“Wild Animals” by David Braga

20 April 2018 on Blog, Fiction   Tags: , ,

The last time I saw Allison Moore, there was a cougar loose in our town.

This happened from time to time. Every couple of years, a cat would come down from the mountains out by the edge of the county, get confused and eventually lost, and wind up in Oak Ridge. After it had been spotted, there’d be a special bulletin from the police or animal control telling everyone to be extra careful walking by wooded areas, instructing parents to pick their kids up straight from the bus stop, and offering advice on what to do if you were confronted by the animal: raise your hands up high to look bigger than it was and scream at it — advice I assumed was designed to get you killed faster.

This time it was Everett Nyles who’d spotted it. Everett was a fitness nut and a loudmouth, and made sure to tell everyone around town about the cougar, until he and his tale reached the gas station where I worked. He told me the story, how he’d come “face to face with the beast,” as he put it, while I rang up his protein bars and energy shakes.

“This thing was big as fuck-all,” he said. The veins in his neck seemed to bubble while he spoke. “I was out jogging on that path behind Maple Cove Lane, the one that leads up to that basketball court that kids are always leaving beer at. You know where I’m talking about?” I did, because I was one of those kids who’d spent numberless evenings on that abandoned court in the woods drinking, smoking, and trying — but usually failing — to get laid. It was a sort of sanctuary for us, tucked off in the dark like that. The unspoken rule was that the runners had it in the mornings, but once night fell, it was ours.

“I tell you, Brandon,” Everett continued, though by now I, like everyone else in town, had heard the story second-hand more times than I could count, “I come ‘round the corner up towards the court, and there it is, just sitting there like a house cat, ‘cept of course it ain’t no house cat, it’s gotta be two hundred pounds, easy. So I looked at this thing for one minute, just one, and as soon as I saw that it wasn’t looking at me, I hauled ass ‘bout as fast as I could in the other direction.”

He laughed, and I did too, out of courtesy, while I rang up his purchase and handed him a receipt. “Have a good one, Everett,” I said.

“You too,” he said, already popping the lid on one of his drinks. “And watch out for that cougar.”

I’d lived in Oak Ridge all my life. When I was younger, the animal sightings had been cause for celebration. A flash of real, true excitement in an otherwise predictable existence. The whole town would whip itself into a frenzy. My friends and I would take care to walk through the woods — always a short distance from the street, of course, should we need to escape— and try to spot it. It was dangerous, but if it took danger to make life come alive, we’d take it. But each sighting came and went without incident, and by the time we all grew older, we learned that “watch out for that cougar” was more of a running joke than an actual warning. Now, at eighteen, waiting out the summer behind a gas station register as everyone else went off to their respective colleges, a loose animal was just another annoyance to deal with.

After my shift ended that night, I cut across the road behind the shopping center where my gas station was situated and made my way through the small stretch of woods that functioned as a shortcut to my house. It was a route I took every night, and even though I was deep between the trees for a few minutes, I wasn't thinking of the cougar. What I was thinking about was that it was August 14th, and that in two days, Allison Moore would be leaving town for Yale.

She was the only one I knew who’d gotten into a real school. One far away. The kind you bragged about—though she didn’t. No one was surprised. She was brainy and strange and confident and I was in love with her. She knew that, at least as much as anyone could, but still we were only close friends. Best friends, maybe. She drifted to and from boyfriends who I tried not to think about, and I had my moments with girls at parties, in spare rooms and parked cars. If she knew what I felt for her, I at least knew that she felt something for me, even if I couldn’t name it. Something she had pinned back and hidden, because she wasn’t that kind of girl. She didn’t drink and she didn’t go to parties and she didn’t fall in love, and she assured me, because she knew I wondered about it, that no boy had ever made it past the front button of her jeans. “I just kind of brush their hand away,” she said, laughing, because it wasn’t a big deal to her. I spent nights wondering if she kept things so simple because she knew she was leaving Oak Ridge for good, or if maybe her experiments with boys were simply that: experiments. She’d do something and watch how they responded. She’d brush away a hand and see what happened next. She was always thinking, her brain an endless factory with hypotheses and proofs. But even that small contact, hand pushing away hand, was enough to make me light in the head.

Two more days. Then she would be gone.

