Tatum Schroeder is an aspiring twenty-something writer from Minnesota. He graduated from college with a Bachelors in English at age 18, and has been pursuing a creative writing career since. His poetry has recently made an appearance at Grief Dialogues. Currently he is serially publishing his Midwestern gothic horror novel, Tales from the Last Great Lake, on his Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/tatumschroeder), as well as hosting his Patreon-exclusive podcast, The Root of All Ope. When he isn't working on his latest writing project, Tatum enjoys painting, playing with his two cats, and camping.
The Long Way North
It comes down to a simple choice. A, you stay in your hometown and never know who you could have been. Or B, you leave your hometown and lose a part of yourself you will never find anywhere else.
Almost everyone in my high school graduation class chose ‘A’. I ended up choosing ‘B’ and learned the hard way what happens to that part you leave behind.
I thought that part of me would die once I took off for the big city and chased my big hopes and big dreams. I thought it would wither as a branch once it is cut off from the tree, becoming brittle and cold. It would fade like paint on an old sign and be eaten away by rust. And one day, I imagined, nothing about myself would exist in Eden Lake, Minnesota anymore. It may take years, if not decades. But one day, every single nut and bolt and trauma and tick that made me ‘Me’ would be washed clean of my hometown, and it would no longer have anything to do with me.
But it turns out I was wrong. When you leave your hometown, that part of you is not left in some empty hole to die alone. It stays in the people you left behind, like their own little heirloom—a china cup taken from Grandmother’s house when she died and left everything to the family. And they’ll take care of it well, never letting it morph into something they wouldn’t recognize. No matter how much the rest of you changes as the years go on, you have to accept there’s a tiny bit of you that’s still having a drink at the old place each night, or wasting away the summer hours on a back porch swing. And do you know what the worst part is?
As long as you’re not forgotten, you never really leave your hometown.
No matter how far you run, it’s always there. Every time you smell a beet field, hear waves lap against the shore, or wake up in a cold sweat terrified of something in a dream you have already forgotten, then you’ll know it’s there. That is how I knew Eden Lake, Minnesota would always be a part of me.
I should have accepted that sooner.
Your best friend from high school is dead.
The news shatters my plans for a quiet evening. A cozy mystery novel I picked up just this morning, which I intended to curl up with tonight, falls out of my lap and hits the tile. The brand-new spine is instantly bruised. I couldn’t care less.
Before I can change my mind, I break into my partner’s liquor cabinet and choke down four servings of my high school best friend’s favorite drink (a Long Island Iced Tea, because of course it was) while wandering around the apartment. When I can’t stand up anymore, I melt into the sofa and I cry myself to sleep.
I was sober for eleven years, four months, and eighteen days.
I cry for my dead friend for many reasons. One, he died exactly the way I was afraid he would—overdose. Give or take the word ‘accidental’. That depends on who you talk to. But really, does it matter if he took all those drugs on purpose or not? Does it matter if it was just a little mistake or if he had known exactly what he was doing? Does it matter if it was just another Tuesday for him and some chemical mix went wrong without any intentions, or if he had been so fed up with the world and was so alone in it that he couldn’t stand it anymore?
Oh, who am I kidding…of course it matters. It fucking matters. But he died alone in the spare bedroom of a friend’s house who was away for the weekend, and his phone service had been disconnected for days due to missed payments. No one except him knows what was going through his head that day. We will never know if it was suicide or a mistake, and we’re left to speculate like pulp fiction detectives. So we’re just going to tell ourselves it doesn’t matter, discrediting the pain that drove him to that point. It’s easier to say it doesn’t matter because it makes it that much easier for us to go on with our lives instead of wondering if we could have done something to save him.
Or does it? Does any of it matter anyway? He’s dead. Rogan is fucking dead. None of my drunken existential meltdown is going to change that. Accidental or not, he’s never coming back. So why wonder if my high school best friend killed himself or not? Am I just selfish for wanting closure on his story, for wanting to be able to sleep a little better because I know the truth? He sure didn’t get fucking closure in life, so why should I?
Anyway, if you asked me what I think…I just don’t know. Rogan was the type who would finally go through with it—you know, only the thing we said we’d do during all those high school years the grownups tell you are supposed to be the best of your life (and you think,
“Goddamn, if these are the best I’m going to get, what the hell are the worst going to be like?”) But at the same time, he could have just been trying to wind down after a long day with no plans to die. Maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly. Maybe he was trying a new strain and didn’t know it would react badly with something else he took. Things like that happen every day.
So…I don’t know. I just don’t know if the obituary should have left out the word ‘accidental’ or not. And I’m never going to know. That’s the second reason I’m crying.
There’s a third reason. I had not talked to Rogan in years. After high school, we exchanged emails, phone calls, and even a couple video chats once we got around to figuring out how. But I didn’t reach out as much as I could have. And in the past five or maybe six years we had barely spoken. Could have called him when I didn’t hear from him for a while. Could have invited him to spend a weekend in the city with me, see the museums and the aquarium. Could have gone to the high school reunion last year. Could have even sent a goddamn email on his birthdays. Could have, could have, could have…the list will go to the moon and back, won’t it?
At some point in the night I stumble to the bathroom and puke up the four Long Islands along with pasta salad I had for dinner, then cry some more as the ends of my hair are soaked in toilet water. I’m thinking of Rogan from the last time I saw him and it’s making all of it hurt more. But I can’t stop. Rogan, with his huge, goofy smile, almost too big for any human face. Rogan’s slicked back hair, and the way he bleached it to shit the night before junior prom. Rogan talking about how Rage Against the Machine was the best band ever and how U2 was the most overrated band ever (one of our mutual friends loved U2, and the two had animated debates about it on a weekly basis). Rogan’s cheap body spray from the dollar store—god, that stuff reeked. Rogan’s chipped nail polish, which he had painted every color except orange, the only color he hated. Rogan telling me he wanted to jump off the tallest building in the world. Rogan’s big smile. Rogan telling me how much he wanted to die. Rogan’s crooked teeth.
The picture of him in my head is old. He sent it to me in an email when I had asked for proof he wasn’t bleaching his hair again, but I saw nothing of him since. I don’t even know what he looked like on his last day, his last month, not even his last year. Had he gotten thinner because of the abuse? Had he gotten any piercings on a dare? Did he still wear old band shirts and rags for jeans, or had he changed his fashion style before the end? And, why is that what I’m thinking about of all things when none of it matters anyway?
