When they got back to the cottage, they folded pieces together and ate them like sandwiches. Rachel and I wouldn’t touch the stuff.
Seriously, best pizza ever, Jason said with pride as we brushed our teeth before bed.
Don’t kiss me, I heard Rachel shriek at Volk from their bedroom. Who knows where that pizza’s been.
The next morning, the Saturday before Labour Day, Jason and Volk sat shirtless on the balcony drinking breakfast beers. Rachel and I sat below them at the dock in wrap-around skirts and bikinis. The fish in the channel bobbed and opened their tiny grey mouths like a nursery of babies learning to coo.
Can’t be good for them, all these carbs, said Rachel, tossing stale sour cream and onion chips to the fish.
There’s that turtle, Jason called from above us, pointing a sloshing beer towards the water. The turtle poked his sharp face out of the water amongst the fish, pretending to belong.
I swear that’s the one we saved, he said. He had been quit proud of himself last summer when he spotted the little thing crossing the causeway, the wetness of its shell gleaming. He pulled the car over and lifted the small creature into the trunk. When we arrived at the cottage, he carried it safely to the channel.
If it was the same one, it was now three times the size, and would frequently sun on the banks of the channel. He’s thanking us, Jason said, through entertaining us.
That day last summer when he found the turtle was when Jason and I hooked up for the first time, in the musty air of the boathouse. We lay on a deflated inner tube on the cement floor, the water lapping against the boat rhythmically, encouragingly. Rachel and Volk had started dating at the end of first year and had been together three months. Jason’s so sweet, Rachel would say when we were alone, and cute, prodding me in the ribs with a dainty elbow. But I had resisted, looking for more of a reason to be with him than the expectations of friends.
When we returned to school after the summer, I was unsure what to make of things with Jason. It was convenient and comforting, the four of us going to The Strange Wolf in the evenings, cramming together on a tattered couch in Volk and Jason’s apartment to watch movies, Rachel and I huddled under a blanket at the boys’ rugby games. But during our weekends at Volk’s cottage, it seemed we could spend a lifetime together and never grow tired of each other.
Across the channel two kids were trying to start a fire from the embers in their fire pit, still flickering from the night before. They prodded the coals with dried pine branches till they smoked, pulled them out, stared at the red glow pulsing through orange needles, shrieking at the power smouldering in their hands.
Volk and Jason finished their beers and their conversation evolved into wrestling. Rachel and I closed our eyes behind sunglasses, listening to the wooden balcony creak with the tension of two bodies jostling against plywood planks, huffing and laughing and cursing, boys wrapping their arms around each other in false aggression.
With a hard shove from Jason, three stakes of pine lining the space between the railing and the deck’s floor gave way against Volk’s weight and released him to the grass. He didn’t yell. Had he not fallen backwards the damage would have been a shattered ankle or a kneecap driven down against his shin. But when we reached him, his eyes were closed, head sharply twisted, chin pressed against his bare shoulder. Rachel fell against me. The kids from across the channel screamed behind us. Jason grabbed the railing above the hole where Volk had fallen.
Volk, come on, you bastard! he yelled, his eyes pinched in panicked laughter. You bastard—you’re fine, damn it! He was still there when the ambulance came, when Rachel came to and we jumped in her car to follow to the hospital.
Should we grab him a shirt? Rachel asked as I turned the ignition. When we came back that night to pack up our stuff and tell Jason that Volk was in good spirits but probably wouldn’t walk again, Jason was gone.
When classes started again in September, I sat down with Rachel to schedule breaks between our classes to visit Volk in the hospital. I called her every evening. I called Jason as well to invite him to join us, but he never picked up and I never left messages. I gave him his space for the first week and then swung by their apartment. The lights were off and no one came to the door. I walked by the field during rugby practice a few times. My heart stopped when I saw his number on the back of a jersey moving along the field, but I realized the player’s hair was brown, not blond.
The first few weeks Rachel stayed dry-eyed during our visits, eating the cubes of blue Jello Volk got with his dinner tray, filling him in on what was going in our classes.
She’d let it all out on the way back. She started calling Volk by his first name. Ryan’s just so calm, she would say, saying the Ry part in a high-pitched tone, like she was talking to a baby. Ryan’s so calm, I feel like I’m holding all his grief
Volk asked about Jason from time to time, turning to me for the answers. He’s good! I’d say, overly chipper. Then worried about making him seem insensitive, I’d say, He’s having a hard time, with things.
