A Little Better

Submitted into Contest #238 in response to: Write a story including the line “I can’t say it.”... view prompt

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Coming of Age LGBTQ+ Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

In Wyoming, the undersides of the leaves were bright silver. I never understood why, it was just something I had noticed, but I always chalked it up to the fact that they didn’t start growing on the trees until the first week of May, like they never had enough time to become the same deep green as elsewhere in the country - places that were much closer to sea-level. 

The trees in Laramie were tall and wild-looking, like giants with long arms, cradling the road to create a tunnel for the sparse parade of cars rolling back and forth down Grand Avenue. The town was at its peak in the late spring, during those final weeks before all the university students returned home, when everything seemed to have potential. Part of me didn’t really want to leave for the weekend.

But Daniel insisted on picking me up at 8:45 AM, precisely on the street corner where all the freshmen congregated in the morning to cross over from the dorm buildings to campus for their 9AMs. We’d all finished our finals by then, except for Suzie, whose economics exam would be online at some point or another. Anyway, she didn’t seem worried about it. You could tell she was a very intelligent person.

After nearly plowing into a girl in a teal hoodie and a boy with a cowboy hat, Daniel veered toward the curb and rolled down the window, leaning over Suzie’s lap. 

“Get in loser!” he shouted over Sylvan Esso. He unlocked the back door and I slid it open. 

We had to drive up north toward the Goodwill to pick up Mike and his girlfriend Ashley but after that we crossed the bridge and headed westward. There was one kid in the car I didn’t know, sitting in the back corner staring out the window at the hills on the southern horizon. Suzie introduced him as Elliott, the freshman we were meant to take on our trip because he’d signed up for the Outdoors Club excursion in April but came down with the flu when all the other underclassmen went, so Mr. Wertzman promised him he could go in May with a few of the leaders since he had already paid for a comically large backpack. By leaders, old Wertzman had meant the four of us, and we were hardly classified as leaders -  he only said that because we were the only seniors in the club, which had by then become a tradition for us.

“Elliott,” I said. “What are you studying?”

“I don’t really know,” he replied, dragging out the last word without breaking his gaze at the passing landscape. I exchanged a glance with Mike, who shared the backseat with him. He rolled his eyes and I smiled. 

“You don’t know?” I asked. 

Elliott had the face of a freshman - not especially in youth, but in confusion and innocence. His eyes and hair were dark and seemed to cast a veiled shadow on his face, even in full sunlight. He was hard to read.

“Originally, I came for Agriculture,” he said, blinking pointedly a few times and exhaling out of his nose. Then, after a moment, he clasped his hands together and continued, “but that’s what my parents wanted me to do, not me. So before Christmas I switched to Literature.” 

“So now you’re studying books,” Mike chortled. 

“Well last week I told my advisor I wanted to switch to Undecided.” 

Mike laughed again. “You can’t do that going into sophomore year, dude. They won’t allow it.”

My advisor did.” 

“I think they allow it for humanities stuff,” I added.  “Blake was undecided for a while wasn’t he?”

Suzie turned around. “Yeah he was,” she said, and softer, after a pause, “I really miss Blake.” 

We didn’t talk about Blake very much at all. I sort of regretted bringing him up. He hadn’t killed himself or anything, just became really strange, converted to Mormonism, and moved to Provo halfway through our junior year, which was arguably worse than suicide depending on who you asked. Regardless, I really missed Blake too. Suzie and I were closest with him. 

Most of us were silent for the rest of the ride. Daniel turned up his playlist and we all looked out the windows at the approaching mountains. Behind me, I caught a glance of Elliott staring out the rear windshield apprehensively, watching Laramie becoming smaller and smaller. 

We were approaching Centennial, which could barely be classified as a town and was rather just an assortment of buildings which looked as though John Wayne himself would come moseying out of, when we realized that aside from Ashley, not one of us had eaten breakfast. Daniel said he thought there might be a place where we could grab coffee and pastries before we were among the pine trees and deer, but Suzie replied with “this isn’t Aspen, Danny, I don’t know what you expect. They probably still use pay phones here.” Daniel was from a suburb of Denver and went skiing with his family every year, something none of us had the privilege to experience.

“Worth a shot,” he said tersely and whipped the van into the gravel lot in front of what was likely the only hotel/steakhouse for dozens of miles. “Oh, look! See right there, Suz? Coffee. Corral. Now see I was going to pay for you but not anymore.” Suzie rolled her eyes. 

Daniel ended up paying for Suzie’s cappuccino anyway, and Mike paid for Ashley’s iced latte, so I supposed I should probably pay for Elliott, the poor freshman who probably had more money than I did - he was wearing Patagonia after all. But all he ordered was a small black coffee. I had a cappuccino. I wondered if that’s what Elliott always ordered or he was just trying to be nice by ordering the cheapest drink on the menu for my sake. I told him I’d split my almond croissant with him but he turned it down with the wave of his hand.

“Elliott, where are you from?” I asked.