The next morning, my body is getting its revenge on what I did to it last night and I’m regretting everything. I can see Rogan laughing at me right now, at the fact that for all the reasons to break sobriety I did it to mourn him (“Seriously? You couldn’t have picked a better reason to drink again?” he’d howl). Somehow, I manage to crawl off the couch and send an email reply to Lis, the classmate who sent me the news last night. She replies in under ten minutes. Not a surprise—Lis was always the first to finish her homework. She was quick and efficient that way; would break her own arm just for a gold star. How did I forget that? She was part of my and Rogan’s friend group all those years. I shouldn’t have forgotten.
She sends me the date, time, and place for Rogan’s wake. I don’t know why I hoped for anywhere else, but it’s in Eden Lake, Minnesota. I know Rogan had lived in a few places out of town over the years, but I guess he must have moved back at some point.
I haven’t been to Eden Lake in eleven years, four months, and nineteen days.
I spend the rest of my day in a numb, dreamlike state, nursing my hangover. I rotate between wanting to cry, cracking up at the dumbest joke, and feeling nothing at all. My partner never leaves my side, and thank god, because without them I’d be helpless as a baby. They make me meals and force me to sip on water until I’m hydrated again. They help walk me through what I’ll say when I call in to work. We watch a comfort television show we’ve seen a dozen times. And I talk. A lot.
And things I haven’t let myself think about in years come flooding into my consciousness. People I wish I never met, houses I sneaked into and found secrets in, smells and textures, words said a certain way, sleepless frozen nights in January and endless lazy afternoons in July—all are the freckles of Eden Lake’s looming, glaring face. Some memories stay hidden deep down beneath the sand, matters of the heart I keep to myself so my problems don’t become others’ problems. Others, however, come gushing up out of me like my soul is dry heaving, desperate to just get them out of my system. Luckily, I have a partner who is listening to every word. They rub my back as I tell them about Rogan, sharing both the good and the bad about him. I share my favorite memories of us and our group of friends, exploring abandoned farmhouses and joyriding through the countryside and inventing our own religion under the school bleachers.
God, Rogan…when was the last time I talked to him? Was it the night I called him because our favorite television show had been cancelled? Was it when I graduated from college and he called me to say congratulations? Was it when, was it when…and why can’t I remember? Had he said anything I should have interpreted as a warning sign? He seemed fine…what did we talk about? He was stressed about his roommates not paying rent again; he got a job at the window and door factory in the next town over. He seemed…fine. But since when is that ever an indication that someone is actually fine. Did I even ask him if he was okay? Did I let him know I was there for him if he needed help? Did I, did I, did I…
In the back of my mind, through all the grief and self-hate and questions I’ll never find the answer to, I realize what is about to happen. I’m going back to my old hometown. I’m going to have to dig up old wounds and see all those people again. I’m going back.
Against my better judgment, I search my old emails until I find the one Rogan sent with the photograph. It’s an image of a sunny day with the lake as the backdrop, snapped by someone standing a few feet away from him. In the photograph, Rogan’s hair must be long enough to pull back into a ponytail. He’s wearing a midnight blue hoodie, a backwards baseball cap, and a Rage Against the Machine shirt. He faces the camera and has a bright, genuine smile. Rogan isn’t posing—he’s smiling for real. A moment captured in time when the photographer must have told a great joke and pulled out the camera just in time. People will say it’s the kind of smile they wouldn’t expect from someone who suffered and struggled as much as Rogan, but they don’t know him like I did. He was full of everything, and that included joy and sadness and love and hate. I don’t look away from the photo for a long time.
By this afternoon, my boss has me all set up for a week’s leave from work. My partner has no such luck. They feel like shit that they can’t come with and be my support. But I try to be the big kid and reassure them I’ll be fine, remind them that it’s just a few days apart. Even if I’m not going to be okay being without them, the least I can do is pretend to be, for their sake.
Initially I consider taking a plane, but last-minute flights are too expensive to justify that. Besides, the nearest airport is a couple hours from Eden Lake anyway. That means I’m driving. My partner wants me to wait until tomorrow morning to hit the road since my body is still punishing me for the drinks. But I pack up anyway. I’m going to power through with sports drinks, snacks, and a killer playlist I burned on a CD. It will just be a few days, I tell myself. I’ll drive up, say goodbye to Rogan, reconnect with a few folks, then come back home and move on.
But deep down I know the truth. Going back to your hometown is never that simple, is it? Something is going to snag, one way or another.
It is roughly a ten-hour drive to Eden Lake from our apartment, not counting traffic and rest stops. I hit the road about a quarter to five, just as the sky is getting dark. The interstate lights up with folks heading home or out to bars. No snow on the ground yet, but this time of year, that will change any day.
As downtown slowly fades from view, and I begin a long trek up north and into the night, the memories come back. They’re coming up on me like the headlights. And I’m remembering a childhood I tried to forget.
Eden Lake, Minnesota has a population of about 2,000. It is an hour from the Canadian border and two hours from the Red Lake Indian Reservation, and of course, it’s right on a big pond of the same name. The main traffic are tourists passing through and campers coming in from the state park up the road to get groceries and supplies they forgot to bring with. There are five bars and three churches. The only sign of an outside world is the highway passing through that eventually connects to the interstate. Downtown is speckled with mom-and-pop gift shops and restaurants. There is a small visitor center on the lake. There’s a bait shop where you can buy locally made pickled turkey gizzards. And there’s a meth lab twenty miles to the west.
I spent the first eighteen years of my life there. Thanks to a teacher who believed in me and foster parents who were determined to get at least some use out of me, I got a scholarship to a college two states away. Since then, I’ve found a decent job, bought a flat, and met my adoring, perfect partner. I can’t claim life is great, but now and then I can certainly say life is good—and if nothing else, it is better. It is getting better. Better than it was when I was a kid, anyway. Eden Lake may have that American Midwest small town charm (think Mayberry meets Garrison Keillor), but we all know it’s skin-deep. Beneath that sanitized, star-spangled skin, the meat is rotten and the bones are broken.
Why, you may ask? What makes Eden Lake such a shitty place to live? That’s what I’ve tried to forget for the past eleven years, four months, and nineteen days. And that’s what begins to trickle through the cracks I’ve tried to seal shut.
I start to wonder if taking this long trek alone was a good idea after all. Out here, by myself on the road with nothing but a stupid CD to keep me company, anything can happen in your head.
Out here, you’re at the mercy of yourself and your capability to self-destruct.
Rogan and I had one tradition for almost every Friday night.
Once school let out, we walked over to the moldy old farmhouse where he lived with his dad and stepmom. It was just out of town down a county road and beside a field filled with old cars and farm equipment. We threw our homework aside, snuck down to the basement, and grabbed some beers. Rogan’s older stepbrother would buy a pack for us and let us use his mini fridge he kept in the basement. He charged us extra, but it was a good deal overall. At the time, we thought he was the coolest stepbrother in the world for enabling us. Now and then he also bought us a bottle of hard liquor, which we would hide under the seat of one of the old cars.
