United States Air Force Academy

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Short Fiction

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, and we believe that storytelling is the basis of all human interaction. In writing and reading fiction, we enter into the minds and worlds of other people who have thoughts, feelings, experiences, and memories that are different than our own. It’s the ultimate way to experience the world!

  • Christian Barrette

    Every Commandant had gotten up on that staff tower before lunch and told us we would be the ones to change the world. Perhaps this one meant our decisions and leadership would change the Air Force. Perhaps he was trying to help me win my buzzword bingo.

    Did you hear what happened last night? DJ asked.

    No, I said. Probably just another drunk Firstie getting caught doing something they shouldn’t have been.

    The government was reassuring every American citizen glued to their cellphones and televisions that we would not be engaging in another “war to end all wars.” My Facebook friends from high school, who had not shot a gun besides the one they just unlocked in Call

    of Duty, said this was a lie; they had, after all, just earned their combat keyboard ribbons.

    Who was I to question their expertise? I could see absolutely no change in the Air Force Academy. It remained business as usual. Woven together, the red-, yellow-, silver-, and blue-colored walls were covered with blankets of snow that continued to come down and consume every northern city past Pueblo. We hadn’t seen the sun through the snowstorm in weeks.

    We hadn’t seen the sun
    through the snowstorm in weeks.

    Do you think he means it, DJ whispered after hearing the Commandant put the wing at ease. I swear they always preach the same bullshit.

    Why don’t you go ask him?

    Whether or not he meant it didn’t matter to us, we both knew that. I glanced outside. How was the snow still drowning out the sun? It was already 1155.

    Are you going to the mountains this weekend? I said.

    Nope. I don’t want to deal with the Californians and Texans out there on the slopes.  I swear it’s like I’m a magnet for shitty skiers.

    Shaking my head, I realized I never heard him finish a sentence without some sort of insult towards Texans, but I couldn’t blame him. DJ liked to remind me that he enjoyed skiing in the northeast more than Colorado, as Texans were too scared to venture up to New Jersey. He seemed more bitter than normal, maybe because it was Friday and he had three more classes to go. Maybe because he had just been reminded that the back of his ski jacket doubled as a target for the neon-jumpsuit-wearing skiers last weekend. As the faint voice over the speakers said wing, take seats, we reluctantly waited for our slop to be served.

    You need to come this weekend. It’s been a few weeks now since you and Mandy stopped talking, I said.

    And how will this weekend help get her off my mind?

    Well, it might not.  But I heard from a pretty good source that we might be going to World War III, so wouldn’t you rather spend it drunk on a mountain than in this place?

    After I spent the rest of my lunch giving him the best sales pitch I could muster, he finally conceded that alcohol might help him get over Mandy. While chewing my cold sandwich, built of the finest slabs of pork paired with freshly unpackaged Kraft cheese singles melted for five seconds—no more and no less—I realized that I was done with class for the day. It was time to go pack.

    Waking up that Saturday, I pried my bloodshot eyes open and tried to blink away the dryness. Only getting four hours of sleep was a mistake, but one I was willing to deal with. I could sleep in the car. Ola, the person I woke up in the middle of the night with my snoring the last two years, said that he would drive. As we slung our thousand-pound ski bags over our shoulders, we prepared ourselves for perhaps the biggest challenge of our cadet careers. Walking from Sijan to Vandy Hall in the snow and wind of USAFA was not a task to be undertaken by the weak-hearted. How was it still snowing?

    DJ’s little silver Volkswagen was able to fit all of our skis and overnight bags; I was a master at Tetris. DJ didn’t believe in purchasing an AUX cord, so we were forced to listen to the radio. These disc jockeys had to have seen my brave Facebook friends’ posts—all they could talk about was the fright of a nuclear winter.

    I guess the stations all got together and decided that music wasn’t important today: Only fear mongering would be heard. Lucky for us, DJ clicked the radio off and turned up the heater.  The drive felt over in the blink of an eye, and it was, for me at least. After fighting with sleep, I decided it was the most beneficial for everyone if I rested my eyes while Ola drove.

