The Only Thing Between Us

by Jon Pineda

Sometimes when I think of those animals, I also think of Louise.  I can’t help it.  It had been late August, just before school was to start for the year.  We were going to see her.   Louise with her long, tan legs, and those large front teeth of hers, which was a shame.  I wish I could say I remember her last name, as if that would matter now.  But I don’t.  I only know that she was the one girl in our grade who would, no matter what, and for this reason alone, we loved her.

Nearly the entire team had piled into the back of Craig’s father’s truck.  Halfback, cornerback, fullback, others.  It was a kit truck.  Wide, a candy apple red Ford, rebuilt with a huge four-barrel.  I only knew this because Craig said he’d helped his father put it in.  My knowledge of engines was the same as my knowledge of girls.

Craig, who was our quarterback, didn’t have his license yet.  So we took the back roads.  We’ll play it safe, Craig had said.  We had to push his father’s truck out of the driveway.  He waited until we got down the street before starting it.  There were so many of us, excited, all of us horsing around until the truck fishtailed on our way out of the neighborhood.

I had carried the clipboard and the coach’s whistle.  I ran through the list of names as we gathered speed.  Brickhouse?

Here.

Cooper?

Here!

Cullen?

It went on this way until I said, Young?

There was no answer.

Young? I said louder.  The others laughed.  They thought I was joking.

When we finally arrived, Louise was glaring at her watch.  She told us to walk in a single file and line up behind back.  It turns out her parents were off line dancing for the night.  When she said this, I laughed.  I couldn’t help it.  I was just nervous.  I took a couple in the ribs for that one.

Under a tree near the shed, a dog lay in the shade with a rope tied around its neck.  It didn’t move.

Who here has done it before? Louise said.

All of us shrugged.

The faster you remember, the faster you get your turn, she said.

We then rearranged ourselves into a kind of order.  Craig wanted to be first.  He crossed his arms, lifting them some as he puffed out his chest.  The others mimicked him.

Being the team manager, I lingered at the end of the line.  Where I had been to begin with.  I was used to cleaning up after these guys.

Craig handed her an unopened pack of cigarettes we had all pitched in to buy, but now it looked like it was his idea.  Then he took a long swig from the mouthwash bottle.  He had filled it with Southern Comfort pilfered from his parents’ liquor cabinet.  The air suddenly swelled with a cool, burning smell.

I won’t bore you with all of the details.

I won’t bore you with who touched her there and then who laughed even after she had started crying and pleading for them to stop.  The dog started barking.  It was like she had a football hidden somewhere under her dress, and worse, it kept eluding the entire team.

So they grabbed at her, almost tackled her.  Back and forth.  Hands slipping in.  The dog was now frantic, jumping up and down near the shed, jerking its head and trying to break free.  They were doing horrible things we had only seen done in movies.  All I can say is, I didn’t join in.

But I didn’t stop them either.

It went on for some time until Craig started up the truck, its gurgling idle.  Everyone jumped into the back.  C’mon, they said.

What? I said.

I knew they were talking to me.  I could understand what they were saying, and yet, I didn’t know what was being said.

C’mon, they said again, but my legs weren’t working.

What? I said.  It was weird, this feeling.

That’s when the collar must have snapped, because the dog came out of nowhere.  Go, go, go, someone yelled, and the truck sped off, some in the bed laughing, some shouting what could have been her full name into the trees.  Then it was just her first name.  Like a chorus.  Pulling her name down the road.

I sat down on the porch steps and waited for the red blur of taillights to be devoured by the dog or by the darkness.  Then it was the approaching darkness.

When I found her on the other side of the house, she was laughing to herself.  Marcus Young, she said, looking right at me, as if for the first time.

Yes?

Thanks for nothing.  She moved her hair out of her face.  There was some blood.  I nodded, giving her the only handkerchief I thought I would ever own.  She wiped the split on her bottom lip and handed it back.

So, are you okay? I said.

Dandy, she said.  Don’t I look it?