Once our hands were full we ran out back behind the farmhouse to get drunk. In the field, we climbed on the broken tractors and trucks, pretending the ground was lava or that we were soldiers in ‘Nam or Normandy. My personal favorite was when we were humanoid aliens exploring Earth thousands of years after humanity’s extinction, forced to learn about the humans by studying the objects they left behind. Each drink made the game more fun. When we felt too old to play the games, we did all the things high school kids do—tell dirty jokes, talk about gender and orientation, lament about life’s problems, encourage each other’s self-destruction, hug it out, cry it out, practice making out for our future partners. Just regular teenage things.
Sometimes we would stay out late enough to watch the sunset, even when it filled the sky with that blasted color of orange Rogan hated so much. Other times, we passed out and woke up in the dead of night, and had to sneak back inside to his bedroom. Even in winter, we still went to the field, warming our bellies with Southern Comfort between snowball fights.
That field was the place we decided on Rogan’s new name. He had always loathed his birthname. Why? I never completely understood, but I didn’t need to. However, it took him some time to choose what he wanted to be called instead. When we tested out ‘Rogan’ by addressing him as such for a week, it stuck. We both loved that name. We made a vow to never speak the old name again, no matter what, and for every day afterwards I honored that vow. He was Rogan. And he always would be.
The beer tasted like piss and the air smelled like cow shit from the farm a few miles further down the county road. But that field was paradise. Because it was ours. It was a place no one could ruin or take away. The field did not know the cruelty of the world; it did not know what it was to grow up and keep going on. In the field, we could pretend we would always be children.
And we thought this was the best we were going to get.
A few hours into the drive, I realize I can’t make it through the night. I get off the interstate in a town just south of the Twin Cities and pull up to the nearest motel, where I crash for a few hours. It’s just enough to shave off the last of my hangover and get me going again. By sunrise, I’m on the road again. I am pulling into Eden Lake before noon.
There is something haunting about the long drive north through Minnesota.
Fields stretch infinitely in either direction. You feel like you could just keep driving forever and the world would never end. This time of year, snow builds up the farther you go, like driving towards the frozen heart of the north. The farther you get away from the urban areas, the fewer cars you see beside you on the interstate. Farms and city population signs alike become increasingly distant neighbors.
With each hour that goes by, you not only feel more and more alone in this land…you feel smaller. You’re just one little human looking out a vast country with winters that offer no mercy. And you realize you’re not as strong as you thought you were.
It’s a humbling experience.
Then, as you begin to approach the northeastern parks and forests, nature closes in on you. Eventually the wide-open space narrows into a wooded hallway, winding and curving and bending through the forest. Trees loom above you, like guards standing at attention as you trespass through their territory. Part of you thinks about how fucked you would be if your car randomly up and quit right now; the other can’t help but enjoy the idea of just getting lost in these woods.
It’s not that I do not find this wilderness beautiful.
It’s that I never thought I’d be driving in this direction ever again. It feels like a sick joke, doing a reverse of the drive that saved my life over ten years ago. I know it’s just raw emotions fucking with me, but it begins to feel like each mile is an undoing of all the progress I’ve made since leaving Eden Lake. The life I’ve built for myself is a sweater I spent all these years sewing together, and this drive is the loose thread slowly being pulled on, unraveling everything.
But I tell myself, you’re just fucked over from Rogan. It’s not like this trip can revert you back to who you once were. It’s not like this trip is taking you back in time.
My first stop is Lis’ house, per our conversation over email. She still lives in town. Says she never moved away because she couldn’t afford it and got stuck at her job. I’m pulling off the main highway and onto the state road that leads past downtown. As you drive over the bridge after Main Street, the lake of the same name shines on your left. In summer you might see locals on their tubes or pontoons, but in this weather the lake’s surface is barren. And then the buildings are looking at me, in all their rusty, industrial neutral colors. I swear, they have eyes. There’s the gas station where I shoplifted so many candy bars. There’s the post office I rode my bike to so I could send the next letter to my old pen-pal in New York. There’s the church steeple giving me the judging glare from down the street. It’s as if I never left. Like I turned around all those years ago and never drove away after all.
My stomach churns. The steering wheel glistens with sweat.
I’ve healed so much. I’ve changed. I have lived as the person I was meant to be and finally found some happiness in life. I’ve even gotten clean.
So why do I feel like it’s all going away with each moment? Why do I feel like I’m back in high school?
Why do I feel like I’ve just hit a ‘reset’ button on my life?
By the time I pull into Lis’ driveway, my head is spinning. I just want to get out of the car, stop moving, and pull the last bits of me back together. Lis is outside to greet me. We laugh at each other, then hug. The first thing she says—meaning, the first thing she’s said to me in over ten years—is,
“Wow…you look so different.”
I pull away and look at her and I feel old. Lis looks like she still gets carded at R-rated movies, whereas I already have a few gray hairs. Now that’s just not fair.
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a thing.” She nods to the door. “Well, get your butt in here.”
Hot coffee and cold sandwiches are waiting inside. As us Minnesotans do, she first takes me on a little tour of the house. After pretending to be impressed by the half-finished basement, I sit with her at the table and silently tell myself I’ve got to eat at least a couple bites. Once our coffee is poured and we’ve settled into our chairs, a heavy weight falls over both of us as we realize we’re finished pretending this is a happy reunion.
“Did you keep in touch with him much?” I ask.
“Yeah, sure.” Lis looks down at her coffee, cream but no sugar. She hated sugar in her coffee; I remember that. I should have remembered that. “We hung out at the bar couple times a week. Ran into each other now and then.” She sets down her cup of coffee.
“Did he still hate the color orange?”
“Oh, yeah, you bet. Never let anyone forget it, either. Surprised you had to ask a question like that.”
“I know. Shit…I should have talked to him more.”
“You can’t do that. Don’t blame yourself for what happened. None of us are at fault.”
I want to tell her that’s mostly, if not partially, bullshit—that not blaming ourselves for what led to Rogan feeling like he needed to take a bunch of drugs is exactly why this shit continues to happen in the world, that you can only blame someone’s illnesses and addictions so much before you’re part of the problem—but it’s not a fight I want to have. Not now, anyway. So I ignore her comment.
“Do you keep in touch with anyone else from school?”
“Oh, yeah. Everyone stuck around except you. Norm lives just across the street and I carpool with Amy to work. We always see each other at the bar.”
