My mother always painted a grim picture of death. Death should be bony and have talons dark and dry as the hulls of beetles and probably have some sort of awful smell like chicken crap or moth balls or the two mixed together. Death is gross. He’s a thief and a manipulator and he’s the shoot-first-ask-questions-later type. To be avoided, surely. Nobody likes death, but if you do, he takes you without a fight. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Luckily for my mother, I had no intentions of looking for death. I didn’t drive too fast or climb trees or hunt bears. Mostly because I spent most of my time taking pictures of other people driving too fast or climbing trees or hunting bears. My friends were the brave ones. I was always slightly to the left, removed. My photos were my social saving grace because my idiot buddies loved their own triumphs, and I was the hero who was close enough to the action to get the money shots. They were the risk takers. I was close behind, but always just out of death’s creeping reach. Maybe it makes me a coward, but I hoped it just kept me alive.
Death was a hungry thing. Lincoln High was having a bad year. Death was never satisfied with us.
The morning of Olan’s funeral was full of sun and a breeze that was just enough to make the trees whisper. The sun was a betrayal, and it looked weird to see so much black under a bright blue sky. I think my whole school came, though I bet only a few actually knew him. Death in a small town makes you famous. It was a sea of kids in suits that didn’t fit crying over a boy they probably gave the knee-jerk “Have a great summer!” bullshit at yearbook signing time.
He was a good friend. He was crazy in the way that made bungee jumping look like something my homeroom teacher did everyday before breakfast. On a dirt bike I often mistook him for a member of the Knievel family. Got some of my best shots of him getting air over jumps at the Corbin Quarry. Gravity got the best of him there, and death found him on the rocks.
I tried not to think of what made him jump without a helmet and left his bike intact.
“James. This is such shit.” Ben was at my elbow, carefully studying the buttons on his jacket.
“I know,” I said.
They began to lower the casket. Some of my classmates were beginning to wail, and my teeth were starting to ache from the pressure.
“Wanna bail?” Ben smelled like booze and looked like hell.
“Nah, go home. Go to bed.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “Text me later?”
I nodded and watched him go.
This is such shit.
A shot of purple caught my eye as I spun back to the memorial. Katie Pruitt sat with her back against a grave, knees pulled up to her chest, face in her hands. I turned my back on the disappearing casket, and walked toward her.
“Hey,” I said, my voice sounding loud around all marble.
She gazed up at me, blue eyes squinting into the damn sunshine.
“James Lawton, you look like a penguin.” Her voice cracked and she swiped at her eyes.
“Penguins are the new black. You okay?” Dumbest question ever.
“Yeah,” she said, “I just miss him, I guess.”
I sat down next to her. We sat in silence with trees shivering around us and watched the other penguins drag their feet towards beat up Toyotas and jacked up pickups.
“Yeah, me too,” I said.
Air gusted out of her lungs and she nodded. She looked at me, her eyes bright with tears and frustration. I never understood what made Olan so crazy about her, but I liked her better for the honesty written in the tired sag of her shoulders and the way her clothes looked slept in. “Thank God that’s over.” She pulled up handfuls of grass and let the wind take them.
“I know right? Want to get out of here?”
“Really?” I stood up, and she brought up a hand to shield her eyes.
“Why not?” I asked.
She shrugged, wiped her hands on her jeans, and got up.
We talked all night, and most of the nights after that for weeks. At first about Olan and the way Carrie Gunther sobbed at his funeral even though they had never had a class together. And then about other things like good music and bad movies, and eventually death and his stench was in the back of my mind, and Katie was in the front.
She was honest, quiet, sarcastic. She liked my dog and looked at my pictures and had dinner with my family and wasn’t even embarrassed when they raised their eyebrows at our “just friends” responses.
Later that night she sprawled on my bed as we watched a spectacularly bad action movie. She breathed slow, entirely comfortable in my room, hands behind her head, t-shirt rucking up so that her lower back rested on my plaid comforter in a way that made me wish I was my plaid comforter.
I brushed a hand along her arm, crossing a line I didn’t know was there until I did it. She looked at me, eyes burning.
“What?” I asked, my hand resting against her forearm, making circles with my thumb.
She didn’t answer, so I raised the hand to her neck, resting there, one finger brushing her collarbone. She breathed carefully, her pulse flying against my fingers.
“Katie, what?” She was so quiet, and all I wanted was to kiss her.
“Don’t do it,” she said. Her eyes still burned, as if the blue was taking over the white.
“I’ll hurt you.” Her voice was thin.
I raked my other hand through her hair and she leaned toward me, hooking her fingers into the shoulder seam of my shirt.
“You won’t.” My voice sounded strange.
She closed the space between us, all heat and grasping. Her lips were soft but her hands were rough.
I broke away, not enough air.
Her eyes were entirely cobalt, and her touch burned. Her smile was fierce as explosions on the TV threw us into orange light. She looked wild.
She gripped my shoulders hard and pulled me in again, kissing until I couldn’t breathe. I leaned away but she came with me, pressing me into all the plaid.
My heart hammered, head swam with the rush of her.
Again I tried to turn away to catch my breath, and again she stopped me. Fingers became claws. I smelled something sharp, chemical. Moth balls.
No air, heart crashing.
She was too strong, too everything.
She arched her back as dark wings snapped out from her back. I couldn’t even scream around her hungry mouth.
Her lips curved into a smile around mine as I struggled against strength she shouldn’t have had.
My vision blurred.
Tunneled to pinpricks.
Was not a dude.
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