Exit Wounds – Sarah O’Connell

Caddy was quiet in the morning. We waded through the cornstalks silently, the only sound our feet crunching on the ground as we made our way towards the barn. It was still dark out, barely a hint of sun peeking over the tops of the hills, but already it felt like the day was too close, pressing in and smothering us with its foreboding ineffability.

We were halfway to the barn when Caddy suddenly stopped and whirled around, her eyes narrowing sharply as she assessed my face.

“I thought we agreed ‘No Crying,’” she snapped, folding her arms brusquely across her chest. Her right fingers were curling into a fist as they lay tense against her elbow.

Fearing the oncoming punch to the gut, I quickly blinked back any moisture. “I’m not,” I defended, honestly, because while maybe I was a bit teary I hadn’t actually allowed anything to fall, and really that’s what mattered in the end. When Caddy refused to blink, I shifted uncomfortably and shoved my hands deeper into my pockets. It was weird being out here alone with her, the dark sky blurring her features and distorting them into something more primal. I hadn’t been mono y mono with Caddy since third grade when we were put on a team together for the science fair, and I was more than a little out of practice with how to control her moods.

For a moment it looked like she was really going to punch me, but she just exhaled noisily and turned back around, signaling for us to continue our trek across private property. I had so many questions I wanted to ask her but I held my tongue, not wanting to ruin whatever moment was going on between us.

I can’t tell you how long I’ve been in love with Caddy Thompson. We’ve spoken less than forty-two words in the fourteen years we’ve known each other, and yet I probably know more about Caddy than anyone else in my entire grade. It’s not like I believe she’s my soul mate, or that I know her more intimately than her best friends, but there’s always been a certain understanding between us that no else can claim to have. There’s a keenness in her irises, a sort of serious demeanor she hides beneath her veneer of confidence and popularity. Whereas the rest of our classmates are focused on college or dates or passing their classes, Caddy and I understand that there are bigger things to worry about. We realize the severity comes not from what the news reports say but what they don’t, and although we never speak there are times where we will catch each others eyes and share a look of sober comprehension.

It’s why when Caddy climbed into my bedroom at one o’clock in the morning, strawberry blond curls pulled back into a messy ponytail and eyes wild, and told me that the world was ending that I followed without a moment’s pause. In that moment she could have asked me anything and I would have done it, so entranced in the impossibility of her being there that I could scarcely breathe. It’s not like the idea of the apocalypse was startling. Scientists had been claiming that the world was going to end for a long time, and in my lifetime alone three false alerts had been called. But the thought that I could spend my last waking moments with the girl of my dreams…to be honest, there was no way in hell I planned on turning down that chance.

We stopped in front of our dilapidated destination, the paint all but stripped away by weather and age. Nearly all of the windows were broken or missing, and the roof looked as if a gentle wind could cause it to cave in. I swallowed as Caddy loudly declared: “Help me up.”

I balked. “What?” There was no way she seriously wanted me to –
She huffed, eyes flashing with irritation. “You heard me and I don’t repeat myself. Now help me.”
I pointedly eyed the roof. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Caddy rolled her eyes. “I’ve been up there before,” she snapped, tugging on my arm impatiently. “It’s

stronger than it looks. Now c’mon. It’s not like we really have all that much to lose.”
She was right. The world was ending and I was worried about falling through a roof. Sighing in defeat, I

knelt down to give her a boost.
We climbed onto the roof, just as Caddy had told me we would, though it took some serious

maneuvering to get the both of us up there. My back was sore from where her shoes had stomped all over, and I was fairly sure I had pulled my right arm. Still, we were on top of the barn, and although the tiles had given off some seriously dubious noises of protest, so far nothing had cracked.

 “I feel like we should be smoking,” I said at last, resting my chin on my knees. Caddy hummed noncommittally. “That’s what you’re supposed to do when the world ends, right? Light up a cigarette and laugh as everything around you burns.”

Caddy snorted. “You got a cigarette?” “No.”
“Well there you go.”
We were silent again.

I fiddled around with my shoelaces moodily, eyes drifting across the slowly warming horizon. The few times I had bothered to think about the end of the world, I had always imagined that I would be more verbose. Call me a romantic, but I liked to think that death would bring out the poet in me. Yet here I was, supposedly mere hours away from the apocalypse, and all I could think about was how nice Caddy’s cider apple shampoo smelled, or how uncomfortable it was to have broken shingles digging into my jeans. There were no profound awakenings or sorrowful reminisces. The sky looked like it did any other early morning, with no foreign objects or lack of stars to mark the oncoming doom. To be honest, it was all rather anti-climatic.

