The news broke that afternoon. First a link to a brief article from the Asheville Citizen-Times was shared on Facebook. A couple tweets followed as Mark’s closest friends each found out. The high school newspaper ran a story on their website, and it gained enough traction to air on the local evening news.
Down in Atlanta, biking to his 9 a.m. class, Mark had run a stop sign. He had looked right but not left, and was pinned between one car parked along the side of the road and under the minivan that collided with him. It took five people to heave the twisted metal off the ground, just enough that two others could pull him out while they waited for the paramedics to arrive.
The driver had tried to stop; she apologized as they stood there, repeating over and over that she hadn’t seen him until the last moment. It didn’t matter—she walked away without a scratch, protected by sheet metal and a seatbelt. Mark wasn’t even wearing a helmet. The story ran every twenty minutes, retelling the gory details in a loop, with news anchors interjecting their half-hearted condolences every time.
Despite the best efforts of those that pulled him out from under the cars, and the paramedics and the doctors, Mark died a few hours later. His mother, who lived five hours away in our small town, didn’t make it to the hospital in time to say good-bye.
As if of one mind, we shifted into action. We trudged to our cars as the shadows began to stretch long in the dying October light. Those of us old enough went to Piggly Wiggly and then the one liquor store in town and bought as many cases of beer as we could afford. We drove out past the strip mall and the Starbucks, the diner, the high school, the medical center, the community college. Past the final cluster of houses before the town gave way to cows and cornfields, until those too give way to the tree-covered, Appalachian foothills that shrouded the local county park. There was nothing around for miles.
It was three or four of us at first. Debbie Meyer and Paul Jefferson and Eric Newman and Elise Hughs all standing around with our hands stuffed in our pockets, kicking sand around, not really knowing what to say or how to say it. We knew Mark best, but there weren’t quite words for what lay heavy between us. The shattered remains of all those hopes we stupidly put in him instead of ourselves. The cases of beer stood unopened on the sand. No one wanted to be the first to crack one. Debbie had tear tracks visible on her red cheeks. We nodded to each other and huffed into our hands before Paul and Eric set off to gather wood for a bonfire.
It didn’t take long. Someone must’ve seen the posts online or something. Maybe Elise blabbed—she never knew when to keep things to herself—but the numbers soon began to swell as text messages were sent, spreading the word. Congregating on the trucked-in sand at the edge of the lake, kids trickled in as the sky faded from a golden sunset to inky blue overhead and we sat in silence broken only by the cracking open of beer cans. As the October air chilled with the encroaching night, a few more disappeared into the trees to help gather wood for the growing fire.
The moon slowly crept over the trees, following in the sun’s path, a small sliver of a crescent, barely bright enough to cast any light. Even with the stars, the night air felt dark and heavy. The bonfire crackled merrily and the night creatures started their songs, the chirping of crickets raising to a cacophony, interspersed with the periodic hoots of owls. More empty beer cans found their way into the sand. We’d pick them up later. Probably.
It was meant to be those of us that would remember Mark. Lacrosse teammates and chorus members and Boy Scouts. As the night wore on, more people started pouring in. Teenagers mostly, with a sizeable smattering of us over twenty-one, all shuddering slightly in the chill and grabbing beers, flashing wan grins. A few of us shared a look; how’d all these people even know Mark? Did they just see the smoke from town and figure they’d find themselves a party or some free beer?
People huddled around the bonfire, dark, indistinct shapes shifting quietly. A small group of familiar twenty-somethings carrying a few more cases of beer, dressed in the blue and white sweatshirts of UNC Asheville, solemnly joined our crowd. Natives of this town, most of them, gone off to finish their degrees after community college. A few, though, we didn’t recognize. A whisper picked its way through the masses, soft and barely there. Where’s Sarah?
Mark’s sister—she’d moved out a few years ago. Was working on her Bachelor’s with some of these UNCA students and paying her way through school with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs. She’d probably finish her degree and end up back here with those of us that never left, just like the rest of her classmates. Just like so many others that got a taste of the big, wide world and came running home where it’s familiar.
