Our Little Secret, part II
“So, where’s this guy live?” I asked, taking a long drink from my lemonade. “Your twin. Do you know if we could take a bus?”
“I’ll tell you when you play the—please,” Bonnie pleaded. She slapped the table, but it made no sound. She gestured to the jukebox. “Puck, come on‘Strawberry Fields Forever’! It’s a Beatles song.”
Bonnie had told me about a twenty-four-hour diner that had been around since she was alive. According to her, this was a popular spot for students on the weekends. Fortunately for us, it happened to be very late on a weekday, and we had the place to ourselves. The interior tried to mimic the ’50s with red booths and neon signs. In one corner sat a jukebox, brightly colored with pulsating lights.
“This is crazy,” I wheezed. I felt like a carbonated drink that had been shaken and then cracked open. “I’m having a midnight dinner with a dead person.”
“No, no,” Bonnie said, waggling her finger. “No, you’re having dinner. The dead person is begging for good tunes.”
“Good tunes my ass.”
“You don’t know real music.”
I laughed aloud, and then it slipped out before I could stop it. “You sound like my mom.”
As soon as it left my mouth, I regretted it. I stared down at my plate of french fries and let my vision blur.
“I’m sorry,” Bonnie said.
I looked up, delayed. “What?”
“For your loss.”
I straightened my back and the booth squelched under me. “Wh—how?”
She squinted her almond eyes. “I’m dead. I know a lot about the subject. I can tell you recently lost someone. Was it your mom?”
I crammed a handful of fries into my mouth to prevent words from coming out.
“Life’s too short,” she continued. “It’s cruel that we’re brought here just to be taken out again. I wonder why humans spend so much time settling for shit that doesn’t make them feel alive. The living, although I used to be one of them, confuse me.”
Inspired and feeling reckless, I pulled out my phone and held it to my ear.
Chris didn’t answer, but an automated voice guided me to his voicemail.
“We’re breaking up. Yeah, fuck it. Some things are only better in theory.” I crammed a french fry into my mouth and held the phone away. “Goodbye, my past lover.”
I ended the call and dropped my phone theatrically onto the table. Bonnie nodded, although visibly confused. Blood was surging through my veins, throbbing beneath my skin—and I should act like it, dammit!
I folded a quick origami rabbit then pushed myself up from my seat, shoving it into my coat pocket. I buzzed and vibrated from the very core of my being. Who knew talking to someone so dead could make me feel so alive? Was I being outrageous, or was this not outrageous enough?
Grief dragged me from the booth, but thrill made me fish a few quarters from my coat’s pocket. I held my hand out to Bonnie and asked, “You ready to go finish this unfinished business?”
She brightened. “Yeah?”
“Yeahfuck it. Life’s long,” I supplied. “But it seems that death is even longer.”
I strode to the jukebox and played “Strawberry Fields Forever” for Bonnie. As it queued up, I realized it was what she had been singing at the back of the classroomand one of the songs my mom would always skip on her Beatles CDs. I can remember that the times she let it play, she’d sulk to the couch and curl up. Her eyes would turn to glass and she would chew on her fingernails. I never understood why she kept the CD if that one song hurt her so dearly.
“Dance with me!” Bonnie cried, grabbing ahold of my hands and pulling me atop the booth’s table. Bonnie leaping atop the table didn’t affect it, but when I sprung up, it rattled and shook. The legs that supported it rocked as I threw my weight around; jumping and spinning and slamming my feet and laughing with the giddy spirit of the night. I felt guided by something greater than me. Movement never came so easily as it did on the tabletop with Bonnie. I felt I could never be still again.
We were lying on my uncle’s rooftop, staring up at the night sky and shivering. Bonnie told me that the song we danced to made her feel something she couldn’t explain. It had been her “special thing.”
“Where do we go?” I asked, folding my mitted hands across my coat’s stomach. “When we die. What happens?”
She told me about how when she was alive, she’d play that song when she felt like crying. Something about it, shesaid, would pull her from her dreariness and propel her into something else.
“You know, I’m not really sure,” Bonnie admitted. “I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. I don’t know if the living can ever truly know what becomes of the dead.”
What it propelled her into, she couldn’t be sure. Only that it made her glow.
“You want to be free, but you don’t know where you’ll go?”
“I think we go back to where we began,” she whispered. She turned her face to me. “Wherever we come from, I think we go back there again.”
I didn’t tell her the thing that made me feel alive was watching animal documentaries. I didn’t tell her that I watched them in hope that they’d sink into my subconscious and become my dreams.
“Do we all go there?” I asked. I couldn’t take my eyes from hers. This was fragile, volatile, crucial.
