The Battle of Antietam in Technicolor, Alexandra Moleski
Annie smears pink paint onto the apple of my cheek with her index finger, raising it up to my cheekbone and then dragging it down the side of my face. I try not to laugh at the cold tickling my skin, sitting on the roof of her station wagon in the middle of a country road, halfway between Wells and Omaha.
“We are delightfully in between,” she told me as she parked the car, unloading her camera equipment.
Now she repeats the process on the other side, dips her finger back into the paint, fills the hearts in. I don’t look away while she does it, opting instead to stare directly into her seaglass green eyes, which today are devoid of makeup. She looks tired because she is. She rejected my offer to get coffee on our way out of town; she drove with confidence.
Annie leans back, trying to get a better look at me. She smiles and says, “Okay.”
She has a vision, and it is my job to make sure it comes true. I’m all dressed up in a ratty gray T-shirt she found at the bottom of her closet and my favorite overalls that I recently cut the legs off of during this particularly bad heat wave. It’s June, and we are high school graduates, and living like it too: most days our hair is slicked back with sweat; we walk the mile and a half to the community pool because we don’t know what else to do, mooch ice cream off my parents from the shop we own on Main Street, go to parties out at the junkyard on the corner of Richards and Cedar and drink beer until we’re confident enough to tell boys we like them. Or Annie does, at least. In the morning, she comes climbing up the terrace outside my bedroom window and tells me, “It wasn’t worth it.” She always smells like smoke from the fire that somebody always starts in a trash can the night before, and she gets under my covers with me in the early morning light. She asks me, “Did you go home with anybody?” I turn toward her and say into her hair, “No.”
Her vision is to capture this June. She says that June has a feeling associated with it, and she can put this month into a string of twelve photos. She wants to show the arts scholarship council that. It’s the only thing that’ll get her to New York in the fall. She has the acceptance letter but not the money.
She hops off the roof of the car and gives me her hands to help me down. I grip them as I slide, leaning into her to break my fall.
“Let’s get you into some wildflowers, kid,” she tells me, smiling, tossing her long braid over her shoulder.
With that, we go wading through the greens, purples and the blues, all competing with each other on the side of this dirt road, the only sign of civilization here. It’s a kaleidoscope of flowers; it’s June. It’s pretty out here, a nice change of pace. Seeing Annie look pretty in a place that’s also pretty is one of my favorite things about getting out of Wells.
I do what Annie tells me to do for the next hour. I lie on the ground, stand up, sit down, look away, look toward her, look toward the car.
“You oughta model,” she says from behind her camera.
That makes me smile wider. “Career option.”
“Put it on the list, kid,” she says.
I do. I add it mentally to the list I have running, everything from flight attendant to nanny to office secretary, or of course, taking over the family business. One of these is my future, maybe all of them. Maybe I don’t want to do anything. Maybe I’ll become a groupie. Once the band goes south, I’ll write an exposée and never be without a fat paycheck from the royalties. I could go to beauty school and learn how to ruin people’s lives with a single stroke of the scissors. Annie sees something fun in my open-endedness, my inability to make a plan. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.
I smile more for her so she doesn’t see how much I am actually considering this new career option. The portfolio wouldn’t be hard: I pretty much have one already, thanks to being Annie’s favorite subject to shoot.
She always tells me, “You’re just photogenic.”
Never pretty, or beautiful, or gorgeous, but photogenic. She explains it through some sort of science she has about subjects, about symmetry and hair and eyes and the face’s capability for expression.
“It’s all technicalities,” she’ll say.
After another half an hour, the sun starts to go behind the horizon, and we are bathed in gold. Annie squints her eyes against the light and starts to give her orders more quickly, in fear of missing the light. When the sun finally sinks, she starts to put her camera back into its bag. She fishes her keys out of her dress pocket and says, “Let’s go, kid.”
We listen to ABBA on the way home. Annie sings along with “Dancing Queen” even though it’s a good fifteen, twenty years old. She tells me it’s a classic in her mind already.
