Chapter 4: The Last Night of Their Lives
He hit the floor. Bottom first. Head slinging back, hitting the floor. Snot flying out of his nose. Sweat spewing off of his forehead, just like in a bad eighties action flick. And the blood, yes the blood came in massive amounts. It came out just after the mucus snorted out. Jude Taylor was nearly unconscious. He had just taken the kind of blow that every man has to take in his life, the kind of blow that sends him back and tells him that there’s somebody out there that can kick his ass.
Every man needs to be let in on that knowledge at least once in his life. It keeps him from thinking he’s immortal. It reminds him of the antithesis of David’s line in Vanilla Sky, “Isn’t that what being young is all about, believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man to live forever?” It reminds that man that he is merely mortal. He’s flesh and blood. He won’t live forever. Every man needs to be let in on that secret once in his life and Jude Taylor was being told that, with a single right straight across the inhalers.
Wesley Jones stood over the eighteen year old Jude Taylor. Now, Wesley was no pushover. He was a good 6’3, solid, with 235 pounds of flesh. He was an all-state wrestler in the heavy-weight class. First in the state. He was the all-state linebacker for the Creek Hill Wildcats, and he rolled over those tiny running-backs who thought they had quick feet. He showed it too. He wore those muscle-revealing sports shirts every day, and he was wearing one now. His bright red tubular almost popped the threads on the thing.
He stood over the not-so-little slain body of Jude, knocked, backside down, to the second-story floor of the Tater Creek Cabin. Jude wasn’t a pushover either. But, Wesley held a good inch or two and 20 pounds of body weight over him.
He had to contemplate, for what seemed a lifetime, whether or not to get up. He could risk being physically punished in a fistfight with the all-state linebacker or he could stay down and risk the same consequences. Only there, he had no advantage. He would probably get a boot to the ribcage, or worse, his blood-filled nostrils.
What about Isabella? Could he risk embarrassment in front of her? Had he already embarrassed himself in front of her? And the entire senior class? His reputation didn’t really matter with the class, he would hang it all out on the line for her.
Isabella was just standing there, trying to run over the whole predicament in her head, during those two seconds Jude got the gut-wrenching news of man’s mortality. She had been holding her breath when she saw Wesley walk up, not being able to warn Jude of the reddening teenager’s presence.
She was trying to take it all in. Jude’s nose pouring. Wesley’s overhand to that nose. Jude’s last words. Her last thoughts about those words. The crowd gathering. The crowd’s gasping and oos and ahs. The drunken dancers, still not realizing the situation, stomping dangerously close to the senior graduate on the floor. She had no words. She had no thoughts. It had all happened so fast. Jude Wesley Fist Nose Blood Floor More Blood Gaping Crowd Dancers Blood.
Why? She managed a thought. Then it turned into why did Wesley do that? Why did Jude tell her what he told her? Why did this get out of hand? How did this get out of hand? And they ran, one after another, little lights flashing on until there was no darkness but a void of light. A void of light so bright, it was worse than darkness. It shone forever. A million lights. A billion lights. Infinity. They went on and on until there were no thoughts that could be picked apart from the others. They were, had become, a great big mass of white.
Wesley Jones stood tall over the body that he had put down with that swift right across the sniffer of Jude Taylor. He had seen it all. He watched. He heard. He had heard Jude’s testimony of love for his girl, and he decided to put it to a stop.
Yes, he heard every word. He heard Jude tell that beautiful skin, that wind-blowable hair, those mini-skirt-revealing legs, his testimony of love. Wesley knew better than to believe that a high school guy could love. He knew what Jude was after, and he was after it with his girl. His decoration, the thing he wore at his side, to show he was the king, the all-state backer and the all-state wrestler. No man was going to take that away from him.
It didn’t take but a few swift steps and he was there. He grabbed Jude by his shirt, just above the shoulder, turned him around, and let the ball on the end of his wrist crack on to the side of that nose with a maddening, “SON OF A BITCH,” as he let his rival smash to the wooded floor.
He had protected what was his. He stood victorious above his enemy with pride and cries from his drunken crew. What he hadn’t counted on was Jude’s decision.
Getting up quickly, never completely off the floor, Jude dove into the midsection of the linebacker, sending him back into a row of snickering girls, spilling the contents of their red cups over the two as they came down to the floor.
