"I just don't see why you had to bring her." Eleanor and Gervassi stood on the porch together, standing several feet apart and whispering. It was some of the most aggressive whispering anyone ever heard, and yet that was just the dynamic the two seemed to have. Gervassi wished that Afra hadn't gone inside, but he knew too that this was a battle he had to fight alone. His ex girlfriend, and maybe now ex friend in general, glared at him from across the porch. "She's wasn't part of our group growing up. She doesn't belong with us."
"I don't know why we're still talking about this, Eleanor." Gervassi said. "Sure, she didn't grow up with us, but she's my girlfriend now. I love her just as much as I love my friends. It makes sense I'd want her to spend time with us all together."
"Well. I don't think it was very kind of you to invite her when you knew I would be here."
Gervassi sighed. This trip to Colorado might have been a bust after all. Then again, he wasn't sure why Eleanor was having a fit about him bringing Afra when he knew Triscin, El's boyfriend, was in the cabin making a pot of hot chocolate. He didn't want to be out on the porch talking to his ex girlfriend about her hurt feelings. She was a bully, plain and simple, and even Triscin had called her out on it later that night. "Then maybe you should head home, because Afra's not leaving."
Eleanor stepped back as though she had been slapped with a dead fish, cold and rotting scales against her smooth skin. "What?" She found Gervassi's tea gray eyes with her own sharp green ones. "You want me to leave?"
"Maybe you should, if all you're going to do is call Afra names and wait for Triscin to tell you how to act around people. You know," Gervassi continued, "You called Afra a stray, but maybe you're jealous because you know you've always been too catty for my liking."
Eleanor took her phone out of her pocket. She began to scroll furiously through her message app until she found what she was looking for. "Look at this." She shoved the phone at Gervassi. "Look."
He took the phone and wasn't sure what to say when he realized what he was seeing. Eleanor had saved all their pictures. Gervassi and Eleanor standing in front of their middle school building, grinning like Cheshire cheesesteak cats. Gervassi and Eleanor sitting together at a football game, school colors sparkling across their cheeks in glitter sprinkles. Gervassi and Eleanor at their eighth grade dance. And so on and so on and so on until Gervassi put the phone down and said, "What?"
"I really liked you, Vassi." Eleanor's eyes softened. Her lips parted, just a slice of white teeth against a pale face shining in the moonlight. She stepped closer to Gervassi and placed a hand on his arm. "I still do. And you know what? Triscin means nothing to me. I was hoping this trip would bring us back, closer than ever, only to find you brought some chick you met on a hiking trip with you? Plus, she's not even a halfway sane chick. She's kind of cracked, if you know what I mean."
Gervassi yanked out of her grip and walked inside the cabin. He knew how Eleanor wanted the story to end. She wanted to make him feel like he owed her something because she had known him first, make him see her in a new light out there on that porch and make a mistake. Kiss her. Something. Anything, as long as Afra saw. It was all a war to Eleanor. She didn't want Gervassi, not really, but she didn't want Afra to be happy. She wanted to tear them apart like string cheese and leave the limp strands of what could have been a great love story swinging wild in the brisk Colorado air.
Gervassi knew that, though. That was why he walked inside and sat down at the card table beside Afra.
"Deal me in?"
Afra looked at him sideways. "Good talk out there?"
"No, it was bad. But it's okay. She'll be inside soon, paint her nails, make an angry YouTube video about Colorado, and calm down."
"Hmm." Afra handed Gervassi a stack of cards. Everyone else at the table was watching them in silence. Ander sneezed into the sleeves of his sweater.
"Did you just apologize to your sweater?" Gervassi asked.
Ander shook his head, somber as the day was blue. "No."
"Oh, okay." Man, why did everything that came out of Gervassi's mouth just make things more awkward? He didn't want to play cards. He wanted to drink a huge cup of hot chocolate and sit on the couch with Afra while they watched a stupid camp movie or sang kumbaya. "You guys want to watch a movie?"
“Dark rooms and popcorn? Absolutely.” Afra was already typing away on her phone. She thought Gervassi had meant a movie theater, not just renting something and watching it at the cabin, but suddenly there was a thunderous crash outside; hissing tires on the gravel and then nothing at all.
“Eleanor." Gervassi said, and with that, their card game and movie plans were over.
Triscin was the first to get to the car, and he started shouting for his girlfriend, because no matter how nasty she was to him, he was still a decent boy and cared for her as she never could. “Els! Eleanor!” The hood of the car was smashed in like a broken soda can, the glass shattered everywhere acting as exploded bubbles. “Eleanor!” Ander got outside and called 911 while Triscin began to dig through the rubble of the destroyed car. Afra dug her nails into Gervassi’s arm and said sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry until no one could hear her over the sirens and the shouting met by nothing. Triscin had gotten to Eleanor, but he couldn’t risk moving her because he knew the possibility of furthering injury would only increase if he did.
Muz took Afra gently from Gervassi and pulled her to the side; they sat on the porch together and watched the medics take Eleanor into the ambulance. Everything had happened too fast. It still was happening too fast. This was not supposed to end in shattered glass and wailing sirens. It was meant to be a time to relax, reconnect, reconvene with each other and with nature. Afra wasn’t feeling anything but remorse for coming.
“Afra, Muz, can you meet us at the hospital?” Ander was talking in soft, aquamarine pastel tones. He was keeping things under control because Triscin was already on his way to the hospital with Eleanor and Gervassi was pacing the yard. The other kids had gone to Walmart for a quick marshmallow stop, but he had already texted them. They’d probably be at the hospital before the ambulance was.
“Of course.” Muz nodded. “Are you driving yourself?”