*

Oak Ridge was a split town, two places occupying one plot of land. Half of it was bustling with newly planned neighborhoods and golf courses and chain restaurants, hallmarks of some suburban dreamscape, full of families who rode the beltway into DC every morning. The other half, where I lived, was dotted with half-empty strip malls, cramped apartments and tiny houses hidden from the main roads by thickets of trees. We all went to the same high school, Oak Ridge Senior — Home of the Fighting Algonquins (changed the year I graduated to the more innocuous Mighty Raiders) — and mixed well enough. But there was always the sense that half of us were getting out while the other half would head to community school— at best. While half the town went on to the adventures that would be their lives, the rest stayed back and took permanent jobs at the mall, dealt and did drugs, and hit the same bars night after night. It was a sort of dichotomy that you didn’t even realize was there when you started high school. You didn’t realize how vast the gap was until you switched from one half of town to the other. As I had.

*

When I got home I saw that my mother had left a mailed notice from the county — “Wild Cat Spotted in Area” — on our dinner table for me. She was double shifting, so I microwaved a frozen pizza for dinner and put the TV on. I was cleaning the last bits of pepperoni off my plate when the phone rang.

I saw it was Allison, saw the picture that I had saved of her on my phone. In it she was smiling on our school’s football field, her graduation robe on, her cap lost somewhere after the toss. I hesitated and let it ring once. Twice. Picking up meant dragging myself through all the hope and disappointment that would come with seeing her before she left. It rang a third time, and, of course, I picked up.

“Hey,” she said. I hadn’t heard her voice since graduation.

“How was the trip?” I asked. She’d been in Europe for most of July, first visiting relatives, then visiting Paris with her mother, a reward for her Yale acceptance and scholarship. It was a vacation that was quintessentially Moore-ian; they had Europe in their blood, Proust on their shelves, imported wine and craft beer in their fridge. If Oak Ridge was a town split in two, the Moores were from another universe entirely. When I’d spent New Years watching bad movies with Allison in her basement, the only drink I was offered at midnight was cognac, but not before Mr. Moore went about explaining its roots and flavors, its undefinable characteristics. I wasn’t wild about how sweet it was, but toasting Allison and watching fireworks on TV while the ball dropped was enough to make it bearable. I’d had, if only for an instant, the idea that we’d kiss at midnight — insane, of course, especially with her parents there — but in the end a hug was enough. When I drove home that evening I couldn’t stop thinking of the world I had just left, that Moore-verse. They were transplants, new to town during our sophomore year so that her father could teach in Washington, and they knew that they were above us. Maybe Allison did, too. Maybe that was why she brushed those hands away when they got too curious. Maybe she was waiting for someone from her world.

“Paris was really nice,” she said, before sounding off a checklist of the sights that she and her mother had seen, the restaurants they’d dined in, and the art they had ‘experienced,’ which was her mother’s word for it. She laughed at that.

“You’re all packed and everything?”

“Yep.” Her voice had a bounce to it. “I packed before I left.”

I carried the phone over to the living room and turned the TV off. As Allison ran through the details of her coming ride up the coast, I flipped through my father’s vinyls until I found something smooth to listen to. Coltrane would do. I dropped the needle on the record and then lay on the couch as the horns started up, the piano dancing around them. In less than 36 hours, she’d be gone.

“So,” she said.

“So.”

“Well, tomorrow I’m doing dinner with my parents, but I thought after that we could maybe hang out? One last hurrah or something?”

“What do you have in mind?” I asked. I was all warmth, all electricity.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I feel like I should do something crazy, though. Before I get out of here.”

Crazy could mean a lot of things. I liked crazy. And I liked that whatever craziness she wanted to get into, she wanted to get into it with me.

“Do you have any idea what this craziness would be?”

“No.” She paused, and I listened to her breathe. “You?”

“Oh, no,” I said, laughing. “It’s your last night. You’ve got to think it up.”

Across the line our laughs merged. I could picture her smile, the white line of her teeth between parted lips, the pink of her tongue. She joked sometimes that she laughed like a man, fat and hardy, a sound that came deep from in her gut. Her whole body shook when she laughed like that, and connected by whatever satellites held our voices together, I thought about holding her while she shook. Letting our laughs and voices become one so that they held off time and made the next day never ending, made whatever adventure we got ourselves into last long enough to cover us for the rest of our lives so we were always tied together.