    What had to have been three hours later, I was awoken by the slamming of DJ’s passenger door. I looked around and decided that this was the familiar drive through the town of Corkthorn. While DJ was inside paying for gas, I laid my head against the iced-over window.

    Did you get the email invite to attend the fitness test? I said to Ola. I am so thankful they like to remind me of my impending failures.

    Yeah, didn’t we all?

    I appreciate them giving me the invite, but I think I am going to respectfully decline. Do you think it will warm up at all today?

    Why don’t you just look at your phone? Believe it or not, we all have this thing called the weather app.

    I was proud: I had successfully indoctrinated Ola in the ancient art of the sarcastic asshole. I removed the iPhone out of my black ski pants, just quiet enough to not let Ola know he had won the exchange. I saw that, in fact, it would not warm up: cloudy, cold, and more snow. I already knew this would be the case; why did I open up the battery-burning app? DJ got back to the car and started to pump the gas, but something was off.  He threw the sampler 24-pack of White Claws in the trunk—zero calorie, of course, due to my test coming up. He put the nozzle back on its station and got back in the car without a word and started to drive towards the resort.

    You’ll never guess who I just saw in there, DJ said.

    Gandhi, I joked.

    Haha, very fucking funny.

    I knew what this meant. Every cadet did go skiing at the same two resorts some three hours away from the Academy. I knew there was a shot but out of all the gas stations, she had to pick this one? Lucky for me I had already popped a White Claw, and sat back ready to take whatever rant was about to come from DJ.

    Of course it was Mandy.  Why would I get a break from her this weekend? She doesn’t even like to ski. She actually complained the whole day I taught her. But now that her new cadet boyfriend is taking her, she suddenly loves it? It’s whatever. I’m not mad. He’s not even good looking so I’m not tripping. I just think it’s funny that he doesn’t even know what he’s getting into, DJ said.

    I sat staring out the back window. I had heard this before and I knew I would hear it again. Was I already four White Claws in? It had only been 30 minutes from the gas station to the resort’s parking lot. It couldn’t have been past 0815 when we finally pulled into our spot and unloaded all of our gear. Ola had been working out in preparation for his test far longer than my one week, and it showed. His jacket fit tight, which was an inconvenience to me. I guess I would just have to be the kangaroo mom to my baby White Claws. By the time we got to the lift line and started to go up, it was 0845 and I had added two more empty Claws to my collection.

    Going up the lift, I was shocked at how few people had been in the parking lot. Come to think of it, we parked in the very front. This almost never happened, but it must have been too early for everyone else. We did get there before the resort even opened—what’s the saying about birds and worms? Either way, it didn’t matter to me. I was just excited to see all this fresh white snow with barely any ski tracks through it. By the time we had reached the halfway point of the lift some five minutes after climbing on, only three of those bubbly beverages remained. I had silently decided for the group we would shotgun them at the top. It was a tradition, even if we had only started it last weekend.

    With about two minutes left on the lift, the clouds got very thick and you could barely see past an outreached arm. Then, as if God himself had blown right on the ski lift, we passed through the clouds into the wide open blue skies. It was breathtakingly beautiful, or maybe it was just cold. We skied off the lift ramp and decided to unbuckle from our skis to do a quick hike and carry out our ritual. After walking for what felt like an eternity, which Ola swore was only ten minutes, I saw it. The perfect ledge, overlooking all the other mountain tops whose tips were fighting with the clouds to be exposed. It was silent: Not a distant bird chirping or gust of wind was louder than our three heartbeats.

    Then, as if God himself
    had blown right on the ski lift,
    we passed through the clouds
    into the wide open blue skies.

    I pulled out my keys to create the all-important cutout to shotgun my White Claw.  I had just seen it on my Instagram feed, but the sorority girls made it look easier than it turned out to be. After a few moments of frustration, I decided that chugging it was manlier anyways, so that’s what we all would do. I popped mine first and held it up to the sky. Ola was next, and his was quieter than mine; I must have stirred up the carbonation when I fell getting off the lift.  DJ tore off his tab after struggling with it.  I told him I would let him use my keys to open it but my offer was drowned out by more popping.

    Did you hear that? DJ said.