We’d all been expecting her to come strolling in with her classmates. But maybe she was with their mother tonight. It was a comforting thought, at the very least, the two of them together and grieving. Neither should have to be alone, not tonight.
“This isn’t fair,” someone finally spoke, a lone voice from the middle of the crowd. We couldn’t tell who, specifically. In the quiet, it sounded like a shout, rising starkly above the popping of the fire.
We broke, after that. A crack in the dam that brought the sobs pouring out, raucous and pained. No one knew what to say, but we knew whoever had spoken was right. This wasn’t fair.
Mark had been the best of us. A star lacrosse player, a force to be reckoned with on the stage, a talented tenor in the men’s chorale. He was one of the few to escape this sleepy little town, got a big scholarship to go to Tech and study aerospace engineering. He was going places. He was going to make the world a better place in ways we weren’t, working dead-end jobs at the local auto parts store and Starbucks just to find some semblance of meaning, or drudging our way through high school and community college, if we even got that far—and for what? Not even half a chance at getting out of this hell. Whatever meager jobs we could find here were the best we were ever going to get.
But Mark had gotten out, in a way we couldn’t. He had a future, a bright one, one most of us couldn’t even dream of.
A future now smeared across some one-way street in Atlanta, too far away.
The crying quieted sometime after midnight, the crescent moon high in the sky and the bonfire roaring contentedly, fed every few minutes by fresh pieces of wood. Everyone shuffled closer, seeking the warmth of the bright orange flames.
“Do you guys remember,” a girl named Anna Howard said, sniffling and wiping her eyes near the fire, “that time Mark played Charlie Brown?”
“Oh yeah!” Another voice called—Thomas Crutchfield, a cashier at the local grocery store, when he wasn’t busy smoking weed in his mom’s basement. “He helped sell out all those tickets by going door to door and handing out fliers and stuff—it was the best spring musical the theater department’s ever been able to put on. Everyone wanted to come see him.”
“Or when, his sophomore year, he scored that lacrosse goal with three seconds left in the game? We actually won a game!” Lewis Stevens grinned ear to ear as he threw another log onto the fire.
“We won a lot of games after that,” Paul Jefferson pointed out from somewhere in the back, his words only slightly slurred from all the beer. Our high school had even won Regionals Mark’s junior year—our first and only major lacrosse tournament championship.
“He used to make those stupid YouTube videos, with Andrew,” Debbie Meyer said, her words turned up by a slight smile at the thought of her younger brother. She wouldn’t say where he was tonight.
“Oh, yeah! They would film themselves baking and throwing flour at each other and getting shit everywhere.” By the fire, Eric Newman rolled his eyes pointedly.
More voices now, rising excitedly above one another, eager to share stories of how they remembered Mark, what made him special to each of them. Those silly videos he made with his best friends, Andrew and Steve, and posted on YouTube were mentioned more than once, unsurprisingly. They were instant hits, the audio from their band’s music videos ripped and played on repeat, original copies to gloat over if Mark ever became famous. But also the way he lugged a red wagon around when he was eight, helping Sarah deliver all her Girl Scout cookies—he wouldn’t let her do it herself. And the time he went running down his street screaming when Sarah got into college, and how he’d do anything, anything for him mom after his dad back died when he was in middle school.
“You guys are fucking stupid.” A voice rang out, booming above the rest. We stilled and turned towards the cluster of trees where the voice had come from, but the shifting shadows made it impossible to tell who had said it, the voice hoarse and marred by emotion like that of so many others. “Mark did this to himself.”
As one, we erupted, shouting and arguing with the invisible person just beyond our line of sight.
“It was an accident!”
“How dare you!”
“He’s fucking dead, man, have some respect!”
Someone ran into the trees, shouting obscenities. Twigs snapped and branches rustled, followed by the thump of bodies hitting cold earth.
“Stop!” A girl screamed shrilly, chasing after them. “Mark wouldn’t have wanted this!”
We stilled for a moment, holding our breaths and waiting to see what would happen beyond the tree line. Her voice rang in our heads. What would Mark have wanted? Moments later, the girl—Rosa Hernandez—emerged with her younger brother in tow. No one else followed them. Rosa only shrugged her shoulders and said the guy decided to leave. A few others shared a look over their drinks.