In my dreams, I could be anyone. Anything. Opportunity was endless. That was what made me feel something.
“We do,” she decided.
I rolled my head back to face the stars. It was hard to gauge their distance in reference to anything I knew—the width of the largest ocean, the deepest craters—nothing could compare and make sense of our distance from the stars. If what Bonnie believed was true, did that mean that the living were all once stars? Did we die to be born again?
I told Bonnie that my mom killed herself. I told her that I woke up one morning to an empty apartment and a note that said, “I’m sorry.” I confessed how I didn’t understand the puzzle of my mother⎯that she always had a few pieces missing that I wasn’t allowed to put into place. The reason she decided to leave so abruptly and with no real explanationthat was the final piece I couldn’t find. I tried to explain that they found her in the remains of her own car after driving straight into a tree, but I couldn’t get it out past my hitching breaths. I didn’t cry, but I shook like I had never known warmth. I said I felt that I would feel terrible for an eternity.
Bonnie said that sometimes an eternity is however long you need it to be.
I looked at her in the blue moonlight and thought to myself that I didn’t want her to go. We had just met, but I felt I knew her for a personal eternity. I began to shiver from a mixture of relived trauma and the frigid winter, and we both felt the call of her twin brother’s house waiting for us.
I gathered myself up and made my way to the corner of the roof, sliding on my bottom to not lose balance. Before I leapt back through the window, I turned to Bonnie and decided that she made me feel the way that my animal dreams do.
When we had been on the road for a while, Bonnie said, “When it’s all finished, you know, I’ll send you a sign. To let you know that wherever I am, it’s great.”
It didn’t take us long to find the address of Thomas Rutherford, who lived two hours north. I slid the car keys from the bowl beside the front door and figured out the gears with no problem.
The interior clock glowed sometime after two in the morning. I couldn’t stop my mouth from stretching into a yawn. Strangely, at that time, I realized that I was driving for the first time since my mother died. Something in my stomach sizzled.
“Do you believe in soul mates?” Bonnie asked some time later.
“I never thought about it,” I said. “Do you?”
“I do,” she admitted.
Finally, after a long but stirred silence, we pulled up to the right address. Sitting at the curb in front of a stranger’s home, I felt nauseated. A glance at the clock told me it was close to 4:30 in the morning. What the hell is it with the spontaneous happenings of the nighttime?
“You all right?” she asked me.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“‘Hello’ is a good place to start.”
The front door pushed open after one knock. Thomas, it seemed, lived in a neighborhood where they didn’t worry about intruders. There were no lights, but I could see the shadows of a well-decorated home.
I stepped into his house, my limbs quivering with adrenaline. I was in a stranger’s home. Everything was so quiet that I could hear ringing in my ears usually heard only before falling asleep at night. I took a step forward, the wooden floor whining under my weight. I winced at the sound, worried it might’ve been too loud. I waited a few beats, counting to five in my head, before I took another step.
I was reaching for a light switch when I heard the shucking of a shotgun. A man, wearing a gray bathrobe over pajamas, strode out from behind the kitchen’s archway.
“What . . . the fuck . . . are you doing in my house?”
I threw my arms up and he thrust the nose of his weapon under my chin. My heart throbbed hard and slow, pulsating stars into my vision. I swallowed and my ears popped.
I tried to speak, but only a wheeze squeezed out. My eyes filled with tears as Thomas Rutherford prodded the soft pocket under my jaw.
“That’s right. . . .” he muttered, shifting his feet so he could sway to the right. “That’s rightstay right there. You bet your ass I’m calling the police.”
I swallowed, snapping my eyes to him. A hot tear spilt over without having to blink. I felt something wet under my nose.
“Thom⎯Thom-ato. . . .”
There was no way to articulate the way he looked at me then. He’d been hunched behind his shotgun, curled over it and hoisting it upward. But the muscles in his face relaxed. The nose of his gun lowered and his hands, gripped around the fore-end, slackened.
“Who the hell are you?” he grumbled. I kept my eyes fastened on the barrel of the gun as it lowered until it came to a rest beside his foot. Finally, I exhaled.
“Bonnie sent me.”
He ran a veined hand through his peppered gray hair. “Bonnie sent you?”
I nodded vigorously. “Yes.”
“What is this?” he demanded.
“Sheyou need to forgive yourself,” I said. I cleared my throat. “She said you blame yourself for what happened. But she forgave you a long time ago.”
Thomas gave me a look that made me sincerely believe that my greatest dream had come true: I was an animal, standing in his kitchen, talking to him.
“I’m a junior at Credence,” I blurted. “Today was mymy first day.”
