Read The Best Things in Death Online

Authors: Lenore Appelhans

The Best Things in Death (2 page)

BOOK: The Best Things in Death
8.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

When they are tired and Savannah complains of a leg cramp, everyone makes their way back to their lawn-chair recliners to drip-dry in the sun. Savannah peels off her soggy dress to reveal a black swimsuit, the retro kind that’s popular among the church crowd because it’s super modest. If he’s honest, Neil likes that Felicia is bold enough to wear a bikini, but he’d never say it out loud.

Felicia helps Savannah untangle the bobby pins from her hair. Dozens of tiny butterflies form a pile near her feet afterward. Neil imagines them coming to life and soaring up, up, up into the sky until they are out of sight.

Savannah dips her toe into the butterflies. “Remember the dress I wore for homecoming freshman year?” she asks. Everyone nods except Felicia and Neil. Felicia wasn’t around yet, and Neil doesn’t willingly think about his freshman year.

“Those wings were fierce,” Tamara says. “You were the only one who took the theme
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
literally and dressed like a fairy.”

“And Neil,” Lucy says, throwing a wrapped vine of black licorice at him, “was totally covered in glitter after dancing with you. All the other guys refused to get close to you after that.”

Lucy giggles, and the other girls join in offering amusing anecdotes from that evening. They treat their memories like a sea of endless precious stones, picking and choosing them at random to take out, polish, and admire. Neil prefers to organize his memories, tuck them into a filing cabinet. The top drawer is for the ones that cheer him up, and right now, it’s full with Felicia. On the bottom is the junk drawer, a collection of regrets and random odds and ends that are best forgotten. That is where he has filed freshman year and Savannah’s fairy dress.

Even though he doesn’t contribute to their recollections, Neil smiles and laughs in all the right places. He rips open the licorice and shares it with Felicia, who eats her piece in one bite.

The girls start discussing a new salon that opened in town. They compare nail polishes, extol the virtues of eyebrow threading versus waxing, and describe in detail how hot they find the owner. Neil tunes out. He closes his eyes, rocked into a hazy drowse by the ebb and flow of the chattering around him.

Then comes the bloodcurdling scream.

Neil looks up, startled. A girl stands on the platform dive, the bright sun behind her, making her seem as if she’s catching fire. Then the sky goes dark as the sun passes behind a cloud, and he smells smoke. All at once the girl is falling, her dark hair streaming like ribbons. He gasps, and he swears his heart skips a beat. Gracie!

She hits the water feet pointed and slips into the lake with barely a splash. The girl emerges, laughing, and stares straight at him. It’s Felicia, not Gracie. Of course.

He boxes Gracie up and shoves the memory into the deep, dark recesses of his mind—not in the junk drawer, because she’s too dangerous for that—but in a wall safe, one that he hopes to lose the combination to. There is no point in thinking about Gracie. She is gone and never coming back. He has Felicia now, and he’s starting a whole new, happier chapter of his life.

Neil huddles deeper into the mesh of his chair, pulling his legs up to his chest and wrapping the beach towel more tightly around his shoulders. He shivers despite the heat. He wishes he had brought a thermos full of hot cocoa, or a magic potion to steady his shaking hands.

“You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” Savannah says.

He forces a smile. “I was just thinking I forgot my playing cards, but they’re in the car.” The lie rolls too easily off his tongue. “I think it’s time for a Euchre rematch, don’t you?”

Savannah groans. “I wish Pastor Joe had never taught us that vile game!”

“What vile game?” Felicia says coming up behind them. She swipes at Neil playfully with the end of her T-shirt.

“Euchre,” Savannah says. “Last summer we must have played it nearly every day. Tamara and I beat Neil and Andy by two games and now he wants his revenge.”

Neil could mention that Tamara didn’t play fair, with all her flirty glances at Andy, but he won’t. “I’m going to the car to get my deck of cards. Want to come?” he asks Felicia.

She nods and puts on a denim skirt and a T-shirt over her bikini. They trek over the hill to his car. He opens the trunk, rummages through a box, and takes out several decks of cards.

