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Madeline Bryan

Grade: 11

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor: Scott Parsons

Summer Ash

Personal Essay/Memoir

Summer Ash

What you tell people on the farm doesn't leave the farm. It's not a rule; it's a courtesy. We're all about courtesy, courtesy as far as you can throw a hay bale or spot far out in the field. We all got good vision, except when it's late. 'Cause when it's late and we're tired, well then you can't really see anything except for the moon dawning over the Circle K, and your stomach feels all rolling, like you've been laughing too hard, and you can't tell if you're one trip away from crying or if it's the heat making those droplets roll down your face.

People don't ask many questions either, but you don't have to ask. You stay around long enough and people start talking, offering crumbs of information to drive the silence away. Because if there's anything we hate, it's the silence. We accept what we're given and don't ask for more. If they want to talk, well, they'll end up doing it.

You wonder sometimes, wonder if some of the others are okay, but if they're not, well we'll find out. And if they've done their healing? Well, we don't have no business with that.

I didn't talk much at first—didn't let on about anything back home. But some days someone says something that hits you right there and you're standing around feeling like you've got a hole in your chest and then all of a sudden you're opening your mouth and words are spilling out. Maybe they don't make sense and maybe they sound far too flat and cold compared to the roiling sea inside you, but they're there and they're as true as anything you've ever said.

We are all a part of our own dangerous dances, all toeing very fine lines ever so close to the cliff, to the drop, to the fall, to the end.

But these aren't things that you get to ask about.

***

It is July, and I'm scrambling for change in the cup-holder of your car as we sit in the drive-through line of a Burger King. The windows are open, and this is the time of summer where everything is sticky hot, where brains are heat addled and poetic, bodies tiring earlier than they ought to.

We are getting food for your mother, a woman whom I've seen from a distance but never talked to. I don't think she's someone that I'm supposed to talk to. Sometimes she stares at me when she ambles out of the house to get the mail, and I stop and stare right back. We both get bored of this after a few minutes, and this boredom drives us in new directions, to places where we're doing something other than starin' and lookin'.

We are getting food for your mother, whom I'm not supposed to talk to, and I am passing you change cupped in the palm of my hand, wiping beads of perspiration off of my forehead with the back of my other. You hand the change to the girl at the window, and it's somewhere in between there and the second window that facts start falling from the sky.

"I had a brother."

"Had or have?"

"Had, he's dead."

The line is barely moving, the silence between us settling into the stillness of the car. You can't decide what you want to say and what you don't. I can't decide if I'll break something between us if I open my mouth.

"He was an alcoholic."

"That how he died?"

"No, killed himself 'stead of going back to jail."

I feel like the ground I am walking on is going to give out from under me with every step I take. Neither of us is moving. I don't think I'm breathing. The car inches several feet forward.

"He's got some kids back home."

"You ever talk to 'em?"

"Never."

Two cars ahead of us a man with a remarkably red face is sticking his head out of the driver's side window. He's gesturing wildly, face screwed up in annoyance, fingertips almost reaching right into the Burger King itself. It looks like we'll be here a while.

"He was the golden child."

"Even with the whole jail thing?"

"He was always the damn golden child."

Your voice is growing bitter in a way that I haven't quite heard it twist before. Sounding to me like a whip, coiling up tighter and tighter, ready to snap out at any unexpected moment. I am not going to say anything because I do not want to get hurt. I stay silent as the man up ahead pulls his red face back into his car and screeches away, lifting an arm out of his open window to flip everyone off.

***

It is a year later and I am scrambling for change on the floor of your car once more, somehow transported back to that moment. It is a year later and we have not talked further on that topic. I have asked no further questions, and you have not indicated that it's something you want to talk about. The sick feeling is still in my stomach; it never quite goes away. I am always silently berating myself for saying too much.

We were talking about our panic responses a couple of weeks ago, and I had told you that I liked to think that I would be one to fight. Yet here I am, stock still, heart pounding far faster than it should be, worried that I have gone too far, revealed too much, turned the tone from joking to serious.

I abruptly push the door to the car open, propelling myself outside, launching into yet another story, realizing all too late that it is not one I want to tell. No, not in front of her, standing just outside of the car, only a child. No, this story has no humor, no witty ending, no shared experience. This story begins badly and ends even worse. It reeks of bitterness, of betrayal, of the nasty words that people say in the dark that they do not expect to come to the light. I realize this too late to stop the story, reluctantly letting it spill from my lips, shocking one of our group of misfits for the first time. Our friendship was always light, juvenile, and now I have brought this burden into it, this burden that will make me someone else entirely. Usually, our rules dictate that we listen and then move on, but I am worried that this time will be different. I have ruined myself in front of yet another person.

***

It is the weekend before, and I am greeted not by a "hello," but by a pronouncement, as solid as they come.

"My best friend tried to kill me yesterday."

I need not ask how given the rings of purple yellow bruises already clear around her neck. I need not ask after the slight limp dragging her steps, after the bright smile gone cold. I need not ask after which friend it was, because I already know the answer, as clearly as if she had spoken it into the air between us herself. I don't know if she told you, so I do not mention it when you ask after how she is. I make up excuses, tell lies. I change the subject and look for other things to do. I am very good at this after all these years.

***

We are a collection of broken dolls, tearing off pieces of our mangled limbs to entertain. I cannot count the number of times in which we have allowed each other to see the worst pieces of ourselves. Drunk drivers and bad boyfriends. Worse mothers and absent fathers. The boys who loved us too much, or not at all. The dead whom we adored, and the living whom we despised. We allowed ourselves to be ugly together—that was it.

I am gone now. Gone and bitter. Now the only thing I am ugly about is you. Some days I catch myself falling back into romanticism. Missing the days when I thought us kings dancing heedlessly atop our piles of gold— lukewarm green apple Gatorade our champagne. Missing the gooseflesh constellations that remained on my forearms all day—until I went home and showered them away. Missing the eroding shoreline of the soles of the tall black rubber boots I no longer wear. Missing being 14 and fearless. Standing upright in the bed of a moving pickup truck in search of a better view. Driving stick through the fields, pretending as if I knew what I was doing.

In quiet moments I allow myself to admit that loving you is goddamn muscle memory.

I only worry that it will take nine years to unlearn these past three.