Compulsively stirring my coffee in Nowhereville, New Jersey, I recognize I’m going to have to do a lot of explaining when Emily gets here. Well, assuming she’s figured out my code and picked the right coffee shop.
I look at my burner cell and check the time. 12:02. Not super late. Especially not for my cousin, who is less governed by rules than I am but still hates being tardy. Tardy is her word, not mine. Although I totally approve, because it feels specific to the situation of meeting with someone. I hate nondescript words.
Cell in hand, I’m hit with a new, burning desire. Text Mom. Tell her I’m okay. Tell her that I’m sorry I do these things that only make sense to me. Like that time we went to my great-aunt’s farm. The older cousins wanted to scare us younger ones, so they told us there was a big pit where the previous farm’s horses were buried. We were warned to stay away. So of course, that’s the first place we went. The place was nasty. It smelled. There were thorns everywhere, but that didn’t stop me from digging and going deeper into the pit. They had to call the fire department to have me removed from what was really a sinkhole used as a large animal grave. My brother, Brad, and Emily’s sister, Abby, got in huge trouble. Emily had burns on both hands from trying to pull me out by the rope I had tied around my waist. I was so freaked out about the bones I found, about the smell of death and all the animals buried, that they had to sedate me. Good times.
Man, I was a pain in the ass. Once I set my mind on doing something, I couldn’t veer from whatever stupid thing I’d decided to do. Mom never understood that I couldn’t control my obsessive behavior. But it wasn’t her fault. I am a lot to handle.
I start to type. Mom, I’m sorry. I was always sorry after I’d upset Mom. But for some things, like not following clear-cut rules, rules like Don’t dig where you shouldn’t or Don’t run away from home, saying sorry doesn’t help, so I delete the text.
Emily and I are more like brother and sister than cousins. From the time we were little, we were always together, only interested in what the other one was doing, never paying attention to anyone else. Ignoring the older siblings and cousins, especially.
“We would hang out with other people if anyone else was remotely interesting,” I always said. Emily agreed. Of course.
But this time, I’m not sure she’ll agree with what I’ve got planned, so I have to tell her the right way, which is never easy for me. Words come to me like pictures stored on a hard drive that cycle in front of me constantly. I can’t always control which ones I choose as they spew out of my mouth. They call that verbal impulsivity. It comes along with a slew of other labels doctors have given me over the years. Whatever you call it, for me, choosing the right words is an exquisite sort of pain.
“Be brief,” Dad used to tell me. “Let people catch up to your brain.”
He said that to make me feel better. Like none of my dysfunction was my fault.
The waitress approaches, lifting the coffeepot and her eyebrows.
I shake my head, drink my coffee, and think about how I can explain my plan to Emily in a way she’ll get behind Operation Wild Thing.
The taste of coffee paired with the drizzling rain sends my mind back to a time when our families were on the Cape and everyone was at the beach. Emily and I hung at the house, because I needed some away-from-the-rest-of-them time. A fly buzzed around my head, the sound making me insanely edgy. So edgy, apparently, I was sitting there with my hands over my ears. Maybe even rocking a little. Okay, rocking way too much.
Emily yanked me out of the house by my arm and into the fresh air. We stood on the dock behind Uncle Bill’s house. The sky was overcast, and the breeze kept the gnats and mosquitos away.
I rubbed my shoulder joint. “That used to be attached, you know!”
She punched me in the arm. “The fly is going after the crumbs, not you, Dylan, you big dork.”
“I knew that.” I did. It’s just that buzzing puts me in such a constant state of make-it-stop that I can’t do the simplest thing, like figure out I can walk away. But Emily does. And she gets me.
If I was the kind of person who blushed, I would have blushed then.
It started to drizzle. “Come on,” I said, going around the side of the house. “They’ll be home soon.” I tapped my leg. “Max, we’re going for a walk.”
The rottweiler Dad brought home for me when I was six jumped up from his spot on the grass to join me.
“Wait for me.” Emily ran inside and grabbed a rain jacket—yellow London Fog, because she wanted to be like her mom back then. “I can’t believe with all of the things you hate touching and the things you hate touching you, you don’t mind the rain.”
She was right. I didn’t mind the rain. Never had. It was like nature’s drumming. I was obsessed with drumming. Not actually playing the drums, but listening to them as loud as I possibly could. A therapist had explained I liked the sound because I could feel them before I could hear them. Whatever the reason, they calmed me, for sure. Just like the rain did that day.
Now, a good five years later, sitting in a coffee shop in a tiny town in New Jersey, I wonder if I’ll feel Emily’s presence before I hear her. I sent her an email the other day using the fake account I set up for us before I ran away from home and the alphabet code we used when we were kids.
I have something big to tell you. Huge. Meet me. Next letter. Tell me when and where. But do it soon.