“I’ll think of something,” she said, and then told me she could pick me up around ten thirty the next evening. I was about to hang up, but then she started up again. “Oh, one other thing, When we got back there was some weird letter in the mail about a mountain lion on the loose?”

I laughed. She’d had her turn to explain Paris to me. Now I could take mine and explain the Oak Ridge Cougar Phenomenon to her.

*

We’d met during our sophomore year. Advanced Placement European History. She had moved into Oak Ridge over the previous summer and we were seated together at the back of the room, alphabetically — Brandon Morgan right behind Allison Moore. I was taking the class for the GPA boost, but quickly found myself more preoccupied with the skin on the back of Allison’s neck than the defenestration of Prague, more preoccupied with the soft dark hair that she kept in a messy ponytail or the way she knew answers to questions before they were finished. She threw off the grading curve on all of our tests and never felt bad about it. After class, she would stay and talk with our teacher, a burly old German who seemed to hate everyone in the class except her, if only because she had visited his country and could speak a little of his native tongue.

I cannot remember exactly how we began talking, but by the end of the second semester we had something of a rapport between us, if not a friendship. We joked about the German, about our fellow classmates, about whether or not she would throw me a bone and let me peek at her test answers. When I asked her once what she wanted to do — to really do, after she got out of school — she said she wanted to keep learning. She wanted to learn everything there was to know about everything. When I asked if she was aware that that was an inherently impossible task, she only smiled and said “That’s what makes it interesting.”

My goals were simpler. Get a job, get some extra money. Maybe buy a car. But I told her that if she did manage to do it, to learn everything, to at least make sure she told me the stuff that was worth knowing. I was interested in her because she was unlike anyone I’d ever met; I suppose she might have felt the same way about me. Maybe there was no reason to it, maybe our personalities clicked out of pure randomness. Either way we fell in sync quick and our little coalition was formed. The one who did not belong and the one who could not escape. An odd couple, I joked once, and she told me she didn’t get the reference. I liked that. For all that she knew, there were still a few things that I could teach her.

*

The next night I was in the cul-de-sac up outside my house, waiting. It was chilly for August — autumn had started its scheming — so I’d thrown a hoodie on and knotted my arms tight across my chest while I waited to see her headlights coming down the road. She always dressed in all black when we hung out at night, like she was sneaking out, even if it was only half past ten. Like she was on the lam.

When her car did arrive I climbed in, adjusting the seat to give myself some room. I wasn’t particularly tall, but every time I rode with Allison I was reminded that the Moores were an exceptionally tiny people.

“So,” I said once we were moving. “Did you think of your crazy thing?”

“I did,” she said, her cheeks going red.

"Well?”

“What if we smoked? I mean, if we got high?”

Then I laughed too, because only in the Moore-verse, the world of big books and perfect grades, was getting high something crazy. Half the school got stoned before homeroom. The rest of us waited until the bell rang at two, but even that was a challenge.

“What?” she asked. She was smiling like she was guilty. I pictured her inhaling, blowing smoke into the night, and thought that maybe it was actually a perfect idea. It could be something for just us.

“I think it’s acceptably crazy,” I said. “You never have?” When she shook her head, I felt relieved in a way I hadn’t expected. The same sort of relief that came when she told me about brushing those boys' hands away when they got too close. This was something she had saved, and she had saved it for me. Whether that meant anything or not to her was still a mystery.

“All right, then,” I said, and told her to start driving out towards the mall while I made a couple calls to see if anyone could get us set up. When I got the good news, I told her to turn off the main road and head for Russell Street.

“Where are we going?”

“Big Pete’s house,” I said. She laughed again, amused by this new character in our adventure. Amused by everything.

*

I was not a bad student. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t bad, and I probably could’ve gotten into a solid school had I really tried. My issue was bad luck. During the winter of my freshmen year, my dad had a week with a bad stomach. Then one week turned into two, then a month, and then it was stomach cancer that had somehow stayed quiet for too long. And so he went to war with it, fired everything he could, nuked the motherfucker with chemo and radiation over and over but still it metastasized and dug into his bones and lungs until he was more cancer than man. He was dead by summer, and my mother and I were left alone in a house that was too big with medical bills that were too expensive.We hadn’t been wealthy to begin with, but now the hole was immense, so we moved across town to save what we could, and my mother began double shifting whenever she was able to.

