Sam held the squirming green legs with both hands while Nick held the long scissors, trying to get the blades in the proper position. He prodded the tip of one blade into its mouth, the other blade hanging above the smooth skin behind its raised eyes. With one quick squeeze the steel sliced cleanly through the frog’s skin and the head flew into the air. The squirming had stopped. Sticky red fluid flowed out of the opening and onto Sam’s pink palm. Sam set the body on the lab counter and both boys’ mouths hung open as the frog crouched into its normal sitting position. It didn’t even seem to miss its head. Nick touched the frog with the moist tip of the scissors. The boys jerked back quickly as the headless frog jumped off the table onto the cold gray floor. Not knowing what to expect next, they kept their eyes on the frog, which was now motionless. Their eyes darted from the floor to each other as they stood in silence. A sudden burst of laughter broke through their bewildered expressions and echoed through the empty classroom.
How were they to know?
The silence seemed to suck the air out of the hospital room. Sam was colorless. His head was covered with reddish stubble. Nick had seen the scar before, the long pink line that ran down the back of his head, but which now was mercifully hidden, pressed against the dull white pillow. A thin string of drool hung from Sam’s mouth and worked its way down his chin and neck. A bottle of clear fluid hung beside him, its contents running into Sam’s arm through a long plastic tube. Nick did not move. The only sound in the room was the faint disturbed breath that came from Sam’s nostrils. Nick stared with wide eyes at the body of this . . . person who looked like his friend, Sam.
The sound of sobbing broke Nick from his trance. It was coming from the hallway. He turned from Sam and walked toward the door. In the hallway, Mr. Friedman was standing with his feet set wide apart to sustain the weight of his wife, who was leaning against him, her head buried against his chest. Mrs. Friedman’s breath was labored, interrupted sporadically by muffled sobs. Mr. Friedman was silently stroking the back of her head when he looked up and saw Nick. The man tried to manage a smile, but his lips quivered at the effort. Nick broke from his hazy stare and walked past them, down the hallway toward the elevator. When the elevator doors closed, he took a long breath in and a long breath out.
When the doors opened again, he walked mechanically past the emergency room, with its smell of antiseptic and the sound of an infant somewhere, screeching in pain or alarm.
He drove home and entered his parents’ dark house. It had been his house only months before, before he’d gone away to school, but now it seemed like a lifetime ago. He walked to the room that had been his bedroom and lay on the bed. His parents were in the adjacent room, asleep, but Nick couldn’t sleep ‑‑ it no longer seemed possible. He lay awake, thinking about how strange, how surreal it all seemed: Sam lying there in that room, in that bed, and he in this bed, in a room that seemed both familiar and alien at the same time. Sam had always lived right around the corner, he’d be living there now if…if what? If he hadn’t been selected for such a special honor, the chance to die young, or was it really all just random, no hope, no plan, no God in charge at all? The prospect for each of them of the black nothingness that would follow this life?
His mind was a jumble of thoughts. Thinking about how he’d felt that day when he’d opened the letter from Sam in his dorm room. It had been his birthday and he’d been touched that his friend had remembered it. But then he’d torn the envelope open and found that it wasn’t a birthday card at all, but a note written by a shaky hand. They’d found something in his head when he’d gone to see the doctor. A brain tumor, that’s what it said. He was being discharged from the Air Force, leaving basic training in San Antonio, to come home to take care of the problem. How matter of factly he’d written it. It had been Sam’s dream to be in the Air Force, to fly in one of those jets, something Nick had never understood. Why not go to college, do something useful with his life Nick had always thought, but never said since, after all, it was Sam’s choice, his life. He’d had the dream of becoming a pilot, soaring in the skies at fantastic speeds. But now the dream was over, his life was almost over at 19. Where was the justice? He felt the tears starting, and now, for once, out of public view, let them fall freely, the tears leading him into a shallow sleep.
When he awoke, it was first light. He rubbed his eyes, got up, walked down to the kitchen and out the back door. His body trembled as the cold air rushed against him. As he walked to his car he heard a distressed voice trailing after him. His mother.
“Nick, my God, where are you going at this hour?”
He didn’t look back at her. He didn’t answer.
He got into his blue Mustang and started her up. He edged the gas pedal down slowly and the motor began to roar. He put the car in gear and pulled out of the driveway and past the cracker jack box houses, past Sam’s house. He knew that house as well as his own.
There were no cars in the driveway.
He pushed the pedal down to the floor. The tires squealed as he turned the corner. The car gained speed steadily, engine humming smoothly, rising in pitch.
