She draws her breath in a deep, long inhale and lets it out slowly as she hears, “This will be…”
Suddenly, she’s on the football field, cheering with her squad. The scoreboard shows a rout and she knows her boyfriend will be exhausted and grouchy afterward, so she begins to ready herself for the disappointment a teenage girl feels when her boyfriend says he’d rather just go home and sleep than hang out after the game.
She hears the words “…testimony at…”
His name is Les, she thought.
His name is Les and he loves her. He is the leader of the football team, a 6’2” marvel of a boy who has his eyes on a football scholarship to go to college. Les! He opens his arms wide and she snuggles her 5’2” frame right there in his chest as she feels herself melt into him and the world around them falls away. He is class favorite, friend to all, and her mother’s worst nightmare; and she loves him with everything she has.
She’s sitting on a staircase in Philadelphia in a big bulky sweater, her teased out perm is limp from being out in the heavy, damp snow; and there are tears streaming down her face. Her friend, who is also crying, wraps an arm around her and tells her it’s going to be okay. They had fought bitterly when he came home unexpectedly from college. He had been in Kansas on a football scholarship when she called to tell him she needed to break up with him, that she might want to go out with other people.
Les, Oh, Les with his huge broken heart. He hurried home and began driving a rollercoaster ride of emotions through their lives. You see, she hadn’t just wanted to go out with other people, she had already committed that sin, the same sin he visited on her when they were in high school, when Les hung the moon and she didn’t care about his transgressions. It was high school, right? But with her transgression comes a larger consequence than just being caught. She is pregnant and he is angry and hurt. Les, who hung the moon. Les, who won’t let go.
Snap out of it, she warns herself.
She doesn’t dare enter the sea of people because they love Les, too. She is so young and can’t understand how his family is feeling. She is heartbroken and she can't see much beyond that. But she knows for sure that she is hated so she stands in the back. Eyes pierced her grief. Small towns are like that, and hers is no exception. Les is loved, and they are going to make sure she knows exactly what she has taken from them. Eighteen may be the age of legal adulthood, but it was a far cry from emotional maturity and there is no clearer evidence of this as this devastated girl standing in the back of that big room.
She is standing in the pizza place where she works. It is a busy Friday night, but it is starting to wind down. Work might be getting slow, but her past is about to put some hustle in her step. She looks out into the dining room and sees one of Les’s friends, long finished with the sandwich she had ordered almost two hours before. She is waiting and she is staring at her. When her shift is done, she heads for the side door. She knows the girl will follow. Gone are the days when the cheerleader likes the attention. She wishes more than anything that she could get in her car and drive right now to a big city where no one knows her name or what she had done; where the shame would be in the rearview mirror, and a fresh start offered hope.
Come on! Get in the game! This is no time to go tripping over old injuries, as she heard, “…go.”
She pulls her car back out onto the road. The truck in front of her pulls away and the one in back of her threatens to roll up on her closer. She throws the car into drive and punches the accelerator, pulling around the truck that just cut her off. They are just trying to scare her. Well, it worked. She was sure that they would wreck, so she pulled over. Then, once she was in the ditch staring at the barbed wire fence that lined both sides of the back road she had turned on believing that would be safer than the highway, she was certain she was about to get beaten up. She had never thrown a punch in her life. Well, she decides, I deserve everything they do to me, so let them do their worst. There’s nothing they can do that is worse than what I’ve already done to myself.
The recording was spitting out the test so quickly! “State your name for the record, please.”
“My name is…”
Shit, concentrate, already! You’re going to blow this!
Scott. Les loves him like a brother and I can tell the feeling is mutual. They are inseparable and, as cliché as it was, she had no love for Scott. All she knows is he takes her boyfriend to parties and is constantly making disgusting jokes. He had been with Les that night. He had tried to encourage him to go back to the college, but Les didn’t want to leave. That day, before he drove her to her team’s charter bus, he had admitted all sorts of crazy things, like how he and Scott did drugs together and hallucinated that night they called telling her to lock her house and get the gun, that they had seen burning crosses in the pasture that separated their homes. He also admitted that it was Scott he was with when he hit a deer going down the country road at a high rate of speed and tore up the car he had worked so hard to buy. It was also the name she had read in Les’s journal beside the words “will be the death of me.” Yet, Les loves Scott and Scott loves Les in a way that only those guys can.
You haven’t completely blown this. Now, concentrate.