You look weird, I said, and she did.  Your dog got out, I added.

Who do you think let him go?

The way she was breathing heavily, she looked as though she had just finished scoring a touchdown.  And on a kickoff return at that.  Better yet, I had caught her pausing in the middle of a long race.  Like she had chased after her name, the one pulled behind the truck, and only then had decided to give up.

She lit one of the cigarettes and offered it to me.

No, no, they’re yours, I said.  This made her laugh again.

You mean, I earned it? she said.

I don’t know what you mean, I said.

Sure you do.

I don’t.

She eyed me and only nodded.  She was considering something.

What? I said.

You don’t even know my name, do you?

Of course, I said.

Well, what is it?

What is what? I said.

That’s what I thought.

She took up the bottle, but cringed when the wet tip touched her lip.  I could smell the cleansing odor of the whiskey.  It didn’t strike me then, but looking back, I think the sun going down was the most beautiful one I’d ever seen.

Why did you even come here tonight? she said.

I don’t know.

That’s a stupid reason, she said.  Try again.

I don’t know, they asked me to.

Try again, she said.

I don’t know.  I guess they’re my friends, I said.

Oh, she said, but this time nodded.  You just don’t strike me as being like them.

What do you mean?

The others.  She said the word others like it stung her lips to say it.

Give me a pull, I said suddenly.

Who talks like that?

Like what?

A pull, she said.

I don’t know.

So now you’re tough? she said.

Yeah, I said, smiling.  I held my hand out for the bottle.  I could be tough if I wanted to.  I noticed my fingers were smaller than her fingers.

I don’t know, she said, smirking, what will you give me for it?  She went as if to hand me the bottle, but then yanked it away.

I shrugged.

C’mon, she said.  You can think of something, Marcus Young.

Here is where everything gets blurry.  She said she was going in the house to grab a flashlight.  We were going to look for Persephone.  Her dog.

When she came back out, she was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, some flip flops.  Soon we were walking in a field that took us further toward the surrounding woods.  She said the dog’s name over and over, but I didn’t join in.  I think I was holding her hand, though, I don’t remember.

I know this place, she said.  I could smell each word.  Clean and sickly sweet.  She was thin, tall like a stalk of corn.  Her lips wisps of silk.  In the distance were rows of the real thing, warm corn holding in the heat from earlier in the day.  In the middle, a silhouette, human, some clothes draped on a pole to look like someone hovering there.

I didn’t know where we were headed, but I knew where we were headed, if that means anything.

So what do you want me to do? she said.

Nothing, I said.

Yeah, right, she said.  You didn’t come out here just for them.  They’re not your friends anyway.

They are, I said.

You know they’re not, she said and lifted the flashlight so it blinded me for a moment.  The air suddenly felt cooler, calm.  I could hear the whir of crickets starting up like the world’s engine, itself idling, waiting for someone to punch the gas.  She called for her dog, but there was still no answer.

I wanted to tell her it didn’t matter that I couldn’t remember her full name.  I wanted to tell her that no matter what, I would remember holding her hand.  The way it felt soft and warm, wet almost.

So what do you want me to do, really? she said.

Nothing, I said.

Nothing my foot, she said.  Now we both laughed.

I don’t know what it’s called, I said finally.  Then I made a gesture with my bony fingers and pressed my tongue along the inside of my cheek.  She held the flashlight up under her chin, so that her mouth glowed red.  Is that all? she said, kneeling.

I nodded.

I say things became blurry because she had switched off the flashlight, and for a moment, the only thing between us was a sunless sky.  Evening.  I couldn’t tell which sounds were hers and which were mine.  Which were the crickets and which were the rustling leaves against the stalks.  Martins dipped in arcs across the field.  That’s how I lost it, watching those birds fly off.  Watching to see if the scarecrow was going to move at all.  Waiting for that dog to come back from the dead.

For a while we continued on through the dark.  She would turn on the flashlight and then turn it off, as if signaling for some rescue.  It was in those moments, though, with the light gone from us suddenly, that I felt truly stunned.  As if every thought I’d had that evening sealed within me, made me someone different.

