Richie Nelson got shot on a Saturday night in March in his parents’ garage while hosting a party for the cast and crew of the school’s recent production of The Crucible. Amber fought her mom all day Saturday to let her go to the party, but her mom held fast.
Monday morning it rained, the first spring rain. Probably the only spring rain. It was coming down hard enough on the concrete that Amber heard it in her dream. Outside the orange streetlight was still on even though it was past time for sunrise – the streetlight was the sunrise today.
The rain cloud moved west across the Las Vegas Valley and out toward the gap between the Spring and Sheep Mountains, a grey eyeshadow smudge in a vast sky. She turned off her alarm and opened the window, lying on her back and inhaling the scent of the sun baked, dusty screen, crackling and popping as it went from dry to wet. When she left her room she begged not to go to school. Her mom said that she needed to be there to grieve with her peers, to support those who had known him better, to take her math test and turn in her US history term paper.
The rain stopped, that quickly. It rinsed the grit from the cars and the sidewalks and the stucco houses enough to expose their different shades of tan, stopping short of revealing that beneath the shades of tan everything was the same. The sun peeked over Sunrise Mountain. By noon she would forget it had rained at all.
At school, Amber went straight to the theatre where she spent the early morning. The casting sheet for the upcoming production of Hamlet was supposed to be posted on the door, but it wasn’t. No one was there. Amber did her makeup in the dressing room like she did every morning, so that her mom wouldn’t see – winged eyeliner and thick mascara like she’d been practicing, a layer of bronzer to give herself color on this grey day, dark lipstick. She went outside to the backstage courtyard, where, on nice days, everyone would hang out. But today it was just James, sitting on top of the concrete picnic table, smoking a cigarette. This wasn’t that kind of school; most kids wouldn’t have dared, but James must have known that he had some kind of immunity today. He wore tight pants and styled his hair so that it swooped down and covered his entire left eye and some of his right one. James did lights, and Amber didn’t know him well.
“Hi,” he said. It was hard to tell if he’d looked at her.
“Hi,” she said back. Amber didn’t know if she’d ever actually heard him talk. She wanted to turn around and go back into the theatre. They had nothing to talk about. She hadn’t known Richie well, and probably neither had James. But on a day like today, grey and cold and empty, she couldn’t just leave him sitting there by himself. The streetlight behind his head was still on, another little orange sun like the one outside her bedroom. She sat down backwards on the picnic table bench a little ways down from James. The concrete was cold, but she leaned her back against the table and propped her elbows on it. Some of the senior girls sat this way, and she’d seen how they’d looked.
“Smoke?” James offered.
She shook her head.
“Did you hear what happened?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Terrible.”
“What did you hear?”
It was like he wanted her to say that Richie was dead.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“What did you hear?”
Amber sat up and spun around on the bench so that she faced James. She slouched.
“I heard that he was at a party and some kids were messing around with a gun and it went off.”
James was quiet. Amber sat up straight again and watched him puff smoke from behind his curtain of hair. The smell was so overpowering that she felt sure some teacher was seconds away from catching him and sending them both to the office. She looked over her shoulder into the darkness of the backstage hallway. There was no one.
“I was at the party,” said James.
Of course, he would have been. He had done the lights. She turned around again to make sure no one was coming.
“Did you see it happen?” she asked.
She waited for him to say something more. She imagined what it had looked like to him, partially obscured by the hair over his eyes, to watch someone get hit by a bullet and fall.
“It was his dad’s gun. He kept saying ‘it’s not loaded, it’s not loaded,’” said James.
The hair on her arms stood up and James saw it. Richie had asked for it, confident that it would be okay. Or comfortable with the idea that it wouldn’t.
James asked her not to tell these details anyone, but there must have been other witnesses. The story would get around.
From the light booth James watched Amber delivering Ophelia’s lines from Act IV Scene 5. She was off-book now, and she looked up, as if at him, while she spoke. It was impossible for her to see him with the lights in her eyes. The heads of the actors cast as Laertes and Queen Gertrude were sitting close together in the second row of the audience. They whispered to each other each time Mr. Gilman stopped Amber to give her instructions, and James knew that what they were whispering was not complimentary. Amber struggled particularly with the ending line that she was supposed to sing. It was understood that Amber wasn’t a very good actress.