He slowed down as he neared the park. They had played there together as kids. He saw the two of them there now, so energetic and alive. He saw the makeshift baseball diamond. There was the tree that served as the foul line and that brown spot of grass there, that was home plate. He saw Sam floating around the bases ‑‑ he always could hit the ball a mile. Now he was rounding third and heading toward the netless basketball hoop where they had played games of HORSE and One‑on‑One.
He pulled away from the park, so still in the early morning light, the grass gleaming with dew. They’d spent so much of their early lives there. So much of their blood, from occasional scraped knees and elbows, was still in that park. You’d never know it.
Nick pushed the clutch down and shifted the car up into fourth gear, past the Mobil station with its red Pegasus on the sign, where, on hot summer days, they’d walked to slip their quarters into the soda machine – Nehi Grape — he could taste it now.
The station was closed.
He sped past the shopping center they had run through so many times. Around and around he drove, past the Walgreens drugstore, the Old Orchard theater, where they had worked together, past the grade school and the high school they had walked to together, their footsteps mirroring one another’s, so many light years ago.
Nick felt secure in the car, whipping through the silent streets, passing all their memories. He half‑expected Sam to materialize in the seat next to him. How many times had they ridden together in this car looking for action, excitement on gray winter evenings?
There was a liquor store ahead – Enright Liquors the sign said. He pulled into the lot. There was an old black Cadillac with the tail fins parked there. The store lights were on, but the sign in the door said SORRY, WE’RE CLOSED. He got out of the car and banged on the glass door with both fists. Nobody came. He kept banging. Finally, a man with a tired dark face appeared, waving his hand in front of him. The pounding continued and the man shrugged and opened the door a crack.
“What’s the matter with you, man, can’t you read ‘OPEN TEN AM’? Why don’t you go on home? Come back later.”
Nick said nothing, but put his foot in the crack of the door and pushed his way inside.
“Okay, don’t do nothing crazy on me now. I got no money in the register. You want me to call the cops? Or…,” the man’s eyes moved to checkout counter. Nick walked to the shelves and picked out a pint of Jim Beam. He threw a twenty on the counter and headed for the door.
Behind him the man laughed. “Well now, if that’s all you wanted…Hey, wait, you’ve got some change…” But Nick was already out the door.
He got into his car, opened the bottle and took a slug. It burned down his throat. He set the bottle on the seat next to him and started the car. Then he headed for the lake.
The trees and houses flew by. The sun had risen higher, its glare making it more difficult to see. Nick adjusted the visor to block it out. More cars were on the road now. Mostly people older than he, driving to work, he imagined. Like every other morning of their lives.
He stopped at a red light. In the car next to him a bald‑headed man was stooped over the wheel of his gray Mercedes. Nick stared straight at the man as he took a swig from his bottle. The man didn’t turn his head, but seemed nervous, watching Nick out of the corner of his eye, and letting the Mercedes creep forward.
When the light changed, Nick pushed the pedal to the floor and passed the Mercedes like it wasn’t there. His head felt lighter, his thoughts a jumble. He was sweating and his body trembled, but he couldn’t stop. To the lake, he thought, the lake.
He took another long swig from the bottle.
The lake. Where Sam and he’d spent so many summer days, secretly glancing at the girls in their bikinis, never daring to approach them. And, when the sun got too hot, they’d charge into Lake Michigan, feeling the cold splash of water and foam against their scorched bodies. He longed for that cold feeling now.
He pushed the pedal down further. He had to get there. To the sand, to the girls, to the sun, the cool lake breeze.
The waves of the lake glimmered ahead in the distance. They pulled him forward. Red lights flashed in his rear-view mirror.
The lake. That was all there was now.
He slid in and out of the lanes, cutting between the cars. There were more lights flashing behind him now. But he had to get there.
He flew through a red light, leaving screeching brakes and hysterical sirens behind him. Only a little ways more. He could see the beach house now.
He pushed the gas pedal down to the floor again. The engine faltered for a moment, then caught again, propelling him forward. Just a little ways more.
He crashed through the chain of the beach parking lot, over the grass and onto the deserted beach, where the wheels spun and the car lodged in the sand.
Nick opened the door and fell out onto the sand. He looked up and down the beach, but saw no one. He buried his head in his hands.
Suddenly a hand touched his shoulder and Nick jerked his head up.
“Sam?” he asked, shading his eyes from the blinding sun, peering at the large figure standing above him.
The officer said nothing. He stood rigidly behind his sunglasses, arms crossed in front of him, and slowly shook his head.
Banner Image: By Amadalvarez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons