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We had one rule.
We had one rule, and I broke it.
I didn’t know I broke it. Honestly, I didn’t. It just happened. It was spontaneous. It was sudden. It was like I was driving a car, turning a corner, and bam – there you were. Right there, in my blind spot, waiting for me. I slammed the brakes, I cursed, I tried to swerve around you. But nothing worked. I crashed into you, a head-on collision.
I couldn’t avoid you.
I couldn’t avoid how desperate I was to be near you, to feel your leg against mine as we sat under our favorite oak tree, to stare at that spot at the back of your neck where your curly black hair ended in a V.
I couldn’t avoid you.
I can’t avoid you.
Even when you’re gone.
You came up with the rule while we were sitting under the big oak tree in my backyard. We were sharing a bag of Sour Patch Watermelons.
“If we’re going to be friends,” you had said to me, all those years ago, “I’ve got one condition.”
Life was good, then. You were thirteen, and I was twelve. You were still my next-door neighbor, my best friend. You still shrieked like a banshee whenever a wasp came anywhere near you. We were still obsessed with The Island, a band from New York City. We were convinced that The Island would release a new album sometime soon, even though they had only released two singles in the course of three years.
“Okay, what is it?” I said.
“This is going to sound weird,” you told me. “Crazy. Random.”
“Quit describing yourself,” I said.
“No, Lena. Seriously.”
I stopped chewing my piece of candy and turned to face you. You were biting your bottom lip. Your eyes were emerald green in the sunlight.
“Okay, seriously. What?”
You hesitated for a moment, like you were starting to regret asking. “Promise me...promise me not to fall in love with me.”
I scoffed and turned back to my bag of candy. “I told you not to buy those cigarettes from Louis. Now you’ve gone and gotten high.”
You pulled the bag away from me, frowning. “I mean it, Lena. You’ve got to promise.” You put your hand on my shoulder, and everything suddenly became sharper, more focused, like I was looking through a magnifying glass. Your fingertips were warm. Your eyes matched the color of the grass. My stomach did somersaults like a professional gymnast.
“What does it matter?” I picked a large green leaf off the ground and started ripping it up.
“It just matters to me." Your hand slid off my shoulder. I stared at the spot where it had been, my heart racing. “Swear on something important to you.”
“I swear on Sour Patch Watermelon candy,” I replied.
You rolled your eyes, but I could tell you were trying to suppress a laugh. “Seriously.”
“Fine.” I twirled the stem of the leaf between my fingers. “I swear on The Island’s next album, whenever it comes out.”
That seemed to satisfy you. You relaxed against the tree. Your curly black hair swept over your eyes. I kept ripping apart leaves.
I miss you.
On the day of the Incident, I got the first phone call at two in the morning.
I ignored it. I’d had a huge track meet that evening, and I’d been so exhausted that I went straight to bed as soon as I got home. I pulled a pillow over my face and tried to block out the sound.
Then my house phone rang.
I should have known to answer it. You never called my house phone unless it was important. That was an ancient law of ours. The last time you’d called my house phone was freshman year, when you’d accidentally deleted the latest episode of Doctor Who off the DVR.
I answered the phone after about three calls. To this day, I don’t know if I wish I hadn't answered it, or if I wish I had answered it sooner.
“It’s two in the goddamn morning,” I said. “What do you want?”
“Is this Lena Tate?” asked a voice. A voice that was not yours.
Panic started to rise in my chest.
“Yes. Yes, it is,” I said.
“My name is Catherine White. I’m a nurse at Middlebury Hospital. I have your friend here. Kyle Pope.”
I felt like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over my head. “What?”
“Miss Tate, Kyle’s parents would like you here with them ….”
I was already slamming drawers, throwing clothes on my body, breathing heavily like a fish out of water. “Christ,” I said. “God.”
“Are you okay to drive, Miss Tate?”
“What? Yes. Fine. I’m fine. God. Is … is Kyle okay?”
Catherine hesitated. I sat down on the floor, hard, clutching the phone so tightly that my knuckles turned white.
“I think you should get here before we discuss that, Miss Tate.”
When I joined the track team sophomore year, a year before the Incident, you bought cigarettes from Louis for the first time.
“How can you smoke those?” I demanded, grimacing and fanning at the smoke. It was a Friday evening, after practice. We were walking to my house to sit under the oak tree. “Jeez, put it away.”
You coughed and spat on the pavement. Your spit was dark, like tar. “This year,” you said, taking another drag, “The Island will come out with a new album.”
“You’re high, aren’t you?”
You tapped the cigarette, making ash flutter to the ground. “Maybe.” Your green eyes were clouded, and your hair was sticking up in different places like you’d been struck by lightning.
“We ought to celebrate when their album comes out,” you continued.
As we walked, I couldn’t help staring at your hand, the one not holding the cigarette. Your hands were massive compared to mine. Your fingers were long and slender, your nails short. Each time you moved your hand, I watched the bones move, dancing under the surface of your skin. Your hand swung back and forth like a pendulum, your thumb sometimes brushing against your thigh.