“We should go ahead and bring the stuff to make the s’mores, don’t you think?” Felicia asks, putting her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek against his shoulder blade. Her body is so tantalizingly close that his pulse quickens.

Neil reaches for the bag of marshmallows, pops one halfway in his mouth, and spins to face Felicia. She smirks and bites off the part of the marshmallow that sticks out, brushing her lips with his as she does. She starts to pull away, but the taste of her is so sweet that he wants more. He gulps down his half of the marshmallow and deepens the kiss, telling his conscience to leave him alone for one damn minute.

He scrapes his leg on the bumper, and he takes it as a sign that they need to stop before they go too far. He pulls back and Felicia skips out of his reach. She takes a bite of chocolate and then swoops in for another delicious kiss, and he relaxes. “Now this is the way to eat s’mores,” he says.

“Don’t forget the graham crackers.” She taps the box against his hip, and the glint in her eye is mischievous. He marvels at the change in her. While it’s true he was initially attracted to the deep sorrow that separated her from the bubbly, sheltered youth group girls in his circle—he understood that kind of sorrow, it made him relate to her—now he is enchanted by her joy.

They move under the shade of a nearby tree. He constantly makes up excuses to touch her. He tucks a wayward strand of her damp hair behind her ear and wipes a smudge of chocolate from her cheek. She sways into him, and his palms land on the small of her back. He kisses her. In the need to feel her skin, his hands seem to take on a life of their own, but he retains enough control to keep them from straying too far and demanding too much.

Finally, they break apart. Neil steadies himself with a deep breath. Wouldn’t this be the perfect moment to confide his feelings to her? He pulls at his collar. Felicia smiles at him, head cocked and expectant, and the words form in his throat. He’s really going to say them.

But he waits too long—he can tell by the way her smile falters—and the moment passes.

She laughs and gives him a playful shove. “We should get back.”

He nods and they walk slowly toward the swimming hole.

“Took y’all long enough,” Lucy remarks, reaching out for a deck of cards. “Let’s play already.”

Lucy and Neil form a team against Savannah and Tamara while Felicia and Belen decide to play Cuarenta, a card game they both learned in South America. They play a few games, joking and exchanging stories about camps and tournaments past. Then Belen trades with Neil, and Felicia teaches him the rules of Cuarenta.

The remainder of the afternoon and evening is just as perfect as the rest. They see who can swing out the farthest on the rope. Lucy is the clear winner. They form boats of three each and have a canoe race. Amazingly, it ends in a tie. They grill hamburgers out at the fire pit, followed by the s’mores. They wash it all down with the boring bottles of water since the soda has long since seeped into the ground.

As twilight approaches, Neil basks in the glow of a day well spent and the fireflies that spin through the summer air. Savannah and the other girls pack up and leave, promising Felicia that they’ll be in touch to help her plan her birthday party. When they’re gone, he walks with Felicia down to the end of the dock. They sit shoulder to shoulder, dangling their feet into the calm water.

“I had such a great time today,” Felicia says. “You know, I thought maybe I forgot how to have fun.”

“You are the most fun,” Neil tells her, his voice hoarse with sincerity.

Felicia kisses him softly on the cheek. “Thank you. I don’t know what I would ever do without you.”

This day has offered up yet another perfect opportunity to tell Felicia he loves her. But once again, the words stick in his throat and his tongue won’t cooperate. He has plenty of time. He’ll tell her next week, at Angela’s wedding or Felicia’s birthday party. He’s sure he’ll be brave enough by then.

Instead he stands, pulls her up, and they walk hand in hand back to his car.

Hayes, Libby. Memory #40001

Tags: The Best Things in Life Are Free, Road Trip

Libby closes the door of her dorm room for the last time and pauses for a moment of silence. The finality of it shudders through her. She’s not only saying good-bye to the last vestiges of her childhood, she’s also saying good-bye to her best friend.

“You’re sure you want to go through with this?” Marie asks her, misconstruing Libby’s reflection for cold feet. All through college, the two of them have been roommates. They are as close as sisters, sharing their hopes and dreams as freely as they do their clothes.

Libby thinks of Jeremy, the whole reason she’s leaving, and bounces on her heels. “Of course, M. I couldn’t be happier.”

