Sunsetting by Rylan Shafer
2021 Pushcart Prize Nominee
Like fishing lines soaring over still waters, our bikes hissed as we raced down McCall Hill. Wind roared in my ears, dampening Forrest’s shouts. A car honked behind me and I steered closer to the side of the road as they sped past. Change rattled in my bag, tink-ing against the glass jar. The jar in my backpack pulled the straps tight against my shoulders. Bottle rockets shot up from backyards. Another car with its windows down drove by, blaring “Party in the USA”. At the bottom of the hill, we went left onto Winston Road. Cars and trucks and people gathered outside in the sweltering July heat, cold drinks in their hands, waiting for the sun to set and the celebrations to start. Under the mango sky, Forrest and I pedaled harder, faster. My stomach sank with the sun as it fell behind the curve of the earth, aware of how it brought me closer to Layla, unaware of how it brought me closer to the next sunset, then the next, then the next.
I leaned deep into a right turn, cutting into the parking lot, so low I could reach down and touch the pavement. Gravity pulled on my body, trying to bring me to the ground. Forrest blew past me at the last moment, splitting between two people walking the crosswalk. Sliding his front tire into the bike rack, he waited.
“Took long enough,” he said.
“It’s been a minute, tops.”
“Should have pedaled faster.”
I swung my fist as though I was going to hit him in the balls, laughing as he curled to protect himself.
The Coinstar was stowed in the back corner of the store, a trick to get people to do impulse shopping on the way there or, with cash in their hand, the way back. Forrest set his backpack on the ground and stooped over it, pulling out a Prego tomato sauce jar that’d been refurbished to collect pocket change. He lifted the plastic lid of the machine, mumbling something about nine-percent, and poured his savings in. There was a whir, then the sound of metal scraping against metal as though the box harbored car crashes. $1.26, $3.08, $3.41. The numbers ticked up. It’s so loud that I have to raise my voice when I talk.
“What do you think would happen if I stuck my hand in it?”
“You’d get fucked up.”
Unreadable coins dropped like acorns into a small cup on the front of the machine. Forrest scooped them out and placed them back in his jar. The machine winded down. A small paper slipped out of a slit. He stepped aside, reading out how much he had in each coin to me as I poured my own money in. We waited and watched until the machine tongued out my receipt.
At the counter, an elderly man counted out our money with slow deliberation. Forrest rocked back and forth on his feet in anticipation, hands shoved in his pocket. The man counted each singular coin, each bill, before he recounted it on the counter for Forrest to count with him. He was no faster in counting mine.
“I’ll never get that old,” said Forrest as we walked to the candy aisle. “I can’t imagine being so slow. I bet he bangs his wife like this.” He stopped in his tracks. Exaggerating a trembling body, he thrusted his hips slow and weak while forcing his lips over his teeth to mimic an old man’s groan. “You like that, you floozy?”
I laughed then mimed my hand on a lover’s back dimple, “how do them wrinkles feel?” We kept at it until my phone vibrated in my pocket. I looked at it. “They’re leaving now,” I said to Forrest. “Come on.”
I invested my earnings into what I could fit in the empty bag on my back: Twizzlers, Hershey’s, Sour Gummy Worms, a two liter of Mountain Dew but no cups. Forrest cradled his snacks in his arms, reminding me of a farmer harvesting their crops by hand. A bottle of Pepsi hung by the lid between his fingers. He asked when they changed their design from bold all-capped lettering to thin lowercase, with their logo now tilted on its axis and the white band resembling a jet stream cutting dividing the red and blue. But I didn’t know. I never saw it happen.
I laid my shopping on the conveyor belt the way teenagers put laundry on a bed, carelessly piling it on top itself. Forrest put the plastic bar behind my pile before laying his out side by side, looking past me as he did. I looked over to the cashier. Focused on ringing my shopping, she didn’t notice, or care about, Forrest’s glancing. I’m taken aback by her. I look at my shopping in embarrassment. I turned back to Forrest and locked eyes with him. He nodded his head in agreement.
“$17.42,” she said.
“Shit,” I said, digging the wadded fifteen dollars out of my pocket. Without a word, Forrest tapped my arm, his hand outstretched. He dropped a five in my hands. “Thanks,” I said.
“I’m used to you being broke,” he said, grinning.
“I hate you,” I mouthed.
It had rained while we were inside. A quick Florida storm, here then gone, a fleeting moment. Humidity thickened the air, glued the shirt to my skin. Forrest asked if we should grab something to lay on because of the wet grass and I reminded him that Brittney and Layla would be at the park soon. We pulled our bikes from the rack then went off to find them.