I was suddenly overcome with the desire to touch it.
I needed your hand.
I needed it like plants needed sunlight, like lungs needed air.
“Can I …”
I stopped myself.
You turned toward me. Your hand stopped swinging. “What?” you asked.
I shook my head. I felt like I was suffocating. My heart felt like it would either explode, or stop beating altogether. “I...Never mind.”
You looked at me for a moment, then kept walking. I stared after you, watching as your hand began to swing again.
“Why can’t I fall in love with you?” I asked one day while we were sitting under the oak tree. It was a week before the Incident.
Your eyes were closed, an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of your mouth. “Because you promised,” you said.
“No, I mean why did you make me promise? Why is it a rule of ours?”
You cracked an eye open to peer at me. “Did you fall in love with me?”
“No,” I found myself saying.
You tucked your hands behind your head, where I couldn't see them. I tried not to panic. Studying your hands had become a habit of mine. Without your hands in sight, I felt like a drug addict who had been denied a quick fix.
“Because I don’t want to ruin our friendship,” you said.
I snorted. “Bull.”
You laughed. “Okay.” You rested your palms against your thighs. I sat on my hands so I wouldn’t reach out to touch your fingers. “I don’t want to love anyone.”
“Love is short-lived, Lena,” you said, like it was as obvious as two plus two. “Love is temporary. There’s a certain kind of magic in falling in love, but after a while, it wears off. After the first kiss, kissing isn’t as dreamlike. After the first time holding hands, there’s no more electricity between your fingertips.”
“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” I quoted.
You snorted. “Yeah, right.” You lit your cigarette with practiced ease. “Think of love as a supernova. When supernovas burst, they outshine everything in the galaxy. They emit more energy than the sun can ever hope to in its lifetime. It’s stellar and explosive and bright and beautiful. But then it’s gone. It fades. Love is the same way. It’s beautiful for a while, but when it fades, it’s devastating.”
I couldn’t meet your eyes. Every word you said was a dagger in me. “So you’ll spend your entire life alone?” I whispered. “Most people would find that painful.”
You buried your cigarette in the dirt. A wisp of smoke rose from the tip. “Burning bright only to be snuffed out, that’s painful, Lena. How can you live in the dark when you’ve already seen how wondrous the light can be?”
I didn’t say anything. I rested my chin on my knees and closed my eyes.
They told me you got into a car accident.
They said you were driving home drunk, your blood alcohol level way beyond legal intoxication. They said you were so drunk that you let your car drift to the opposite side of the highway, and a truck crashed into you. You were killed on impact.
Your parents looked like ghosts. They couldn’t speak in complete sentences. They shoved a CD at me after the doctors explained what had happened. Your father pointed at it and said, “Was in his back seat.”
I looked at the CD in my hands. It was The Island’s new album, the one we’d been waiting for since we were kids. It had come out that day. We had planned to buy it together, except I had that stupid track meet. I had told you to go without me. I turned it over in my hands, holding it like it was made of glass. The cover was broken, a crack spreading out from the corner like a spiderweb, but the CD was still intact.
My vision blurred. It wasn’t fair. Why did you have to go out to buy The Island's new album? Why did you think it was a good idea to drive while you were drunk and high? Why didn't I skip the track meet to go with you, to stop you from getting in the car, to stop you from getting killed? Why did the CD survive the accident, and not you?
I drove home in a daze. My parents asked me what was wrong, but I ignored them and went upstairs to my room. I placed the CD on top of my desk, next to my stereo. Then, thinking better of it, I chucked the CD at the wall with all my might. The case shattered, the disc exploding against the wall like a water balloon.
I didn’t want to listen to the album. Not without you.
At your wake, I held your hand. Your bones weren’t dancing under your skin anymore. Your fingers were as cold as ice. I tried to warm them up with my hand, but my fingers were cold, too.
I love you.
I love every single last bit of you.
When you died, my body felt like it was burning. My eyes burned to see you, to study your hands. My ears burned to hear your voice, to hear your laugh, to hear your whoop of celebration as we listened to The Island’s new album. My lips burned for kisses that I never got, never fought for, never would receive. My throat burned with words I didn’t get to say, words I should have said. My hand burned for yours, my fingertips thrumming with electricity that I would never get to share with you.
I love you, I love you, I love you.
You said love would fade. You said that since supernovas fade, so would love.
You were wrong.
I love you even now, even though our stellar explosion is over, even though you made me promise not to fall in love with you. I broke my promise. I broke our rule. My only regret is that I didn’t break it sooner.
You never faded.
I can still feel your leg against mine. I can still smell your scent – cherry lollipops, with a hint of vanilla and a dash of tobacco. I can still picture the way the bones in your hand thrashed under your skin. I miss you. I love you. I need you.
You never faded.
You’re a supernova that won’t stop exploding, so bright that I can still feel your fingertips searing the skin of my arm.
You never faded.
And to me, you never will.
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