Drought

Fiction
Eileen Gonzalez


Drought Along Po River
Photo Credit: Sergio Bertolini

The first time she hears Gina’s voice, she fears it.

She is reading the first question on her first college midterm and suddenly Gina is behind her, crunching granola and hissing a wrong answer in her ear. Carly whips around, face cold and chest hot, and finds nothing but an unused chalkboard. She stares at her test until the numbers blur together and spends the remaining time worrying that the pills have stopped working.

The second time she hears Gina’s voice, she ignores it.

She is driving home for the weekend when Gina chirps from the passenger’s seat, “Red light!” Carly glances up, just long enough to confirm the light’s obnoxious green glare, and doesn’t stop. Gina chatters about comic books and basketball for the rest of the trip, smelling of spare ribs from the take-out place they ordered from whenever they had to study all night. Carly says nothing. When she gets home and her mother asks about the drive, she says “Noisy” and retreats upstairs.

The third time she hears Gina’s voice, she accepts it.

Now she sees an echo of Gina, like a reflection in a fog-covered mirror. She perches on the headboard, her hair a luscious berry red even though it was lavender the day she died. A cat’s cradle links long, paler-than-flesh fingers. Once Carly finishes her history paper, she ties together a pair of shoelaces and contorts them into knitting needles.

“‘Bout time you joined in,” says Gina. “Wanna watch a movie?”

“No.”

But they do.

Gina’s visits come with increasing frequency and solidity as Thanksgiving break approaches; she sits on the table at every meal, heckles Carly’s favorite documentaries, and lulls her to sleep with dirty limericks. Everything seems so normal, so much like before, that Carly sometimes forgets and asks Gina’s opinion while standing in the cafeteria or shopping for hoodies in the school bookstore. At first, she is quick to realize her error and hide in a bathroom until the blush fades and Gina stops laughing. Then she learns to wear a Bluetooth and stops caring, exchanging movie reviews in the mall and laughing at Gina’s jokes as they turn the corner of Eidolon Street. Gina all but lives with her now, and Carly still can’t ask the question that has burned its way through her stomach since April. The flame jumps and flashes inside her as she walks, shriveled scrub tugging at her jeans and sand rising in small puffs with every step. Gina walks beside her, and Carly doesn’t have to look behind them to know they leave just one set of prints.

“Do you think Stonehenge was built with alien levitation technology?” says Gina.

“No.”

“I’m trying to make conversation here.”

“You’re not trying very hard.”

“What’d you expect? You know how lazy I was when it came to everything except basketball.”

That is probably the first truth to ever cross Gina’s lips.

*

Carly remembers her first semester at Tobosa Bluff Academy, a shamefully overpriced boarding school far away from irritable parents. The main building used to be a mission. It now serves as a library, its scuffed silver bell silent except at the start and end of each semester and, as Carly discovered her senior year, the death of a student.

Her second class that day was German, and the professor hadn’t arrived yet. An unfortunate glance through the textbook told her that German had at least six words for the. She was clicking around the school website for openings in any other language course when Gina walked in, school uniform looking awkwardly perfect between aquamarine hair and peep toe pumps that would have been more appropriate in an S&M club than a high school.

Some of the girls, Carly included, briefly stared before returning to their smartphones and laptops. As far as she could tell, she hadn’t done anything differently from anyone else, but Gina took the seat next to hers and said, “So! Katherine Hepburn, June Allyson, or Winona Ryder? I have to write an analysis of feminist themes in Little Women, and I’m trying to decide which of the movies to watch instead of reading the book.”

Carly picked Hepburn. It must have been a good choice, because the next night in Observational Astronomy, when Gina once again ambled in and stole everyone’s attention, she sat by Carly and invited her and her boyfriend to the basketball game that weekend.

“I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Wow, really? ‘S’okay, you’re still invited. Bring a not-boyfriend. You have one of those, right?”

*

Carly’s mouth twitches into something like a grin as they curve away from the road toward open desert. No, she didn’t have one of those. She still doesn’t. Normal girls have friends, not hand-wringing paranoiacs who take more pills than their grandmothers. So when Gina barged into her life with invitations to sporting events she couldn’t care less about and enough enthusiasm to intimidate a golden retriever, Carly allowed her to stay and claim the otherwise unwanted title of Carly’s Best Friend.

True, Gina hadn’t been much of a friend. Friends don’t make fun of each other’s names. (“Carlotta? That’s a thing? I thought it was something Hitchcock made up to sound creepy.”) They don’t distract you with Wii bowling when they know you have a test in the morning. They certainly don’t drag you to comic cons and shove you into unflattering costumes belonging to characters you’ve never heard of. At least, Carly’s pretty sure friends don’t do that. But Gina helped her with her German and taught her enough single-player games to fill every lonesome evening, so if her teasing sharpened after Carly came out, neither of them mentioned it.