One afternoon, almost a year after the funeral, I came back from school and found my mother asleep on the couch, the TV on, a plate of hot food in front of her. She had been scheduled to work a second shift and had simply fallen asleep. Her body had forced her to rest. I called her boss and told him that she’d be out sick for the night, then sat across the room from her and watched her breathe, more at peace than she had been in months. And I knew — as everyone else fretted about their prepping for the SAT and making their first college visits— that I couldn’t leave. Sometimes you have to bear someone else’s burden. You have to help them carry it. I couldn’t leave my mother alone in that house with only pictures of her vanished family to haunt her while I was a hundred miles away, drinking and skipping class. I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or a scientist anyway; I could get what I needed from the community school. There would be a time to leave — I didn't know when it would be, though I was confident that when it came I would know — but until then, I’d be around.

*

Big Pete wasn’t tall, but he was tremendously wide. He was a second-time senior at our school, sported a bald head offset by a braided blonde beard, and lived in his parents’ basement, his own little apartment, with beer in the fridge and Playboys stacked on the TV stand. Allison and I came in through the sliding glass door that met his basement from the backyard. The room smelled like smoke and the TV was on, but the sound was drowned out by a pulsing club beat that made my head ache.

Pete shook my hand but paused when he saw Allison. He looked her up and down, then said Hey to her and smiled at me like he was sly. Like he knew we were up to something we weren’t even aware of.

I handed him a twenty and told him what we needed. He nodded and asked me to come with him, and then instructed Allison to wait on the couch. I asked her if she was okay with waiting, and with the same calm, bemused smile she’d been wearing all night, she said sure. On TV, an old Kung Fu movie was playing, only it was the kind without any real martial artists, just some girl hacking people up with a sword.

I followed Pete down a hall into his bedroom, where he opened a dresser drawer and retrieved a small scale and a ziplock bag nearly bursting with pot.

“This her first time?” he asked as he began to weigh our purchase.

“Yeah,” I said. “Her idea, actually.” I wanted to give her the credit.

“Well this should be nice and mellow then. Good first time shit and all.”

I nodded and watched him work.

“Isn’t she still dating Overman?”

“No,” I said. Bill Overman was a track star at our school (if there was such a thing) and had been Allison’s most recent boyfriend, a two-month fling that fizzled out after graduation. “They split up a while ago.”

“You’re trying to get his seconds, then?” Pete asked, laughing. At me, at her, at the whole situation.

“They didn’t do…that.”

“I heard different,” he said.

A wave of jealous heat rolled through me. Down the hall I could hear the movie on TV, and I thought of Allison, sitting and watching it, and wondered if she had lied to me. If not outright, than by omission. I imagined Bill Overman’s hand moving across her, towards unknown places, and her hand hovering above it, waiting to brush him away like all the others, and then pulling back and letting him go. Another experiment for her to conduct. Let a boy do what he wanted. Or — and maybe this was worse, though I knew it was a disgusting thought to have, a petty thing to be jealous of, she was not mine, after all — what she wanted.

“From who?” I barely got the words out.

“One of Overman’s friends. Heard it at a party a couple weeks ago,” Pete said, and then handed me a new, smaller bag of pot. “But he seemed pretty sure that Overman had cracked that case, so to speak.”

One of Overman’s friends. Not from Overman himself. And at a party, too, where everyone was drunk or stoned or both. That wasn’t trustworthy information, I told myself. Guys brag when they get dumped, they make up stories. Every guy wants to seem like he’s done more than he has. Stories moved, they changed; it was like that telephone game you played when you were a kid. I knew all of this, and was able, for the moment, to push it out of my mind as nothing but hearsay.

Big Pete offered me one of his many small bowls, this one styled to look like a wizard’s cauldron that would flare with smoke and fire when used.

“This will be smoother than a wrap or any paper,” he said. I took it.

When we went back out to the main room, Allison was still sitting on the couch, watching the movie, and when we started towards the door, Big Pete asked if we were sure we didn’t just want to hang in with him. “I’ve got some beers and Lady Snowblood from Netflix. Movie is fucking weird, man.”

I looked over at Allison, who gave a small shake of her head to me, smiling nervously.

“I think we’re gonna drive around a bit,” I said. “Thanks for hooking us up, though.”

“You kids have fun,” Pete said, affecting a mock-parent voice and settling back onto his couch, sinking between the cushions as we headed back into the night.

