real lj idol season nine | week 27 | 1117 words
The last time anyone saw Avery Lang was at midnight on March 11, at the top of the Belden Street bridge. He vanished in a single breath.
Everyone assumed he'd jumped, though his body was never found. He didn't seem the type, his friends said, but maybe we didn't know him as well as we thought. If I hadn't actually seen it happen, I wouldn't have believed it myself.
The first phone call came four months after that, in the middle of the night: "So, hey, John. I was thinking, maybe we should drive to Waterton on Saturday, see what's going on. We haven't been there in a long time."
"Avery?" I said "Where are you?"
There was no answer, only an earful of dial tone. In the morning, I wondered if I'd imagined the whole thing.
I was driving home in a rainstorm three weeks later when he called again. I fumbled with the Bluetooth activator, keeping an eye on the big-rig in the next lane. "Hello?"
"Hi, John, it's me. Listen, do you remember that place by the river where we stopped to get directions to Royceville?"
The connection cut off, and he was gone.
"Damn it!" If Avery wasn't dead, then where was he, and what had he been doing all this time? Life hadn't been the same without him, though his talent for poor timing was clearly intact. A soccer mom in a minivan swerved in front of me just then, her back seat a whirlwind of flying baseball caps and flailing limbs. I dropped back and concentrated on driving safely.
When I got home, I tried calling Avery's old cellphone number, but it had been disconnected. I wasn't surprised—he'd been gone for months. There was no record of the calls Avery had made to me, so I had no way of reaching him. In a sense, it seemed like that was how it had always been.
I was walking through mid-town in July when I thought I saw him up ahead in the crowd. "Avery!" I shouted. He didn't stop. I tried to push my way forward, but by the time I got past everyone, he'd disappeared. I wondered if it had really been him.
"Do you ever think about Avery?" I asked Mitch one night, when we were at a sports bar watching the Phillies play.
"Sometimes," he said. "We had some great times, back then. I wish he hadn't… you know."
"Yeah. Me too."
There were places I'd only gone with Avery, since no one else from our group liked playing racquetball, or walking down by the river as the sun was coming up. I used to do those things by myself before Avery came along, but now they made me feel hollow. Sad.
It wasn't like I even knew him all that well. He didn't talk about his past much, and we didn't discuss problems or deep feelings or anything like that. We were buddies, we hung out together, and if something serious happened we knew we'd come through for each other. But in the meantime, why piss and moan about it?
Avery used to rollerblade around school playgrounds at night, until he hit a crack or bump in the dark and almost concussed himself. He'd been trying to get me to join him, but he gave the whole thing up after that. It was okay—I'd never succeeded in persuading him that sushi was a great idea, either.
He had a weird sense of humor, more than the rest of my friends. He once referred to Oregon as if it were an untamed wilderness, and he raved about peanut butter as if were some rare, mystical creation. Sometimes I wouldn't see him for weeks, and then I'd run into him right in front of my office. I figured it was all some kind of game to him. He seemed to enjoy it.
"What's Avery like?" my friend Kimmy asked me once. "Do you think he'd go out with me?"
"Sure, I guess," I'd said. "I don't think his job pays very well, though." I didn't know exactly what Avery did, but he never seemed to have any money. Kimmy was always more interested in a guy's paycheck than his personality, which was one of the reasons she and I had never dated.
I dreamed about Avery a few months later. He wanted to explore this old house on the east side of town, so we drove out there and looked around. One of the ground floor windows was broken, and we used it to get inside. We poked around through room after room—there were doors everywhere, like some kind of maze. I was following Avery into a new room when it suddenly got dark. The door slammed shut between us, and then it disappeared. "Avery?" I called. "Hey, Avery, what just happened?" I heard a rumbling sound, and then the walls all started falling in on me. That was when I woke up.
I met up with Mitch for lunch the following week. He suggested the Souvlaki Station, for their gyros. When we walked in, I half expected to find Avery sitting there at his usual table in the far corner, even though I knew that was impossible. I sighed. "Avery sure loved this place…"
"Avery. You know, Avery Lang?"
Mitch looked at me funny. "Whatever, dude, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, I get it—you're joking."
"No, you're joking," Mitch said. "I don't know anyone named Avery."
I let it go, but I called Kimmy that night and asked her about Avery. "Who?" she said.
"Avery," I said. "You thought about dating him once."
"Never heard of him."
"Mitch put you up to this, didn't he?"
Kimmy got mad and hung up on me, and I sat there staring at the phone. What was going on? I couldn't possibly have imagined Avery, so why I was I the only one that remembered him?
I thought about some of the weird things he'd said, and the way he would disappear for weeks at a time. Crazy as it sounded, I started wondering about parallel universes and alternate timelines. Maybe he hadn't really lived here at all—he'd just visited us now and then.
Months went by, then a year, and I didn't hear from Avery again. Maybe I'd hallucinated the whole thing, or maybe he just hadn't made it back again. I still looked for him from time to time. You never knew what might happen if you waited long enough.
Either way, I would keep an open mind and I'd make sure my cellphone number never changed.
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