It makes me think of us, at the junkyard parties, dancing by the fire, no matter what’s playing. A bad boy band, or a cheesy rock ballad, even the Offspring. We are constantly singing — to each other as we walk through the neighborhoods, underwater when we swim at the creek, sometimes in our sleep. We are each other’s soundtracks.
“I can’t wait to see how these come out,” Annie says, offering me another smile. She takes one hand off the wheel to turn the radio down. “You’ve really been doing great. I can’t thank you enough.”
“What are we doing tonight?” Annie asks. She eyes the highway sign we pass and says, “You know, we could turn around and just head to Omaha. Get some real food or something.”
We let that sit as we realize that perhaps Omaha isn’t an incredible alternative to Wells. I bite the inside of my cheek, knowing that I’m headed there in the fall regardless, and would rather not see it just yet.
I shrug. “I think Betty Wheeler is having a party down by the creek.”
“Do you wanna go?”
“Norah,” she sings.
“Annie,” I echo.
“We can go if you want to go,” I offer.
“Stop with that bullshit. You’re so complacent. Take charge.”
I bite down on my tongue for a second before looking at Annie, who’s glaring out at the road, because she wouldn’t risk our lives just to shoot me a nasty look. But if she weren’t driving, I’d be under her gaze, sweating, trying to think of a way to make her smile again.
She’s right, really, it’s usually Annie who makes our plans, usually Annie who asks me to come along to something instead of the other way around. If it weren’t for her, I would have spent most of my weekends alone in high school. I could at least make a decision for once.
“We should go,” I say.
“‘Atta girl.” She cracks a smile.
“I think Wesley Manning is going to be there.” I examine my nails. “With his guitar.”
“Ah, it just keeps getting better,” Annie says. She knows I think he’s cute, as far as Nebraska boys go. “You should go for that tonight.”
“Don’t call people ‘that.’” I scrunch up my nose.
“You know what I mean,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I can be your wingman.”
“I am woman, hear me roar.” Annie grins. “I’d never forget, Norah.”
I squirm in my seat. Something about the idea of going to a party for the sole purpose of going home with a boy doesn’t sit right with me. It pretty much makes the entire party a breeding ground. We are humans, and now we must engage in our mating ritual of drinking bad beer and staring at each other and playing bad grunge music to entice the other. We offer each other some small talk before we decide it’s a good time to get out of here. Nothing is completely clear, and we’re a little hazy, but it’s our natural instincts. It’s in our blood.
Annie wouldn’t get it. Boys like her. She’ll be the most popular girl in New York.
“Wesley Manning,” Annie says, drawing out the syllables. She taps her hands on the wheel. “If I kill myself in Wells, Nebraska, I want Wesley Manning to be the one to find me.”
“Harsh,” I say. In all of our back and forths about what we’d do if we managed to be pathetic enough to die in Wells, Nebraska, we usually involve each other in the scenario. “Why not me?”
She shakes her head. “You’d be traumatized.”
“What if it wasn’t a suicide?” I ask. “What if you like, got hit by a car?”
“I’d want him to hit me.”
Annie just laughs, her whole body shaking. She’s tiny, a skinny and freckled five-foot-four, but when she laughs, she’s taller than any building in Wells. Even when she’s frowning, or biting her nails, she acquires attention. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time with her.
We pass the water tower, which means we’re in town.
I decide to say something that’ll piss her off just as much. “If I die in Wells, Nebraska, I want to fall from the water tower. I want the headlines to read: LOCAL GIRL FALLS FROM WATER TOWER, THOUGHT SHE WAS COOL. Everybody will be so fucking embarrassed at my funeral that they won’t be able to speak. My mother will go into hiding because nobody will stop asking her if she was the one whose daughter fell from the water tower.”
Annie falls silent for a moment. I start to regret wanting to hit hard, because Annie doesn’t back down when I hit hard. She hits back. I was trying to be funny, but unfortunately, Annie finds nothing funny in my goals.
Finally: “You need to stop.”
“Hey, you just told me you want Wesley Manning to kill you.”
