In April 2015, in the very infancy of the Oracle, I sent in a short story called “Amy in Cypress.” That touched off more than a year of continuously writing for the Oracle, including another short story, a winter spent covering the Oscars, and reviews of season one of The Newsroom and 2015 in film. And now, staring down the last days of my time at Blair, I end my time writing here the way I began it, with another short story. Those of you who were at the 24-Hour-Plays in January may recognize the premise and characters in this one, but the plot is certainly different here. Nonetheless, enjoy. I certainly did.
So a teenage boy drives his (completely platonic) female best friend to get an abortion. It sounds like a plot point of a melodramatic teen movie or young-adult romance novel, as if she, once she’s no longer pregnant, is going to work up the courage to break up with the piece-of-shit boyfriend who put her in this situation to begin with and start dating me instead. (Oh, how I wish.) Life doesn’t work like it does in the movies, though, so Autumn Hansen and I are sitting in my car, driving down the highway toward the closest Planned Parenthood clinic. I’m behind the wheel and she’s curled up in the passenger seat, silently staring out the window.
She doesn’t speak. Her face is placid, her expression unreadable. Her ability to be so calm and even-tempered, is something I’ve always looked up to, despite the fact that I’m six months older than she is. Her voice is always smooth, never faltering or breaking. With her hands neatly folded in her lap and eyes open and alert, she always looks prepared for anything. Even though she’s about to make a life-changing decision, none of this has changed now.
The road is mostly empty as I drive. We’re heading west down the island, so all the shore traffic is heading in the other direction, toward the Hamptons. I’m only a competent driver– not great, but I do have a license so I’m not a danger on the road –but I feel like, given the present situation, it’s okay for me to be glancing at her every few moments.
“Thank you,” Autumn says suddenly. “For doing this for me.”
“Of course,” I reply. We sail past a mileage sign then– RIVERHEAD 30. The trip from Montauk to Riverhead, one-way, is a little less than fifty miles– actually, it’s forty-eight. We’ve driven eighteen miles. We’re a little more than a third of the way.
I peek over at her. She looks back at me from behind her curtain of blonde hair before she looks down and starts to play with a little hole in the fabric of her jeans. Neither of us say anything, and I find that incredibly unnerving. Autumn’s constant serenity is a part of her personality by now, but she seems to always have something to say. I wonder if she can tell that I’m silently begging for her to speak up. She could say whatever she wants– a comment on her piece-of-shit boyfriend, a desire to put on music, an observation about the weather. Anything to break the silence.
We’ve reached a mileage sign that declares RIVERHEAD 18 before she talks again. “What time does your clock say? I think my phone is fast.”
“Two-oh-one,” I tell her, but I’m thinking that’s a start. “What time was your appointment again?”
“Three.” She pauses. “Thank you so much, again. I couldn’t have handled going alone. You’re the best, Carson. You really are.”
I want to say, you’re not supposed to go by yourself, you won’t be in any shape to drive afterwards, but I bite my tongue to stop it from slipping out. I know that I’m her last resort. She’d driven to the clinic once by herself, last week, to make the appointment for today, where they’d presumably told her she couldn’t come alone. In New York a minor doesn’t need consent from parents to get an abortion, so Autumn hadn’t bothered to tell hers. When she came to me and asked if I’d drive her to Riverhead on Friday, trying and failing to mask a developing black eye with makeup, she told me she wanted to keep her boyfriend out of things now.
(That conversation was the only time I’d ever heard her voice shaking, and I distracted myself from it by imagining punching Piece-of-Shit-Boyfriend in the face like must have done to her.) I’m her best friend, she can easily swear me to secrecy, and who knows, maybe she’s going to pass me off as the father?
I don’t say any of these things. Instead I push my constant fantasy of kissing her out of my head and I say, “You can stop thanking me, you know.” Pause. “You’re positive you want to do this?”
She tries to chuckle, but it sounds stuck in her throat. “It’s a little late for that.”
“Yeah,” I say. There’s another long, uncomfortable silence as we drive. The exit is coming up, so I get ready to switch lanes. Autumn starts humming quietly.
“You can turn on the radio if you want,” I say.
She leans over and hits the power button on the car radio, then fiddles with the dial until she finds a station. The sound of jingling guitars and crooning voices fills the car, interrupted by spells of booming static every so often, and based on the song I immediately recognize the station as one from the local community college. The music fades out and a voice declares the station call sign and says a few words I can’t hear over the crackling of poor reception. Once another song starts, though, the static goes away and I can hear the violent guitar riff, over even more violent drumming, with perfect clarity.
The song only has to play for about fifteen seconds before I decide I hate it and reach to change the station. Autumn grabs my hand. “Oh, I love this song,” she says, and for the first time all day she looks at me with a smile.
I put my hand back on the steering wheel and let the song play on.
The procedure takes much less time than I anticipated. I drop Autumn off in front of the Planned Parenthood and find a place to park at 2:51, sitting in my car and watching her steel herself and push open the clinic door. Within an hour she’s sliding back into the passenger seat, purse dangling from the crook of her arm, holding a prescription bottle and small pamphlet in her hand. Her face is completely calm, but her eyes are red and slightly puffy, black eye prominent against her pale skin.
I turn the car back on but wait for her to speak up. A few moments pass in silence. “Do you wanna get food or something?” I prompt. She nods, looking down at her lap.
There’s a little pizzeria right by the entrance to the highway, so we stop there. I pay. She gets one slice of pepperoni and one of black olives, her favorites, and I get two slices of cheese, my favorite. We pick a corner table, sit down with our pizza and two bottles of water, and eat without speaking to each other. About halfway through my second piece, I realize she’s singing under her breath.
“What are you singing?” I ask.
She immediately stops. “Was I singing? Sorry.”
“It’s okay. What was it?”
“Um.” A blush spreads its way across her cheeks. “It was that song on the radio on the drive down. The one you tried to turn off but I stopped you. I have it stuck in my head now.”
I take another bite and through a full mouth I say, “Oh. Okay.”
She starts singing again, voice slightly louder so that I can hear better. “So hum hallelujah, just off the key of reason, I thought I loved you, it was just how you looked in the light…” Autumn’s singing voice is like my driving– passable but not outstanding, but when she sings quietly and impromptu, her voice sounds so sweet. “A teenage vow in a parking lot, ‘till tonight do us part, I sing the blues and swallow them too.”
She reaches across the table and puts her hand on mine. “Really, Carson. Thank you,” she says and gives me a wan smile. I look at her and imagine the curve of her mouth and how, if she’d kept the baby, it would have looked like the curve of her stomach.