BY KAYA DIERKS
Finalist for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose
It all started when Nicholas Murphy, this skinny skeleton stoner of a seventeen-year-old who was maybe the best person I’d ever known, hopped in his dad’s black Honda Civic, sped onto Highway 45, and drove himself all the way to heaven.
But the funny thing was, four hours before the crash, four hours before Nick was just strawberry Jell-O on asphalt, it was the second Sunday in summer, and everything was still normal. Nick and I sprawled across my bedroom carpet, watching a drunk moon stumble between the slots in my blinds. I smoked a twiggy pinkie-finger of a joint and talked – roundabout snakes of sentences that coiled into themselves, beginnings twisting into endings. Nick only got high when he was sad, so he just sat and ate sandwiches that he made by squishing thumbs of stale Nutella between two Ritz Crackers.
At something like three in the morning I lost myself halfway through some thought — something about Doritos and breakfast — so I stopped talking, and I looked at Nick’s plain face.
“What,” he huffed. “Finally tired of the sound of your own voice?”
And then he smiled in the way he always smiled: exhausted, amused, and just a little charmed. There was a smudge of Nutella on the tip of his nose.
Nick was the kind of kid who should’ve been someone else, someone better, and maybe, if he lived somewhere — anywhere — other than Spring, Texas, he would’ve been. But instead he lived here. Here, with me, in Spring, this sweet sugar-cookie suburb of Houston where everyone’s houses looked so similar that you started to forget which one was your own. We were right smack-dab in the pasty, glutted core of middle-class America – whitewashed shops, Varsity bumper stickers, Betty Crocker cake mix, church camp. Basically, the only things to do in Spring were get high in someone’s bedroom or join the basketball team, the Raptors, or go to the Star Mall, but Nick got winded walking up half a flight of stairs and his die-hard Catholic parents taught him to feel guilty for buying himself anything that cost more than a soft pretzel. So, most days, Nick — who was too smart and too good for me, really — somehow ended up in my room, breathing in the smoke from my joint, looking down at his faded jeans, and wondering, vaguely, pointlessly, half-resigned and half-disgusted, why he was even there in the first place.
At five thirty in the morning, Nick left my house, stumbling over his untied shoelaces. He unlocked his car, which chirped to life in my driveway, and then, like always, he peeled his shirt off. He dropped the shirt by his feet. He opened the car door, reached into his glove box, and grabbed a frayed yellow polo, pulling its neck over his head. And then he bent down and picked up his old shirt, bunching it into a ball and shoving it into his backseat.
“I don’t understand,” I said, stupid and slow, still high. “You didn’t even smoke tonight. You don’t need to, uh. Change.”
“I smell like weed, dude,” he said. “Dad will kill me just the same.”
“But you didn’t smoke.”
Nick laughed, kind of bitter. “God. It doesn’t matter what I do, numbskull.” He leaned on
the car door. “It just matters what I smell like.”
The world was ink and the sunrise was a thin yellow blade. Nick turned and began to fold
himself into his car — cramming his knees into his chest because the seat was too small to hold his spider-legs — and for a moment, right before he closed the door, he turned his face toward the new-born sunlight and he looked suddenly, shockingly foreign. And just in that fragile instant, just in the rubbery space between two blinks, Nicholas Murphy became somebody else.
The next morning, I woke up to a sharp sun and a hangover and both my parents, Mom and Dad, who stood awkwardly in my bedroom. Mom settled on the edge of my bed and Dad hovered silently by my door.
“Hey,” Mom said. “Listen, um. We need to talk.”
Nick had died in a single-vehicle accident. He was driving, and he was going fast, 110, or maybe 120, and he crashed into the concrete block between Highway 45 and the exit that led to the Star Mall. I guess his engine caught fire and the car exploded. Just like that — exploded — and then everything — car and Nick, metal and bone, paint and fat and tire and asphalt — everything just sort of crunched and melted and fused into a sticky, fleshy mess of tar and skin.
“Okay,” I said.
“What?” Mom asked.
“Nick,” I said slowly. “It’s okay.”
Mom’s eyebrows pinched together. “That’s what you have to say? That’s it? Seriously?”
I paused. “Yes,” I said. “That’s it.”
Mom hesitated. “That’s awful,” she said. “That’s — you’re just–you’re–”
“Susan,” Dad interrupted. “That’s enough.”
We sat in silence for two awkward heartbeats.
