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An hour after I landed at the podunk airport in the postage-stamp North Idaho town where I went to college, my friends Lefty and Bud puttered to the curb in Lefty’s ancient Ford Falcon station wagon. They jumped out shouting, “Spire! Miranda Spire!” and bear-hugged me. I kissed their cheeks, then shoved them away, laughing, and hefted my suitcase into the trunk. Once we were all in the car, Lefty driving, Bud reclined in the back, and me in the passenger seat, I said, “Mountain?” and they both grinned and shook their heads and told me I was crazy, but sure, why not, why change things now.
As we followed the narrow black road out of town and into the hills, where combines cut stripes in the wheat and the harvest dust hung low in the air, Lefty blasted the BeeGees and I cranked down my window, the tips of my braids lifting in the warm wind. We drove past farms, and wound through fir and pine, then fish-tailed up steep logging roads until we reached the top, and tumbled out of the car, and dashed to the overlook.
The Palouse rolled on and on below us, patches of brown and green and gold, like somebody’d flung a giant quilt off the mountainside. “We’re home!” Lefty hollered, and Bud and I threw back our heads, cupped our hands around our mouths, and yelled it with him — “Home!” — our voices echoing over the hills and valleys. We stood shoulder to shoulder, gazing out over this land we’d come to see as our own. After a while, Lefty handed around a pack of American Spirits, and we sprawled on the rocks and blew smoke into the sunshine.
“It’s good to be back,” I said.
Bud nodded. “Sure is. Arizona heat just about did me in.”
“Tell me about it. We hit record highs in Montana,” I said. “Hundred and nine.”
“Try Georgia. Humid as hell,” Lefty said. “Man, I missed ya’ll this summer. Hardly knew what to do without someone begging me to take her to the mountain every other second.” He elbowed me, and I smiled at him.
“Crazy to think we’re already Seniors,” Bud said.
I stubbed out my cigarette and wrapped my arms around my legs, chin resting on my knees. Lefty draped his arm across my shoulders and said, “You think it’ll always be like this? The three of us?”
I wanted to say yes, confidence ringing in my voice, but I only ducked my head, not quite a nod.
“Of course,” Bud said. “Friends who drink together, stay together.” He pulled a flask from his pocket, took a swig, and passed it to me.
“To friends,” I said, and swallowed deep.
Bud pushed himself up then, saying, “Well guys, I gotta take a piss,” and jogged toward the trees, calling back, “Don’t drink all that without me.”
“We’ll do our best,” Lefty teased. His arm was still around me and I shrugged away as I handed him the flask. He’d been my best friend ever since we’d met at Freshman orientation three years ago. We did everything together, but that summer he called so often I stopped answering. And he wrote me letters. Three handwritten, snail-mail letters on stationary he must’ve filched from his mom, all curlicued with watercolor roses. I didn’t write back. After all, we were just friends, and I didn’t want to lose this, didn’t want to mess up me and Lefty and Bud, our long drives and frozen creek hikes and wild late-night crackpot philosophy. Besides, I’d met somebody over break. Noah, thoughtful and kind, with eyes like thunderheads. He managed a record shop in Missoula, and rode the rodeo on weekends. He called me darling, and I thought I might be falling in love with him. I hadn’t told Lefty or Bud.
I grabbed the whiskey back and took another long belt, the liquor cold on my teeth and warm down my throat. Staring out at my favorite view in the world, I felt this wave of nostalgia so strong it was almost panic. As if all this might suddenly vanish if I didn’t seize it and make it so much my own that it would seed deep down in my bones no matter what I did, or where I ended up. I stood.
“Let’s do the jump,” I said.
“You always chicken out.”
“I know, but I really want to do it.”
“Water’s going to be freezing.”
Bud plopped down next to me. Sweat rimmed his small pot belly. Lefty said, “Spire wants to hike up to the lake. Thinks she’s going to fly.”
Bud arched his eyebrows. “You got so scared last time you almost cried.”
“Don’t come if you don’t want to,” I said, and headed for the trail.
“Nothing ever changes,” Bud muttered as they hurried after me, but of course everything already was.
“It’s the drinking makes her like this.”
“Shut up, guys,” I said. I was being bossy and demanding, I knew that, but all of a sudden it seemed wildly important: doing the leap, not backing out. Maybe it was the whiskey.
We climbed to the peak, then picked our way down the rocky hillside. It took the better part of an hour, and we were beet red and breathing hard by the time we reached the small alpine lake, shimmering blue in the late summer sun. On the far side, one boulder towered above the rest and, just looking at it, my stomach lurched.
