“Brain Freeze” by Brynn Herndon

It’s nine o’clock at night, and Kyle has Jake in a chokehold in the 7-11 parking lot.

Kay and I watch from the trunk of her mom’s old Chevy Blazer that leans awkwardly on its flat tire. It’s July, but even the desert can’t resist the temptation to cool down at night, and my muscles are cramping—in my legs, my shoulders, my back—as I try to find a new position after every gust that might help me better avoid the next one. Doesn’t work. Never works. Kay has the ratty Little Mermaid comforter that lined the back—and smelled like dog—wrapped around her shoulders, and she deserves it more than I do.

There are no 7-11s in Southern New Mexico, and it isn’t until I get my first smartphone that I am able to locate one—in Anthony, Texas, 30 miles away. I tell my friends, born and raised in the borderlands I’d been transplanted to as a child, about free Slurpee days, July 11th, because Slurpees are really the only thing I remember about my short life in the Northeast—how dad would buy them for my brother and me when he picked us up late from daycare and drive the long way home so we could finish them before mom could see the sickly-sweet I’m sorry. At first they didn’t see the big deal—Kay was nervous about going so far by ourselves (it had to be an us thing, no parents allowed), and the idea of Kyle and Jake in a car together for a fifty-minute frontage road drive was a nightmare.

But, in the end, I have a way with my friends that I don’t with anyone else, and sometimes I feel like a selfish string-puller, the funny girl with the bad ideas that always made for stories and who always takes the blame eventually if anything happens.

“Fuck him up!” I yell, but it was a tired yell, and I didn’t know who I was rooting for. Jake always thought himself a wrestler and when confronted would call himself White Fang, a guy you didn’t want to mess with despite his spaghetti-like arms and chicken legs. Kyle had the brute strength, the beefy arms and the anger to take him on. They both hang out with Kay and I, have done so for years now, but they insist that they hate each other.

Kyle finally brings Jake down to the half-asphalt-half-dirt parking lot. I don’t cheer, but Kay laughs, and that’s all I want at this point.

The ring of a bell in the night tells us the lone cashier whose suffered through eight hours of telling both kids and full-grown adults that they get one free Slurpee, just the one is with us again.

“I told you to knock it off,” he yells. Kyle gets up to look at him, and Jake scurries away, towards Kay and I in our sanctuary, on all fours in the face of his opponent’s moment of distraction.

“We said we’re waiting,” Kyle tells him, “our tire’s fucked, you said we could. It’ll just be a minute, get back to your job.”

The man looks like he’s debating fighting a teenager in the colorfully but dimly-lit parking lot, before he flips us off and goes back inside, slamming the door behind him so hard I thought the bell would smash the plexiglass.

I freely admit this was a bad idea, but I’m lost in not caring. It’s one of the things I do, one of the benefits of viewing the world through a rose-tinted fish-eye lens. You learn not to care, that there are other things around you that you can’t see because the curse of hyper focus twists you in too many different directions.

I lean back against the side of the trunk, careful not to touch Kay or risk losing the best friend I had, would ever have, and didn’t deserve. Her silence, her cold shoulder, tells me this. Our moms were going to kill us, and I knew it before we left. I promised nothing would happen. I broke it before I was done suggesting the trip, before the words had left my mouth completely.

I let Jake fill the space between Kay and I, and it’s harder to keep my feet from touching him. I know that he knows I found the folder he left me, the pages upon pages of things he’d written about me, by hand, about how he’s loved me since the sixth grade, when we first met. It’s his gift to me for senior year, before we graduate and before he joins the military and we both forget. It’s infatuation—I’m difficult to love, and I feel like I always will be, and he’ll find someone else to write about.

What I feel here—in the aftermath of my dumb plan, in the desolate street in Nowhere, Texas on a Sunday night as the summer wanes into our senior year—was warmth of the comradery I craved since I accepted that I don’t understand people and never will. The bright fluorescent lights shining on us in a small town 7-11 parking lot in the depths of the desert, the last few miles of America, the green that coated the turpentine bushes that smelled like Kyle’s backyard that wasn’t lush or pretty or deserving of a postcard, but showed me that things could thrive and flourish in a way that didn’t have to be beautiful—it all feels like a movie, or that it could be. One of the quiet ones you have to think about, the ones that win awards and people pretend to enjoy.

I switch positions when Kyle wants in to our shelter, crumpling into the back, in the fetal position so he can be up front to talk to Kay like only a person who didn’t get her stranded and waiting for her mother to tell her how stupid we all are still could. My stomach sinks, and I just lean back and try to make out the stars through the tinted sunroof that we can’t open because it won’t close again.

When my mother’s car pulls up and both my and Kay’s moms get out, I wait for them to fish a tire jack and other tools out of the front before I take center stage. “I’m sorry, I say”—I don’t know how many times—”it was my idea, I was dumb.” Both of them have no trouble believing me, though I can tell from the way my mom’s eye twitches when she looks at the boys that she doesn’t believe the rest are innocent.

The moms get each daughter in their passenger’s seat once the spare was on the Blazer, and they have a coinflip for the boys, which my mom loses—meaning they shove each other repeatedly in our backseat for the whole ride home.

I can only look at the patches of road the headlights catch on the unlit interstate, the parade of locusts committing suicide via fender as they hop into the air carelessly as though reminding me that this summer is, without a doubt, my last one where I can rely on my mother to save me from my mistakes, where all three of my friends would be with me every day, where we would always have time to be stupid. There’s a pile of scholarship essay contests on the kitchen table still waiting for me to glance at even one of them for more than a second. They’ve been there for weeks.

I train my eyes on the side of the road, looking at the almost-lit and still not-quite-beautiful desert foliage that I know the scent of without needing open air, marveling at the mountains of empty space between Nowhere, Texas and where I call home.

The boys are dropped off, and we pull into our suburban driveway, where the desert is sacrificed for curb appeal, and when I walk in our foyer, tan and full of paintings of landscapes that I’ve never seen in real life (lush and green, places where my mother undoubtedly wishes we lived instead), I realize how I miss the cold night air and the smell of gasoline and the sounds of boys fighting for no reason. The sight of tinted, nearly blacked out-stars.

The movie I was never in is over. The fear of snakes, coyotes, a gas pump spontaneously combusting, or the angry 7-11 man having a gun disappears. Kay texts me a picture—her making a peace sign. She’s telling me we’re good, and she’s telling me “let’s forget.”

And we will. I know I will. I don’t text back “okay,” because maybe that would set it in motion, maybe I’d warp to a day where I have forgotten the scent of the dog-car-blanket and the air of a nowhere night and the sound of everyone’s voices. These kinds of nights often began with something stupid I said. It would be poetic if I could end them myself—if I could yell cut and it all froze the way my brain repeatedly did those two blissful hours. I don’t have that power. I feel nothing but small.

Brynn Herndon is a Minnesota-based writer from New Mexico. She spends her time writing about either monsters or ghost towns, and her current life goal is to befriend every stray neighborhood cat.