    You mean the loud-ass pop that we obviously heard because we’re standing right by you? Ola said.

    There it is again.

    One after another, we started to hear a symphony of White Claws being opened. We looked in the surrounding trees for any signs of people next to us, but didn’t see any ski tracks.  DJ swore it was Mandy and her new boyfriend stalking us. But the noises kept coming, getting louder and louder.

    Alright, not funny anymore. Who’s out there, I shouted.

    Silence. Then, as if DJ and Ola were taking a picture with flash on right by my eyes it happened. And then again. I knew it wasn’t my phone’s flash—I had checked it on the lift up and it was dead. I should have uninstalled that damn weather app. Was it paparazzi? I knew we were good-looking guys, but even this felt excessive. We ducked down, panicked and scared, almost slipping off the icy cliff that just fifteen minutes ago I decided was the safest spot. I couldn’t see anything. My eyes were open but white was drowning everything out. Was I having a stroke?

    Oh my god, Ola and DJ said simultaneously.

    When I was finally able to see again, I wished that the white had completely taken away my vision. I turned seven hundred and twenty degrees, and kept counting more. One mushroom cloud. Then three. Then eight. This was it. Parking up front was too good to be true. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I turned to my friends who were sobbing. DJ was crying for Mandy, Ola was crying for his own Mandy.

    I said, Well, at least there will be no Texans to run into us while we’re skiing.

  • Cassidy Bassett
    The Wall

    No. They are being absurd. I will stay.

    The wind picked up. The wall moved closer.

    This always happens. The walls approach and leave like windows of opportunity in life. They always pass. Everyone overreacts, but I never do. What is there to overreact to? Oh no, the clouds are crying. Oh no, the sun is hiding. Oh no, the heavens are screaming their ghostly wails that no one can understand. If they are not understandable, then do not listen. It is simple as that. Yet everyone tries, and they are so surprised when they discover the heavens were only fooling them with their twisted antics that only the gullible could possibly fall for. This is just another window. Nothing that I would ever spend my precious time worrying about.

    But why did everyone leave? The question befuddles me. They somehow believed the lies they were fed by the media. This wall is deleterious. Please do not stay for this wall. You will regret it.

    No. They are being ridiculous. I will stay.

    The rain picked up. The wall moved closer. Closer.

    My window is shaking. The constant pap-pappap of the rain on the glass is the only sound I hear. Pap-Pap-Pap. More rain. PAP-PAP-PAP. The only sound I hear.

    How did the wall get here so fast? It should have taken longer. I thought it would have taken much longer. Why was I not right? I am always right.

    No. They are being stupid. I will stay.

    The storm picks up. The wall is here. Here. Here.

    Please do not stay for this wall.
    You will regret it.

    Thunder shakes my house. I feel the foundation vibrate under my feet. It shakes and quakes and rumbles with trouble, but still. Nothing to worry about.


    I can’t hear anything. Is the pap-pap-pap the rain or just the buffer in my head? I can’t tell the difference anymore. Occasional booms crack my mind in half. They make me dizzy.


    Pap-Pap-CRACK. What happened to the—BOOM.

    Where did this water—BOOM.

    Where did the wind—BOOM.

    I can’t think. My thoughts are the clouds, overlapping, combining, crossing, leaping, jumping, crawling, screaming, black.

    My skin is cold. Cold. Cold.

    My toes are numb. Numb. Numb?

    My mind is blank. Blank. Blank!

    The water’s in my house! House!

    What do I do? Do? DO?

    No way out! No way out?

    No air! No air? Where is the air? There is no air. There is only water. Water everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere. I can feel the water.

    I am the water.

    It’s my clothes, skin, body, hair, ears, eyes, face, mouth, nose.

    Why did I stay?

    Everyone else was right. I was wrong. How could I be so wrong?

    Face. Mouth. Nose. Mouth.

    It’s going to take me.

    Mouth. Nose. Mouth. Nose.

    I can’t brave this. I’m not strong enough. I can’t get out. There is no way out.

    Mouth. Nose. Throat. Throat.

    The water is swirling, whirling, crashing, lashing, black.

    Throat. Throat. Lungs. Lungs.

