The summer of ’93, I learned everything I know about grief from watching the way Barry Colker’s mother dressed herself for work each morning. Mrs. C. worked only five days a week, but even on weekends she would come downstairs in her starched white nurse’s uniform, with the green cross over the breast pocket. When I asked Barry why she did this, he said that since his mother had lost track of time when his brother killed himself, several years before, dressing for work at least guaranteed that she’d be properly outfitted five days out of every seven. All things considered, he said, five out of seven weren’t bad odds.
Barry and I were always talking odds. We spent entire afternoons trying to calculate the probability of hitting a Wiffle over the Rosenberg’s fence. We watched the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter so many times we could perform it. Barry once tried to convince me to steal his father’s hunting rifle and play a round with him. I asked if he’d snorted too many Smarties or something—playing Russian roulette with a rifle doesn’t work.
That summer, California was going through a dry spell, and my mother was in one of her phases—new boyfriend, don’t bother her unless it’s an emergency—so I spent most of my time at the Colker’s condo on the corner of Cedar and Avalon. The community pool perfumed the air there with smells of sunblock and chlorine. In the distance, the bone-colored peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains chipped away at the sky.
Mr. and Mrs. C. hardly spoke to each other, though they weren’t ever anything but kind to me. During dinner, Mrs. C. would sometimes look up, blinking and dazed, like she’d just stumbled out of a dark theater. Then she’d ask if I had called my mother to let her know I was staying the night.
Mr. C. had long, scraggly hair and a wide, flat nose. He moved stiffly, like a toy soldier. After Hank’s suicide, Mr. C. grew obsessed with taking things apart and putting them back together again, the way he’d been taught to do in the army. He would hole up in the garage with his junk car and a stopwatch, timing himself disassembling and reassembling, then disassembling again. He mumbled to himself as he went, mostly about bolts and gaskets.
Mr. and Mrs. C. never seemed to mind that I was always underfoot. I think they were simply glad to have two boys playing Slaps around the kitchen island, talking girls and drinking blue-raspberry slushies like nothing had happened. Barry said he thought his parents loved me more than they loved him, and I said love was the sort of thing that was easier to extend to people you didn’t know.
* * *
One afternoon, during cartoons, Barry turned from the television screen. I watched as he licked his fingers, then stuck his thick hand down into the black cavity of the Count Chocula’s box to adhere whatever crumbs remained. He opened his mouth and let out a long belch. “Rooster told me there’s a dive in Chino where they don’t card,” he said.
Even though Barry was two months shy of his learner’s permit, he had a block-shaped face and a husky stature, and could probably pass for double his age. Barry the Neanderthal—that’s what the guys at school called him. He had the keys to his brother’s car and wasn’t afraid of getting busted. So I said, “Some fresh air might be nice.”
Before we left, I made my bed, which had once been Hank’s bed, and then I made Barry’s bed, too. Barry stood in the doorway swinging the plastic key ring around his finger, pretending not to watch me as I tucked in the edges and smoothed the sheets so that the pinstripes aligned.
Outside, the sky was too bright to look at head-on. Mr. C. sat murmuring on a wooden stool in the garage. He flinched when Barry slammed the front door, and I knew that Barry registered this too, how his father’s shoulders stiffened, because he reached behind him, palmed the doorknob, opened it, and slammed it shut again.
To keep Barry from doing this a third time, I pointed to the sky. “Wanna know something cool about pigs?” I asked.
“What about ’em?” Barry said.
“Their necks are so chunky, they can’t look up. If they want to see the sky, they’ve gotta find a puddle.”
Barry glanced over and shot me this toxic look, like he couldn’t believe he was hanging out with such a moron. “You’re so full of it,” he said.
Across the street, Mr. Healy’s beige station wagon pulled into the driveway. Barry and I watched as the passenger door swung open and a long-legged girl emerged. She was wearing cutoff, acid-washed shorts; a flannel shirt haphazardly belted her waist. Dozens of silver bangles spiraled up from her wrists, like cuffs of armor. When she turned to the side, Barry whistled. “Shit,” he said.
I saw it, too, the way the nubby fabric of her tank top puckered around her stomach. Mr. Healy got out of the car to help her unload her bags from the trunk, and then the two of them vanished into the house.
Barry looked at me sidelong, and I knew what he was thinking: imagine being the guy who knocked her up. He slugged my shoulder with one of his fists, harder than I think he meant to.
“Dare me to go over there?” he said.
* * *
The girl’s name was Layla. Like the song, she said. She was Mr. Healy’s niece, and her parents had sent her to live with him and the missus until the baby came. When we asked how old she was, she said, “Guess.” But we didn’t try to.
