© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.
Story & Characters © Lewis Smith. All Rights Reserved.
Jeff Brower flailed at the screeching alarm with a hand guided by the struggle between instinct and drowsiness. After about a minute of the noise he succeeded in hitting he off switch and lay in bed for a few seconds, as if gathering his courage.
He sighed and swung his legs over, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking around his room. Though outwardly it seemed the picture of disarray -- a heap of clothes here, a pile of sketchbooks on what might have been a table at one time over there, a pile of CDs near the stereo, but he never had any trouble finding anything.
Especially half-asleep. He yawned and rubbed his chin, and set about dressing himself, quickly snatching a pair of jeans and a T-shirt from the pile closest to the bed and dressing himself. He looked out the window as he reached for his wallet and his car keys next to his alarm clock, blindly knocking all three to the floor.
What day is it? He wondered, already knowing the answer. It was Wednesday, the 20th of April. THE day. He looked out the window at the early morning sun struggling to illuminate the town of Sawyer and was losing. High clouds made the whole sky gray and Jeff had the feeling it was going to be that way most of the day.
He had lived in Sawyer for two years now and he could never remember a day when it had been . . . perfect. Sawyer was like most Coastal North Carolina towns -- gloomy in the early spring, too hot for the late spring and summer, and constantly gloomy no matter what time of the year. A melancholy seemed to hang over the whole town.
He tied his tennis shoes and walked to the bathroom, his mind gradually awakening. He stared in the mirror, wetting a washcloth and washing his face. Sawyer was a bit of a comedown for someone like him who'd lived most of his life in the city. He had found that people tended to view him with circumspection -- in school he was something of an outcast and a celebrity all at once. Everyone else in the county had grown up together; Jeff might as well have been from another planet.
He padded downstairs. His parents had already gone to work and he idly grabbed a soda from the fridge and popped the top, taking a drink and thinking about the day ahead.
Never like this in the movies, he thought. Cutting school was always supposed to be an excuse to party. I feel like I'm going to a funeral.
He finished the soda and took another one for the road, fishing his car keys out of the pocket of his jeans. He looked at them in the palm of his hand for a second and wondered why they felt so heavy all of a sudden.
It's not the keys, he thought. Just the trip.
Jeff's late model black Chevrolet hummed to life as reliably as it always had. It had been his constant companion and his freedom ever since his cousin had sold it to him for $150. His parents, never entirely comfortable with the idea of Jeff driving, told him to respect it and drive those wheels to the end of the road, because they'd be damned if they bought him another car before he went to college.
He negotiated the side streets of Sawyer, slowly passing by blocks of streets all dotted with gray mill-houses. Sawyer had been textile country once -- on the other side of town the plant stretched over a solid mile behind barbed-wire fences that made it look like a prison. A year ago, the textile mill had closed down, which had sent a ripple of panic through the town. Generations had passed through those doors, entire careers had been planned to run through that mill.
There wasn't much else to hope for. Jeff pondered this as he drove down the main drag of Sawyer, framed on both sides by deserted storefronts, junk stores -- Main Street USA rusting right before his eyes. He remembered driving through towns like this when he moved down here, places that had seemed so full of life, but were like ghost towns now -- a few old buildings with faded and rusted Coca-Cola signs, but no people.
Jeff turned off the main drag at Sawyer's one and only traffic light. Gradually the mill houses fell away into mobile home parks, more people cramped in tiny living spaces, hanging on by their fingernails. He turned down one narrow side street into one of the parks, his small car suddenly seemed to be huge in the cramped confines of the trailer park.
He came to a trailer at the end of the line and waited at the edge of the driveway. He saw some movement in the windows and then the groan and clank of a door barely hanging on its hinges. Amanda Harris picked a strand of dirty blonde hair that had blown over her face and stared down at Jeff from the weather-beaten wooden deck and tried to manage a smile.
It was impossible to believe this was the same woman Jeff had thought was the most beautiful woman in the world once. She wore dirty jeans and a faded T-shirt from some bar from the coast under a huge flannel shirt that was obviously not hers.
Jeff just stared. He had agreed to take Amanda to the city today, to cut school, for her. And it would have all made perfect sense, but for one detail.
