Nothing Lasts Forever
Tucked in the middle of Iowa, surrounded by fields of corn with the occasional farm house or grain tower, was a little town called Custard. It was just a blip of a town, barely anything to notice on a map, and thus it hid quietly along a poorly traveled highway, minding its own business. It was just a place for the local farmers and shop keepers to gather and visit, have a drink, watch a game, pick up groceries, and gather their odds and ends as needed.
Custard had a grand total of three schools, which was more than some neighboring towns could boast: one for the elementary students, one for the middle school aged kids, and the high school with a prized baseball team. The Custard Mustangs were legend in the area, at least in baseball.
The Mustangs practiced on the school's small field all spring, and as summer quickly approached, they were starting that year's game season. Afternoon ticked on in that little town that Friday, the streets sat quiet, just waiting for the schools to let out for the day. When the students were released at last, the town would all but shut down for the night to travel to neighboring town, Pawnee, for the game against the next best team in the area.
The Braves had long been rivals with the Custard Mustangs as long as anyone could remember, so when the two towns' high school teams faced each other on the field, it was something nearly all those towns' inhabitants looked forward to. Even those not terribly interested in the sports themselves would come out to support their home team and rub in the winnings gleefully when their own side walked away victorious.
When the final bell for the day rang inside the halls of Custard High, the doors burst open and the halls flooded with students bursting with excitement. Among those students was a lovely girl with deep brown hair to her shoulders who ran to her locker and dumped her armful of books inside it with a hurried grin. She glanced down the hall for a moment and checked her small mirror to be sure all was in order, and as usual, it was. Her bright grey eyes sparkled with anticipation for that evening's events, and she noted her clothes were still looking tidy, even after her art class debacle that afternoon. She was started initially when someone bumped into the other side of that locker door, but she beamed up when a certain tall slender boy's head peered down at her from the other side.
Avivah kissed her boyfriend Sean hello, he told her he was going to be driving to the game with a few friends of his and he would meet her there later. She nodded and smiled at him widely as he disappeared down the hall amidst the swarm. She was heading to the game with her own friends, as usual, and unlike many of the couples in their school, Sean and Avivah were not joined at the hip at all times. Unlike many of the couples in their school, the two of them had been dating for years, and had fallen into a comfortable routine that worked for them as well as their outside friendships.
Avivah's friends certainly enjoyed having her to themselves, and appreciated that she didn't bring every conversation they had back to Sean and how amazing she found him. She certainly loved her boyfriend, but she was also perfectly happy to just be herself when he wasn't around. She was sure he enjoyed having time with his friends just as much as she did.
Avivah pulled her grey and black backpack out of her locker and checked to be sure her notebooks were tucked inside as they should be, and she clicked her locker door closed. She turned to head down the hallway to find the girl she was riding to the game with, and stumbled as she stopped herself short so she would not run into the other girl.
Nikki had appeared from thin air and was standing there expectantly, her medium brown hair waving perfectly about her shoulders as always, smirk upon her cute face. She was distinctly cute, rather than pretty, but like most 16 year old girls, the distinction hardly bothered her. She was wearing a long grey and black thickly striped tee that day, pulled down over her hips, thick sparkling black belt circling low on her waist, deep blue jeans, and black Keds with thick white soles peering from beneath their edges. Nikki prided herself on her appearance, though Avivah could not understand why she tried so hard. It was not as though her looks were all she had going for her, but Nikki certainly seemed to put them above everything else in matters of importance.
Avivah laughed as she caught herself from falling into her friend and Nikki looked surprised. She had assumed Avivah knew she was there, though she had said nothing to announce herself. The two chuckled quietly for a moment before setting off together down the hall wordlessly. Nikki seemed to command a certain presence, as though she was clearly running things and expected others to bend to her will. Avivah did not let this bother her, and she did not bend as others might have. The two girls complimented each other in that way; Avivah kept Nikki grounded, kept her from carrying herself too far in her self-important overinflated grandiosity. And Nikki could always be counted on to make a final choice when Avivah was waffling on a decision.
The two had been friends since early childhood, being in the same class one year in grade-school, having their first sleepovers with one another, whispering secrets in the dark while they were meant to be sleeping. Their bond had grown over the years, rather than broken, as many friendships they had seen over that time had. It was not always easy to maintain friendships as one matured, ideas blooming and beginning to ripen, but the two of them had done it well, though they were no longer very similar.
Avivah was a beauty, and Nikki envied her for her natural grace and wished she could worry so little about how she looked and still be amazing. Her deep brown hair had hints of red to it in the light, and it danced in a way that could not be forced into lesser locks. She wore it in different ways every day, sometimes with messy buns behind either ear, sometimes a simple pony, braids, or just letting it fall in glorious waves, but whatever she did to it, it suited her perfectly. That hair framed a creamy skinned heart-shaped face, complete with pouty rose-colored lips and brilliant shocking grey-blue eyes. Her eyes popped, drawing others in, making them forget what they had been preparing to say. She was simply gorgeous, and she had no idea she was, which only made it all the more obvious to the people around her.
The two girls walked, arms linked, until they found the other girls who would be riding with them that night. Beth, a pretty little first generation American Japanese girl with short cropped silky black hair, and Ali, a tall slender cheerleader with long blonde hair, stood preening in the bathroom at the tiny mirrors.
The two had little vials and tubes, compacts and brushes perched precariously on the small sink edges, and they were busy debating color choices for lip gloss when Avivah and Nikki waltzed into the bathroom. It was the same bathroom they used every day, for no real reason. That particular one was not special in any way, and it was actually out of their way half the time, but it was the one they always seemed to meet up in. It was the one they hid in when something was wrong; the one that could be counted on to produce the missing tear-streaked face of whoever was having a terrible day. It was theirs, and they loved it. But it was time to go.
The girls gathered up their things, debated where to stop for food on their way to the game, and piled together into Nikki's silver sedan that badly needed a wash. The girls counted out their money needed for shakes and curly fries when they reached the drive-thru window of Misty's, a local burger joint, and found their way to the highway amidst the other cars, all heading the same direction.