It was all over now. Jude had to get in a few hits before the gang came; his backup was outside doing what most guys were doing that night. They were talking their game, trying to get lucky enough to find that one girl, that one girl who just happened to be smashed enough to think they were going to help her out, and make sure she didn’t release her daily salad on anyone. Unfortunately for them, most of them were out by the fire, snuggling up next to the keg in a lawn chair. Or out by the creek managing to convince one of the plowed girls to jump in with him. Wherever they actually were, they didn’t happen to be on the second floor. They didn’t happen to be anywhere near enough to lend a hand when Wesley’s crew ganged up on him.
Isabella had to do something. It was starting to get bad now. Jude was taking his punches to the face of that drunken mass of flesh below him, he just as plastered himself. All she could think of was “STOP!”
There, she said it. Nothing.
The commotion was growing louder, thumping. Beer was being spilt; Johnny Woodard dropped his spit cup onto the heels of an innocently sober Mary Sanford while running to help Wesley, Tim Rosenbaum and Will Oliver followed suit, just as that Boyz-II-Men song, “I’ll Make Love To You” reverberated through the walls. It was quite inappropriate for the occasion. This song is a little played out now, thought Isabella and probably half the crowd of intoxicated high school graduates, if they even thought about it all.
And then it came, “BOOOOOOO!”
The music was quickly changed to some dance mix that they would never remember the next day, or the next night, whenever they crawled out of bed, or out of the bushes, or away from the dimming ashes of the bonfire, or possibly the back seat of someone’s else’s car with a random classmate. A high school boy could only pray.
This was their last night as a class. Soon after they would break apart and go off into the world. Some would go to the nearby community college, others to four-year universities, while many would take jobs down at the sawmill or Sam’s Mart down Grover Street. They were stepping into the great unknown of life, a journey they hadn’t even half prepared for, nor cared to at this point in the night. It was their last night of their lives.
Susan Till was cupping her breasts, wearing only a thong, in the deep end of the creek, while Jeremy Roster and Mike Trenton taunted her, red cups in hand. Greg Houston snuggled up to his girlfriend of three years, Sandy Rowe, she with a red cup of her own, he with a 3-inch tall glass with ice clanking the edges. He liked to think of himself as a sophisticated drinker. Mandy Slade slid her buttocks up and down to the rhythm of the crappy mid-nineties dance music that was the flavor of the week, against Brandon Calder’s crotch, red cup in his hand. Joey Buxton, Adam Chesterfield, and Danny Nisbett, forewent the red cups and took turns doing keg stands, urging others to join in on the fun. Randy Orchard held Mariah Paxton’s hair back as she let go of the day’s salad into the trashcan. Angela Bach was making out with Courtney Emmet’s boyfriend, while Courtney was passed out in an upstairs bedroom with a random guy talking sweet nothings in her ear. She didn’t even know where Jude was, nor did she care. She was beyond inhibitions.
It was the last night of their lives.
And Jude Taylor was on top of Wesley Jones swinging, swinging for his life. He knew that Isabella wasn’t just a great set of legs (even with that mini-skirt trying to prove him wrong), a smile that mesmerized men, or silky smooth skin. She was more than that. She was the girl that he had fallen madly in love with two years before, and he was there to prove to her his love. But, somehow, he ended up just swinging.
Isabella could still hear the words, “I’m in love with you. I always have been. I always will be.”
She didn’t know what to think at that moment. Everything up to that point in Jude’s confession had become a blur. What is love, she thought. What does it mean to be in love? She couldn’t imagine the thought of love. It was so distant to her. She would be eighteen in a month. Love. It was such a funny thing, like life. She didn’t have the words for him. She didn’t even have the thoughts. Her mind couldn’t comprehend those words, I’m in love with you. I always have been. I always will be. She didn’t understand. Was it a ploy? Why now, if he really did love her? Did he even know what love meant? And the thoughts lit up in her brain once again, filling that dark void with another void of brightness.
Jude was still swinging as Johnny pulled back his left hand. Then Tim and Will came. It took all three of them to pull him off. Wesley just lay there, and then he rolled over to his side to let the blood drip from his mouth.
Jude’s heart dropped to his stomach as Isabella ran over to the fallen mass. The gang let him go. They didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to grip the arms of the guy who laid Wesley Jones down like that. All he could do was run out.
He ran through the drunken crowd. He ran down the stairs, past more smashed onlookers. He ran through the door, and around to the side of the house.
It was all over. Falling to his knees he felt them coming on, the tears. In those brief seconds, he realized something other than the mortality of men. He realized that Isabella didn’t love him, and if there was even a hope, a spark, of possible love, he just destroyed it. Why did he keep swinging when he was obviously victorious? Why did he get drunk and declare his undying love to a teenage girl? What good could have came from that?
