’t prove for millennia after his death: Entropy increases. Things fall apart.”
We are all going, I thought, and it applies to turtles and turtle-necks, Alaska the girl and Alaska the place, because nothing can last, not even the earth itself. The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire, we’d learned, and that the cessation of desire meant the cessation of suffering. When you stopped wishing things wouldn’t fall apart, you’d stop suffering when they did.
Someday no one will remember that she ever existed, I wrote in my notebook, and then, or that I did. Because memories fall apart, too. And then you’re left with nothing, left not even with a ghost but with its shadow. In the beginning, she had haunted me, haunted my dreams, but even now, just weeks later, she was slipping away, falling apart in my memory and everyone else’s, dying again.
The Colonel, who had driven the Investigation from the start, who had cared about what happened to her when I only cared if she loved me, had given up on it, answerless. And I didn’t like what answers I had: She hadn’t even cared enough about what happened between us to tell Jake; instead, she had just talked cute with him, giving him no reason to think that minutes before, I’d tasted her boozy breath. And then something invisible snapped inside her, and that which had come together commenced to fall apart.
And maybe that was the only answer we’d ever have. She fell apart because that’s what happens. The Colonel seemed resigned to that, but if the Investigation had once been his idea, it was now the thing that held me together, and I still hoped for enlightenment.
sixty-two days after
THE NEXT SUNDAY, I slept in until the late-morning sunlight slivered through the blinds and found its way to my face. I pulled the comforter over my head, but the air got hot and stale, so I got up to call my parents.
“Miles!” my mom said before I even said hello. “We just got caller identification.”
“Does it magically know it’s me calling from the pay phone?” She laughed. “No, it just says ‘pay phone’ and the area code. So I deduced. How are you?” she asked, a warm concern in her voice.
“I’m doing okay. I kinda screwed up some of my classes for a while, but I’m back to studying now, so it should be fine,” I said, and that was mostly true.
“I know it’s been hard on you, buddy,” she said. “Oh! Guess who your dad and I saw at a party last night? Mrs. Forrester. Your fourth-grade teacher! Remember? She remembered you perfectly, and spoke very highly of you, and we just talked”—and while I was pleased to know that Mrs. Forrester held my fourth-grade self in high regard, I only half listened as I read the scribbled notes on the white-painted pine wall on either side of the phone, looking for any new ones I might be able to decode (Lacy’s—Friday, 10 were the when and where of a Weekday Warrior party, I figured)—“and we had dinner with the Johnstons last night and I’m afraid that Dad had too much wine. We played charades and he was just awful.” She laughed, and I felt so tired, but someone had dragged the bench away from the pay phone, so I sat my bony butt down on the hard concrete, pulling the silver cord of the phone taut and preparing for a serious soliloquy from my mom, and then down below all the other notes and scribbles, I saw a drawing of a flower. Twelve oblong petals around a filled-in circle against the daisy-white paint, and daisies, white daisies, and I could hear her saying, What do you see, Pudge? Look, and I could see her sitting drunk on the phone with Jake talking about nothing and What are you doing? and she says, Nothing, just doodling, just doodling. And then, Oh God.
“Yeah, sorry, Mom. Sorry. Chip’s here. We gotta go study. I gotta go.”
“Will you call us later, then? I’m sure Dad wants to talk to you.”
“Yeah, Mom; yeah, of course. I love you, okay? Okay, I gotta go.”
“I think I found something!” I shouted at the Colonel, invisible beneath his blanket, but the urgency in my voice and the promise of something, anything, found, woke the Colonel up instantly, and he jumped from his bunk to the linoleum. Before I could say anything, he grabbed yesterday’s jeans and sweatshirt from the floor, pulled them on, and followed me outside.
“Look.” I pointed, and he squatted down beside the phone and said, “Yeah. She drew that. She was always doodling those flowers.”
“And ‘just doodling,’ remember? Jake asked her what she was doing and she said ‘just doodling,’ and then she said ‘Oh God’ and freaked out. She looked at the doodle and remembered something.”
“Good memory, Pudge,” he acknowledged, and I wondered why the Colonel wouldn’t just get excited about it.
“And then she freaked out,” I repeated, “and went and got the tulips while we were getting the fireworks. She saw the doodle, remembered whatever she’d forgotten, and then freaked out.”
“Maybe,” he said, still staring at the flower, trying perhaps to see it as she had. He stood up finally and said, “It’s a solid theory, Pudge,” and reached up and patted my shoulder, like a coach complimenting a player. “But we still don’t know what she forgot.”
sixty-nine days after
A WEEK AFTER THE DISCOVERY of the doodled flower, I’d resigned myself to its insignificance—I wasn’t Banzan in the meat market after all—and as the maples around campus began to hint of resurrection and the maintenance crew began mowing the grass in the dorm circle again, it seemed to me we had finally lost her.
The Colonel and I walked into the woods down by the lake that afternoon and smoked a cigarette in the precise spot where the Eagle had caught us so many months before. We’d just come from a town meeting, where the Eagle announced the school was going to build a playground by the lake in memory of Alaska. She did like swings, I guess, but a playground? Lara stood up at the meeting—surely a first for her—and said they should do something funnier, something Alaska herself would have done.
Now, by the lake, sitting on a mossy, half-rotten log, the Colonel said to me, “Lara was right. We should do something for her. A prank. Something she would have loved.”
“Like, a memorial prank?”
“Exactly. The Alaska Young Memorial Prank. We can make it an annual event. Anyway, she came up with this idea last year. But she wanted to save it to be our senior prank. But it’s good. It’s really good. It’s historic.”
“Are you going to tell me?” I asked, thinking back to the time when he and Alaska had left me out of prank planning for Barn Night.
“Sure,” he said. “The prank is entitled ‘Subverting the Patriarchal Paradigm.’ ” And he told me, and I have to say, Alaska left us with the crown jewel of pranks, the Mona Lisa of high-school hilarity, the culmination of generations of Culver Creek pranking. And if the Colonel could pull it off, it would be etched in the memory of everyone at the Creek, and Alaska deserved nothing less. Best of all, it did not, technically, involve any expellable offenses.
The Colonel got up and dusted the dirt and moss off his pants. “I think we owe her that.”
And I agreed, but still, she owed us an explanation. If she was up there, down there, out there, somewhere, maybe she would laugh. And maybe—just maybe—she would give us the clue we needed.
eighty-three days after
TWO WEEKS LATER, the Colonel returned from spring break with two notebooks filled with the minutiae of prank planning, sketches of various locations, and a forty-page, two-column list of problems that might crop up and their solutions. He calculated all times to a tenth of a second, and all distances to the inch, and then he recalculated, as if he could not bear the thought of failing her again. And then on that Sunday, the Colonel woke up late and rolled over. I was reading The Sound and the Fury, which I was supposed to have read in mid-February, and I looked up as I heard the rustling in the bed, and the Colonel said, “Let’s get the band back together.” And so I ventured out into the overcast spring and woke up Lara and Takumi, then brought them back to Room 43. The Barn Night crew was intact—or as close as it ever would be—for the Alaska Young Memorial Prank.