After their food had disappeared and the trash bags had been stowed, they settled in for the drive. Beth pulled out the latest notebook she had begun writing in, reviewed her last few pages, and continued to scrawl, cursing at the bumps in the road that caused her pen to fly. Ali flipped through a magazine she had brought with her while Nikki and Avivah sat up front listening to various artists and discussing the musical talent or lack thereof.
The drive from Custard to Pawnee was a long and tedious one, nothing to look at but dirt or corn shoots in the fields, green and swaying in the gentle spring breeze. Spring was at its height, the air still had a bite to it as the sun went down, but there was no more threat of frost, and the fields had been showing green for weeks. The highway turned off onto a narrow paved road, and they passed a small gas station, then nothing in particular was seen for a while.
After they had been on the road nearly an hour, signs of civilization began to pop back up, and they slowed to find their turn, and just following that, the field. They pulled down the gravel road, toward the glaring lights of the baseball diamond, and fought for a parking space. There was quite a crowd, as expected. The teams were already warming up as the girls spotted Sean and his friends, and made their way toward them.
“Thanks for saving us a space, this place is crazy!” Avivah kissed him in greeting, and he moved his bag from the space next to him as she set her blanket down.
“I know! First game of the season against Pawnee... should be a fun-filled evening!” He smiled halfheartedly, and looked around the crowd. Sean did not much care for sports, but was happy there was something different to do again after the long quiet winter. He lowered his voice a little and said, “I think some of these people take this way too seriously.”
The girls grinned and nodded, and the woman in front of them glared over her shoulder. She must have been the mother of one of the players. Suspicions were soon confirmed as she shouted a name and confident praise when the boys were taking the field. Sean gave Avivah a look and she stifled a laugh.
The sun disappeared behind the still-budding trees that surrounded the diamond, and Avivah wrapped herself and Sean in her blanket, where they snuggled happily. Nicole had her MP3 player out, her tiny earphones tucked in, and was ignoring the fans around her as best as she could. Beth seemed irritated with the noise of the stadium, and with the man in front of her that kept blocking the light from her hard bound journal each time he stood to encourage some boy or other who was up to bat. Ali was the only one who appeared to be interested in the game, of the girls. She switched seats to sit next to one of Sean's friends, Matt, who seemed to know which players were which, and had insider knowledge about who was going to do well that season. The two leaned in to hear one another over the roar of the crowd, intent on their discussion.
The guy that moved for Ali to have his spot, Jeremy, leaned in on Beth's writing only to receive an elbow to the ribs for his trouble. “If I wanted you to read it, I'd hand it to you,” She shook her head and went back to her work. Jeremy raised his hands in mock surrender, and turned to Nicole instead.
“What you listening to?” He asked and pointed at her player. She hit a button to light the screen and showed him, and he nodded in approval. She took out an earphone, shared it with him, and they listened to music and talked quietly as the game progressed.
Five and a half innings in, Pawnee was up two runs, but Custard managed to strike out the last batter at last, and they swapped who was in field. George Barnes, the apparent star of the team, if one based stardom on the cheering from the crowd, took the plate a few runs in. Bases were all but loaded when he managed to get three runs in for the Mustangs when it was his turn at bat. Pawnee didn't recover, and in the seventh inning the game was called. Custard won! Half of the stands, including the girls and their group, stood to their feet cheering.
The group of reluctant students packed up and got out of the field as quickly as possible, and they managed to be one of the first on the road rather than one of the last for the long return trip. Matt decided to ride with the girls to continue talking with Ali, Avivah took his place in Sean's car, and the entire entourage headed back toward Sean's house for the post-game party he was throwing. They might not know baseball, but they knew a good party when they saw one. Sean led the way and parked in his usual spot in the driveway, and Nikki pulled in and parked directly behind him.
The crew piled out of the car and followed Sean inside, and set to getting things out and ready. Really, there wasn't much to do but get things out of Sean's room and open packages. His brother, Mark, was home from college for the weekend, and Sean had convinced him to purchase the alcohol for the evening. They had a good sized keg and a small selection of wine coolers, and a little vodka for mixing into sodas for those that didn't like the taste. Sean made sure there was an ice bucket and a cooler full of sodas, for mixers as well as the kids that chose not to drink for whatever reason. Sean wasn't a host without feelings. He actually planned to drink lightly himself, knowing he would need to be sober and able to clean quickly when the party calmed down. His parents were due home late that night, so he could not afford to pass out and forget to clean.
The guests arrived in a trickle, some only staying an hour. George Barnes was the center of attention that night, as he had won them the game, but even he had to be home before too long. Everyone enjoyed themselves, and as people left, Sean and Mark were careful not to let anyone drive off drunk. Last thing they needed was something like that on their heads. People took it easy with the liquor for the most part, and the night wore on smoothly.
As midnight approached, Sean and Mark made the rounds with Avivah and Beth, reminding people they would need to be heading out soon. Sean stopped drinking early, just as he had planned, Avivah only had one drink throughout the evening, and Beth seemed to stick to soda. Guests dispersed with only one small hiccup: some drunk boy from school had to be helped, after vomiting, into the back of his car by his friends. Someone else drove for him and they left peaceably.
As the last car drove off, the sober members in their group of friends gathered up cups and plates, took the garbage out, and loaded the leftover alcohol into Mark's car. One more look around said everything was cleaned up, and there was a good hour to spare before Sean's parents were expected back home.
Avivah ran off to find Nikki and Ali, who had become drinking buddies that evening. She found them out back by the pool discussing the pros and cons of the patio furniture, and directed them toward the car. She took the keys from Nikki and helped her into the front seat while Beth helped Ali, who was easily the heaviest drinking member of the group, into the back to sit next to her. Ali was too dizzy to sit up, so she lay with her head on Beth's lap and moaned every now and then. Avivah shook her head and laughed lightly at Ali, and started the car, hoping the engine would warm up quickly and offer heat against the chilly night air.