Marie sighs. She pulls Libby’s unruly hair into a bun for her and secures it with a pencil. The two girls head for Jeremy’s beloved vintage Volvo station wagon, his one extravagance. He packed up everything they’re taking early this morning. When the girls arrive at Jeremy’s parking spot, he already sits behind the wheel.

“I’ll miss you,” Marie says, hugging Libby so tightly that Libby’s lungs seem to collapse. For a moment, Libby is dizzy with a sudden fear that her allotment of available breaths is running dangerously low. She sucks in a tremendous gulp of the late spring air and clings to Marie until the feeling lessens.

“I changed my mind,” Libby declares. “I do want to have breakfast.” She needs some protein to fortify her for the journey ahead (the cafeteria’s too-crisp bacon and soggy eggs will have to do), and a last chat with Marie would do her good as well.

“I wish we could,” Jeremy says, tapping his logbook against his leg. “But I’ve already mapped out the whole route and we’re due in North Platte by lunchtime.”

Jeremy’s words stoke the fire of rebellion in Libby’s belly. It rises high enough to give her a wicked case of heartburn, but she retrieves a bottle of water from her purse and takes a drink. She imagines the clear liquid cooling her anger, and then paints on her signature smile, the one that says she’s fun and she’s not one to cause problems. “Sure, honey.”

Marie clenches her jaw. Libby knows she’s holding in her bimonthly speech about Libby needing to stand up for herself more, about not lavishing too much attention on Jeremy or adopting all his likes and opinions. “I’ll call you,” is all Marie ends up saying as she opens the passenger door of the car for her. Libby slides into the brown leather bucket seat and places her handbag in her lap.

Jeremy revs the engine as soon as Libby’s door is locked. Marie taps on the windshield and Libby rolls down her window. “Here.” Marie hands her a paper grocery bag sealed shut with a gigantic silver peace sign sticker. “Don’t open it until Vegas. It’s your something borrowed and your something blue.”

Libby’s heart flutters. She can hardly fathom that she’ll be Mrs. Jeremy Brown in two short days. “I wish you could be there,” Libby says to Marie, squeezing her fingers until the forward rolling of the car rips them apart. Libby and Marie used to spend countless hours cutting out pictures of wedding dresses from bridal magazines and pinning them up on the giant corkboard in their dorm room. Never once did Libby imagine that she’d elope or that she’d wear a plain white sundress to say her vows or that Marie wouldn’t be standing by her side. “We’ll save money,” was Jeremy’s reasoning, and with that statement her visions of a fancy wedding faded away.

Now it’s Marie who is rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror as Libby hurtles toward her fabulous new future with Jeremy, Marie’s parting gift safely stowed at Libby’s feet.

Libby gazes over at Jeremy and falls in love all over again. How could she not? He’s the very cliché of the perfect catch. He has the looks (he walked a couple of New York Fashion Week catwalks in high school), he has the brains (he could have gone to an Ivy but he took a full academic scholarship to the University of Nebraska instead), and he has the casual charm that drives girls wild (but he chose her) and makes guys want to toss around a football with him (even if they’re envious of his flawless spiral). Heck, he even recites poetry to her. From memory. In French.

In exchange, he expects her to be uncomplicated. A good-time girl. It’s the least she can do. And besides, her motto has always been to look on the bright side. Which works out well since Jeremy insists trivial complaints are not worth the breath. It might be admirable to speak passionately about social justice, but it’s deplorable to point out that the lights in the library are too bright.

Right now, Jeremy hums along to the radio. It’s set to the classic rock station, and before long, probably before the Nebraska-Colorado border, the barrage of guitar solos will mutate into static and Jeremy will have to turn the dial in search of more of what Libby considers audial pollution. She would prefer classical music or Broadway show tunes. She giggles when she pictures Jeremy blaring the
Les Misérables
soundtrack and singing “24601” at the top of his lungs.

He glances her way and gives her a lazy smile. “What’s so funny?” If his ancient car had a CD player, she’d pop the soundtrack in and show him. But it doesn’t. She merely shakes her head and giggles again.

“I love your laugh,” he says. “I love the way you talk, and what you have to say, and everything about you.” He grazes his knuckles against her cheek. “You’re perfect.”