Barry said, “We were just going out for some beer, wanna come?”
She climbed into the passenger seat, shuffling her Doc Martens in the leaves of paper scattered across the floor. From the backseat, I leaned over and picked one up. My eyes scanned the marked-up equations. The name “HANK COLKER” was printed in neat block letters at the top. My stomach lurched.
Barry pushed a button on the dash, and the Nirvana tape waiting in the cassette deck whirred to life. I leaned back and stared out the window at the freeway and the baked, pillowing land beyond. Overhead, the low-hanging clouds were violet and dense, like veins beneath a tourniquet.
Layla tossed her head back and began to sing along to “Lithium.” Barry lifted both hands from the wheel, pretending to cup his ears. His palms were as large as catchers’ mitts. “You sound like a cat in heat,” he said.
“Hey,” she giggled, flicking his bicep, “eyes on the road.”
Barry reached over, rested his hand on Layla’s thigh. She fell silent. From behind, I saw the sunshot, corn-blond back of her head, bobbing up and down in time to the music, and the faint seam where her hair parted and a thread of pink peeked through. As if she could sense my gaze, she whirled around. “You like my singing, right?” she asked, pressing her lips into a pout.
Her eyes were gemmy green. Desperate. I stared at her, hard, and she turned back around and crossed her arms over her chest. Barry twiddled the fringes on her cutoffs. She nudged his wrist, and I imagine that Barry thought the same as I—that she wanted to remove it from her thigh. But then she brought his hand to her mouth and sunk her teeth into his skin.
“Jesus,” Barry said, recoiling. He examined the arc of indentations that glimmered in his flesh. “What the fuck?”
Layla began to sing again, but with a grown-up self-consciousness that made me resent her a little.
* * *
By the time we reached the bar, the day had clamped around us, hot as a mouth. We chose a booth at the far end of the room—Layla and me on one side, Barry on the other. “I’ll go get the drinks,” he said, drawing the laminated edge of Hank’s fake I.D. over his wrist until the skin whitened.
I wriggled my fingers into my pocket and loosed the wad of tens I’d made mowing Mr. Kepler’s lawn before the drought. The roll had dwindled to a meager few bills. I peeled one off the top and tried to slide it nonchalantly over the table to Barry, but the table’s surface was sticky. Barry stared down dumbly at the bill.
“On me,” he said. But what he meant was that it was on his parents, who were always giving him money.
He left me and Layla to the unbearable intimacy of sitting together in silence. We stared ahead at the pool table, where two men chalked their cues. A Budweiser lamp hung from a ceiling rod, illuminating the sweat on their tattooed arms.
Beside Layla in that red vinyl booth, the world sharpened. The clacking of pool balls reverberated against my palate. The overhead fans purred in my ears. I could taste the breath traveling in and out of my nose, could feel my heart clenching in my chest.
Even though our legs weren’t touching, the static of her skin so close to mine raised the hair on the back of my neck. I wanted to say something to her about Hank, thought it might help explain a few things about Barry and why he was the way he was, but the words didn’t come.
Layla starfished one hand over her distended belly. “Wanna feel something?” She grabbed my hand, positioned it beside hers. “Wait a sec,” she said.
She was gazing down, willing it to happen. The moment stretched. Finally, I felt a flutter, and then another. Layla beamed. “Hi, little fishy,” she whispered.
Her eyelids were gilded in shadow, and when she blinked, a few sparkles drifted onto her cheeks. She smiled at me, and I could tell she knew she was something pretty, which made her somehow less special. “God,” she said, “you’re all the same.”
She laughed, crinkling her nose so that the freckles along its bridge coalesced into a fine brown smear. “Nothing,” she said.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Barry returning to the table, ferrying three bottles of beer. “They didn’t even card,” he said, not hiding his disappointment as he set the drinks down.
I picked one up and began to work off the Coors label in small, disintegrating bits. Layla reached for one, too.
Barry held his drink up to the two of us as if he were going to make a toast. The skin around his eyes slackened. Then, with a flick of the wrist, he turned the bottle upside down and allowed a stream of liquid to flow onto the tile floor. “For you, Hank, ol’boy,” he said.
Layla pursed her lips against the glass rim of her own beer. Her hand trembled, like she knew she was being watched. She tipped her head back. The tract of her throat was so pristine, I could see the blue pulse cords dancing beneath her skin. Though she pretended to swallow, her muscles didn’t tense.
“I’ve gotta pee,” she said, standing up quickly and tugging at the hem of her tank top, so that its scooped neckline exposed a pale inch of breast. She set her hands to rest atop the mound of her stomach. “I’m telling you, this thing thinks my bladder is a squeeze toy.”
