It was an unusually humid summer in Westerhaven, Wisconsin; filled with an almost constant stream of noise and bright colors, as preparations began for the upcoming summer carnival. Neighbors darted through the streets with their shorts and bare knees, sunhats and dreams. Usually, they dragged around some ridiculous, over-sized prop, balloons or food supplies as they headed towards to the carnival grounds to set-up. The carnival was the only semi-exciting event in our tiny ghost town and everyone clung to the hope that each year would be more memorable than the last.
My friends and I were listening to The Cure and hoping for the best. We colored our hair and wore too much eye make-up; our staple wardrobe consisted of band t-shirts, ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors. Our 18th birthdays were fast approaching; not that we didn't make it obvious. We tore through the streets, driving too fast in our mother’s cars, like we were invincible. In our ignorant, youthful haze we were bulletproof; immune to anything and everything terrible in the world.
Maelynn Chung was my tornado of a best friend. With her sleek bob, Doc Martins and collection of animal-print backpacks, she was hard to forget. We had been best friends since childhood, although our lives were opposite in nature. My Mom was a hippy-dippy artist who was definitely lenient when it came to enforcing rules. In contrast, Mae’s parents had been tyrannical with both she and Tim, her older brother. Naturally, Mae rebelled as much as possible; her parents could decide her career path, but not her record collection or wardrobe choices. Fortunately, her parents seemed content with this arrangement, so long as she still attended medical school someplace far away and more prestigious than anything Westerhaven could ever offer.
"Look what I got!" Mae waved an obscure-looking CD in my direction. "It doesn't come out until October, but I know a guy."
Mae knew everyone, especially when it came to the opposite sex. She certainly wasn't promiscuous, but people orbited around Maelynn Chung like the sun does around the earth; falling in love with her was a natural, unstoppable force that everyone was required to experience at least once. Nevertheless, I knew that there was only one guy who really factored into the equation. Wes Miller was the popular, athletic type, with broad shoulders and boyband hair. Despite his cool factor, he played Saxophone in the school band, which is where he and Mae had met and cemented their love (she had already mastered multiple instruments by the age of 12, of course). Mae's only flaw was the fact that she constantly tried to act like it was normal that they hid their relationship from everyone on the planet.
"Bono depresses me," I looked up from the U2 book I was rifling through. "It hurts to look at him. He's just...so..."
"Dreamy? Kissable? Everything you need in a man?" She flopped down, dramatically, on the bed next to me.
"Exactly!" I grumbled. "Who needs guys anyway? Guys are stupid. Or at least the kind of guys Westerhell has to offer are."
Speaking of romance, on the scale of guys who were interested in frizzy-haired, plain Jane girls like myself, the score was zero. You'd struggle to delve into distinct details or descriptions about me, because, mostly, I was uninteresting and content to blend into the background. At least Mae had beauty and the gravitational pull of being generally awesome, whilst my bra size hadn't changed since I was 11 years old.
"Don't be like that!" She looped an arm around my shoulders. "I found Wes - you'll find someone too, Mimi. Where's your romantic spirit?"
"Down the toilet," I groaned. "Along with my self esteem."
"C'mon, don't be a Melancholy Mia."
"Anyway, do I really need someone like Wes? He doesn't even acknowledge you in public!"
"Because I don't want him to!" She defended, hotly. "We've had this conversation before. Why do you proceed to torture me with this topic, over and over again?"
"Please remind me of the reasons why you can't be open in public again."
"1) It's too much drama for senior year.
2) I want to concentrate on getting into med school.
3) My parents would kill me if they found out I was dating..."
She looked around worriedly.
"A non-Christian boy," She whispered. "Plus, the jocks would make fun of him for hanging out with me and neither of us need that right now."
"You're crazy," I shook my head. "You don't have to be with someone who is embarrassed to admit to his friends he's dating you and has been for a whole year, may I add."
"The hiding thing was all my idea! I'm not stupid - I know I don't have to put up with it, but I want to. I love him, Mia. I love him enough to hide for a million years if I have to."
It was the first time I had ever heard Mae use the "L" word regarding Wes and my eyes almost popped out of my head. Yet, when I looked at her face, I could tell she was genuine.
"I know you do," I relented. "Why does love suck so hard though? It's always complicated and people get hurt."
"I wish I knew," She shrugged. "You're right, it does suck. Hard. But in some rare quiet moments, when it's just the two of you together, you feel like you can do anything. You're a 'we' and not a 'me', you know?"
The room was dreamily silent for a while, as I considered what it would be like not to just "date" or "hang out" but actually be truly, deeply in love with someone. Looking at Mae, her flushed cheeks and hopeful expression, I struggled to ever imagine a scenario where another individual could make me feel, or look, that way.
