My next-door-neighbor shot up my high school like it was something he always did, like it was as easy and stupid as our kissing-in-the-dark games, which never led to anything beyond the kissing stuff. My next-door-neighbor shot himself, naturally, and his mother wrote a book about it, and eight years later I get an invitation to the release party.
Nobody really cares about gun stuff so much anymore. I’m hooking up with a guy, a teacher in the town next to ours. It’s a thirty-minute drive, twenty minutes at one in the morning. He has a gun safe and always gets a deer tag to go hunt in the fall. He never gets the piece of land he wants when he signs up. Once I helped him haul a heavy deer carcass onto the hook in his garage. He skinned it like a pro. He left the garage door open, and the skin steamed in the cold and the blood dripped down into a cooler below.
I’m bringing the teacher to the party. I think it’s a natural next step. He cuts my hair because though I don’t really fear guns anymore, I don’t like when strangers or old men put their hands on my neck. His haircuts are not very good. He doesn’t seem to understand the shape of my head. I come out asymmetrical in a different way every time.
He has days and weeks where he struggles to get out of bed so early in the darkness and go to school and teach so many children. They are middle schoolers. I have not much to give him, but on these days and weeks I am able to see him after school and get him to go on walks with me by the river. I don’t think he’d do it otherwise.
I got to read the book that my next-door-neighbor’s mom wrote before it came out, and the whole time I thought, lying bitch. The point was muddled to me. Her son was gentle but troubled and she had failed as a mother but she couldn’t really do anything about it. Maybe somebody could. Maybe nobody. I thought if I had let her son touch my penis the one time he asked, that could have changed something. Maybe not the whole event itself. But maybe if he had touched my penis our little universe would have forked off into some other reality where only four people died, instead of six.
I’m tired of thinking about everything in relation to my penis. It’s not very big.
I ask the teacher if he wants to go the party with me and he might as well be covered in fine flour, that’s how white he gets. It’s too ghoulish for him, because he works with kids every day. Going would just make him dwell and want to stay in bed longer.
I understand. I never thought I would know somebody like him, who I could understand.
It’s better that I go with my sister instead. She says she’s going to sneak in a thermos full of gin and flavored seltzer, since of course there will be no bar because that would be distasteful.
The night before the book release I’m driving back from the teacher’s place and it’s two, which is later than usual. We tried something different. I pretended to be a fortune teller and he came in to my shop to see what lay in store for him. I said only nice things, even though when I took his palm I got a sudden shuddery sense that trouble really was coming. I didn’t let anything on. I let him touch my penis, and when he went to the bathroom, I rushed to the garage and opened the cooler and expected to find hot deer blood sloshing around inside. It was clean and there was beer in there.
I think I’ll move soon. Driving at night makes think I could be that kind of person, like I could pack up everything and be alone and go somewhere safer. The only thing holding me back, and it’s embarrassing, or crazy, is that I love the teacher.
We’re taught that we should put our own lives before love. I’m starting to realize that never made any stupid sense.
The book party is in a hotel in town. It’s not a party. It’s very sobering. Me and my sister show up just as everybody’s getting there, and by everybody I mean it really does feel like that. We all remember.
Our next-door-neighbor’s mom comes and sees us, and is sorrowful enough to ignore my sister’s thermos that keeps going swish-swish with the gin. We talk about going over to her house on Christmas Eves and throwing up once on her carpet after eating marshmallows. We ask about her husband, who is her ex-husband, and she says that he seems happy in Arizona. My sister says, who could really be happy in Arizona, and our next-door-neighbor’s mom laughs and then gives us a sly wink. Maybe he’s not having such a great time, she says, and maybe I’ll be going to Hell for being happy about that.
I’m glad to hear her laughing, but that is not the first reason she will be going to Hell.
And she knows that, so I don’t have to say anything. I just have to hug her. And I do.
When I was the fortune teller at the teacher’s house, I let him come to me and I didn’t let him say a word. I’m not good at thinking up happy futures. But I’m proud of this one.
There are some things you will never have to worry about again, I said. The worst big things that worry you are already fading. You are going to be rich very soon. The coming year will be profitable, and filled with success.
What about my love life, he asked, and here’s where I got really good, even though I was scared for him, and still am.
