When Mason heard the news, he imagined Evelyn arced in the sky like a little pink moon. It was a still frame picture. He never flashed forward to the impact. Years later, she was still so clear in his mind that he could have described the bathing suit she wore (peach with white polka dots, two-piece).
Actually, though, there hadn’t been any pictures taken of the body, and he hardly knew her well enough to know anything about her bathing suits. Her parents had wanted to print her senior portrait in the paper, not a photo from the scene. Poor Evelyn Burns, she shouldn’t be remembered this way, hair thick and heavy with silt, blue fingers plump with pond water, neck tied up in a knot. She had died diving — or, rather, she had died when she hit the bottom. It was early May and Gilchrist Pond smelled of green and growth and forest and mud. When her body breached the surface, the water broke into shards of reflected sky. The pond soon fused together again. No one heard the crack of bone except perhaps Evelyn herself. Three minutes expired before the stolid highschoolers on the beach staged a hopeless rescue, and by then, she was gone.
The principal put up her a picture of Evelyn leaning against a white fence and people pinned notes around it on the bulletin-board-turned-shrine in the front hallway of the high school. “I miss you every day, Evelyn. Can’t believe we’ll never eat moon pies and make fun of Snowy together again.” “Evelyn, I didn’t know you very well, but RIP.” “I always loved your beautiful smile.” Mason read them every time he passed. People talked about a million tiny things: the way she used to forget song lyrics all the time, the sound of her laugh, how when she was little she had loved animals, all of them, even snakes. That seemed important. The world had lost a person who was so kind that, when she was little, she loved even the animals that everyone else hated. We need more people like that, Mason thought.
He wrote an anonymous card: “Evelyn, you were so kind, even though I didn’t know you very well.” He felt like he could say that because one time in eighth grade they had been paired together on a project for the World unit in history class, and she had definitely been really kind. They had to make a map of Asia. Evelyn sat on his living room and covered a poster board with pictures of woks. He hoped he had kept that poster board. It might be in the attic. He would check when he got home. He had a ton of stuff up there in the attic — his old hockey pads from the year he made his parents drive him to Eugene so he could play goalie in the Frozen Teen League, a magic wand he had made from pipe cleaners when he was six, a box of papers that he had used in fifth grade to study for the Gilchrist elementary trivia competition. Useless junk.
There was that image again — still frame, sun. Mason wondered if he would look graceful in death, or if he would instead fall down a staircase, get mashed in a totaled car, or just perish boringly in his kitchen when he got too old, like a carton of milk.
July came. Summer settled over the streets. Mason worked weekdays bagging groceries in the Greenfield Market with his best friend, Dana Clark. In the fall, he’d leave for college in Forest Grove, three hours away. She’d start working at Greenfield full time. It’d be fine.
This year, Gilchrist seemed unusually hot and boring. The Gilchrist Timber Company had built its eponymous empire some time in the 1940s. What the owners lost in wages on Friday, they made up in liquor by Monday. The timber company had long since folded, but the town retained its closed-circuit feel. It had popped up from nothing and no one in it was going anywhere. Most of the houses were painted a uniform shade of “Gilchrist Brown.” Mason didn’t hate the town in any classic teenage way. He had no interest in moving to New York City (he didn’t like musicals). He just wondered vaguely if he might be happier somewhere else. No one in Gilchrist seemed passionately in love, or passionately anything. Evelyn’s death was pretty much the only thing that had ever happened.
Lately, he was thinking about Evelyn all the time. What would she say if she saw the plaque they had put up for her in the church basement? Did she watch her parents from on high in their lonely visits to the Greenfield Market? Mason had recently bagged some frozen steaks for Mrs. Burns. He tried to say something about it to Dana, but she wasn’t interested. Dana never talked about death. After the memorial assembly at school, they had skipped fifth period and snuck away. Dana wanted to lie in the weeds behind the south fence and talk about how all the girls in their class were stupid. Mason wanted to be quiet and look reverently at the sky. They both did what they wanted, and then they went back to class with matching mud stains on their nice black clothes. Everyone thought that they had been making out, but they hadn’t, they never did.
