Authors: Eliza Freed
New York Boston
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To my brother, who’s given me a guided tour of the high road.
Thank you to Megha Parekh and Marissa Sangiacomo for ushering this series into the world. I would be lost without you.
Thank you to the Kern and Waddington Families for allowing me to tag along on the corn harvest and ask a million questions.
Thank you to the farmers of Salem County and the world. You amaze me.
ould you like to get out of here?” he asks as he leans into me. His skin is hot on my own and a chill travels through my entire body. I look around the room and make eye contact with my aunt Diane. She looks as if she could burst into tears at the sight of me. It’s a look I’ve seen repeated over and over again today. From the grave sites to the luncheon—pity pulling everyone’s face into a grotesque glower.
I look up and our eyes are almost at the same level. Jason stands in front of me, broad and solid, his eyes asking me a thousand questions. “I would love to,” I answer to each of them. “I have to tell Sean I’m leaving.” Not because it’s the right thing to do but because he’s all I have left, and I’m trying not to add to his misery.
I stay still, leaning back on my mother’s countertop, and never release Jason’s eyes. I’ve seen them my whole life and right now I want to crawl inside of them and never come out. He doesn’t smile; he doesn’t say any of the useless words the others have tried to soothe me with. He only sees right through me. I take a deep breath and turn to find my brother.
Sean’s talking to some firemen, still trying to digest the known details of the accident. I overhear them saying how awful that crossroad is. The land is flat and barren there and that somehow adds to the number of accidents. People drive right through the stop sign, not expecting it. Another fireman chimes in, the drugs and alcohol in the truck driver’s system didn’t help either. The company’s words of apology and concern over how damning it is to Speed Demon Delivery’s reputation churn in my stomach. The firemen pat Sean on the shoulder as they all decide my father being killed instantly was some kind of a blessing.
I have to get out of here.
“Shame about your mother, but at least she didn’t suffer long either,” one says, and I want to be angry, but instead I smile with all the emotion of a piece of plywood. As I approach, the firemen disperse, escaping the inevitable discomfort of figuring out what to say to me.
“Sean, I’m going for a ride with Jason Leer.” It occurs to me that leaving my parents’ funeral with a classmate, for lack of a better term, may not be appropriate. The look in Jason’s eyes told me everything I need to know today.
Sean looks straight at Jason without smiling. “Good. Get out of here before these people try to adopt us. They’re all so supportive it’s depressing.”
I nod and move toward the door, where Jason is waiting for me. My heart beats faster as I acknowledge the rescue operation. In just a few steps I will not be in this horrible luncheon anymore. I’ll be with Jason Leer somewhere. I don’t care where. A new purpose is coursing through me—to escape the living. I wave to Margo on my way out, sure she’ll pass word to the others that I’ve deserted without providing an explanation; I have none to give her.
Cars are lined up in makeshift rows, covering the entire bulging hill that is my parents’ front yard, and it’s quite a walk to Jason’s relic of a blue truck. We’re halfway there when he grabs my hand. It’s so small in his, so fragile. Jason opens the door for me and it lets out a loud, sharp groan, a battle cry for our retreat.
I take one last look back toward the house before attempting to climb in the truck. The dress I bought yesterday, to wear as I buried my mother and father, is a fitted black sheath and I can’t spread my legs far enough to step up. Without a word, he lifts me and I wrap my arms around his neck, hiding my face behind his ear. I shamelessly inhale the kiwi smell of shampoo mixed with cigarette smoke. The combination, or something else, makes me run my fingers through his hair. Jason places me on the seat and slowly moves away from me, never breaking his focus. His gaze steals the breath from my mouth and I’m thankful when he shuts my door and walks around the truck to the driver’s side.
There’s a cooler on the seat between us. He takes out a beer, opens it, and hands it to me.
Does no one care about driving sober?
Thanks to a delivery guy whacked out on alcohol and pain pills, I don’t care anymore either. He opens one for himself and starts the truck without speaking. It answers with a roar and begins to vibrate under me. The beer is ice cold and I hold it in both hands to try to combat the heat I feel from Jason touching me, but it has little effect.
The familiar fields are foreign as he drives a few miles down the road and turns right onto Stoners Lane. The entire world is different now. The lane ends where the trees open up to a circular gravel area about a half-acre wide. It backs up to a few acres of fields, and the entire clearing is surrounded by woods. Stoners Lane was always a place to go when there was no place else. Day or night you could come back here and not be seen from the road; the enclave’s only drawback is the single entry and exit. When the troopers would come to break up parties, it was impossible to get out unless you crawled through a soybean field.
He stops the truck and silences the engine; we’re alone. I take a long drink of my beer and look out the window at the clouds rolling past. They barrel in from the west and roll to the east and begin to darken on the edges; the rain will arrive before the day is over. My grandmother’s words pour into my head:
Happy is the dead the rain rains upon
Today is different from my grandmother’s funeral. We were so alike, two comrades laughing through life, but when she became ill, watching her die silenced the laughter. By the end I wanted her to go. I would sit by her bed in the middle of the night and pray she died. She shouldn’t have been alive without being able to laugh.
Today, though, today there is no sadness, and there is no prayer. Just two dead eyes watching the world with only a void to process the information. I don’t care. I don’t care about the service. I don’t care about the luncheon. I don’t care about the rain. I’ll never again care about another thing in this life.
