We are gripping the chain-link fence together, feeling it vibrate as it holds the runways in and keeps us out. Planes scuff the pavement, puff rubber clouds as they touch down, slit lines of silver through the humidity with their wingtips as they pull up and away.
Marco has grown old since I’ve seen him. He is chiseled chin and arms, with just the slightest excess of weight left at the hips. His skin is the same color it’s always been, though darker in this dusk; he is the color of figs. His facial hair grows in uneven spurts. The black hair atop his head is still clean and waxy, but he’s cut it shorter, so that it only hints at its curliness. He’s much taller than I thought he’d be.
Something’s not right about Marco. The exterior change is jarring, yes, but that’s not it. Worlds inside my friend are shifting. Whatever he will be in a few years’ time is making itself known; it’s weighing down the air around us, peeling back the failsafe of being young. Our breath is heavy, too audible as it leaves our lungs and folds into the roar of jet engines. I can’t tell if that’s dangerous.
Marco is standing next to me, drawing away behind his glass orb eyes, retreating from here and now. The lamps of the runway burn dim and steady; the navigation lights of the planes come and go in windswept motion.
‘Where are you going, Marco?’
‘Nowhere. Can’t you see? I’m right here.’
‘Sure, but where are you going? Tomorrow, on your flight.’
* * *
We grew up on the Dakota plains, our childhoods sketched onto a long flatness made appealing only when the sun hit at perfect angles. Sometimes we went running toward the sun as it fell behind swaths of golden wheat, seeing if we could touch it before it disappeared. The rest of the time we had to make our own fun.
Marco and I developed a ritual; when we hung out at my house, we split vanilla wafers into pieces and reassembled them. The goal was to rebuild a wafer that looked like it contained all of its original pieces, but really it was part mine and part Marco’s. We would get crumbs all over the counter until my father arrived home from work at the foundry, still sweltering head to toe, still ringing ears from the steel and aluminum beat of fashioning farm implements. He’d sweep the crumbs and the puzzle-pieced wafers into his hand and eat them in a wordless gulp before going to take a shower.
‘What does your dad do again?’ Marco asked one night as we hung out at the kitchen island. Wind, feeding into a western storm that night, was tossing around the hydrangeas outside the kitchen window so that they scratched and knocked against it, asking to be let in. Dad had come home especially late. His shower water plumbed in a gargled whisper through the walls. I envisioned it tumbling through the sewers, into aqueducts and rivers, and out to some ocean three thousand miles away from our dry Dakotas, joining the sea with a dull splash. ‘Liv? Hellooo?’
‘Sorry. My dad makes tractor parts.’
Marco pulled a fresh wafer from the box and ate it. ‘Designs them? Like draws them out?’
‘No, like actually makes the parts. Hammers away, boom boom boom. Don’t eat all the wafers.’
‘Oh,’ Marco said through a wet mouthful of cookie, cheeks puffed with soft vanilla. He pulled two wafers from the box and slid one to me. We pressed our fists into them and they cracked, crumbling at their fault lines, the separation of cookie no louder than the brush of hydrangeas against the glass.
‘What does your dad do, Marco?’
‘Mine?’ Marco pushed a piece of wafer around in figure-eights. ‘He programs apps.’
‘Yeah, but not that fancy. He does apps for banks and stuff.’
‘Oh. That’s cool.’
‘It’s not bad,’ Marco said, shrugging. ‘He just sits in his den and programs all day. Type type type.’
I switched a piece of cookie shaped like Iowa with a piece of Marco’s shaped like nothing in particular—not to my eyes, anyway. The plains were one of only a few things we knew for certain. Marco stared down at his new puzzle piece, imagining a pair of rivers washing its rough, vanilla sides into silt hills on the counter.
‘Type type type—it’s kind of like boom boom boom,’ I said to Marco.
‘Kind of.’ He puzzled over this, slumped quietly for a minute. ‘Yeah, I guess it’s kind of the same.’ Marco took Iowa in his hands and ate it with a sort of violence, chomping with subdued aggression. It might have been funny if not for a look in his eyes. I pretended not to see it.
‘Hey! That’ll mess us all up!’ I threw a piece of wafer at him and cast a weak smile; it snagged itself in the mess of black curls rolling half-moons on his head. His hair used to be so long. He shook his curls side to side and the wafer fell to the ground. My dog Chip appeared like magic to clean it up, poof.
* * *
A plane sits for a while—too long, until it turns around and returns to the gate. We watch in silence as it taxies back.
