He turns to face me, the pebble clattering onto the ground. “Nothing.”
“You don’t have to stop,” I tell him.
“I wasn’t doing anything,” he states, in that matter-of-fact tone. “There’s nothing to stop.”
I smile. It used to annoy me when he twisted my words like that, but now I know how much of an honor it is that he awards me so many words at all. Adam’s a very quiet person to the rest of the world. That’s why we became friends, actually. I’m a pretty private person too. The only time I’m not is when I’m forced to talk to people I don’t know. Then I become an awful over-sharer, the details leaking out so quickly I barely notice until my secrets have pooled at my feet. That happens because I let my guard down around strangers. I forget that I’m supposed to be the clever, quiet girl who gives advice instead of craving it and speaks in facts instead of feelings.
Adam was a stranger once. We met at a school assembly with assigned seating. I muttered to myself, stupid things about how I hated the speaker's shoes or how I wished I had my math homework with me. Adam listened, didn’t even tell me to be quiet once, and then, like magic, we were friends. There wasn’t really an in-between stage with Adam.
I’m sitting on the ground, staring at the splotchy buildings in the distance when Adam’s shape folds onto the grass next to me. I wordlessly reach to my left and hand him a blanket. It’s December in New England, well below freezing, and Adam has a relentless aversion to more than one layer of clothing. He says it’s because he’s from California, where no one wears jackets. When I point out that the weather in California never dips below 70, he tells me that California fashion has nothing to do with the weather.
Despite living in Boston my whole life, my body runs cold, so I pretend to bring the blankets for my sake. Adam accepts my offer, stands up, and spreads the blanket onto the ground next to me before lying down, hands behind his head, eyes staring straight up. I roll my eyes and lean back, resting my head on the grass.
I listen to Adam’s breathing go in and out.
“Do you ever think about death?” Adam says to the sky.
“Yes,” I respond, too quickly.
Adam says nothing.
I think about death a lot actually, is what I don’t say, mostly in those blurred moments between consciousness and dreams and the alarm the next morning. Death sits in a dusty drawer in my mind that I often crack open for no reason other than reminding myself that it’s there.
I count the stars until Adam decides to speak again.
“It doesn’t scare you?” he whispers finally. He still hasn’t looked at me. “To think about it?”
“Death scares me,” I tell him. “It doesn’t scare me any more to think about it.”
He props himself onto one elbow, eyes flicking towards me. I can only see the white of his teeth when he speaks.
“I can’t do it—can’t even think about it. It makes me feel like death might get eager, might think I’m one of its few admirers.”
I laugh, but it’s the kind of laugh that sounds mean because it's so completely devoid of humor. “Death picks its own friends, Adam.”
Adam drops back down onto the blanket. “Let’s talk about something else.”
I glance at him sideways. “You brought it up.”
He make a noise in his throat. “I thought it would be easier in the dark, you know, when nothing really seems alive anyway,” he mumbles, and I can tell he’s not talking to me anymore. “But I still feel like I’ve tripped into some big pool of emptiness. I can picture it—hearing nothing, thinking nothing, feeling nothing.” He pauses. “I feel like I’m dissolving.”
I twist onto my side. I watch the outline of his fingers as he wrings his hands together. “Is someone dying, Adam?”
“Everyone is, Kat!” he snaps, his voice jarring in the empty park. “Everyone dies.”
I draw in a deep breath. He’s not angry at me, but I tend to get mean when people yell. “You can tell me when you’re ready,” I whisper finally, and then I heave myself to my feet.
I hear Adam rise behind me. We both stand next to each other then, looking at the lights of the buildings in the distance. I think about all the other people who have yet to go to sleep.
When Adam speaks again, his voice is calm. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Studying,” I tell him, because it’s true.
“To get into a good college so I can get a job so I can live a good life. You know how it goes, Adam.”
He sighs. “Who you are matters more than where you go, Kat. Don’t waste your time on schoolwork.”
I glare at the buildings. “Don’t mock me. I spend most of my time thinking I’ve chosen the wrong path or the wrong priorities. I don’t need other people to tell me the same thing.”
Adam laughs. It echoes into the dark and all around us. “Shut up, Kat,” he says, so I can hear the smile in his voice. “If I had to bet on the success of anyone I know, I’d bet on you.”
I try to smile. I fail. Adam doesn’t notice.
The truth is that, while I’ve always been exceptional at making to-do lists, I’m wholly average in the ability to check things off them. Most of the time I feel like one of those cartoon characters who falls off a cliff and tries to run on thin air, blindly hoping it’ll dull the impact of a fall that’s inevitable. It’s like walking the wrong way on an escalator. Legs keep stepping, up and up and up, but my head just keeps bobbing in the same place.
A loud shout reverberates across the field behind us, scattering my thoughts.
I spin around to see three silhouettes near the street. Three boys, or men, I’m not sure. They’re bellowing into the dark, unaware that we’re here, and almost certainly drunk. I look at Adam, mildly panicked, my previous annoyance forgotten.
“What do we do?” I whisper, my voice barely audible, swept up by the wind and devoured by the dark. My teeth are chattering.
Adam grins, teeth bright. He cups his hands around his mouth, draws in a big breath, and howls. I’m startled into laughter. I’ve rarely heard Adam raise his voice. He always seems so composed, pensive, quiet. Now he just sounds like an idiot.
“What’d you do that for?”
He gestures vaguely to the boys at the street and shrugs. “They were doing it.”
I turn and look at the boys, only to suck in a quick breath when I see that they’re walking in our direction.
“Adam,” I breathe. “They’re coming over here.”
“They are,” he says, looking entirely unconcerned.
“It’s because of you,” I say.
“That’s true,” he responds, still oozing nonchalance, hands tucked into his pockets, eyes lazily focused on my face.
“They’re also drunk,” I point out, growing frustrated. “They could be dangerous.”
“Could be,” he concedes, voice light, eyes crinkling at the rising pitch of my voice.
“Adam, I’m scared.”
His mood changes in an instant. His back strengthens, his mouth closes into a thin line, he pulls his hands out of his pockets and grips my shoulders.
“Don’t be,” he states, his voice smooth and steady. He grins suddenly. “I’ll protect you.”
I’m about to protest when Adam sweeps up the blankets and abruptly pulls me to the side, down the slope of a hill to our left. We’re suddenly tripping and stumbling down the incline, Adam a few steps ahead of me, me trying desperately to dodge the rocks hiding in the darkness, to avoid tripping over the blanket tangled at my feet. I used to sled down this hill when I was younger, but I came so close to breaking my neck that my dad stopped taking me. Ten years later, here I am, careening down the same slope.
A laugh bubbles out of me and I start running into the dark. Adam follows, and soon we’re sprinting, tripping over rocks and leaning on each other to catch our balance and whooping and shouting into the darkness because it feels so odd to be running towards something we can’t see.
As I sputter and lurch down that hill, I can’t help but think that these are the moments we live for. I’m only sixteen. I’ve got the best and the worst of life ahead of me, the tragedies and the masterpieces, the successes and the failures. I know what Adam means when he says I shouldn’t worry so much, because right now I feel so full of life that there simply isn’t room for anything else. I run down the hill, I follow Adam’s shadow, I clamber back to my feet when I trip and fall. I do not concern myself with doing something worthwhile with my life, but rather absorb this rare moment when there is true happiness in thinking about nothing at all.