We used Fort Queen to circle around the shopping center and the red light to cross the highway. In the distance, the faint sound of fireworks popping. Forrest pedaled harder and I followed. Mom and Pop shops lined the road here — Dice’s, the only place in the world I know that still serves superman flavored ice cream; Thom’s Cafe, owned by Brittney’s family, where the four of us met every other Sunday for nine months to get free plates of biscuits and sausage gravy; K&M Antiques, which I only know of because my mom has always loved them; Cinema 6, where middle schoolers congregated every Friday night like a cult ritual. As we turned onto Daughtery, the white, fluorescent street lights thinned out, then became orange and filthy and hummed with electricity. Crickets chirped in the dark. Frogs croaked from puddles. Houses and trees dampened the sound of the highway and businesses. We swerved in the newly-paved road, passing and falling behind one another, our voices shaking hands — “Of course Pizza Hut is better than Dominos”; “If you use the P90 on Shipment, you’re an asshole”; “Lil Wayne is better than Tupac ever was”. Moving in and out of the ponds of stale light, we looked like ghosts found in strange polaroids. That’s all Forrest is these days. There was a chime from his pocket. He dug the phone out and flipped it open.
“Yeah, we’re about to be there. Five minutes, ten tops,” he said. As he spoke, my own pocket began to vibrate. Forrest looked at me. “Layla wants to know if you got her some Hershey’s.”
“I just saw the message” I said, staring into the tiny yellow square. “Tell her she’ll find out soon.”
“He said ‘tell her she’ll find out soon.’”. Forrest continued to swerve with one hand on the handlebars. “See you soon, babe.” He slipped his phone back into his pocket. “They’re by the stage thing.”
Britney and Layla were sitting on their backpacks, their backs rested against the wooden frame of the bandstand. Forrest pulled up beside Brittney and kicked down the kickstand of his bike using it as a fence between him and the crowd that came to watch the fireworks. I did the same beside Layla. The mud beneath my shoes was slick. Like vikings returning with hoards of treasure, Forrest and I spilled the snacks across their laps before laying our bags zipper-down and sitting on them. From our seats, the bridge where they would be shooting fireworks from was small enough to fit in our hands.
“You got a haircut,” I said to Layla.
“It’s nice, right?”
“She’s trying to be Hayley Williams,” said Brittney.
“And you’re trying to be a bitch,” said Layla.
Vanilla, cinnamon, powdered sugar, fried sweets and hot dogs; their smells drifted across the park. On any other night, the park would be lit up by more ancient street lamps. But on the Fourth of July, the counsel shut down as many as they safely could so the town could watch the show in peace. Neighboring lights hid the stars, keeping them from the crowd like hushed secrets. The four of us gossiped about who likes who at our school, of the teachers we hated or liked, of who was having parties with alcohol. Back then, our worries had as much substance as the chocolate between our teeth. As we talked, I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants, keeping an eye on Layla’s hand. All I had to do was reach over and grab it, but couldn’t. When she laughed, her shoulder bumped into mine, making me sway. With the delicacy of a cross-stitch artist, Layla threaded her fingers between mine. There was a smirk on her lips when I looked at her. She turned back to the conversation. I pressed my mouth against the back of Layla’s hand, feeling the bones move against my mouth as she tightened her grip. It’s too easy to fall in love when you’re young. Forrest shouted at people who wandered too close. Brittney laughed and slapped his arm as he did, exaggerating his name “Forreeeeeeesssttt!”. I cracked a joke too, because I wouldn’t let Forrest be more funny than me in front of Layla. Mean spirited and unsupervised, we pointed and laughed at others. We lobbed curses and insults at each other, about each other, about someone in the corner of our eye.
A trail of bronze sparks streaked up toward the clouds and exploded in a burst of silver, interrupting us. Then pomegranate red, shamrock green, royal purple, California gold. Smoke lingered on the surface of the water like grief. The smell of burned gunpowder filled my nose. I could feel the fireworks bursting in the air, their soundwaves crashing into my body, vibrating my breaths, changing the colors of the faces around us. Layla scooted closer to me, her waist touching my own. I lay our locked hands on her thigh. Brittney gasped at a firework that burned the color of lapis before fading into white specks that crackled as they floated downward. Forrest said something to her.
“Thank you,” whispered Layla, her eyes on the show.
“For what?” I asked.
“For liking me.”
I kissed her cheek for the last time. Because no matter how much I have kicked and thrashed and screamed, I’ve never been able to keep things the same.
Published in Issue 5