In moments he had lost everything important to an eighteen year old. He had lost his mortality. He had lost the faint possibility of love. It happened so fast. It was the last night of his life.
He leaned back against the wall of the cabin. The late May night air—humid Alabama air—cleansed Jude’s pours. The sweat rolled down his arms, his back, his face, mixing with the dripping nose blood. And he hadn’t realized it earlier, but Wesley must have gotten a hit in when they were on the floor, his mouth was cut too. The trees were swirling in his eyes, until he squinted to adjust them. The limbs had only been stretching to the northwest by the imperceptible breeze. The smoke from the bonfire blew along with it, he could smell it. Suddenly all of the laughter from the creek and the keg came, screaming to his ears. The night’s fleeting screw-up still unfolding in his mind. Jude reached into his jeans’ pocket, and pulled out a Marlboro. He had to light it.
The only reason he ever brought them was for uncomfortable silences and the windup of the night, when the few party-till-the-break-of-dawners were calming down and conversations turned to politics and religiosity and the meaning of it all. He could remember all of the endless, pointless conversations that came on those 6 a.m. mornings. Is there a God? Of course. What the Hell is Clinton doing? Who cares, the country’s going to Hell anyways. And the conversations went on and on and deeper and deeper until there was no hope of an answer to life’s infinite questions. The only thing that was comprehensible was that the human brain was unable to comprehend the answer. It was beyond the mind’s understanding.
Jude let out a breath of grey, and then puckered his lips a bit more to exhale the remaining smoke. He held his back to let the nosebleed clog in his nostrils. Another puff. He thought of those daybreak conversations. Maybe his mind couldn’t comprehend what had gone on. Obviously, Wesley had overheard him talking to Isabella. That was it. There was no other kind of understanding needed. Why? Why did he say all of those things? Why did he put his heart out there? Why did he say I always will be? He knew nothing about love, or did he? He knew he wanted her. Isabella Adriana Moretti. The girl of his dreams, the girl he could never, in a moment of sobriety, tell how he felt.
That voice. Her voice.
She sat down beside him as he handed over the pack of smokes. “How’s the nose?”
“What do you care?”
She lit a cancer-stick and inhaled, holding for a moment, and let go. They just sat in silence until they finished. Holding out the pack she offered him another, and took one herself. Time for politics and religiosity. Time for the 6 a.m. conversation, now just after twelve. But, it was more than that. It would be a deeper conversation than that. It was beyond the state of the country and the meaning of life. It was about love…maybe, if he could even call it that.
“I meant what I said before.”
“I know you did Jude…It’s just…We’re so young. We don’t know what love is. At least, I don’t know. You might think you love me, but…”
“I don’t know if it is love. I just know that I feel something that I’ve never felt with anyone else before. It’s more than…It’s more than just an infatuation.”
“And what happens in the morning, when you’re sober? Will you still love me then?”
“Whether or not it’s love, I will still want you. I’ve always wanted you,” Jude couldn’t believe he was actually saying those words. He gave his cigarette another puff and pulled his head from the wall, checking his nose.
“And what about five years from now? Or ten? I can’t even think about where I’ll be then, who I’ll be then, who you’ll be then. We’re not even going to the same college. We’ll be worlds apart.”
“I don’t care about tomorrow or five years from now or ten years. All I care about is now…All I care about is now.”
Isabella puffed her cigarette, “I know you don’t care about tomorrow, but that’s where we’re at. We’re at tomorrow. In six hours our lives will change. We won’t be on the same path anymore. There’s no more high school. It’s over now. Nothing will ever be the same.” She inhaled again, stronger.
“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. All I know is, without you, none of it will matter.”
“Jude, you say that now. But—“
“But nothing. The future doesn’t matter. We don’t even know if we’ll be here tomorrow, or in a week, or in ten years. We have now, and that’s enough for me.”
“It’s not for me…”
He couldn’t find the words to keep her there with him. Isabella Adriana Moretti was standing up and walking out of his life forever. She was going to walk away and he’d never see her again. It was over. He felt a clump in the back of his throat, and his eyes tried to well up, but he wouldn’t let them.
“We do have the now. We have the rest of the night. We have it to spend as classmates, as friends, and we should make the best of it. Come with me back inside.” She had marked her ground and that would be the end of it. She smothered his love beneath her heel and held out her hand.
One last drag of the Marlboro and he was up. He crushed the butt beneath his sandal, bloody shirt and all, he took her hand. There was nothing left to do. He had fought for his love, and lost. The least he could do was make the best of it.
After all, it was the last night of their lives.