Jeff hated Amanda more than he could say.
Amanda jogged down the deck steps and Jeff leaned over and opened the passenger side door. Amanda slid in and slammed the door in a way that made Jeff grimace.
Jeff put his right hand against the passenger headrest and carefully backed out of her trailer's driveway. He felt like he should say something but he felt like he had something in his throat, some kind of venom he might belch out at any time. It was an anger that reminded Jeff it was there every time he looked at her.
It hadn't always been that way, of course. For the previous two years, he had been pursuing Amanda, wanting to date her. Amanda hadn't given any indication that she wanted to be anything more than friends, but that hadn’t deterred him a bit, and for a time, all he thought was how he could win her.
As if love was something you could convince people of.
Part of that meant they hung out a lot -- Amanda didn’t have a car but Jeff could always be persuaded to take her to someone's house for a drinking party. Jeff, the perpetual outsider, was also the perpetual designated driver and usually went off by himself until she was ready to go home, or until she was leaning over the toilet, puking her guts out.
The things we do for love, he thought ruefully.
He negotiated his way out of the trailer park and made his way to the outskirts of Sawyer. Houses became less and less common, soon there were fields of dull brown weeds in every direction with a small two-lane road shot between them.
"What did you tell your mom?" Jeff asked Amanda, who was curled up in the seat, apparently trying to go to sleep.
"I told her I was going over to Teresa's house," she replied neutrally. "She doesn’t care if I cut school or not."
"What if she calls and you aren't there?"
"She can't," Amanda sighed. "Teresa's family got their phone turned off last week, and she hates Teresa's mom so I doubt she'll go to any trouble looking for me."
Like mother, like daughter, Jeff thought, keeping his eyes on the road. Neither of you seems to take the time to think about what you’re doing or what you should do. "Okay," Jeff said. "So long as I don’t get in trouble."
"If you were afraid of that why are you doing it?"
"I don’t know," Jeff said.
An hour later, they had crossed the state line into Virginia and the rusty dull browns and grays had given way to green below and blue above. To Jeff it was like he had escaped the cloud that seemed to hang over Sawyer. Amanda leaned against the window, asleep.
Jeff sighed and cracked his window, turning the radio up a bit. An hour or so ahead lay the city of Norfolk, the place he would always call home. Maybe once they had done what they had come to do, he could go back to the places he used to go. Maybe they were still there. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad . . .
He frowned and immediately rolled the window back up. Fooling myself, he thought. Nothing for me here or back there. Nothing for me in my own car but this . . .
He blinked, shocked by what he was about to think. Did he really hate her that bad? He felt so strange, like he didn’t know his own head. Hadn’t it just been six months ago or so that the sun had risen and set by her? Wasn't Amanda everything he had ever wanted in a woman?
Where the hell had all the bitterness and hate come from?
He sighed and rolled the window back down again. He wondered why he had agreed to take her. Did he feel responsible for what had happened? Guilty for hating her, for walking by her in school, for answering every question she asked curtly because he was afraid of losing his temper?
If that was the case, why didn’t the weight he had felt in his heart since that night six months ago shift as they closer? Why couldn’t he close the books on it?
Amanda stirred in her seat, waking up as the Chevy flew down the highway. "Where are we?" she asked in her quiet Carolina drawl.
"We've got another hour until we're there," Jeff said. "Go back to sleep. Unless uhm, you need to stop."
"No," Amanda said. "I'm OK."
It was a lie and they both knew it. In the two weeks that he and Amanda had been planning this trip, he had seen Amanda go further and further downhill. Jeff knew she had $200 in her pocket, some of it gotten by her stealing and pawning her mother's jewelry.
Oddly enough, Jeff didn’t feel one way or the other about that. No, what made his blood boil with Amanda was all the time he felt he'd wasted on her.
Who'd bought her dozens of flowers every Valentine's Day? Who'd driven her to party after party so she could get loaded and throw up? Or felt up by other guys, some well past her own seventeen years?
And worst of all, who'd taken all these affronts without a word?
There was the heart of it. Jeff had begun to wonder if she wasn't the problem. It was hard to take the moral high ground as the wronged man when the evidence that you would never be what she wanted was right in front of you and you refused to see it.