We watched her waddle away. The backs of her thighs were marbled red from the booth. The men playing pool glanced up from the table as she strutted past. One poked the other with his cue, mouthing something that looked like “Jailbait.”
Barry sighed and took a swig from his beer. He drank without pause, until the bottle was empty. Then he propped his chin up on one hand and used the fingers of the other to trace a groove etched into the table’s wax topcoat.
“Call the odds,” he said, “me and her, second base by the end of the day.”
The tips of my ears burned. I wanted to say, Maybe Layla isn’t that sort of girl. But it sounded so foolish. Of course she was.
Barry started to talk faster. “I mean, you don’t mind, right? It’s only fair.”
I knew what he meant, that he had earned dibs on Layla, that she was his consolation prize for such a shit summer.
Just then, I felt the floor beneath my Converse shake. The entire building rumbled. My eyes surveyed the space, trying to understand. The bar had no windows, though, only slabs of drywall, keyed with strings of expletives.
“Earthquake?” I ventured.
Barry shrugged. “My money’s on a monsoon.”
“Did you feel that?” Layla said, breathless, as she slid back into the booth.
“Let’s bounce,” Barry said. “I know this cool swimming hole not too far from here.”
I didn’t know what swimming hole Barry was talking about, or if he was merely using the idea of water to entice Layla out of her clothes. She cocked an eyebrow in my direction.
“He’s right,” I said.
A collusive grin distorted her features. “What are we still doing here?”
* * *
Outside, rain sizzled against the asphalt and gurgled through the gutters. The three of us huddled beneath the bar’s canvas awning, discerning the distance to the car. The lot had thinned while we were inside, and a blue haze loosened the edges of the remaining vehicles. I imagined that each was an infantry man, crouched in anticipation, and that I was De Niro, stranded in ’Nam.
“I say we make a dash for it,” Layla said.
Barry nodded. “On the count of three.”
We counted, then ran, shrieking. I thought about bugs, how mosquitoes survive downpours by riding raindrops to the earth. Layla was close behind me. She fisted the edge of my shirt, pulling the cotton taut. The air was sticky. Once the car was in view, I grasped for the handle. She and I toppled inside, our legs tangling. Water plunked from the crests of our chins onto the seats, where the drops stayed perfect and round.
Barry shut the door and inserted the key but didn’t turn it. “Summer storm,” he said. “Go figure.”
The three of us sat and listened to the impinging of water on steel. I thought I could hear Layla’s heart skittering in the quiet. Her forearm brushed mine, and I caught Barry’s glossy eyes in the rearview. He patted the seat beside him. “Join me,” he said to Layla.
I shifted crabwise, and she clambered over the middle console. She landed in the passenger seat and folded her legs beneath her, Indian style.
Barry started the car, swung out of the lot. Already, the rain had tapered to a drizzle. The roads were slick and curved, like ropes of black licorice. I didn’t know where he was taking us, but eventually we found ourselves cruising up a mountain road that ran parallel to the 101. If taken far enough, I thought, the road would lead us to Bakersfield, and San Francisco, maybe even Portland.
Barry was doing his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation, showing off by using only one hand on the wheel. His other hand rested on the headrest of Layla’s seat. “I have an idea,” he said. “How’s about a game of Russian roulette?”
My insides churched as he swiveled to Layla. “Sometimes I shut my eyes when I’m driving,” he said. “See how long I can go before I have to open them again.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I like games of chance.” His gaze flickered to mine. I felt my palms clam, and I wiped them on the pale denim of my shorts. He said, “What would you say the odds are that I can drive this car blind?”
“Odds,” he snapped.
What happened next is that Barry indeed shut his eyes, and Layla shut hers, too, and I felt terror scale the walls of my throat. The car gained speed. The landscape blurred. We jounced over potholes. My skull jerked against the headrest. I thought Layla was saying something, or singing something, maybe. Then the sound cut out.
The speedometer hit ninety before I felt myself leave my body, saw the three of us in that skidding car from above. Fear seized my features as the realization struck that even if Barry were to brake, it would still be too late.
Something, somewhere, was burning.
My feet dug into the floor. My ears popped. Time dilated. The car sailed off the road. Airborne, I could see only sky, the sun muscling its way through a buildup of clouds.
In the air, it wasn’t my life I thought of but Hank Colker’s. I thought about the fact that by the time he was seventeen, Hank Colker had lived all the days he would ever live, had hugged his mother as many times as he ever would, had seen only seventeen Octobers.
Branches scraped the side of the car. My seatbelt tightened, knocking the air from my lungs. The front tires slid over mud, and it’s impossible to say how things might have gone differently, how we might have slammed into a telephone pole or a tree or a guardrail rather than a ditch. As the car nosedived into the ground, the windshield shattered, fine cracks spidering along its surface.
