The leaves used to be green but not anymore. Now they are red but slowly less so, slowly paling and losing. As fall goes on the leaves will subside and scatter the sidewalks and be stepped on. Some will slip into the river, the hissing river that runs right through the center of the town, consuming all sound and manifesting itself as sort of a filtered, roaring transcendence. Below the surface of the river is the real face of whoever looks. If Alice Applegate were here, out past the suburb’s edge at five in the morning, she would look into the river and see God manifest in nature, testifying of Himself through Himself, excitably alive and unstoppable. Drew Jackson might look into the river and be swept away in grand romantic language: maybe the speed of the river would be his swooning soul, or the color of the river Her solipsistic eyes, or the feeling of the spritzed air upon his lips the light pressure of Hers. But today it is not Alice or Drew looking into the river.
To Adam, the emotionless crashing of the river sounds a lot like the inside of his own head and this realization is not a comfortable one. The cool water in the air seems spit at him as it scrapes his face and further reddens his nose. The river runs on forever it seems, relaxed and forceful, bludgeoning those in its path. The river has existed since before he was born and will continue to flow long after he is gone. The river is release, as Adam sees it from the top of the bridge, and he longs to be a part of that rushing traffic, to be swept away quietly with the leaves and never heard from again. This is fall and he is fallen, he thinks quietly, hating himself.
Adam’s phone rings out in awful Marimba and of course she’s there. He backs away from the edge to answer, and, before he can say hello:
“Adam! Guess what day it is! Guess!”
“I don’t know, Alice, is it Columbus Day?” Adam’s voice doesn’t betray the blankness of his eyes. He talks without smiling and hopes that his litter sister will think he’s being intentionally dry.
“No, it’s not Columbus Day. Columbus Day is actually incredibly exploitive, I don’t celebrate it. Today is Homecoming, weirdo, and I’m your favorite sister, right?”
“So I need you to take me to the store for a couple of last minute things I forgot, including, maybe, a boutonnière which I didn’t remember until Mom reminded me this morning.”
“What’s in it for me?” He’s warmer now.
“How about the sweet satisfaction of knowing that your little sister loves you and is super appreciative of your excellent driving?”
“Nice try. We can figure out the terms over breakfast, I’ll be home in twenty.”
“Thanks Adam, you’re a life saver! Love you.”
She’s gone and he’s still there, standing at the ledge.
The Applegate family room has all the central conceits of gentrified, red-state, cargo-short living. There is a cross on the wall and a report card (straight-A’s as usual, thank you very much, even though AP Latin was a close one for Alice this time around) on the fridge and a color-coded calendar with pictures of, for some reason, Europe. There is a bible (King James version) on the table and still Adam’s acceptance letter from forever ago and pictures: black and white, baby and teen, marriage and prom, some dated, some posed, some creepily red-eyed because the nineties happened, all scattered and framed and thrown up as if to say “Look! Things are good and have been good and will continue to be good so long as we keep taking pictures!”
Adam sits in a leather chair, eating an apple and smiling with a sort of half-genuine excitement. Mom anxiously taps her foot, checking her phone with a sort of calculated casualness every fifteen seconds on the dot and frequently looking over at the counter as if to make sure that, no, the camera has not moved since she last checked. Dad is upstairs with Alice. The doorbell rings and Adam says “I’ve got it” to Mom, but she hovers behind him on his way there, as if unsure that he is able to properly conduct himself socially in present condition.
At the door is a brown haired boy of painfully-average height, shuffling awkwardly but enthusiastically in a rental tuxedo and wearing a white tie that clearly was purchased for matching purposes and not on the basis of its own merit. He’s holding an orchid corsage in a plastic box with a mostly peeled away price sticker. For a moment, Adam wonders if he should try to act threatening or overly protective (he is, after all, Alice’s big brother) but after looking into the kid’s wide eyes for a couple of seconds it becomes clear that any show of masculinity at this point would be not only unnecessary, but, Adam thinks to himself as he looks down at the half-eaten apple in his left hand, obviously inauthentic. “Hey, I’m, uh, I’m Drew Jackson, I’m here to pick up Alice if she’s ready. Or if she’s not ready I can totally wait or whatever or go back to my car, I mean, I-“
“I’m Alice’s brother, Adam, come on in.”
“I know who you are- you’re Adam Applegate! You started at quarterback when I was a Freshman!” Drew says, breaking out of his nervousness into a sort of excited nervous-babble. He continues by excitedly listing a few football statistics punctuated by vocal exclamation points as Adam looks down at his apple quietly. Drew smiles earnestly when he’s done talking, and Adam just sort of mumbles and pushes up the ends of his mouth and shrugs defeatedly. A couple of seconds hang awkwardly in the air and then Mom very quickly rescues the situation with a frenetic fretting that somehow eases things. She’s all Alice-will-really-just-be-a-couple-more-minutes and oh-you-look-so-handsome-we’re-so-thrilled-that-Alice-got-asked-by-a-nice-boy-like-you and would-you-like-a-glass-of-water-or-no-okay-not-water-well-what-about-juice-would-you-like-some-juice-we-have-juice-nobody-here-even-drinks-the-juice-are-you-sure-you-wouldn’t-like-a-glass-of-juice-it’s-cranapple-flavored.
Five minutes pass before Alice comes down the stairs at a languid pianissimo, conjuring lyrical description and seemingly saving the situation of all its prior imperfection. She is wearing a white dress and her hair slurs against her pale shoulders. Her smile is a dimply, omnipotent forte that used to be a little big for her face but now, Adam thinks, is just about perfect. To describe Alice Applegate in an objective or physical way, though, is to only hit the grace notes- her beauty is love and is teased out in her every movement. No problem or worry stands up against the presence of this girl who blinks in staccato, slowly crescendoing as she reaches toward the bottom of the stairs. Drew swallows hard, sees her cadence, those speckled blue eyes, and can barely stand.