    What can I do? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.


  • Breven Engelson
    Jewel, the Black-Footed Range Rider

    The desert sun blazed down upon his back. A warm and light breeze shifted through the rustic little town. The town looked like it could have been from 1850 and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Ironically, a tumbleweed tumbled through the town like they did in the old western movies he never watched. His F-250 was tucked away in the Nevada Mountains twenty miles away. His horse rested uneasily between his tired old legs and sought comfort from him. He offered a quick rub on the neck to calm the horse’s uneasy spirit.

    This secluded town was the end of his life-long journey.

    A dusty broken saloon stood withering on his left and was connected to the general store and sheriff’s office. On his right stood the hotel and feed store. Each building was the same, dark, dusty-brown color. The road was straight dust with sagebrush growing close to some of the buildings.

    His horse started to look for answers where his rider offered none. It had tried to walk, but the rider whoa’d the horse back ever so quietly. The rider was careful not to make any sudden moves. Rider and horse would stand in the middle of the road until—he guessed—someone would come out and accept him, or send him away.

    A dark-black telescoping Great Basin buckaroo cowboy hat adorned his head. The hat had a tarnished crimson-red ribbon running around it with speckles of dark black. Dust caked the brim and crown of the hat, providing a testament to the man’s life and character. He shaved that morning, revealing his strong jaw line. Deep lines of age wearied his face, specifically around the corners of his eyes, but didn’t take away from the scotch-whiskey attributes of his face. Grey hair protruded from underneath his hat band, bequeathing his face with a gentlemanly charm.

    He wore a black long-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt and dark blue Wrangler jeans. Over his jeans, were chinks the same color of his hat ribbon. The chinks told the story of a buckaroo who had worked his whole life seeking the answer he had almost arrived at. Back-breaking labor from sunup to sundown was the defining characteristic of his life. The chinks had the obvious evidence of branding, for they were covered in dirt and blood stains. His spur straps matched the chinks and his hat ribbon, the blood of a man who lost all whom he had loved. The design of his boots could not be seen, for they were covered by years of dirt and grime. A six-shooter lay dormant, attached to his waist by way of a gun belt, marked with the carefulness of craftsmanship.


    The door to the saloon opened ever so slightly. He dared not move a muscle. His horse picked up his activity, stirring to rear. The tall and weary rider offered it peace with his body, remaining perfectly calm in the saddle. He stayed straddled to the stallion, his only real companion left.

    The door to the saloon opened fully, revealing a young boy.


    The kid came out and stared into his eyes. He didn’t break contact. The kid’s eyes searched for any sign of falsity. They were searching for the dark that was needed to survive. They were locked onto each other long enough for the rider to see his life flash before his very eyes. He saw every time his father had hit his mom, the dark times of his life and the pain he had conquered.

    Back-breaking labor
    from sunup to sundown
    was the defining characteristic
    of his life.

    There was a burn afterwards, like the kid had seen something he had not desired to see.

    “I am not sure what to think of you, mister.”

    He didn’t move a muscle.

    The kid turned around and ran back to the saloon, slamming the door behind him. Within his chest, he could feel a stabbing pain begin to form around the area of his heart.

    He looked down at the stallion and noticed his color begin to change. White spots were beginning to form over the pitch-black horse’s body.  The white began taking over slowly. In less than ten seconds the white was fast, all consuming. Its legs began to burn. In fact, they started to smoke—yes, this was good. He had read of this. Soon the smoke would permeate the air and engulf him and the horse. His hands were starting to turn black, sucking in the colors surrounding them. He was clashing with the spectacular white brilliance of the stallion. His blackness and the horse’s whiteness were blazing against each other.

    He wished to be still, yet the stallion was attempting to run as any beast would if they were being burned. Hopefully the true unity he had developed with the steed would pull through the last test. He had spent his entire life building up to this ultimate test. He had spent the last fifteen years astraddle this horse especially. He managed to calm the beast down to the point of a slow walk in a circle. He did not pet the horse, for his hands would surely make the trial that much harder.

    He had spent his entire life
    building up to this
    ultimate test.

    The smoke continued to build around the two, slowly swirling as they walked ever tighter into a circle. Soon they would be standing still.

