Excerpt: 'Ember Days' by Nick Ripatrazone
I didn’t want to kill Trevor, but Brian did. I knew that would only make things worse. But there was no changing Brian’s mind. He told me to wait in the car, so I watched him walk past Trevor’s Dodge that was parked in the driveway, a pile of wrapped newspapers on the hood. His knocks on the front door sounded hollow, as if the chain was across the door but it was unlocked. Trevor opened it, and Brian rushed him. They both disappeared into the house.
Meghan wore pigtails in 1983. They rested on the blue down vest that zipped up to her neck. She dated Trevor, her manager at Blue Robin, a burger and ice cream joint on 46. Meghan took orders from behind the rectangular window that only showed her lips and chin.
Trevor was 26. Meghan was 16. His sideburns were full and wide, and he was built: Meghan said he used to be a fullback for the University of Maine but messed up his knee. He dropped out and came back home, worked at the Blue Robin ever since.
I didn’t think Meghan was being rebellious by dating Trevor. I never found half-smoked packs of Marlboros in her purse, or smelled Michelob on her breath. My parents didn’t know Megan and Trevor were together: they were always awfully forgiving of her, but they must have been suspicious.
Trevor usually listened to Cream or Dr. Hook while he waited to pick up Meghan, but one time I was shooting baskets and heard him play “Seagull” by Bad Company. Brian and I had heard that song on the way back from a camping trip and decided we wanted it played at our funeral.
Trevor once brought over his collection of comic books from the seventies. He flipped through the worn, beige issues, and said I could keep them. Brian agreed the gift was cool, but one time I was reading The Avengers on the couch while Brian watched Steve Scott run the mile, and he pulled the issue from my hands.
“Dude’s name is on the back cover. That brings down the value.”
Trevor had scribbled his first name with black marker across an advertisement for Grit. The name looked like a sin, worse than the graffiti sprawled along the side of the middle school. Brian threw the comic back on the couch and went back to watching the race. He’d get really pissed at something quick like that, and then forget about it.
Meghan broke up with Trevor a year later, and I watched her pile, count, and stuff his comic books back into the same box. She returned them, but supposedly he didn’t give back some of her baby pictures. Mom was pissed about that, but what kept her in decent spirits was the hope that Meghan would be commuting to Drew University. Mom had just gotten off the phone with Aunt Beth when Meghan announced she’d be spending the next four years at Colby.
Most kids on the track team ran hard at practice, but then smoked Kents on the way home or stopped at Blue Robin for a potato onion burger. Brian ran at practice, and then ran home, and ran whenever he had a free minute. He tugged his long socks up to his knees, and the purple and yellow bands stretched a lighter color. He downed one quick gulp of orange juice and water, then jogged down the street. I watched him disappear when he turned right at the corner, and though I didn’t follow him I knew where he was going: down to Clay Hollow County Park. He loved the trails there, but he often ran through the unmowed fields. Brian said he liked the feeling of the wheatgrass on his calves.
“That’s weird.” I pulled my finger down the postage stamp sized photographs in the yearbook. I was counting how many of the freshmen had smoked pot; my best guess was 40 kids, or nearly half the class. Brian never believed my claims.
“You don’t get it.” He spread his long legs along the couch and turned the volume up on the races.
“I know. I’m not a runner.” And would never be, unless I was forced, like the weeks before football season. Dad wasn’t about to push me onto the track; his own knees were bruised and battered from four years of cross country.
Brian leaned his head back during a commercial. “You really think Meghan’s going to Colby?”
“Because it’s eight hours away. It’s almost in Canada.”
“She can come home for holidays.”
Brian leaned forward and smacked my shoulder with a rolled newspaper. “You really have no idea of time. She’ll be back once or twice a year, at most.” On television a new group of runners lined at the start, but Brian continued talking, certain proof that he was willing to see this conversation through. For that reason alone, I set the yearbook down and listened. “And then she’ll get a job up there and never come back.”
It looked like he was finished, so I went back to my search. Linda Rigolotti, junior. Definitely smokes; she added her own verse to the National Anthem at the sectional hockey game last February. She belted her version while standing behind the opposing team’s bench.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes.” I had nothing to offer. Meghan and Brian were closer, anyway: after the Trevor comic-book incident, Meghan and I had a falling out, complicated by the fact that I used her hair dryer to cook an egg on the curb. “She doesn’t want to stay here so Mom can be up her ass.”