“He’s in shock,” Dad said. “Okay?”
Mom stood up, smoothing down her jeans. She walked to the door and then paused. She
turned to face me.
She glared at me and I stared back at her blankly. I felt empty. Maybe I was still a little high from last night. I didn’t know. I felt like I could open my mouth and swallow myself whole. And then, for whatever reason, I grinned.
After that everything came like ketchup comes out of a bottle: slowly, then — plop. I was sad, maybe for three minutes, maybe less, and then I blinked, and a week had already passed. As that summer began to grow into itself, fat and heavy, and Nick became more memory than anything else, I decided in some unknown moment of perfect clarity that I was not going to die.
I was crazed, manic, ecstatic, immortal. I was cocky and stupid, handsome, ugly, awful, and stoned more often than not. I was seventeen. And in that deathless summer, I smoked and danced and laughed, and every night I somehow ended up at a different party, swimming through a sea of pulsing teenagers.
One Saturday night I found myself inside some yellow house on Butteroak Drive, grinding into a faceless crowd. In nine hours, we would all be crammed into a creaking pew at the Saint Francis of Assisi Church, hungover and half-asleep, sweating through our button-downs and pantyhose and pretending to listen as Father Smith talked endlessly – but for now, we were just drunk kids swaying on restless feet as vague music crawled over our warm skin.
And then, emerging from this chaos of swarming bodies, there was suddenly a girl. She was behind me. She had blonde hair and thin knees, and she smiled when I looked down at her.
She said something that I couldn’t hear over the music. “What?” I asked.
“I said, hey,” she said.
“Hi,” I said.
She grabbed my arm. Her skin was warm, sweaty — she was high, or maybe just drunk. I looked at her. In the strange vagueness of the dark she became unreal. She was wax, pale and smooth, and I knew that if I reached out and bit her cheek, she would bend for me like butter.
“I’m Lila,” she said, and then she paused. She stared at me, and her blue eyes were bright but unfocused. She grinned and her lips parted like red petals. “Dance with me, will you?”
Over the next week, Lila became my first girlfriend. We crossed paths at church, where we yawned together in hazy, bored silence, and we ate pizza at the Star Mall together, smearing our greasy fingers on the cheap food court napkins. And then on Thursday we found ourselves at another party.
It was eleven thirty. Lila stumbled and fell into my chest, laughing, her cheeks flushed. Her dry blonde hair wove into my fingers like gold string.
“Hey, Lila,” I asked suddenly. “Are we dating?”
She paused. Her confused, drunk limbs were tangled into my own.
I leaned in close to her so that we breathed the same sour warm air, and I looked at her
face. She really was very beautiful. I knew this like I knew that the sky was blue. When she grinned at me, her straight teeth like a picket fence, she was a photograph of a girl. She was plastic and timeless, exquisite in her starved, smeared, sterile perfection, and in the slippery light her pale smooth skin was white plaster.
“Hell yeah, we are,” she whispered. She looked at me through blurry blue eyes and her fingers cupped my chin.
I was amazed. Somehow, in the space of a week, I had convinced this beautiful porcelain girl that I was an excellent boyfriend by doing practically nothing at all. When I stared into her vacant gaze, I saw that her eyes were empty except for my own mirrored reflection, and I realized that Lila had already become mine.
I detangled myself from her octopus grip and I held her drowning body as she flopped into my arms. She giggled.
“C’mon, Lila,” I sighed. “Let’s get you home.”
And then it was Sunday. Mom woke me up early so we could drive down to the Saint Francis of Assisi Church. At nine in the morning, I stood in the middle of my parents’ bedroom in dress pants that were falling off my hips. I had to borrow one of Dad’s black suits because the suit I always wore to church was navy. The only thing holding Dad’s slacks on me was a leather belt, buckled in the second smallest notch. The waistband bunched up around the belt like a fat worm.
Mom was adjusting my tie knot when her hands paused. She looked at me.
“You know, what happened to Nick? The engine exploding on the highway?” she said, her voice falsely casual. “It’s actually super, super rare. I looked it up.”
“Really?” I huffed. “Because I was under the impression that cars were specifically manufactured to spontaneously explode.”
“That’s not funny,” Mom said, her expression hard. “You know, actually. The most likely scenario is that he. Well — That he wanted to. Crash. That he did it intentionally.”
“Oh,” I swallowed. “Okay.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
I met her eyes. “Yes,” I said. “That’s it.”