The horn was so loud that it interrupted my thoughts, as a car pulled into the driveway outside. Mae leaped up from the bed and hung her body out of the window, so only her polka dot socks were visible.
"HE'S HOME!" She beamed in my direction and grabbed my hand. We ran downstairs and Mae almost yanked the front door off the frame on her way outside.
By the time we made it onto the lawn Tim was already unloading his guitar equipment from his battered pick-up truck. Tim's band, The Mary-Jane's, had been on tour for three whole months, acting as a support act for some other less-talented band from out of town. Mae and Tim had always been more like twins than siblings, aided by the fact they were almost the same person in a different gender. Tim was handsome and tall, with an air of confidence that only came with older boys, even though he was only two years older than Mae and I. I always felt embarrassed around him, as I suspected he would always see me as the same Mia who had ran around his yard naked as a kid; forever frozen in time as "Mimi", never to become a young woman.
"Hey, Mia," Tim extended a friendly wave in my direction. "Summer going good so far?"
"As well as can be expected," I replied, diplomatically. "What about you? How was the tour?"
"Amazing, exhilarating, totally crazy! ...But then Todd left and everything sucked."
"Todd left?!" Mae exclaimed. "But he's the front man!"
"Yup. He didn't like being the support act anymore."
"So, who's gonna replace him? Can I do it? Please, please?!"
Tim chuckled and ruffled his sister's hair.
"You know you would have been my first choice had I been at home, sis!" He sighed. "But desperate times call for desperate measures and we had shows to play, so Todd helped us out with a temporary replacement."
"Who?" Mae pouted. "I need to know everything about my new rival."
"Well, fortunately for you, I brought your new rival home for dinner."
On cue, the passenger door swung open and a scuffed sneaker stepped out gingerly. In that moment, I could have sworn time stopped, or at least slowed considerably. I noticed I was holding my breath, but didn't know why.
The recently acquired front man of the Mary Jane's was taller than Tim, equally as handsome but in a less pronounced way. Tim was billboard material with sharp cheekbones and smooth skin, whereas his new friend was a shrinking wallflower; seemingly nervous and pale, with an inquisitive expression. His blonde hair was styled as though he had run a single hand through it that morning and hadn't given a thought to it since. Continuing on his streak of appearing to be the least likely person to ever lead a rock band, he had chosen to wear a nondescript t-shirt and jeans.
"Mae, Mia," He motioned to us respectively. "This is Sam Benziger - our new lead singer and guitarist. He's Todd's cousin, visiting for the summer, so we kidnapped him."
Mia was horrified; as though she could never imagine someone as shy as the boy in front of us being the epic front man Todd Abrams had once been. Sam looked slightly worried at the mention of kidnapping, but maybe that was just his general facial expression.
"Oh really?" She raised an eyebrow, wickedly. "You should know I'm gunning for the position when you're gone. We're technically archnemeses."
"Oh!" Sam was startled. He had a husky, whisper of a voice. "Sorry, I guess?"
"Don't listen to her," Tim shoved Mae playfully. "She's kidding..."
"I'm really not," Mae added.
"Let's go inside!" Tim clapped a hand over her mouth and dragged her indoors. "Pizza for dinner - my treat!"
For a moment, it was just Sam and I on the lawn; staring at each other like aliens from a different dimension. I noticed that he had the most magnificent, piercing seafoam green eyes.
"Ladies first," He motioned to the door.
"Oh," I blushed. "Yeah. Thanks."
I stepped inside the house, distinctly feeling Sam's eyes on my back. It occurred to me that I couldn't remember, if ever, the last time anyone had called me a 'lady'.
"You're such a pig!" Mae groaned, as Tim swiped the last slice of pizza for himself.
"You're just jealous," He smiled, still oddly beautiful with pizza sauce dripping down his chin. "Speaking of pigs, how's Miller?"
Mae punched Tim hard on the arm and Sam stared down at his plate, like he hadn't heard a single thing. Truthfully, that's all he had done since we had sat down at the table - pretended that he was invisible.
"What?" Tim rubbed his arm. "Sam doesn't live here - he doesn't know anyone. Anyway, if he did come across a Mr. Wesley Miller, he would keep quiet about it, right, Sam?"
Sam nodded vigorously through a mouthful of pizza, almost choking in the process.
"At least I have a boyfriend," Mae taunted.
"I prefer girls," Tim smirked, leaning back in his chair and patting his full stomach. "Anyway, I like being a bachelor. I can go wherever I want, with whomever I want." Tim winked at me and I blushed internally.
"So can I. It's a relationship, not a life sentence - jeez."
"You sure about that? If it's such a prize relationship, why don't you tell anyone about it?"
Mae turned as red as the pizza sauce and an awkward silence fell over the table. I decided to try and change the topic of conversation, but my mind was blank. Across the table, Sam stared at me for a woeful instant. Clearly, he was not a man of many words, but I decided, in that moment, he was our best bet for saving the evening.