Percy, she yelled whenever the light turned off.  It’s me, Mama.  Come here, Baby.  Come here, Percy.

It felt like hours before she had given up.  We sat now on a wooden bench beside her house and talked about, of all things, school.  It was ridiculous, I know.  I asked her who her teachers were.  She grinned.  It turns out we were going to be in the same third period.

You sure know how to charm a girl, Marcus Young.

Well, I hate Algebra, I said.

Really? she said.  I love it.

What’s to love?

At least now, everything, she said.

What?

If I can’t figure out the answer to an equation, I’ll always know you’re having a tougher time.  So thank you.  It’ll make our class that much better.

I looked at her mouth.

I’m up here, she said, pointing at her eyes.  Down the road, headlights suddenly flickered on.  Two points on an axis.

I know where you are, I said.  I know where you just were, too.

She stared at me and then looked away.

Wait, I’m sorry.

For what.  She said this last part like someone told her she had to say things that way.

I thought girls didn’t like Math, I said, watching the headlights grow brighter now.

Did you read that somewhere, Marcus Young?

I don’t know, I said, smiling.  Maybe.

You’re not sure?

Maybe I did.

The lights blinked, switching to lower beams as the car behind them pulled into the front yard.  Will they care if I’m here? I said.

Probably.

Probably?

She laughed.

Are you serious? I said.

No, she said.  My dad won’t care, but my mom will.

That seems backwards, I said.

It’s just the way it is.

I stared at her, wondering if her parents knew at all the child they were raising.  Or had failed to raise.

Here, she said, take this.  She handed me the flashlight and it suddenly clicked on, blinding me for a moment.

Jesus, I said.  My hands fumbled around before shutting it off.  That’s when I ran to the back of the house.  She followed me holding her hand over her mouth.

You crack me up, Marcus Young, she said, rounding the corner.

It’s the least I can do.

This made her laugh for real.

Look, any chance your dad can give me a ride closer to town? It’s getting late.

Sure, she said.

Really?  That’s so cool.

Marcus Young?

Yes?

She shook her head and then kissed me on the cheek.

I spent the next hour running the flashlight over the edge of the ditch.  I had come across two dead dogs, both freshly hit.  When I reached the main road, I hitched a ride.  It was from a nose guard of a guy who drove a tow truck.  He told me some nights all he did was drive around looking for car accidents.  It was one of the ways he made a living.

What were you doing walking around back there? he said.

Nothing, I said.  I was looking for my dog.

Your dog?

Something like that.

And you looked up at one point and found yourself this far from home?

Something like that, yes.

I guess, he added.

I looked at him.

What? he said.

And you were looking for accidents out here, I said.  That’s what you do?

I was, he said.  It is.

I laughed a little, even though it wasn’t funny.

He was staring straight ahead now.

I’ve found some I should have never gone looking for, he said.  We were still moving forward.  I waited for him to finish, but then glanced away.  I found myself staring now at the side of the road flickering by.

I couldn’t help thinking of Louise.  I imagined her parents finding her in the house and telling her all about their dancing.  Sneaking kisses as one or the other spoke, the two acting like teenagers in front their daughter.

I imagined, too, the dogs from earlier.

It had to have been from Craig’s swerving, the rest of the team egging him on to make each hit.  The first I found less than half a mile from Louise’s house.  I’d covered it in light, but it wasn’t her dog.  This one was all white, except in the spots where it was wet.

The other one, though, I don’t know.

It was just before the main road.  Its eyes open, it rested with its hind legs tucked in the high grass.  That’s when I thought of Louise standing on her porch and calling to us.

As if we both would, ever in our lives, reach her again.

***

Jon Pineda is the author of Birthmark (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry, andThe Translator’s Diary (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008), winner of the 2007 Green Rose Prize. The recipient of a Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, he attended James Madison University and the MFA program in Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Crab Orchard Review, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, among others. He currently teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Queens University in Charlotte.