It was understood also that Amber was beautiful. She started into her monologue again, and James turned up the spotlight on her. She continued without paying him any mind. He followed her across the stage with the light as she moved from mark to mark that, after she’d gone home last night, he’d helped the stage manager tape down. Amber delivered the lines with little variation. It would be James’ responsibility to let the audience know that she had gone from beautiful, to mad, to drowned.
Amber started again from the top, and this time Laertes laughed out loud. She caught his eye and blushed, and James turned the spotlight off in favor of some red light that they hadn’t taken down from the ending scene of The Crucible. It didn’t help.
James watched the whole rehearsal from the darkness of the booth. When it ended Amber hung back to talk with Laertes, but when she left he went back to laughing with Queen Gertrude. James wondered if Amber would bring up this painful crush when the two of them were out on the concrete picnic table while he smoked. It was routine now. Last week he’d met her there, after she’d done her scene with Laertes, and in an angsty daze she’d asked him for a puff of his cigarette. When he asked if anything was wrong she handed it back to him without smoking it and said nothing.
Laertes, his arm around Queen Gertrude, gave James a wave as they walked up the right aisle and out of the theatre. He and James had become friends during The Crucible, but they didn’t talk much now. They had been at Richie’s party together. It could have easily been Laertes who pulled the trigger – James couldn’t remember. His lack of ability to visualize the situation made him fearful that he himself was to blame. He switched on the spotlight again and practiced moving it along the orange exes, Amber’s marks, but there was nothing to illuminate now. He switched it off.
Amber touched up the foundation on her cheeks, put on another coat of lipstick, and got out of the car. From the look of the front of James’ house, no one was home, but he had told her to come in when she got there, so she pushed her way into the dark living room. A light was on in the next room, so she kept walking. Two guys wearing skinny black pants, their dyed black hair in front of their eyes, stood at the kitchen counter. They looked like James had in high school except with the weight gain that came with the poor habits of being twenty. Both were rolling joints. She was surprised that people still dressed like this as adults.
One of them looked up and tried to move the hair out of his eyes. It fell back down immediately and he flinched. He had the four suits of a deck of cards tattooed on his knuckles.
“Hi,” he said. His face betrayed a look of surprise that a girl like Amber was standing under the bright overhead lights of their dirty kitchen. Amber had seen this look walking into rooms before.
“Is James around?” she asked. She looked down a dark hallway and wondered if she’d have to go through it to get to him. She felt a little like she was in one of those pop-up parking lot haunted houses where people volunteered to put fake blood on their mouths and chase teenagers around with bladeless chain saws – like something was going to jump out at her.
“He’s out back.”
Amber nodded and walked through the kitchen to a sliding glass door. The two guys muttered under their breaths and she ignored them even though she wanted to listen. She’d heard their words before, unspecific words about beauty, at casting calls and modelling shoots in New York City, but they led to nothing.
James sat with his back to the door. He didn’t turn around when he heard it open. She took in his hair, cut short now, out of his eyes. He had a tattoo of the Stratosphere on the back of his neck and it looked bad. She wondered why he had tattooed the ugliest building in a city he didn’t like in such a conspicuous place. Smoke came out in clouds in front of him. Thin and white, it seemed to curl around itself more than to come out in puffs, extracted from him, like he had nothing to do with it leaving his body.
“Am I supposed to remember who those guys are?” she asked as she shut the door behind her.
James turned around, blew more smoke, and then he smiled more fully than he ever had in high school. She couldn’t tell if his face was unfamiliar because she hadn’t seen it in two years or because she had never really seen it at all.
He set his e-cigarette down on the glass-topped table, there was the scrape of plastic chair on concrete, and then he was facing her.
“Nah. They’re guys I work with.”
She’d already forgotten she’d asked a question.
They smiled. He tripped over the leg of his chair as he moved to hug her.
“Shit, Amber,” he said over her shoulder. They broke apart. “You look good.”
Passing back through the kitchen, James ignored both his roommates. Amber watched them watch her walk and she turned around to catch them staring.