Dana belonged to Gilchrist in a way that Mason couldn’t. Her grandfather had worked for the timber company in its glory days, as a sander in the factory line. He ran for mayor in 1956, but lost to one of the other sanders, who had strategically married a Gilchrist daughter. Mason’s grandfather, on the other hand, had lived and died in the tiny town of Dinkelsbül, Germany. Then Mason’s quiet blonde skinny-legged parents had moved to the United States. To Oregon, specifically, because his mother’s cousin lived in the nearby city of Chumult. When they arrived, they found that the cousin had become a mean drunk, but they also found the quiet town of Gilchrist twenty minutes up the road while looking for a post office. “Look at these flowers, I never want to leave,” his mother had said (or so the legend went). They moved there and settled in a blue house on Hillcrest Street. They had a baby, and remained quiet and blonde and skinny-legged and fearful of big cities and loud noises, and when Mason met Dana in Kindergarten, he was the shyest kid in the class and she was the loudest. They became friends when some third graders killed a rabbit by leaving it too long imprisoned in a hole they had made in the ground. Mason cried, and Dana found him, and hollered at the kids for being stupid. The two of them buried the rabbit together, far away from its dirt prison. They gave it a real rabbit funeral. Dana got shy when it came time for the eulogy, so Mason took over. He gave the most inspiring eulogy that creek bed had ever seen.
When he was thirteen he went away to Edgerton Middle School, and when he came back to Gilchrist High, Dana had a lot of friends. She invited him to everything, but he didn’t always go. He wanted to graduate with honors and he had a lot of work to do. Also, in group settings, she scared him off with her quick talking and her mastery of the room. She wore belly-baring t-shirts and drank beer. Seeing this was odd, because he remembered her covered in green paint on the floor of the garage making forest sets for a play about dragons. She was his oldest friend in the world. One time they had drunk each other’s spit.
A Saturday night in August, Mason went to pick Dana up at a party. “It’s in Crescent, at Patrick Young’s house. It’s a birthday party for one of the soccer kids,” she said on the phone. She hadn’t sounded too drunk, but Mason was being cautious that summer. Everyone was. No diving into anything, water or otherwise. It was as if the whole of Gilchrist High had suddenly looked down and realized that, shit, they were made of breakable bones. He said he’d drive her home. She said, “Mason, you are too fucking good to me. Do you know that I love you?”
“Yeah. Don’t get in the car with an idiot, okay?”
“Okay. I promise. I do have to drive veeeeerrry quickly down this one icy road to pick up some drugs, and maybe like also pick up a gun where the trigger is supposed to be locked but I’m not totally sure the trigger’s locked, but it’ll probably be fine. You know? Oh sorry, I have to go, I have to talk to some strangers here. About this new religion that they’re starting and they want me to be a part of it.”
“Sure,” he said. “Knock yourself out. I’ll see you at one.”
He left early for Crescent and decided to take a detour up the highway to where Crescent Creek curled through the trees. Everything in his world had a regular name (want to get your car repaired in Gilchrist? Try Gilchrist Car Repair). He brought a mix CD and a Sprite. The CD had been sent to him by his weird cousin, Amanda, who lived in Berlin. The chorus on the first song sounded like “ice beer ice beer” or “ice bar ice bar,” and apparently it was about polar bears. He played it for a while until he got tired of the repetitive beeps and the wavery synth. Then he turned it off and listened to the asphalt spin away under his wheels.
Most nights he spent at home, reading and re-watching TV shows. He sometimes imagined the girls he would soon meet, college girls with little shorts and looooooooong hair. They would all want to go to concerts with him. They would think it was cool that he knew about German pop. They would walk naked in his room after their showers and wear his t-shirts in bed. He had one fantasy involving a cop car and a girl named Karen.
Lately — this was terrible — he had been having some dreams about Evelyn Burns. She always wore the peach and white polka dotted bikini. Last night, they had been together by the pond where she had died, only in the dream she had been alive, and there had been palm trees. She had asked him what he wanted to do with his life and he said, “be a doctor.” She said, “that’s perfect,” and then they started eating frozen custard out of a blue cooler that he hadn’t noticed before, though in the dream he knew that it had been there the whole time, that he himself had in fact brought it with them to the pond.
Come to think of it, he never really dreamed about other girls he knew. He couldn’t imagine settling down with a Gilchrist girl, even Helen Fontana, his hot down-the-street neighbor. All the girls here reminded him of the buildings: sturdy, regular, vaguely the same shade of pinkish brown. He would wait for college. COLLEGE.