I told him that love would spring into his life like crabgrass in the lawn. Unkillable. On top of his riches, he would be showered with love and wake up every morning refreshed. He would become a morning person. He would go on walks every day and try new trails, and when the fall came he would get a deer tag for the slice of country he always wanted to hunt on, and the deer he bagged would be a king amongst its brethren, almost too heavy to carry home.
That would be a happy future for him.
We go back to my sister’s after we buy another copy of the book. It has a black cover. My sister puts it under a box in the closet as soon as she gets home, and we drink and play cards the rest of the night.
I did like kissing the next-door-neighbor. I miss that. But really I miss what life was like before he shot up the school.
I think about moving some more. I think about getting away from the teacher before the trouble I sensed shows up at his door with a smile or a frown or a suitcase or a gun.
So I meet him after school and we walk by the river. He’s having a good week. He is enjoying this science unit he’s teaching to the middle schoolers, about cell structure. They’re going to make cakes that resemble animal cells. The smooth endoplasmic reticulum will be a curled Twizzler.
I think this is over for me, I say. I don’t have much to give you.
The teacher gets sad.
Do you still want me to stay the night, I say.
He thinks about it, then shakes his head.
We finish the walk and end up back at his place. I tell him to enjoy the cell cakes. I’m sure they’ll be delicious.
I get in my car and the teacher paces in his garage and I can’t tell if he’ll wave goodbye to me or not.
I can’t take the uncertainty, so I wave to him first and drive away real fast.
We would meet after cross country and soccer practice. They ended about the same time. I’d wait by the field in my sweaty shorts and my next-door-neighbor would run over, kicking off his cleats.
Sometimes when we kissed, his shin guards would rub up against my bare calf, hike up my shorts. It was just for that one season in seventh grade we kissed. There were other things to do after that.
I go to dinner at my parent’s and we all talk about their henhouse and their chickens, which keep getting out. The next-door-neighbor’s mom has returned disgruntled hens from her lawn about three or four times now.
The eggs they lay are delicious and worth it. It’s dinner but we’re eating eggs anyway, that’s how good they are. I cut into my yolk and it runs. We never got to the point where we ate eggs together, the teacher and I. We never had breakfast together.
That’s okay, because I will be safe. I tell my parents I’m thinking about moving and that worries them. I don’t tell them that I have to go because there’s trouble coming. I just say I need a change.
I will be safe. I have to remember that each night as I try to sleep. Usually I can’t, so I read the next-door-neighbor’s mom’s book again. There are startling pages that have the weight of revelations. These events did not feel like revelations in real life. Not to me. So maybe she’s a lying bitch, or maybe she’s just figured out something that I never could.
I will be safe. I will get used to being alone in this particular way. I shouldn’t think about love, or my penis, anymore. It’s all useless in the face of what’s coming.
And what is coming, my sister asks.
Something bad, I say.
She looks at me and she’s worried.
I pack up my clothes and lug my lamps to my car. I don’t have a lot of things, because clutter distresses me. It’s an early dark morning, a cold dark morning.
I’m driving before I even know it. I don’t feel safe yet. Maybe that peace won’t come until I cross state lines. I press the gas pedal harder and harder, because I know this stretch of highway never has any cops on it. It’s 5:27. In three minutes the teacher will be getting up. In three minutes I will be three minutes farther away from him. I will be three minutes farther away from the trouble that’s coming. It’s dark and I figure out I didn’t turn on my headlights. It feels too late to do that now.
I’m still driving when I have a revelation: trouble isn’t coming.
I think about my next-door-neighbor’s mom’s husband, her ex-husband, and how he tells her that he’s happy in Arizona.
I think I believe him. Is that so crazy?
I’m not stupid. So I turn the car around.
At the end of the week, I call the teacher and say it was a mistake. Maybe it is crazy. Maybe I am stupid. Maybe I do have something to give him.
It turns out to be really easy, because he loves me.
Because now I’m back in my car and I’m driving towards him. I’m coming. I’m so stupidly happy that I actually think about happy things.
I think maybe he’ll get the deer tag he wants this year. For the place that he’s always wanted to hunt in. It’s a lottery system. I don’t know much about it, because I am not a hunter. But there’s no getting around the fact that it’s about time, and this feels like his year.
Wilhelm Sitz is a writer from rural Oregon. Now he lives in Los Angeles with his taxidermied animals.