‘I wonder what’s wrong,’ I say. I find myself remembering the wafer trades, the buzzing light above the kitchen island and those hydrangeas bothering the window. A show of lightning takes to dancing in the west; our slice of the world remains, for now, starlit and thunderless.
‘You’ve been different since your dad passed, Marco.’ I can’t restrain myself anymore, so I go claws out, trying to retrieve my best pal or at least the space he occupies.
Marco lets go of the fence and starts toeing the dirt, shaking his head. ‘That’s not true, Liv.’
‘You don’t check in on me anymore.’
A pilot throws a throttle open several runways ahead. The plane disintegrates into the night like magic, poof. The chain link digs into my fingers and writes cherry red lines in the crooks beneath my knuckles. ‘He died, Marco, and then you got so quiet.’
‘I wasn’t close to my dad. You know that.’ He gets louder. ‘You’re right, we don’t keep up the way we use to. You and me. But it’s not related to my dad.’
I wipe my eyes with the back of my sleeve, which is crusty from snot drying in cold, fenced-in air. It’s deep fall—a glazed leaves on the ground kind of fall, come early. ‘Marco, you have to talk about it.’
‘I’m serious, Liv. My dad has nothing to do with this narrative you’ve got going.’
‘He has to. You’re not the same.’
‘Neither are you.’
‘Don’t get mad at me, Marco.’ Nothing like digging in. Fight for it.
‘I’m not mad, but you won’t shut up about all this…stuff. All this shit in your head.’
Ten steps, fifteen steps: I pace up and down the fence, dragging sore fingers along its wiry weave in a light ching ching ching. I am losing this fight. No planes for the last few minutes. Night drawing on, lightning getting closer, thunder growing audible—a light drumbeat off the earth.
‘Liv,’ he says with a grunt. ‘Liv, sorry. Come back here.’
Marco looks at me, hands in his pockets. The lightning moves closer and dances in the shadows of his eyes. The strings dangling from the hood of my sweatshirt begin to flitter: wind, leftover from the hydrangeas so many years ago. Still there, still working its way around the world and here it’s found us again.
I reach into my pocket and pull out a small pack of Nilla Wafers. It is warm and crumpled from nestling beside my leg, and when I open it I look in at a snow of crushed cookies. Marco comes over, looks in, and sees the same mess. There are no chunks worth eating. For a moment we leave our argument in the air and, like our younger selves, laugh; it’s such a sad snack. I tip the pack and let the wafers fall to the pavement, a few of the lightest crumbs getting caught in the wind and veering off, heading for a place in the sky beside the planes.
‘Do you mean it,’ I ask him, ‘when you say you’re fine?’
‘All he ever did was type. It’s not like I lost my best friend. You remember—type type type.’
‘Yeah, I remember.’ I stare ahead at the blinking blues and yellows lining the runways and the light spinning above the control tower which, silhouetted this way against the Dakotan dark, looks more like a lighthouse. ‘My dad still works the foundry, but he’s hurting.’
‘I know he is,’ says Marco. ‘I saw him a couple years ago when I visited, remember?’ He pauses. ‘I suppose that’s the last time I saw you.’
I wring my hands together in the big pocket of my sweatshirt, trying to warm them, crumpling the empty sleeve of Nilla Wafers into a tight, useless ball. We are in the thick of it. I place my face against the fence; it’s shaking with approaching thunder, electrified by the circumstances. My nose fits snugly between the wires; the metal hexagons press their geometry into the skin on my face. Marco mirrors me a few feet away and lets out a deep, heavy breath as we stare at the tarmac.
‘So you’re really just—'
‘Yes, Liv. For god’s sake.’ A yawing plane lands roughly, bouncing against the backdrop of storms billowing like ink into the night, blotting out the stars.
‘That’s right,’ he goes on, and then says something strange. ‘It’s not always tragic. Change doesn’t always have a backstory.’ He doesn’t look at me, though, while he says all this. If anything he mumbles, speaking to himself or the knot that’s cinching inside of him.
‘You’re going away, Marco. Why?’
A violent dance of lightning in his eyes, trailed by a trawl of thunder. ‘Because I feel like it,’ he says. ‘That’s all it is. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ I say, timing it so the roar of a departing plane deafens my voice. ‘Okay.’ I kneel to the ground and start picking up the wafers, vanilla speck by vanilla speck, as the rain and thunder come. Come to turn it all to mush.