Scrubland by Leela Raj-Sankar

After the funeral, Andy took me on a drive into the desert, past where the roads turned to dirt and the cookie-cutter suburban houses turned to scraggly, thorn-filled bushes. Predictably, he didn’t say anything for the whole hour, just tapped his fingers against the steering wheel rhythmlessly. Andy never talked much, even when we were kids; it’s why I liked him. But now, suffocating under the bone-dry August heat, I wished he would offer me something to hold on to, even if it was one of the meaningless platitudes I’d spent the entire afternoon fielding.

The day of Kaya’s death marked the end of an extremely anticlimactic monsoon season. Arizona had been drought-prone since before I could remember, but this summer is a different beast, Kaya had told me. I remembered, with sudden, terrible clarity, the redness on her cheekbones that never had time to turn to a full-blown sunburn. This summer is a different beast. She had been warning me the whole time. Why hadn’t I listened?

On the last night I saw her, she had been twitching with that awful, volatile sadness that I never understood, never had a match for. “Run away with me,” she said, out of nowhere. “Just us. We could be gone tomorrow.”

I laughed—in hindsight, a mistake I knew better than to make. “Really? I thought you loved it here.”

Her face twisted. “I guess. I just thought…you know what, nevermind.”

Look, I thought I knew Kaya. I thought this was just one of her moods. That she’d be over it by next week, not that she’d go home after work the next day and quietly overdose on antidepressants I didn’t know she had. What if I had agreed? I thought. Would she still be alive or would she have done the same thing in a motel somewhere in Nevada?

But even if I had wanted to run away with her, I knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t follow her around the way I had been for years, watching her dump boys and get dumped by them, hoping against hope that one day she’d look up and realize I had been there all along.

Andy glanced at me over the console, fidgeting with his T-shirt. When he spoke, it sounded as if he’d been rehearsing the words in his head. “I know how much you loved Kaya. I’m sorry.”

 I was sweating, even with the AC on full blast. “Me too.”

“Emma.” He reached over and put his hand on my knee, horribly sincere. “It’s not your fault.”

That wasn’t true. But it would be ridiculous to contest him, to insist that yes, I had killed the girl I was in love with, and he was stupid to tell me otherwise. “Okay.”

Andy opened his mouth as if he was about to speak, then closed it again. For a moment, I didn’t see mid-twenties Andy but his fifteen-year-old self, reed-thin and dazed-looking, always following in Kaya’s wake. I felt like a teenager again, the warmth of Andy’s hand bleeding through my jeans as we watched a fine layer of dust settle over the windshield: dizzy, exhausted, our breathing slow and open-mouthed. The only thing missing is the smell of grass, I thought bitterly. Then it’d be just like high school.

I wanted to blame the desert for Kaya’s death. I wanted to tell myself that it was the heat, the dust, the sunlight, always migraine-bright—anything but me. I wanted to bury my grief here and run to somewhere suitably miserable, where the sun didn’t seep through the shutters like light from the wrong side of a wound, where the sky hung two feet above you and I could disappear into the gray.

 The last time Andy and I had driven this far together was three years ago. I had been in a similarly vicious mood then, too, possessed by that all-consuming 120-degree terror. There was nothing beautiful here, I wanted to tell myself. Here, every word meant burning, meant guilt, meant waking up sweaty and frantic, legs sticking to the sheets.

But I didn’t have it in me. I couldn’t hate the desert, as much as I tried. For as extreme as it seemed, the desert’s hands were gentle. Once, at a wedding two hours out of the city, I had stumbled out of the reception hall around midnight, drunk and maudlin and afraid, and there it was, the Milky Way. A brilliant, sprawling gash, pouring itself into me as if to say live, live, live. I couldn’t hate the desert because it was home. I couldn’t hate the desert because when I had dreams of that sky, big enough to drown in, I thought that maybe it was possible to believe in something so blameless.  

 Andy pulled his hand away; I closed my eyes. Endless blue imprinted on my optic nerve. Cicada song. The car engine’s soft hum. Maybe this is the end of the world, I thought. Right here, in a hazy pool of sweat.

When I opened my eyes again, Andy’s face was cast in shades of gold. “When I was in high school—right after I got my driver’s license—I drove here and screamed and screamed. For hours. Until I was too nauseous to stand. I didn’t really feel better, but I thought—I thought that maybe I wasn’t going to die anymore.”

There was a strange taste in my mouth. Metallic, somewhere between rain and blood. I swallowed hard around it. Andy, sighing, looked up at the sky. 

Leela Raj-Sankar is an Indian-American teenager from Arizona. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rejection Letters, Full House Literary, and Fahmidan Journal, among others. In his spare time, he can usually be found watching bad television or taking long naps. Say hi to her on Twitter @sickgirlisms.