God, let it be a short one.
Jason gets out of the truck and opens my door. He lifts me out and stands me up, my back to the truck. The air smells of the coming rain; it’s just short of a mist. It’s probably already raining over the river.
“I’m sorry this is happening to you, Annie.” My middle name from his lips feels right today. My mother “tried it out” for a year as my name and switched back to Charlotte. It always stuck with the Leers and now that my mother is gone, it conjures up all the times I teased her I’d be in therapy by age thirty because you can’t just change a kid’s name.
His consuming stare is burning holes into me. He leans toward me, placing each hand on the truck by my head for support. My breathing quickens and I can think of nothing else but the chill I feel standing this close to him. There’s something in me that knows I should speak, but instead I arch my back, my breasts endeavoring to touch him for themselves. He bends his arms and comes closer to me and I sigh and raise my lips to his. Jason kisses me hard, holding nothing back.
I retaliate and force my head farther in his direction, moving my body away from the truck. He slams me into the door and the pain in the back of my head is welcome. I wrap my fingers in his hair and pull him to me, but he resists and peers into my eyes and I could scream from the hunger I see in his. My open palms rest on the hot, stiff fabric of his shirt. They move to his buttons as I concentrate to undo them. With each one I struggle to breathe. My physical needs are suffocating my emotions, drowning them to the point I no longer covet my lost life.
The urge to rip it off his body is making me angry. I’m desperate to have him. The buttons are the last obstacle to touching his skin, and something in me knows he’s what I need more than anything else still walking this earth. I breathe deeply as I push his shirt over his shoulders, knowing I should regain some control but deciding there’s no such thing.
Freed, his chest heaves as he inhales and I feel the wetness between my legs. In a single, frenzied push, his shirt comes completely off and I stop to admire the strength of his forearms. Arms that wrestle steer, and rope cattle, and ride bulls. Impatient with my exploration, he pulls his undershirt over his head and my hands are on his chest before his arms come back down. I lean forward to take his nipple in my mouth and I lick it. The wind whips up around us, and the birds circle above, and I bite it hard. I am lost with no idea how to get home.
With a finger under my chin, he pulls my face up to his and kisses me gently, sweetly, again slowing me down, and I want to punch him for it. His hard-on rests between my legs and my hips thrust toward it. He pulls back and spins me around to put both my hands flat on the truck door. He lifts my hair and kisses the back of my neck and my knees buckle. Jason catches me and wraps his arm around my waist and spreads my legs with his ankle.
My head falls onto his shoulder and I look up to the horrible sky. The clouds race from one side of the clearing to the other as he breathes in my ear. His hand reaches between my legs and trails up the inside of my thigh, dragging higher and higher until he moves my underwear to the side and teases me with the tips of his fingers. I close my eyes, abandoning the sky.
“Annie,” he says as he slips his finger into me, and I moan with only the birds to hear me. Jason unzips my dress and pulls it down to my waist, leaving my arms hooked in the fabric and still at my sides. He spins me around hard and stares at my bare breasts. My skin confines me as my chest heaves. Jason stares at me for an eternity and I reach out to pull him down to me but my arms are trapped.
He smiles, a tiny devilish smile, and picks me up and carries me to the back of the truck. Jason tosses me down and my head lightly bounces off the pickup bed. The pain is exquisite and I arch my back, raising my breasts to the darkening sky. He forces my skirt up to my waist and rips off my panties.
With one arm he yanks me to the edge of the truck and I want him in me. I say his name with as much sound as I can create without air in my lungs, and he unzips his jeans. He spreads my legs wide and my skin burns where his hands are. I want to reach out and touch his chest, but I still can’t move my arms. Holding my thighs, he drives into me hard and my back scrapes on the bed of the truck. He pauses, still breathing heavy, and waits for me to say something, but I can’t speak. My tongue is only good for touching now. I part my lips and breathe to regain some control.
“Again,” I demand, and brace myself. He drives into me again, and again I feel alive. Jason starts a rhythm I can barely tolerate. I’m arching my back and matching his thrusts, my body trying to protect itself and lose itself at the same time. I can see the clouds blackening the clearing. His hands are on the tops of my thighs and he pulls me toward him, maximizing each movement. I want to touch his chest, his face, and try to move my arms, but he slows and puts my arms back at my sides.
I won’t move again.
He cannot slow down again or I’ll lose my grasp on the world and float up to the clouds. The dark, dismal clouds. He places one hand on my thigh and the other around my neck. He picks up his pace and I cannot hold on to myself. The clouds advance and I feel him one last time before I crumble around him, arching, moaning, and shivering as he continues his rhythm that is breaking me.
“Jason,” I whisper, and he surrenders, letting go of my neck and falling on top of me.
And I cry.
At first only a few errant tears, but it evolves into deep sobs I can’t control. He pulls my dress onto my shoulders and lifts me into his lap. Jason is silent as he holds me close, willing the pieces of me back together. I quiet the deluge and concentrate on his bare chest touching my face.
“Happy is the dead the rain rains upon,” he says as he rocks me back and forth. The rain comes hard from the start and he carries me to the passenger side, placing me on the seat.
It’s the most I’ve felt in three days.