On the street walking through James’ neighborhood, every third house they passed was the same. Different colors, different adornments, but the same basic structure. All were dark and quiet. James pulled out his e-cigarette and they didn’t speak much until they were out of his neighborhood and onto the familiar main street where they’d walked hundreds of times. The street was empty tonight, but there had been times in the summer, when the sun stayed up till nine, that they’d passed other kids. Amber never thought during those summer walks that James would live there. She’d assumed that like her, he would get out.
It was cold enough that she could see her breath. It mingled with the smoke from James’ e-cigarette, making her colder. She felt herself squinting in the dark, but there was nothing to see – the backs of houses, cinder block, empty road, a couple of bare trees and bare street lights. No mountains in the dark.
“So how’s New York City? Are you getting a lot of work?”
She shrugged and folded her arms against the cold.
“Not really,” she said. “I’ve done a couple of minor roles in plays that were in workshop, but I don’t get paid for that, so I’ve had to take a bunch of modelling gigs.”
He looked at her, as if trying to remember what she looked like, to remember if he’d happened to see her on any billboards lately.
“It’s nothing you’ll have seen. Just boring catalog stuff. Mostly lately I’ve been shooting with this real estate agent who has me walk around in his apartments in the East Village so that they looked lived-in in the photos.”
She took out her phone and pulled up a picture of herself wearing a black turtleneck and black lace panties and big tortoise shell glasses, lying on her stomach on a white bed in an exposed brick bedroom reading a book with no dust jacket and no title. The real estate agent had told her to dress as she would to walk around in her very own hip converted warehouse apartment, so she’d thrown on the jeans and the turtleneck, but when he told her to take off her pants she didn’t argue.
She’d worn less in a photoshoot. She read the same page of the book over and over again for hours.
“The glasses didn’t have lenses.”
He wasn’t looking at her glasses and they both knew it. She watched his face as he tried to hold back a laugh and then let it go anyway. This was her life, and he was laughing at it, and she had no defense.
He didn’t ask her about money, so she didn’t tell him about her waitressing job, the bulk of her life. If James imagined a life of lying around on white beds in lace panties while people who loved to look at her looked at her, it was fine. She wanted everyone in Las Vegas to imagine it that way. She had imagined it that way herself.
“Well. You’ll get it,” he said after a long silence. “Your big break or whatever.”
She smiled. “Yeah.”
“It’s a nice picture,” he said.
He took out his e-cigarette again.
“What is this?” she asked. “When did you start this?”
He exhaled quickly. “Couple months ago. One of the guys at the shop got me into it. It’s good. This one’s mint flavored. Try it.”
“No thanks,” she said. “You know those are worse for you than real cigarettes. You’re going to get popcorn lung or whatever it’s called.”
“That’s not true,” he said.
“I’m just saying.”
“I bet your friends in New York only ever smoke cigarettes imported from France or something like that. I bet they’d never put up with this synthetic shit.”
Amber folded her arms and thought of the workshops where she practiced her lines quietly and spoke to no one, of the diner where the other waitresses had worked for decades, where there was no room for her, of the real estate agent who’d asked her out three times now.
“I don’t really have any friends in New York.”
They had walked far now, almost all the way to his parents’ house, the neighborhood they’d walked all the time the summer after Richie died. They stepped into it tonight and she felt colder than she ever had here.
They passed under a streetlight and it turned off. They were always doing that. She shivered visibly. James tucked his arm into hers. He smelled of synthetic mint.
“Something’s different. What’s different?” she asked.
“It’s been two years. A lot of things are different.”
She said nothing, still trying to place why the houses that she’d so often passed looked warped, shadowy, sinister in their lifeless darkness.
“It’s the streetlights,” James said. He had known all along what she was noticing. “They’ve started changing them to these white bulbs. They’re shit. They don’t light up shit.”
“Oh yeah,” she agreed, looking out at the street ahead and noticing the change. All night they’d been passing through swaths of darkness and brief bursts of harsh light, laid out like a grainy TV screen before them. The warm orange glow was gone. She shivered again. He rubbed her arm with his to warm her.
“You’d think an NYC girl would be used to the cold by now.”
“It’s different cold here,” she said.
Again he tried to keep himself from laughing at her and laughed anyway. It was pointless to defend herself under these lights.