“Still a drinker, then?”
“Why, you quit?”
“Yeah. My last drink was at the graduation party the night before I left.” I’m not about to tell her about the other night; I’m already telling myself it doesn’t count. Plus compared to the last time I drank it was nothing. We were wild kids, desperate to find anything that would tame the demons inside us, even if meant awakening others of a different breed.
“Oh, yeah. That was a fun night. We all got so wasted.” Her voice trails for a bit, then she reels herself back into the kitchen. “Well, come on, catch me up! It’s been, what, how long since we’ve seen each other?”
“Over ten years.” Eleven years, four months, and nineteen days.
“Damn. Has it really been that? Feels like you just took off last week.”
“Really? Huh. Feels like half a century to me.” I sip my coffee. Three tablespoons of sugar weren’t enough.
“Guess time goes by faster in the big city.” Lis laughs at her own joke. “What have you been up to?”
Here it comes. The conversation I’ve been rehearsing since last night.
“I’ve doing good. I finished college and right now I’m working as a columnist for a website that posts news on social-related issues. It’s a good job—hard work, but I like it.”
“I can see that. You were always the writer,” she says with nostalgia, recalling a version of me that hasn’t existed in a long time.
“Rogan had me write his papers for him. He couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish any of them.” I shut my eyes at a memory of Rogan and me one summer day. His gangly limbs were draped over the tire swing, his head hanging back over his shoulders so that he looked at me upside down. Long black hair reaching for the ground, a fresh cigarette dangling from his lips, his dirty toes stretched out. Our friends were all hanging out around the tree and taking turns on the swing, and we were sipping from pop cans. What was our favorite one again…? Dr. Pepper. No, Pepsi. Maybe it was Dr. Pepper…how did I forget?
“Rogan. Haven’t heard that nickname in a little while.” Lis laughs again.
Something about the way she laughs makes me set down my cup of coffee. Its taste instantly goes sour in my mouth.
“What do you mean? He was Rogan.”
“Yeah, sure, in high school. But we’re graduated now. We’re grown-ass adults. We use the name we’re supposed to.”
Lis looks at me. It’s not a look I was expecting to see. And she says,
“It’s probably best if you don’t say that name at the wake. Just...keep it normal.”
“Why? What’s wrong with it? His name was Rogan.” Lis should know this. Rogan made his new name and identity clear to everyone, whether they liked it or not. Not everyone in our friend group understood it, but I remember we respected it. But based on what Lis is telling me, she’s succumbed to echoing what the grownups told us years ago—that to call Rogan by his new name was encouraging some twisted, perverse behavior.
“It’s not…it’s not that simple.” She frowns. “Just…don’t say that name. It’s better this way if you don’t. We don’t need to cause a scene.”
I’m about to argue with her—chew her out for daring to imply that we don’t call our dead friend by his own goddamn name—when she cuts me off by adding,
“You haven’t been to Eden Lake in a while. Trust me.”
So I drop it. But I’m left wondering why Lis is acting like this. I know it was hard for her in the beginning to remember Rogan’s name and honor it. But you’d think a person would have at least grown up a little in the past decade.
That afternoon, before going to the wake, Lis and I take her pickup to her regular bar, which as it turns out is the old place called The Walleye’s Pub. It’s right along the route I used to walk when I delivered the weekly newspaper from fifth grade to senior year, so I already know it well.
She offered for us to meet up with the old friend group somewhere else, but I insist that it’s fine; I’ll just sip on Dr. Pepper all evening. Maybe a Pepsi. So, we drive there. It is already getting dark and the air stings like spearmint.
Just as I was starting to feel better, the illness starts hitting me again. I hold my stomach as we drive down a road that was my school bus route for years. The houses on either side of the street…god, how could I forget them? But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? I never forgot; I just pretended to. There’s the little blue cottage I always thought looked like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale—there’s the house with the hideous front door, and yes, the door is still the color of your shit if you ate a pound of spinach, an analogy Rogan put in my head that I could not unsee since—and there’s the house that never took down their Christmas lights. They are all exactly as I remembered.
A horrible thought sinks in. This town is no better or worse since you left.
It didn’t even realize you were gone. This town didn’t miss you one bit.
Did I want Eden Lake to ache in my absence, even just a little? Did I want something to be a little less of itself because I left? And if so, why is that so important to me? Maybe I’m just that selfish, that conceited.
“You okay there?” Lis asks.
“Yeah. It’s just…a lot. Being back here.”
“Maybe you could use a drink after all.”
“I’m all right.”
“Come on, just one. For old times’ sake. No one will judge and I won’t tell.”
“I said I’m all right.” This time, the words have an intentional edge.
“But everyone drinks here. You know that.” Lis gives me a glancing smile as she pulls into the lot behind Walleye’s Pub. The bar has a big porch out back that looks out to the lake. In the summer it’s a nice place to kick back with some friends and watch the fishermen haul their boats in for the evening. But this time of year, there is just emptiness.
“I’d really rather not…”
“Then order a drink and just hold it,” she says. She’s already halfway to the door when I get out to follow her, wanting to demand why she’s insisting I have a dumb drink. But I don’t get the chance.
I open the door and glance around inside. Of course, I have never ordered a drink here, but thanks to my weekly paper route, I grew up knowing the regulars’ faces. I knew the guy with the John Deere hat always sitting at the counter, and the guy with the trucker jacket three barstools down who always had a strong opinion about whatever was playing on the television set, and the woman with red hair and big earrings sitting in the back corner. At some point during those years of the paper route, I found myself looking forward to seeing them as much as I looked forward to getting drunk with Rogan in the field behind his house. Everyone needs some sort of routine, after all.
“Something wrong?” Lis asks me as she takes a seat—right beside the man with the John Deere hat. He is still wearing the same dirty coveralls I remember him wearing most days and he still reeks of dead fish. He used to talk about how he was always out fishing all year round, and that if I spent my paper route earnings on a decent pole, he would show me the best spots to get good catches. Two empty bottles stand beside his current half-empty one.
I look around the rest of the bar. It is like I was dropping the papers off last week. I recognize a few other regulars at their usual places. The slot machines have not been moved from their spot along the south wall. And even though it’s a distant memory I did not know I had, I’m even noticing that the liquor bottles along the wall seem to be in the same order from last time I was here.
This is the first time I feel like something is wrong.
Surely something must have changed in eleven fucking years, four fucking months, and nineteen fucking days. A picture on the wall. An arrangement of chairs. Anything. And I remember what Lis said this afternoon.