*

When Allison asked where it was that we should actually do our smoking, I directed her down the parkway and past the newest golf course, towards a large plot of woods where fresh roads and the skeletons of soon-to-be houses for a new neighborhood created a sort of in-utero ghost town. For a while after the recession, construction had halted altogether, and there were rumors of squatters and other forgotten members of society taking up residence in the half finished homes — but things had begun moving again over the past few year or so, and by next summer all the trees would be gone and it would look like any other neighborhood in the county. Oak Ridge, Glen Cove, Lake View — they were all the same. But for now the trees gave us cover, and the rolling roads through the woods kept us hidden. It was as good a spot as any to pull over and smoke, which we did.

I showed Allison how to hold the bowl, how to cover the plug with her thumb and tilt the lighter down without burning herself. I told her she had to pull it in deep and hold it there until her lungs burned and then, when she couldn’t take it anymore, to blow it out smooth. I watched her take all of this in, more information, more facts, on her quest to know everything.

When I was done with my turn — part of the lesson — I handed the bowl over to her, embers still glowing. For the first time all night I saw concern on her face, a last jolt of nerves. “You’ll be fine,” I said, listening to the music of the woods around us, the bugs and birds scurrying through the dark. “The only thing you have to worry about out here is that cougar.”

That got a laugh, and the small frame of her body seemed to relax as she put the piece to her mouth and tried to light it. She couldn’t get it going, so I took the lighter and started it up, holding the lighter upside down so that the flame just brushed the side of my thumb. I watched her hold in the smoke and wondered if this was really going to be the last night I saw her. She could go to Yale and never come back. Spend her vacations in Paris or London or Lisbon or wherever her family wanted to go. It was possible that I only had hours left with her. Minutes, even. And I’d be goddamned if I was going to say goodbye and let her go without kissing her. At least once. So she knew that I meant it.

She coughed when she exhaled. I put a hand on her back to steady her, and then, like a real pro, she handed the gear right back to me.

“How long does it take to feel it?” she asked.

“Not too long,” I said. “You’ll know when it starts.”

She watched and waited as I took my turn. It took every bit of self-control that I had in me not to grab her right there, to hold her and never let her go away from me. But instead of being brave I just lit up and smoked again.

When we were both good and high, we got back in the car and started driving. I offered to take the wheel but Allison insisted — it was her car, after all, and how many times had I told her how easy it was to drive stoned? I was promised the keys only if she felt too far gone. I felt a pang of distrust at that, but also liked it, watching her stay in control. She went slow at first, but then, rising and falling over the sloping roads, she started picking up speed, and soon it felt like we were really cruising, almost like flying through space. I couldn’t feel anything outside of the vacuum we were in. Her eyes were shot red and her hair was falling across her face, and she kept trying to blow it out of the way, only for it to fall right back down where it had been. That got me laughing, and my laugh got her going.

“I like it,” she said. “It’s not what I thought it would be.”

“What did you think it’d be?”

“Different, I guess. Heavy.”

The only noise beside our voices was the engine. I pulled my iPod out of my pocket and hooked it into her stereo and started scrolling for music.

“You’re not going to put on any of that stuff Pete was listening to at his place, are you?” she asked.

I shook my head. I didn’t want to answer until I’d found it. When I did, I clicked play, let a few soft piano notes lead the horns in, and relaxed back in my seat. Coltrane. Music that must have been invented for nights like this.

We whizzed through the empty roads, passed the frames of half-finished houses.

“I love this album,” she said, nodding towards the radio. “My dad listens to him all the time. I grew up with it.”

“I didn’t know that,” I said.

“I’m full of secrets,” she said, and smiled. I did too, but the image of Overman popped back into my head. She was full of secrets. How many of them would I never know?

We kept driving, looping down side streets and circling past areas we’d already passed, burning gas and killing the planet and not caring because we were young and happy and at least one of us was in love.

“Can I tell you something?” Her voice was quiet, anxious.

“Yeah,” I said, and hoped. “Of course.”

Allison paused. She took her eyes off the road and looked over to me, only for a moment. Her gaze started drifting back, but then stopped and snapped back to me.

“Wait,” she said. “You have something in your hair.”

“What?”

“Like a leaf or something. Let me get it.”

I leaned towards her. She checked that the road ahead was straight and empty and then turned her attention to me. Her hand, so soft, reached forward and grazed the skin of my forehead before her fingers spread out and combed through my hair, long and shaggy, and I heard the crinkle of something being pulled out.

