I come back from Econometrics and find Maddie swaying from a hot pink rope in our living room. It is not real. It cannot be real. She is a mannequin from a Visual Arts major’s sad diorama. Then I see her bare toes twisting above a flipped over desk chair: gnarly and bruised like always from too much running. The red birthmark on her thigh burns like a flare. But her skin is the color of beach glass. Her eyes bulge. Instead of green, they’re grey orbs like spent bulbs in the dining hall chandelier. Her pupils explode, begging for light. That Kanye song we hate blasts from her laptop, the redundant, shitty lines about being famous echoing against the cinder block walls.
I am sure she is playing a joke because Maddie hanging herself would be the worst thing that ever happened. We are eighteen and might be the same person.
I am in such a state of denial that my first thought is:
“They sell rope at the bookstore?”
Cannon Chapel looks like a 1980s Taco Bell. The chaplain reads from John 14, the one about the father’s house with many rooms and getting the rooms ready for Jesus. The pews are filled with people I’ve never seen before. A group of frat guys in plaid shirts close their eyes and sway like Jesus is a hurricane force wind. A girl with ironic pigtails stands in the aisle during the University President’s generic dead-student-eulogy and takes a candlelit selfie. No one from Maddie’s family is here. They are atheists, like Maddie herself. The idea of mourning her with Bible passages is preposterous, concocted by some non-functional Dean.
A row in front of me, Angela, our miniature suitemate with a thong-and-jean problem, bawls her charcoal-lined eyes out with great shrieking sobs. Her furry, marching-band-boyfriend paws at her shoulder. The scene is reminiscent of a chinchilla being crushed to death by a St. Bernard.
“Like we’re even friends,” Maddie says in my head. It’s her talk-shit-voice, low and creaky as a bullfrog.
“Is that her new boyfriend? Beast. Angela, patron saint of nerd shaggery. They worship her,” she would say. But I feel her breath, sticky and Twizzler-scented. I turn and she is there.
My heart explodes in my throat. I don’t know whether to hug her or hit her, but I can’t do either because my arms are suddenly as heavy as the pontoon-sized crucifix above the altar.
“Bullshit. You’re Tom-Sawyering me?” I sputter. We Spark-Noted through an American Lit lecture last semester for our English requirement. That must be where she got this idea.
I reach for the tangled top-knot bun that crowns her head like a tiara, so I can twist it until she squeals. But she sees it coming so she sneers like a Disney villain and unfurls her red curls. When I reach to yank them, she is gone.
The organ bellows “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” The other Very Sad Freshmen mumble the words, but I just stare at the empty space where Maddie was. I want her to come back so I can tell her what a selfish bitch she is.
The chapel doors break open and a wide, white sunlight floods the sanctuary. It’s the kind of light that through a window can trick you into thinking it’s summer even when it’s thirty degrees in January.
I push my way to the aisle in front of all the fakers and bound down the steps. Someone grabs me from behind. She is not real, I tell myself. But when I look, it’s just Angela, who is tragically real.
“This is. So. Terrible.” She gasps and pulls me close, her grip too strong for her wren-sized body.
“Whatever,” I say. “She did it on purpose.” I gnash my molars until my jawbone creaks to keep my eyes from watering. If I’m going to cry, it won’t be with Angela.
She drills into me with her black eyes, which are ringed red from all the wailing. The angry twitch at the corner of her mouth is familiar from when we use the coconut-scented shampoo she leaves in the shower. I tell her I don’t, but I usually do, even though Maddie says it smells like the world’s skankiest tanning salon.
“We’re going for pancakes tomorrow,” Angela finally says.
“I hate pancakes,” Maddie whispers. I feel her. She’s close enough to snap my bra strap, but I do not look at her because I am not crazy.
“Who’s we?” I ask Angela.
“All the girls from our floor. It would be really meaningful to me if you came.”
I don’t give one shit about what is meaningful to her. It occurs to me: If I stay on campus, bundled in a Patagonia jacket, letting everyone stare at me with poor-you-eyes, I will not implode but slowly evaporate.
“Can’t,” I say. “I’m going to California tomorrow.” I will buy the ticket when I get back to the dorm room.
“Not that bullshit plan again,” Maddie says. She huffs, deep and exasperated. I turn to see her green eyes crossed like drunk sorority girls’ to mock me, but she dissolves like cooling steam.
“Why?” Angela asks. Her lips are pursed like a preschool teacher talking to a kid who can’t stop throwing sand. Her whole face annoys me—the beady eyes and the tight lips and the shiny coconut-scented braid swinging behind her like a rope.
“I have a stellar plan,” I say.
I scan the walkways cutting through the quad, deciding which zig to zag to get away from her as fast as possible.
“And Maddie fucking hates pancakes.”