So was it really her fault?
Jeff didn’t have an answer.
"MURDER! MURDER! MURDER!"
Jeff rolled up the window as he drove into the parking lot of the clinic, the noise of the people in front of the doors so loud he could feel the glass vibrating from the noise. Amanda was wide-awake now, eyes wide open, not saying a word. She was scared, and so was Jeff.
About twenty people, men and women, stood in front of the doors to the clinic. Some of them carried signs, some with pictures of blood soaked fetuses. All of them were screaming. Jeff couldn’t believe it. This was something you heard about on TV. It couldn't be real.
Not here, he thought. This kind of thing didn’t happen.
He couldn’t take his eyes off of theirs. Every person he looked at had the same glaze over their eyes. Dull unfocused hate. He wondered how long they'd been out there, how long they'd been hating and screaming and jeering the people going inside.
Did they even know what they hated anymore, or was the exercise of pure rage enough?
Amanda's lip quivered and she started to curl up into a ball. "I can't," she said. "I can’t do it. I can't. Let's go back."
Jeff sighed, and took her hand. "C'mon," he said. "I'll go with you."
"But what if one of them grabs me?" Amanda said.
"I uhm, don’t think they're allowed to do that," Jeff said. He didn’t know, actually, but he hadn’t driven all this way for her to chicken out. After all, she wasn't even paying him gas money for this trip. Her mother didn’t have that much jewelry to hock. "But if they do . . .I'll hit them, how about that?"
"Are you allowed to?"
"Well, uhm, they started it, right?" Jeff said. "Besides. I promised to get you there."
Jeff slid out of the driver's side and walked around to hers. For some reason, his mind flashed back to the drive over and how he had started at his own eyes in the rearview mirror and how they narrowed with anger whenever he thought of Amanda. Angry eyes.
He opened the passenger door and helped her out, taking both of her hands in his and holding her close. He mused over the irony in his own mind that this was as close as he had ever been to her. Slowly they walked toward the protestors, the refrain of "MURDER" getting so loud it reverberated in Jeff's chest like the drum corps of a passing marching band.
Amanda squeezed his hands, her knuckles turning white as the protestors turned their wrath on her.
"GOING TO KILL YOUR BABY TODAY?!?!?"
"Keep walking," Jeff said, urging her onward despite her slowed pace. He knew she was this close to bolting back to the car.
"BABY KILLERS BURN IN HELL!"
They were nearly to the door when one of the protestors, a middle-aged man, his eyes crazy with indignation, made a grab for Amanda "YOU'RE GOING TO BURN IN HELL YOU WHORE!"
Jeff's eyes met his as he turned Amanda away from him and backhanded the man across the nose, far harder than he had meant to. The man went to the ground, clutching his bleeding nose. Jeff held Amanda in one hand and shook his fist at him, looking him in the eyes.
In one awful second, Jeff saw his future in his eyes and suddenly his hatred for Amanda snapped into some sort of context. He understood what that anger meant and how if he kept on hating her and keeping it inside, that he would end up like that.
And in that second, he rebelled.
"Don’t you touch her!" Jeff said, pushing her the last final steps to the door and shoving her inside. He followed soon after, leaning against the door, his heart somewhere below his hears, soaked with sweat.
Amanda stared at him. "You weren't kidding when you said you'd punch someone."
"I'm just as surprised as you are," Jeff said, closing his eyes and sighing. He felt sick, but not because of what he'd done. He felt sick because the hate he had seen in that man's eyes looked too much like what he had seen in his own in the rearview mirror.
"Go on," Jeff gasped, gesturing to the sign-in window and the concerned nurse behind bulletproof glass. "Go sign in. I'll . . .be OK."
Amanda walked over to the window, looking concerned for him. Jeff waved away her concern and went to sit down in the waiting area. There were two other women sitting and waiting. Jeff could only tell this by their shoes as he was sitting on the edge of his seat, elbows on his knees, staring intently at the floor.
Finally, one of the women waiting there wedged a tissue under his nose. Jeff took it, surprised to find out he was crying. "Th-thanks," he said, dabbing his face. "Sorry."