Bud bent over, hands on knees. “Hell, we sure as shit aren’t getting any younger,” he wheezed.
“Speak for yourself,” Lefty said, cocking his chin and flexing both biceps.
“A regular ole Benjamin Button,” I said, and punched him in the arm. “Come on, Bud, it’s not much farther.”
I wanted to get this whole thing over with before I had a chance to lose my nerve. We climbed along the craggy shore to the base of the boulder, and sprawled on the wide stones, Bud flat on his back, Lefty and me yanking off our shoes and socks.
“Not going up with us, Bud?” I asked.
“Somebody’s got to supervise you crazies.”
Lefty said, “Swear you’ll do it this time, Spire.”
I nodded, though my chest was tight, my breath fast.
“Spit on it.”
We spit on our palms and shook, like school kids, like blood brothers, then I scrambled up the rock face, toeing for footholds and gripping cracks with my fingertips, and finally heaving myself over the edge. I rose slowly to my feet, and looked down — a good thirty feet, at least, maybe even forty. My vision went spotty.
Lefty clambered up, and said, “You can do this.”
“I’ve got no clue what I was thinking,” I said. When he simply nodded, I wiped my hands on my shirt, but it was drenched with sweat. “Really, I can’t.”
“Jump,” he whispered. “Goddamn it, just Geronimo the hell down and get it over with.” And with that I hurtled to the edge and leapt into the blue nothing, and the wind whistled in my ears like birdsong, and I screamed for the wild joy of my lungs bursting as I hit the cold, cold lake. Fireworks exploded in my right ankle, and I kicked madly with the other foot toward the surface, spluttering for breath, swallowing water. I didn’t think I could tread for long, pain and fear tidal-waving through my whole body, but, next thing I knew, Lefty’s arms circled around my middle, and he said, “I got you. Just relax.” So I rested against his chest and stared at the sky, unbroken blue and wide as Montana grasslands, and, don’t ask me why, but I thought of Bob Dylan singing “It Ain’t Me, Babe” on the record player the day I first walked into Noah’s shop, saw him there in his patched overalls, tapping the counter to the beat of the song. Now my ankle pulsed with its own rhythm, burning through my calf and up my thigh. I clenched my teeth and prayed to God it would just stop hurting.
When we finally reached the shore, Bud lifted me onto the rocks, and Lefty collapsed beside me. He held my hand, and I didn’t pull away.
“It’s going to be all right,” Bud cooed, stroking my forehead like he was my mother. I wanted to swat him, say something snarky, but instead I started crying.
“It’s broken, my leg’s broken,” I sobbed. “I think I hit a rock.”
Lefty leaned over me, his face just inches from mine. “Listen to me, Spire, you have to stay calm. We’re going to carry you out, and you’re going to be fine.”
“Okay,” I said, brushing the tears from my eyes as they hoisted me into their arms. Every step jolted my leg and I flitted in and out of consciousness, sometimes waking to the boys talking in low voices, then fading into deep and heavy breathing.
By the time we reached the car, the sun had dipped behind the mountain, the air brisk and cold. Shivering, teeth chattering, I settled into the backseat with Lefty, my legs out straight. The sky darkened quickly as we drove down the winding gravel roads through evergreens and ferns, every now and then a deer leaping before us, just a blur of brown in the headlights, and I was glad for Lefty there beside me, bracing me over potholes and bumps, but I wished he knew about Noah, and I wished Noah was the one with me.
I’d shattered my ankle. So many little pieces they had to cut me open and screw me up. They doused me with morphine, and kept me overnight for observation. Bud and Lefty wanted to stay, but they’d done enough, and anyway, I’d asked a nurse to call Noah, and he was already on Highway 12, speeding west.
Hours later I woke to him kissing the knuckles of my right hand, one by one. The machines beeping around the bed cast green over his face. “Don’t go dying on me, darling,” he said.
“I don’t have cancer.”
“It’s the gangrene you’ve got to watch out for.” He thumbed my knee-high cast and winked. “Small town hospitals, and all.”
“Mind if I join you?” he asked, and stretched out next to me, boots hanging off the edge, arm tucked under my head. He smelled of leather and vinyl and fresh cut wood, and I drifted back to sleep, my nose in the crook of his neck.
“What’s going on?” Lefty demanded. He and Bud stood at the foot of the bed.
I blinked against the morning sunshine that poured through the window. “Hey, guys,” I mumbled, thick and fuzzy. “This is Noah. Noah, Lefty and Bud.”
