by Jeremy Robson
When the time came, we were drunk. We were tired and numb. We were nineteen. We were old, with nothing but a bottle between us. We let the breeze drift under our hair. Mine combed, Julian’s not. We could see the people gathering across the water. Sam’s house looked small. I couldn’t remember if the shutters were black or dark green. Looked like both from where we were. Julian nudged me with the bottle. I took it without looking and held it by the neck. I sighed and spat. The saliva struck the water in front of us and the ripples carried it back, almost to my heels. I dug them in deeper and drank.
The morning was dull. A few wisps of clouds lay scattered over the pond. Beach trees hung down to trace their leaves across the surface, like fingertips curving along a face. The air was slow. It shifted around us and lingered inside my collar. I lifted my hand from the bottle and used a finger to let my neck breathe. I gave the vodka back to Julian and closed my eyes. I couldn’t help it. In the darkness inside my skull we were moving fast. Sam was smiling next to me. Julian stretched out in the back, one arm over the headrest next to him. There was glass clinking on the floor as we rounded the corner to Sam’s.
Julian cleared his throat. I opened my eyes and looked over at him. He was thinking too. He almost said something but I put my hand out for the bottle. He pursed his lips and passed it off.
We stared together. At the water. At the shriveled leaves that dropped, floated by, and sank. We watched the sun get hotter as it slanted off something metal in the distance, making us squint. We cooled our eyes in the shallow waves and bowed our heads as a quiet wind swept over.
I could just make out Sam’s mom, coming through the back door. She moved as if walking through deep snow, stopping as an older man put his arm around her. I looked away. Julian was staring at me.
“What are you gonna say?” he asked. I reached in my pocket and tossed him a piece of paper. I kept gazing out at the water. It was strange being at the pond in the morning. Seeing it in the daylight, unshadowed. It was too clear. We were too exposed. Tiny fish swam along the shoreline. I wondered if they knew we were there. If that was significant to them.
“You know you can’t say this.” My eyes were on the fish.
“I know.” He gave me back the paper and I crumpled it again slowly. I could feel Julian watching me as my hand smudged ink into the margins and folded the blue lines over each other.
“What were you getting that night?” he asked.
“Oh.” One fish kept darting around the others. I followed him closely. “Sam got a McChicken.” Julian smirked. I looked at him, chuckling. “Always fucking got the McChicken.” We laughed like children and took a few hearty sips each. But the conversation was over. We were both back behind our eyelids. The smell of stale car freshener hiding behind the warmth of burgers and fries, mixing nicely with the undertones of empty beer bottles. It was a Tuesday. A fucking Tuesday. The day before we’d been playing pickup soccer at the high school. It was a rare summer day that got us up before noon, but we were there. Barefoot on the sunburnt grass. Some guys we grew up with were there too. We played till the sun knocked us down and our shirtless backs stuck to the hard ground. I walked back with my shirt slung over my shoulder, my flip-flops in my hand.
Julian was playing with the bottle, twisting circles into the sand. “I should’ve been driving.” He wasn’t looking at me. He clenched the bottle tighter. “I wasn’t as messed up. I was fine.” I didn’t say anything. The fish had lost interest in us. I set my gaze across the pond, memorizing the grooves in a fallen log.
“Sam always drove,” I said. He had a lei hung over the rearview mirror. We’d all gotten them from a party this girl had thrown in high school. I remember seeing it laying half hidden under the floor mat that night.
“Give me the bottle.” It was empty now. We’d been there all morning. I still had the paper in my hand. I crumpled it smaller and stuffed it in. A single sheet of notebook paper. It didn’t come close to filling the bottle. I stood and Julian followed suit.
“You wanna do it?” I asked.
“You mean…” He looked at the water. I nodded. “You got it man,” he shook his head.
“Alright. I’ll meet you over there.” He nodded and started along the shore. I watched him arc his was around the pond towards Sam’s dock.
I sat down and stared at the bottle for a while. I picked at the sticker but couldn’t get it off. I wouldn’t be buying Russel’s for a while. Maybe ever again. It’s what we drank when we were home. It’s all we drank in high school. Ever since we found a bottle of it Julian’s brother had left in their mom’s car. So it’s what we came back to when we were home for break.