I sit down beside Lis at the counter, where she is already nursing a pint of beer. She looks at me and cocks her head. I remember the Lis I used to know—Lis, a perfectly well-behaved girl until the last bell rang and then she became a whole different person. Lis, Rogan, me, and the rest of the friend group hanging out at each other’s houses, sharing candy bars and bags of chips, lamenting our problems at home and at school and wishing it could all go away. In those days, we had no way of knowing how much adulthood would turn our raw pain into stone to build the rest of our lives on. But Lis, I start to realize, has been acting the same way she did when I last saw her. The only difference is she is now sitting at a bar and having a legal drink.
“Time goes by faster in the big city,” she repeats. “I’m glad you’re back, but you need to slow down for the rest of us.”
“Everything goes faster in the city,” I reply. When she doesn’t look away, I realize I must have missed something.
“No, hon. Not everything. But time certainly does. And I don’t mean your clocks are fast or you rush through the weekends because you have so many galas and exhibits and parties you just have to show up at.” She slows her words, like she is trying to explain to a preschooler that one plus one equals two. “People age faster in the city. People change faster. But in Eden Lake, the hands don’t reach the hour like they do other places. Things…slow down here.”
“You’re joking.” I stare at her. She’s messing with you. Don’t listen to her. Lis is making a sick joke out of something that can be explained by simple cause-and-effect. Science is all there was to it. If I haven’t been myself lately because of Rogan’s death, that could easily manipulate my perception of the world around me. Of course, with my state of mind right now, it makes sense I would be seeing things as I did over ten years ago. And as for Lis, she could just be wearing some good makeup, or she just really got that lucky. Happens all the time. There are a hundred ways to explain away what Lis is telling me.
“You don’t have to believe me. But I think you’ve already figured it out. You’re smart. Show me one thing that’s different.” She gestured around the bar. “It’s just like it was last time you were here, isn’t it?”
“What you’re describing is literally impossible.”
“Okay, well…you don’t have to believe me.”
“Good, because I don’t. It’s bullshit.”
She looks at me, studying my body like she can see through my clothes, seeing the acne scars and bald spots and even the joints that don’t feel the same anymore.
“Serves you right for up and leaving. Now you’re so much older than me. I did the right thing by staying.”
I start to rethink her words from a different angle. On the other hand, who am I to say I know how the world works? Wouldn’t that be both arrogant and ignorant of me? Not everything in this world can be explained away by science alone, and the moment we assume we have all the answers is the moment we stop learning and begin to regress into older ways. I learned that when I got sober. And now…maybe Lis is onto something. Am I the fool for not even considering it?
Eden Lake, Minnesota has not changed. Time slowing down or not, that is a fact that I know for certain.
I sit beside Lis and start to ask the bartender for Dr. Pepper, but she cuts me off.
“My friend will have the same I’m having.”
Before I can protest, a pint of golden beer topped with foam is sitting in front of me. I glare at her.
“Why do you want me to drink so bad?” I snap.
“Look around you.” She waits until I do before she continues. “Everyone here is drinking. You don’t want to stand out, do you?”
“Would that be so bad?”
“Yes. It would. You should know that. You only lived here eighteen years,” she laughs.
“The resistance to change. To new things. Whether things are good or bad, it’s what people are used to. So why go through the stress of changing? I mean, come on, you think you’re fooling anyone with…this?” She gestures to, well…me. Me in my slate denim jacket, plain red shirt, and black dockers.
“This whole thing you’re doing. Trying to act like you’re so different than us now.” Lis has a few gulps of beer. “You don’t have me fooled. You may have aged faster, but that doesn’t mean you’ve changed at all. I mean, you grew up here. You don’t just…rub off eighteen years like a lottery ticket. Eden Lake’s tattooed on you, hon.”
I look at the glass of beer. The voice inside me that craves the feeling of numbness has been beaten to silence for a long time. However…a buzz might help me wrap my head around what Lis is telling me.
Because I don’t want to believe it. Maybe I wasn’t being so selfish after all. Maybe I had a small hope that at least a piece of the old town I knew had faded, replaced by something new. A new shop downtown, a mural painted over the graffiti, a public park in place of an old building, hell, even a damn street median with some trees planted in it. Instead, I came back to Eden Lake and it lined up perfectly with all the old memories
Worse yet, just how there had been a version of Lis and the others in my head that got older, wiser, and happier—so there was a version of me in this town that never grew up. That never found myself. That never became me.
That is the person I see when I look at Lis. I see the person I put to death eleven years, four months, and nineteen days ago.
The loose thread is wrapped around this town’s finger, and I feel it pulling on me, on everything I’ve done to better my life. All the nights I coped through the nightmares and the days I powered through the self-doubt. All my intricate work…it’s coming undone.
That’s when something occurs to me.
I’ve been back only one day. But what will happen when I stay a couple days more for the funeral service? Will Eden Lake have any effect on me, undo any changes I’ve made in my life since I left? Will I start to see the child who never grew up reflected not just in my old friends’ eyes, but my own as well?
What if I lose the desire to leave?
No. Not possible, I tell myself. There’s no way I could want to stay in a place like Eden Lake. I worked so hard to get that scholarship and I risked everything by moving away. I’m not about to throw all of it away. I have a partner to get home to and a new life to start up again just a road trip away. I could never want to stay.
The rest of the group begins to walk in. Norm, the class clown. Amy, the wannabe rock star. Cliff, the pothead. They’re all here and all sitting down like the seats have their names written on the back. No sound of cracking knuckles or aching backs, no visible wrinkles or patches of hair growing in places they weren’t before. Youth still brims beneath their skin and behind their eyes. I get claps on the back, even a couple hugs. And they all want to know the same thing.
“Holy hell, man, what happened to you?”
I know the answer now. I got older. I tell them the truth…wherever I went, I was able to move on faster. Soon, we’re all around a table and all have a drink in hand. The foam has now dried into a spotty crust around the rim of my glass, but still it remains untouched.
“You don’t look good…the beer will ease your nerves,” says Cliff, poking me on the bicep.
I don’t take a sip. I just look at my old friends. Then I make a big mistake.
“I should have come back to visit him,” I say.
“Who?” Norm asks.
That simple question snaps something in me. That something being social etiquette.
“Rogan. Who else?” It comes out before I can stop it. “He was hurting the most of all of us. We knew what was going on in his home and what his stepmom was doing to him. His life there was living hell. Rogan got it the worst, by far. He got bullied so bad at school too, especially when he started using the name Rogan. We were just kids back then so it’s not like we could help, but we could have done something when we got older. I could have done something.” Could have, could have, could have. Just one email. One phone call. A black hole of could haves and what ifs that will forever go unanswered.
