Alan found me at Cook Creek, near where it fed into the summer sludge of the North Raccoon River. He dropped down beside me, on the log where we used to tell our folks we went fishing. Sometimes we brought home a blue gill or channel cat, but mostly we touched and tasted, lazing in the sunshine, laughing when it rained.
“Hey, Ben. What’s up?”
I hitched my shoulders, and kept my eyes on the water.
We skipped rocks and didn’t say much for a while. The creek talked to itself on the way downstream, and somewhere an angry jay let everyone know it. Without a wind, leaves hung limp as dishrags from the branches, and the place smelled ripe with green and rot, witness to another muggy Iowa summer.
Finally, Alan said, “You should be heading back to the cemetery.”
“Don’t want to.”
I dared a quick look at him. New lines crinkled sad at the corner of his mouth.
“You got to, Ben. You’re dead.”
At least he had the good graces not to mention my face or back. Stitches could put a body back together, but never make it whole.
I skipped another rock. “Not my fault.”
How’d he get so old in six months? Black crew cut growing out, a few hairs playing pretend as a beard, something sad and lonesome I wished I could soothe away.
He took a deep breath and, real easy, he said, “Yeah, I know, but you still got to go back. It’s Sunday, and your folks might come around after church.”
“Not my problem.” I wished I could put feelings behind the words, but I didn’t have any no more.
Alan leaned back on his elbows and I risked another look. The sunlight through his shirt hinted at his chest underneath. I kept my hands to myself.
He must have seen me looking, cause he turned and smiled full on. Once upon a time I would have gone all warm at the sight, but I didn’t have no heartbeat no more neither. I didn’t have nothing but the cold, cold grave, and worms for company.
“You get the classes you wanted?” I said before he could open his mouth.
His smile went away a little, and he looked back at the creek.
“All but the college placement biology,” he said. The words were slow in coming. He cleared his throat. “I got Mister Jayger for language arts.”
I nodded, though not so much as to tear out the stitches under my hair. “He still got that ugly station wagon?”
“The Meat Beater? Yeah.”
“He should get himself some decent wheels.”
Alan laughed. “You should have seen him at the game against, um…”
He looked away, and cleared his throat again.
We settled into silence. I wanted to say lots of things: “I miss you.” “You have any idea what it’s like to need something so bad and not know what it is?” “I’m scared.” Maybe even wanted to cry, but my tears went out of me with my heartbeat, splattered on my bike and the hood of a beat-up ‘59 Chevy Impala.
I looked at my hands, long waxy fingers, dirt and bits of wood and grass under the nails. I wondered what Alan would do if I put a hand on his arm, leaned my head on his shoulder. Would he wrap his arm around me like he used to? Pull away? Run screaming cause I’m so cold anymore? In all the times I’d wandered from the cemetery and all the times he found me, I never even so much as let my hand brush against his. I so wanted to touch him, but the wanting came from far away, like a tired, old habit.
My grandpa had no use for Alan’s family, said Alan’s dad had yellow fever and his mom spent years in one of those camps for the Japanese. Ma always said Grandpa was still bitter about the war, and that I shouldn’t listen to him. Herself, she boasted how she talked to Alan’s mom at the bakery if no other customers came around.
Alan and me never cared about what we couldn’t and shouldn’t do. We just did because it felt right together.
Used to feel right.
I picked up a rock. “You applied for any colleges yet?”
He nodded, still looking at the water.
“I don’t know why I can’t stay in the grave, Alan. I just can’t, you know? I got… I should still…”
He nodded again. I thought maybe I saw tears in his eyes.
“You’re righteous smart.” I tossed the rock in the creek. “Maybe I’ll come visit you in college.”
Alan smiled. He reached out and touched my elbow just for a second. I almost felt it.
The shadows had shrunk and started to grow long again when he stood. “Come on, Ben.”
I looked at the ground, then at him. “Why?”
He held out a trembling hand. “Because it’s time.”
He flinched when I took his hand, but didn’t pull away.
We walked back across Shilling’s Bridge to the cemetery, holding hands the whole way. I knew my row and place; so did Alan. His backpack and camp shovel sat behind the mound of dirt and splinters, just out of sight of any passers-by. He always came with the shovel anymore. Made me wish I’d never bought it for him. Maybe I could hide it, give myself, us, more time.
He let go of my hand and picked up the shovel. There were tears in his eyes when he said, “You need to rest, Ben.”
I eased myself back into my coffin. Hand on what was left of the lid, I finally got my courage up. “Don’t forget me.”
I hoped it was true when he said, “Never.”
I eased the lid closed, laid there alone, and listened as the dirt rained down on me again.