Sunburn

By Laura Marshall

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We had known each other since middle school but that is not what it was. It was something else. Some kind of fabric, we were woven.

 
When you see dead bodies on TV it’s always at night, always awash in that blue filter they put on the camera when they film during the day. Midnight blue, a blue that is more pure and crisp than the gray actuality of sundown darkness. When I saw J’s body in the street in the bright judgement of daylight I thought: no filter. This is what it looks like. You could still see last week’s sun peeling from the bridge of his nose, light brown freckles dappling his pale cheeks like light through leaves. I didn’t believe that he was dead, though. Just pretending. I was thinking: the apple and the granola bar. Nothing else to eat until tomorrow.

When his mother showed up to the hospital—and I knew it was his mother because she had that same face shape as J, where you couldn’t tell if her chin was too small or her upper teeth were too big—reeking of cigarettes with her fried orange hair clinging to the sweat on her face, I thought she would start howling in cinematic grief. I thought the floor would be rained with flakes of her clumping mascara. I thought I might put a hand on her reddened, freckled shoulder and that she would collapse into me, falling to her knees, and I would have to summon some kind of wisdom that would anchor her back to reality. J never said she was religious, but never said that she wasn’t religious, so my stomach muscles knotted themselves in an instinctual effort to wring out some kind of God’s-plan platitude.

Instead she went in and out of the ICU with purpose and intention, like she was a cartographer surveying the coast, making mental estimates of distances and depths, furrowing her blonde eyebrows in concentration. Sweat made its way through her gray sleeveless T-shirt—a souvenir shirt from a Florida hamburger restaurant that I loathed growing up—even though the air conditioning in the heat wave was hitting with the brute force of a ship running aground.

You said he—he—She asked the attending doctor and a nurse beside him, her voice dragging itself up from quicksand. She was smacking her temple with the heel of her hand, before letting her fingers crumple into a deflated fist, like she was juicing an overripe orange. They nodded, unable to offer the details that I could: that he started the truck, put it in park halfway down the hill to get the bottle of water out of the bed for me, climbed in the back. That from the passenger side mirror I could see the steel toe of his boot on the edge of the dust-covered bed as he stood up, and if I turned all the way around I would see him with a hand shading his reddened forehead as he surveyed the dry, yellowing grass of an abandoned lot and aluminum-sided houses on the other side of the street. He wanted to be a location scout for the movies and was always stopping to take in a place, to inhale and swallow it. He’d probably eat the dirt and the grass if I let him. But he was just watching the land and I was watching him.

And then the brakes gave out with a sudden jolt,  and my head almost hit the dashboard while J fell to the pavement.

I slid into the driver’s side and pulled the emergency break and cut the engine, the dry air going silent. I heard no birds, no cicadas, no rustle of movement from J. Then, sliding back toward the sideview mirror, I could see a slow stream, the first in weeks in the middle of the drought: water from the plastic bottle, spilling out and diluting the blood. They both began to roll down the pavement, liquid rust.

And then someone down the street was calling an ambulance, then it was a waiting room, and then it was immediate family only.

You.

I glanced up to red hair and J’s eyes piercing right into mine. She said you like a pulled gun and my body scrunched into a ball in the cold vinyl of the waiting room chair.

You okay? She stated it more than asked, but it warmed, melted me out of my contraction. I nodded, but her eyes were too much, too much J looking back at me, so I fixated instead on the red-orange-yellow vending machine glowing in a dark corner behind her. She sat next to me and we shared silence as we might a pot of tea. The lingering nurse was looking at us sideways, but an intercom voice tugged her back through white double-doors.

After a while she turned to me and said: Can I give you a ride? I didn’t say anything, but stood when she did, as good a yes as any. I looked back toward the door but didn’t ask to go in. I didn’t want to not be allowed, didn’t know if I could stand being told no.

We got into her car, a crumbling two-door that was older than I was. I needed to know what they had done with J’s truck. Our truck, that busted white pickup. It was like a sort of pet. I was there when he’d gotten it and had been with it every day since.

My words blended with hers. I didn’t know who said what. I just wanted to get in the rust-covered truck and drive.

I tried to imagine the keys in the ignition but I couldn’t place them in memory after I got out and closed the passenger door. I hadn’t taken them out so they must have still been there. They wouldn’t need a tow truck if the keys were there. Did a paramedic take it? The police? Did they need it as—the word evidence manifested in my mind, even though nothing criminal had happened. Still the truck was evidence of something—of a person who existed, of fingers that turned keys and steered wheels.

Do you know what happened to the truck? I asked, but at the same time, she was asking Is that a no? I was dizzy. My words blended with hers. I didn’t know who said what. I just wanted to get in the rust-covered truck and drive.