Clouds shuffle across the hidden sky, a seamless patchwork of cotton and steel-gray. There have been many days like this lately, dark and promising, but nothing ever changes and Carly can’t bring herself to object.

Gina’s head remains bowed as she walks, avoiding every dry crack in the sand. Nothing bothers Gina, not even the time Carly caught a flu bug so fierce that her roommate abandoned her for a week. When Carly texted Gina to cancel their study session, she got no answer. Carly assumed she didn’t care until she barged in two hours later with an armful of DVDs, insisting Animaniacs could cure all ills. Carly watched it for days after Gina died. It didn’t work. Gina always was a liar.

“Hey look, a frog!”

It takes a moment for Carly to find Gina’s transparent finger and follow it, ending at a black-flecked brown lump sitting beside what is either a small pond or a large puddle. Probably the former.

“That’s a Rio Grande Leopard Frog,” says Carly.

“There’s a mouthful. I’m gonna call him Bean.”

“That’s why you got a C in biology.”

Gina laughs and sits cross-legged beside the… beside Bean, her hand flickering through the oblivious creature when she tries to touch him. Carly feels something molten ripple in her chest, and she wonders why Gina’s presence hurts so much more than her absence.

“Why’d you do it?”

She didn’t mean to say it but there it is, hanging between them in the desiccated air, and Gina doesn’t even have the decency to acknowledge it.

“Do what? Name him Bean? He looks like a Bean.”

“You know what I meant.”

She does, too. Carly can hear the sudden inhale, can see the almost-frown trying to wrinkle her non-existent forehead. When Gina smiles, the edges could cut diamond.

“Well that truck wasn’t going to stop itself, now was it, sweetcheeks?”

“That was the point.”

“It was a stupid point and I should stab you with it.”

“You were going places. You had a perfect roadmap of where you wanted to go and who you wanted to be and all I knew was that porpoises were cute and Argentina looked interesting.”

“What makes you think that?”

“My family’s from Buenos Aires…”

“You know what I meant.”

Carly recognizes mocking when she hears it, but she can’t pinpoint the cause. The long silence must give her away, because Gina rolls her eyes and makes a tch sound.

“The part about me knowing what I was doing? Hello?”

“All that stuff you used to do—basketball, parties, geography club, nerd conventions. You loved everything and everybody, and meanwhile, all I did was sit around staring at walls.”

“Just because I did a lot doesn’t mean I knew what to do with any of it.”

A sweat drop rolls down Carly’s back, and she doesn’t know if she imagines the flush on Gina’s cheeks or if she feels the heat as well. She thinks she hears a crackle of thunder in the distance, but it never rains so late in the year.

“What’s it like being dead?”

“What’s it like being alive?”

Carly’s mouth flops uselessly. Gina laughs as another thunderclap startles a cedar waxwing into flight, its feathers a yellow-gold blur in the corner of Carly’s stinging eye. It disappears long before Gina takes pity and says, “I don’t remember anything that happens when we’re not hanging. Considering what I did to my dad’s favorite chair on my last Valentine’s Day, that’s probably a good thing.”

The smirk Gina gives her is far too reminiscent of the day she asked her to the basketball game. Carly’s responding smile never appears, lost to the hollow feeling of the world slipping through her fingers. Gina’s smirk twists into a grimace.

“Y’know, sometimes I wish you’d grow balls long enough for me to kick them. The ‘oh poor me I’m obviously a failure despite all evidence to the contrary’ act was old before I croaked. It’s probably on life support by now, and trust me, that shit’s no fun.”

“Look at my life!” Carly yells, and Carly doesn’t like to yell but she feels like if she doesn’t do it now, she never will again. “What have I ever done that was worth throwing yourself in front of a truck?”

“You’re eighteen. Unless your name begins with M and ends with ozart, no one expects you to have done anything. I just made sure you had plenty of time to decide.”

“How do you know? How do you know there won’t be another road, another truck, and no other you to step in front of it?”

Carly wonders if there’s a connection between Gina’s look and Bean’s hasty departure.

“Yeah, well, let’s stay away from large moving objects, shall we?” Gina says. “I could try the whole heroic sacrifice bit again, but something tells me that was a one-time deal.”

The desert grows dim. A smoky gray has conquered every cloud, crowding out the white and swallowing shadows. Gina snorts.

“I can’t even believe you. I save your life, and what do you do? Wander around the desert talking about frogs. Don’t you get it? You’re alive! You’re supposed to do things! Discover a new exoplanet! Learn Norwegian! Get laid!”

“You wouldn’t let me. All we ever did was what you wanted.”

“So what’s your excuse now?”

Gina falls silent as the first raindrops hit the sand.

pencil

Eileen Gonzalez is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her first novel, tentatively titled A Nice Wardrobe, will be available on the Kindle in 2014. piedpiper59[at]ymail.com

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