Jesse Lee Kercheval
A Blueberry at Sunset
When I first met her years ago, atop the snow piled up along the black, slush-covered asphalt of the playground, she looked as though she owned the world. I didn’t get her name until weeks later, when we had to pick partners for a project, and she skipped over to me, weaving between the short desks and bright blue plastic chairs.
“I’m Lucy,” she greeted, extending her hand to me. I hesitated before slowly grabbing her hand.
“I’m Kay.” She shook my hand up and down with vigor before beaming at me. I remember her having a missing front tooth, a gap among the straight, white teeth lining her mouth.
“Wanna do the project and be friends?”
I couldn’t say no; I was too enamored by the fact that she chose me to work with her and that she wanted to be my friend. We worked hard on that project, scribbling out our words on papers placed atop plastic folders, sprawled on the short, multi-colored carpet of the classroom. We aced the final project, ending our presentation with a high-five and a new friend each.
Time flew by and suddenly we were in high school, the best of friends, flying down empty backroads after school with some of the windows down in her old, 1990’s bright blue Chevy Malibu. She named the car Blueberry, because that was her favorite fruit, and the smile that lit up her face when she first told me is imprinted in my memory. The car was falling apart, the backdoors didn’t open from inside, one window refused to roll down; it rattled and shook over every bump, but that didn’t stop the love she had for Blueberry.
“It’s my car, my escape, how could I not love her?” she told me one day when we perched on the hood, staring at the sunset over the yellowing grass hills, our breath visible in the autumn air. “Just because she’s a bit bumpy and has some messed up things about her doesn’t mean she’s not deserving of love.” I still see the way her eyes shone in the brilliant pink and orange of the sky as she stared ahead, a sad smile in place of the grin she’d worn just moments before.
There had been something off with her for a few months at that point, but I couldn’t quite pin it. She was closed off about her life outside of school, and no matter how much I poked and prodded for more, wanting to make sure she was okay at home, she gave me nothing. All I would get in response is, Yeah, Kay. I’m good, just a little stressed, don’t worry ‘bout it, and that would be the end of the conversation because she would always immediately distract me by starting an argument over which store had the best office supplies section. She argued for Target, but I always countered with Staples. It’s a dedicated office store, that’s their shtick, of course it’s better.
The day that everything connected as to why she seemed off is one I still remember the clearest, even a decade later. It was one day after school let out, right around that time in winter when the air pierced your lungs on every inhale and every exhale fogged up her lavender-framed glasses; where frost, but no snow, coated the ground. We hopped into Blueberry as soon as classes got out and we drove. Lucy loved EDM, so the music was always turned up as loud as we could stand as we sped down the roads we both knew well. Winding down the cracked pavement of the roads, staring at the trees whipping by us as we danced in our seats, I couldn’t have felt more free.
I barely saw her outside of the one class we shared. We hadn’t had many chances to escape to the empty roads because I was busy with honors classes and extracurriculars, and she was busy with work and ‘home stuff,’ as she called it, but the feeling I got sitting next to her, eyes wild with fire and mouth wide with laughter, I missed that more than I could ever have known.
We parked at our spot, ‘The Top of the World,’ Lucy called it. It was a pull-off up the backroads, right at the top of the hill. The dirt clearing sat vacant. A singular, black, rusted oil drum serving as a trash can towards the entrance was the only sign that other people had been here since there was always trash inside. The trees surrounded most of the clearing, but there was a cut-out that allowed us to see for miles, perfectly facing west to watch the sunset. I hopped out of the car, wandering to the trashcan to dump the empty package of Cheez-Its I had eaten along the way, before looking back towards Blueberry and noting that Lucy had yet to hop out. Usually, she’d be leaning on the trunk, arms crossed, a smirk on her face.
“Don’t judge, I get hungry,” I’d always reply with a shrug before we’d both chuckle and climb atop the hood to talk, sometimes for hours, until after the sun had set and we could see the stars without the light pollution of the city. That day, it felt different, a lot different.
As I knocked on her window, Lucy plastered on a smile and hopped out, taking my hand with her left and shutting the door with her right before she tugged me up onto the quick cooling metal hood. I was bundled in winter gear cause I would always freeze on days like those. Lucy, well, she wore a sweatshirt and leggings, a black knitted hat pulled partially over her ears. Her hands were red from the chill, and her cheeks and nose were tinged the same. We sat on that hood in silence for a while; I didn’t dare to say anything because I didn’t want to break the fragility that seemed to settle between us.
“You ever wonder what would have happened if we were never partnered up for that project in second grade?” She turned to face me, hazel eyes duller than I could ever remember them being.
“Yeah, I do. We would probably be in two very different places right now, and I would have no friends,” I said with a small laugh, a smile twitching at the corner of my lips.
“Hmm,” was all I got in response before we drifted back into silence. The trees swayed gently with the cold breeze blowing through them, their yellow, orange, red, brown leaves falling down with every breath of Mother Nature. The sun was directly across from us at this point, lighting everything in gold. I was content, though confused at the disconnect Lucy and I had then. “I’m leaving.”
“That’s a good one. Where are you going?” I asked, my head tilting to the side in order to watch her face for any signs that she was joking. The smile I had on my face fell slowly as I watched her face remain blank, the only indication she was paying attention was the shaky inhale and heavy-hearted exhale that was easily seen in the cold. The sun was blinding.
“I don’t know; I just know I need to leave.”
I shifted to sit up from my reclined position just so I could face her directly. I was sure my confusion was painted clearly across my face, and yet I got no response from Lucy, even when she stared into my soul.