The driver’s side window had been stuck closed for some weeks, but as he passed the turnoff for the highway, Mason opened all of the other windows. He played ice beer again, because he was suddenly back in the mood, and he left a trail of beeps and sticky German syllables behind him as he sped towards Crescent.
Dana was waiting by the curb in her red plaid jacket. When she got into the car she smelled like a campfire. Mason loved that smell. He did wonder, though, if it could somehow make the car seats dirty. He and Dana did not agree about cars. She didn’t care about things like leather seats. She didn’t believe in mechanics. One time she had driven for two and a half months with her “check engine” light on, and when Mason finally opened the hood to check things out, the car looked as if it had been shot in the gut. She said yup, it had been running just fine.
“How was it?” he said, as she kicked off her sneakers.
“So fun, Mase. Oh my god, Patrick kept trying to turn on the TV, and he got so pissed off that the remote wasn’t working, but it was because he was trying to use his cell phone. And then he got so pissed off again, when he realized what he was doing, that he threw his phone into THE SINK. It was fine, there was no water there, but the screen got super cracked.”
“And Sam found a possum in the alley and tried to pet it.”
“Weird.” He knew he was being sort of a monosyllabic asshole. He did this sometimes, when he felt jealous of Dana’s easy happiness. Now he threw a paper coffee cup at her face to make up for it.
“You should come to these things,” she said, batting it away. “You don’t have homework anymore, your parents can’t still be crazy.”
“Ha. Yeah, they can.” In truth, his parents wouldn’t mind if he went to a party, now that he was into college. It was more that, having spent four years avoiding these people, he wasn’t sure he knew how to not avoid them.
“Whatever,” Dana said. “Everyone’s crazy. Let’s go to a gas station.”
“What are we gonna do at a gas station? Eat a Hostess cake?”
“They’re called Ding Dongs. Welcome to the modern age.”
There were no more cups to throw.
“Of course I know they’re called Ding Dongs.”
“Oh, I forgot you’re a genius.”
He wasn’t sure if she meant anything by it. Her tone was even, but the other day she had said, “I’m glad I’m not going to college. Too many rich assholes.” He knew that she liked the job at Greenfield, and, more importantly, she liked Gilchrist. It was Mason who couldn’t settle down here. He hoped she’d forgive him for that. Dana had a way of making Mason’s unhappiness seem like a deficiency.
“Want to go climb Paradise?” he asked, in an effort to be a better friend.
“Ooh. Yeah,” she said. She put her fingers together in a typical gesture of excitement. He always imagined she was using the whorls to conduct electricity.
Paradise was the Paradise Homes complex, a neighborhood development project/resort that would open some time in the next five years. There would be 2000 modular homes, two golf courses, and a place to go fly-fishing. For now, there were just tall piles of dirt and a half-finished shell of the central office building. Inert cranes stood around the property like lightning-struck trees. Everyone hoped that construction would pick up again soon. Gilchrist desperately needed the jobs. After the mill closed down, the streets were emptier every year. The restaurant stayed open only on Sundays and Wednesdays and the one motel had closed.
“Let’s do it,” he said. He flicked on the radio. It was playing “Born to be Wild,” and they both laughed at the serendipity.
“Let’s climb the office this time,” he said. “What should we do when we get to the top?”
“I don’t know. Sit there?”
“Let’s make a proclamation. Let’s claim this land for our countrymen,” Mason said.
“Yeah, okay. You figure out the proclamation, and I’ll just climb. I’m gonna scale the walls and tightrope walk on the tops.”
The radio switched to a jazzy elevator song. There was only one station in Gilchrist, and it played a frenetic variety of tunes in the middle of the night.
“This is smooooooooooth,” Mason said.
“You think so?” Dana laughed. Her laugh was always unexpectedly manly and deep. He would liken it to the low rumble of the dishwasher as it finished the rinse cycle.
“Smooth song. I like it. Hear that xylophone. Mmm.” He was trying to keep her laughing now. He rippled his shoulders and threw his head towards her, raising his eyebrows in a suggestive and slightly perv-y way. She was looking straight at him.
“Hey Mason,” she said. “Listen to me for a sec?”