    He was sure the entire town would be watching to see if he could make it happen.

    The stallion slowed down even more and began to stand still while the two colors burned. The smell of burning flesh permeated the air of the town now, and a small flame grew around his foot. Then it spread to the horse and himself. It engulfed the two of them fully, with neither moving visibly. He could sense the inner turmoil of the horse: whether to obey its master’s call to stand still or to go back to its baser instinct. He reassured it with his seat, invisible to the rest of the world.


    The kid ran out of the saloon again.

    “You may dismount the horse now. You know what to do after that.”

    The kid ran back to the saloon and slammed the door.


    He immediately dismounted the stallion. Both horse and rider returned to their original selves. He unsaddled the horse and took the spade bit out of his horse’s mouth. He set both carefully on the ground. He withdrew the pistol from his hip holster and cocked it. This was, by far, the bitterest, sweetest moment of his life thus far.

    Tears welled up in his eyes and a lump formed in his throat. The memories of all the years with his horse started to bombard his system. He thought he couldn’t do it. Maybe he actually wasn’t worthy.

    He closed his eyes and raised his gun. Touching it to the horse’s head, he pulled the trigger.

    He grabbed his saddle, placed the bridle over the horn, and walked to the saloon hall’s door. He set his rigging on by the entrance, turned the handle, and stepped inside.

    The smell of expensive whiskey and cigars resounded throughout his nostrils. He looked upon the wall where the bartender was putting up a picture of a pitch black horse next to a bay and a buckskin.

    “What do you want to drink?” exasperated the bartender.

    “Pendleton is fine.”

    “Have a seat. You’re welcome here now,” a dusty man at the bar told him.

    He sat down at the bar and took in his surroundings. Smoke drifted lazily throughout the bar, sunlight glistened through several windows on his right, and a cattle dog laid sluggishly in the corner.

    “I got one question.”  He directed this towards the bartender.

    “You’ve earned answers,” the bartender replied.

    “Was what I did outside worth it?”

    The bartender looked at him with deep, pondering eyes. The bartender’s gaze burned through his inner being, seeming to see things that even he didn’t know about himself.

    “Please leave this bar. There will be another horse for you to ride out on.”

    Fearing the repercussions of back-talking in an establishment like this, he decided to leave calmly.

    Outside, the kid he had seen earlier was standing with a new horse saddled.

    “Go ahead, mister. This is the best I could find. Also, never come back or I’ll be forced to do you-know-what.”

    “I wouldn’t come back if you paid me.”

    “We wouldn’t.”

    He mounted the horse and spurred him into a gallop.

    A single shot rang out from the direction of the town, and that was the last anyone had ever heard of Jewel, the Black-Footed Range Rider.

  • Robert W. O'Connor
    A Quiet Dawn

    The new day was gentle but for the rumbling of the train across the desolate landscape. John gazed sullenly out his window, as somewhere past the end of the world the sun began to glimmer, and gradually the spreading light confronted rolling grassland with the naked stare of another dawn.

    The sky radiated along the northeast horizon, illuminating sparse wisps of clouds with a pale yellow glow, and cast shadows across the untempered vista. He stared with red and sunken eyes at passing fields, rolling hillsides, ever increasing farms and, more frequently now, trees and patches of forest decorating the scenery. He stared as the light grew with intensity, until at last he threw the curtain across the window and cast the compartment back into darkness. The plainly-dressed man across from him slept soundly, oblivious to both dawn and dark.

    In his right hand John clutched a letter. The paper was creased and cracked like the dry
    hands of a sickly old man. It was damp also, stained and corrupted by the sweat of fists clenched just a little too tightly. The words on the paper were marred and worn, the ink smeared to the point of illegibility, but their conveyance was impervious to the degradation of stress and time.

    Each word was branded into his memory like a declaration of ownership. Three days ago, the words had unceremoniously seized his trials and labors, his education and endeavors, and mockingly cast them all into a vast expanse of vanity.They carried a weight with them also, an indescribable sadness that permeated his body and burned him down to the bone.

