by Morgan Blair

You were all I thought about until you weren’t. Now I don’t think about you, just your body flying through the darkness into the wall of trees, buried in the shadows, washed by the headlights. The moment plays on a loop—when I braked at the curve, and you lost your footing and fell backward into the night. Behind my eyelids, I watch you fly even though I was driving the car and didn’t see you fall. I only heard your feet on the Corolla’s roof. Your heavy boots, like two stone hooves pounding into the metal. Pound, pound, swoosh, and it was quiet.

I think about your body because that’s what changed everything. Where did you see your friend fall? That’s the question the uniforms drilled into me. That’s the question that’s kept me stuck. I wish you could tell me what happened.

May of our senior year was when you fell, and the frogs were loud. I remember slamming on the brakes, leaping from the car, and running through the air, which was thick and hot. With shaking hands, I dialed 911 as I stared off into the trees, searching for your body somewhere in the dense Missouri woods. I called to you. Maya! Maya! But the night was black glass, and the only movement was the rustling of the leaves.

The road was dark and winding, and it took a minute for another car to approach. I was standing in the middle of the asphalt, spotlit by the oncoming headlights, eyes wide and desperate, when the driver braked. A lady got out, tall with sharp cheekbones and a kimono that blew behind her long legs like a cape. I recognized her. Mrs. James from the choir. She ran to me, screaming my name Alice! trying to pull me from the road. I stayed, crying and pointing. Mrs. James retreated. I’m calling your dad, she announced, and my stomach sank just as the ambulance’s lights flashed in the distance.

August. When we met the previous summer, even breathing tasted sweet. You showed up at my house because my dad had invited your parents along with other members of St. Mark’s. Only the ones who had completed the class, taken the oath, paid their tithes, and had their names on the sanctuary’s plaque. The party was a charade to show our family was good. Leah and I both knew because our dad sat us down and rehearsed what we could and couldn’t say. Our mom got real sick. It happened so quick we hardly got time to say goodbye before she was gone. It was too painful to have a big funeral. We just wanted it to be family.

Mom didn’t get sick. Mom disappeared a year prior on a random night. Someone must have picked her up because I frantically searched the house and found her Corolla wasn’t missing. But that was a bad image for an evangelical leader with a clerical collar and a corner lot in the sought-after zip code, whose kids went to the good schools, and whose Range Rover sat in a three-car garage.

You’re the only one I ever told. It happened during the party while we sat in the fort my dad built when Leah and I were small. You drank vodka from a water bottle, and I didn’t realize it was alcohol until you offered me a sip and I coughed, handing it back. Too scared of what I’d seen happen to others. You laughed, saying you can measure a person by how often they say yes. 

May. In nine months, your charisma and impulsivity got me to try a lot—whiskey from your dad’s cabinet, French kissing in the bathroom during study hall, skinny-dipping in the river behind my house, karaoke at the bar with fakes bought off some friend from the swim team. I thought these memories were mile markers until the emergency vehicles surrounded my still, frozen body, and suddenly I was left with burned plans. 

The navy uniforms told me to step back, and I collapsed onto the asphalt. One wrapped me in a blanket, and the others asked me where to look. I pointed to the wall of trees, and they darted inside.

September. You were wild and bold, knocking on my bedroom window at midnight, swaying when I met you on the porch in that leather jacket and pixie cut. I’d never seen anyone so confident in their mess. I followed you around back to my childhood playset that quickly became our hideout, making sure you didn’t fall as you climbed the ladder into the fort. I listened while secrets poured from your cherry lips, and I tore maple leaves into tiny pieces and watched them fall onto the manicured lawn.

You said you caught your mom having an affair, that you failed history and got kicked off the swim team, that you had a pregnancy scare last week, but it was stupid because you didn’t even like guys. You just had sex with them because they were easier. I hadn’t heard of any girl admitting to liking girls. An iridescent firework exploded in my backyard.

Then you laid back, and I got scared because you were drunk, so I turned you on your side like I learned to do with my mom. As I got real close to you, I could smell cigarettes and musk and cherry ChapStick, and my arms went numb, and I knew I was in love.

May. I stayed in the back of the ambulance until the sun rose, sipping on water while my dad went off, tearing our bags from the trunk, unzipping your duffel, and throwing your clothes into the street. What did I say about hanging around that girl? 

Then, with morning dew stuck to their jackets, the uniforms returned with puzzled looks and furrowed brows, asking me if I was sure I’d seen my friend fall. I told them, Of course. Why would I make something like that up?

October. You whispered, Come find me, in the corn maze and ran.

November. I found you on the corner of Mason and Main, and we got burgers at the diner with the red-striped napkins that we used to scribble portraits of each other on.

December. You said you’d teach me to ice skate, but I flailed like a newborn calf. We lay on the ice, laughing about the gash on my cheek as the other families circled.

January. We buried ourselves in blankets and fell asleep in our hideout until Leah woke us up with a flashlight, saying, Maya, our dad says you need to leave.

February. You got me a gift, a sponsored polar bear because they were my favorite, and then spun me in the church’s empty gym and kissed me under the scoreboard.

March. My dad found us lying in the choir loft and got so angry he tried to chase you off with a hymnal. We fled from his pulsing, red face down the steeple’s front steps across four lanes of traffic to the ice cream parlor where your friend let us hide in the freezer.

April. We sat in our hideout that was now covered in spring’s film of pollen. You told me about your cousin in Chicago. She said we could stay for a while.

May. You threw your duffel and my suitcase in the Corolla’s trunk and sat in the passenger seat as I followed the maps from Columbia to Chicago. You blasted Metallica because you knew it was my mom’s favorite, even though my dad said metal was the devil’s music. You said we’d only listen to the devil because my dad’s devil was just a way to scare us out of living. You sat with your combat boots on the dash. Your brown, shaggy hair was getting longer. It kissed your shoulders, and you still wore that black leather jacket with the worn elbows and cracked collar.

“Master of Puppets” was halfway through when you unclipped your seatbelt, rolled down the window, and crawled out. I screamed, trying to pull you inside, and you laughed so loud I could hear you over the music and rushing wind. You stood on the roof, celebrating our escape, whoohoo’ing at the top of your lungs.

You were real when the car turned and your foot slipped and you flew into the trees. You were real when I pulled over and screamed for you in the darkness. You were real, but the uniforms told me I must be mistaken. They’d searched for hours. There was no one in the woods.

Morgan Blair is a writer and licensed therapist located in Denver, Colorado. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Northwestern University. She is currently a student in The Book Project, which is a two-year, MFA-like, competitive program in Denver. Her articles, essays, and short stories have been published in Hippocampus, Psychology Today, Scuba Diving Magazine, Twenty Bellows, among others. In 2023, her personal essay, “Mom is a Bear,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. When she’s not writing, Morgan is an avid outdoor adventurer, so you may find her and her spouse off backpacking or scuba diving in remote locations.