It’s just one of those things that happens.
Smoke wafts off the fire and stings my eyes. Stings in a way that makes the face across the flames seem a distant stranger. Cody cracks open a Coors and tosses me another from the cooler. When I catch it, I continue looking at his face, his eyes, looking for all of the minute changes years have given him. Like being behind the wheel of a familiar street in a storm. He’s thinned out now, around the cheeks and temples.
He stares at the darkened house as if the kitchen is a hundred miles out. He’s thinking Sandy’s looking out from the window over the sink. I’ve driven up from the city for a weekend getaway. He said it was fine if I crash on the couch but I know somewhere in the background there was Sandy, the voice of reason. He’s a bad influence, I can hear her saying about me. Saw it in her face over dinner, all flared nostrils and pursed lips. Honestly, I’m shocked he wound up with a woman like that. One who gives a shit. If only she’d known Cody back when. If she knew the Cody I knew.
Twigs snap in the orange glow. Crickets whistle in the high weeds in the fields behind his backwoods home. A nature scene gutted with a spire of smoke.
“So,” he says, scuffing the sole of his sneaker in a pile of old ash. Levi’s frayed around the heel.
“Thanks for letting me stay,” I tell him.
“Dude,” he burps on exhale, “It’s fine. I missed you.”
We’re trying hard to talk like the people we were before we were old but all of it comes out stunted. Nostalgia. Fish tales of football fields and fistfights like a couple of old soldiers. Nothing but a series of ‘remember whens.’ I sneak a look at my phone out of habit. Then I nod toward the darkened house.
“Think she’s okay with it?”
“House is in my name.” Cody shrugs with the silver can hovering in front of his lips. “She can deal with it.”
Shit. Sure beats the backseat of a Civic. Guess it can’t all be bad. Ain’t like I got a Sandy around to tell me what for.
“It’s nice to get out of town for a bit is all. All the signs and people and lights, gets suffocating. My head feels like it’s full of bricks.”
“I hear ya,” Cody nods at the fire but I don’t know if he really hears me hears me. “Work’s got me running twelve hour days. Mm, shit. Know who I ran into at Cracker Barrel the other week?”
“Well, not ran into but I saw her. Remember that girl you dated back in high school? Tracy?”
“Lyndaker. Tracy Lyndaker”
“Haha,” Cody says. “Right. Tracy Dicklicker.”
Forked tongues of fire obscure the sight of Cody’s gaunt face but reflect back in his eyes.
“How’s she doing?”
“Well, she’s working at Cracker Barrel.” He clicks his tongue and goes, “Still got a good ass on her though.”
In the tenth grade I got into it with Tracy Lyndaker. Together we fell hard. Her parents forbade the relationship so I would hide in the hedges on Sundays before they left for church. They said I provoked extreme reactions from people. You can’t stop what we had. So we sat on the patio and let our hands and mouths wander until she knew they’d be back and send me running through the thicket. She had a set of eyes that felt like she was always on the verge of tears. It was around that time that Tracy tried out for cheer squad and got rejected, too. I guess I thought I could be a splint for the spirit and what have you.
“It’s okay.” I pressed the icepack to her swollen ankle using my free hand to wipe tears from her cheek. “You’ll get it next year.”
Tracy never gave me the details. But there wasn’t ever a next year. She never tried out again. Word never got out about what exactly went wrong, just that she got cut after tryouts. That mystery almost made it worse. We spent the icepack Sunday in bed together fumbling through an exchange of virginities. It felt like the appropriate thing to do to combat life’s minor failures. This is what people do.
“I love you, Tracy Lyndaker.”
If you say you love someone with the last name tacked on it adds meaning.
“You love me?” Like she wasn’t sure it was possible.
She started to cry dreams of cheerleader tears again and took my hands off her. She said her parents would be home soon and that I should go.