Avivah thanked Mark for the great evening, bid him goodnight as he drove off, and moved to Sean. They said their goodbyes over a lingering kiss, followed by a tired hug, Avivah's head resting upon his chest. She could have fallen asleep right there, but she put a hand to his chest and moved herself away again. “Night, babe, I'll call you tomorrow,” She smiled up at him.
“Drive safe, I'll see you tomorrow. We still on for a movie night? After cake at your mom's, of course. Birthday girl,” he added with a wink.
“Of course! We can decide what to see when we get there.”
“Sounds like a plan. Love you, get some rest,” He kissed her once upon her forehead, retreated into the house, and all was quiet once more. She sighed happily, and walked back to the car.
She checked her phone for the time. 1:04am. “Happy Birthday to me...” She hummed the first bar of the traditional tune, and went to open the door to get in the car.
When she went to sit, she saw Nikki looking up at her from the driver's seat. She gave Nikki a warning look and opened her mouth to protest the arrangement, but Nikki opened her mouth faster than Avivah could. “I'm not drunk, I haven't had a drink for an hour. I'm fine, let's go.”
“Are you sure?” Avivah raised an eyebrow and glanced back at Beth, who was shaking her head slightly.
Nikki rolled her eyes. “I can drive just fine. Get in or I'll leave you here. Not that you'd mind,” She laughed, and Ali giggled from the back seat.
Avivah stood there for a moment, trying to decide what to do. She could threaten to call Nikki's mother, but then she'd have to say they had been drinking, and she would hear from her own mother too. She looked to Beth, and asked the silent question, “What do you think?” Beth paused, then sighed, and shrugged. “A lot of help you are,” she muttered, and walked to the other side of the car.
She opened the door and stopped one more time, “Are you sure you are okay?”
“Last chance, I'm leaving,” was all the reply she got, so Avivah climbed in the car.
She looked back at Sean's house and debated getting him to drive her home, but the lights had gone out in the house already. Nikki hit the gas and pulled out on the gravel driveway, car fishtailing a little as it caught traction. Avivah looked back through the vanity mirror and connected eyes with Beth for a long moment before turning her attention to the road.
Nikki started muttering about Jeremy and how she thought they were getting along so well, but she found him melted together with another girl at the party that night. Avivah tried to console her, assure her all guys were stupid, and get her to calm down and slow down, but Nikki was not listening.
She pulled her pink phone out of her pocket and started texting wildly to Jeremy, scolding him for his behavior that night. Avivah tried to take the phone from her friend's hands to type out the words for her, but Nikki would not hand the phone over. The message was sent quickly, Nikki tucked the phone between her thighs and drove on, and Avivah grew more worried about their speed as they approached a stretch of road with sharp turns.
She was trying to decide if she should say something when Nikki yelped, and jumped in her seat. She swerved a little as she flipped her phone back open and read what he had replied. “Seriously?! He doesn't know why I'm mad!?” And she started furiously alternating between punching buttons and glancing up to the road.
“Can't that wait until we get there?” Avivah asked, sitting up a little more in her seat, wondering why exactly she didn't belt herself in. She reached for the shoulder belt, and just as she went to click it in place, she heard Beth behind her.
“Uhm, Nikki??” Beth's eyes were wide and her face was frozen as she stared ahead of the car.
“What?” She snapped, and looked up. The road curved suddenly in front of her, to the left. Nikki dropped her phone and grabbed the wheel, but it was too late. They were going too fast, and jumped the guard rail. And the hood of the car wrapped around an aging tree.
Beth knew before she opened her eyes that her head would hurt for a week. She wasn't sure what she hit it on, but it throbbed. She felt, with shaking hand, for blood, and found none. “Oh, no no no no no,” she opened her mouth and couldn't stop, and as her eyes focused once more, she couldn't believe what she was seeing. The front of the car was firmly locked with the tree that must have been at least 90 years old. It was as wide as the car was. Smoke poured from the crumpled hood, and lights did not shine quite right. In the dark, it was hard to make out much of anything.
She felt in the dark for Ali, and found her. She was laying still, a little blood trickled from her nose, and there looked to be a bruise forming on her head already. She must have hit the window, but she was buckled in, and she was drawing raspy breaths. A flood of relief filled Beth, and she tried to gather herself.
There was a moan from the front seat, and Beth realized she couldn't really move. Her seat belt was locked around her, and would not give. She fought with it, becoming hysterical, not realizing she was still repeating, “no... no, no, no...”
Nikki woke with a start, pushing the air bag down, surprised it had not deflated more. She gaped at the windshield, which was still intact while the front of the car was crushed, and she slowly moved her eyes to Avivah's seat. She sat, slumped forward, a gash in her forehead, eyes closed. Nikki reached over and touched her shoulder, in hopes of a reaction. When she didn't get one, she shook gently, and she said her friend's name tentatively, hopefully. Her eyelids fluttered.
Avivah's eyes locked onto Nikki's with some difficulty, and she appeared to have trouble focusing properly. She opened her mouth and with the first syllable began to cough violently, eyes bulging as she did. She clutched her side and hissed in pain as the coughing subsided.
Nikki could see just enough, in the pale light of the broken headlights, to see the thick dark redness spilling from the corner of her friend's mouth. Beth's struggling with her seat belt may as well have been in another world for all Nikki noticed at that moment.
Sadness filled Avivah's eyes as they met once more with Nikki's, and she sighed. She took one more pained breath and quietly said, “It was my birthday...” Regret filled her as all the things she had wanted to do, all the things she meant to say, but she knew she never would came to her, and faded just as quickly as the world around her faded to darkness. Her friend's face faded from view, and she heard Nikki calling her name, but it seemed distant; out of reach. She felt herself slipping, and with nothing to hold on to in the darkness, Avivah had no choice but to let go.
Nikki watched as the light left the brilliant grey-blue eyes of her friend, as the hand that had been clutching her side fell limply. Her eyes widened in horror, and she pressed both hands to her mouth to keep from screaming.