Alice quickly pulls this temporarily-paralyzed Drew into an off-kilter hug and says he looks “so so nice” and goes on and on about how incredibly excited she is. Drew’s cheeks seem to be monopolizing an unhealthy proportion of his blood flow and he briefly experiences reality with a sort of two-second delay, but eventually stammers out something about how he really likes her nails. “Oh thank you so much! My Dad painted them for me, he’s really good at that kind of stuff. Adam come see how awesome Dad did!” Alice says, beckoning Adam and excitedly putting out her hands to show him. Adam sets down his apple and walks to her, his little sister, his perfect little sister. As he touches her playful hand he feels painfully self aware but somehow okay with that, okay with all of it.
Homecoming Day is here and Drew is absolutely gobsmacked, smitten and more smitten, loving the girl in front of him and breathing her in as she runs out ahead. Alice runs when others walk and when others run she dances. She is at once on Drew’s arm out of some mixture of politeness and genuine affection (the proportions of which he is painfully unaware of) and wherever the next door is, enthusiatically gesturing for him to follow. She is everywhere, and, for him, everything as she fades into this subdued reality, no longer the manic pixie of Drew’s daydreams but a living, breathing person who makes clever comments and compliments the waitstaff earnestly and seems to only have nice things to say about everyone, including that girl Jessie who is rumored to have gotten pregnant after Prom last year.
Of course, in the back of Drew’s mind is the big question of the evening, the answer to which seems to be the result of a complex set of algebraic inequalities with multiple variables that are perpetually in flux. The system of inequalites exists, in Drew’s mind, as something along the lines of:
- x > 50 = Definitely go for the kiss.
- x < 30 = Definitely do not go for the kiss unless your goal is total humiliation.
- 30 ≥ x ≤ 50 = A pit of terrifying uncertainty.
Where the variable “x” is equal to .2(Number of Compliments on Personality Received)+ .8(Number of Willful Leg Touches)+ (Number of Slow Dances)+ (Approximate Amount of Hand Holding, in Minutes, if Any)+ 2(Approximate Amount of Her Head on Your Shoulder, in Minutes, if Any)+ 3(Number of Compliments on Face or Body or Hair Received)+ 51(Any Comment Along the Lines of “Kiss Me You Handsome Guy”).
The date goes on and is all well and good and now they’re together on the dance floor and a slow song comes on and Drew thinks maybe he should go grab some punch or something but Alice laughs and playfully grabs his hand and takes him out under the dimming light, totally flawless as she places her hands on his shoulders. No matter how perfect Alice seems to be, though, no matter how blisteringly confident and beautiful she is, she is not without depth, depth that Drew can just barely tread into as he looks with wide eyes into hers while the two of them sort of sway (Drew is not a fantastic dancer) to the music on the zambonied hardwood of the Williams High Basketball Court. Her eyes are so happy that they almost show teeth but there’s something more there. Alice Applegate seems to smile because of loss and not in spite of it. She seems joyful in a way that can only come from pain. There are oceans within her, roaring and raging and daring anyone to reduce her to the sundressed princess of their own imaginings. Thousands of salted splashes spin inside of her, drenched in loss and hurt and the deepness of genuine empathy. She speaks in white, foamy waves that crash powerfully, inspiring awe with their simplicity and inspiring fear for their relentless drive. As the band plays some awful eighties ballad Drew is sucked into her current, drawn into this sea of complexity and getting sick at his own insignificance. He is confined to float along her horizon, never knowing exactly what is bouying him but understanding that to reduce Alice Applegate to anything is to try and stem the ferocious tide.
And now they are at her doorstep and she is just raving about how incredible everything was and how incredible he is and she stops for a silent second, so calm that it’s like she knows Drew’s equation did not come out to more than fifty. They’re both sort of smiling and Drew is visibly unsure of what to do and so she kisses him softly on the cheek. “Goodnight Drew, let’s do this again sometime,” she says winkingly, and then is gone, the door closed and the night forever uncertain in his memory.
Inside, Adam jumps back from the window to make it look like he was not just peeking through the blinds. “Nothing suspicious going on over here. Just checking for mice. Or something else that would be by the window.”
Here is everything Alice smiles for, her older brother with his stained grey t-shirts and the smile that says he will never stop messing with her, never stop bothering her with this incessant argumentativeness. This is the brother that stole lemonade from her third grade stand. This is the brother that broke John Wallace’s nose when he accidentally threw a football at her head in fourth grade. This is the brother who’s wrists like to keep score, but who would never show any of his sadness to her. His grin is quiet but electric in those rare moments she can find him attached to it, exuding a confidence that lets her know everything will be alright. For the past three years Alice has lived in constant fear that his smile will exhaust itself, that she will come home to mom sobbing and holding the phone and she will know that everything she has believed in is false and fatally optimistic. She knows that she would never be able to forgive him because he knows. He knows that her childhood is him and her smile is him and so to kill himself is to kill her. And yet here he is in this moment, still standing, smiling, laughing and ready to tease her about her date. A few warm tears run down Alice’s cheek as she wraps him in to hug him, to hold him, to redeem him. “I love you so much Adam.”
Adam’s words are almost too thick in his throat as his jaw instinctively tightens. “Not as much as you love Drew. I was watching through the window,” he says with supersaturation, and Alice laughs and holds him tighter, there in the front room of their childhood home.