Saying you had a crush on Judie in high school was about the same as saying you breathed. That didn’t stop every former jock, former nerd or [other teenage archetype] from oversharing the fact at Rock Hill’s 25th Reunion.
In between the unnecessarily rough backslaps, high-pitched-across-the-room “OH! MY! GAAWWWD!”s and feigned smiles+handshakes, I absconded to the old hallowed hallways. Away from what could have just been a LinkedIn group chat, I gulped down two drinks I swiped from the “open bar” — which only amounted to watered-down “signature” cocktails and off-brand beer.
Like muscle memory, I found my old locker just outside Mrs. Daugherman’s band room. By some odd stroke of an old keyboard, I ended up the only freshman with a locker on this side surrounded by juniors. And as luck would have it, the 12×12×3o metal space just above mine held the books of none other than one Judie Argento.
“Very nice to meet you, Mr. Fox!” — the first words she ever said to me—rang in my ears as I stared at the pseudo-shrine they erected for her. The well-lit nook in the school’s mirrored trophy case held several awards for local meets and her All-State All-Star medal. The one she won for finishing second at the Cross-Country Track Regional. Her last race.
Even now, after all these years, I can recall the feeling that came over you when she spoke to you. I wore my dad’s faded slate M65 field jacket for the first week of my freshman year, hoping to blend. An infantry of safety pins held the seams on the front of the left sleeve together. Mom fashioned some extra below the name tape where my dad’s star for valor once hung.
Realizing she had read my jacket, I rolled my eyes and pointed to the capital-lettered “FOX” on my chest. The shock of her knowing my name quickly subsided and I let out a half-laugh half-sigh at myself for thinking I’d even register on her radar screen. She smiled at my awkwardness and said “Nice jacket, neighbor. Be careful, though; girls really dig a guy in uniform.”
As the year progressed, our exchanges grew fewer and farther between. I ended up sharing lockers with the girl who’d later become my high school sweetheart. It was just easier to get to classes on that side of the gym. But, one late spring day, I happened to be leaving flute practice just as Judie was heading out.
“Going my way, Mr. Fox?” she asked, seemingly with no grasp of the effect she had on hormonal pubescent boys. “Uh…sure! I mean… out? Yes. You?” She smiled again at my awkwardness, the way she did when we first met. Perhaps she did know what it meant to talk to her. Or maybe she just really wanted to talk to someone.
I wished for a long time that it hadn’t been me. That we hadn’t spoke that entire walk outside and all the way down to the diner. I wish she didn’t convince me to join her for some disco fries and RC Colas. That I had not ceremoniously excused myself when her boyfriend and her cheer squad best friend arrived. Maybe then things would have turned out different.
Really though, what difference would I have made? I doubt I could have stopped her from joining those two on the Senior Cut Day trip to Black Bear the very next morning. I had no hand in the half-dollar coin toss that chose who drove. I didn’t throw the spoon on the highway that snapped under the 18-wheeler truck’s tires and sent a shard flying into their windshield.
“Lucky.” Judie was lucky, said all the news reports. Lucky she wasn’t driving or she’d have been pinned on the side of the car the jaws of life couldn’t reach. Lucky the stainless steel rods in her back would maybe let her walk again one day. Lucky she survived the biggest accident our high school, our town and most of the state had seen in years.
47 cars piled up as a result of a sliver of silver that shattered a window, fractured a spine and crushed the dreams of a beloved young girl.
Judie never regained the use of her legs. Last I saw her, she was a shadow of her former self. A lifeless gaze where once shined a glimmer. Propelled not by her athletic limbs, but the titanium body of a wheelchair. Her name, that was breathed with a flurry of heartstrings, is now spoken with a taste of mourning on the tongue.
Read more from this series of short stories: