“That’s it!” Sherry said. She tried to wipe the clump of mud off the side of her face but only ended up smearing it further up her cheekbone. “I’m out of here.”
“Aw, come on,” Cole said. “Don’t be like that. Stay.”
“Why? So I can just sit here and watch you two drink more beer and spin your wheels? In case you haven’t noticed, you’re stuck. I told you to drive around the deep ones, but you just couldn’t help yourself. And now look at me.” Sherry pointed the fingertips of both hands toward her mud-speckled chest.
“I know,” Cole said. “Look at you. You look hot.” When Sherry didn’t smile, Cole leaned away from her, resting his back on the inside of the driver’s-side door. “I thought you liked the mud.”
“Well, sometimes I don’t,” Sherry said, pushing a strand of dark blonde hair behind her ear with her clean hand. “You know, I only went out here with you today because you promised me you’d go around the big ones. And now I’ve got mud caked in my hair, and I don’t have time to wash it before work.” She kicked the beer cans lying on the floor in front of her feet.
“So just call in,” Cole said.
“That would be your solution,” she said. Sherry was about to give him the usual speech—the one about how they were about to be adults and they all needed to start taking life more seriously. She took a long breath in through her nose, filling her lungs to capacity. This had the added effect of straightening her spine, so she was now looking down at Cole.
But before she could open her mouth to speak, she was distracted by the creaking sound of footsteps on metal and a gentle rocking motion. Then she saw movement in the side mirror; it was Jeremy hopping out of the truck bed. He was walking toward the tree line, probably to find some logs to set in front of the tires for traction.
“Well, isn’t that just typical,” Sherry said to Cole. But her eyes remained on Jeremy and the way his t-shirt hugged his lean, muscular frame. “Yet again you’ve got your cousin running around trying to smooth things over for you.” Sherry leaned her head out the passenger window. “Take your time, Jeremy, because I’m walking home.”
Jeremy turned back toward the truck, log in hand. “Not that I really want to get in the middle of this,” he said, “but I don’t think it’ll take very long to get unstuck.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Sherry said.
The passenger door groaned as she pushed it open. She sat on the edge of the seat for a moment, legs dangling out the side of the truck, looking for the least offensive place to land. Then she pushed off the seat cushion and landed with a plop. A brown-gray slurry speckled her calves. If she had been in a better mood, she would have remarked about the pattern. There was something artistic about it, not that Cole would have understood.
Sherry reached up into the truck to retrieve her hoodie.
“I’ll call you later,” Cole said to her arm. Sherry pretended not to hear.
Instead, she tugged at the garment, perhaps a little too hard, because then she had to pull up quickly to save it before the sleeves touched the mud. Throwing the hoodie over one shoulder, she turned away from the truck to wade through the muck toward the grassy shoulder of the dirt trail that passed for a road.
“Good luck,” she said to Jeremy.
As she passed by him, their bare arms grazed each other, sending a tiny jolt down her spine. Jeremy didn’t say anything to her. He just kept walking back toward the truck as she continued on in the opposite direction.
But even as she walked, Sherry could hear the two of them talking, about her: Cole’s characteristic obliviousness; Jeremy, as usual, trying to please everyone by offering to both help Cole get the truck unstuck and asking if Cole wanted him to walk Sherry home, as if she needed an escort.
After the bend in the trail, Sherry was finally out of earshot. She kicked at the dirt, wondering how many beers it would take to get the truck free (knowing Cole, most likely all of them), then she put on her hoodie, zipping it up all the way and rubbing her upper arms to try to warm them. She almost hadn’t brought it with her. It had been one of those deceptive early-spring days where the sun sat high and bright for most of the day, only to be replaced by a bite of crisp air in the early-evening shade. She was looking forward to walking in the door of her house, where she knew her mother would have turned the heat on for the evening, in spite of her father’s grumblings.
“Hey, wait up,” Jeremy said as he jogged to catch up to Sherry. She glanced over at him then turned back to the road in front of her. “So what? You’re ignoring me now?” he said.