From the backseat, I marveled at the splintered world through the glass as it tilted into focus. I put my hand to my chest, my breath already starting to even. My fingernails had lanced half-moons into the centers of both of my palms.
Slowly, Barry hoisted his head from the steering wheel. Blood trickled from his hairline. A faint ticking filled my ears, and I realized that some of the wheels were still turning.
“Engine,” I rasped.
Barry shut off the car. Layla moaned. The rain had stopped; the world was impossibly still.
“Shit,” Barry said. “Shit, shit.” He was scooping handfuls of hair back with his hands, caking his knuckles red. I had to pocket my own fists to keep from reaching over the driver’s seat and socking him.
Through the rear window, I could make out a rise of barren land, sliced with two depression paths from the wheels. The exhaust pipe lisped the last of its fumes upward. The passenger side of the car lay flush against dirt, and I scrabbled on my knees across the backseat, flinging the door open and leaping to the ground.
The wind was laced with gasoline. As I started to take stock of the damage, a low, primordial wail filled my ears. At first, I assumed the sound must be coming from the car itself. Only after a beat did I recognize that the cry was human. Layla.
“Come on,” Barry said, huffing.
He and I each took ahold of one of Layla’s shoulders and worked her out the driver’s side. I could feel the vibration of her voice through her back, a guttural sound that seeped through my skin. Her eyes were wide open, her face frozen.
Her body was lighter than I expected. Barry and I set her down gently in a shaded patch of hay. She took a moment to rediscover her limbs, and then she was crawling away from the car as fast as she could, foxtails needling her kneecaps.
“Are you—is it—?”
Layla’s breathing was shallow, wracked with hiccups. The light shifted, casting her face into sharp relief. I could tell now that she was younger than I had first thought. Her tears had cleaved through her makeup; faint acne scars pocked her cheeks. Shards of windshield shimmered in her hair.
“Hold still,” I said.
She shut her eyes, let me comb the glass from her hair. The pieces tinkled as they fell. I thought about monkeys, how they pick lice out of each other’s fur for hours. I don’t know why I thought of that.
Layla dug the heels of her hands into the ground. Shreds of damp, buff-colored leaves clung to her calves. “Help me up.”
I looked around for Barry, who stood retching at the front end of the car, his skin sallow.
“Help,” she said again.
I reached down and clasped her hand in my own, then eased her to her feet. Her torso listed into mine, and I held out an arm to steady her. She pointed to a nearby stand of junipers.
We walked together to the trees. The ground was uneven and littered with pinecones. Layla’s arm was around my neck, and her fingertips felt like feathers every time they brushed my collarbone.
She steadied herself against the juniper’s mottled bark. “Turn around,” she ordered.
I turned and squinted into the clearing ahead. I saw the car jutting upward, like a ruined column from an ancient temple. Barry was lumbering up the ditch’s steep slope, his arm outstretched, thumb raised. I spotted the tree that had slashed at the car’s exterior, black paint coating some of the branches. Behind me, I heard Layla fumble with the zipper of her shorts.
The sky was the color of cantaloupe. Sunset. Mrs. C. would be returning from work by now, making preparations for dinner. I could almost hear her calling Barry and me down to the kitchen, worry rumpling her features when she heard no response. I imagined her ascending the stairs, checking the bedroom, opening the closet where Hank’s body had been found, just to be sure.
“You can turn around,” Layla said.
I spun and regarded her, standing in a shaft of sun. The light made her hair gold. Sweat pearled on her upper lip. “You’re okay?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She brought her hand to her stomach, waiting for a kick. Blood shone crimson on her fingertips.
“We should take you to a hospital,” I said, though my only notion of emergency rooms came from the daytime soaps my mother sometimes watched.
Layla teetered toward me, her legs spread so that her thighs didn’t touch. She took my arm and maneuvered it, resting her head against my shoulder. By the juniper tree, I caught sight of her crumpled flannel, the one that had been sashed around her waist. It was blotted deep red.
I wondered how long we could stay like this before Barry came looking for us. I thought of how he wouldn’t tell Mr. and Mrs. C. about the car, about the saddest part being how long it would take them to even notice it had gone missing.
Layla’s hair smelled of strawberries. Already, the blood on her fingers was drying and starting to flake. I told myself to remember this moment, but even as I said this, I knew I might not. Years later, when I told the story, I might instead just talk about the car and the ditch and how mosquitoes travel through rain.
Lauren Green has published work in American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She currently resides in Austin, TX, where she is pursuing her MFA at the Michener Center for Writers.