As far as Thomas was concerned, I was still an animal, standing in his kitchen, talking to him.
“She made me play ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ on a jukebox,” I wheezed, trying to offer a smile. I was sure I looked like I had a gun pointed to my head. Oh, wait.
“Okay,” he said, his voice softened. “Okay. . . .”
“I’m Puck,” I said. “Puck Evans. Could you . . . could you put your gun away, sir, please?”
“Hold on a second.” He stood up straight and his eyes swept me. Fear swelled in me, building every moment he stood rigid. Then, he chuckled airily.
“You’re not Laurie Evans’ daughter, are you?”
Everything screeched to a halt. All the business with Bonnie, my night of spontaneous fun, even my heart rate. As soon as I saw recognition in Bonnie’s twin brother’s face at my mother’s name, everything stopped.
I let my arms fall to my sides.
“Wait,” I said. “What?”
“She never told you about any of it?” Thomas sighed, rubbing his forehead with a hand. “Jesus H. Christ. I cannot believe you’re here right now. What was it you said about Bonnie and forgiving?”
I was bewildered. I laughed ridiculously, nerves fizzing over.
“Um . . . how did you know my mother?”
“We dated all through high school. We broke things off after Bon passed, it was…the guilt she had about it . . . but . . . God, see, I knew you looked familiar.”
“I’m here to tell you to forgive yourself for what happened,” I pressed on. “That’s why I’m here.”
“I have forgiven myself,” Thomas breathed. He leaned against his own counter. “It was Laurie who never got over it.”
I palmed the origami rabbit in my coat pocket.
“I called to her when I made it halfway up,” he said. “She ran to the fire escape and shoved the door open. She was trying to be a good girlfriend, she never. . . .” He exhaled. “She never got over it. I took the blame for her, told everybody that I’d opened the door. Even after we broke up, I still stuck to the story.”
The final piece of the puzzle clicked horribly into place.
“How is Laurie, by the way? If you don’t mind me asking.”
I kept driving north. I couldn’t go back. I had twisted the radio on to prevent any need to speak. “Dancing Queen” by ABBA was taunting me in full stereo. Bonnie hadn’t said a word for the entire duration we had been driving in the opposite direction of home. When she did finally speak, it was a whisper.
“Puck, I am . . . so sorry.”
“Sorry?” I burst out, hysterical. I twisted the radio off. “Why would you be sorry? My mom’s the one who should be sorry. She’s the one who killed you, isn’t she?”
“No, Bonnie,” I cried. “We drove to see your brother, he shoved a gun in my face, and then told me that my mother was a murderer. And that the guilt she’d been hiding all this time killed her? I feel like my whole life was a lie!”
Bonnie sat in the quiet, letting the radio get some time in, before she murmured, “I don’t like that you’re upset. It was an accident. I forgive her.”
“And you know what I don’t like, Bonnie?” I yelled, my voice breaking and my throat burning. “I don’t like that I drove all the way out to this guy’s house for nothing. You’re still here. Unfinished business my fucking ass. The world’s unfair and we’re all a part of a cosmic joke!”
The engine roared as I pushed my foot down.
“Puck, stop,” Bonnie pleaded. She gripped my hand. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“What’s any of it matter?” I sobbed. “What the fuck difference would it make? You’re stuck here until you get your unfinished business resolved, and I’m stuck here until I can stop fucking suffering.”
A pair of headlights rose over the hill and shone into my eyes like flashlights. I squinted into the light and flipped down the sun visor, hands shaking.
“I care about you, Puck. Listen to me.”
At the same time, we whirled to face each other.
“I love you!”
After a few beats of silence, I slackened against the car seat. Our eyes locked together in an eternity. Every bit of anger and pain I felt melted down through my feet and every rush of sound faded to the quiet. I sort of chuckled, “Wait, what?”
Then, as her delicate face crinkled with a smile, she whispered, “That was it.”
Thirty years was long enough for someone who never let themself love others.
I was halfway through my exhale when the incoming truck smashed into our car, glass exploding from every angle. Tires squealed against asphalt as metal ground against metal. Gravity rushed as the car flipped. Glass shards glittered in the air like they’d been lifted by magic as I slammed around in my seat, helpless.
Finally, after the car landed hard on the drivers’ side, everything was still.
Beside me, Bonnie was holding onto me. I could see the strobes of headlights through her. One moment, I could feel her form clinging onto me, but then I couldn’t. She was like smokeher form wisping before me. I squinted in the bright light. I couldn’t hear what she said, or say anything in return, but another second later and she was gone.
