I spent the next day in our room, playing football on mute, at once unable to do nothing and unable to do anything much. It was Martin Luther King Day, our last day before classes started again, and I could think of nothing but having killed her. The Colonel spent the morning with me, but then he decided to go to the cafeteria for meat loaf.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“You have to eat.”
“Wanna bet?” I asked without looking up from the game.
“Christ. Fine.” He sighed and left, slamming the door behind him. He’s still very angry, I found myself thinking with a bit of pity. No reason to be angry. Anger just distracts from the all-encompassing sadness, the frank knowledge that you killed her and robbed her of a future and a life. Getting pissed wouldn’t fix it. Damn it.
“How’s the meat loaf?” I asked the Colonel when he returned.
“About as you remember it. Neither meaty nor loafy.”The Colonel sat down next to me. “The Eagle ate with me.
He wanted to know if we set off the fireworks.” I paused the game and turned to him. With one hand, he picked at one of the last remaining pieces of blue vinyl on our foam couch.
“And you said?” I asked.
“I didn’t rat. Anyway, he said her aunt or something is coming tomorrow to clean out her room. So if there’s anything that’s ours, or anything her aunt wouldn’t want to find…”
I turned back to the game and said, “I’m not up for it today.”
“Then I’ll do it alone,” he answered. He turned and walked outside, leaving the door open, and the bitter remnants of the cold snap quickly overwhelmed the radiator, so I paused the game and stood up to close the door, and when I peeked around the corner to see if the Colonel had entered her room, he was standing there, just outside our door, and he grabbed onto my sweatshirt, smiled, and said, “I knew you wouldn’t make me do that alone. I knew it.” I shook my head and rolled my eyes but followed him down the sidewalk, past the pay phone, and into her room.
I hadn’t thought of her smell since she died. But when the Colonel opened the door, I caught the edge of her scent: wet dirt and grass and cigarette smoke, and beneath that the vestiges of vanilla-scented skin lotion. She flooded into my present, and only tact kept me from burying my face in the dirty laundry overfilling the hamper by her dresser. It looked as I remembered it: hundreds of books stacked against the walls, her lavender comforter crumpled at the foot of her bed, a precarious stack of books on her bedside table, her volcanic candle just peaking out from beneath the bed. It looked as I knew it would, but the smell, unmistakably her, shocked me. I stood in the center of the room, my eyes shut, inhaling slowly through my nose, the vanilla and the uncut autumn grass, but with each slow breath, the smell faded as I became accustomed to it, and soon she was gone again.
“This is unbearable,” I said matter-of-factly, because it was.
“God. These books she’ll never read. Her Life’s Library.”
“Bought at garage sales and now probably destined for another one.”
“Ashes to ashes. Garage sale to garage sale,” I said.
“Right. Okay, down to business. Get anything her aunt wouldn’t want to find,” the Colonel said, and I saw him kneeling at her desk, the drawer beneath her computer pulled open, his small fingers pulling out groups of stapled papers. “Christ, she kept every paper she ever wrote. Moby-Dick. Ethan Frome.”
I reached between her mattress and box spring for the condoms I knew she hid for Jake’s visits. I pocketed them, and then went over to her dresser, searching through her underwear for hidden bottles of liquor or sex toys or God knows what. I found nothing. And then I settled on the books, staring at them stacked on their sides, spines out, the haphazard collection of literature that was Alaska. There was one book I wanted to take with me, but I couldn’t find it.
The Colonel was sitting on the floor next to her bed, his head bent toward the floor, looking under her bed frame.
“She sure didn’t leave any booze, did she?” he asked.
And I almost said, She buried it in the woods out by the soccer field, but I realized that the Colonel didn’t know, that she never took him to the edge of the woods and told him to dig for buried treasure, that she and I had shared that alone, and I kept it for myself like a keepsake, as if sharing the memory might lead to its dissipation.
“Do you see The General in His Labyrinth anywhere?” I asked while scanning the titles on the book spines. “It has a lot of green on the cover, I think. It’s a paperback, and it got flooded, so the pages are probably bloated, but I don’t think she—” and then he cut me off with, “Yeah, it’s right here,” and I turned around and he was holding it, the pages fanned out like an accordion from Longwell, Jeff, and Kevin’s prank, and I walked over to him and took it and sat down on her bed. The places she’d underlined and the little notes she’d written had all been blurred out by the soaking, but the book was still mostly readable, and I was thinking I would take it back to my room and try to read it even though it wasn’t a biography when I flipped to that page, toward the back: He was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. “Damn it,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”
The whole passage was underlined in bleeding, water-soaked black ink. But there was another ink, this one a crisp blue, post-flood, and an arrow led from “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” to a margin note written in her loop-heavy cursive: Straight & Fast.
“Hey, she wrote something in here after the flood,” I said. “But it’s weird. Look. Page one ninety-two.” I tossed the book to the Colonel, and he flipped to the page and then looked up at me. “Straight and fast,” he said.
“Yeah. Weird, huh? The way out of the labyrinth, I guess.”
“Wait, how did it happen? What happened?”
And because there was only one it, I knew to what he was referring. “I told you what the Eagle told me. A truck jackknifed on the road. A cop car showed up to stop traffic, and she ran into the cop car. She was so drunk she didn’t even swerve.”
“So drunk? So drunk? The cop car would have had its lights on. Pudge, she ran into a cop car that had its lights on,” he said hurriedly. “Straight and fast. Straight and fast. Out of the labyrinth.”
“No,” I said, but even as I said it, I could see it. I could see her drunk enough and pissed off enough. (About what — about cheating on Jake? About hurting me? About wanting me and not him? Still pissed about ratting out Marya?) I could see her staring down the cop car and aiming for it and not giving a shit about anyone else, not thinking of her promise to me, not thinking of her father or anyone, and that bitch, that bitch, she killed herself.
But no. No. That was not her. No. She said To be continued. Of course. “No.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” the Colonel said. He dropped the book, sat down on the bed next to me, and put his forehead in his hands. “Who drives six miles off campus to kill herself? Doesn’t make any sense. But ‘straight and fast.’ Bit of an odd premonition, isn’t it? And we still don’t really know what happened, if you think about it.
Where she was going, why. Who called. Someone called, right, or did I make—” And the Colonel kept talking, puzzling it out, while I picked up the book and found my way to that page where the general’s headlong race came to its end, and we were both stuck in our heads, the distance between us unbridgeable, and I could not listen to the Colonel, because I was busy trying to get the last hints of her smell, busy telling myself that of course she had not done it. It was me — I had done it, and so had the Colonel. He could try to puzzle his way out of it, but I knew better, knew that we could never be anything but wholly, unforgivably guilty.