Nikki's mind raced, and she lost herself in thought. As the realization hit her, that it really was her fault, her mind changed course. And with that moment of clarity, her mind went quiet. She knew what she had to do.
Beth was finally able to free herself, and confirmed that Nikki was alright. Nikki asked how she and Ali were, and all appeared to be mostly fine. Bruises maybe, but nothing worse. Ali was still passed out in the back, but they both were more certain it was due to alcohol than the accident.
The two agreed they needed to get help, and proceeded to fight with their individual doors to exit the car. Beth's door opened smoothly, considering the damage. Nikki's was a little harder, but she was able to get it open once she put her shoulder into it. Without a word, Nikki found her phone on the floor of the car, pocketed it, and walked around the car to Avivah's door. When she opened it, her friend's body slumped, but Nikki caught her limp frame and pushed her back into the seat.
Beth saw Avivah's face, saw the eyes staring dimly, and she screamed. Her eyes bulged, she collapsed right there on the muddy earth and hid her face in her hands. “This isn't real, it can't be happening. I must be dreaming... I have to wake up,” She continued mumbling to herself, shaking her head, as Nikki came around to her.
“Beth?” Her friend's mouth snapped shut, and a tear rolled down her cheek as she looked up, only her eyes showing above her curled fingers. Nikki spoke gently, “This isn't a dream. I wish it was, but it's not. I'm so so sorry.”
Beth's brow furrowed and the tears rolled freely. But she nodded. Nikki sat with her, and wrapped an arm around her, just letting her cry for a bit. After a few minutes of stroking the silky black hair of her friend, she held Beth's shoulders, pushed gently away from herself, and met Beth's eyes firmly.
“It's not a dream, no, and we can't wake up. But we do have options. We have to tell the police that Avivah was driving tonight.”
“But she wanted to and you didn't let her! She wanted to and you almost left her there! She'd be alive if you weren't so stubborn! This is all your fault!” Beth's chest heaved with anger, but she quieted, took a deep breath and stilled herself once more, though her eyes remained dark.
“It doesn't have to be that way. Sean saw Avivah was going to drive. He didn't see me move. Nobody knows, nobody but us. We've all been drinking tonight, even you.” Beth's eyes widened, “Yes I saw you, so don't even try to deny it.” It was true, Beth had sneaked a couple wine coolers over the course of the evening, thinking nobody would notice.
“Avivah was the only sober person at the car when we were leaving. You didn't say anything about me driving, you didn't take the keys. This is just as much your fault as it is mine, or hers. Avivah should have taken the keys, and been the one behind the wheel. And I mean to put her there.” Nikki was grasping at straws and she knew it, but she didn't think Beth would put it all together. At least not yet.
Nikki rose to her feet and reached a hand down to accept Beth's to help her up. Beth looked up at her with dark eyes wide as saucers, and she just stared for a minute. She couldn't be serious. Nikki's eyes were expectant, sure she would be followed, and there was something in those eyes that told Beth if she did not follow, she would regret it. Beth held the other girl's gaze and reluctantly took her hand while she stood. Nikki checked that Ali was not awake, and moved toward Avivah in the passenger seat.
“I'll get her shoulders, you get her legs.” It wasn't a suggestion. Beth nodded. Nikki had some trouble getting balanced with the extra weight, and she added, “Careful, the ground is a little slippery here.” The girls stumbled and almost dropped Avivah, once, but managed to get to the other side of the car to deposit her body. Nikki leaned Avivah forward so her head was resting on the steering wheel, and positioned her right arm over her head.
“She could be sleeping... almost,” Beth finished in a whisper. She just shook her head, and returned to the other side of the car. She couldn't bear to get back in.
Nikki closed the driver's side door with some difficulty, then went to the other side of the car and looked for blood on the dashboard but didn't find any to clean up. She met Beth's eyes and spun the story, “We were at the party, Avivah was the sober one, she was driving us home. On the way, an animal ran out in the road, and Avivah swerved to avoid hitting it. We lost control and went over the guard rail.” Beth nodded simply, avoiding Nikki's eyes. “OK, then,” She pulled her phone back out of her pocket, took a deep breath, and dialed 911.
Nikki was convincing, started crying, said there was an accident and she thought her friend might be dead. When asked, she attempted to give directions to the portion of the road they were on when they lost control of the car, but she wasn't sure if the policeman could find them, as they were so far off the road.
The calm elderly operator, who kept calling her “honey,” had Nikki climb up the hill to the road. She did so and noted that the guard rail was, in fact, badly dented. The woman stayed on the phone with her until the policeman arrived, and at that hour with so few officers on duty, it was nearly 45 minutes before someone got there.
While they waited, Ali came around, and Beth helped her out of the car and up to the road. She didn't have the heart to tell her about Avivah, and Ali was so out of sorts that she didn't ask. Sheriff Connely was the first to arrive, and the single ambulance was not far behind: lights on, no sirens. Soon the small corner of the road was blocked off to a single lane and the girls were guided over to the ambulance to be looked over.
Sheriff Connely went down to the car with the help of his large flashlight, and gravely started making calls on his radio. The ambulance took the three girls from the scene to the hospital just as quietly as it had arrived there. The coroner arrived, after the ambulance had left, to take Avivah's remains from the scene.
For the girls, after that phone call, the night was something of a blur. It was surreal: parents arriving in a swarm of concern, Avivah's parents arriving at the hospital only to find out their daughter was not there after all. Nikki's ER cubicle was close to the admissions desk, and she peeked around the corner when she heard Avivah's mother asking for her daughter. An officer took the Brendans aside and sat down with them in a quiet corner, to tell them what had happened. Mrs. Brendan collapsed upon her husband's chest and he held her while they both sobbed. The officer repeated his apologies and made his excuses.
Police came to each of their cubicles and took statements. Nikki repeated the story she had recited to Beth, Beth said they were driving and everything happened so fast she wasn't really sure what had happened, and Ali was unsure of anything at all. The officers excused them and said if they remembered anything more they should call. They all made their way home with concerned parents. Nobody really got a good night's rest that night.