“Should I want you to kill me?” she asks. “You actually want to climb that thing. It’s all you fucking talk about. You have an obsession. And if you go up there, you are going to die.”
I look at the window as we pass the screenprinting studio. We’re a block from our houses.
“And sometimes I think that if you died, you wouldn’t even care.”
I sigh. “I’d be dead, Annie. Of course I wouldn’t care.”
She pulls onto our street. Her hand-over-hand is sloppy today. “Come on, Norah. Don’t talk like that. You’re not climbing that thing.”
I sit in silence as she pulls into my driveway. This means we’re not hanging out until the party. The day is over for the time being. We’re not going to get ready together. I’m not going to watch her try on three different sets of matching bras and underwear, prancing around like a princess. I won’t get to advise her about whether she wants to wear the black demi-cup or the purple halter. She’ll just pick me up in a few hours.
And all because I want to have one little adventure in this town, see the stars up close, get a new perspective, be queen of the fucking world for a whole ten minutes. Before I die here. Before I become a part of the Nebraska sediment and kids in their Earth science classes see me as just another layer of the Earth in their little diagrams. Say, “Huh.” Say, “That’s sad.”
I unbuckle my seatbelt. “Whatever.”
As I get up and slam the door, she leans over the seat and yells after me, “And you are getting the fuck out of Wells!”
June isn’t supposed to feel like disagreeing with Annie, so we put on our best smiles for each other when she picks me up for the party. She’s wearing big black boots with her little black dress, and I haven’t bothered to change since the afternoon. Annie takes offense to the fact that my hearts have started to crack a little bit, one side smeared from how I fell asleep during my nap. She tells me that she can’t let me show up to a party that way.
When we get to the creek, parked on the side of the road, she takes her paints out of her purse and squirts some orange onto her finger, and motions me toward her. I turn my face, and she steadies it with one hand under my chin. And then she paints, making big circles to cover up the hearts, then a few lines.
She smiles at me. “They’re suns.”
We sing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” the whole way to the party. Despite the sun going down, the dry heat has not let up, and I try my best not to sweat onto her as she leans into me, singing the lyrics with a goofy grin. It’s a night where I’m thankful for the scent of a fire and the twinkling of lightning bugs in the distance, ready to take my shoes off and sink my toes into the mud of the creek. It’s June.
When Annie leaves me to go sit on the cooler with a boy who was in our history class, I keep mouthing the song to myself. You make me happy when skies are gray.
It’s a typical party at the creek: some people are wading in, splashing each other, some kids are just sitting and watching. Some are on logs, some on the ground, others dancing to the music of Wesley Manning, who is sitting in the bed of a pickup truck that somebody dared to park all the way down here. He’s strumming out a Smashing Pumpkins song, letting his voice linger over everybody else’s conversations; he is trying to be our soundtrack. He has a few followers sitting on the truck with him, or on the ground beside him, looking up and swaying a little bit, pretending he’s any good. Pretending he’s not just pretty.
I help myself to a few drinks, lingering by a tree, before I go over to talk to him. I’m no good at these things: socializing and dancing and throwing my friends in the creek. None of the people here are people I remember hanging out with in high school; now that we’ve graduated, I’m not even sure who I spent most of my time with. Surely, some of these people. Annie is good at these things. She’s off by the water, in the cute history boy’s arms; he’s swinging her around, dipping her toes in the water. Treating her like a princess. She is smiling.
You do not know, dear, how much I love you —
Penny Davis from down the street offers me a cup of her homemade sangria and tries to include me in a conversation she’s having with Audrey White from two blocks over. I take the sangria, but my eyes keep drifting toward Wesley Manning, who is now thumping on his guitar, making soundwaves that vaguely resemble the Beastie Boys. It’s terrible. I take another cup of sangria and let my tongue turn to fruit. Let my lips buzz. Smile and reveal that I am full of strawberries. I take another cup for Wesley and push on in that direction.
He makes eye contact before I sit down in the bed of the truck, with more force than I intended.
“Do you know any Pearl Jam songs?” I ask.
He laughs. “Didn’t know you liked that kind of stuff.”