Gervassi noticed a broken mug of hot chocolate spilled on the ground by the wrecked car. Triscin must have been about to bring Eleanor a cup of it when they all heard the crash. He ran a shaking hand through his hair and blinked. “Sorry, what did you say? I was thinking of something else.”
“Yeah.” Muz stood up, holding Afra’s hand in hers, and walked over to where Gervassi was staring blankly at all the sudden ruin around him. “You’re in no shape to drive, get in my car and I’ll drive us all over there, no problem.” She grabbed Gervassi’s arm and hauled both her friends to the car parked nearby. Afra climbed in the backseat.
“You can sit up there. I know you have longer legs.”
Gervassi laughed. “No way. I’m sitting with you.” He crawled around Muz’s piles of CD cases and scattered fast food bags and settled by Afra, who was quiet. It was a strange sight to see the typical exuberance, if sometimes blunt indifference, of Afra replaced by a nervous, jacket thread tugging girl. Gervassi wrapped his arms around her and she leaned into him, both their seatbelts cutting sharp lines into their bodies. Not that they noticed that. It was hard to notice a kitchen fire when the whole town was set ablaze.
Muz popped in one of her favorite CD’s (Remixes by *R*eed & Z) and rapped along under her breath while trying to get her phone to pull up maps. Afra’s fingernails etched themselves in Gervassi’s wrists, but he couldn’t feel it. She looked up at him because she was wondering whether or not he would cry. Did she want him to cry? Yes, for a hurt friend and for not knowing if she would be okay. No, for an ex girlfriend and so far horrible personality, especially towards Afra herself. Gervassi’s eyes were dry, but his jaw was set and his hand kept dragging through his hair. Afra reached up and caught his other wrist and put it down. “Do you want to look like you escaped the set of Children of The Corn, Vassi?” She smoothed his hair down with light fingers in spite of all the heavy feelings trapped and scratching at her ribcage. “There. Now be still. It’ll be okay.”
“The kids from that movie actually had perfect hair. Very clean cut. Maybe you met more like, actually I don’t know what you meant. I don’t know anything.” He kissed Afra’s hands. “But thank you for being here with me.”
“Ha, where else am I going to go?” Afra poked at Gervassi’s teeth, the same gapped teeth that had compelled her to talk to him in the first place. “I have to visit my heart every once in a while cause, you know, that’s a vital organ.”
Gervassi smiled, about to say something else, when his phone started buzzing with an incoming call. By the ringtone, he knew it was from Eleanor’s phone. The song was, jokingly, You Don’t Love Me Anymore by Weird Al. He accepted the call and swallowed hard, prepared for whatever.
"Hello?" His voice shook.
It was Triscin on the other end. "She's in surgery now. They won't tell us what's going on but we're in the waiting room. How far out are you guys?"
"Muz, how far away are we?"
Muz turned off her music. "Bout five minutes. Want me to go faster?"
"No!" Afra yelled. "I mean, no. We don't need anymore accidents."
"We're five minutes out. I'll call you when we get there but if you get any updates let me know. And I'm sorry, Triscin. I am."
"Not your fault, man. I'm not going to channel negative thought processes towards you because that takes my focus and energy off the real matters at hand. Could I blame you? Sure. But it wouldn't help and it's not true. Just, get here soon." Triscin hung up and Gervassi put the phone down on an empty bag of hot tamales. Not the candy. Actual hot tamales that Muz had bought from a food truck in Kansas.
"She's in surgery, I guess."
"For what?" Afra asked.
"I don't know. They don't know anything. They're out in the waiting room. You think it's bad, though, don't you?"
Afra didn't say anything. Gervassi stared out the window of the car, holding Afra's hand but not interested in meeting her eyes. "Did you see her?" They passed by a closed donut shop and Gervassi wondered if Eleanor would eat donuts if he brought them to her. Maybe. She would eat anything he gave her, most likely, as much as he hated to admit it. "When they put her in the ambulance, did you see her?" He tore his eyes away from the street and stared at Afra. "Afra, did you see Eleanor?"
He let go of her hand and rubbed his tense jaw. "Oh."
Muz had seen her too; she had seen her long hair stained with dotty blood around the edges, had seen her clothes torn by the impact of glass shards against thin fabric. She too, had seen the way Eleanor's slight frame hung off kilter, like someone had taken her by the shoulders and shaken her until she popped like a jack in the box. It was bad, but if Gervassi hadn't seen her, then he needed to know this before they walked into the hospital.
"She hit that tree very hard, you know."
"I know." Gervassi had seen the car.
Muz continued, her voice gentle but informative. "She may not be okay, Gervassi."
"Muz, don't say that." Afra didn't mean to snap at her best friend, but she wasn't helping Vassi any. "She'll be fine."
"No, not everyone is fine all the time." Muz pulled into the parking lot of the Generic Saint Name Hospital and turned off the car. She turned around in her seat. "You of all people should know that, so I don't know why you're being all rosy glasses all of a sudden. Bad things happen."
Afra opened the car door and she and Gervassi climbed back over the trashy contents of the backseat. "Let's just go." She pulled the jacket around her arms tighter. The Colorado air was fading into morning, the sun bloomed early over the mountains and the sky bled with the oranges and pinks of its slow rise.
Gervassi nodded. He curled his left hand into a fist, stuck it in his pocket, and took Afra's hand with his right one. This way he was balancing between concern and frustration for Eleanor, and holding on to Afra for support and, despite Muz's steadfast realism, her unending reassurance that the last few days they had together would not be spent with boxes he wanted nothing to do with. Cardboard, yes.
Coffins, please, please, no.