“No. You don’t know her.” Like I said. “She wants to get away from Trevor.”
Yes. That was it. How could I forget? After Trevor and Meghan broke up, he left the Blue Robin but returned as a customer. The first time he went back, he ordered cheese fries and talked to Meghan for nearly an hour, saying how he liked the way her lips looked behind that counter. He said he was fine seeing only her lips, because he knew what the rest of her looked like.
After that, whenever Trevor came to the counter to order and talk, Meghan slipped away and handed him off to somebody else. She asked her friend to make sure that he left the lot and didn’t wait for her at closing. Nobody worried that he’d try to pull anything. Now I realize that somebody should have been.
Mom took the Colby news hard: she still peddled Drew t-shirts, scarves, and bleacher-cushions. She reminded Meghan that Maine was cold, not only in the winter, but also in the fall, spring, and summer, and that unless Meghan had developed a recent love for crabbing or backpacking, she would have little to do off campus. Here in New Jersey, there was everything, and Drew was in the heart of the action. She could jump on the train to the city or to the beach in equal time.
“And your father graduated from there.” Mom spread potato salad across her plate with the back of her fork. We sat on the deck in longsleeves and jeans, knees shaking beneath the wooden table, but Dad’s tradition was to barbeque the last week of April.
Meghan stared into the backyard. Brian bounded across the grass, his grey shirt blue from sweat. He thought the leaps would improve his starts in the 800. Dad said his burgers would be ruined if he waited to eat until after Brian ran, but there was no arguing with Brian about running.
I asked Meghan for the ketchup. She passed it with a smirk, and I think Mom caught her twisted lip. She let it linger there a second longer than necessary, so it was all according to plan.
“Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” Mom motioned to Dad, who stood in front of the smoking grill, feet spread shoulder-wide. He prodded chicken breasts covered with Mom’s concoction of garlic powder, vinaigrette, and shredded gorgonzola. “You had a great time at Drew, didn’t you?”
She turned back to Meghan. “See?”
Brian windmilled his arms while he stutter-stepped back to the left edge of the yard. I wondered if he ran in his dreams.
“We already sent the deposit to Colby.” Meghan forked three huge slices of tomato from the center dish.
Mom opened a bun and Dad slipped a burger inside. “You did. It was your own money.”
Dad leaned over the railing and held up a long plate with burgers on both ends and steak fries in the middle. “These are getting cold.”
Brian nodded. And then he went back to doing his own thing.
I wasn’t home the day Meghan left for Colby in August. I was at a weekend retreat at Worthington State Forest. I said goodbye to her the night before I went, and we hugged in the basement while Dad searched for duffel bags and extra laundry baskets. Upstairs, Mom rummaged through Meghan’s bottom drawer for quarters.
I didn’t expect to cry when Meghan hugged me, but I did expect tears from her. Instead she rested her chin on my shoulder and held me, and said she’d be home soon. Brian tried to avoid her for most of the day. When she did finally catch up with him, all of her bags were packed and the quarters were double-wrapped in plastic sandwich bags. The Volvo hatchback was full of gas, Routes 95 and 295 highlighted on the AAA map.
She brought Brian beneath the deck and they talked for nearly an hour. I stood at the screen door and tried to listen. I heard snippets about his senior year, his ex-girlfriend, the guy down the street who asked for Meghan’s number each time he pumped her gas, but a part of their conversation was muddled, as if they knew I was there and were willing to give me a sliver of their relationship but not the whole thing.
Once I told Mom that I felt like I wasn’t really related to Meghan and Brian, and she laughed. It wasn’t that I thought I had another father or mother; I was convinced that I was an outsider. Age was part of the problem. I was two years behind Brian, three behind Meghan, and that year between them was like glue. They didn’t need to speak much around each other. They weren’t hiding anything. They were sharing something.
And this was my best guess: it was about Trevor.
Todd Jacobs told the truth the second night of the retreat. It was the Half-Hour of Honesty, and Alison had just finished telling us that she, as we already knew, smoked with Mr. Williamson before he was fired. We were all waiting for another confession, the juicy admission that yes, the two of them had sex, or had at least kissed, but Alison kept her silence. We felt screwed, but some things were for only God to know.