    Three days had changed everything. The week before, John had been blissfully ignorant and his life thrillingly promising. Melissa was already dead by then, but he had no knowledge of it. There was no sign from God, and no great disturbance in his mind. She was alive in his head long after the final breath had slipped past her gentle lips. It was only three days ago, after he carefully opened the letter, that there was reason to grieve. He had truly loved his sister. She was terribly quiet and mild mannered, but carried a sweetness and compassion about her one could only notice if they endured a great amount of time in her company. Much like a wildflower growing quietly in dense undergrowth, Melissa was beautiful and rare, but so easily overlooked. Three days ago she wilted into oblivion, never to be overlooked again.

    The compartment was too damn dark. John violently threw open the curtain and found himself blinded by the brilliant morning light. It burned his eyes, and an inconsolable rage swelled in his chest. Fuming floodwaters seemed to shatter his tired heart, channeling fire and frustration through his arms and legs, into the tips of his fingers and fibers of his muscles. He grabbed the curtain again and yanked it closed.

    The sleeping man stirred at the sound of ripping fabric, then opened his eyes to cheerful daylight filling the compartment. His eyes were groggy, but he could’ve sworn he caught a glimpse of his cabin mate abashedly stuffing a velvet curtain under his seat, cursing under his breath. The man frowned slightly, and decided it would be better not to ask. There was a brief moment of awkward stillness, and then he sighed and closed his eyes, resuming a peaceful slumber.

    Loss, or maybe love,
    somehow transcends
    distance and space, and it
    found him even in the outer
    reaches of the west.

    Even as John disgruntledly shifted his gaze back outside the gently rocking train car, his eyes painfully adjusting to the fresh daylight, he began to realize his own exhaustion. It was not only the loss of his sister, though that imposed a great burden itself, but also the complete upheaval of his life.Melissa’s income as a bookkeeper, while meager, was the lifeblood of his parents and, devoid of it, they had nothing. Pa couldn’t work since the fire had taken his leg, and Ma had long since been overcome by the demons of her mind, confining herself to bed for weeks at a time, her babbling only interrupted by sobbing, and occasional restless sleep. Three awful words of Aunt Annie’s letter bled through its crinkled paper and into John’s mind. Please come home.

    Home, he thought, is such an odd malfunction of the human condition. A man could run across an entire continent, hide in the unreachable hills of California, distract himself with the lure of science and progress, and somehow still be captured and dragged screaming back to the godforsaken ashes from which he was created.What difference do the dead make? Dead or two-thousand miles away amount to the same nothing.

    But of course he knew that was a lie. There is a world of difference between dead and distant. A small child with covered eyes may not believe his blanket is still there but when the room is revealed, it will be sitting in front of him, as comforting and warm as ever. The dead are gone, buried, even risen, but always forever.

    Loss, or maybe love, somehow transcends distance and space, and it found him even in the outer reaches of the west. His primitive mind hadn’t even hesitated. He was needed and he would come. How quickly could a man throw away everything? It didn’t take him long to abandon his dreams of gold and fortune and valor, and trade them all for a cramped eastbound train car.

    Outside, the sun had consumed its part of wandering sky and was steadily clambering for a higher vantage, overlooking the expanse of Ohio farmland and the tired train, claiming miles as they passed.Only a few hours from an old home, John allowed his head to fall back against the window, and moments later slipped into a troubled and uneasy sleep.

  • Connell Swenson
    Jesus is Dead

    fractal; noun: a self-iterating geometric shape which is identical across different scales and comprised entirely of smaller parts of the same shape. A fractal is a never-ending pattern. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over. They model snowflakes, crystal growth, coastline erosion, galaxy formation. They are simulations of a dynamic universe. They are the pictures of Chaos.

    *      *      *

    I grabbed a smoke from my pack of Marlboro Reds and patted down Rachel’s futon for my Zippo. We were laying side by side, the sheets wrinkled around our ankles, sweating in the midnight August heat of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The futon was crammed into the corner of Rachel’s room, which was decorated by a couple of boxes strewn across the pinewood floor: old remnants of a fresh start.

    When I found my lighter, I flicked the spark wheel and sucked in deep. The smoke curled into the room adding to the heat. I let the nicotine rush down into my body like water spilling over a dam and sank into one of her pillows.

