Because our main source of vehicular transportation was interred in Vine Station, Alabama, the Colonel and I were forced to walk to the Pelham Police Department to search for eyewitnesses. We left after eating dinner in the cafeteria, the night falling fast and early, and trudged up Highway 119 for a mile and a half before coming to a single-story stucco building situated between a Waffle House and a gas station.
Inside, a long desk that rose to the Colonel’s solar plexus separated us from the police station proper, which seemed to consist of three uniformed officers sitting at three desks, all of them talking on the phone.
“I’m Alaska Young’s brother,” the Colonel announced brazenly.
“And I want to talk to the cop who saw her die.”
A pale, thin man with a reddish blond beard spoke quickly into the phone and then hung up. “I seen ‘er,” he said.
“She hit mah cruiser.”
“Can we talk to you outside?” the Colonel asked.
The cop grabbed a coat and walked toward us, and as he approached, I could see the blue veins through the translucent skin of his face. For a cop, he didn’t seem to get out much. Once outside, the Colonel lit a cigarette.
“You nineteen?” the cop asked. In Alabama, you can get married at eighteen (fourteen with Mom and Dad’s permission), but you have to be nineteen to smoke.
“So fine me. I just need to know what you saw.”
“Ah most always work from six t’ midnight, but I was coverin’ the graveyard shift. We got a call ’bout a jackknifed truck, and I’s only about a mile away, so I headed over, and I’d just pulled up. I’s still in mah cruiser, and I seen out the corner a’ my eye the headlights, and my lights was on and I turned the siren on, but the lights just kept comin’ straight at me, son, and I got out quick and run off and she just barreled inta me. I seen plenty, but I ain’t never seen that. She didn’t tarn. She didn’t brake. She jest hit it. I wa’n’t more than ten feet from the cruiser when she hit it. I thought I’d die, but here ah am.”
For the first time, the Colonel’s theory seemed plausible. She didn’t hear the siren? She didn’t see the lights? She was sober enough to kiss well, I thought. Surely she was sober enough to swerve.
“Did you see her face before she hit the car? Was she asleep?” the Colonel asked.
“That I cain’t tell ya. I didn’t see ‘er. There wa’n’t much time.”
“I understand. She was dead when you got to the car?” he asked.
“I–I did everything I could. Ah run right up to her, but the steerin’ wheel — well, ah reached in there, thought if ah could git that steerin’ wheel loose, but there weren’t no gettin’ her outta that car alive. It fairly well crushed her chest, see.”
I winced at the image. “Did she say anything?” I asked.
“She was passed on, son,” he said, shaking his head, and my last hope of last words faded.
“Do you think it was an accident?” the Colonel asked as I stood beside him, my shoulders slouching, wanting a cigarette but nervous to be as audacious as him.
“Ah been an officer here twenty-six years, and ah’ve seen more drunks than you’n count, and ah ain’t never seen someone so drunk they cain’t swerve. But ah don’t know. The coroner said it was an accident, and maybe it was.
That ain’t my field, y’know. I s’pose that’s ‘tween her and the Lord now.”
“How drunk was she?” I asked. “Like, did they test her?”
“Yeah. Her BAL was point twenty-four. That’s drunk, certainly. That’s a powerful drunk.”
“Was there anything in the car?” the Colonel asked. “Anything, like, unusual that you remember?”
“I remember them brochures from colleges — places in Maine and Ohia and Texas — I thought t’ myself that girl must be from Culver Crick and that was mighty sad, see a girl like that lookin’t’ go t’ college. That’s a goddamned shame. And they’s flowers. They was flowers in her backseat. Like, from a florist. Tulips.”
Tulips? I thought immediately of the tulips Jake had sent her. “Were they white?” I asked.
“They sure was,” the cop answered. Why would she have taken his tulips with her? But the cop wouldn’t have an answer for that one.
“Ah hope y’all find out whatever y’all’s lookin’ for. I have thought it over some, ’cause I never seen nothing like that before. Ah’ve thought hard on it, wondered if I’da started up the cruiser real quick and drove it off, if she’da been all right. There mightn’t’ve been time. No knowing now. But it don’t matter, t’ my mind, whether it were an accident or it weren’t. It’s a goddamned shame either way.”
“There was nothing you could have done,” the Colonel said softly. “You did your job, and we appreciate it.”
“Well. Thanks. Y’all go ‘long now, and take care, and let me know if ya have any other questions. This is mah card if you need anything.”
The Colonel put the card in his fake leather wallet, and we walked toward home.
“White tulips,” I said. “Jake’s tulips. Why?”
“One time last year, she and Takumi and I were at the Smoking Hole, and there was this little white daisy on the bank of the creek, and all of a sudden she just jumped waist-deep into the water and waded across and grabbed it.
She put it behind her ear, and when I asked her about it, she told me that her parents always put white flowers in her hair when she was little. Maybe she wanted to die with white flowers.”
“Maybe she was going to return them to Jake,” I said.
“Maybe. But that cop just shit sure convinced me that it might have been a suicide.”
“Maybe we should just let her be dead,” I said, frustrated. It seemed to me that nothing we might find out would make anything any better, and I could not get the image of the steering wheel careening into her chest out of my mind, her chest “fairly well crushed” while she sucked for a last breath that would never come, and no, this was not making anything better. “What if she did do it?” I asked the Colonel. “We’re not any less guilty. All it does is make her into this awful, selfish bitch.”
“Christ, Pudge. Do you even remember the person she actually was? Do you remember how she could be a selfish bitch? That was part of her, and you used to know it. It’s like now you only care about the Alaska you made up.”
I sped up, walking ahead of the Colonel, silent. And he couldn’t know, because he wasn’t the last person she kissed, because he hadn’t been left with an unkeepable promise, because he wasn’t me. Screw this, I thought, and for the first time, I imagined just going back home, ditching the Great Perhaps for the old comforts of school friends. Whatever their faults, I’d never known my school friends in Florida to die on me.
After a considerable distance, the Colonel jogged up to me and said, “I just want it to be normal again,” he said.
“You and me. Normal. Fun. Just, normal. And I feel like if we knew—” “Okay, fine,” I cut him off. “Fine. We’ll keep looking.”
The Colonel shook his head, but then he smiled. “I have always appreciated your enthusiasm, Pudge. And I’m just going to go ahead and pretend you still have it until it comes back. Now let’s go home and find out why people off themselves.”