Go figure. Even in death the universe was disappointing.
“I’m surprised you came.”
Her voice startled me from my musings. Blinking, I turned to face her, legs pressing closer against my

chest. “What?”
She shrugged, fingers twisting idly in her hair. “I didn’t think you would say yes.”
I didn’t immediately respond. I wasn’t sure if this was a test or an honest opinion. To be fair, testing

people was one of Caddy’s favorite hobbies, and it was rare that anyone scored well. I still wasn’t sure this whole “the world is ending” claim wasn’t some elaborate scheme of Caddy’s to exact whatever she wanted from me. According to Caddy, her friend Lisa’s father, secretary to the Attorney General, had committed suicide six days ago, leaving nothing behind but a date scribbled on a small scrap of paper. At her father’s funeral Lisa, considerably wasted, had confided all of this to Caddy, adding in darkly that she and her mother suspected that Lisa’s father and the rest of the government had finally discovered the date of the apocalypse, deciding to take the information with them to their graves instead of inciting the general public into a state of panic. Whether their suppositions were true or not did not matter. I knew Caddy was not a person who easily spooked, so either she was pretending to believe in Lisa for some ulterior motive, or the world really was coming to an end.

I wasn’t exactly sure what scenario I preferred.

“Why me?” I said, instead, choosing not to play her little word game. I may have been in love with her, but I was self-aware enough to refuse her machinations. “No, seriously Caddy. We haven’t spoken in three years. Why…why did you approach me now?”

She stared at me, unblinking, as if by eye contact alone she could suss out my thoughts. Whatever she found within me must have satisfied her, for she answered my question after a moment’s pause. “It’s funny,” she said, picking at her sneakers. In all the years I had known her, I had never seen her so casually dressed. It made everything feel that much more surreal. “I have over two hundred people in my contacts book, and yet when Lisa told me the truth I couldn’t think of a single name I wanted to call.” She paused, her fingers stilling in their machinations, and I noted with scrutiny that her pale pink nail polish had started to chip. It felt like she was practically naked beside me, and I swallowed down the mental images that followed that train of thought as she turned her head to face me, lips pursed and eyes taut. “We’re not friends, John, and we never have been. But out of every person I could think of, you’re the only person I wanted to share this moment with.” She trailed off, and then, quietly, added: “You’re safe.”

Disgust rose in my throat. “Because I like you.”

Startled, Caddy shook her head emphatically. “No. I would never – ” She trailed off, frustrated, her hands gesticulating aborted words. A small fist that had been squeezing my insides relaxed. Whatever reason Caddy wanted me here, it wasn’t because she planned to exploit my feelings for her as a source of comfort. Finally after several more frustrated movements, she allowed her arms to go limp. “Because you get it,” she said, simply, and her voice sounded hollow around the words.

I was confused. “What do I get?”

 “Everything.” Her tone was impatient, an inflection of anger coloring her voice at my lack of comprehension. Huffing out a breath, she blurted: “I read your essay in English class. For that contest back in ninth grade.”

That was it? I laughed. “Jesus. I forgot about that.”

Caddy’s lips quirked the smallest degree. “It was good. Really,” she insisted, frowning at my doubtful expression. “I used to think everyone was stupid. No on else gets it, I’d rant. But then I read your essay and I felt like for the first time, someone understood.” Seeing I was still confused, she sighed and puffed out her chest, lowering her voice in what I assumed was a mock imitation of my own. “Anyway,” she said, gruffly, “I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.”

I was stunned. “Catcher in the Rye,” I whispered.

Her eyes alight, Caddy nodded. “You quoted it in your essay,” she said, and that was all she needed to say, really. In the years that had passed people had forgotten about a lot of the classics. Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick – old literature had fallen to the wayside to make room for newer and bigger things, like 4D computers and virtual assistants. With new technology came arrogance, and with arrogance came a disdain for literature, or anything that insinuated we didn’t know quite as much as we claimed we did. Lessons were forgotten, history books gathered dust, and although they were never banned, paper copies of anything were practically extinct. I only had my edition of Catcher thanks to my great-grandfather, who had never quite managed to abandon the paper artifacts of his youth. For Caddy to recognize the quote, much less understand its significance, meant more to me than anything anybody had ever said to me in my whole life.

“The world’s always ending,” she continued, her voice soft “We’ve been killing ourselves a lot longer than the earth has. And you’re the only person I know who gets that. Yet for some unfathomable reason, you still ended your essay on an optimistic note.” She laughed a little, hair flying and sticking to her cheeks in the early morning breeze. “I don’t get that,” she admitted.