I walk. I would run but I’m not crazy. I hope Angela is crying again, but if I look back to find out I’ll ruin it.
Just my luck: there is a duty free shop next to gate C27. I buy a bottle of Grey Goose. The cashier says something about Colorado being beautiful this time of year as she hands back my fake ID. I just nod because I’ve never been, even though my license says I’m a twenty-three-year-old from Boulder.
I slide my ostrich legs into the ruler-wide space between the plane seats and fold in on myself like a Jack-in-the-Box. I find a movie to watch on the little TV, some sad-sack story about a bridesmaid who loses her dress but finds true love.
I tell the flight attendant I want a grapefruit juice and two cups. She gives them to me without so much as wrinkling her smooth, shiny forehead. I split the juice into the cups and top them off with the duty free vodka.
The man next to me wears bifocals and sleeps with his iPad on his lap. Everyone on the plane is on a computer or staring at a Kindle screen or their phones. Their wrinkles and zits look ghoulish in the collective electronic glow. Even though no one is paying attention, my cheeks burn delinquent crimson as I down the first drink in a few swift gulps. The booze warms the hollow of my stomach, sends my head buzzing in time with the hum of the engine.
“California,” Maddie sighs through the crack between the seats behind me. ”I’m going to nude sunbathe in a pool, like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. It’s our last chance. We’re almost too old for public nudity. It’s not like France.”
If I ignore her, maybe she’ll disappear. I’m not crazy, after all. But then a spitballed cocktail napkin lands on my tray table. I lean back towards the crack but still don’t turn around.
“Dustin Hoffman is never nude, and, Maddie, if I may be frank, it’s January and you’re dead,” I whisper.
“What’s your plan here, friend? You’re just going to march in there and demand to be seen?”
“I have to do something,” I say. “Am I supposed to just sit around and cry like everyone else?”
“’The queen is here!’” she yells in British accent to the rest of the plane.
I turn around because she’s not going anywhere. The end of a Twizzler hangs out of her mouth like a kindergartner’s version of a cigarette. She sticks her tongue out at me. It’s coated bright red like the candy.
When I close my eyes, I see her toes twisting, gentle and slow as a willow branch.
“Ten minutes,” I say. “I stopped for a latte. What if I got there ten minutes earlier?”
She throws her head back like a coyote howling at the moon and starts to laugh, but then she’s gone. All that’s left is the imprint behind my eyes, like the sky after a lighting strike, and then that fades too. The seat is empty, and all I can hear is the wheeze of the man snoring next to me.
I punch his open tray table with my fist. It rattles. He opens his eyes, blue and bugged and shiny.
“So sorry,” I say, like nothing’s happened, “but I need to use the restroom.”
He picks up his iPad and swings his legs to the side. I take my second drink with me, pretending to go to the bathroom, but really I just walk up and down the aisle looking at all the ugly faces absorbed in white lights, looking for her.
At Hertz I have the choice between a red Camaro and a fog-grey Prius.
“You need the Camaro,” she says. “What else would you drive to the biggest I told you so of your life?”
It’s a straight shot south on 101 but I take Highway 1 because the Hertz agent tells me I’d be crazy not to see the Pacific. The engine groans as I accelerate around a curve. A gaggle of blubbery sea lions lie beached on the rocks below.
“At least we don’t have to drive through stank-ass San Francisco,” I say. “I heard it’s filled with lunatics.”
“I went with my dad once,” Maddie says. “I ate too much chocolate at Ghiradelli Square and puked it up in Al Capone’s cell at Alcatraz.”
I switch lanes without checking the mirror. I pass a Volkswagon Beetle painted like a rainbow.
“Did you kill yourself because of Jimmy?” I ask. Jimmy, the tobacco-stained Minor League shortstop from Nashville, broke up with her by text message while she waited at the Greyhound depot. He was not only an asshole but also too poor to buy a plane ticket.
“Gross,” she says. She wrinkles her nose like I’ve blasted a Chipotle fart in the Camaro.
“Your step dad?” I ask. He ghosted to Fort Lauderdale after her mother caught him rifling through Maddie’s underwear drawer last Christmas.
“Please. I’m not pathetic.”
“Then why?” I ask. I glance over the guardrail at the ocean churning wild and black below. “Tell me or I’ll string you up on that pink rope myself.”
She mime-sews her lips shut and starts to hum that Kanye song we hate.
My phone starts talking to me. I glance down at the GPS directions. I take the next exit.
The pock-marked, gap-toothed security guard at the gate scratches under his damp baseball cap and asks me where I’m going, a question I did anticipate, but I am steel. I act dumb and stammer in that blond way I‘ve perfected because Maddie says it’s magic–offer eyelashes and apologies and the world is yours. His spacebar gets stuck when he pounds on his keyboard, so he waves me through.