She hesitated for a moment, and then, silently, she pushed me into the mirror. My
reflection was a foreigner. I was creased, pleated, starched.
“Look at you,” Mom breathed, her voice at once proud and disgusted. Her fingertips
rested on my padded shoulders. “You look just like your dad.”
Fifty minutes later, Dad and Mom and I arrived at the Saint Francis of Assisi Church. The
funeral itself was like Nick’s parents — impersonal and aggressively Catholic. I sat through Father Smith’s hour-long sermon and almost fell asleep. Then we all stood in a line to place flowers on Nick’s dead body. The casket was closed to hide his burned limbs. When it was my turn, I placed a white rose next to the table beside the coffin.
After the official part of the funeral was over, we scattered and ate appetizers on white paper plates. I stood by the miniature pizza bites and brushed crumbs from my hands onto the floor. And then I heard Mom’s voice.
“I’m raising a sociopath, David,” Mom said. “Like — this kid is an honest-to-goodness Jeffrey Dahmer. I’m not joking.”
She and Dad stood in the hallway by the restrooms. I moved closer to the wall. “I’m sure it’s not all that bad,” Dad said.
“No. It is. It is that bad.” Mom sniffed. “For the first few weeks, I thought — okay. Delayed grief. Whatever. Fine. But this morning — I mean, this morning? His best friend kills himself, and this kid — he just —” Mom exhaled, hard. “I mean, all he wants to do, day and night, is chase after that awful girl—”
“Susan,” he started, tentative. “Maybe we should just—”
“Gosh, David!” Mom snapped. “Don’t even try to give me that ‘lay off’ BS again—”
“No, Susan, listen to me,” Dad said. “That boy, Nick. He wasn’t – well – he just wasn’t
quite right. I can’t quite –well. He wasn’t – correct. Do you understand?”
“No, David, I don’t understand, I’m not a goddamn mind reader—”
“Homosexual, I mean,” Dad hissed. “I’ve heard too many rumors for it to not be true.”
“Wait,” Mom breathed. She paused for a long time. “Are you saying that– Do you think
that he…you know…” Mom made some sort of gesture. I couldn’t see her hands move but I could hear them — the dull sound of flesh hitting flesh. “With…?”
Dad fell silent. “I’ll say this much,” Dad said after a pause. “I’m really, really happy he’s chasing after that Lila chick. And let’s just leave it at that.”
“Oh, my God,” Mom whispered. Across the doorway, I stood silent, frozen, swimming in Dad’s old, loose suit. “I can’t imagine. It’s just — That’s just awful, Dave. That’s just what it is. Awful.”
At some point, after the funeral, I stumbled across Lila’s front lawn. I was somewhere
between stoned and drunk, and it was sometime between midnight and sunrise, and I collapsed onto the porch before I could walk up the stairs. I threw a pebble at Lila’s bedroom window.
I waited fifteen or five minutes and I almost fell asleep. But then a light flickered on from somewhere within that cold house. Lila walked outside and pulled me up by my loose arms.
“Lila,” I purred as I deflated into her weak chest. “You wonderful creature.”
Lila dragged me into the house. Somehow we made it up the stairs. And then we were in her bedroom. I fell onto her bed and she slowly sat next to me. She smoothed my hair out of my face.
“Why are you wearing a suit?” she asked.
“What?” I said.
“The suit,” she said, and she pulled at my jacket. “Were you at church or something?”
“Yeah,” I whispered.
I pressed my nose into her hair and she deflated. But then she shifted away.
“Wait,” she said. “I’m just gonna get you something to change into, okay?”
She moved away from me, but I grabbed her arm. I was suddenly aware of her skin,
warm and soft like putty. I tightened my grip and her flesh molded into my hand.
“Why don’t you just stay here?” I asked quietly.
I looked up at her and grinned. Her eyes were fat in the dark. She looked almost afraid.
“Hey,” she whispered, quiet. “That kind of – hurts.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, still smiling. I flipped my hand and her arm twisted in its socket.
“Wait—” she stuttered.
But then I pulled her onto the bed, and I crushed our lips together. Her mouth broke into
mine like porcelain. She was a china doll, and she tasted like orange juice and metal and wax, and when I pushed against her, I could feel her skinny skeleton click into my chest. I flipped her so that her back pressed against the bed, and I grabbed her face. She was so thin that her jawbone stuck out like a hinge. She was a photograph, and I wanted to kiss her until I could pull her bloodless film of a face off her brittle bones using only my teeth and nails.