Too cold to walk anymore, they went back to James’ and sat in the backyard with blankets and bud lights. His roommates were nowhere to be found, and Amber did not ask about them. He didn’t offer any information. These aspects of James’ life were an embarrassment that she did not want to make him air. They talked mostly about high school, about Las Vegas, about the world they’d inhabited together; because they did not inhabit the same world anymore. She inhabited the whole world, and he inhabited no world at all.
The roommates and a third guy came back around midnight, when Amber and James were cold enough and drunk enough to move to the couch in the dark living room. When the three guys came in they turned on no lights, letting the white streetlight that she could not un-notice now wash over Amber and James and the couch.
“It’s raining. We’re going to go watch the lightning. You coming?”
Watching lightning was an activity of James’ invention. They’d done it together the summer after Richie died. James looked at Amber in the dark and they agreed nonverbally that they would go, both knowing well that there would be no lightning. Lightning happened in the heat, not in this rain that in the open desert without the blacktop and lights was almost snow.
Amber sat in the back middle, framed by James and one of his roommates. They were close to the same size, but it felt like a lopsided frame. There was no seatbelt and the car smelled strongly of weed. She sat looked out the window at the rain, falling hard, until the window fogged up and she could see nothing. The car became smaller for lack of the outside. Please can’t somebody hit the defrost button, she thought. She was drunk and claustrophobic.
Amber felt the lack of seatbelt when they went around corners. She pressed into James more than she needed to, letting him hold her up with his body, filling the space that she fell into. He had always been a good placeholder. He took her arm again.
It did not take long to hit the northern edge of town, and out the front windshield she could see only blackness and raindrops. They waited for lightning that wouldn’t come.
When they drove away, the stoned guys in the front seat put on weird music – sparse, and high, and cold. An electronic drum beat, a couple of chords on a synth, a stunted bass guitar, a high, thin voice. It sounded like the layer of fog on the window. It sounded like what the dark outside would look like if she could see it. Amber closed her eyes for a while and felt dizzy. She couldn’t remember where she was. Opening her eyes on the darkness didn’t help. She turned and faced James. She reached over him to write on the fogged window. Here, vulnerable, exposed, she could write anything she wanted. She had the excuse of drunkenness and closeness. She had a plane ticket back to New York City. It took a moment for her to settle her hand against the g-forces. She wrote her name on the fogged window, as if to say I am here in this car next to you. He wrote his beneath it. She drew a heart and colored it in. He drew a jagged line through it and broke it.
For the first time in months, Amber didn’t answer the phone. After her visit James called her every day. He’d go outside and sit on the back patio and dial her new NYC area code cell phone number and sit and talk to her for as long as she wanted to talk, sometimes ten minutes, sometimes two hours. On nights when it didn’t get dark so early he’d walk while he talked to her. He’d tell her when the horrible white street lights came on and they would feel cold together even though the night was hot the way a night should never be hot. Tonight would be one of the last of the hot nights, for this year anyway, and it looked like rain.
Once he asked her what she did while they talked, but she had no answer. Sometimes she’d be in the train station, sometimes in her apartment. He pictured her apartment as the one she’d modelled in. He pictured her on the phone, lying on that bed in the big glasses with no lenses. But he knew that must be wrong. With every step he took in a circle around his neighborhood he stepped farther away from being able to picture her life. He had no concept of what it looked like. And she had an embarrassingly well-defined concept of his. Speaking to her was a part of his routine, a part of their routine, but he knew now that he couldn’t be part of a routine she didn’t have.
He tried her again, but it went to voicemail. There was no point in leaving one. He stayed outside for an hour, smoking intermittently, then got up and went for a walk. He left the phone behind.
Amber finished her audition and was offered the lead role on the spot. She tucked behind her ear the hair that had fallen, as she’d planned it to fall, while delivering her monologue. She fished in her purse for her lipstick. She applied a coat of it, expertly, without a mirror. She accepted the role. It was paid, it took many hours of practice, it meant that she would need to quit her job at the diner.