I stick out my strawberry tongue. He’d have no way of knowing. We’ve been passing each other in the hallway for thirteen years, talking about class, about parties, about whatever, but nothing specific. I hand him the cup of sangria and say, “It’s not for me. It’s for Annie. She fucking loves Pearl Jam.”
“Oh,” he says, laughing. “I know a couple.”
He starts to strum and sing, and a few of his followers start to nod along, because yeah, man, fuck it, we’re all teenagers and we’ve got a bone to pick with the man, tear down the establishment. I crane my neck to see Annie, who’s still with cute history boy, now riding piggyback on his bony fucking shoulders. She doesn’t even look over in our direction; she doesn’t even hear it.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
I lean very close to Wesley Manning’s face and ask, “Do you want to get out of here?”
I am running hand in hand with Wesley Manning down Maple Street, which is a stupid name for a street, and Wells is a stupid name for a town, but none of that seems to matter right now. We are giddy, giggling, tripping over ourselves as we head for the water tower. We are going to be King and Queen of Wells, looking over everybody who is too small for us to care about. They won’t hear us singing and it won’t matter. We’ll know where we stand, and we’ll be with the stars, and we are going to feel so good about it. We are going to buzz, glow, for everyone as far as Omaha to see.
“I’m ready to rule the world,” I tell him as we hop the fence to the water tower, everything a little off-kilter. He lands beside me and grabs my hand again as we head to the tower, our throne, shining bright white in the pitch black night.
“You’re crazy,” he breathes as we approach the ladder.
I shake my head. “I’m a queen, Wesley Manning.”
He laughs and stops underneath the ladder, turns toward me. “You are as beautiful as a queen.”
I swallow. “Really?”
“Yeah,” he laughs, placing a hand behind my neck. “I think you’re really beautiful, Norah. I don’t think that’s hard to believe.”
He kisses me, and my strawberry lips mix with his orange mouth, tangy and all kinds of wrong. I try to ignore it for the sake of a good time, try to ignore how much he tastes like alcohol, how much I must. We are king and queen, we are beautiful. We are alone. We are here. We will always be here.
I pull away from him. “Lift me up.”
He laughs. “Are you sure?”
I point above me, to where the ladder stops. “I’m too short.”
Wesley Manning looks hesitant but puts his hands on my waist and lifts me up with minimal effort, because he is strong and capable and beautiful and floating on air. I reach my hands out above me, toward the white metal, and yell when my skin makes contact. Once I’m holding onto the ladder, he helps me get up the first few rungs, and then steps back.
I’m on my way up.
“Norah, you realize how tall this thing is, don’t you?” he asks from below me.
I’m already climbing, keeping my hands focused on the metal rungs. Moving one hand, then one foot. One hand, then one foot. There are patterns that make sense; this is one of them.
“Get up here,” I tell him. “You said you wanted to sit with me.”
“We could sit down here. Underneath the tower,” he says. “Come on, Norah. I don’t want you getting in trouble. I thought you meant we’d just sit here.”
I go faster now, and my foot almost misses a rung. It slips a little bit, and I inhale sharply. After finding my footing, I call down, “You’re being silly.”
“So are you.”
“Not as drunk as you are, kid.”
“Don’t call me that,” I call down, freezing in my climbing. I wonder where Annie is, and then realize that she’s probably somewhere with cute history boy, in his bedroom or farther down the creek. He’s probably complimenting her on her ability to match her bra and underwear so perfectly. She’s probably not thinking about me, so I try to stop thinking about her.
I keep climbing, but Wesley Manning starts to tell me that he’s going to go back to the party. He’s making excuses, and they’re not completely registering, because You are my sunshine, my only sunshine won’t stop repeating in my head, and I am gripping the ladder with white knuckles, trying not to think about whether Annie is wearing the pink lacy set or the white one.
“Norah, I’m going.”
