Carter died in a car accident thirteen days before my sixteenth birthday; I got the call from his mom in the middle of the night, so it was more like twelve days. He and I had made plans to take the car I’d inevitably get as a present to the cold water springs, east of Florida’s Atlantic coast, for a camping trip after my party. Our favorite spot was Blue Spring State Park because the deep limestone cavern is breathtaking against mangroves, palmettos, and oak trees gifting Spanish moss. The landscape’s reflection against the glass-like water is something Puck would lead you to if he existed. Blue Spring was also convenient, like my relationship with Carter had been since freshman year.
“I’ll bring along my old man’s tent if I can get the mildew smell out,” Carter said, lighting a cigarette behind the old movie theater 48 hours before his death. I told my mom before she dropped me off that we’d be seeing the new Colin Farrell movie SWAT; as preparation, Carter printed out a couple of online movie reviews so we could give an accurate summary of what happened if she asked. He also provided chocolate because no movie experience is complete without chocolate.
“That sounds really appetizing,” I said. The air conditioner hummed near my body as my fingers gripped his Bic. I lit a cigarette of my own and the smoke scratched my throat.
A grin swept across his face and then he laughed too, pulling me into his chest. I rested my cheek against the soft, red flannel shirt he always wore as a jacket. It smelled like laundry detergent, like what the company thought spring would smell like. We kissed. We fooled around. We smoked some more and then ate three mints each.
My parents asked me if I still wanted to get my license on my birthday. I declined by refusing to answer. I rested in the fetal position on my bed and consistently squeezed Carter’s red flannel as if squeezing it would help make the pressure I felt on my chest go away. It smelled like him, like cigarettes and faint traces of the Polo cologne I’d bought him for Christmas.
On Carter’s birthday, I finally got my license. I was close to seventeen, but it was right, like poetry is when it’s good. Dad bought me a car, a 1999 Volkswagen Cabrio, and I could finally drive it. On the day of the test, I felt naked without Carter’s flannel—without his smell, which was all I had left of him—but I’d left it at home, Dad’s orders.
Mom was folding clothes when I walked in the front door. She smiled because she knew I’d passed; some things are just instinctual for mothers. “I’m just so proud of you, Mary, ” she said, buttoning the top button of Carter’s flannel and folding the arms against the center of the shirt.
When my knees gave, I realized some things, like love, are only truly clean when they’re dirty.
Emily Hoover is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University, teaching English Composition, and working on a linked short story collection about her home state of Florida. Her recent poetry publications include Potluck Magazine and FIVE2ONE Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in TheNewerYork Press, The Flagler Review, and 0-Dark-Thirty, and her book reviews have been featured in Southern Literary Review, Fiction Writers Review, and Ploughshares.