A cold wave washes over us…and it’s not just at the old table. It’s over the whole bar. I feel glances coming my way. I frown and look back at them.
“Don’t say that name,” says Norm. “Nobody uses that. Not anymore.”
“Well, Rogan did up until the end,” I mutter.
Another cold wave at the mention of his name. What the hell is with these people? They knew.
“That junkie got addicted to anything within arm’s reach. None of us could have stopped what happened to him.”
“Bullshit. And why can’t you just him one ounce of respect and call him Rogan?”
“Hey!” The bartender’s voice makes me startle. “If they tell you not to say that name, then you do that. We don’t use fake names around here.”
I look back to my friends, hoping they’ll tell the bartender to fuck off or the like. Instead, they seem to be on his side. Regulars are glancing up from their drinks as well, eyes locked on me.
My hands are shaking.
I’m so caught up in my own rage that I forget the sense of fear settling in. The sense that I am not a prodigal child coming back to my roots, but a foreign object invading an intricate organization. I am an outsider, breaking a quarantine I did not know was in effect until it was too late.
“You’re not like how I remembered,” Amy speaks up.
“I agree. You’re…different,” adds Cliff.
If they were expecting me to be revolted at the news, they couldn’t be more wrong. I look down at my hands, studying them.
“I know. I’ve changed a lot,” I say.
“I can tell. I can even…you even smell different.” Norm leans over the table and takes a whiff of me, then scrunches his nose up. “I liked you before you turned into this.”
“Are you going to touch your drink or not?” Lis asks.
“No, I’m not! I told you, I don’t do that anymore. It’s not me.”
“If you’re not going to drink, then what the hell are you doing here?” the bartender asks.
I don’t want to, but I need to know. I raise the glass to my lips and take a sip of the beer, which by now is almost at room temperature.
A moment later, the cold in the room eases off an edge, like a beam of warmth just made its way through. I take a second sip, disgusted at the taste, and it happens again. Glares ease up on the back of my head, and the regulars look back to their own business.
The resistance to change. To new things. If they all drink, then I’d better have one too or they will see me as a threat. If they don’t use a name, they’d better not hear me say it either. The meat is rotten but it’s better than changing it out for something new. The bones are broken but it’s easier than trying to heal them.
Taking small sips of beer seems to have an additional effect on the room. It takes the edge off my old friends’ tone when they address me. It rolls the tension off their shoulders. But when we all get up to head to the wake, there are glances at the empty glasses at the table, and I know they are figuring out that I nursed my one half-finished beer while they all had at least three, if not more. I’m the last one out. Norm, who held the door open for everyone else, lets it slam shut in my face.
And so, I follow my friends down the street to the funeral parlor. I tell myself that I am prepared for Rogan’s wake, to see all those people and see his corpse. But I know it is a lie.
I am not welcome here. I do not belong.
The wake is packed.
Kids who spread rumors about us and shoved our noses into water fountains. Teachers who hated our guts. The grocery store assistant manager whose goal in life was to catch me stealing. The fellows from the bait and tackle shop we got high with…they’re all here, dressed in all the black clothes they could find, and mourning someone they didn’t give two shits about. Some hold small plastic cups filled with fruit punch, others smack gum between their front teeth. Too many voices to discern, so I don’t bother trying.
Why are they even here? Did all these people suddenly decide to regret how they treated Rogan now that apologizing to his face isn’t an option? Did they come because they knew their friends would be here too?
What the hell am I doing here.
This isn’t for Rogan. He’s gone. He wouldn’t give two shits if I made it to his funeral or not. He would tell you to waste your time on something productive like seeing if you can lick your elbow. So why did the fuck did I come here.
But I know the answer. You had to be selfish one last time. You had to say goodbye, as all good Americans do, ‘pay your respects’ as they say. You had to do what they trained you to think is the right thing because all along you didn’t do the very thing that might have made Rogan’s life a little brighter.
The smell of Pall Mall Blue clouds the open terrace at the entrance. Faces in the carpet, in shades of mustard and seafoam, howl and growl and mewl until I blink them away and just see a hideous pattern with ancient stains. Inside, the funeral director has put on some song I don’t recognize, but I already know it’s in poor taste. Something feels off here. Like my sense of direction and gravity has shifted a couple degrees. Like everything is tinted a slight shade different than the colors they are supposed to be. I just don’t know why.
I get in line behind my friends, who are already saying hello to others and shaking their hands. Names are called out (“Norm, how the hell are ya?” “Lis! Good to see ya!”) I recognize most of them almost instantly. As I had almost been expecting, all of them look younger than me. But again, this can still be explained away. The water in the city is a little dirtier and makes you age faster. They have had less stress going on in their lives, and everyone knows stress ages you faster than the day you learned your favorite musician was a pedophile. A hundred ways to explain that I look older than they do.
Then I see the poster, and everything stops.
Of all the pictures they could have used…they chose the one Rogan sent me years ago. His big smile, so full of life. His long dark hair. Rage Against the Machine. The bright blue lake.
I tug on Lis’ hand until she looks at me.
“Why did they use that picture?” I hiss. “Was it the only good one they could find?”
“I guess.” She shrugs.
“But that was years ago…” I start to feel ill. “You’re telling me there haven’t been any good pictures of him since? That can’t be right.”
Lis does not answer. How could she?
A hard lump the size of a lemon forms in my throat. No, can’t cry yet. Save your meltdown for the hotel—and don’t you dare make tonight about you and all your guilt about how you could have stayed closer with Rogan.
“They picked good songs for the wake. Don’t you think?” Lis asks, as if trying to divert the subject.
“I don’t know it.”
“What? I’m hurt.” She pouts. “I love this band.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t pinpoint it,” I confess with all honesty. Not that I give a fuck. I do know I have not heard one song from Rage Against the Machine since I got in line, and even though they’re not exactly the type you play at memorial services, everyone should know they were Rogan’s favorite, so what the hell, I should hear at least one before I leave.
I know I must prepare for the worst. That what I’m going to see in that coffin could be miles from the image in my head. For whatever reason, there are no recent pictures of Rogan they could bring themselves to glue to that poster, and I must accept that fact before it’s my turn to see the corpse.
No amount of time is enough for what I find in the coffin.
At first sight, I have a moment of relief in which I have to hold back a childish fit of laughter, because whatever body they put in the coffin must have somehow been mistaken for Rogan. The coroner got the bodies mixed up, or maybe this was actually a whole accident and Rogan is about to crash his own wake because he heard everyone thought he was dead, and I relish in that taste of ridiculous humor as long as it lasts, because the longer I look at the body the more it’s taken away from me.