I look down, finally, to tell him not to go, and I realize just how high up I am. Wesley Manning is tiny, as are the houses behind him. When I look up, I still have a ways to go. I am frozen in place. I clutch the ladder tighter and immediately start crying. Because if I let go, I’m going to die. And I kind of, sort of, somewhere in the soles of my feet and the back of my throat, want to let go of the ladder. Because I am not glowing or buzzing or anything. I am headed nowhere but down, but Omaha. And Wesley Manning thinks I’m beautiful but Annie doesn’t. I am full of technicalities, but nothing else. I am a walking contradiction and a coward, unable to move. Unable to ask for help.
“Call me a queen again,” I tell him. “Call me a queen and I’ll come down there.”
“Norah, you’re a fucking queen,” he sighs, and it’s almost convincing.
When Annie climbs through my bedroom window the next morning, she is wearing the same black dress I saw her in last night. I open my eyes sluggishly, my head pounding. She slips into bed next to me and rests her head on my shoulder, my back to her.
“It wasn’t worth it,” she whispers.
I bite my tongue.
“Where did you go?” she asks. “I was looking for you.”
“No, you weren’t,” I say. The light from my window is so bright, it’s making me tear up. I wipe one of the tears away and say, “I left with Wesley Manning.”
“Wow. Really?” She starts to trace shapes onto my forearm. “Did he take you home?”
I nod, refusing to turn around to look at her.
“How was that?”
“How was what, Annie?”
“He called me beautiful. He thinks I’m a queen,” I tell the wall, rather than her. The walls in this room are baby pink, the color my parents painted it back when I was born. They haven’t bothered to change it, nor have I. We are comfortably complacent. “He thinks I’m special.”
“Plenty of people think you’re beautiful, Norah, doesn’t mean they’re good in bed.”
I sigh, all the air I’ve been holding in finally releasing itself. “We didn’t-” I stop myself, reconsider what I want to say. I let a moment pass. My voice catches as I say, “You don’t think I’m beautiful.”
“Norah, that’s not true.” She wraps her arms around my waist.
I extricate myself from her grasp and sit up in bed so I can look down at her. She’s startled, with her hands up in front of her. Immediately defensive.
“You tell me it’s all technicalities.”
“Oh, come on,” she says, reaching to put a hand on my knee, but I flick it away.
“Please don’t touch me,” I say. “You always touch me and then act like it doesn’t mean anything. Why the fuck doesn’t it mean anything, Annie? Why are those boys never worth it?”
She stutters, slowly sitting up. “Norah, I’m hungover, and I think you are, too. I think we should just go get some food—”
“I don’t want to get food,” I say. “I want you to tell me there’s a reason that you take all these photos of me, that you come here in the mornings and that you drove me to school every single day in high school and took me to all those concerts and that you’ve never looked at anybody the way you’ve looked at me, none of those boys—”
“That’s… all of that… that’s what friends do, Norah,” she says, shaking her head. “I didn’t know…”
She lets that sit, and so do I. I try to look anywhere but at her: the open window, the photos that she’s taken that are all over my bulletin boards above my desk. She is everywhere. It’s too late.
“Your suns are still on,” she says, reaching for her purse that’s on the floor. She takes the orange paint out and comes closer to me, saying, “You messed them up.”
She starts to fix them, but I’m already crying. She tries to wipe away my tears, but they keep trailing into the paint. I don’t know why I’m sitting here letting her do this. She starts to whisper, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” to me while she tries to finish up, like this matters, like this is going to make any of this any better. Like she’s not branding me and expecting me to not get attached to her, expecting me not to think she considers me special. Expecting me to think there’s nothing there. There’s no turning back.
She wipes my hair out of my face and says, “Smile, kid.”
I shake my head. “I need you to leave.”
“Norah, I didn’t do anything.”
“I asked you not to touch me,” I say.
Annie looks away from me, then caps the paint. “You could have stopped me.”
I can’t stop crying now, because Annie thinks this is fun, I know she does. I know she’s seeing how long it will take for me to break down, throw myself off the water tower. It would make a great performance art piece. She could tell all her friends about it once she gets to New York, watch their eyes widen and lips open as they topple out, “Wow, really?” and she’ll know that she did it. She made it happen.
