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Leaving the Country
by Susannah Felts

Jess wanted to ignore the truth. Her friend Ardell had made a decision—one he'd made before in fact, but this time he swore he meant it. That meant he was happy, and Jess was not. Still. They had to have some fun, now or never. They had to get out one more time while he was still here.

Ardell was her best friend, the one she called when she needed Adventures. Not her girlfriends, not even any of the other boys she thought of as her real family, her brothers—boys she had graduated high school with or done some college with, scruffy boys she'd worked with at the punk-rock pizza place or the used bookstore or the falafel hut that closed after the owner was shot dead. They all meant the whole shitbag of a black-black world to her; still, they weren't none of them shelved near Ardell.

Early that high summertime morning, she tied a blue bandana over Ardell's eyes and drove both of them north of Birmingham: past the old bungalow with the bottletrees, their twinkling blue and green and brown and clear glass; through the neighborhood where an old black man filled his yard with Bible figures carved from painted tree stumps; past the barbeque joint where the sign featured a cartoon pig sitting pretty, smiling dreamy, in a nest of flames.

These were all Destinations from Past Adventures.

Ardell twisted his body out the car window, hollered in the wind. Jess glanced over, saw his old black jeans clinging to his skinny legs, an ancient leather belt woven with tiny white Xs, thin t-shirt hiked up just a little, revealing his birthmark the size of a quarter, where she'd several times she'd pressed her thumb and said, "On. Off. On. Off."

She bit the inside of her mouth, squeezed the wheel, flared her nostrils against the tears. Ardell had taught her how not to be bitter. How not to hate this place and everyone in it. But now the little bastard would leave her here.

At the Destination, she guided Ardell by the hand a few steps down a gravel path. When it came time to scale the chain-link fence, she untied his blindfold. There was the abandoned school, its brittle brick cooled by vines, settling into union with the Alabama flora like an old married couple. Its glassless windows were unblinking, offering hints: an eggshell blue wall, a chalkboard crawling with graffiti. He went first, and she tossed their bag of stuff over the fence to him—mini-disc recorder, tambourine, homemade maraca of jingly pebbles tied up in a thin sock, a notebook, pen—and last, before she clambered over herself, Ardell's fiddle.

They prowled the old classrooms, disturbed birds, stepped shyly around pits of rotted tile, moldy textbooks clumped together, rusty desks mingling with uprooted toilets. They wondered if there might be snakes. In a shady spot where the floor looked like it might not collapse beneath them, they sat. The music they made was, to them, like nothing ever been made before.

"Shhh—listen," she said when they were done. "Can you hear the children singing?"

"I can," he said.

"There won't be anything like this where you're going," she said.

"There'll be other things."

Later, an afternoon storm drove them into the dark belly of a favorite bar. Ardell propped his feet on Jess's side of the booth. She pulled his shoelaces, their ends frayed from where they'd been gnawed off by her cat, months back.

"Call your dad," she said, pushing her cell phone across the table.

"I got my own phone."

"So call."

"Please just drop it. My dad—it'll make me cry."

Him crying would mean her crying. So she dropped it.

They played some ragged tunes on the jukebox. The bought each other beers, talked about when she would visit, told the same stories, again and again and again. She origami'd her beer bottle labels and presented them to him—little good luck cranes. The lights flickered.

"Why do you think it'll be any different this time? You'll stay for a week or two, run out of money, skin your knee real bad, come home," she said. (She hoped.) He only smiled sadly. She squeezed her head between her hands. "My mind hurts," she said. "My teeth hurt."

When it came time for him to go, Ardell promised her he was sober. And he was, pretty much. The storm had passed, and he drove through a muggy yellow-blue glow, 7:30 p.m. A smeared sunset ducked in and out of sight behind trees. He reached into a tote bag of snacks she'd given him; his iPod was in there, too. Fumbling for it, his hand found the bandana blindfold, wash-worn and wrapped around something: a letter. He considered opening it then, reading it as he drove, but—no. His plan was to drive all night, damp loamy air on his face through three green states. A 3 a.m. coffee break at a Stuckey's in east nowhere—that would be the time to read Jess's goodbye.

A fine mist filled the pockets around kudzu beasts keeping watch over I-65, shot through by all the people in their cars, on cell phones, smoking cigarettes, drunk even, coming and going. Ardell synched his iPod so he could listen to it through an FM frequency; he found the playlist he wanted and settled into the drive. About the time he passed the exit for the town of Kimberly, just south of Warrior, Alabama—(Wuryr. He said it out loud, thought how she'd laugh if she could hear him putting on his red clay slur.)—the interference began.

Ardell's iPod was scuffling with religion, and it seemed religion would win. He'd get a bit of song, mean bray of static, then the sermon would bust in. His music got more and more tangled up in gospel murmurings, a preacher's drawl, salvation, damnation, His blood, the Word of the Lord.

"Goddamnit," Ardell said. He reached down to mess with the iPod and the car stereo, trying to find a better frequency. It was goddamn poetic injustice—that's what Jess would've said. The song was her absolute favorite. And Ardell really needed to hear it.

He was trying to make the song come through clear, and he was picturing her singing along, wearing her crazy big sunglasses, when an old white Mercedes ducked into the lane in front of him, yanking his attention back to the road.

The Mercedes' bumper was all he could see. He swung the car to the right, hit gravel, jerked back left. Stuff from the tote bag (letter, trail mix, energy drink, peppermints, the jingly-pebble sock) spilled across the emergency break and into the crevices between the seats. The car began to fishtail.

All of this—in an instant.

Then the overpass rushing up before him, the concrete-and-rebar support where someone had long ago spray-painted TRUST JESUS in small green caps.

It had happened here before. At the wreck site a few hours later, a paramedic nearly tripped on a faded wooden cross slumped over in the tall grass, bleached plastic daisies slung around its neck.

Years later, after Jess herself had lived in a faraway city for a long time, and only when she had a few glasses of wine in her, and only if the person listening meant enough to her, only then could she say it out loud: Ardell had tried and tried and tried to leave. And it was only because he didn't—because it ended in that way—that, finally, she did.

Susannah Felts is the author of the novel This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record (Featherproof Books, 2008). Her short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in ACM, Quarterly West, Pindeldyboz, McSweeney's, The Sun, The2ndhand, and other magazines. She has taught English and creative writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and other institutions, and currently works as a writer and editor in Birmingham, Alabama, where she lives with her husband Todd Dills and (soon!) daughter.

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