“Hey, you okay?” one of my friends asks behind me. I can’t tell which.
Because that is Rogan. Nobody made a mistake. But it is not Rogan.
Every bit of muscle and fat looks like it has been sucked out of his body, leaving just a skeleton with a thin layer of skin plastered over like paint. Rogan had always been a skinny guy, but this was someone who had been dead long before the drugs stopped his heart. His hair is the wrong color—bleached over and over until it’s just chunks of fraying wiry strands. It looks more like straw than hair. His outfit is an insult—not for the wake, but for Rogan. Because they gave him an orange tie.
What the fuck have they done to you?
And even that insult is not the worst. Plastered on the banner draped over the flowers, written on the sign above his date of birth and death…is that name. The one we discarded years ago. The one we put to death in that field when we had already been testing out the name ‘Rogan’ for a week. Eden Lake had not cared about the progress Rogan had made in life. Did not bother to see what he had tried to accomplish, and yes, what he did accomplish despite everything because, dammit, how many people can proudly say they chose their name for themselves and tried hard to fight their demons, especially with all the shit Rogan was given in life from an early start? No. If you’re different and you try to move on, it does not matter. If you try to break the cycle, none of it counts.
I drop the pamphlet in my hand, because now I see that same name on the front—how did I not see it when I first walked in? Was it the faces trying to get my attention, or am I just that numb to this part of Rogan’s past?
“This is bullshit,” I say. Just above the cusp of what is considered an appropriate level of volume at a wake.
“What’s wrong?” Amy asks me.
“Hey…remember the bar.” Lis is speaking now.
The outsider. The foreign object. Sip that beer or you don’t belong. No fake names around here. Remember the quarantine. Just do what they want you to do. Bend backward and regress, I don’t give a fuck what you do, just as long as it makes you fit in again.
Blood rushes in my ears. As I speak I find that I can hardly hear my own voice, like it’s coming from a radio down a long hallway. I no longer completely belong in the body that I abused for years and just started taking better care of. I am not in Eden Lake. I may have driven back, but they never got the real me. The real me left and never returned to this god-awful town. You leave your hometown and lose a part of yourself you will never find anywhere else.
“His name was Rogan. You all know it and you are caving in just so you don’t get anyone upset. But did you think of how that would upset our friend? He was Rogan. He knew it. We all knew it.”
Lis grips my arm and squeezes. It feels like the inflatable cuff during a blood pressure test. My eyes cloud up.
“Hey…you need to shut the fuck up,” she hisses.
I look around the wake. It’s not the sort of place you expect all eyes to be on you—you, the grieving spectator, not the dead body in the box. And that’s why it strikes me with a sense of dread when I see that all attention is off Rogan and is on me. The light is fading from the room, bending in my direction. Suddenly, I feel that I might piss myself.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Cliff asks in a low voice.
Lis’ grip tightens. I try to pull away from her. Her words from the bar come back to me.
In Eden Lake, the hands don’t reach the hour like they do other places. Things…slow down here.
I turn back to Lis, trying to ignore all the faces staring at me. But unlike the ugly carpet, these faces are all the colors of rage. Not a boiling rage of red, but a cold rage that is all the colors of winter. The rage from a snowstorm that slowly turns your fingers and toes blue and freezes every drop of blood in your body. It’s the rage from when a new guest sits at a spot on the church pew that everyone knows all but belongs to the old widow who has been coming here for sixty years. Silent, empty, and waiting for you to shrivel away into nothing. Eden Lake, in all its perfection.
“It wasn’t a fake name. And I’m not going to play nice around you all. You weren’t nice to Rogan when he was alive, so why should I be nice to any of you?” I snap. “I fucked up. I didn’t talk to him as much as I could have, and that’s going to kill me for the rest of my life. But goddammit, at least I’m giving him an ounce of respect! For god’s sake, you gave him an orange tie!”
“Lis…do you know who the hell this is?” It’s one of the kids who bullied me all the time. He enjoyed beating me the most when I went through a flannel shirt phase. He was a real dick.
I glare at him, about to go on a self-righteous rant on how he should remember the face he broke and bloodied countless times, but Lis yanks on my arm before I get the chance.
“You wouldn’t recognize this kid. Changed so much since high school. See? Look at these wrinkles.” Lis finally releases my arm. It feels swollen.
The light is gone from the room. No, not gone, but all on me. A giant lightbulb in the interrogation room, an LED lamp in the science lab through the cage bars. Faces in the carpet begin to swirl, turning into smiles rather than grotesque groans. The song hurts my head, like nails being drilled into my skull.
“What the hell are you doing here?” It is Cliff who asks that question, as if he no longer recognizes me. And maybe he doesn’t.
“I’m here to say good—”
My other arm is squeezed now. It’s Norm, and he’s twice as hard as Lis. I bite back the urge to scream out, as the whole funeral parlor has gone dead silent and I fear I would awaken something awful should I make a loud sound.
“Who do you think you are?” Norm’s spittle wets my neck as he looms behind me.
“I was your friend,” I plead through clenched teeth. Please stop looking at me, everyone. I’m not like you, but I was you. What’s so wrong about changing a little in eleven years? “You know me, guys. You know me.”
“You’ve changed. I don’t like this version of you…” Norm lets go of my arm now, like he’s disgusted by the physical contact.
Even now, the line to the coffin has broken. Faces in the room and faces from the carpet leer closer, the stink of cigarette smoke and dead fish hovering in the air, song lyrics cutting into me as each syllable is a reminder of how Rogan would have played any other band than this, and the small of my back bumps up against the hard wood of the box holding my best friend’s body that the world fucked over until everything that made it his own body was drained out of it, and hands pale from the lack of sunlight reach up, fingernails darkened from ash and dirt, reaching for me as if to pluck me out. With a deep breath, I lunge forward into the crowd, suffocating on the stench of dozens of hot breaths all zeroed in on me and the fact that I am an invader, a cockroach in their kitchen, a rodent in their attic, a splinter under their skin, and I must be disposed of because I do not belong anymore, and Eden Lake has built up an immunity to anything that grows outside of its walls. Hands are on me, the salty stink of sweat on hot human flesh sending dizzying waves over my body until I think I’m going to be sick, but I don’t stop. I leave the dead body behind and I keep running.
As I break through the doors of the funeral parlor, a little voice in my head tells me something I must have known all along but refused to acknowledge. That song playing was by the band, U2.
I’m sorry, Rogan.
I could have gotten him out of here. Begged him to leave Eden Lake before it finished what his own mental health problems started. Made him get in the car with me the day I drove away from here. We could have aged together. Changed together. Gotten back problems and high cholesterol together. Rebuilt ourselves from the ground up and healed from whatever the fuck Eden Lake had done to us.