“There we go,” she said. She held the leaf up in front of me, but I wasn’t looking at it. I was looking at her, and she at me, and the car was still moving, getting faster on the straightaway, tearing through the night, and her lips opened to say something but instead there was a tremendous thumping noise, and she yelled and slammed on the brakes just in time for us to see something splash back onto the pavement in front of us, caught in our headlights, not moving.

*

The summer before had been the closest I’d ever come to telling her. She’d been dating someone else at the time, and somehow that made it easier. Knowing I would fail was better than holding out hope that things might change between us.

I’d been working at the town’s little marina that summer, which was really just a few kayaks and paddle boats out by the local nine-hole. At the end of a shift sometime in July, Allison came down to the dock, just back from a long visit with relatives in Liverpool. I unharnessed one of the kayaks and we paddled out, down the river and around the bend until the marina was out of sight.

A large slab of stone rose up from the water not far from where we’d set out. Over the years it had been coated in layers of graffiti by kids angrier than we were. We tied up there and climbed to the top of the rock, then sat and looked out at the water and the woods that rose up around it.

We talked about our summers, about the classes we had coming up in the fall. I asked how her man was and she said he was fine, she was excited to see him again. He had cooked a special dinner for her in honor of her return. That’s how I knew, I think — how deep the feeling ran. Because it was easy to hate her for that glibness and still want nothing beyond her. And I wanted to hate her. It would make things easier, being able to give all this up, but the sun was hitting her skin and turning it gold and her hair was blowing just a bit in the wind, small strands held up as if by a ghost, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I put my hand on top of hers on the rock.

“You know, right?” I said. “I mean, you have to know. Don’t you?”

She looked at me, then out at the water, and slid her hand out from under mine. I waited for her to say something, but she was silent.

“Right,” I said. We sat there, close but not touching, and watched the sun start to dip, turning the water into fire.

*

“Holy shit,” she said, then repeated it, “holyshitholyshitholyshitholyshit,” over and over.

I was silent. My heart was sprinting in my chest, every muscle and nerve drawn tight as they could get, but somehow, I couldn’t make a sound. Not even to comfort Allison in the seat next to me. All I could do was look out into the pool of yellow that the car’s headlights had cast onto the pavement, and the cougar lying inside of it, its face and front legs bloodied from where we’d struck it. I could not tell if it was breathing. In the background, from what seemed like a world underneath ours, the jazz was still playing.

“Holy shit,” Alison kept on, her hands shaking on the wheel. I unbuckled myself and she looked at me, eyes red and frightened.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to check,” I said. I didn’t know what I meant by that, but I knew I had to get out of the car.

“Don’t,” she said, and reached to catch my arm and stop me. I brushed her off. “It’s not—”

“It’s fine.” The animal still hadn’t moved as far as I could see. “I’ll be fine.”

I walked towards it in a daze, aware that my body was flooded with some combination of pot and adrenaline, making me feel like I was somehow far away from everything around me. I could hear my feet patting the pavement but couldn’t feel them. Could see the animal growing in my field of vision as I stepped closer, but felt as though I was floating up above and looking down on it. Seeing it as God might have, if he existed.

When I was close enough, I knelt next to it. The cougar. All the stories and sightings and county bulletins that I’d dismissed as bullshit, but here it was. It looked hopelessly small. Not at all how Everett Nyles had described it. It looked small, and it looked young. And we had driven straight into it, though the animal somehow wasn't dead. I couldn’t tell how alive or aware it was, but now that I was close I could see its chest expanding and hear its breath, ragged and weak.

Behind me the car door opened and closed, and I heard Allison step lightly out onto the street. When I looked up at her I saw that the car, miraculously, was unblemished. Impossible luck, I thought. Something that could only happen to a Moore.

“Is it dead?” she asked, her voice whisper quiet but loud enough to fill up the woods around us. It sounded wet, like she’d been crying.

“No,” I said. I reached a hand towards the animal, let it hover for a moment, then brought it to rest on its chest, feeling the smooth hair of its coat prickling against my fingers. The cougar’s eyes barely moved when I touched it. I let my hand ride its breath up and down, up and down. Each time a bit slower.

“What do we do?” Allison said. She was kneeling next to me now. “We can call someone right? Someone that can do something for it?”

I shook my head.