“I asked you,” I repeat, “not to touch me.”
“When have you ever had to ask me?” she asks, her voice dropping. “You’ve never asked me that before.”
I am leaning away from her, but she is leaning toward me, her eyes wide, her lips open. Like she’s going to apologize. Like she’s going to say all sorts of things that will make this better. Like she’s going to kiss Forgive me into my palms and let me cry off these orange suns onto her cheeks until we’ve forgotten what we were arguing about in the first place.
Instead, I push myself off the bed, grab a flannel to throw over my pajamas, and run out the door, leaving Annie yelling, “Norah, what did I do?” letting the final syllable ring throughout the creaking, crippling house, letting the stairs puncture her words, “Norah, come back,” letting my slamming of the front door put a period on the end of her sentence.
I get onto my bike because I still haven’t passed the dumb road test because we have to take it all the way in Omaha and I don’t know my way around there, I don’t know the people there, I don’t know if people are going to get mad at me for utilizing my right of way, I don’t know. The houses of all the people I’ve known my entire life who I’ve never once had a strong feeling about pass by as I fly down the street, letting my legs pedal until I’m soaring, speeding, past fucking Betsy Davis’s house with all her fucking baskets that she makes for the Omaha homeless, because she wants to do something larger than herself. Too bad we’re already a part of Wells; too bad Wells has swallowed us whole.
Wells is swallowing me whole; I hear the chirping of birds because it’s too goddamn early for this, the distant sounds of tractors and farm equipment and lawn mowers all throughout this joke of a town. The sun is relentless, and there is nothing to block it. I squint against the light, no helmet to protect me.
Annie wants me to get the fuck out of here and Wesley Manning wants me to get the fuck out of here and I am considering how this is possible; when your family has lived and died in Wells for as many generations as you can count, how do you get the fuck out? How do you look at Interstate maps and feel comfortable with ingraining them behind your eyes, into your veins, through your skin so you never forget the way to I-95, or I-84, feel comfortable with not knowing, with telling your parents that the ice cream shop is for kids who only have sugar and sweets to look forward to, and let chocolate melt on their tongues instead of using them to say things like, “There has to be something better.”
And I know that there is something better, somewhere. I am attending Omaha Metropolitan Community College in the fall. Forty minutes there and back, every day. My parents say it’s a better investment than the one twenty minutes away. They could have invested even more wisely by letting me leave. By not asking me to watch the shop in the evenings. By not making me feel obligated to stay.
It is when I pass Wesley Manning’s house on Cedar that I realize this June has been a joke, a fabrication of something more pleasant that was never meant to exist, at least not for me. June was a goal that Annie set for herself, but I wasn’t really a part of the plan. I tell myself not to think this way, so hopelessly, as I turn onto Main Street, ignoring the ice cream shop that won’t be open for a couple more hours and the old ladies sitting on the bench by the Dollar General. I head toward the only landmark I really want to see in this town.
When I get to the water tower, I haven’t succeeded in not thinking this way, and am instead only thinking this way, thinking of Annie with that boy last night, probably on the roof of her station wagon, looking up at the stars and acting as if oblivion is motivational, inspirational, and not utterly terrifying; thinking of Annie singing “Dairy Queen” to the tune of “Dancing Queen” as we get Blizzards late at night, acting like we’re not cheating on my parents; thinking of Annie sliding on lipstick before we headed out for her awards dinner in Omaha, her telling me that the color is called prairie rust, me telling her it was pretty regardless, she was pretty regardless; thinking of Annie casting glances in my direction while I dozed off in her passenger seat on the way home that night.
Her saying, “I love you, kid,” thinking I was asleep.
I get to the water tower and ditch my bike. My arms protest when I throw myself over the fence, but I don’t care. There’s no time to think about pain, not really. I get to the ladder and reach up, only to realize that I am still too short. I have not grown taller in my defiance. If anything, I feel smaller than ever. I stand there for a few moments, hands stretched.
