"Can we get the nachos?" Karen asks, acrylic nail tapping the menu. "I'm really craving nachos."
She can hardly be heard over the bustle of the crowded restaurant, over the swinging country music, the drawling waitresses, the creating and cleaning and clinking of dishes, over the murmur of their small group. Kyle looks over at Karen's menu and they argue over an appetizer, Sarah leers at the two before gazing back at her phone.
Michael, civilized and always observant, is looking at you with concern. You ignore him, staring instead at the glass of water that the waitress had placed before you moments ago, watching as water droplets condensate before sliding down the glass. You wonder idly if they'll stain the rough wood.
"I say we get fried pickles. This is the only restaurant near campus that serves them, like, how can you pass that up." Kyle retorts, playfully tugging at the menu in the brunette's dainty hands.
"Pickles are my favorite." John comments and your head pounds. You focus harder on the glass as it fogs up slowly, watch as the ring around it grows ever larger. You don't think about Sarah, or how she's probably texting some boy, distracting him from something important. You hope that boy is smart enough to stay focused.
"Hey David, they aren't listening to me. Tell them I want the pickles" John whines, grabbing your forearm with frozen hands, and you cringe.
"Why do we need an appetizer?" Sarah asked, one blonde eyebrow raised. "They steaks here are huge." Her words are uttered in the most monotone, gravel-garbled, familiar way. She almost never shows emotion, except when-
Don't think about that.
You can feel Michael's gaze, weighted and worried. You hope your expression isn't as twisted as it feels.
"You're going to pass on the pickles? They're, like, legendary," Kyle questions incredulously.
"No pickles." You growl, hands shaking beneath the table. The conversation stops and Karen lets out a small squeak before hiding behind her menu. Even Sarah looks startled.
"No pickles." You reiterate calmly, grin plastered on your face. "Not after last time. Remember how sick I got? Are going to put me through that again?"
No one remembers how sick you got, this is the first time you've been out with them in... a while. But everyone's relieved to move on, and you let them.
You pick up your water, just to give your hands something to do. You will them to stop shaking.
The water is cold as it runs down your fingers, down your throat, but it does nothing for the aching in your head. You can hear John's fingers tapping the table over every other sound. Each tap is like a punch to the chest. You can't believe he's here. It's been weeks, finally, since you'd last heard from him, and now he had the audacity to show up again.
"David, are you alright? Michael asks, thin lips set in a frown. His voice sounds muffled, and your head is spinning. John has moved to bumping his shoe against yours under the table and you take anymore.
"I can't do this." You utter, standing up and sliding out of the booth. Dually, you note that they'd sat you at the end of the booth near the exit. No one believed you'd make it through.
They were right.
"Do you want someone to drive you home?" Karen asks, voice comforting as she grabs your wrist. Her hand is hot, hot and alive and pulsing and unbearable.
"I'll be okay." You mutter as you pull away. The exit is just to the right. You can't reach it fast enough.
"David! You can't just leave without me!" His steps echo impossibly behind you. You pick up the pace, ignoring the strange looks you get from neighboring tables, ignoring the waiters, ignoring the hostess and her startled expression, ignoring that stupid, grating voice. You throw open the driver's side door and fling yourself in. Still, he opens the passenger door and gets in beside you.
"You know I can't drive. My car, it's a mess."
He babbles incessantly as you drive, and your eyes burn. Your vision blurs and you thank God that driving's become nearly instinctual. You feel your feet move, feel the steering wheel, and yet you feel nothing.
Until you remember where you are.
You're heart nearly stops when you see the side-street, the narrow road just off the main highway. You pull over, determined to end this once and for all. You hear John get out behind you.
"David why'd you stop, forget the way?" The boy jokes. "I thought you knew this path by heart. It's not automatic after all this time?"
You swallow the cry that threatens to burst from your throat and you stumble towards a small plaque that rest inches from the ditch. You glare at the repulsing sight, and the small white cross that guards it has the nerve to stare back. Dingy yellow flowers cower before it's rotted form, warped and disgusting. John looks on, unimpressed with the small shrine. "C'mon Dave, I need to get home. Sarah's waiting." He was still there, how could he still be there?
"No she's not." You're voice cracks as you say it. "She moved on long ago." Your hand traces the plaque, the worn and forgotten letters. " F R ON T HAN SM TH" It seems to read.
"From me? Dave you must not hear the nonsense coming from your mouth. Don't you see the way she hangs all over me?"
Instead of commenting, you wander back to your car and clamber in, fighting the seatbelt and switching the ignition, as per routine. Right, left, watch the light, stop sign, bridge ahead, left, left, right. Finally you pull in front of his house, or what's left of it. Instead of a mousy mother fretting over the youngest of the Smith boys , instead of a father cooking his famous lasagna, instead of John scaling the small oak to the left of the property, an oozing nothingness bellows forth from the gaping jaw of the open, abandoned door. The blue cottage sat rotting, as if it couldn't exist once deprived of its lively tenants.
John scoffed. "David, you know I don't live here anymore."
"No, you don't." You agree numbly.
"You should have let me drive. I can man the wheel like no ones business, best driver there is is yours truly." You try not to think too hard about those claims, about the night with the semi and the drunk man and the narrow roads and John and his cellphone and his flirting and your own distracting laughter- you try and you fail. "The car is just extension of me, it's basically automatic."
"Just because you're the perfect driver doesn't mean everyone else is. You have to... Have to...you have to watch." You can barely get the words out, and John just laughs, laughs that stupid laugh you miss so much.
You wish you'd given him that advice that night 128 days ago, back when there was someone to receive it.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.