    “You want one?” I said.

    The silence lingered for a few seconds and then she crawled over my body and reached for the pack. Rachel’s skin was sticky from the humidity. She grabbed the lighter off my stomach and sat up legs crossed, throwing her head back with the first drag.

    “Do you ever feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over?” she said.

    I just blinked, waiting for her to fill in the blanks.

    “I mean it’s this town, same customers at work, same friends afterwards, same drinks around the same fire, same cops breaking up the same parties. I need to get out of this place.
    I can’t wait to get to college.”

    “I can’t believe you’re going to California,” I said.

    “Everything will be different there.”

    “It’ll be different here without you.”

    She shifted her eyes from me and put her cigarette to her lips for a long drag.

    “You should come out to California,” she said, after a long exhale of smoke.

    “I don’t think I’ll make it out of here.”

    She looked down at the floor and straight past me with a smoke-gloss coating her milky brown eyes; she knew it was true.

    I looked up at the wall, which was covered with hand-drawn pictures, all on 8 ½-by-11-inch printer paper. It was like an acid trip. One of the drawings was an eye made exclusively from blue ink in excruciating detail. There was
    no eyebrow attached to it so the white of the page was an endless sea of skin. That blue eye was drawing me in like it had its own gravity, its own magnetic field.

    “You know Maia drew most of these,” Rachel said.

    Maia Stanton was a friend of ours. She had crystal blue eyes that were so bright you either had to stare into them or look away; they had that same kind of gravity as the picture, a magnetic field of their own. She had been killed in a riptide off the coast of Rhode Island a little over a year ago. And in a way, her death was what made Rachel and me grow close.That summer was the first time we ever made love. Eight months after Maia drowned, Jessie DuPont was dead. Being a DuPont in Great Barrington meant two things: he was the star on a bad football team, and his options in life were landscaping, crime, or alcoholism. In a ploy to skip out on his destiny, he tried to hang himself from the water tower in the early hours of a March Sunday morning. The rope snapped and he ended up falling to his death. I saw his ex-girlfriend a couple weeks afterwards.We were partying in a motel room with a few friends.We played drinking games with a handle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka until she ended up ripping her shirt off and running down the street. Her best friend spent two hours patrolling the roads like a police cruiser looking for her. I sat in the motel watching TV.

    You either had to stare into
    them or look away; they had
    the same kind of gravity as
    the picture, a magnetic field
    of their own.

    After Jessie, Kenny Krom ended up dead in early April when party season started and the weather broke. Kenny was a boisterous guy, six foot nine with spindly arms. He was famous in every party scene up and down the rural Massachusetts–New York border for yelling “Sound the Horn” at the top of his lungs before swilling down a few gulps of Tito’s. He drove himself off a bridge on his way home from a house party and died in a hospital bed the next day. I had bummed him a cigarette before he left. His mom started a “campaign to end drunk driving,” but nothing changed; she barely raised enough money to cover the funeral costs.

    Kenny’s best friend David Ibanez was the foster son of the high school Spanish teacher. She was a kind woman and a lousy teacher. I learned more Spanish from my fluent friends trash talking at parties than from four years in her classroom. David was a pot dealer who was always in debt for using half the product. When Kenny died, David smashed his car into a tree on Route 4,1 going 60 in a 35 where the road makes a sharp left leading into the outskirts of Housatonic. He was ejected from the car almost forty feet but walked away with nothing but a neck brace and a broken arm. His foster mom assumed that that would be the end of it, but once David got the neck brace off, he strapped a cinderblock to his foot and jumped in the reservoir on East Street.

    I grabbed another Marlboro and lit the tip with the butt of the one I just finished. The smoke forced my stare away from the blue-ink eye and onto Rachel.

    “When are you heading out to California?” I asked.

    “I leave next Wednesday. All the girls are throwing a going away party at Lydia’s—are you going to be there?”

    “Yep. I’ll have my guy pick us up a handle or two of Tito’s. It’ll be a good night.”

    My words just lingered in the air, like they were trapped in some invisible force field. I snuck out the front door a few minutes later in total silence.