Coffee. 12:00 3 on the list on TLD. You always scare me.
I stare at my coffee. My Dad used to drink his coffee black. “Like my heart,” he always said. The rest of my immediate family uses a dash of cream and definitely no sugar. I like my coffee light and sweet. Is it any wonder we don’t get along?
The waitress appears again. Alice, as her name tag says, refills my cup. I’m supposed to thank her, even though she doesn’t seem to mind our nonverbal exchange. But then she goes and ruins the silence. “You want anything else?”
I shake my head, pour in more cream, and wait for it to swirl around my cup like the thoughts that swirl around my mind. After coffee, that is. Without coffee, I am stuck in a fog of nothingness, like my brain knows it’s supposed to be processing information but just doesn’t feel like it.
Emily always said coffee was going to be my undoing. My Kryptonite or some bullshit. But it’s not like I’m at a loss for things that destroy me. The list is long. Starting with sounds. Like Brenda White’s shoes scraping against the floor of my kindergarten classroom over and over again. Scrape scrape scrape scrape. Pause. Scrape scrape scrrrapppe. Is it any wonder I flipped my shit and hid under the desk? Or Josh Mellon’s click click clickof his pen during exams in physics. I could have told him flicking his pen wasn’t going to get him the right answers. Or…
The door opens. I look up. Not Emily.
The refrigerator at the front of the shop hums, and that makes me want to cover my ears, but the best way to deal with unwanted sounds is to tune them out by playing louder ones. I scroll through my playlist: Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin (best band ever). Dad and I agreed about that. I guess I get distracted by listening to the drum solo in “Moby Dick” for the zillionth time, because shoes appear in my field of vision next to my table and stop. Em’s shoes. Running shoes. Since I’m planning the biggest running-away-from-home plan ever, I find that ironic.
Emily puts her raincoat on the back of her chair, giving me a second to acclimate to her presence. Her coat is a navy-blue North Face, because Emily is all about being serious now. Serious as a heart attack, motherfucker. “Hey,” she says.
“Hey, yourself.” I wave. Stiff-handed (my usual).
She punches me in the arm. It’s a trick of hers. The punch floods my body with enough input that I can actually handle being hugged. She leans in. Emily smells like she has since she was five years old: cherry Life Savers, rain, Dial soap. It’s weird to know what soap your cousin uses, but I’m not being creepy. I can literally detect the scent of more than a dozen different brands of soap. It’s awesome to be me.
I wrap my hands around her shoulders and hold for five seconds. That’s the usual amount of time that people who are related to each other hug. I don’t hate it for the first one or two seconds, but by the fourth second, I’m like, Seriously, can we be done? But I let her hold it longer, because I know most human beings don’t mind physical contact for five full seconds. Some even allow seven. Sick bastards.
Emily grabs the biscotti off my plate, the extra one I’d ordered because I knew she’d take mine when she got here. She bites a hunk of it, oblivious to the crumbs she’s sent flying, and says, “You were counting, weren’t you?”
My eyes go to my coffee. “No comment.” I take a drink, slurp on purpose. She laughs. God, it’s great to hear that laugh.
“So, what’s the big emergency?” she asks as she motions for the waitress.
“I never said emergency.”
“You said, ‘Soon.’ That’s definitely heightened language for you.” She puts air quotes around the word heightened. The waitress approaches. Waits.
“You have mochaccino?” Emily asks.
The waitress rolls her eyes, taps her pen on her pad. “We don’t have crappuccinos here. Just real coffee. For people who like coffee.”
“Alice!” the woman in the front of the shop yells, clearly having overheard her.
Alice scowls. “Our frappé machine is down at the moment. May I get you something else?”
“Bring her a double espresso, whipped cream, lots of whipped cream.” My hand palms the sugar packet dispenser. “Don’t worry. We have enough of this to make it palatable.”
Emily nods. “Oh, and a menu.” Then to me. “You look skinny.” She pulls out a wad of cash. Yes, a wad. The bills are all crumpled, and change flies everywhere. “Babysitting money. It’s on me.”
When the waitress’s steps tell me she’s out of earshot, I reach for Emily’s hands, trying to grab the mess of bills sticking out everywhere, trying to contain her chaos. I need her to focus on what I’m saying, so my hands clamp over hers. “I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail,” I say.
She drops the money on the table. “What?”
“I’ve decided. You can’t talk me out of it.”
The waitress returns, stands, pad perched. I read that as a little hostile, but I’ve no idea why. And like with most human interactions, I really don’t care.
Emily stares at me as if she’s suddenly gone mute, selectively mute, which is one of the other labels those doctors tried to stick on me. I close Emily’s menu, aim my voice at Alice the waitress. “She’s going to need a few minutes.”
Alice huffs and moves on. I point at her moody retreat. “Did she seem a little…?”