The woman who'd handed him the tissue, a slightly older black girl gestured down the hall. "She your girlfriend?"
Jeff thought about it for what seemed like a long time. There were a lot of things in his head, most of them the final pieces of a puzzle with a most unpleasant picture.
But even faced with unpleasant reality, Jeff felt a peculiar sense of relief.
"No," Jeff sighed. "Just a friend."
An hour or so later, Amanda was walked back out to him like a lost child. She looked paler, weaker, certainly no less scared. Jeff had, by this time, calmed down enough to begin to think about braving the people outside and the drive home.
The nurse holding Amanda's hand nodded to Jeff as he stood up. "How," Jeff began, uncertain how to ask the question. "How is she?"
"She'll be fine," the nurse replied. "There's just going to be some tenderness for the next few days, so she needs lots of rest."
"Thanks," Jeff said. He took Amanda's hands and immediately asked the stupidest question possible under the circumstances. "How do you feel?"
Amanda glared at him.
"Sorry," he said. "Ready to go?"
The nurse looked at Jeff. "Don’t punch anyone on the way out."
He blushed. "He put his hands on my friend," he said. "What was I supposed to do?"
Jeff waited for the traffic light to change, then suddenly turned left. Amanda was either asleep or very quiet and didn't offer any protest to the change of plans. There was another road back to Sawyer from here, but he needed to stop and think about things. He needed to explain to Amanda what had happened. Not to change anything between them -- he understood there was no way she could give him what he wanted.
But for the first time, he felt like he could accept what she offered.
The city gradually blended away to suburbs and the suburbs to marshlands, seas of green grass and only a few miles away the ocean. Not just the end of the road, but the end of the world, it seemed.
The end of the road was a few miles down. Jeff pulled the car to a stop at the end. The road ended and a hundred feet ahead was the ocean, blue and sparkling in the late afternoon sun. Above, a clear blue sky framed it perfectly. The only sound was the quiet sighing of the waves, up and down like the breath of the world.
Jeff had found this place when he had first learned to drive and got lost. He had come here until he moved. It was a good place to think and not be disturbed. In the years he had come he had never seen anyone else here. He'd never taken anyone here either.
He sighed and walked over to the passenger side of the car, leaning against it. He rapped on the window and Amanda perked up. He opened the door and she carefully made her way out, her hair caught in the breezes.
"Where are we?" She asked.
"The end of the road," Jeff said, gesturing to the foot of terminated pavement. "This is where I used to come to think. My own secret place."
"It's beautiful." Amanda said.
"Yeah," Jeff said. "This place has been my secret for . . .years. I haven’t kept track. Ever since I moved, sometimes thinking about it was all that kept me going. I always promised myself I'd come back someday. Today seemed to be a good day."
"Hasn't been a good day."
Jeff looked out at the water. "I know," he said. "But it's a good place to come all the same. Because I have to tell you I'm sorry."
Jeff looked for the water, to the sky back to her. "You know how I feel – felt -- about you. Well, for the last few months I was so angry with you, but I couldn't quite figure out why, or what reason I had to be angry with you.
"I figured it out today," Jeff said. "You weren't the woman I wanted you to be. The woman I had convinced myself you were wasn't who you really are, and when I kept having that proved to be a lie . . . well, it pissed me off."
Amanda didn’t say a word.
"Anyways," Jeff said. "I think . . . I'm ready to stop trying to be a suitor and ready to start trying to be your friend. If you'll have me."
"I knew there was a reason you seemed so angry at me," Amanda said. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"I didn’t want to be reminded once again that I'd never be as close to you as I wanted us to be," Jeff said. "As miserable as I was, I was afraid of things changing."
"What about now?" Amanda asked.
"Well, now it doesn’t matter," Jeff said. "Things have changed, but I think now I can see them changing for the better."
Jeff extended his hand. "So . . .friends?"
Amanda took his hand, then embraced him. And all the bitterness in his heart fell away like the clouds that had hung over the morning. The gloom, the melancholy, the anger and the mistrust were all gone and he allowed Amanda to love him and him to love her. Not as lovers, but as friends.
Finally, as friends.