Could have. Could have. Could have. You stay in your hometown and never know who you could have been.
Did Rogan die alone by accident, or did he know exactly what he was doing that night?
The truth hits me. There is only one place in Eden Lake where I will be safe, where I will not be scorned or cast aside no matter who I am or how I’ve changed. There has always only been one place where I belonged.
So I begin running for the county road that leads just out of town—towards the moldy old farmhouse—towards the field where Rogan and I drank away our troubles.
“Someday, we’ll get out of here,” Rogan said to me, and only me.
We were lying in the tall dead grass on a cold November morning. I was staying the night at his house, and we decided to run out here when we heard the screaming start from the kitchen again. Today, deer hunting season opened. We were taking turns sipping from a bottle of vodka between gulps from a carton of orange juice. Our idea of breakfast.
“You and me, we’ll run away from this shitty place and never come back.”
“What about the rest of our friends?” I asked him.
“We’re not like them. Can’t you feel it? I don’t think they’d mind if they never left Eden Lake. But we’re different. We’re meant to go places, you know.” He propped up on one elbow and looked into my eyes.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” I looked at him.
“People think I’m crazy for changing my name. Our friends know it, even though they won’t say it. But not you,” said Rogan.
And there is so much life in his eyes. There is a wildness, a passion, a terror, a great sadness and yet a great hunger for happier days.
“Well, sure.” I bit my tongue. “Shit, man, it’s because I love you.”
We locked lips, sharing the taste of spit and booze and dreams of better places, as somewhere beyond the field the first gunshot of hunting season was fired.
The field is just as I left it eleven years, four months, and nineteen days ago. But at this point, I expected nothing less.
It is late into the evening by now, but I managed to partly run, partly walk out of town and down the county road. There was no way to get lost since I remembered the walk all too well. The machines left here to rust have not moved, nor do I see any have been added or taken away in their place. Some weeds and brush seem to have started to grow that I do not recall from before, but not as much as one would expect in the time I have apparently been gone.
I walk down the old path Rogan and I used to take. The farmhouse Rogan grew up in appears empty. But then again, it always did even when his family lived there. I think of the stories he told me about his family, the things his stepmother said and did to him from right where he could look out that window on the second floor. Stories that should have made me go right to the police and have that bitch arrested. But we were just kids. She said she’d kill him if he told anyone. What the hell were we supposed to do? So instead, I let him soak my shoulders with tears and snot day in and day out, praying that once we ran away from here like we said we would, all our problems would go away.
Not as if I got it much better in those days. There are memories hidden in those foster homes I’ve tried to forget, and I know I have nightmares about it because my partner has said I sometimes wake up screaming. But, who knows. Who knows if it matters. Who knows if I’ll ever move on from any of it.
The field is as quiet as I remember. In front of me, a line of trees leads to the woods and beyond where little kids can get lost if they’re not careful. Behind me, the old county road cuts through the flat terrain.
Sure enough, the mess we left behind has not been moved either. I only have to peer into one of the old cars to find a pile of crushed beer cans, reaching past the top of the seats and spilling over into the trunk. We were too afraid of getting caught if we put them in the recycle bin, so we let them rust out here instead. If I investigate the next few cars, I know I will find more. There must be hundreds. I also find a few empty bottles of liquor half-buried in the dirt, cigarette butts and empty packs, scraps of paper torn from schoolbooks, half used bottles of nail polish. For the first time, I feel shame for how much we trashed our little piece of heaven.
And back then, I thought this was the best the world was ever going to be for us.
I make it to our favorite spot—the top of a broken-down van lying on its side—before I start to break down. My palms caress the rusty, half-frozen metal, as if trying to rub an old feeling out of it. Dead grass crunches under my aching feet. When I close my eyes, the body that supposedly belonged to Rogan is lying in the wooden box, wearing the orange tie as U2 plays on the speakers, and all I can think of is how different he looks compared to the previous image I had of him.
None of the grownups warned me it would hurt this much.
And I miss being a kid. I miss coming out to this field and getting drunk with no regard for my health or what tomorrow would bring. I miss talking about the future like it would never arrive but was still worth fighting for. I miss the way we talked shit about anything we wanted and believed there was nothing we couldn’t do when we grew up. It hurt like hell, but there is a profound stability that comes with always having a horizon to look out to, instead of looking back at the mess you left behind and are forced to pick up if you want some sort of happiness out of life.
But more than that, I miss Rogan.
I lean against the side of the old van, which groans against my weight. As I do, I spot a half-buried bottle of some clear liquor in the dirt a few feet away. When I dig it up, I find several ounces of the liquid are still inside. While it appears old, it’s far from over eleven years old.
A chill runs up my spine.
Will it still taste good? Will it still have a kick that tames some demons and awakens others? Will it help this horrible night pass by a little bit smoother?
It would be so easy, wouldn’t it, to kick it back like I used to. I could keep drinking until I’m convinced Rogan is here with me and we can pretend we just won the battle of D-Day. I could lay here until the sun comes up, then go back in the old farmhouse to find some beers for breakfast, and pretend I never grew up. I could, I could, I could…
I am at the mercy of myself and my capability to self-destruct.
Then, as if I’ve been struck upside the head, it hits me.
There is a reason those people tried to come after you. There is a reason your return to Eden Lake has been a nightmare. And there is a reason you were able to get sober, and you met and fell in love with your partner, and there is a reason you hated coming back here and there is a reason you feel so alone.
This is not your home. It hasn’t been for a long time.
Time did not slow down for you.
You kept going, taking one step at a time into the future. And so you will keep going, despite the pain. You will keep treading on with one foot in front of the other, even if it makes the old wounds from the past sting all the more when they’re brought to light. So we march on until the soil in our soul is well enough to start planting flowers around the world.
I twist off the cap, then slowly pour the vile contents onto the hard ground. The sight is blurry, so I blink it away. Each drop that falls is a moment in my childhood I never thought I would be free from the hell I lived in. Each day at school the classmates and teachers told me I was not good enough. Each time I wondered if I would ever truly be happy.
Far away from here, my partner is curled up in bed reading a book or watching a television show, and when they turn off the lights and fluff up their pillow as they always do, they’ll be worried about me and hoping I’ll be okay. My boss at the office will be thinking of me too, planning for when I’ll be back to work in a couple days.
When the bottle is empty, I do something I have never done before. I begin to walk away from the field without a drop of alcohol in my body. It’ll be a while before I make it back to my car for the long drive home, but the destination is worth the journey.
It’s what Rogan would have wanted.