forty-four days before

“Coosa liquors’entire business model is built around selling cigarettes to minors and alcohol to adults.” Alaska looked at me with disconcerting frequency when she drove, particularly since we were winding through a narrow, hilly highway south of school, headed to the aforementioned Coosa Liquors. It was Saturday, our last day of real vacation. “Which is great, if all you need is cigarettes. But we need booze. And they card for booze. And my ID blows. But I’ll flirt my way through.” She made a sudden and unsignaled left turn, pulling onto a road that dropped precipitously down a hill with fields on either side, and she gripped the steering wheel tight as we accelerated, and she waited until the last possible moment to brake, just before we reached the bottom of the hill.

There stood a plywood gas station that no longer sold gas with a faded sign bolted to the roof: coosa liquors: we cater to your spiritual needs.

Alaska went in alone and walked out the door five minutes later weighed down by two paper bags filled with contraband: three cartons of cigarettes, five bottles of wine, and a fifth of vodka for the Colonel. On the way home, Alaska said, “You like knock-knock jokes?”

“Knock-knock jokes?” I asked. “You mean like, ‘Knock knock…”

“Who’s there?” replied Alaska.

“Who.”

“Who Who?”

“What are you, an owl?” I finished. Lame.

“That was brilliant,” said Alaska. “I have one. You start.”

“Okay. Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?” said Alaska.

I looked at her blankly. About a minute later, I got it, and laughed.

“My mom told me that joke when I was six. It’s still funny.”

So I could not have been more surprised when she showed up sobbing at Room 43 just as I was putting the finishing touches on my final paper for English. She sat down on the couch, her every exhalation a mix of whimper and scream.

“I’m sorry,” she said, heaving. Snot was dribbling down her chin.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. She picked up a Kleenex from the coffee table and wiped at her face.

“I don’t…” she started, and then a sob came like a tsunami, her cry so loud and childlike that it scared me, and I got up, sat down next her, and put my arm around her. She turned away, pushing her head into the foam of the couch. “I don’t understand why I screw everything up,” she said.

“What, like with Marya? Maybe you were just scared.”

“Scared isn’t a good excuse!” she shouted into the couch. “Scared is the excuse everyone has always used!” I didn’t know who “everyone” was, or when “always” was, and as much as I wanted to understand her ambiguities, the slyness was growing annoying.

“Why are you upset about this now?”

“It’s not just that. It’s everything. But I told the Colonel in the car.” She sniffled but seemed done with the sobs.

“While you were sleeping in the back. And he said he’d never let me out of his sight during pranks. That he couldn’t trust me on my own. And I don’t blame him. I don’t even trust me.”

“It took guts to tell him,” I said.

“I have guts, just not when it counts. Will you — um,” and she sat up straight and then moved toward me, and I raised my arm as she collapsed into my skinny chest and cried. I felt bad for her, but she’d done it to herself. She didn’t have to rat.

“I don’t want to upset you, but maybe you just need to tell us all why you told on Marya. Were you scared of going home or something?”

She pulled away from me and gave me a Look of Doom that would have made the Eagle proud, and I felt like she hated me or hated my question or both, and then she looked away, out the window, toward the soccer field, and said, “There’s no home.”

“Well, you have a family,” I backpedaled. She’d talked to me about her mom just that morning. How could the girl who told that joke three hours before become a sobbing mess?

Still staring at me, she said, “I try not to be scared, you know. But I still ruin everything. I still fuck up.”

“Okay,” I told her. “It’s okay.” I didn’t even know what she was talking about anymore. One vague notion after another.

“Don’t you know who you love, Pudge? You love the girl who makes you laugh and shows you porn and drinks wine with you. You don’t love the crazy, sullen bitch.”

And there was something to that, truth be told.

Christmas We all went home for Christmas break — even purportedly homeless Alaska.

I got a nice watch and a new wallet—”grown-up gifts,” my dad called them. But mostly I just studied for those two weeks. Christmas vacation wasn’t really a vacation, on account of how it was our last chance to study for exams, which started the day after we got back. I focused on precalc and biology, the two classes that most deeply threatened my goal of a 3.4 GPA. I wish I could say I was in it for the thrill of learning, but mostly I was in it for the thrill of getting into a worthwhile college.

So, yeah, I spent a lot of my time at home studying math and memorizing French vocab, just like I had before Culver Creek. Really, being at home for two weeks was just like my entire life before Culver Creek, except my parents were more emotional. They talked very little about their trip to London. I think they felt guilty. That’s a funny thing about parents. Even though I pretty much stayed at the Creek over Thanksgiving because I wanted to, my parents still felt guilty. It’s nice to have people who will feel guilty for you, although I could have lived without my mom crying during every single family dinner. She would say, “I’m a bad mother,” and my dad and I would immediately reply, “No, you’re not.”

Even my dad, who is affectionate but not, like, sentimental, randomly, while we were watching The Simpsons, said he missed me. I said I missed him, too, and I did. Sort of. They’re such nice people. We went to movies and played card games, and I told them the stories I could tell without horrifying them, and they listened. My dad, who sold real estate for a living but read more books than anyone I knew, talked with me about the books I was reading for English class, and my mom insisted that I sit with her in the kitchen and learn how to make simple dishes — macaroni, scrambled eggs — now that I was “living on my own.” Never mind that I didn’t have, or want, a kitchen. Never mind that I didn’t like eggs or macaroni and cheese. By New Year’s Day, I could make them anyway.

When I left, they both cried, my mom explaining that it was just empty-nest syndrome, that they were just so proud of me, that they loved me so much. That put a lump in my throat, and I didn’t care about Thanksgiving anymore. I had a family.

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