But we were in her car, not the truck, and we had somehow gotten on the highway, and now she was taking the next exit, right into a descending white sun. I nodded, squinted into the light, looking for that flickering arc of its outline through the rays.

I didn’t know how to ask her to drive me to J’s cousin’s apartment, where all of my stuff was, and J’s, since he’d been living there. The cousin was the son of a brother his mom hated and had cut off contact with, and I got the impression she’d be upset if she knew that’s who J’s roommate was.

J had said he didn’t know exactly why she hated her brother, but it was the sort of hate you could figure out quickly if you were a woman. I could sense it in J’s heartbeat, in his pulsing blood that was also his mother’s, and her mother’s and her brother’s, the nature of what that man had done. I could read hate like palms. But such hate would never occur to J. He only ever saw what was right in front of him.

The sun followed us into the bright diner. The booth we sat in next to a window was a greenhouse, the vinyl scorching the backs of my bare legs. But when the waitress asked if she should close the blinds, we both said no, and J’s mother ordered an entire pot of hot coffee anyway.

I’m Janice, she said. With a C. Not like Joplin. She lined five sugar packets in one hand and ripped the edges off of all of them at once before pouring all of them into her coffee cup. I pulled my own into my hands and stared into it.

Cora, I said.

I thought that was you. Knew some pretty thing had to be around since I hadn’t seen him in so long. You don’t even look old enough for him, no meat on those bones—

I—I’m sorry, I said.

I didn’t mean—but she was interrupted by the waitress, who was stammering something about specials until I realized she was looking at me.

No, thanks, I said.

You’ve gotta eat something, said Janice, who asked for steak and eggs. Water, in any case. It’s so hot. Who knows how much longer we’ll have water all, way things are going.

I looked at the sweating glass of ice water in front of me, condensation already pooling beneath it. My mouth felt sour and I could feel my thighs sticking to vinyl and tried to shift my hips to the edge of the seat. I had J’s old baseball T-shirt on under his sweatshirt and my sweat seemed to be activating the smell of his musk from it. I swallowed back nausea. If I drank the water while looking at the food around me—eggs leaking guts onto hash browns; fatty, bleeding meat; bread sopping with the juices of other foods—I’d vomit. I shook my head and undid and re-did my ponytail to occupy my hands.

I watched Janice drink the steaming coffee in gulps and flag for another cup, despite sweat rolling down the sides of her face. She closed her eyes to bear it, swallowing it like a punishment.

Do you know if they got the truck? I asked. Did they tow it? Take the keys?

She took one bite and stopped, put the fork and knife down, and stared at the plate silently. I thought maybe she had not heard me but knew she did at the same time. The air felt like Saran wrap. After what seemed like full minutes, she grabbed the fork and knife again and began to shovel the steak and eggs into her mouth, barely chewing before swallowing.

I distracted myself from the bloody juice and running yolk by tearing open a packet of saltine crackers. I ran my thumbnail along their surfaces, scraping off the flakes of salt, then began to crumble them onto the coffee saucer, starting with the corners. A tiny avalanche at my fingertips. In the soft focus beyond my coffee cup and melting water glass, Janice’s fork and knife disappeared, and it looked like she was ripping into an animal carcass with her bare hands. She did not stop until the plate was clear.

That’s not for you to worry about, she said. How long were you and J, uh—you know—

Not long, I interrupted. I did not want her to have visuals of intimacy between J and I. We had known each other since middle school but that is not what it was. It was something else. Some kind of fabric, we were woven.

I’d like to get the truck, if that’s okay.

You left something in it?

Not sure, I said.

People from farther north hated this heat, but if you were raised with it, it could seduce you like a purring cat.

Let’s go, she said, standing. As she turned, I saw her shirt ride up over a ridge in her back pocket—J’s flashlight keychain, always attached his keys.

Outside, the sun was dipping below the highway and the dry air felt like velvet instead of brittle fire. I closed my eyes and let it singe while I waited for the click of the car door unlocking. People from farther north hated this heat, but if you were raised with it, it could seduce you like a purring cat.

It’s off the service road, I said, and she nodded, turning back in the direction we came from.

Next exit, I said. She nodded again and pulled to the right lane. I could feel my heart for a moment, rousing from some kind of animal fatigue, ramming its head against the steel bars of my rib cage. My blood was sure that when we got to the right cross street he’d be standing there, like a sun with all that pink skin and orange hair in the gold light, setting fire to the brown sandpaper grass around him.

But then Janice pulled sharply back to the left, cutting off an SUV that slammed down on its horn. She didn’t seem to notice that it tailgated us until we pulled off two seconds later.

All the houses seemed dark, empty. I lost track of where we were, looking in windows for signs of life. It was too hot for children to be playing out in the yard. With the drought you couldn’t even have a sprinkler on without looking like an asshole. You were greedy if you wanted more than anyone else, more than just survival.

