It was raw and unedited, a mere manifestation of repressed emotions, not entirely fictional. And ultimately unsatisfying. I submitted it for publication regardless, because that's what buzzed writers do at 4am (We're bizarre creatures and you really should think twice before befriending us.)
Two weeks later, I received an email informing me that my piece had been accepted. I remember my reaction: I laughed outloud. And then I read the last line of the email. Not only were they going to publish the piece, but I had been awarded first prize - a $100 check.
What? I laughed harder. That was the first time I'd received any kind of monetary compensation for my writing, and I'd somehow managed to achieve this goal while under the influence of my dear friend, Corona. I remember the drink clearly now. I'd been fresh out of limes.
"Night" has remained unedited to this day, but I want to revisit it. Your feedback is encouraged... and I really need an ending. I think I know how to end it, though. The story has already ended itself, in its own way.
Salty wetness blinded her as she sped down the windy road. She had specifically chosen this road, where everything had started.
And now where everything would end.
The windshield wipers screeched across the glass as the moonlight created a disturbing glare in her rearview mirror. Not that it mattered; she wouldn’t be using the rearview mirror that night.
Or ever again.
She watched the wipers whiz back and forth, back and forth, obscuring the canopy of trees that had oddly engulfed the road. If she let go of the wheel, would the car know to turn? She flicked the headlights off, allowing the car to blindly surge through mud puddles, splattering the remains over the windshield. She liked the way the mud drained down the passenger window, like blood from a wound.
She had been playing by his rules her entire life. But not tonight. This night was hers to destroy.
She flicked the headlights back on, but took her eyes off the road. She was entranced by the ranch houses, broken fences, open fields—all of which blended smoothly together to form everything she wanted to see, everything she had been trying to see, but had never stopped to look at.
They had broken into one of those houses. They had sat on those fences, smoking cigarettes until dawn. They had made love in that field.
She felt her heart reverberate in her chest, thumping wildly. She pressed the pedal to the floor— the car lurched forward, its wheels spinning more mud. The canopy of trees had lowered itself into the road. Branches had become tangled in the telephone wires, reaching out for her.
She let go of the wheel and she didn’t pray.
“Maybe if you’d stop being so fucking stubborn for a minute, I could help you,” he said, reaching across the table for her paper.
She pulled away. “You think I’m actually going to let you read this? You’ll just tear it apart. You always do.”
Justin pulled his hand back. “Fine. Fail. See if I care.”
Callie flung her story back at him. “Take it,” she said. “I was on a roll for awhile, but then I got sidetracked and forgot where I was going with it.”
Justin glanced over the first few paragraphs. He liked to read Callie’s stories. He liked getting inside her head. Any chance she would give him, he’d take.
He looked up at her, smirking. “It could be better. It could be worse.”
She ignored his playfulness, as usual. “But do you get it?”
“What’s not to get?” he asked. “Psycho girl drives car in rainstorm. Crashes car. Girl dies. The end.”
Callie looked hurt. “Is that all you got out of it?”
“Would you like me to get more out of it?”
He wondered why he couldn’t make it work with her. She was beautiful. He wasn’t ugly. They could hold conversations for hours, their wits a perfect match. Sure, they had tried dating. Several times, actually. They spent many memorable nights together, physically and emotionally bound by forces beyond their control.
“You’re impossible,” she said, beginning to pack up her bag.
“And you love it,” he said. He sensed a hint of flirtation in her voice.
Or maybe he was just hoping.
They had met last fall by chance at a coffee shop’s poetry reading downtown. Justin attended them on occasion, when his roommates had their girlfriends over or when he didn’t have enough money to get drunk enough with the rest of the college alcoholics. Callie attended them religiously, since she didn’t care much for campus life, and she was an avid poet herself.
He had seen her on campus before, though he had never any reason to approach her. She had her group of friends, as did he. But for some reason, that night was different. Maybe it was the way she held her coffee. Maybe it was the way she twirled her hair between her fingertips, an action Justin grew to understand. Or maybe it was because he was alone. He sat on the couch across the room from her, keeping his distance.
Justin watched the way her eyes felt every emotion of the reading poets. Callie stared intently at each reader, seeing each poet for the first time, yet her eyes conveyed a mutual understanding of “yes, I’ve been there” or, “how beautiful.” He admired her as she jotted down notes in a blue notebook. And he chuckled when she laughed during a reading and spilled coffee down her shirt— not because it was funny, but because Callie didn’t care.
The reading was coming to an end, with the final reader taking his position at the microphone. Justin quickly walked across the room, taking a seat in one of the many brown leather chairs that adorned the shop. He could now smell Callie’s perfume, which may have been too strong for some, but Justin breathed deeper that night.
He wondered if she would leave when the poet was finished. Was she heading back to campus? Did she already have plans for the evening?