"So, Sam," I said, desperately. "Where do you live?"
"New York," His eyes were wide in his skull.
"Wow! That's gotta be pretty exciting --"
If conversations could be killed, that conversation had not been killed humanely; it had died a horrible, painful, slow death. For the next ten minutes, only the sound of forks scraping against plates could be heard. More than once, Sam gazed up, his mouth in a little 'o' shape like he was ready to say something, but then he would go back to eating his pizza silently.
"We're playing a homecoming show this weekend," Tim finally announced and I felt my body heave a sigh of relief. "You two better be there."
"If I can sneak past Momzilla, then yeah I'd love to," Mae sighed.
"Don't worry about her. I'll deal with it. Are you coming, Mia?"
"Yeah - I'd love to."
"Good. I'd love for you to be there too."
For a moment, I thought I saw a flicker of something new in Tim's expression but I couldn't place it. Warmth?Respect? The reliving of past memories of my nudity-filled backyard days?
After dinner, Mae and I headed to the kitchen to wash our plates, whilst the boys played video games in the living room.
"How come we're in here washing dishes and they're having all the fun?" I said, crossly.
"Yeah, I know," Mae agreed. "Hold on - I have an idea..."
She filled a yellow rubber glove with water and disappeared into the living room. A second later, Tim appeared, his arms and legs flailing, as he sprinted away from his sister.
"Okay, okay!" He finally caved. "I'll do the dishes tonight, if you just stop waving that thing at me. You got my new shirt all wet!"
"Timothy Chung, you're truly pathetic. Sometimes, I swear I'm the guy in this household."
Mae turned on her heels and stalked out of the kitchen dramatically.
"Hey! When do I get to play video games?" I called after her, but she was already gone.
Immediately, I remembered Silent Sam and the roaring good time he and Mae would be having. I smiled, noticing a Tim in his almost transparent shirt, and knew where I would rather be.
"Looks like you're stuck with me," I smiled, apologetically. "Sorry."
"That's okay," He replied, sidling up next to me. "I don't mind."
"So, Sam, huh? He's not exactly --"
"Talkative? Yeah. But the dude knows how to shred a guitar. We're lucky we found him. Anyway, you'll see what I mean this weekend."
"Yeah. Thanks for inviting me."
"Of course. I'm glad you're coming. Really."
I could have sworn our hands brushed as I passed him a dish to dry, but that's probably what I wanted to happen rather than reality.
"Do you ever not wear those glasses?" He turned to me, suddenly.
"I--uhh---I have contacts, but I never wear them," I offered, turning a worrying shade of maroon.
"Well, you should try them sometime," He plucked my glasses off my face and cleaned them lightly on his shirt. "These hide your face too much."
I could have died right there and then. He replaced the glasses, a hand lingering by a stray strand of my hair. I gulped and noticed the smattering of freckles across his nose and the way it upturned like a miniscule ski-slope at the end. It all happened in a single moment, then suddenly his hand was gone and Mae had reappeared.
"Am I interrupting something?" Mae stood, arms crossed, by the doorway.
"Uh, no," I turned around, face flaming.
"Nope," Tim brushed by me on the way out of the kitchen, his breath hot on my neck. "Nothing at all."
After he left, Mae stared at me for a moment too long.
"I know you've crushed on Tim since forever," She said, finally. "But if you're gonna be gross and make out with my brother, could you choose a different room? I have to eat here, you know."
The day everything changed was a Thursday. It was raining, softly and swiftly, and I was driving down Main Street like a maniac. Truthfully, I always drove like a maniac; I had failed my test an embarrassing amount of times, to the point the instructor had passed me purely so I would stop terrifying his colleagues on our rides together. Rooting around in the glove box for a new car journey soundtrack, I barely noticed when someone stepped out onto the road. At the last moment, I swerved and breaked the car so hard it heaved beneath me. I felt a horrible crunch underneath the wheels and let out a tiny scream. Two petrified eyes blinked back at me, inches away from the hood of the car.
"Oh my God!" I jumped out of the car, trembling. "I'm so sorry! I was being careless and I didn't see you --"
It was then that I noticed the person I had run over was none other than Sam. He looked paler than last time I saw him, but that was likely caused by the sheer terror that comes from nearly being crushed alive. Thankfully, all of his limbs were intact but his skateboard lay splintered at his feet, millimeters from where his body would have been.
"If you don't mind," He said, simply. "I think I need to sit down for a while."
With a single movement, he collapsed backwards into a heap on the sidewalk, no longer conscious. If you asked me now about the thing I regret least in life, morbidly, it will always be the fact that I almost ran over Sam Benziger. Why? Because that day he also became my friend.