“Is it true that you were there on the night in question…” the recorded test continued.
She is standing in speech class at the college in December admitting to the instructor that she hadn’t prepared a speech for class because she is just heartbroken. Her friend scoffs and tells her not to use Les’s death as an excuse. Her friend. Her…friend? She was the one that was telling Les, while he was so far away from home, that his girlfriend had been going out to parties more and more and spending less and less time going to class or in the dorm. What did she know of it? They barely spoke anymore. When Les would call the commons room in the dorm, it was her friend who would run down and talk to him while she had been out drinking and learning all the things she missed out on in high school now that her uber strict mother wasn’t around to put a stop to it. It was “her friend’s” informative habit that had caused Les such pain, as he imagined what all she was doing while he was hundreds of miles away playing football. Her plan had been to follow him to school wherever he had gotten a scholarship and earn a cheer or drill team scholarship so they could stay together. He had different plans. He wanted to go alone and enjoy the single life a little, though that’s not what he told her. He told her he should on ahead and she could come where he was the next year, so he could concentrate on the rigorous football program. He loved her, but he was also a young man in his prime.
“I was not there on the night in question…” droned the test.
I wasn’t there. I was thousands of miles away marching in a Thanksgiving Day Parade. He had gotten an earful from Michelle and it drove him crazy. He skipped football practice in the bye week and even a game to come home and see for himself what I had been up to. I had called and told him we should break up for a while, but he wasn’t ready to accept that. It seemed he wasn’t enjoying the college life as he thought he might and had put all his energy into missing her. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, and the depression more intense.
They fought. He’d tell everyone in town about what she had done to him. They made up. He drove her around town showing her homes that he intended to rent, talking about jobs he could possibly get that would support a family. He didn’t care if the baby wasn’t his. He would be there for her. She would have never dreamed it, but could it be she hung the moon too? She couldn’t let him do that. “Throw away your chance at college?” she asked. They fought again and he would tell everyone she had gotten pregnant. But that last night, when he pulled through the drive-thru where she worked and asked if she could come over and talk after work, her heart leapt with joy. She still loved him. He still hung the moon. That night, he seemed to be making a confession, of sorts. It was like he was purging all the past to make room for a new future together. They talked until he put her on the bus to catch the plane to Philadelphia.
“Can you describe the scene when…” the test continued without her.
It is said that men wept at the scene where the truck tried to beat the train across the tracks. The last picture taken of Scott and Les was on Thanksgiving night. They had gone out to have a little fun. They had gone to pick up the hometown Homecoming queen. She was sweet, loveable girl. She isn’t clear who was driving or exactly what happened. It didn’t matter, after all. Knowing those details wouldn’t bring any of them back.
Even years later, she’d go sit at the train tracks where three young lives with everything in front of them were snatched up by God quickly, violently, definitively. She would sit on the ground just beyond the crossing, rocking, apologizing to all three of them for her role in their deaths. If she had just waited until he came home for Christmas… if she had just not gone out so much… if she had just had a little integrity… if she had just been able to talk with Les more… If she had not been so heartbroken that he didn’t want her to go with him to school… if she had just been stronger when her crush had laid her down on the soft green grass in the park, as he soothed the pain she felt from Les’s absence. She would eventually quit visiting the tracks, but her heart stayed there, and she never stopped rocking and apologizing.
Exactly. You want to leave this place, don’t you, for good? Then you have to concentrate! She had successfully completed the previous legs to the test. But testimony was always the hardest for her to master, and if she couldn’t get her act together, she was going to let this moment slip through her fingers. She had worked so hard through three years of school. She waited tables and graded papers and survived 18-hour days to finish school. She had survived three broken cars and a broken relationship. She could see the finish line, but she had to quit getting distracted. Les is gone. He has been for years. Your guilt remains, it has for years. But your future is still there for you to reach out and grab. It won’t make Les come back, but it will mean a fresh start somewhere. It means hope that you might make something of your miserable life!
You’ll have to mull over your broken heart some other time, Sis. Let the past be in the past and get your head in this. She kept pep talking herself until the man’s voice on the recording stopped. I really botched that one up good, she thought, shaking her head at herself and trying to steady her shaky hands. I’m sure I made too many mistakes for that to be a pass.
Then, suddenly, she heard, “That completes the warmup dictation. Now for the Actual Test at 225 words per minute. Ready?”