ONE YEAR LATER
Thomas Rutherford left a voicemail earlier in the morning.
Hey, Puck. It’s Tom. Charlie and I are going to the movies later, and she needs to know if you could watch Allen tonight? We’re thinking of catching the 7:30. If Chris wanted to tag along to keep you company, he’s more than welcome. All right, well. Let me know. Talk soon.
“Sue said it’d be good for me,” I told Chris. “Babies are cute. New life—offspring. You know.”
“You pay this woman fifty dollars every week to tell you to hold babies?” he laughed. “I’d start looking for a new therapist if I were you.”
After the accident last year, when a doctor came in to wrap my arm in soft bandage, I turned to him in delirium and told him that my mom killed herself. He asked if I needed to talk to someone or if I wanted to stay a bit longer. Although I hesitated, I said yes.
After my physical wounds were mended and bound back together, I spent a couple of weeks where they would tend to my emotional wounds. They could not be stitched, but they found a way to begin closing. They weren’t sealed, but at least they weren’t gaping anymore.
“Do you think you and Liam will ever adopt?” I asked Chris, clicking my seatbelt. After our breakup, I tried to reconnect with him platonically. This proved to be the way we should have been with each other since the beginning. Not only because we weren’t meant to mold each other to our own liking, but because he confessed through a tearful phone call that he was gay.
“Guess we’ll see how I do with this kid, huh?”
The drive to Thomas’s home was one I grew regular with. He and his wife, Charlie, had Allen in the spring of the previous year. I’d left my phone on the floor of his kitchen, not noticing I must’ve dropped it when he shoved the shotgun at me. He returned it to me and said that if I ever wanted someone to talk to, I could call him. As weird as that sounded, I took him up on the offer once I was finally released from my inpatient treatment. On the regular, I visited his house and poured cups of tea and spent more time watching the curling steam than looking at him. He looked like Bonnie. They had the same button nose and the same dark hair, although his was peppered with gray and his skin hung off his face in a way that was still youthful, but that betrayed hints of age. His face creased at the edges of his eyes where Bonnie’s had been preserved. It hurt, but it hurt more to be without someone who felt like her at all.
On the day Thomas left the voicemail, it marked the one-year anniversary of my night with Bonnie. I had been both dreading and anticipating the day for months since I knew it would stir all kinds of pain in me. I often replayed the slowed seconds we took just to exist in the same space—with her unfinished business ending with a final confession of love. I had forgotten about our little secret from the pool, how she had kept her distance in life to keep her heart.
I thought of her every day. Not a week passed without me yearning for the way I felt on that rooftop with her, trying my best to recreate it with others. But it was never the same. Nobody’s presence felt like Bonnie’s had.
My origami napkin rabbit sat up on my dashboard. I couldn’t help but feel that I was waiting for her sign. That night, on the way to Thomas’s with her, she had said she was going to send me a sign. But after she had gone, that was it. I wondered for a long while if I had dreamed the whole thing.
“Good God,” Chris groaned. “You like sitting in this silence? Come on.”
He reached forward and twisted the radio on. He surfed through the static for a few beats, trying to zone into a station, before coming to rest on modern pop.
When we rolled into Thomas’s block, the radio crackled. Static whooshed over the radio, making Chris grunt in frustration. He gave it a few whacks.
A new song came in, and he relaxed back in his seat.
I knew it as soon as it began. It was “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles.
Everything around me turned golden and warm. It could have been summer for all I knew in that moment. Chris looked at the radio strangely, but he didn’t say anything.
I was in my underwear at the edge of the pool. I was plunging beneath the surface and she was pushing her palm against my chest. We were dancing on the table and running through the parking lot. I was on my roof, turning my face to meet hers. And then she was looking at me in my passenger seat, eyes alive and bright in her true, final moment on this Earth. That was it.
“Puck?” Chris said. I’d parked at the curb of Thomas’s.
I looked at him.
“Is everything okay?”
On the treebank of Thomas Rutherford’s home, a mourning dove curled her toes around a sprig of a branch. Her chest puffed as she nestled comfortably, dew drops glittering from her plumage. Following my exhale, I recalled the shimmering glass of the crash after Bonnie said she loved me. Sometimes, an eternity can be however long you need it to be.
“I think it will be,” I decided. “Not now. But one day I think it will be.”
I didn’t know she was dead the first time I saw her. But the last time I saw her, I knew that she was alive. Even if just for a moment, in that swirling smoke, she was everything at once. I never believed in fate before I met her. And after all, that night’ll always remain our little secret.
Aurora Hattendorf grew up in the small town of Elgin, Illinois before attending Columbia. They’ve never been published.