“Up north,” he said mysteriously. “Gillette.” That was enough. Nobody ever went to Gillette on purpose. It was the kind of place everybody tried to get out of immediately after high school.

We were all walking back to the van arguing over who would have the aux first when two men sporting cowboy hats burst out the front doors of the hotel and calmly but quickly beelined for a dusty red F-150; behind them on the stairs was a tall, wiry man in a denim jacket with his hands on his hips. 

“Yeah, that’s right, you fuckin’ faggots! Get the hell out, you’ve never been fuckin’ welcome here and you shoulda fuckin’ known better. ” He spat onto the gravel. “Fucking faggots,” he muttered again, squinting and watching the truck intently, its tires crunching and squealing on the pavement, speeding back toward Laramie. We stood, frozen, not a couple hundred feet from the man on the porch of the hotel. The air smelled faintly of fire and wildflowers.

“Those poor guys,” Suzie said after a moment. The denim jacket man had retreated back inside. “Maybe we should have said something.”

Mike scoffed. “Well I mean, honestly, what do they expect?”

Ashley let go of his hand and mirrored Suzie. “Oh I don’t know, basic human decency maybe?” 

Mike shrugged and sipped his coffee. “They should know better. It’s rural Wyoming.”

“Jesus, Mike” Ashley continued. “You’re real fucking dense sometimes.”

We all climbed into the van in silence, everybody solemn or tense or stricken by something. Guilt, maybe? The air had changed suddenly. Something unspoken seemed to have separated us. I could feel division inside the car; the whole concept of homosexuality had never been something that had come up within our friend group in any sort of confrontational in-your-face way. Everybody we knew was straight, or at least that’s what had been implied from the very beginning. Sure, Suzie kissed girls at parties and I watched gay porn every other week, but it was the type of thing that could be avoided. Suzie was allowed to do that. Plus nobody cared - she was drunk and curious. And if I never actually told anybody that I thought guys were attractive too, nobody would ever actually have to find out. I dated girls anyway, so everything was fine. 

When it was her turn to control the music, Ashley unabashedly alternated between Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes. We passed the turnoff to the ski resort and arrived at the official parking lot for the Snowy Range Mountains, the one all the prospective high school seniors’ parents parked in around September  for a half hour as their kid decided yeah, this is where I wanna go to college. 

The lot itself was mostly empty now, but its edges were naturally decorated with pink white flowers, budging up from the rocks scattered across the hillside as it fell away. The clouds present above when we had begun the drive had migrated north and the sun was stunning, spraying itself across the east-facing range behind us. You couldn’t really decide whether to look at the actual mountains and their silvery slopes or out at what they seemed to face, the endless expanse of land - the town, Laramie, then the Vedauwoos, then Cheyenne, then the Nebraskan Panhandle, and Chimney Rock, and the slow easing of elevation as the plains became the Midwest with its brown rivers, rolling hills and pregnant fields. Of course you couldn’t see it all, but you could imagine it, sort of like imagining your past and where you’d come from, wherever it was. 

The six of us were standing there looking at everything and then out of nowhere Elliott said “I’ve never seen anything like this.” 

“What do you mean?” I asked. “In your whole freshman year you never came up here?”


“You’re from Gillette and you never went to the mountains at all?” Suzie asked him, hopping up on a log that was sticking out of the ground to act as a parking barrier. 

“Not really. My parents never took me on vacation.” 

“You’re what, eighteen?” said Daniel. He was sitting on the log next to the one Suzie was now balancing on. 

“Nineteen.” Elliott bent over and reached inside his shoe to fish out a pebble or something. “But why does it matter? Don’t you think it’s beautiful?”

“Daniel grew up rich in Colorado,” I said, rolling my eyes. “He doesn’t think anything is remarkably beautiful, in any sense of the word. For pretentious reasons only, of course.” 

“Oh,” said Elliot. 

Daniel scowled and cast his deep brown eyes toward me, furrowing his brow. “Why do you always have to bring up my family having money?” 

Suzie snickered. “Like you try to hide it.”

It was half past one o’clock when we finally pulled up to the campground. We had made a few more stops than planned because Mike wanted to get a few photographs with his film camera and Ashley wanted some for Instagram, so it worked out. The rest of us assumed that at the height of the day, given it was 70 degrees, we should spend as much time outside of the van as possible. So every ten minutes or so we’d pull off the road and take a look around at the pine trees and dirt and whatnot. That also gave us natural intervals at which to allow somebody else to take control of the aux. 

After Ashley’s pop tirade, Mike played MF DOOM, Kendrick Lamar, and Maxinquaye. One of us (Daniel, who enjoyed nearly everything) liked it and the rest of us all got headaches. 

Suzie, who arguably had the best music taste between us, played her new favorite band, Big Thief, and then some Lord Huron because apparently “you can’t go to the mountains without listening to Lord Huron.” Everybody seemed to be a little more complacent in her choices, and this time you couldn’t hear a collective sigh when we pulled over again after her turn. 