Yeah. So am I Volk turned away, and Rachel squeezed his hand.
Did I tell you Aleesa Prins is pregnant? she asked.
Bet she’s still hot, Volk would say, a smile returning to his face. Rachel fake punched him playfully in the shoulder.
Not fair, he said. I can’t fight back.
One time on the drive home Rachel said, I think you should apologize. On Jason’s behalf.
I was quiet for a minute. Why should I do that?
Volk needs an apology, for closure. You’re closest to Jason.
That’s not my job. And he knows Jason is sorry.
I’m not sure any of us knows how Jason feels. He’s been taking the easy way out.
That’s not fair. Besides, I don’t even know if he’s still in school.
You could try harder. You could fight for the relationship.
We didn’t talk for the rest of the ride. I dropped Rachel off at her dorm without saying a word.
I sometimes think it’s amazing, said Volk one time during that half year of visits, that we didn’t get sick from that pizza Rachel laughed generously, the way you laugh on a first date. It couldn’t have been there too long, I said, or the raccoons would have got it.
But why was it there? Volk asked. Maybe someone pissed on it. Maybe a couple was fighting in their car and one of them threw it out the window. I told you no pineapple!’ kinda thing. Or the pizza delivery guy got a fake order, and threw it away. Maybe someone licked it and threw it out cause they thought it tasted like ass.
Can’t remember. We were too excited about free food to care. I think actually what happened, Volk said, was someone put the pizza on top of their car while they unlocked it, or while they made out in the parking lot, or something. They just forgot it was there and drove off He knew the other reasons were more interesting, but this was the most likely.
Rachel eventually stopped picking up my calls as well. I just want more time alone with Ryan, she told me finally. After that we would pass each other on campus and she would hug me without really looking at me, would tell me it had been too long (I know, really too long!) and we really needed to do coffee (yeah, that would be great!) or something soon, but she was in a rush at the moment (of course, so am I), so she’d call me soon, honey, smooch, miss you (miss you too).
A few months after the accident, once the family had accepted Volk’s paralysis, Volk’s dad tried to sue the builder of the cottage, who turned the blame to the architect. After a year of periodic court dates, Volk in his wheelchair at each one, the architect had his license revoked and Volk had a settlement, the details of which he wouldn’t explain. Volk went back to school the following year, graduated and went to law school last I heard.
The following spring I got drunk on a first date and told the guy about the balcony. I think I must have laughed when I told him, though I don’t remember the telling, only his response.
Wow, he said. Wow. Guys, eh? I read on Yahoo news about a guy whose friends poured lighter fluid over his crotch when he fell asleep at a party, and lit his pants. Just thought it was funny—they’d do it to each other’s socks all the time. The fire went out of control, second degree burns all over his, you know. He sued his best friends, and the parents—they settled.
When he drove me home after dinner I threw up out the window. I watched the vomit spread out like long fingers across the side of his car.
The next day I rented a car and drove two hours to visit the cottage. I called Rachel one last time to ask if she wanted to come with me.
That’s weird, she said. I think you need to let it go.
Okay, thanks for weighing in, I said.
She told me she was thinking of breaking up with Ryan. We don’t really have anything in common anymore. Honestly, I think I’ve just stayed with him because he needed me. But we’ve moved past that.
I think you have too, I said.
She told me a friend had said Jason quit school and moved into his parents’ basement. He was taking courses online. He had gained a lot of weight, about 100 pounds. He hasn’t been very active. He feels really bad about the whole thing, the friend had told her. And he really misses you, Rachel said.
Months earlier I would have asked about a way to contact him. But I miss him too, was all I could say. And I hope he’s doing alright.
The cottage looked as it should, dark and empty, a For Sale sign hanging in the front. In the back the balcony was still broken, the jagged stumps of posts pointing towards the clouds.
When I opened the door to the boathouse, a raccoon hobbled towards me and hissed. I could hear her kits whimpering from some unknown place.
I sat on the dock and threw bits of cracker into the water. After a few minutes the grey fish gathered and bopped around below me, but it was the turtle I wanted to see.
I ran out of cracker crumbs and so I took to throwing tiny stones from the garden. It was cruel to trick the fish this way but I needed to keep them searching in order to draw the turtle.
After an hour I gave up. Perhaps he had abandoned this place with us no longer here to entertain. Perhaps he had tried to cross the causeway again, and had not encountered a vehicle kind enough to pull over.