We get kicked out of the all-night bowling alley at three a.m. for trying to bowl with cabbages—a dare—so Caleb and I exit that dump for Midlick to break in and climb its water tower. We plan on throwing some balsa-wood airplanes off the top—in junior high we came up with the idea—and paint a huge dick on the water bowl or whatever it’s called. This will be a final installment of the epic shit we’ve been pulling all senior year.
The night is cool and bugs thip against the windshield of Caleb’s new white Chevy Silverado. My graduation cap and its asshat tassel sit in the backseat, on top of my crumpled gown. We drive through the dark, our headlights lighting the future or whatever. I check my phone and think about how fucking incredible it will be when word goes around there’s a dick over Midlick. We park down the hill from the tower. We walk through the long grasses, already wet with dew. In our flashlight beams, crickets leap around, looking like little comets.
“I always thought of the water tower as an iron dildo,” Caleb says.
“Pretty sure it’s steel.”
“And we’ve left the periodic table.”
I hate when Caleb gets clever. Sometimes I don’t know what the fuck he’s saying, and I think he enjoys that. We climb over the fence circling the tower and find the ladder at its base and climb through the tart smell of corrugated steel and dry wind. When we reach the top, a few ducks scurry away, their webbed feet platting along the grated floor.
“What the fuck are ducks doing here?” I ask. “Isn’t this too high? I don’t think of ducks as high fliers.”
“Birds don’t migrate in June.”
“And some never migrate. They just come up here to get illicit.”
I look down, and soon I’m trying not to. I can barely see the ground below and something about that makes me hot and dizzy. “I’m kind of freaking out.”
“Yeah man, it sucks about Meredith—”
“—it’s not that.” I broke up with my girlfriend Meredith last week. Hardest thing ever. I love her, but she’s off to the east coast for school in the fall, and I wanted to be the one to end it. She told me she hated me. Caleb thinks I’m stupid but won’t say it. He and his Silverado don’t get it. “I’m just caught between highs.”
“You should get caught between thighs. Also, I have these,” Caleb says, pulling a small Ziploc bag from the pocket of his jeans. “They’ll bring down the paranoia.”
We circle the tank and scatter the rest of the ducks, which make quiet honks and flap their wings before launching down into the dark. A breeze picks up, much colder than it had been on the ground. The wind sounds different up here, too: more busy, more free—like it’s fucking gleeful to pass us by. Caleb sits down cross-legged and unzips the backpack.
“Just the Sour Diesel?” I ask.
“Yessir. Turn off your headlamp before liftoff.”
I do and the stars appear. “This Diesel tastes like Brussels sprouts. You’d think with a cartridge they could get rid of it.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“It’s more that it doesn’t have to be bad at all.”
“Think of it this way,” Caleb says. “From this day forward, should you ever taste Brussels sprouts, you will be reminded of when you graduated, got kicked out of a bowling alley, and climbed a water tower.”
“Graduated?” I spit over the side of the guard rail. I noticed he didn’t say anything about spray painting.
“I don’t think it’ll matter in the end. They let you walk with everyone. No one knows.”
“Please. Everyone knows.”
“Look, Brandon Townsend’s ribs deserved cracking. He’s such a pretentious asshole. He’ll probably grow up to be president.”
Sometimes Caleb reminds me of Brandon. I broke Brandon’s ribs because he spoke his mind, where Caleb probably thinks the same shit but keeps quiet. He’s friendly to cover his cold heart. I don’t really care. I’ve known this for years. Anyways, he’ll be gone soon. To college, or university—I’ve never understood the difference.
I take a long pull on the pen. The tip lights up a bright, electric blue.
“See this darkness?” Caleb says. “We’re going to fill it with light.”
He reaches back into the backpack. Like I was saying, we hatched this plan to throw planes off the water tower in junior high. No bullshit symbolism, just the fulfillment of an old promise. In the lamplight, we slide balsawood parts from the plastic sleeve and thread the wings through the body.
“Where are the LEDs?” he asks.
I hand him two buttons and take my own and press them onto either side of the cockpit for balance. We turn off our lamps and face the horizon. Miles to the east the city glows.
“This may be as high as we’ll ever get,” I say, but he doesn’t respond.
In silence, at the same time, we throw. The planes circle and dive and stall, LED lights making trails of red, wind pushing them sideways. I lose track of Caleb’s plane. Mine goes down in the tall grasses below, and you can just see its lights, blinking like little alarm clocks.
We’re quiet. I have the spray paint, but a part of me knows Caleb won’t want to go ahead with it. He would have done it a few months ago, but he’s changed. Too much heat, he’ll say. He doesn’t realize how cold it can get, and how heat can warm a person. I grab the spray paint and shake the bottle so it rattles. Caleb pretends not to hear. He already thinks that just by being here, he’s doing me a favor. Like the school allowing me to wear the graduation gown to save face. I take it.
ROSS McMEEKIN — Ross is author of the novel The Hummingbirds (Skyhorse). His stories have appeared in places like Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road, Redivider, and Green Mountains Review. He’s received emerging writer fellowships from Hugo House and Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle. He edits the literary journal Spartan.
Art by JACQUELINE STAIKOS — Jacqueline is a largely self taught contemporary artist living in Quinte West, Ontario. She has exhibited her work in several Ontario galleries including shows in Toronto, Kingston and in New York City. Her creative process involves working with inks, acrylics, oils and mixed media. She is currently working out of her home studio in Trenton, Ontario. More of her art can be viewed on her website, jstaikos.org or on Instagram as jstaikosart.