Then I felt the car slow and realized that we were pulling in front of her house, J’s house. I had seen the outside but never gone in. Had never seen the room he grew up in. The truck was his room, the truck was where we lived.

You want some water? Coke? Beer? She asked, leading me through a small living room with wood-paneled walls and yellow lighting. The kitchen ran alongside it, the olive-colored refrigerator door brushing the arm of a brown and beige plaid couch.

I shook my head. I hated beer, thought it was like drinking bread. I swallowed hard on my sandpaper tongue. I felt like a used towel left in the sun, dried and bent into the shape it was discarded in.

Do you want, like, another shirt? How can you be wearing that? She asked, opening a beer can and gesturing towards my sweatshirt, which was J’s sweatshirt, but also my sweatshirt. I couldn’t tell if she realized it was his. She lit a cigarette, sat back in a stained armchair, and handed the pack to me. I put it down on the greasy folding table between us.

I asked again: Do you think I could go get the truck? I just want to see it.

You left anything in it? She asked again.

I don’t think so. Not sure.

Then what you need it for?

I just—

She threw back her beer can, swallowing in gasping gulps. Then she went and got another one. And a second one that she put in front of me.

How old are you again? She asked, glancing from the beer to me.

I—

Nevermind. Doesn’t matter. Here, now. You have to eat something.

I’m okay, I said.

Her blue eyes, J’s blue eyes, cut through me. She knew I was lying.

She opened and closed several cabinets before pulling out jars of peanut butter and jelly and stale-looking bread from the fridge. She slathered them together and put a sandwich in front of me.

Not allergic, are you? She asked.

No—just—no. Not hungry.

You need something. You need water.

Can you just drop me off at the truck, I can drive it back to his place—

His place—now where would that be these days? she asked.

Just a friend’s, I said.

Her blue eyes, J’s blue eyes, cut through me. She knew I was lying.

Why don’t you eat first and then we can talk about it. God, drink water, something. You’re gonna catch heatstroke.

I’m okay, I said. I pretended to sip the beer, drawing it to my lips for a slow moment. The smell hovered in my nose, reminding me of J watching baseball, J yelling out for his boys, J’s sweat mixed with mine, J’d blood on the pavement—

My stomach lurched and Janice chuckled. Lightweight, of course, she said, turning on the television to a game show. You want something different? There’s—there’s uh—

She got up again, pulled a dusty bottle of whiskey from on top of the fridge, taking a long pull of it as she looked inside.

Mac and cheese? She said. I shook my head. Why the hell you ain’t like nothing everybody likes?

Just not hungry, I said.

She returned to the armchair.

Where’s his room? I asked.

Oh, you’re looking at it, she said. He didn’t have much by way of a daddy so I didn’t have much by way of second rooms. So he mostly slept out here until he didn’t.

I ran my fingers on the couch, tugging at a loose thread from the plaid knit. While Janice watched people try to guess words for a thousand dollars, or two thousand dollars, or nothing at all, I picked and pulled, like I could make the whole couch come undone if I got it loose just right.

The sun stopped coming through the window after an hour or two and all that remained was lamplight from under an amber-coated shade. I could see Janice’s eyes start to close more with each commercial break and each sip of whiskey, saw the brown liquid go down and down. Even over the TV, you could hear the heat, that cicada buzz under the hum of a ceiling fan.

Eventually Janice let out one last sigh of sleep and turned over on her side, almost in a fetal position in the arm chair, facing the back window. It was open slightly, and the air was as cool as it would be until the beginning of October, the sun gone for just long enough to ease the temptation of pending brush fires, gasps of smoke swallowed by the grass for one more day.

I let her eyes close all the way and watched her breathing slow, the pink skin around her nostrils flaring. You could see how easily she burned. I leaned over her, reaching the edge of J’s keychain peeking out from her back pocket. She shuddered and I jerked back, but then she rolled over more, as if in sleep she was offering the keys to me. I tugged lightly on the keychain, then slid the rest of it out, millimeter by millimeter. And then I had them, the truck key and the apartment key.

When I turned the lamp light out on Janice, she looked midnight blue, movie-filter blue. I turned the front door knob in snake-slow stealth, closing it in a whisper behind me. I stood in the blue and put the metal of the key to my mouth, letting it summon my saliva, letting it ignite.

  

    

Laura MarshallLaura Marshall is originally from New Orleans and currently based in New York City, and she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Doubleback Review, The Fourth River, Entropy, River Teeth, Salon, Kestrel, The Appalachian Review, Raleigh Review, Tiferet, and The Chattahoochee Review as a 2020 Lamar York Prize finalist in nonfiction.

Header photo by Joy Fera, courtesy Shutterstock.

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