Right as she began to say this he thought he saw a deer out of the corner of his eye. He turned to check. There was no deer. Just dark roadside and an empty lane. He turned back — “what were you saying?” — and as his eyes passed over the windshield they were suddenly filled with headlights, which didn’t make any sense. The lane beside him was empty. Dana was saying something, “I’ve been wanting” — but then she screamed, and Mason felt his hands turning the wheel passionately to the left, trying to bring them the other side of the highway, because a car was driving straight towards him, it was going the wrong way, he thought, unless it was he who had been going the wrong way ever since Crescent. No time passed at all. The other car did not turn. When Mason looked back at it from the shoulder where they had come, thankfully, to rest, it was speeding away on the wrong side of the road, red tail lights shrinking as the gap widened.
Dana scrambled across the clunky central divide of the car and onto his lap. He hugged her back. His whole body was burning. Now was the perfect time to go to Paradise and tightrope walk on the unbuilt walls. He could smell everything in the air: gasoline, summer trees, an evening turning cold, dirty car carpets, Dana’s laundry detergent.
“What was that guy doing?” Dana said.
“I can’t believe this. We could have died. We were going to die,” Mason said. “Wow.”
Evelyn against the sky, a perfect curve. This time he imagined the hurtling feeling she must have felt in her gut as she went sailing through the air.
“You know what I was thinking about?” Dana asked.
He turned to her, grateful, because it must have been Evelyn. It was only natural to think of her after a near-death experience like that (wasn’t it?). Dana couldn’t avoid the subject forever. When she first heard the news, she’d said only, “wow, that reminds me how I can never take a morning for granted, you know?”
“I thought of her too,” Mason said. He crooked his elbow awkwardly around Dana’s neck, for comfort.
“I thought of — who did you think of?”
“Oh.” She sat upright now, as upright as she could under the car’s low roof. She had moved back to the edge of his knee but they were still close together, hemmed in by the steering wheel. He unlooped his elbow to turn off the ignition. The world was losing its adrenalized edge. He felt embarrassed to have said anything.
“Well, what did you think of, then?”
“Nothing,” she said, and climbed back to the passenger seat. She pulled her coat around her shoulders and sat resting her cheek against the window.
“Okay,” he said, and started the ignition. He drove waveringly back to the road. The radio came on but he turned it off. They drove in silence for a while.
“What did you think of,” Mason asked, when she stayed quiet.
She didn’t turn. “I thought of that story your mom told us. About her and your dad when they were dating. They saw a movie in Germany, I forget the name, but the girl dies in a car crash right as the guy is coming over to give her the ring, and when he arrives he puts it on her dead finger. Your mom said she thought the girl was going to wake up at that but she didn’t. And then on the way home, your parents were taking the metro, and the train in front of them ran off the track, so, everything was really delayed. No one died in the crash, it turned out. But when your dad heard what happened, from someone on the platform, that was when he proposed.”
“I don’t remember that story,” Mason said. He couldn’t remember ever asking his parents how they had fallen in love.
“You don’t? She told it to us when she picked us up from seeing The Hackers in Eugene.”
He remembered The Hackers, vaguely. It was about a man with knives instead of fingernails.
“I’m glad we don’t have to get picked up from things anymore.” His voice sounded loud. “We can go wherever the fuck we want now.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I was thinking I hope we don’t die before I tell you I love you.”
As she said this she picked her feet up from the ground and tucked them under her and reached to roll her window down (it had a mechanical crank that stuck, so it took her a few seconds to get it dislodged) and then a soft after-rain air came sweeping through the car. Mason kept his eyes straight ahead. How long had she — why — or maybe everything was still the same?
“You tell me that you love me all the time,” he said. “I know.”
“No,” she said. She was crying now.
She started singing. Born to be wii-iii-iild.
He realized that, by habit, he was driving them home.
“Do you still want to go to Paradise?” he asked.
“No,” she said. Then, “I’m not sorry I told you. We almost died.”
“Yeah,” he said. He was relieved to be talking about something else. He didn’t think he loved Dana that way. He wanted things to go back to how they had been, quickly. Things should be regular between them when he left. “All I meant about Evelyn is, I guess it can happen to anyone. I mean, of course, it will. But I never think anything like that is really going to happen to me. My life is as normal as it gets. And then, shit — some guy thinks he can drive after he’s had a couple of beers, and he gets his right and left mixed up, and BAM. Just like Evelyn.”
“Stop thinking about Evelyn,” Dana said. “She isn’t here.”
But Mason wasn’t sure. He had never felt so close to her. When you were dead, couldn’t you be anywhere you wanted? And maybe tonight Evelyn would want to be here, with him, in this grey sedan from which he had almost been picked off to join her in the pantheon of people gone too soon.