Suddenly, her skinny arms found my shoulders. She pushed me off, hard enough that I stumbled back two steps. Then she fell still. I watched as she brought a hand up to her mouth.
“That – you – you hurt me,” she whispered, betrayed.
I looked at her more closely and I realized that the corner of her mouth was torn open, and her lips were two bloody petals. When she spoke, her picket-fence teeth were stained red.
“I’m sorry,” I exhaled. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Lila—”
“Why did you do that?” she asked.
I paused. She was sitting by the window, and for a moment, as light poured in from the
streetlamps outside, it seemed that the suburb devoured her frail body.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I just got carried away.” I shifted. She looked at me with her
blurry eyes. “I couldn’t help it. You drive me crazy, Lila. You make me absolutely crazy.”
She blinked at me twice.
“You’re lying, Gabe,” she concluded quietly. “I know that. I’m not as stupid as you think I am, you know.”
She fell back into the covers. She lay straight and still, and in the dark half-moonlight her body became a highway. And when I looked at her, I tumbled into a memory.
It was an hour before the crash, and it was the second Sunday in summer, and everything was still normal. Nick sat in his car in my driveway and almost closed the door. But then something made him hesitate. He paused, unmoving, with this hands on the wheel.
I walked over to him. “Hey,” I leaned over the car door. “You know that you need to start the engine in order to drive, right?”
Nick looked up at me. His eyes were huge and panicked.
“Can you get in the car?” he asked, quiet.
“Uh. Okay, I guess,” I said. I hesitated, and then I slid into the passenger seat.
“Close the door,” Nick said. I pulled my door shut.
We sat there in the hot car, windows up and doors closed, for two moments.
“Okay, you’re being really weird,” I said. “Just tell me what you want to talk about or—” “My
girlfriend,” he said suddenly. “Emily. I want to talk about Emily.”
“Okay,” I said. “What about Emily?”
“This morning, she offered to give me — you know. Like, a blowjob. Um.”
“Jesus,” I sighed. “That’s the big problem here? Your girlfriend wanted to give you a
blowjob. Listen, Nick, dude, simple solution. Man up and enjoy it.”
“I know,” he stuttered. “Yeah, I know. It’s just— I just couldn’t, you know?” I stared at
him. “I just couldn’t do it. Like – you know – ugh – physically.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Everyone has off days, you know. It’s no big deal. Try again
tomorrow. She’ll understand, I promise.”
“Gabe,” he whispered. “I think that we both know that’s not the problem here.”
I paused. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about–” Nick hesitated. “I’m saying that, like – we’ve never had problems
like that. Like – when it’s with you – I never had – any – problems. You know?”
I paused. “No,” I said, cold. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do,” Nick breathed. “Come on. You know what I’m talking about. Gabe.”
When he hesitated, crumpled into himself, I realized that he wasn’t stating a fact so much as asking a question. In that fragile instant, as the sun slowly shook itself awake, I knew that Nick hovered on the tip of my pinkie fingernail.
But then, for whatever reason, I broke open my mouth and laughed.
“Oh my God,” I laughed. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Gabe,” he said miserably, and when he moved, I shoved him back so that his skull fell
against the car window. He hit the glass with a dull smack.
“You’re sick,” I said, still laughing. Nick touched his hand to the back of his head and
when his fingers came back red, I blinked and felt nothing at all. “You’re so sick.”
“Get the hell away from me.” I slid out of that car and slammed the door behind me, and then I walked into my house without looking back.
And now, one funeral later, I sat here on a girl’s bed as her mouth bled into her sheets.
I looked down at Lila. She was awful and beautiful and incoherent and unreal. I hated her. And I loved her. Or maybe I just wanted to love her. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I could hardly see straight. Look — all that mattered in the end was this: I was sitting there, on a white fluffy bed in Spring, alone in the dark with a beautiful girl who lay next to me like a statue of a goddess, and in that moment, I wanted. And that night, somewhere in nowhere, in one of the identical houses that I could never tell apart, I wanted her, desperately. I looked into her mirrored gaze and I was consumed, and then I fell asleep smelling like her shampoo.
And three weeks ago, a memory named Nicholas Murphy, who should have been someone else, leaned against the car door with his shirt half-off.