Sherry just raised her eyebrows at him.
“What’d I do?” he asked.
“It’s not what you’ve done,” Sherry said, folding her arms across her chest, “it’s what you haven’t done.”
Jeremy pushed the air out through his nose with such force that his nostrils flared like a bull. “It’s not that simple, Sherry. What am I supposed to do? Walk up to my cousin and say, ‘Nice t-shirt, bro. By the way, I’m in love with your girlfriend.’”
Sherry’s smile was automatic, and she had to force her lips into a proper pout so she could make her point. “If you really feel that way, then why do we keep going on like this? I wanted to tell him from the moment we did what we did, but you said you wanted to be the one to tell him. And I respected that. But it’s been over a month now that we’ve been doing this, lying to him.”
“I know, I know. I just keep looking for the right moment, you know?”
Sherry stopped walking. “Jeremy,” she said, “there is no right moment, and no matter what you say, it’s going to hurt. But hopefully, in time, he’ll see that it’s for the best.”
“He doesn’t want the same things we do. In his mind, we’re all still fourteen, and life’s just one big party. He’d be perfectly content for all of us to live in this five-mile radius, talking to the same people and doing the same things every single day for the rest of our lives. We are not—I’m not—going to go off to college this fall with things the way they are now.”
When she said this last part, Sherry noticed the muscles in Jeremy’s face tighten.
“Does he even know about you going to college?” she asked. Her eyes narrowed. “No. You haven’t even worked up the courage to tell him that, have you?”
“Okay, so I’m a coward! But in all fairness, I haven’t even told my mom and dad yet. I’m scared to tell him—all of them— that we’re leaving in the fall to go to college. How many people do you know around here that really get out? I mean, everyone our age talks about it—well, everyone but Cole—but no one ever actually does it. And Cole’s got this whole fantasy in his mind about how our lives are going to be, and I just don’t have it in me to crush his dreams.”
“Even if they aren’t your dreams,” she said. She started walking again, and he followed.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, but when they got to the spot where the dirt road met the end of her driveway, they both stopped. Jeremy grabbed Sherry by the shoulders and turned her toward him.
“I’ll tell him first thing in the morning,” Jeremy said, searching her eyes for approval, or at least acquiescence. “I’ll let him sober up overnight, and then I’ll take him for a drive.”
Sherry nodded and leaned in to kiss him. When their lips met, there was a tightness in her stomach, like someone had crumpled up a piece of tinfoil into a ball, that she took for nerves or the butterflies people always talked about, but that she had never experienced with Cole.
When Jeremy’s name popped up on Sherry’s ringing phone the following afternoon, she was not expecting good news. She knew that Jeremy would either be calling to tell her that he had chickened out, yet again, or that he had followed through on his promise and she should expect Cole knocking on her door.
“Cole’s dead,” Jeremy said, his voice unsteady.
Sherry did not say anything. She pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it like it was some foreign appendage.
“Sherry? Sherry?” She heard Jeremy’s faint voice coming through the phone and moved it back up to her ear once again.
“Did you hear what I said?” Jeremy asked. “He’s dead. Died.”
She knew she should be asking “how” or “why,” but “no” was all she could manage to say.
“When I went to his house this morning, his mom said that he never came home last night and that she just assumed he was staying over at my house. So we started calling and texting him and when we didn’t get a response, we started driving around, looking for him. He…” Jeremy started, then stopped, then started again, repeating the word “he” many times before he could finish the sentence. “He was still there…stuck in the mud, Sherry. He never got the truck out, and he must have decided to just sleep there overnight with the heater going because he left the truck running and the tailpipe…and the mud, it—”
Sherry had never heard Jeremy cry, and she was startled by the sound that escaped his mouth. It reminded her of a video she had once watched in school about whale songs. That video had haunted her, much like the sound of Jeremy’s voice would for years to come.