Noah rose, holding out his hand. Neither of them shook it, and he let it fall to his side. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “Heard a lot about you.”
“Can’t say the same,” Lefty said, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops, and glaring. “Mind if I talk to you a minute, Spire? Alone.”
I nodded at Noah, who squeezed my shoulder before following Bud into the hallway. I wasn’t sure if Lefty was going to shout or cry, and when he finally said, “Who is he?” his voice broke.
“My boyfriend,” I said. “We met over the summer.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t want things to be weird between us.”
He gripped the bed rail, and stared at the IV in my arm. “You know how I feel about you.”
My leg ached and my head spun and I snapped, “How could I when you’ve never actually told me.”
“Like it wasn’t obvious?” he said, voice so quiet I could barely hear him. “You knew.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Listen, you’re my best friend in the world, I don’t want to lost that. I don’t want to lose you…”
“Stop,” he said, and crossed the room in two strides, and walked out the door.
The doctor released me the next morning. My parents were celebrating their anniversary in Rome and I hadn’t been able to get ahold of them, so Noah drove me to the small house I rented with three other girls, all younger than me. I’d never had much to do with them, but I did let them know what’d happened, and when I crutched inside they welcomed me with flowers and cards and a huge pink balloon. They were busy with classes and work and friends, though, and over the next few days I rarely saw them.
Noah spent that whole Monday with me, playing cards and listening to music, talking and laughing until evening, when his boss called and said they really needed him back at the shop. He kissed me a long and lingering goodbye, then trudged out to his Jeep. I hobbled to the front door, called him back and kissed him again, then convinced him to drag my mattress onto the porch so I could sleep in the clear summer air.
I lay on that mattress for three days, staring at the stretching blue sky by day, the star-studded black by night. I didn’t answer my phone, or read my emails, or tell any of my professors why I wasn’t in class. My roommates checked on me every once in a while, but I think I kind of freaked them out, popping Hydrocodone, drifting in and out of dreams and memories and rabbit-hole thoughts. I missed Lefty, and I missed Noah, and it’s anyone’s guess how long I’d have stayed out there if Lefty and Bud hadn’t climbed over my fence.
“What the hell, Spire?”
I eased the blanket from my eyes and peeked into the brilliant daylight. They squatted on either side of me, their faces so wrinkled with worry that I snorted a laugh. Half-drunk cups of water, unread books, and overused tissues littered the porch, my crutches at odd angles where I’d dropped them as I slumped to the mattress.
“How long have you been out here?” Bud asked.
“And where’s this Noah guy now?” Lefty wanted to know. He had dark circles under his eyes, and I thought he’d lost weight, too.
“Are these supposed to be gone?” Bud shook the empty pill bottle.
I propped myself on my elbows and tried to appear reasonable. “I’ve been resting,” I said.
They looked at each other for a long moment, then rolled their eyes up, as if searching for wisdom in the afternoon sky.
“You need to eat,” Bud said. “You’re coming with us.”
They lifted me off the mattress, one on each side, and settled me onto my crutches. I lurched to the car, and Lefty drove us to Wendy’s, where we ate chili and fries, same as we had a hundred other times, though for once we didn’t talk much, my heart kaleidoscopic with too many twisting shapes and colors to look at for long.
Afterward, instead of taking me home, Lefty passed by my street and kept on driving, past the grocery store, and the fire station, and over the county line to the Chevrolet dealership, where he parked in the back of the lot and said, “Figured we’d go to the treehouse.” It was just a bunch of rotting boards hammered into the branches of an ancient cottonwood in the middle of a wheat field, but we’d spent hours there together.
The crop hadn’t been harvested yet, and I couldn’t get through on my crutches, so Lefty piggy-backed me across, him in love with me, and me with someone else. Friends, just friends, one last time. We waded through the spiky stalks, the boys swearing and laughing at the wheat biting into their bare legs. We stopped before we reached the cottonwood: a horned owl perched on the lowest branch, staring at us with fierce unblinking eyes. I slipped to the ground, balanced between Lefty and Bud, and the three of us stood shoulder to shoulder, watching the owl watch us. It screeched, a long piercing note over the field and under the dusky sky, and we screeched with it, shrieked and hollered and yelled until our mouths went dry, and our throats sore, every part of us aching for the beauty of that pink light over the golden wheat, and the terrible finality of this moment together, screaming our insides raw in the echo of the owl disappearing across the wide wild hills.