“Well we can’t just leave it like this. Brandon. We can’t.” she said, and this time I could hear her voice cracking. “There has to be something we can do. Please.” I had never heard Allison Moore afraid in the entire time I knew her. But she was afraid right now.

“We can’t do anything,” I said. “Even if there was something to do or someone to call, they’d come out here, and they’d just end up watching it die, just like we’re doing now. And then they’re going to ask questions and do whatever it is their jobs tell them to do, and eventually they’re going to take a look at your car and they’re gonna see the bowl and the bag of pot, or they're gonna find out that we were smoking, that you were in possession and you were high and still driving, and you’re going to get in trouble. Maybe lose your scholarship. Maybe worse. If we call someone out here, it will fall back onto you.” I wanted to add that I wouldn’t let that happen; that she had to get out, that out of everyone I knew she deserved to get out and go far away from Oak Ridge. That we were going to get back in the car, and that she was going to go to Yale tomorrow, and eventually, she was going to forget that this happened.

She didn’t answer me. She understood. We were silent, together, over the cat. I kept my hand on it, the warmth from its body radiating out into my palm. Its breath was coming softer now.

“What now?” she asked. But there was nothing now. This was all. I had never watched an animal die, but I had been in the room when my father had passed, when all the beeping and whirring of hospital instruments and doctors crowding his bed made it impossible to focus. I had held onto my mother and she had held onto me and we had watched from the corner of the room while that orchestra of mechanical noise and medical jargon had blocked those last moments from us. I had seen my father’s face only briefly, under one of the doctor’s arms, and what I saw wasn’t fear, or anger; it was exhaustion. With the noise, with the crowd around it. It should have been quieter. It should have been my mother and I, each holding a hand, and helping him through it. It shouldn’t have been so chaotic. But it was.

I took Allison’s hand under mine, then placed it back onto the animal’s chest. It was the first time I had ever really held her hand. I told her that all we could do was be here with it so that it didn’t do this alone. We could help this animal carry its last few moments of burden. I held her hand in mine and we waited.

It felt like forever, but it wasn’t, and there was so much that I did not know, that I could not have known, that would follow. I did not know that when Allison dropped me off that night, I would never see her again. That we would talk on the phone a few times during her freshmen year, but eventually fall out of touch. That I would stay on at the gas station and eventually get myself enrolled in the community school. In those classes, when my thoughts did turn to Allison Moore, I would hope that she had learned everything like she’d always wanted to.

I didn’t know that when she dropped me off that night, each of us would get out of the car and run to meet in the headlights and hold each other. That I would tell her to do good up there, and she would nod, still crying against my neck, this the closest I would ever hold her, and that, as we pulled apart, I would kiss her neck, quick, just once, so she knew that I meant it. That I would feel her lips brushing back against my skin, as if she was returning a handshake. I would never know if it was intentional or not, but I want to believe that it was. I want to believe, now, that in those last moments in the car, when we were silent and happy, that she had really had something she wanted to tell me.

I did not know, as we kept our hands on the dying animal, that so many things were ending, and that in the years to come I would try my best to forget Allison Moore and all the time we spent together. I have found that forgetting is the only tool we have to fight off the past and all the things we love that have been swallowed by it. But there are times, when my wife and children are sleeping and I am awake, struck by that terrible curse of remembrance, that I remember how Allison’s hand felt under mine. Her skin was dry and her knuckles were hard and the polish on her nails was chipped, and when the cougar’s breath gave out, she wrapped her fingers between mine, and we rose together to walk back to the car.

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David Braga’s film and fiction writing have been published by Redivider, Necessary Fiction, Typehouse Magazine, Indie Film Minute, and WhatCulture!, among others. He lives with his wife in Boston, Massachusetts. You can find his work at david-braga.com

Inland Sea 18, 2018, watercolor and screenprint paper, 11 x 15 inches by Kamilla Talbot. She has exhibited her work in numerous group and solo shows in New York, and internationally. Artist residencies include grants to paint in Maine, Vermont, Italy, Norway, Newfoundland, and Iceland. She studied at the New York Studio School and The Rhode Island School of Design. She teaches or has taught at The Art Students League; National Academy School; Brooklyn Botanic Garden; New York Studio School; New York School of the Arts; as well as privately. You can find her work at kamillatalbot.com and on Instagram at @kamillatalbot

 

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