The reader finished, receiving a polite applause. Justin glanced at Callie, and she caught his eye.
“Do you know him?” she asked.
He was taken aback. “Um, no, well, he was good, I mean… why do you ask?”
She smiled. “I just assumed you did. I mean, you were sitting in back the whole time before he got up.”
So she had noticed him. Justin pondered whether to flirt with her. Was she inviting flirtation? Maybe he should just remain neutral. It was safer…
“So you noticed me, huh?” he said, returning her smile.
“Are you gay?”
“What? No. Do you often start conversations with strangers like this?”
She shrugged. “Hey, it’s no problem if you are. I just like to lay out all the cards on the table.”
“Well, that’s no fun,” he said. “But no, I’m completely straight, thanks.”
“A straight guy going to a poetry reading on a Friday night,” she mused, sipping her coffee.
He chuckled. “You don’t believe me?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” she said. “Either way, you’re still a stranger.”
Justin took that as an invitation to introduce himself. He discovered that Callie, too, was a senior, though she was studying theater and minoring in creative writing, whereas he was a double major in theology and journalism. He admitted that he hadn’t been to any of their college’s productions, for which he had no excuse except laziness.
“That’s ok,” she responded. “I’m an atheist.”
“Where are you going?” Justin asked, handing Callie her story. He noticed that the campus center had emptied out, as it usually did on Friday afternoons.
“Rehearsal,” she responded, in a tone that suggested Justin should have known. He knew their school was putting on West Side Story in a few months, he just hadn’t realized Callie had auditioned.
“Nice to know you pay attention to what’s going on in your friends’ lives,” Callie added.
Friends. At least their status had been defined. He wondered why he had let himself become so detached from her. Six months ago they were inseparable. He knew it wasn’t a commitment issue; he’d been with several girls during his college years for spans of several months each.
“No, I knew,” Justin said. “So do you want my thoughts on your story or not?”
“Well it’s not done yet,” she said. “But if it were, would that beginning make you want to read more?”
Justin grinned. “Are you going to write more this weekend?”
“Yeah. It’s due Monday.”
“Then I can’t wait to read the rest of it.”
Callie smiled, the first genuine smile she had given him in awhile. Maybe he hadn’t blown it after all.
“Wait. You don’t believe in God?” Justin asked.
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Callie laughed. “Hence the meaning of the word.”
“I’ve never met an atheist before,” he said.
“It’s an exclusive group. We have Bible-burning sessions and lots of premarital sex.”
Justin laughed. “Where do I join?”
“Theology Major Turns Atheist,” Callie announced. “There’s your next headline. You can start by interviewing me first.”
They remained at the coffee shop for the next few hours, exchanging anecdotes about their lives and future plans.
“I’m going to be a hermit,” Callie said. “I’ll live by myself with 30 cats and concentrate on my writing. Maybe I’ll teach acting classes.”
“To who? The cats?” Justin teased.
“Haven’t you heard of the Broadway musical?”
“You can teach me how to act,” he offered. “I’m terrible.”
She shrugged. “You’ve got a cute face. And today that’s pretty much all you need.”
The two strolled out of the coffee shop around 11pm, after the manager had politely told them, for the third time, that he wanted to clean up and go home.
“So… would you want to hang out sometime?” Justin asked. The winter wind swirled around Callie’s face, her loose brown curls dancing in the glow of the streetlights.
“Define ‘sometime’,” Callie said.
“Well, I guess sooner rather than later.”
She grinned. “I might be able to squeeze you in tonight, if it’s not too short notice.”
Callie agreed to meet Justin at his apartment once they returned to campus. Since they had each taken their cars to the reading, Justin watched her as she walked down the sidewalk toward her car. She walked with confidence, ease— the strut of a girl who knew what she wanted.
And, damn. She had a great body.
“You coming over after rehearsal then?” Justin asked.
Callie hesitated. “I don’t know… probably not a good idea.”
“Right, yeah. Well, have fun.” He turned to begin walking back to his apartment, but she stopped him.
“What’re we doing here, Just.”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Thought I did.”
She nodded. “Which I why I can’t come over anymore.”
Callie turned and headed toward the school auditorium. She would make a quick transformation into Maria. And she would sing and dance, immerse herself in acting— briefly forgetting everything else. He stood there for awhile, watching his breath take shape in the air, a reminder of the days and nights they spent together, laying in open fields, inhaling sweet nicotine— one body, one breath.
As Justin climbed the hill to his apartment, he thought he heard Callie’s distinct singing voice… “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there; hold my hand and I'll take you there. Somehow! Someday! Some...”
“Nice place,” Callie commented, taking off her jacket and tossing it on the kitchen table.