“Why do you need to leave? What happened? What’s going on?” She shook her head and blinked her eyes furiously, the tears pooling in them clearly seen as the sunlight made them sparkle.
“Do you remember that conversation we had a few months back, where we were talking about how Mr. C is a dick?” Lucy questioned, staring at me, but looking far away.
I smiled softly, still wanting to know why she was leaving, but also wanting to know where this memory was going. “Yeah, I remember. He wouldn’t give me my missing points, even though–”
“Even though you had a doctor’s note,” Lucy chuckled. “We talked about our future, about college, and an apartment.”
“Yeah, we did. And we both agreed that even if we get separated, we will still be there for each other. Even if you’re leaving, we’ll still be a phone call, text, or FaceTime away.”
“You know that I have an Android. I can’t facetime like you iPhone bitches,” Lucy countered with a wet laugh, her eyes watering as she pulled herself back to the present to look at me instead of through me. I grabbed Lucy’s hand in mine, her fingers frozen to the point where I could feel the cold through my gloves. She shook her head, sniffling, trying to keep the snot from freezing on her face. I extracted one of my hands from our hold and dug in my jacket pocket before handing her a tissue.
“Thanks,” she said before pulling away and blowing her nose.
“You sounded like a dying baby elephant there for a second.” Lucy glared at me with watery eyes before lightly shoving me with a free hand, the one not holding her snotty tissue, thankfully. “Why did you bring up that talk? I mean, it was the last time we hung out for a while, for weeks, but was there something else? I know you’re more of the live-in-the-moment type than I am, so why reminisce?”
“I wanted to tell you.”
“Tell me that you were leaving? Wait, you knew you were going to leave then? That’s why you were so worried about living together!” She looked away from me and I immediately felt bad for shouting, so I grabbed her non-snotty hand and squeezed. “I’m sorry, I just want to know why now? We’re so close to getting out of high school, so close to being able to move away, why wait until now to leave? Why wait until now to tell me?” I questioned.
“I thought things would get better; I really thought for a while that maybe I wouldn’t have to leave. My parents weren’t fighting as much, but then a few months ago my mom found out my dad cheated and it got bad again. I have enough money saved up to make it for a while, at least until I find a job somewhere else. I’ll live out of Blueberry until I can find a place to stay. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but I couldn’t get myself to.”
We were both crying, tears warm against our frozen cheeks. The sky had burst with the same fiery brilliance as that one day the previous year when she told me about why she loved Blueberry so much.
“You’ll stay in contact though, right? You won’t just go radio silent?” Lucy nodded furiously, placing her other hand on top of mine, which was still grasping hers like a lifeline. The wind, picking up, rustled the trees, causing leaves to fall all over Blueberry and us. It felt like the temperature had dropped even more, almost like Mother Nature could feel the emotions coursing through the both of us.
“I wanted to tell you, to ask you to leave with me, but you have so much good in your life and I was scared that you would give it all up because of me. You’re doing great in school, have this whole plan for the rest of your life, but I don’t. I need to figure out how to be someone who isn’t focused on if her parents are finally going to snap one day, and you need to go to college for Biochem, even if it’s out of state, because that’s who you are.”
“No, Kay, you will go to college, you will get your degree, and you will be the best damn whatever-the-hell a Biochem person is because that is your life. Do it for yourself. That’s all you’ve been able to talk about for years and you are not ignoring your passion because my family is fucked,”
I shook my head, before blinking rapidly.
“I know, and I will, but I want to stop you,” I choked out through the baseball in my throat. “I understand though, needing to figure everything out on your own. Hell, my parents were hoping I’d be a lawyer like them, but none of the law books they tried to shove down my throat ever stayed down.” I stared at her, tightening my grip on her hand. “I want you to call me every night though, regardless of if there’s anything to talk about. I need to know you’re okay.” Lucy nodded, probably not trusting her voice enough to respond.
We sat on the hood until my hands were numb and the sun had long since set, the sky dark and clouded without any stars to be seen. The dirt crunched under our shoes as we hopped off the hood, dead leaves falling from our bodies as we shifted.
She drove me back to the city and dropped me off at my house, the lights still on and glowing through the windows. We walked up to the front door, and on impulse, I pulled her into a hug. It felt like days before we let go, and even then our hands remained intertwined as she went to step off the porch.
“For the record, I’m really glad we were partners in second grade.”
Lucy smiled back at me, eyes full of regret. “I’m glad too.”
I watched as she wandered back to Blueberry and hopped in the driver’s seat, peeling out of the driveway and speeding away as though she were being chased.
Every now and then I picture her speeding down badly paved roads, windows fully rolled down, blasting music as the wind whips her hair around. I can clearly see her face glowing with happiness, screaming lyrics as Blueberry jostles her around. She’s traveling the states, finding strange little tourist traps along the way, picking up odd jobs, watching the sunsets and sending me pictures every step of the way. I hear Lucy calling me up every night and telling me of the crazy adventures she’s been going on, how she saw a man walking a crocodile along the streets of Florida, or how she had watched an actual roadrunner sprint across the road in the desert.
I still text her every day, even if I’ve never gotten a response back.
Red Thiesenhusen is from Madison, WI and has always had a passion for creative writing. They are in their third year at UW-Platteville, working on a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology. After graduating, they are hoping to attend graduate school and work on a Master’s in Social Work.
Jesse Lee Kercheval is a writer, translator, and graphic artist. Her recent books include the short story collection Underground Women and La crisis es el cuerpo, a bilingual edition of her poetry, translated by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, published in Argentina by Editorial Bajo la luna. Her recent graphic narratives, comics and art have appeared in Waxwing, The Quarantine Public Library, On the Seawall, Sweet Lit, and New Letters.