The glass had grown warm from the morning and from our sweating hands. I looked out to the water, imagining the splash. The sinking. The slow descent to the leafy bottom. Finding its place amongst the waterlogged sticks and rocks that were skipped only to dive down and disappear. I put the bottle down and started digging. I clawed at the sand, feeling it collect under my nails. I got through a layer of wet sand and stopped. I placed it in with the Russel’s logo up. I did it carefully like putting a baby to sleep in a crib.
When it was covered I started towards Sam’s. I made fists in my pockets as the fish followed me on my way. I was only a couple of minutes from the friends and family all neatly littering Sam’s lawn in perfectly aligned folding chairs. I took my time, kicking sticks out of my way. I could see Julian in the second row, behind Sam’s parents and his little brother. I was stalling. When I realized it, I sped up my pace. Julian looked confused when I sat down next to him. I smiled and put my hand on his shoulder. I didn’t know how I was supposed to look either.
Sam’s dad turned around and we spoke quietly for a moment. There were hushed voices for a few minutes until Sam’s granddad got up and started things. I listened at first but was soon back, trapped in my mind. Trapped against the warped metal of the car door. The driver’s side was crushed in, pushing Sam right next to me. He wasn’t moving and my leg hurt. I yelled for Julian. He grunted. I tried the seatbelt. It was stuck. I nudged Sam and told him to wake up. “We have to call the police,” I said. “My leg is fucked man. Julian! Get your phone out.” I squirmed in the seat, trying to get free. I could hear Julian wrestling in the back. The windows on the left side of the car were shattered. Branches were coming through. The front of the car was buckled around an old-looking birch. The sirens came. The windshield started to flicker. The lights were too much and I closed my eyes.
I heard Sam’s granddad say my name. It was my turn to speak. I got up slowly, in what I thought was the right manner. There was nothing in my head as I shook the old man’s hand and took the podium. I remembered I was drunk and started to speak.
“Sam,” I said, “was my best friend.” My eyes landed on his dad. He was our soccer coach in elementary school. He used to say, “Good shit, kid” when I scored a goal and I thought that was cool because my dad never swore. I scanned the rows of people. I glanced at Julian and he looked away. “It’s weird. Being up here, in Sam’s backyard. I guess…everything…sinks in, at different times. Its amazing to see how strong everyone has been.”
Sam’s dog had his paws on the windowsill by the back door. I noticed his ears twitch as he looked out the window. He pointed his little brown nose at me and we stared at each other. Over the heads and passed the eyes of Sam’s family, of Julian, of other close friends, and people who probably knew the family but not Sam. The dog kept looking at me. He seemed to know. Not what happened. Or what was going to happen. But that things were different. I stared at him till my eyes watered. Till I was crying.
I looked back down on the exhausted faces. “Sam…I don’t know what he would want me to say. But I know that we all love him.” I nodded and kept my head down as I shuffled to my seat. I could feel Julian staring at me as I sat down. I didn’t look at him.
I sat still for the rest of the service. Perfectly still, except my toes were tapping in my shoes. When it was over I told Julian I’d meet up with him later and I darted down to the water.
I reached the sand and sprinted till I got to where we were sitting that morning. I dug as fast as I could, tossed off the cap and fished out the piece of paper. I smoothed it on my thigh and read it aloud:
I’m sorry. I’m sorry Sam. I keep replaying it in my head, trying to change it. What the fuck were we doing? And you were smarter Sam. We need you. Julian and I don’t know what the fuck to do now. I’m sorry man. I love you. Your mom gave us your copy of Asbury Park and it’s all we’ve been listening to. Last night I went to pick up Julian and we put the CD in and ended up just sitting in the driveway all night. It’s been the best time I’ve had since you left us. Do you remember when we were six and we ate so much peanut butter we had to go to the hospital? I never minded taking care of you man. When you were shitfaced at prom and Megan was pissed at you, Julian and I snuck you out past her dad and carried you home. We never told you that. I knew you never would’ve forgiven yourself for making us do that. We didn’t care though. I got a bottle of Russel’s and Julian and I are going to drink it for you. I know you’d get a kick out of that. We love you. I know you know that.