I played Bon Iver and Lorde, thinking they’d be the biggest crowd-pleasers. I always got extremely self-conscious when I got the aux-cord, despite how much I took pride in what I listened to.

Elliott mostly played a record by Declan McKenna that I only sort of knew, and then put on a pop song by Troye Sivan, whom until then I’d only thought of as a YouTuber. I glanced back at him twice during his turn, trying to give him the approval from a twenty-two year old that I would’ve sought as a freshman.

“Is it just my turn until we get there?” he asked me the second time I turned around.

I looked back toward Daniel, whose hands were at ten and two on the wheel. His phone was on the seat between me and Ashley. “Yeah,” I said quietly, “What do you want? There’s probably only time for one more song, anyway. I think we’re really close now.” 

“Can you play Life Itself by Glass Animals?” 

“Oh yes,” I replied, queuing the song. “Good one, album’s out soon right?”

Elliott nodded reservedly. He smiled for the first time, but it seemed like he was trying to hide it. I noticed it, nonetheless. 

For essentially the whole afternoon, Daniel and I fucked around trying to hang up all six of our hammocks, which ended up forming a circle behind our campsite, with Suzie’s nearest to the creek. She appreciated the constant babbling noise, saying it helped her fall asleep and stay asleep. She’d grown up in the middle of Seattle, so it made sense in a roundabout sort of way. 

By six o’clock, Elliott had been gone for about an hour. 

“Have either of you seen Elliott?” Suzie asked. She’d been playing the guitar with Mike while Ashley built a fire, which she was surprisingly good at but hadn’t lit yet. 

“Not since he came by asking which hammock was his,” Daniel said. “Strange kid. He’s probably foraging for mushrooms or something.” 

“What, so you think he went into the forest?”

“Suzie,” Daniel exclaimed, “almost everywhere is forest, so yes. Elliott went into the forest.”

I knew we were somewhere behind the Snowy Range Mountains, between Centennial and Saratoga, which wasn’t saying a lot, given there were a hundred miles of forest and barren land between the two towns. All I knew was that it was breathtakingly gorgeous; the air tasted so pure it was better than chewing two sticks of Extra Spearmint Gum. 

“Can you just please go look for him?” Suzie looked at me and Daniel, her eyes desperate. 

“I need to go collect firewood,” Daniel said, holding his hands up as if he were being accused of something.

“I’ll just go by myself,” I said, grabbing my jacket from one of the folding chairs. “It won’t be dark for another couple hours anyway. He can’t be far.”

I wandered into the woods, admiring the way the jagged trees pierced the light and the crunch of my boots on the flattened bed of sticks and leaves. With every step I kept wondering if anybody else in the history of the world had ever walked there. For a while I just walked in a straight line, keeping the campsite directly behind me until I could no longer hear Suzie’s strumming. I felt strange being alone in the middle of nowhere surrounded by silence. There was no sign of Elliott. I continued forward in the same direction. 

After another fifteen minutes I noticed the sky was getting brighter, the sun was dipping beneath the wispy layer of clouds into the clear space on the horizon. I came to a quiet stream in a clearing with some felled trees lying parallel to it. Leaned up against one of them was Elliott, with his knees tucked in and half his face lit by the sun. 

“Elliott,” I said calmly so I didn’t startle him. 

He turned and said “Oh, hi. Sorry.”

“We wondered where you had gone.” 

“I know,” he replied, “I sorta wanted to be alone.”

I sat down across from him on top of a tree trunk. “That’s ok. Is something wrong?”

Elliott glanced around and took a deep breath. “I’m fine, I guess. Nothing I’m not used to.”

“What do you mean?”

“What happened back in Centennial.” 

“You mean the guys in the truck?” He nodded. “Yeah, that was pretty fucked up.”

“I just, I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it and replaying it in my head.”

“That’s okay,” I said, looking past him into the woods. A hawk had landed high up in a spruce tree. Elliot blinked hard.

“It’s just so difficult to do. With all that.”

“What is?”

“Just saying it,” he whispered. “I can’t even say it.”

I knew what he was getting at then. I knew the feeling. It all made sense. I hadn’t even said it. Or thought about saying it. I hadn’t thought I needed to, but some part of me really wanted to. Perhaps now was the time. Something inside me had burst.

“You know, I can’t say it either,” I said slowly, the words strung out of my mouth and hung there like a fishing line wrapped around my lungs. I hoped he would understand.

Elliott’s eyes widened slightly. “You can’t?”

“Yeah. For a long time. I’ve never said it. I don’t know if I will.”

“I want to be able to,” he explained. “But after all that…I don’t know.”

“Me too.”

Elliott let his legs extend outward and put his hands down on the moss, squeezing it between his fingers. The sun was blazing and something in the air had eased. Everything was lighter. It felt good to be understood. And after a few minutes, we stood up and walked back through the forest, a little different but still the same. 

February 23, 2024 20:45

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Mary Bendickson
07:12 Feb 24, 2024



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