I shrugged. “What can I say?” I said, only half-joking. “Moping around never changed anything. But optimism and idealism – maybe it’s naïve, but I like to think that those two concepts have done a hell of a lot more than sulking.”

Instantly, Caddy was sober. “It’s not naïve,” she refuted, voice firm. “It’s not naïve at all.”

Once more we were quiet, the noise of the cornstalks brushing against each other the only sound to be heard. Everything seemed more finite suddenly, as if it was only just now hitting me that this would be the last early morning I would ever see. Sucking in a breath, I closed my eyes to dispel the blurriness.

“This is really it, huh?”

Caddy looked uneasy, but in the end she still nodded. “I…I think so. Lisa’s dad…he’s not the kind of person who would kill himself out of guilt or carelessness. If he really committed suicide, he must believe that today’s the day.” The and I believe him went unspoken, but I could sense her biting back the words.

“Do we have a time?” I asked, voice cracking underneath the forced cheerfulness.

“No. Lisa thinks it’ll happen in the morning, because that when her father…you know…” She trailed off uncomfortably. “But there’s no way to know for sure. All I know is that it’ll happen today.”

I didn’t want to think about that. Instead, I changed the subject to a question that had been bothering me since she’d first climbed through my window. “Why didn’t you tell your parents?” I asked her, sharply, voice more accusing than I had originally intended. Whatever. The point still stood.

Caddy shot me a look, disdain marring her features. “Why didn’t you tell yours?” she retorted.

It was a legitimate question. I paused and thought about my parents, curled up on the couch where I had left them when I snuck out. They had fallen asleep watching a movie – some oldie from their childhood that my mother loved – and how at ease they had looked tangled up in each others limbs. The idea of telling them had never even crossed my mind. It seemed better to let them sleep and be at rest than disturb them with something so horrible – something I couldn’t even be one hundred percent sure was true. I remembered my mother’s pinched expressions every time a new tentative D-Day date was announced, the way she wrung her hands nervously and how devastated my father looked. What was the point in worrying them, when there was nothing they could do anyway?

I thought about my sister, Molly, too, who had only turned twelve last week and had a major crush on the guy who worked the register at our local pharmacy. Like most kids her age she was oblivious to the constant feeling of impending doom, more worried about her hair or the latest Don Johnston flick than the end of the world. A part of me envied her innocence, but a greater part, the logical part I suppose, pitied the fact that she would never grow old enough to lose it in the first place. Still, I refused to be the one to take it from her.

Caddy may have been selfish, but then so was I.
“How could I?” I said instead, and Caddy nodded as if she understood exactly what I meant.
“I’m not what you think, John.” Caddy confided in me, gently, as if voicing aloud a truth we had both

refused to acknowledge needed to be done kindly. “I’m not a nice person. I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want to deal with all the hysterics and the tears. And as for you and me – we’d be terrible together, you know. I’d use you and leave you and grind down your heart until it was nothing but fine dust.” She did not sound sorry for me as she said it, but merely regretful that she had to admit to her own flaws. “I’m selfish, see?” Caddy pointed out. “I wanted you here with me today. I wanted you and I knew that you loved me and I used that to bring you here. I knew that all I had to do was ask and you would come.” Her eyes found mine and the flesh around them creased as she attempted a worn smile, everything about her screaming tiredtiredtired. “And you did.”

I couldn’t look at her. The words stung, and my love for her felt bitter in my chest. Despite her failings I loved her like I had never loved before, and never would again. She would be my last love, Caddy, because after today I would be gone. It wasn’t fair. “I still don’t understand,” I snapped, attempting to change the subject and smother the painful thoughts buzzing around in my head. Whoever said it is better to have loved and lost had obviously never really felt unrequited love, because it freaking sucked. “Why me? We’re not friends, you said it yourself. What exactly are you expecting me to do?”

I didn’t need to see her to know that she was still staring at me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her fingers twitch, as though they wanted to reach out and touch me in some lame attempt at comfort. In the end, though, she only dug them deeper into the fabric of her jeans. “I don’t need a friend,” she whispered. “I’m not even sure I know what that is. I just need someone who can sit with me and appreciate the horror and beauty of what we’re losing. And I can’t think of anyone better for that than you.”

“Okay,” I said, and I resisted the urge to lace our fingers together. It wasn’t okay, not by any means of the word, but it was the best the two of us could make on this broken roof thirty miles from anywhere we knew.

Caddy bit her lip, her shoulders drooping as the tension slowly seeped from her body, and a watery smile tugged at her lips. “Okay,” she agreed.

Together, we sat side-by-side and waited for the sun to rise.

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