Olen Rickett took Kathy Kole up to the coal banks the night the football team beat Tunkhannock. That was where you went, near the old, abandoned breaker, when you were in high school and wanted to be alone. Everyone else was at Victory Pig, eating pizza, licking grease from their fingers and singing the fight song.
The story goes that Kathy said no, but Olen didn’t believe her. He was hot, after all (that’s what all the other girls told him), and his father owned the biggest hotel in town.
Her friends told her to get over it. The rest of the school whispered behind her back. No one really knew what to do so we did nothing. And then Kathy went back up there the next weekend, slit her wrists and let them bleed all over the coal.
We all knew Kathy, of course, but Ernie knew her best of all, in that way that you can know someone without really ever talking to them. He knew how she liked to wear her hair up on gym days, and how when she was really concentrating on a quiz answer, her mouth quivered at the corners. He knew her dad was a drunk and her mom was an atheist and he didn’t care, because he’d already played out their wedding — the where, if not the when. He knew she’d figure it out sooner rather than later.
So, yes, Kathy’s death hit Ernie hardest of all, in that way that you can mourn for something you were pretty sure you’d never lose and yet never had at all. And so when Gretchen Lewis and Robert Zawinski said they saw Kathy up on the coal banks, wandering barefoot among the shards looking for redemption, Ernie went to find her.
The wind howled between the mounds of coal, looming dark mountains from another planet. Ernie stumbled as he climbed. He never understood why all the cool kids went there with their 40s and their transistor radios. In the movies, the make-out spots were higher, prettier, cleaner. The coal crunched beneath his feet. Dust picked at the inside of his nose. He squatted, found a flat space to sit. He closed his eyes.
Olen and his new girl, a sophomore from the neighboring high school, were on the other side of the slope, spread out on a picnic blanket to protect themselves from the dirty slate, drinking vodka straight out of the bottle. His radio was playing The Doors, so he didn’t hear Ernie shuffling around. He didn’t hear anything. His blood was thudding too loud in his pink, pink ears.
Ernie imagined Kathy standing in front of him, the hem of her long skirt catching black soot. He heard the crunch as she knelt down, felt her breath on his face. He imagined she was studying him, reaching out. He wished he could smell the soft floral scent of her shampoo.
(but he did, he did smell it)
He fell back. No, he was pushed back. He opened his eyes, heart thudding. But no one was there. His hands flew to his lips, where he could still feel something. Kathy, he breathed in. Opened his eyes. Saw it in the moonlight: two black smudged and dusty handprints on his jeans.
“What the fuck are you doing here, bro?” Olen’s eyes glittered like the coal the whole town was built on.
Ernie stood. He stared. Olen asked again. He came close, pushed Ernie. Still, Ernie just stared. We know how it escalated: many ‘pansies’ and ‘fucks’ and ‘faggots’ before it ended with an unimaginative Olen rushing Ernie, knocking him down. Poor Ernie landed hard. He tried to determine all the pain origins. A slamming in his lower back, a jiggling of his brain. But it was his wrist he was worried about. A sliver of coal had sliced it. A slick warmth pooled beneath his body.
Olen breathed hard, his fist raised high in the black air. “I gave you a chance to go, you little bastard. Remember that.” But before he could bring his fist down — something. A noise, deeper and bigger than anything they’d ever heard. A battering in their chests.
The coal mountain. It was moving. No, Ernie realized. It wasn’t moving. It was changing shape. As they watched, swirls of coal and dirt and soot pulled together like a tornado. A girl-shaped tornado.
Olen’s girlfriend screamed his name. “Run,” she called. But all Olen did was squeak, frozen in fear. He was just a boy suddenly, and the skin on his face drew back like pizza dough being stretched. Ernie slid out from under him. He didn’t run. He didn’t need to. He knew what was coming.
The tornado coal girl rushed at Olen. Before he could turn and run, she broke into all her million pieces. Olen screamed, raising his arms, too late, to where his eyes once were.
Ernie felt the light inside dimming. He felt everything weakening, the way a garden hose fell limp in your hands when the water turned off. Olen and his girl were screaming, but with each passing second their cries got smaller and smaller. And then he heard nothing at all.
(but he did, he did hear something.)
Ernie. Kathy stood on the coal banks. Her long skirt was smudged with black soot at the hem. She was barefoot. Her wrists were smooth and pale as a newborn’s skin.
You shouldn’t have come here. But she was smiling, her lips curled up in that way he loved. She picked up a large, smooth piece of coal. Taste it. It’s like candy.
And it was. Like licorice, like the sweet sacks of candy he used to get in his stocking at Christmas. It filled him. It filled both of them, and swirled between them like a slick, black oil. And together, they climbed.
Tara Laskowski has been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. She is the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette, and Bystanders, which won the Balcones Fiction Prize. Find her online at www.taralaskowski.com.
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