“A young lady in her daddy’s car can’t be too much trouble,” he says.
I park at the far end of a lot the size of two football fields, filled with as many bicycles as cars. I lay flat across the back seat of the Camaro to wriggle out of my grubby Lululemon pants and into my lone interview suit from Dillard’s.
“Slut. There must be cameras all over,” Maddie says. “It’s the motherfucking Googleplex.”
“Just shut up,” I say, but I pull the elastic edges of my black underwear down to cover my ass. “Haven’t you done enough already?”
Buzzing around the campus are all sorts of bullshit Googley things meant to better humanity. Driverless cars circle the parking lot, their electronic engines silent. Drones the size of boomerangs fly overhead, carrying interoffice envelopes like falcons with fresh prey.
“You know what’s funny?” Maddie says. “Someone spent ten million Google dollars on that drone so he doesn’t have to walk his fat ass down the hall to pick up his reimbursement check, but I’m still dead.”
She follows me through the glass doors of the most space age building, which I figure must be the most important one. At the welcome desk is a kid the same age as me, black hair pertly gelled so that it melds into his headset like he’s a Google-designed action figure.
“I’m here to interview with the Finance Department,” I say.
His fingers glide across the keyboard, so soft and silent that I wonder if it’s a requirement of the job.
“You could never do that. You type like a machine gun firing bricks,” Maddie says. She kneels to straighten the hem of my skirt. It’s wrinkled like tissue paper from being stuffed in my backpack.
“There are no interviews scheduled with the Finance Department today,” the Google action figure says.
I lean across the desk to see his screen, but he spins the monitor away from me towards the white model spaceship hanging behind him.
“It is very important that I am given this opportunity,” I say. I tap my index finger on his desk to demonstrate my commitment. The cheap nylon lining of my suit sticks to my sweaty arm pits.
The Google action figure looks at me like I’m too stupid to be anywhere near the Googleplex.
“Perhaps there has been a scheduling snafu?” he says.
“Let me tell you about snafus,” I say. I wind up on the balls of my feet. In my exodus from Atlanta I forgot to pack my bitch heels, as Maddie calls the black stilettos I always wear to interviews, so I am barefoot. “Snafus are bullshit. There is no such thing as scheduling melee. Expect nothing. We deserve nothing. There are moments and we have them and then they are gone, and I’m not just talking about old people who smell like parchment paper and tea leaves. It is everyone you know, and when it happens you will know that you didn’t really know them at all.”
I run across the parking lot before he can flag over the security guard perched in the corner of the lobby like a sentinel. I am surely not the first person to cause a problem at the Googleplex, but I am determined to be the smartest.
The blacktop is hot on my bare feet, which surprises me because I heard every day is the same in northern California: seventy degrees and slightly cloudy.
“It’s perfect,” Maddie says.
“It’s stupid,” I say. It’s shameful to live without seasons, to never know the way a bright sun in January can trick you into thinking it’s June, a better day than it really is. “How can there be good days when every day is the same?”
The red Camaro is farther away than I remember. I wonder if anyone is following me as I skip across the parking lot. When I look over my shoulder all I see is one of the driverless cars, the color of champagne and the shape of a bubble.
I freeze. It’s coming towards me at a constant, excruciating 30 miles per hour. What if I stay here? If I stop moving for once and let the world happen to me instead?
“Just do it,” Maddie says. And with the car bearing down on me, I finally know what she was thinking. It would be so nice to feel everything and then nothing.
I look at her. I inhale her candy smell. I know it’s not the last time I’ll see her like this: red curls streaming like fireworks on their way back to earth, a smirk spreading across her face like a lazy river. Her eyes green and glossy with enough mischief dancing in them that I’m glad I was her friend instead of her enemy. But she’s fading and I need to let her go.
“I love you,” I say. And the anger drops from me like a boulder. I’m lighter, but I’m not free yet.
So I run. Back to the Camaro shining like a stripper’s lipstick in the sun. I do not stop there; even with my foot on the accelerator it is no kind of peace.
I run for days, for years. I run to duty free shops and infinity pools in Los Angeles, into the arms of men from bars and men from planes, up mountainsides and through howling waves, places real and imagined until I can’t tell the difference. I run and I run and I run until I can remember her without evaporating.
Lynn Vande Stouwe‘s work has been published by YARN, Georgetown Review, Quantum Fairy Tales, and Dogzplot, among others. Her story “Winterim” won the 2016 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for Young Adult Fiction. She is currently at work on a new YA novel about the 1969 moon landing. She lives in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, with her husband, three adorably manic children, and two cats who bear a striking resemblance to Mr. Bigglesworth. To read more of her stories, visit www.lynnvandestouwe.com.