Todd stood, hands in his pockets, in the center of the group. We were arranged in a tight circle, spread across bedsheets and open sleeping bags. Todd wore a Vail, Colorado sweatshirt, torn at the collar to make the neck bigger, and sweatpants that flopped down over his sandals. Locks of his hair whisked in different directions. He blinked his green eyes a bunch of times, and then he was ready. And so were we.
Each spring, St. Virgil’s sent ten seniors to attend the retreat known to some as the Gospel According to Smokey. We were joined by five alumni of the program who now worked as group leaders. Most of them were relaxed, except for Langdon Heines, whose mother owned a craft shop on Route 22. She made wooden everything: crosses, fish, nativity scenes, and even weird stuff like lanterns, jaws, and water.
“How do you make wooden water?” Clyde asked, rolling the Marlboro between his lips. I always told him the action was feminine but he did it anyway.
“You make a wooden bowl with wooden water inside.” I stretched my arms behind my neck and stared at the overcast night.
I wasn’t abstaining from smoking for reasons of piety. Sure, we weren’t supposed to smoke here, or mess around with girls during the weekend, but the only girls on the retreat were Alison and Em. Neither were of interest to me. My reason was a sore throat. Clyde, Luke and I shared a cabin, and Luke was a huge kid, with daily stubble, a saggy chest, and hairy feet, and he demanded we keep the window open at night. The draft had made me sick.
Clyde finished the cigarette and buried the nub in the dirt. “I heard your sister’s going to Coleman.”
“Isn’t that in Maine?” Clyde looked into the night. He looked over at the rows of lanterns behind Mr. Connelly’s cabin. He always asked a lot of questions about Meghan.
“Yeah. Far as shit.”
“Too bad. I think she wants me.” He smiled, his teeth grey in the night. I pushed him against the side of the cabin. He grabbed my wrists and I let go. I walked away, but after a few feet I couldn’t tell when the trail blended into the forest.
Mr. Doherty, our retreat chaperone, crossed his sneakers beneath his folding chair. His beard poked forward, and his beige LL Bean fleece had a stain near the neck from last night’s spaghetti sauce. I had watched him dab it with an ice cube but the pink circle remained.
The start of Todd’s confession was boring. He admitted talking back to his parents, calling his sister an asshole after she broke his tape deck. Still, Alison looked up at Todd in awe. Everybody knew of her obsession with blond boys, but Todd didn’t acknowledge her appreciation. He continued the litany of mostly minor infractions, and my gaze drifted to the stain on Mr. Doherty’s fleece, to the rafters of the room, to quilt swatches sewn by Girl Scouts, which were encased in glass on the far wall.
I looked back at Todd just in time to hear him admit sharing a girl with Trevor Wycomb a few years ago. Trevor Wycomb was Meghan’s Trevor.
Todd stopped his speech. He looked at Mr. Doherty, who by now had uncrossed his feet and jotted something down on his mysterious clipboard. We all assumed it held the plan for the night’s events, notes on whether we’d go to Heaven or Hell. Todd continued his story, careful to note that they had taken turns with the girl. He said so with a nervous smile, but the clarification was necessary, as that form of trinity was always best left unspoken.
Todd gave us the facts: midnight, parking lot of the Shady Nook boat ramp, the bed of a pickup. The story went that the guys took turns standing watch at the entrance of the ramp. The glint in Todd’s eyes had dulled, but he didn’t quite hang his head during the admission. What he said next, though, changed the look to his thin face, and made me sit straight up on the sleeping bag. Todd said he hadn’t told the story quite right. I expected him to go into more detail about the sex, but what he said was much worse: turns out the girl was drunk. The three of them had been downing Hot Damn for the better part of the night. Actually she had taken in the bulk of the bottle while the boys watched and waited.
There was something illegal about this, I thought. It wasn’t rape, but it was a form of coercion. By this point Alison was nearly in tears. Her conception of Todd hadn’t included images of half-clothed sex on a truck bed littered with wind-blown leaves and concrete dust.
Next to me, Clyde was transfixed. He wore a look not of appreciation, but of foreknowledge. Maybe he knew the girl, had heard the rumor before. I was looking at him when Todd said he was sorry for that night, and never did it again, would never do it again. He couldn’t say the same for Trevor, though. There’d been other girls. More recent ones. I realized Todd was looking down at me.
Piece excerpted from Ember Days, by Nick Ripatrazone, published April 2015 by Braddock Avenue Books. Republished with permission from the author.