Justin glanced around his apartment, double-checking its cleanliness, hoping it wouldn’t scare her away. He liked to keep things fairly neat, though his five male roommates didn’t always oblige.
He gave her the grand tour, which took all of three minutes. He wondered where his roommates were, and if he should be expecting them anytime soon.
“Movie?” Justin asked. “I’ve got plenty of ‘em.”
He wondered if they should watch it in the living room or in his bedroom. He didn’t want to give her the wrong impression. He watched as Callie settled on the couch. Looks like she didn’t want to give him the wrong idea, either.
“So, who are you?” Callie asked, ten minutes into the movie.
“Huh? Like, what do I like to do?”
Justin didn’t know how to answer her. He wanted to make his life sound more exciting than it was. This girl didn’t know him, so it really didn’t matter what he said.
“Well, I’d like to work for a newspaper someday. And I definitely want to leave this city.”
“Don’t we all,” she sighed.
“So, why are you an atheist?” he asked.
She hesitated. “Let’s go for a walk. It’s not too cold out. And I don’t feel much like watching a movie.”
“Ok,” Justin said.
He loved being outside at night, regardless of the time of year. He loved running during muggy summer nights— the sound of his feet hitting the pavement in rhythm was a form of meditation he didn’t think anyone understood. In winter, the stars twinkled with a different life force, brighter than usual, as if trying to stay warm.
They walked in silent unison for awhile, an odd yet comfortable silence, the snow crunching beneath their shoes. He wondered what she was thinking about. Was the silence comfortable for her, too?
“I’m an atheist,” Callie began, “because God has never been there for me. I used to pray all the time, and it was always a one-sided conversation.”
“So you stopped trying?” Justin asked. He felt his theological side rumble.
She shrugged. “It seemed pointless at the time.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but what were you asking for?”
“My mom’s life.”
“Oh,” he murmured. “I’m sorry… we don’t have to talk about this any further if you don’t want to.”
She smiled. “No, it’s ok. It was a long time ago anyway.”
“Nobody I’ve known has ever died.”
“Well, I’m sorry for you then,” Callie said.
“Death has a remarkably positive force to it,” she said. “Someone dies and it’s like your own mortality is so much more tangible, you know? Death kind of makes you want to live.”
“Just because I don’t know anyone who’s died doesn’t mean I don’t know how to live,” Justin said.
Callie laughed. “Oh no, I wasn’t implying—“
“Oh, I know exactly what you were implying,” he interrupted. “And now you’ll have to suffer the consequence.”
He quickly scooped a pile of snow into his hands, packed it together, and launched it at Callie. She shrieked and ducked.
“Oh, it’s on,” she said.
They transformed into children, hurling snowballs at each other, laughing and name-calling. Justin tackled Callie by the waist, dragging her down into the snow. She squirmed underneath him, her constant laughter eventually giving way to exhaustion.
“See, now you’re just cheating,” she said, trying to free one of her hands in hopes of putting snow down his back.
“Cheating? I’d say I’m winning,” he laughed.
“Well, the least you could do is kiss me if you’re not going to let me win.”
So he did. And then they laid there in the silent snow. Justin’s hands were shaking, his heart’s rhythm struggling to remain under control.
“So if someone I know dies, this is how I’m gonna feel,” he said quietly.
“How’s that?” Callie asked.
After play rehearsal, Callie sat down at her computer. She would finish the story. Maybe she would show the rest of it to Justin…
Two hours later the paramedics arrived at the scene of the crash. She remained in the car, the roof smashed in, trapping her body between the steering wheel and what was left of her seat. She breathed slowly, wondering how many of her bones were broken. She knew she had lived. But she didn’t know how. Or why.
She tried to move her legs.
“I can’t feel my legs. I can’t feel my legs!” She thought she was screaming, but her mouth wasn’t moving. The crash had broken her jaw, shattering her nose and knocking out most of her teeth.
Suddenly a large light shined in her eyes. She couldn’t squint. She couldn’t move.
“We’re gonna get you out!” a deep voice said, loudly.
She was eventually pulled from the wreckage. She heard bits and pieces of conversations.
“…can’t believe it…”
“…driving so fast…”
“Alcohol related… other driver killed…”
Callie grasped those two words: “other driver.”
Who had she hit?
She had killed someone with her own manic stupidity. She wanted to tell him she was sorry. She wanted to tell everyone she was sorry. It should have been her. She should have been the one to die.
She felt weightless for a moment, realizing she had been lifted onto a stretcher. The paramedics wheeled her over to the ambulance, lifted her and pushed her into the back.
She didn’t feel any physical pain. Was this was death would be like? Would she hear voices and see colors and bright lights?
Would she feel anything ever again?
…Or maybe Callie would fold the story away. She would lock it in a drawer, and when the time was right, they could read it together.