“Anyways,” Jeremy said. He snuffled his nose. “I’m sitting in the parking lot outside the funeral home. I told my mom and my aunt that I’d help them figure out the arrangements but that I needed to call you and let you know first.”
Sherry knew she would have to say something now. But what?
“I love you,” she said.
Jeremy sob-sucked air into his lungs, almost like he was wincing, before he said, “I love you too.”
“Sherry,” Cole’s mom said with her arms stretched out in front of her, fingers beckoning. Sherry wrapped her arms around Cole’s mother and inhaled deeply, her eyes closed and her nose buried in wiry, silver-copper hair. His mom’s citrus-scented perfume was a welcome respite from the oppressive floral smell that permeated the funeral home’s viewing room. She knew she would never feel the same about flowers again.
Sherry kept her eyes shut until Cole’s mom finally let her go.
“Mrs. Hunter,” Sherry said, tears filling her eyes, “I am so sorry.” Sherry was glad for the tears; they blurred her view of the casket situated just beyond Cole’s mom.
“I know how much he loved you,” Mrs. Hunter said. “He always said he was going to marry you, and now—”
Mrs. Hunter began sobbing, and seeing this, her sister—Jeremy’s mom—broke away from her conversation to walk over and grab hold of her sister.
“What will we do now?” Mrs. Hunter said, her voice wavering so that it came out as more of a melody than a question.
The two sisters were leaning against each other now. Sherry knew they were two years apart, but they looked so similar that they might have been mistaken for twins. They rested against each other like the first two poles in a yet-to-be-assembled teepee. Then they looked at Sherry, willing her to join the structure and thereby increase its strength. Sherry’s eyes filled to the brim, and she mumbled something like “I’m so sorry, excuse me” as she rushed toward the door.
Sherry passed into the hallway and turned right. She dodged around small groups of people—some she knew, some she didn’t—before ducking into the relative darkness of the funeral home’s bathroom. She engaged in an awkward dance with an elderly woman she didn’t recognize before both women coordinated their sidesteps so Sherry could get to one of the stalls.
In the solitude of the bathroom stall, she sat down on the toilet and began rifling through her purse, finally pulling out a rectangular box. For a moment, Sherry just sat there staring at the pregnancy test. She had been walking around with it in her purse for days now, still in denial about the clenching, almost cramping, feeling in her lower abdomen. The test felt like more of a formality at this point.
Still, Sherry opened the box and followed the directions, setting it on top of the toilet paper dispenser while she waited.
What will we do now?
Mrs. Hunter’s words were lodged in her head like an unwelcome guest. Sherry did not know the answer. Based on the timing, she was ninety-nine percent sure that the baby was Jeremy’s—not Cole’s—so at least her baby would have a living father, but how would that work? Jeremy would stand by her and the baby—she knew that—but she could not conceive of a Thanksgiving or Christmas that did not end with icy stares and drunken, expletive-laced accusations. She would never again be close enough to take in Mrs. Hunter’s familiar citrus scent, but the future she had always dreamed of for Jeremy and herself, and now their baby, had never included returning to their small town, so what did it really matter what his family thought of the situation? It just was, and there was nothing to do about it. Sherry snatched up the test, glanced at the result, and threw it in the trash bin in the span of time it took her to think that last thought.
Back in the viewing room, she sunk down on a couch next to Jeremy, near the back of the room. His face was a patchwork of pink and beige, and he was working at the tissue in his hands, shredding it into little strips.
“How are you holding up?” Sherry asked after a moment.
Jeremy shrugged his shoulders.
“Me too,” she said. She reached over to rest her hand on his, but before she could make contact, he pulled his hands away, shoving them in his pockets.
“Don’t,” he said. “Not here.” But in the days since Cole’s death, Jeremy had hardly spoken to Sherry. Not at his house. Not at her house. Not on the phone. And now not here.
“Jeremy, no one is going to look at us weird. It’s a funeral. I’m crying, you’re crying. Look around. Everyone is comforting everyone. No one will think anything of it.”