The open casket funeral was held on a grey rainy Tuesday in the small Baptist church where the Brendan family attended. Being a small town, the high school was excused for the day so the teachers and students could attend if they wished. Avivah's parents mourned their only child from the front right pew, tears falling as steadily as the droplets outside the windows, smattering faces as well as painted window panes.
A few people came forward and spoke after the eulogy and music began to play overhead. It was a song about heaven, and wishing to be there with a mourned loved one. As the song played, the Brendans rose and stepped forward, lit a candle by the photo of their little girl, then returned to their seats. More than a few people in attendance were found dabbing at their eyes as the song came to a close, and the mourners were invited to come forward quietly to say their goodbyes.
After everyone had returned to their seats, the pallbearers came forward. Avivah's father was among them, and he gazed at the face of his daughter once more, closed his eyes, and closed the casket for the last time. The Brendan family followed the casket out of the sanctuary, then everyone else filed out. The group made their way slowly to the cemetery, and laid the girl to rest.
That night at Ali's house, Ali, Beth, and Sean sat up watching an old movie that had been a favorite of Avivah's. Every now and then, someone would smile slightly as they thought of their late friend's comments she used to make during the video, but the smiles faded quickly each time.
Only Beth noticed that Nikki left for home, and she was in no mood to speak to or about her just then. Beth sat up the longest, after Sean had made his excuses and left for the night, after Ali had fallen asleep where she sat curled up in a wool blanket. She sat up, staring at her friend's favorite movies, one after another, just wondering what could have changed the outcome of that terrible night.
She kicked herself for not being assertive. “More assertive” was not even accurate, she scolded herself, because she hadn't said or done anything at all really. What would they be doing that night if Avivah had been driving home? She was tempted to be angry with Avivah, herself, for not doing more. She could always force her hand with Nikki. Nikki listened to her. Why hadn't she tried harder? She would be there, if only... if only...
Slowly, things at school settled down and got back to some semblance of “normal.” People refused to fill the different desks where Avivah had sat, so there was a gaping reminder every day, every period. She was really gone. And she wasn't coming back. The realization hit like a brick to the face, and on occasion students would excuse themselves to go visit their guidance councilors.
The school year ended with a bang for the senior class, but the same could not be said of the Junior class at Custard High. There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the coming year; their final year, year to reign supreme! One boy threw and end of the year bash, but it only served as a reminder to their last big party. Not many people came, and those that did arrive at all remained sober.
Summer reared its hot and humid head as school came to a close, and the cool blue water of the local pool was a welcoming sight. Girls bronzed their skin, all but the small patches their bathing suits obscured. They talked or listened to music while laying by the water, taking a dip occasionally to cool off before they switched sides and resumed their baking. Boys showed off on the diving boards, splashing and flexing, trying to get the attention of the sun-dwellers. Some of the older girls were in the shallow end of the pool with small children, usually siblings and babysitting wards, though a couple girls had their own little ones in tow.
And so, the summer meandered along that year. Ali nagged at Beth and Nikki until they caved and took their annual road trip to Fun World, a little amusement park in Kansas. They usually went as a foursome, so it was a little awkward on the rides with only two seats per row. The girls simply took turns riding alone, but usually Nikki opted to be the solo rider. She and Beth still weren't talking much, and solitude was preferable over being ignored completely, or dealing with the awkwardness that came with the attempted conversations.
That trip was the first time in weeks that all three girls spent a full day together since the accident, and they began to fall back into their rhythm together. They rode back with laughter drowning out the music, and Beth wrote quietly while Ali and Nikki talked most of the way home.
As fall approached faster than any of them liked, Ali started counting down the weeks until cheerleading camp, which started the week before school itself. Nikki spent the last of her free time shopping the clearance racks for amazing deals on clothes that would still work well enough for fall. She somehow managed to drag a less-than-enthusiastic Beth with her, though Beth just sat waiting for Nikki in the dressing rooms while working on her poetry. She could have done as much at home, but it was nice to get out of the house a few last times before the year and its homework began, even if she was out with Nikki. Ali disappeared at camp for a week and returned looking eternally cheerful and tired at the same time.
School started in a rush that year, their last. While the scramble to get ready that first morning back to school seemed more important than it had any year in the past, Beth, Ali, and Nikki still managed to meet in their usual spot next to the stairs at their usual time, just before the bell rang. They took note of their locker arrangements and schedules in general. None of their lockers were near each other, and trading locker partners did not appear to be possible. “Another year off to a great start,” Nikki sighed and walked off to find her locker and get moving.
Nikki and Beth had homeroom together, but didn't really talk much. They never could find anything to say to one another when Ali wasn't around, anymore. Nikki simply gave Beth a significant look across the room. Nikki couldn't seem to decide between wanting to say, “Don't you dare say a word!” and, “I'll never forgive myself either.” Beth shook her head and buried herself in her ever-present notebook while the instructor prattled on about the course expectations.
Nikki decided to ignore the teacher and pass the time flipping through a teen fashion magazine. She sat there idly wishing she could fit in the amazing bathing suit that was featured, drooling over the celebrity teen sensation they'd chosen to interview that month, and generally just wasting her time as she often did when she was meant to be doing something else. Class ended with the bell, and the students moved on to whatever classes they had next, some reluctantly, and others with excitement.
Beth fell into the excited group, that morning. She was taking a creative writing course that the other girls were not, and she met a new student in class that day. They hit it off immediately. Kiley had short cropped black hair with a purple streak in it next to her thick bangs on one side, and was wearing a short black skirt paired with a pink skull top and matching long striped leggings that day. It was an unusual combination, but Beth saw the other girl sitting there scrawling with a felt tipped pen in a notebook that looked like it had a tree branded in the leather cover, and was intrigued. Beth and Kiley leaned in and whispered to each other throughout that class, and Beth invited her to sit at their table at lunch that day as they exited the room to head to their lockers for a pit stop.