Would he still find her perfect if he could read her mind? Most of the time she feels she’s putting on an act for him, making sure she is exactly who he wants her to be so that he’ll never have a reason to stop loving her. She’s been playing the part so long, she’s no longer sure who she really is anymore.

She read a story in her world literature class last semester that has stayed with her. “The Hitchhiking Game.” She remembers identifying with the invented girl, stuck in a role but yearning to know the true person inside. The girl wanted to show the boy a different side of her, but the boy didn’t want to see it and treated her horribly. Libby had taken the story as a warning. But now that she and Jeremy are going to be husband and wife, he has to accept her no matter what, doesn’t he?

“We should play a game,” she announces. She pulls the pencil from her hair and shakes out her curls. “You can’t have a road trip without games. Do you know ‘The Hitchhiking Game’?”

Jeremy raises an eyebrow. “The short story by Milan Kundera?”

She nods vigorously. “That’s the one. We could pretend that you just picked me up and that we have to get to know each other all over again, like that couple did.”

“Okay.” He straightens in his seat and runs his hand through his mussed hair to smooth it. Then he cocks his chin in her direction. “Where you headed, miss?” he says super politely, like he might to a complete stranger.

Libby smiles primly. “To Nevada. Are you going my way?”

“I am. I can take you the whole distance if you pitch in for gas.” Libby is disappointed. Penny-pinching is hardly a far-fetched fantasy where Jeremy’s concerned.

“Oh, but sir! With such a big fancy car, you must have some deep pockets. And with such fine manners, I’m sure you’d rather treat a girl.” She bats her eyelashes at him coyly.

“Shall I tell you a secret?” he asks. His low, seductive voice betrays a familiarity that two strangers shouldn’t have. But Libby doesn’t care. She’s starved for secrets. She hopes it’s a stunner.

“Tell me.”

“My family has money.” He grimaces in distaste now. “My vulture of a father earned it by defending the lowest scumbags on Earth. I only have the bit that I’ve earned on my own. And I wouldn’t spend a cent of my father’s.”

Libby is shocked into absolute stillness because Jeremy’s confession has the hard ring of truth to it, meaning he’s no longer playing the game. Her Jeremy avoids talking about his parents like the plague. Libby only knows for sure that they live in Oregon somewhere. But now it seems she can add a second fact: his parents are wealthy. Jeremy doesn’t need to scrape by the way he does. They could spring for an actual hotel instead of driving twenty hours straight or catching a few winks in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant if they’re too tired to go on.

When she regains the ability to form a coherent sentence, she places her hand on his leg. “Did you tell your parents? That we’re getting married?” Their game is over before it ever really begins.

Jeremy tenses and grips the steering wheel at three and nine o’clock. “Of course not. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

That’s news to her. She told her parents. They were modestly enthusiastic. And having been through ten weddings with Libby’s eight older sisters already, they approved of the Vegas plan. The last time she was home, they gave her an envelope with five hundred dollars in it. She thought of buying something frivolous with the cash, such as a designer bridal veil, but Jeremy earmarked it for gas money as soon as she showed him.

“But your parents could help us pay for a real wedding. I could wear a gown!”

“Absolutely not,” he says so viciously that Libby doesn’t dare to say another word. His wall of surly silence as they drive gives her time to ponder how much she really knows about this boy she’s about to pledge the rest of her life to. What other secrets is he keeping from her?

Lunch is a quick
, perfunctory affair at a truck-stop diner. They make small talk. “Please pass me a fork.” That kind of thing. Jeremy peels bills from the wad of cash in Libby’s envelope. The gift from her parents plus the $359 she was able to save from her job at the university library reference desk.

They get back in the car and drive until Libby’s bladder feels like it will burst. “Can we stop?” she asks tentatively. “I need to stretch my legs.” It’s their code for using the restroom because Jeremy insists bodily functions are too vulgar to discuss.