    *      *      *

    Rachel left and seven months blurred into a stream of work, cigarettes, and vodka. She was right: It felt like I was doing the same thing over and over. I started taking community college classes at the beginning of the spring semester. I was in my Intro to Writing and Composition class when I got a text from my best friend.

    “Did you hear what happened?”

    I walked out of class and gave my professor the ‘don’t fuck with me’ look. She scowled and kept talking about how to frame a quote. I walked out of the glass double doors, leaned back against the handrail, lit a cigarette, and called my best friend.

    “What’s going on man?”

    “Listen, I’m just going to say it: Jesus is dead. They found the body this morning.” His voice sounded sober and shaky.

    “Our friend Jesus?” I said.

    “Who the fuck else would I be talking about? Yes, our friend, Jesus Santos. He drove his car into a tree last night, drunk and coked up, I think. He died on impact.”

    Being a DuPont in Great Barrington
    meant two things …

    I wanted my body to collapse to the cement, or start breathing heavy, or maybe just muster a little lump in my throat punctuated by a tear. But it didn’t. Instead, I started walking to my car, a half-silver, half-rusted 2001 Volkswagen Jetta with no front bumper and mismatched hub caps. I cracked the window and chain smoked on my way to the package store. The cashier didn’t care that I wasn’t 21. I must have still had that ‘don’t fuck with me look’ on my face. I bought a handle of Tito’s and made my way over to my best friend’s house, taking big pulls straight from the brown bag the whole way there.

    The funeral was two weeks later and, in a messed-up way, I was excited because I knew Rachel would be in town. Maybe I would finally tell her I loved her. Maybe I would tell her I was trying to make something of myself, how I was taking classes again, how I was talking to the Air Force recruiter. Maybe I would tell her that I could really make it out to California one day. I didn’t see Rachel until just before the service was set to start. She was wearing a black trench coat which matched her straightened hair. Everything about her was exactly how I remembered. I got through the service by watching the familiar heave and fall of her breath out of the corner of my eye. It kept me from focusing on the casket, just out of arm’s reach, where Jesus was being lowered into the ground.

    After the service, Rachel and I walked slowly under the dead trees at the edge of the graveyard. Her face was sunken and twisted.

    “What’re you thinking about?” I said.

    “Why him, why did he have to go?”

    “This place changes people.”

    “He was always so happy.”

    “It’s hard to do anything but drink your life away here.”

    There was a long pause and a dry wind made the dry branches crackle into a dance.

    “Do you know what fractals are?” she asked.

    I looked up and her eyebrows were curled in on themselves like she was solving a math problem. The corners of her eyes were wet with tears. “One of my math professors always talks about them. He says that they’re the geometric equivalent of the god particle, or something like the big bang. He says it’s a shape that explains the whole universe.”

    “Well—what does it look like?” I said.

    “It can look like all sorts of things, but it doesn’t matter what it looks like. What matters is that it’s made up of a bunch of small parts of the same shape. And those parts are made up of smaller parts of the same shape and so on. No matter how small you go, it’s the same thing over and over. You can’t ever escape that shape.”

    “So what?”

    “Don’t you see it? He’s right. The whole world is a fucking fractal: same thing over and over. You can’t get away from the shape.”

    “But you’re out in California, you’re going to college. Isn’t that a different shape?”

    She turned on a dime and looked right through me. I grabbed her hands and pulled her close. Her skin was cold. I leaned my lips in as if a kiss might cure everything bad that ever happened to us, to this town. She ripped her hands away.

    He says that they’re the
    geometric equivalent of the god particle …
    it’s a shape that explains
    the whole universe.

    “I’m sorry, I can’t do this.”

    She brushed past me and headed straight to her car. I watched her zip down Elm Street until the tail lights faded into nothing. ‘The same shape,’ I thought to myself, ‘the same goddamn shape.’

    I slid my pack of Marlboros out from my front pocket and fished for a cigarette. There was one left in the red and white packaging which I planted in my lips. “You’re next motherfucker,” I whispered through my teeth as I reached for my lighter. The cigarette wobbled up and down in my mouth. “You’re next.”