Ali and Beth tended to instantly like the same things, as well as people, so when Beth introduced Kiley to her at lunch that day, they were instant friends. The two talked at length about clothing design, Ali's intended major the following year as well as a hobby of Kiley's. Kiley leaned toward simply drawing the pieces on paper, though Ali planned to start her own clothing line. Kiley showed off her notebook full of work with a wide grin, Ali was impressed, and the two made plans to meet up later to compare notes further, without boring Beth and Nikki to tears.
Nikki sat silent through that lunch, staring down at the plate of food she couldn't force herself to touch. There was nothing in particular about Kiley that irritated her, but the girl grated at her nerves somehow. Beth introduced the two of them, and all Nikki could manage to eek out was a muttered, “Hey.”
“Don't mind her, she's always like that,” Beth laughed, and changed the subject.
By the end of the day, Beth discovered Kiley did not have a car like the rest of them did, and she offered her a ride home. Kiley accepted, somewhat reluctantly, and after school they both climbed into Beth's car. Kiley gave directions, getting them lost once along the way as she was new in town, and eventually they pulled up to the aging house Kiley and her father were renting. Her mother had died the year before, and they were alone, and her father felt they needed a new start in a new place, so they moved to Custard that summer. Kiley flushed deeply and apologized that she could not invite Beth in. She and her father were still unpacking, and the house was a mess. Beth smiled and wished the other girl a good evening, then returned to her own house for a night filled with stacks of homework.
The first few weeks of school sped by, assignments were finished and forgotten equally, the girls got together to watch movies and play cards, and otherwise just passed the time in the same space while doing their individual things.
Kiley started hanging out with Beth and Ali individually as the weeks passed, swapping writing notebooks to critique work with Beth, and shopping with Ali for new ideas to add to their own doodles. Nikki spent more time in silence while the four were together, and kept finding reasons to be alone. Her mood had declined visibly since the school year had started again, but she refused to talk about it with anyone. Beth did not make much of an effort, assuming Nikki was lost in her guilt, hoping she was. Ali simply said she was around to talk if Nikki wanted, and left it alone.
October approached with cool weather, trees with brilliantly colored leaves, and a deep desire to sit on porches with cocoa in hand. After school let out on the last Friday of September, Ali ran outside, arms outstretched as she spun in place, welcoming the cooler weather. She was mostly happy to be able to wear her new black pea coat at last, but the crisp days made for rosy cheeks and quiet smiles, so the other girls could not blame her terribly.
The four girls decided to meet that night at the small coffee shop in the middle of town and watch Sean during open mic night. He had been playing his acoustic guitar constantly since Avivah's death, and was ready to share a bit of what he had been working on, at last. The girls decided upon a time and Beth hopped into Ali's car to quickly run to her house for a shirt she had left there the previous weekend, as she wanted to wear it out that night.
Nikki was left standing awkwardly by her new car that had finally been purchased with the insurance money from the accident the previous spring, unsure of the easiest way to leave without feeling forced to offer Kiley a ride home. Neither of them spoke as Kiley stood happily nearby, watching the other car disappear around the corner. Nikki rolled her eyes as Kiley waved one last time before it vanished, and was beginning to climb into her car when Kiley spun on her heel and walked straight up to her, a new look upon her face.
Fury raged behind those grey eyes, and Nikki took a step back in surprise, running into her car as a result. Kiley cornered her, but only after the other girls had gone, and Nikki wondered how long she had been planning the moment.
“What is your problem with me? Huh?” Kiley spat. Nikki was bewildered, unsure where the complete change in personality had come from, and gaped, unable to answer. “I have done nothing but be nice to you, and you can't even treat me like a human being. What is wrong with you? What did I do, anyway?” Kiley stood, eyes wide, jaw set defiantly, arms crossed over her cute shirt with a sad animal upon it, daring the other girl to lie to her. Daring her, as though she could smell the truth when she heard it, and would lash out again if she did not hear what she wanted.
Nikki faltered for a moment, then said quietly, “It's been a crazy year, and the last thing I expected was for my friends to find someone else to hang out with. Someone else they clearly like better than me. I don't belong here anymore, but where else am I supposed to go?”
The enthusiasm with which Beth and Ali had welcomed Kiley into their group made her angry, and her own exclusion, though it came from withdrawing herself, only made it worse.
“I don't hate you. I,” Nikki sighed and squeezed her eyes shut before continuing her thought,
“I just feel like they don't need me anymore, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do. The only real friend I had here is gone now,” The last sentence escaped her lips as a whisper. She stood there awkwardly, staring at the toes of her chocolate brown boots, and though she could not see it, Kiley's features softened significantly.
She reached a hand out and gently touched Nikki's shoulder, which produced a flinch from the shorter girl. “I'm not here to take your place,” Kiley said quietly. “And they miss you, if you didn't know. You haven't been yourself lately, and they want to help, but they don't know what to do.” Nikki looked up quizzically. “They talk about you when you're not around,” Kiley shrugged.
“Look,” she continued, “all they want is for you to come back, to be their friend, to finish out this last year of school together and have a good time! We're all going to go to different colleges next year, and they want to make the most of it. And so do I.” She smiled, Nikki nodded her head twice in agreement, and Kiley nodded in return, smile broadening.
“I'm sorry if I've been a bitch,” Worry creased her brow and she offered an apologetic smile.
“Don't worry about it. I can be a bit of a bitch myself sometimes. You'll see, don't worry!” Kiley laughed and Nikki joined her.
The two continued talking, Nikki invited Kiley to ride with her, and they made their way to the coffee shop together that night. The four girls crowded around a tall table with their drinks of varying sizes and flavors, and sat though five artists in their late twenties before it was Sean's turn.
His music had a deep sadness woven into it, and by the time his three songs were done, there were several sets of eyes being dabbed. The girls nodded to him across the room as he stepped down from the small stage, he nodded back, though he chose not to stop at their table to visit, and the evening wore down quietly.