I hear the click of a camera shutter coming from the fence. Annie is perched on the top of the chain-link, lowering her camera. We make brief eye contact, and then she hangs the camera from her neck and swings herself over to the opposite side; she heads back to her station wagon. She does not look back at me as I lower my hands to my sides.
She already thinks that I’m going to follow her. But I don’t. I let my eyes follow her as she opens her car door, knowing that she’s lost all her patience. I’ve done nothing wrong, but she’s the one who gets to be frustrated. I can’t manage to make any sound come out of my mouth, so I decide to remain silent. I turn back to the ladder, trying to stretch myself even harder.
I hear her car door slam, and out of habit, I turn to look. Her camera is gone, in the car, but she’s outside still, arms crossed over her chest.
“What are you trying to do, kid?” she calls. “Kill yourself? I’m not just going to stand here and watch you. That’s just pathetic.”
“I’m just trying to get up,” I tell her.
“Humans really aren’t supposed to go up there, I don’t think,” she says, leaning against her car.
“There’s a ladder for a reason!”
She sighs and starts to move toward me. There are no apologies gracing her lips, no “What do we do now,” no orders to stay away from the monstrosity. Instead, she comes over to me and cups her hands together, offering them to me as a step up.
“Obviously, it doesn’t matter what I say,” she says. “You’re just going to do whatever the fuck you want.”
She knows this isn’t true. She knows that I have been at her beck and call for the last four years; she knows that I’d follow her all the way to New York if she asked me to. I’d put the maps out on the dash and guide her and watch her hand-over-hand until we hit the Atlantic.
She waits for me to say something, perhaps prove her wrong.
Instead, I use her lift-up to reach the ladder, and pull myself up to the rungs. And I climb. I let Annie say, “There’s no way in hell, Norah,” and I let myself remember that I am better than Wells, I am better than kissing Wesley Manning and better than scooping ice cream on Monday afternoons. I let myself remember that these are all lies, false hopes. I am unsure at best, uncertain at worst. I am doomed for Nebraska, doomed to trace the shape of Annie into my sheets when she is off skipping on concrete, keeping her balance on the subway.
I am doomed to be stationary.
I climb faster.
The next time I look back, Annie is walking to her car, and I know that she doesn’t want to see this. She’d rather get a head start on developing her film and figuring out if she can use any of it. She’d rather go home and scrub the scent of the creek party off her skin. She’ll come by in an hour, maybe, to see if I’m still up there. To see if I’ve fallen, just like she said I would.
I am close to the top when I remember the first concert Annie took me to see in Omaha; Counting Crows, and how fitting. When they started playing their song “Omaha,” Annie leaned in closer to me like we were in on the same joke, and those words tumbled in my head all week, all year: it’s the heart that matters more, I think you better turn your ticket in.
I felt like that night was never going to end. She drove home with the windows down, so our conversations were full of fresh air, and she was the happiest I had ever seen her at that point.
I try to remember the last time I was that happy without her next to me.
When I get to the top of the tower, I pull myself up to the platform. My muscles are telling me that this was a very, very bad idea, and I am starting to agree. I leave my cheek against the metal, do not worry if the suns are smearing off. I hope they are. I hope my orange stains this whole tower. I hope they rename it after me.
No more, WELLS, just NORAH.
It is several minutes before I pull myself up to view my domain. When I finally see it, I can’t help but cry. Because it is a million times sadder than I thought it would be.
Wells ends. Wells has limits. Outside those limits is nothing. And inside those limits, even worse, is nothing. I can pick out my house from out here. I can pick out Annie’s. I can pick out the creek she spun around in just last night. And none of that makes me feel any better. Not at all.
I am no queen, and Annie is no princess, and I count every moment that it takes me to return back to the ground, and every moment is infinitely too long.
I’m under the impression that Annie has decided we’re done, that I shouldn’t have gotten upset about nothing, that I could have gone around yesterday a million different ways than I did, when Annie comes knocking on my window. It’s the middle of the night, but I’m still awake, not knowing what to do with my nights if I’m not with her. I realize this is pathetic, and open the window.
