eighty-four days before

Three days later,the rain began. My head still hurt, and the sizable knot above my left temple looked, the Colonel thought, like a miniaturized topographical map of Macedonia, which I had not previously known was a place, let alone a country. And as the Colonel and I walked over the parched, half-dead grass that Monday, I said, “I suppose we could use some rain,” and the Colonel looked up at the low clouds coming in fast and threatening, and then he said, “Well, use it or not, we’re sure as shit going to get some.”

And we sure as shit did. Twenty minutes into French class, Madame O’Malley was conjugating the verb to believe in the subjunctive. Que je croie. Que tu croies. Qu’il ou qu’elle croie. She said it over and over, like it wasn’t a verb so much as a Buddhist mantra. Que je croie; que tu croies; qu’il ou qu’elle croie. What a funny thing to say over and over again: I would believe; you would believe; he or she would believe. Believe what? I thought, and right then, the rain came.

It came all at once and in a furious torrent, like God was mad and wanted to flood us out. Day after day, night after night, it rained. It rained so that I couldn’t see across the dorm circle, so that the lake swelled up and lapped against the Adirondack swing, swallowing half of the fake beach. By the third day, I abandoned my umbrella entirely and walked around in a perpetual state of wetness. Everything at the cafeteria tasted like the minor acid of rainwater and everything stank of mildew and showers became ludicrously inappropriate because the whole goddamned world had better water pressure than the showers.

And the rain made hermits of us all. The Colonel spent every not-in-class moment sitting on the couch, reading the almanac and playing video games, and I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to talk or whether he just wanted to sit on the white foam and drink his ambrosia in peace.

After the disaster that was our “date,” I felt it best not to speak to Lara under any circumstances, lest I suffer a concussion and/or an attack of puking, even though she’d told me in precalc the next day that it was “no beeg deal.”

And I saw Alaska only in class and could never talk to her, because she came to every class late and left the moment the bell rang, before I could even cap my pen and close my notebook. On the fifth evening of the rain, I walked into the cafeteria fully prepared to go back to my room and eat a reheated bufriedo for dinner if Alaska and/or Takumi weren’t eating (I knew full well the Colonel was in Room 43, dining on milk ‘n’ vodka). But I stayed, because I saw Alaska sitting alone, her back to a rain-streaked window. I grabbed a heaping plate of fried okra and sat down next to her.

“God, it’s like it’ll never end,” I said, referring to the rain.

“Indeed,” she said. Her wet hair hung from her head and mostly covered her face. I ate some. She ate some.

“How’ve you been?” I finally asked.

“I’m really not up for answering any questions that start with how, when, where, why, or what.”

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“That’s a what. I’m not doing what’s right now. All right, I should go.” She pursed her lips and exhaled slowly, like the way the Colonel blew out smoke.

“What—”Then I stopped myself and reworded. “Did I do something?” I asked.

She gathered her tray and stood up before answering. “Of course not, sweetie.”

Her “sweetie” felt condescending, not romantic, like a boy enduring his first biblical rainstorm couldn’t possibly understand her problems — whatever they were. It took a sincere effort not to roll my eyes at her, though she wouldn’t have even noticed as she walked out of the cafeteria with her hair dripping over her face.

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