The next two weeks were spent gearing up for the Homecoming game and dance in mid-October, and there was reason for added excitement: Custard was pitted against Pawnee for the first Homecoming game in years. Nikki was thrilled when she realized her birthday was the night of the dance, as she figured she could convince her parents to buy her an especially gorgeous dress they might otherwise turn her down on, for the occasion.
After school, the girls spent hours pouring over gowns, trying them all on, finding exactly the right bras to go with the strapless gowns that were popular that year. At last, they found what they were looking for, and happily handed over excessive amounts of money for the barely-there bits of fabric that were the chosen gowns for the occasion. None of them had found suitable dates for the evening, but they decided they would all go together, and they didn't much care what anyone else thought. It would be a night for dressing up and going out, having a fantastic time, and in Nikki's case, officially becoming an adult as she turned 18 at last.
The excitement throughout the school was palpable as homecoming week itself wore on, and the teachers succumbed to the sheer energy floating about the halls. Math teachers assigned word problems about football, required the ending score of the big game for homework, and the other teachers were not much better. Essays describing the game's highlights in detail were needed for English, and History required a one page research project on the previous games between the rival schools and how they had turned out.
The day of the game arrived and thoughts of the dance were set aside for the following day; it was the game, alone, that took the spotlight. Spectators poured into the parking lot early, and people fought for the perfect seat from which to view the event. The stadium lights burned brightly as the sun lowered in the sky, and the game began with a flurry of emotion.
The game remained close throughout the evening, and as the clock timer ticked away the final seconds, Pawnee was ahead by six points. The Braves were feeling pretty certain of themselves, which made the final moments of the game even sweeter. It was a glorious victory when a touchdown was scored by the Mustangs with only eight seconds left on the clock, then called for a time out for a change in roster. The crowd roared as the kicker took the field with the rest of the team, and the Custard fans popped to their feet with deafening applause as he made a miraculous drop-kick field goal just as the clock timed out.
The victory party for the team was held that night at Sean Adder's house, though the fare for the evening was widely different from the parties he used to hold. The Adders were home, though trying to stay out of the kids' way, and no alcohol was served. Not one person made mention of either, and it was the first party he held in six months that felt almost normal again. Beth, Ali, Nikki, and Kiley all stayed for an hour, then left together in Nikki's car, then drove back to Ali's house to sleep.
The following day was planned out meticulously, as Ali wanted to be absolutely sure there was time for all the preening they would need for the dance on Saturday night. The four girls all had appointments at Ali's favorite salon and they had chosen the styles they wanted for their hair weeks in advance.
After the game, the girls all were bursting with excitement, talking about the plays made during the game, and the amazing pull-through at the end. Ali went on about the half-time show, how well the cheerleaders had done, and no one was able to settle down to sleep. They were sitting around the room in their flannel pajama bottoms and tanks to match, legs hiding within soft sleeping bags, and Kiley brightened suddenly. She jumped up, grabbed something from her bag, and to the surprise of everyone else, turned off the light.
When the flashlight flicked on and she aimed the beam of light at her chin, however, wicked smiles spread across all the faces in the room. “I heard this story last year, from my cousin who used to live in Pawnee,” she began, and the room was dead quiet, the three listening to her were riveted already. A smirk spread from the corner of her mouth and deep into the cheek on one side, and Kiley continued, “One night, as the weather was just beginning to warm but the nights were still cold, a 17 year old girl named Susan was driving home from a friend's house. Her friend lived twenty miles out of town, past the Prairie Woods Reserve, and this girl's car broke down as she was on the stretch of highway.
“It was dark, no lights along the road, so she left her car's lights on as she stood there in the cold, shivering, no coat, just the light dress and thin sweater she had worn that day. She stood there for what felt like hours, rubbing her arms to stay warm, not wanting to get back in the car as she was hoping to be able to flag down someone for help.
“After what felt like an hour, a car approached on the road, and she waved it down. The driver was an 18 year old guy named John, and she smiled at him and told him what had happened. He got out of his car and offered her his coat as he looked at her engine, and it only took a minute before deciding they needed a mechanic to take a look at it. She thanked him for his help and asked if he would take her home, and she would call for a tow truck in the morning. He agreed. She grabbed her purse from inside the car and climbed into his, and headed the direction she told him her house was.
“As they drove, he began to feel drawn to her, and was more than happy that he had taken the time to stop and help. When they got to her house, he asked if he could call her, and she gave him a phone number,” A soft sound of approval escaped Beth's lips at this. She was a constant romantic and loved happy endings. But Kiley was not finished.
“The boy drove home that night and spent the night tossing and turning, wondering when he should call this girl he liked so much. In the morning, he noticed Susan had left her purse in his car, and he decided to take it back to her house and hopefully he would be able to talk to her a bit more.
“When John arrived at the house he had driven to the night before, and knocked on the door, an elderly woman answered and he assumed he had the wrong address. He asked for Susan just to be sure, and explained that she left her bag in the car, and proudly said he was the one who brought her home safely after her car broke down on the road.
“The woman just stood there and shook her head as he explained it all to her, and when he finished with the speech he had rehearsed, she said, 'That can't be right. Susan is dead... She was driving home on the highway near the Prairie Wood Reserve, lost control of her car, and drove into a tree. She has been dead for fifteen years... But that,' the woman pointed at the purse in the boy's hand, 'is hers'.” Kiley paused for dramatic effect, but the room was silent.
Beth stood silently and turned the light on, and Kiley looked around the room to see sober faces staring back at her. They had never told her what had happened to their friend, and looks between them decided it. Beth told the story of Avivah, the night with the party at Sean's house, the car hitting a tree, and how she died there in the car, on the road, in the dark.
She told her about Sean, how the two had been together for years and that was why his music was so sad. She told Kiley how the car was still there, on the side of that road, stuck too steeply down that hill for their small tow trucks to pull out. The mayor was meant to be getting a larger rig from Des Moines, but he had not done so yet. Until he did, the car and the place their friend died would remain exactly where it had flown off the road that night.