Soon after that Cody began calling her Tracy Dicklicker behind her back and telling everyone she got cut from cheer squad for being too fat. Candy bar titties, is what he said. I said nothing. I said nothing because he was my friend and people laughed when he spoke even when he wasn’t saying anything funny. Not that I thought Tracy was fat. She wasn’t. Cody just saw a target. When Cody called me a Dicklicker Lover I faked my smile like I was in on the joke. Without a reason I broke it off with Tracy. Ghosted her. I didn’t want to be the guy who dated Dicklicker. I could tell she was hurt. Maybe hurt wasn’t the word, like when I told her I loved her. Sometimes I would open the curtains and see her with tears in her eyes, a silhouette backlit by streetlamps, tapping her fingertips along the tops of my parents’ picket fence. Other times she’d be nowhere at all.
In tenth grade I drove Tracy Lyndaker crazy. Like I’d unearthed something buried in her and broke it. She finally cornered me outside of school. She’d been hiding in the hedges and pulled me in with her.
“You don’t get to fuck me and tell me you love me and disappear from my life forever.” Her pale face reddened with a stream of tears and snot and ugliness. “I deserve an explanation. At least—I at least deserve that.”
“Do you know that people call you Tracy Dicklicker?”
She sputtered to inhale more air than she could in her sobbing fit, an old motor turning over.
“What do you say? What-What do you say when people say that about me?”
I said nothing.
Tracy screamed. She screamed a scream that seemed to never end. It turned the secrecy of the bushes into a joke. I heard footsteps. Dress shoes on concrete. Loafers. Voices of authority.
“The hell was that?”
I tried to stop the screaming. Make it all okay. Think. Hold her. Don’t put your hand on her butt, of all the things to do. Comfort her. Make it all okay. Before they come. A weeping pulse held gently against my chest.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“I loved you, too, you know.”
“I know. I still love you Tracy Dicklicker.”
A slip of the tongue.
A bloody nose.
A thing that happens.
They arrived to take her away before she could really hurt me. Guess we didn’t consider how she might’a got hurt.
“Great ass,” Cody says again. “Heard she’s got a kid now.”
He stands to go piss. Face to the stars, I stare at them in the distant way you do when you’ve been living in the city too long and finally make it out. They become new again. I look up at them for I don’t know how long. I lose time. I imagine all of our old friends around the fire laughing, embers cracking.
All of it tainted with a wave of regret. I come awake again to the slosh and ting of a beer can touching down.
Huh. Cody’s leg is on fire. Stumbled. Freak accident. It crackles loud, lapping at the leg with a hunger for flesh. I always thought denim would melt into the skin if they caught fire together but no, the flames just burn it away to get to the meat. Cody sobers up and crawls away crying, slapping at the sizzling redness.
“Help, dude. Help me!”
I am standing and looking over this scene trying to feel one way or another. Cody rolls it out in the weeds but the damage is done. White light winks the house alive and Sandy comes running out in nothing more than a t-shirt. She’s a breathy mess.
“Help me lift him into the truck,” she screams. “We need to get him to the hospital! Come on!”
We each hook one of Cody’s arms around our shoulders and drag him into the truck.
“God,” he cries. “God!”
In the passenger seat he clutches the air around his leg. His hands look burned, too. His Levi’s dangle in tatters. Soon to be blisters, his burns sizzle like a hissing snake, ssssssssss. These years gone by have changed us but good.
One of the last things Tracy Lyndaker said to me, screaming as they dragged her away, was “What do you think Cody’s saying about you? You’re not safe!”
And that’s true. No one is safe. Not me. Not Cody. That’s why I’m telling you this now. I’m glad his leg got all burned up in the fire. Feels like justice. And from that happiness and hissing comes hunger. I’m craving fried eggs.
Sandy revs the truck and I begin to walk away.
“What are you, where are you going?”
“Cracker Barrel,” I tell her. Just to look. Won’t say nothing.
I am a no good piece of shit. This is what Sandy screams at me as the truck tires tear up bits of gravel and grass. Cody is quietly screaming to God. It’s me. Always been me.
I am a bad influence.
I provoke extreme reactions from people.
I start my car and wipe the smoke from my eyes.
Like I said, it happens.
Daniel Eastman is from a river town in upstate New York. Now he lives in landlocked Allentown with his wife, their dogs, and a bunny.