She doesn’t say anything as she slides into the room, and then deposits herself onto the windowsill, staying away from my bed. I sit back down on the mattress and she offers me an envelope, wordlessly. I take it, asking, “What is this?”
“The photos I took of you,” she says. “I figured you’d want them. Or something. I developed them today.”
“You’re supposed to use them for the art school scholarship,” I say.
She rolls her eyes. “Whatever. I have better photos.”
I try not to let that poison seep through my stomach lining just yet and take the photos out of the envelope. “Weren’t you supposed to be doing portraits as you concentration?”
“I can take portraits of other people, Norah,” she says. “People who won’t get upset that I take pictures of them.”
“That’s not fair,” I say, looking away from her, down at the pictures. They’re the ones from a few days ago when we were by the pool; I’m in a black and white striped suit and there are purple hearts on my cheeks, which stand out against the gray of the pool, the gray of the sky. I’m laughing with my chin pointed up.
“The only picture I’m keeping is that one of you reaching up to the water tower,” she says. “That was the best picture in the whole damn bunch. So thanks.”
I try to ignore that and put the photos down for a moment. “Annie… I’m sorry. I made things weird.”
She shrugs and says, “Don’t apologize,” in a way that ensures that I should be apologizing, because she’s upset. “Obviously, there’s something wrong with me, right. I’ll ask your permission next time before I touch you.”
“I don’t understand,” I say. “You don’t… like those boys.”
“I’m allowed to like you better than those boys and still not want to marry you, kid,” she says. “That’s the difference between you and me.”
I know that if Annie asked me to take off with her to Omaha to dance in a bar with her again, swapping beers she got a guy to buy her while we trade Counting Crows lyrics, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Because I don’t have anybody else. And I don’t have anything else. And that is the worst part of it all. That I know I am in too deep.
She could ask me to marry her on a country road and I’d probably still say yes.
“I don’t want to marry you,” I say. “You don’t get it.”
“I think I get it, Norah,” she says. “And it’s probably better if you just left me alone for a while.”
“What?” I ask. “I said I was sorry, we can go take more pictures, Annie, we could go to the party tomorrow night, we can just forget that any of this happened.”
“You don’t want to,” she says.
And somehow, she’s right. Which I hate.
She slips back out of the window wordlessly, and I do not hear from her again until a month later when she shows up at the ice cream shop with camera in hand and I try not to freeze up, try not to stop scooping so she can get the candid that she is obviously after; she waits until all the other customers have left and my shift is over, because she still knows when my shift is over, and she pulls out her paints and calls to me after I hang my baseball cap up on the wall, so I can do nothing but sit down with her at a table and let her use blue to paint stars onto my cheeks; she studies my face and is too careful with my skin, like she always was, and she smiles when she’s done and says, “Let’s go to Omaha, huh?”
On the way home, she turns off the Counting Crows album to tell me, “I need those pictures back.”
“I already got rid of them,” I say, which isn’t true.
She pulls over and looks at me, hard. Her chin juts out, she trembles. “What do you mean?”
“I got rid of them,” I repeat.
She studies me again and then says, “I bet they’re in your fucking nightstand drawer, Norah.” And she gets back on the road, drives back to Wells, and climbs up the tree to the window even though we could go through the front door, and sure enough, there they are, and she slips them into her purse and says, “Nobody else looked natural like you did.”
I watch her go, and before she slams the door she says, “Don’t lie to me anymore, kid.”
I don’t take her address down when she leaves for New York. I don’t write.
The day she leaves, I go down to the creek and take my shoes off and let the mud seep in between my toes and I allow myself to not feel alone. I allow myself to not need somebody by my side. I allow myself to stop lying.
About the Author
Erika Riley · Knox College
Erika Riley is a senior at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She is the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, The Knox Student. She hopes to work in journalism or media after graduation. “Prairie Rust, Strawberry Lips” first appeared in Quiver.
About the Artist
Alexandra Moleski · Simmons University
Alexandra Moleski is a recent graduate of Simmons University with a B.A. in History and a personal passion for silkscreen printing. “The Battle of Antietam in Technicolor” first appeared in Sidelines.