In the lobby she decided that she would call James tonight. It had been weeks since she’d talked with him, and she needed to tell him about the part, and about the JC Penney swimsuit spread she’d landed last week. She thought maybe she’d invite him to visit, to watch her opening night like he had watched her from the light booth as Abigail Williams and Ophelia and all of the other high school roles, even before they’d met. On the way to the subway she walked under a burnt out streetlight. She didn’t know what color it had been. She didn’t notice things here the way she had in Las Vegas. She pulled out her phone and ignored the excessive texts and calls from her mom and called James. No answer. His mailbox message was the same as it had been in high school, the high voice of a kid hiding behind the hair in his eyes and a cigarette and a spotlight.
“Hey,” she said to his high school voice. She liked it, but she wanted to hear his real voice, his live voice, his voice now. “Call me.”
She stopped talking while she passed someone on the street.
“I miss you.”
When Amber landed in Las Vegas everything was cold, hard, and sunny. Driving south on any road at noon she could hardly see for the brightness. It was hard to imagine how a road like this could have just days ago been slippery enough to cause a car to spin out of control and crash. Amber had come for the funeral but the day came and she did not go. After two weeks back in Las Vegas she called the director of her play and pulled out of her role. She was halfway through her JC Penney swimsuit campaign, but she cancelled that too. She did not visit the grave.
One morning at the grocery store her cashier was someone she’d gone to high school with, the boy who played Laertes alongside her in Hamlet. She’d had a difficult crush on him. She wondered if James had known. She thought to ask him before she remembered.
“Amber. You look good,” he said.
For once it wasn’t true. If he hadn’t liked the way she’d looked in high school, he couldn’t like her now that two years in New York and the crash had done their work.
“Thanks,” she said, putting items on the conveyor, watching things float by that she didn’t remember picking up.
“So are you back now?” he asked. “Big city wasn’t good to you?”
She tried to smile. “No. It was good enough. It’s this city that isn’t good.”
“Yeah. It’s home though.”
She looked around at the grocery store. It didn’t feel like home, but she nodded anyway.
“All I know is that if I managed to land an acting gig in New York City you’d have to put a gun to my head to get me back here.”
She wondered if he had any acting gigs. He didn’t look like he did.
“Did you hear about James?”
She nodded and busied herself with applying lipstick. She hadn’t put any on for days, and she could feel it sinking into the cracks in her lips. He handed her her bags and she left without saying goodbye.
In the parking lot she thought about Richie Nelson, who had gotten out with a gun to his head. She thought of James, who had too. It was a wet night, but he was a cautious driver. James never did anything extreme. That turn was tight, but he could have made it if he’d really wanted to. She hadn’t spoken to him for weeks, maybe even a month, before it happened, and she couldn’t help but picture him lonely, maybe a little drunk, going to look at the last lightning of the season. Confident that he wouldn’t take the turn too fast – or not caring if he did.
On James’ Facebook page that had been taken over by one of his roommates, somebody posted a picture of a cross they’d put up on the side of the freeway where he’d crashed.
Amber drove as far west as she could go before she hit the freeway. The subdivisions with tightly packed tall houses turned to subdivisions with large and spacious lots, and then the cinder block gave way to ranches with lonely horses and goats. The animals looked cold. She pulled over on the side of the road and picked some dandelions and got on the freeway. Everything was fast and windy and too bright to see. She made it safely around the curve, she saw the cross, but she couldn’t pull over. The sun bounced off the cars whizzing around her, and she pulled off at the next exit. She drove past it in the other direction, but missed her chance again.
On empty backroads she drove, past dogs that ran up to chain-link fences, barking at her to drive away. In this part of town she pressed up against Lone Mountain, named because it stood apart from the others, casting a shadow on the houses as the day got later. She strained to find a road that did not end before it hit the freeway, where she could walk up to the cross. She had no system, no plan, and she found herself driving up the same roads that she already knew were dead ends. And then she could see the curve where he’d crashed, she could see the cross, she could see the road going through, but she was blocked by a chain-link fence. This time there was no dog barking at her, but this one seemed worse. She felt her frenzy die. She felt what it was like to be able to see but not go.
Amber stopped dead in front of the fence and put her head on the steering wheel. Her car felt small. She got out with the dandelions and walked up to the fence. It shook in the wind that whipped through the narrow corridor between Lone Mountain and its fellows, that came swirling around her, pulling her hair across her face. She grabbed the fence and squeezed until her fingers hurt, and threw the dandelions down at the bottom of it. The wind blew them up against it. They strained to get through.