Emily stares at me like—I don’t know. Facial expressions? They’re fuzzy for me. Muscular patterns? Those I can read. Like how Emily’s gripping her closed menu like it’s the only stable thing in an insane world. Obviously, she’s angry. Her fingers are turning white because she’s exerting so much pressure with her grip on that innocent menu. I’m the only one who can piss off Emily that much. So she must be mad because of the Appalachian Trail. Got it. So of course I say, “What? It’s totally safe.”
She throws her head in her hands, then looks up. “Sure it is. Why not? Why don’t I just put my life on hold and join you?”
I stir my coffee, only it doesn’t need stirring because I’ve mixed my cream in completely and it’s a nice homogenous blond. “That’s ridiculous. You like your life.” I take a sip, which must really piss her off, because she reaches for my cup, a tactic Emily only resorts to when she’s about to go nuclear. I move my cup out of her reach. “Hold up, psycho.” Then I lean forward. Leaning forward makes you seem earnest. “I have to. It’s my only choice.”
“You could come home,” she says, but she knows I can’t.
The last school they sent me to had a special unit for “emotionally challenged” kids. I only agreed to go there because it was Emily’s school. The teachers and counselors had a big meeting, and they said if I didn’t do well, I’d have to go to a school that had a more “therapeutic environment.” And I guess forcing the faculty to have to evacuate the entire school from the auditorium after losing it during an assembly qualifies as “not doing well.” Yeah. But honestly, me sitting in class with a bunch of kids who are more messed up than I am? Not. Going. To. Happen. Not if it’s up to me. Which it will be in six months when I finally turn eighteen. Which is why I ran away from home to begin with.
I hold her hands again, this time because I need her to believe me. My hands over hers doesn’t make me feel as closed in as if she put hers on mine, but even this brief contact is only possible because it’s her, Emily. I soften my voice, which also indicates concern. “They’re getting closer.” I look into her eyes. “They almost caught me at a coffee shop in New York.”
She nods. She knows Mom’s detectives are pretty motivated. “I told you coffee was your Achilles’ heel.” A skinny tear drips down her cheek, and part of me considers what it means to cry thin tears versus big fat ones. Has anyone done a study on the size of tears in relation to the emotional load they bear? I look away, mostly to contain the smirk I’m sure is on my face since I’m depersonalizing the situation, as usual. She pulls her hands back. Uh-oh. She noticed.
“Damn it, Dylan. Stop playing me.” She sounds sad, and that makes me feel bad.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
She stares at me. She can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve said that two-word combination to anyone. Actually, I remember each and every time. Two before this. The last one when it was too late.
I lean back. “I’m not playing you. If I stay here, Mom’s guys will find me. In six months, I can make my own decisions. Do you know how long it takes to hike the Appalachian Trail? Six months. That means something.”
It’s hard for her to argue with Dylan logic. “Okay, that does seem coincidental, but you’ve never hiked before.”
I break out the book I bought about hiking the trail and slide it across the table. “First line, ‘So you’ve never hiked before? No problem.’”
She raises her eyebrows but can’t keep from smiling. “That’s a stupid first line.”
“I thought it was kind of catchy myself.”
“The wilderness isn’t some kid-invented adventure,” she says. “What if something happens to you?”
“It won’t,” I say. Because bad things can’t happen to you after the worst thing already has. “I just need time. And I always considered doing this anyway.”
True. That was a lie. This is the kind of thing Dad and my brother, Brad, and maybe my cousin, Christian, would do, planning for months, needling me because no way I would ever want to join them. “But I feel like it makes sense.”
“You could get lost.”
I almost choke on my biscotti. “It’s a trail.” I trace an imaginary straight line on the table. “I mean, point A to point B.”
“People get lost. They’ve gotten lost on the trail before. There’ve been people—”
“I know. I realize that, but, Em, the thing is, I’m trying to get lost, aren’t I?”
“Only for six months! Not for—”
“I’ll come back. I have to. We’ve got Max’s revenge. You know I wouldn’t miss that.”
Max hated Halloween with a passion. Barked his little head off. So, we’d have an anti-Halloween every November 1. We’d hang out on the floor with him all day, no matter what day of the week it was. Take off school. Cancel all plans and do what the dog liked best. Which was to lounge with us while we watched movies. Usually the Harry Potter ones, which never got old.
“Every November,” she says solemnly. “So, when are you going?”
“The normal time. When most people do.”
She looks at me like I’m confusing her. Or annoying her. Or—
Then she whacks me on the arm with her spoon. “When?”
“Next week. April 15.”
This time, fat tears fall down her face, and she swipes them away fast. Those are the kind of tears that sting. But she knows she can’t argue with me now. That detail was my wild card.
“You’re such a dick.”
“I know, but I’m a dick with a profound sense of irony.”
The Secrets We Bury publishes March 6, 2018
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