“But I’ll know.”
“Can I at least give you a hug?” she asked.
Jeremy shook his head. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and crossed them in front of him.
“This is hard for me too, you know,” Sherry said, trying to make eye contact, then giving up.
They sat next to each other in silence, watching people cluster together then disperse, then repeat the process with new people, then leave, until Jeremy, still looking forward, said, “I don’t want anyone to know what we did.”
Sherry turned to look at him. The tissue he had been holding—mutilating—was now a pile of confetti waiting for a party that would never start.
“What did we do, Jeremy?”
He didn’t speak but continued to shred the tissue remnants into tinier and tinier pieces.
“Oh my God,” she said, cupping her hand over her mouth and returning her gaze to the floor. Her eyes traced the swirling green vines in the carpet’s floral pattern as she willed the tears back down where they came from. “Cole didn’t die because of us, because we fell in love.” She said this in almost a whisper, still staring at the muted shades of red and peach blooms in the carpet.
When Jeremy didn’t respond, she got up off the couch and walked toward the door. She held her breath as she passed by the dense collection of flowers arranged along the wall.
Sherry decided to leave Jeremy alone for the night. But the following morning, after a struggle to fasten the button on her jeans, she decided against sitting at home, waiting for him to apologize, and instead marched down the dirt road in the direction of his house. The three of them—two now, but soon to be three again—lived less than a five-minute walk from each other. She arrived on his doorstep in a record three minutes, feeling uncharacteristically out of breath. Sherry knocked on the wood frame of the screen door and tugged at where the metal back of her jeans’ button was digging into her stomach.
Jeremy’s mother answered the door, eyes still puffy.
“Hi, Mrs. Chambers,” Sherry said. “I just wanted to stop by and see how you and Jeremy are doing.”
Mrs. Chambers’s eyes filled with tears, and Sherry realized she should have just asked if Jeremy was home instead of reopening yesterday’s wound.
“I’m afraid he’s not here,” Mrs. Chambers said, and before Sherry knew what was happening, Mrs. Chambers had grabbed her and pulled her into a hug that almost toppled the both of them. Sherry could feel the tears seeping into the fabric of her shirtsleeve.
“He’s gone,” Mrs. Chambers said into Sherry’s ear.
“I know,” Sherry said. “He was one of a kind.”
“Not Cole. Jeremy. Jeremy’s gone.”
Sherry could feel the heat of Mrs. Chambers’s words on her ear, and she gasped, taking in a mouthful of air and the smell of Jeremy’s mother’s perfume—a floral scent. She held her breath after that, trying to subdue the urge to retch.
“I don’t understand,” Sherry said once Mrs. Chambers loosened her grip. “Where did he go?”
“I wish I knew, sweetheart. He just left me this note saying that he had to get away for a while to clear his head but that he’d call to let me know he was all right.”
“Is he answering his phone when you call?” Sherry asked.
Mrs. Chambers fished around in her pocket, producing Jeremy’s cellphone in her hand. “Left it behind.” She stuck her hand in her other pocket and pulled out an envelope. “He also left this, for you.” Mrs. Chambers handed the envelope to Sherry. “I’ll give you some privacy so you can read it.”
Mrs. Chambers turned and walked back in the house, letting the screen door slam behind her. Sherry turned and walked down the porch steps, sitting down on the bottom step with her feet resting on the dirt pathway. It had rained the night before, and the soil was soft. She placed a finger under the flap of the envelope and ran it along the edge as her shoes sank further into the damp earth.
Inside the envelope was a folded piece of paper with two handwritten lines on the inside:
I can’t look at you without seeing him.
Please don’t hate me.
Sherry sat there on the bottom step for a long time, staring at the piece of paper, her feet stuck in the mud.
Sara Yaroch is a writer residing in Michigan. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Arcadia University, as well as a JD from Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School. Her short fiction has appeared in the Blue Lake Review.