Jeremy pulls over at an interstate rest stop. Libby makes a mad dash for the restroom. It’s small and would win zero certificates of cleanliness. She wraps her hand in a paper towel and pushes open the grimy door of one of the two stalls. To her dismay, there are no seat protectors, so she’s going to have to squat. Libby imagines Jeremy driving off in anger and leaving her stranded. Her head throbs, her pulse races, and the graffiti etchings mock her. She has to get out or she will die in here.

She rushes back to the car, dousing herself with half a bottle of hand sanitizer that she yanks out of her pocket. Jeremy leans against the passenger door, waiting for her.

“C’mere,” he says, pulling her into his cure-anything embrace. She’s safe in these arms, and all her looming doubts scurry off into the deep shadows of her brain. “I’m sorry,” he says simply. His breath tickles her scalp and she releases a contented sigh.

“It’s okay. I understand,” she says, even though she doesn’t. Not really. She’d never refuse financial support from her parents, even if they were robber barons. There is a part of her that admires Jeremy for his resolute idealism, but it’s decidedly smaller than the part that would like to push him off his high horse.

Jeremy opens the car door for her, and as she gets in, her foot knocks against Marie’s bag with the wedding gift. If only she could call Marie right now and talk this out with her. Marie would probably advise Libby to demand her envelope of cash and catch the first Greyhound bus back to Nebraska. Never going to happen. Libby’s destiny is too wrapped up in Jeremy’s, and to separate them now would be fatal to her heart and soul. They’d never recover from the loss.

After Jeremy’s apology, the atmosphere lightens. Jeremy finds the latest in a long line of classic rock stations. They crack jokes and point out roadside attractions (The Big Ditch! The Halitosis Museum!). Libby peels clementines and pops the wedges into Jeremy’s mouth. They discuss the upcoming election and humanitarian aid in Africa.

“By taking this road trip, we’re extending our lives,” Jeremy declares.

“How is that?” Libby raises an eyebrow. “Is the fountain of youth located in Vegas?”

“No. Not
. It only feels like it. You do the same thing every day, you run on autopilot. Time seems to go faster. But you do things you’ve never done before, you pay attention. Time slows down.”

Libby nods. “That makes sense. So we should resolve to do one new thing every day. And then we’ll live forever.”

Jeremy reaches over and squeezes her hand. “See? This is why I love you. You

Dusk comes, and with it a glorious sunset. As its pink embers fade into a slate gray and then black, Jeremy yawns. The headlights count off fifty additional mile markers, lulling Libby into a trancelike state approaching sleep, before Jeremy pulls over on the side of the highway, near a copse of trees.

She startles, suddenly wide awake. “Why are we stopping? What’s wrong?”

Jeremy gets out and retrieves a couple of large bags from the backseat. “Nothing at all,” he says brightly. “We’re going to set up camp.”

Did she hear him correctly? “Here?” She’s dying to add a “You’ve got to be kidding me,” but she restrains herself.

“It’ll be fun and
,” Jeremy insists. “We don’t need some stuffy, overpriced hotel room. Nature is free.”

“And the best things in life are free,” Libby says before Jeremy can. He says it so much that he might as well get it tattooed on his upper lip and wear it like a hipster mustache. Until today, Libby assumed it was something only poor people ever said because they couldn’t afford to believe otherwise.

“Ding! Ding! Ding! You are correct, my dear,” Jeremy says. She exits the car reluctantly, snatching the paper bag that contains Marie’s gift so it doesn’t get stolen, and squints to protect her eyes from the oncoming headlights of all the cars zooming by. They walk behind the trees so no one will see them from the highway. Jeremy buzzes around her, pitching the tent and laying out the sleeping bags.

Once snacks are eaten (beef jerky and cheese balls) and teeth are brushed, Libby and Jeremy settle into their sleeping bags. The mountain air is chilly enough that they keep all their clothes on, even their coats. There’s a rock right under Libby’s left shoulder, and she scoots closer to Jeremy. She lies there listening to him breathe for several minutes, her muscles so taut that they are forming knots. The noise from the highway is brutal and Libby doubts she’ll be able to fall asleep.

BOOK: The Best Things in Death
8.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Fix You by Carrie Elks
Song of the Gargoyle by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
A Pimp In Pumps by Nika Michelle
Layers Deep by Lacey Silks
Angeli by Jody Wallace