Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Harut Movsisyan
Rocky calls me the day I come home for Christmas break, and it goes exactly how I expect it to.
“What made you decide to come back? Money? Wanted to do some charity work?”
“Come on, Rocky, you know that’s not how it is.”
And he coughs in the way that means the conversation is over and tells me to meet him in the Walmart parking lot, so of course I do.
He’s smoking by the shopping carts when I get there, even though I’ve told him a million times not to. He looks like shit, but I don’t tell him that. Instead, I roll down my window and let him walk over, shoelaces dragging behind him like limp rattlesnakes.
“Get bored of New York yet?” he asks.
“Not yet.” I chuckle. He doesn’t.
“I hear you’re trying to write stories.” It’s not a question, just something he uses to punctuate the puff of his cigarette. He’d heard it from me, of course, but Rocky’s not someone you correct. It’s not that he’ll get mad. It just won’t do you any good.
He props a hand onto the side of the car and looks down at me again. There’s something like a crook on the side of his mouth but I blink before it cements itself into reality. “What’ve I gotta do to make it into one?”
“I don’t write about real people, just made-up stuff. Think Harry Potter.”
“You’re missing out.” He looks at me. Not like he did before, scraping his eyes across my clothes and face. He shreds me and puts me back together with his gaze, and does it again. “You look like them, y’know.”
“The strangers. The ones from not-here.” He steps back. “You’re not who you were when we were kids.”
I blink. “I’m still the same James. Just a little more grown up is all.”
He shakes his head. “You and me, we were the same once. Trailer trash, that’s what your friends in the city would call us. Rolling around in the mud, nicking lighters from the gas station, climbing fences to throw rocks from the school roof. But you’re above it all now, aren’t you? I’m just a backstory, aren’t I? You’re disgusted by me. By us. But this is where you came from.
“You can run, you can try to scrub us off your arms and face, you can buy fancy shirts and hang out with rich kids who smoke cigars and quote Shakespeare, but it’s always gonna be there. Under your skin. Behind your eyes. Doesn’t matter how deep you bury a seed, it’ll still grow.”
“That’s not how it is,” I say for a second time, but I don’t know if I believe it.
“Then open the door.”
I don’t. I stare at the Coke can a few feet from his ripped sneakers.
“Open the door, Jamie.”
His voice is shaking now. So am I.
“Just open the door. Please. Open the door, James.”
I think he’s about to make a move for the door himself, and I’m not sure whether I’d stop him.
But he doesn’t.
“It’s lung cancer.”
I look at him. He looks at the cloud stretched across the sky. “What?”
“They told me last week,” he says, throat taut and bobbing.
“How long do you have?”
He turns and kicks a cart. It makes a noise like a lamb shrieking.
“Oh, Rocky.” I can’t find anything else to say. “Do you need money? I can pay for the treatment. There’s a hospital out in Nashville that—”
“God, stop talking like that. I’m not a fucking charity case.” Something fractured flutters across his face before he sets his jaw against it. “I’ll deal. I just—I thought you should know.”
And he stands there, and I sit there, and we don’t look at each other, and the wind whistles across the pavement like it’s trying to get us to say anything.
“At least stop smoking.”
“C’mon Jamie,” he grins with gleaming black teeth. “You know the happy ones don’t get stories.”