“This is getting lame. Let’s get out of here,” one said. Johnathon West, to one of his brothers. One of those high schoolers that strolled in earlier, smirking and looking for a drink. Our eyes bored into their backs as they traipsed through the trees, picking their way back up the pitch-black path.
The anger settled, simmering below the surface as some wiped fresh tears from their cheeks and others grumbled beneath their breaths, but we all settled down on the sand, lost in thought.
“He did do some stupid stuff sometimes,” Rachel McKenzie said quietly. Everyone turned on her, the anger swelling to the surface again, but she held up her hands in a show of surrender. “I mean, remember that time he broke into the pool in the middle of the night, just because Sarah did it with some friends and she hadn’t gotten caught? He almost gave his mom a heart attack when the cops brought him home.”
A few laughed at that, though it was a hollow sound.
“He copied off my Spanish homework,” Paul threw out, laughing. “Kid couldn’t conjugate verbs to save his life.”
“He ran stop signs through town all the time, whenever he was on that bike.” Elise Hughs said, staring into the fire in front of her, lost in thought. “Never really any traffic around here, you know? My dad pulled him over a couple times, used to joke about it. ‘How could a kid that smart forget something so basic?’ Asshole thought he was fucking invincible or some shit.” Her voice turned hard, but no one spoke against her. He broke her heart, after all, right before he left for Atlanta.
We grew quiet after that. A weariness set in, bone deep as the alcoholic buzz blurred into exhaustion. If we had any other stories, we kept them to ourselves, too lost in thought to put words to feelings and memories.
Debbie spoke up, wiping her eyes on the hem of her shirt. “What do we do now?”
We all looked at each other; a few shrugged. It was a question we were all turning over in our heads, in one way or another.
“I s’pose there’ll be a funeral.” Rosa clutched at her brother’s hand. “Or a memorial service. Or something.”
“But I meant for us,” Debbie stressed, her voice cracking. “What do we do? Mark was going to save the world and we’re all just… here.”
“Mark wasn’t going to save the world,” Paul scoffed. “He was gonna design airplanes and make bank.”
“Make bank,” someone else repeated with a terse laugh. Lucy Wallace, way in the back. “There’s no reason the rest of us can’t do just as well. What’s holding us back, anyway?”
But it was Anna that spoke up, her voice raising over the din that broke out as a hundred teenagers and twenty-somethings tried to answer her question. “We go home. And we go back to our lives. And we try to be better. Better for him. It’s all we can do.”
It was enough to close a few mouths. Her words seemed to have an enlightening effect on some of us. One of the high schoolers, Matthew Chatham, a junior that played lacrosse with Mark, said, so softly we almost missed it, “I want to be a doctor someday. But my grades are shit.”
“You’ve got time,” Gabriel Hernandez said. “You can clean your grades up and get into a decent school.”
“Have you seen my math grades?” Matthew shot back. “Mark was gonna tutor me over winter break when he came home. He was gonna help me study so I could do well on the SAT.”
“I’ll help you study for the SAT,” Thomas promised, clasping a hand on Matthew’s shoulder.
“You can’t do math for shit,” Lewis scoffed. “Why aren’t you off at some fancy college, if you’re so good at math?”
“I do all the accounting at the auto parts store, dumbass. Math and fixing your fucked up car are the only things I can do.” A moment passed where the two glare at each other, but the tension melted when Lewis grumbled he needed another beer, and Matthew thanked Thomas, quietly, for his help.
Someone finished off the last can before climbing to their feet, brushing the sand from their pants, and shuffling down the path back to the parking lot. The stars above began to dim and flicker out as the sky lightened from inky blue to indigo, the stars fading until only Sirius and Orion’s Belt were visible in the west.
Rebecca Burke resides in the Washtington DC metropolitan area. She is a graduate of George Mason University and will be returning in the fall to pursue her MFA in fiction. Her work has also been published in Awakened Voices. You can follow her on Twitter @BeccaBurke95.