Kiley's eyes widened and she asked if they had been back to the car since then to see what they had walked away from. Not one of them had. She stood on the spot and demanded they go immediately. “You walked away with your lives, and your friend died, but you have not seen how lucky you are? We are going. Now. Nikki? Keys.” The look in her eyes was gaining fire again, and Nikki did not hesitate to hand them over. This produced significant glances from Beth and Ali, but the two remained silent.
A storm had begun to brew, and lightening lit the sky and thunder rumbled in the distance as they drove, otherwise in silence. Rain had not started, but it did not always come with the lightening, though the wind was starting to pick up somewhat.
The car full of girls in pajamas and sweatshirts drove on, and as they neared the spot they had driven off the road, Beth pointed out a wreath on a guard rail, “Someone put it in the wrong place,” She shook her head sadly. When they reached the place they wanted, Beth said simply, “Here.” Kiley pulled the car over and parked.
The wind whipped their loose hair about, stinging faces and eyes, and Nikki, who did not have any kind of hair tie, had to squint terribly to move forward at all. They climbed over the guard rail, which had been replaced, and Nikki pointed down the hill toward the car. In the dark it was hard to see, and Kiley did not stop when the rest of them called for her to come back. She all but slid down the hill and stopped when she reached that car, gaped at its mangled shape, and called up for them to come down to her.
“You walked away from this?!” She gasped as they approached carefully in the dark. Kiley stood there in awe, surveying the crumpled hood which was still locked firmly in place around that old tree, the broken glass upon the ground and inside the car from the passenger windows, and the dented frame and miraculously intact windshield. “Where was your friend?” She asked quietly.
Beth looked away suddenly, silently, and Nikki said simply, “Driving.” Both their eyes widened and jaws opened to say something, but fell short of words when Kiley opened the door with some effort, and sat in that seat.
She sat there and said quietly, “She died. Right here.” And they stood in silence for several minutes. Another burst of lightening lit the sky, catching Kiley's face in its glow, and for a moment, she did not look quite like herself. Just at that moment, Kiley wondered in a heartily amused tone, “I wonder if she's walking the woods now, like Susan.”
The comment broke the spell and Nikki muttered, “I can't look at this anymore,” and she began to climb back up the hill. Beth turned and climbed up behind her without a backward glance, and Ali just stood there staring at the car and the accident she could not truly remember. Beth called her name and she snapped back to the task at hand, turned, and followed the other two girls up the hill. Kiley was the last to follow, watching the others climb ahead of her and waiting to do the same until they were all at the top.
“It's cold out here,” Beth shivered, “Let's go. It's past curfew anyway, and we don't want to get in trouble,” And they all but ran back to the car and its heated interior. Beth scrambled into the back next to Ali, where they always sat, and Nikki, in her own world, allowed Kiley to drive once again.
As they drove down the road, the car screamed in silence, and the passengers mired themselves in their own thoughts. Nikki broke the spell, as she could not stand the sound of her own thoughts just then, and said, “That looked worse than I remember it. We really were lucky to walk away from that.” The two girls in the back nodded soberly, but Kiley did not join them.
“Lucky,” She said in an even tone, and Nikki could not tell if it was meant as a question or a statement. “I would not call what happened that night 'lucky'.”
Nikki broke in, “I just meant-”
“I know what you meant,” Snapped Kiley. “Lucky you weren't the one who died. Lucky you had a good idea and the guts to carry it out. Lucky nobody found out you were texting while driving. After drinking. What a fantastic combination, by the way.”
She paused as she let the full realization of that sink in for a moment, and continued with a fervor, “Lucky you didn't get caught is more like it. Lucky you didn't have to pay for what you did,” The fire in Kiley's eyes was not new to Nikki, and it occurred to her where she had seen it before. But she was paralyzed, eyes wide with worry. “That's what you mean, right? Lucky you didn't have to pay for what you did?” Kiley's speed was increasing and she was looking away from the road more and more to stare Nikki dead in the face.
Beth began to cry, and Ali looked completely lost. Beth said, “Oh, Vive, I'm so sorry, so so sorry, I didn't know what else to do...” and she dissolved into sobs, doubling over in her seat, trying to make herself into a ball.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Demanded Avivah, from the driver's seat, driving wildly with a growing fury behind her grey-blue eyes. Nikki's jaw dropped, though she knew what had happened; knew it had always been her; knew why she was uneasy around the girl from the moment she met her.
It all made sense, in that moment. Nobody had met Kiley's dad. Nobody had been inside that house. She found them and knew exactly how to worm her way into their hearts and lives. She had done it all, and she had always intended this be the result.
Nikki could think of nothing to say that could even begin to make amends, she just forced her mouth closed as her brow furrowed deeply and her lower lip began to quiver. She shook her head slowly as she stared at her friend, sitting in that seat with a gash in her forehead and blood trickling from those pale lips.
“No?” Avivah did not look terribly surprised. “Well, Nikki, it was my birthday,” there was a hint of satisfaction as she added, “And now it's yours.” She nodded toward the clock on the dashboard that glowed in brilliant green: 12:03.
Nikki's eyes locked with Avivah's as the car, which had been gaining speed throughout the exchange, drove off the side of the road, and locked around an aging tree.
The police arrived on the scene within the hour, as someone who lived nearby had called in the noise. Ali was the only one to walk away from the car that night. Nikki's bloody visage remained sprawled upon the dashboard as the camera flashes of the forensic team filled the night with fluorescent light. And there lay Beth, her neck broken from her bent position when the impact happened.
The one thing the police could not figure out about that night was where the driver went. Ali was in the back of the car with a head wound when the paramedics arrived to assess the situation, but there was no one in the driver's seat. The belt was buckled, and the door could not have been pried open after the car wrapped itself around the tree like that.
So where did the driver go...? Ali knows, but she also knows no one would believe her if she told them.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Rebecca Harris.
Published on e-Stories.org on 11.03.2011.