Most look like fragments of things, single words or phrases that don’t make sense on their own: Night flowers. I do it so it feels real. Let us fall. My decision totally. Obelisk. Is today a good day to?
Is today a good day to what? I want to ask. But instead I say, “Obelisk?”
“It’s my favorite word.”
“One of them, at least. Look at it.” I look. “That is one straight-up, upstanding, powerful word. Unique, original, and kind of stealthy because it doesn’t really sound like what it is. It’s a word that surprises you and makes you think, Oh. All right then. It commands respect, but it’s also modest. Not like ‘monument’ or ‘tower.’ ” He shakes his head. “Pretentious bastards.”
I don’t say anything because I used to love words. I loved them and was good at arranging them. Because of this, I felt protective of all the best ones. But now all of them, good and bad, frustrate me.
He says, “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘get back on the camel’ before?”
“Not until Mr. Black used it.”
He leans over his desk, tears a piece of paper in half, and writes it down. He slaps it on the wall as we leave.
Outside, I climb onto Leroy, resting one foot on the ground. Theodore Finch pulls on a backpack, his T-shirt riding up across his stomach where an ugly red scar cuts across the middle.
I push Eleanor’s glasses up onto my head. “Where did you get the scar?”
“I drew it on. It’s been my experience that girls like scars even better than tattoos.” He straddles the bike, resting back on the seat, both feet firmly planted. “Have you been in a car since the accident?”
“That’s gotta be some sort of record. We’re talking, what, eight, nine months? How do you get to school?”
“I ride my bike or walk. We don’t live that far.”
“What about when it rains or snows?”
“I ride my bike or walk.”
“So you’re afraid to ride in a car but you’ll climb up on a bell tower ledge?”
“I’m going home.”
He laughs and reaches out for my bike, holding on to it before I can take off. “I won’t bring it up again.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Look, you’re already here, and we’re already committed to this project, so the way I see it, the faster we get to Hoosier Hill, the faster you get this over with.”
We pass cornfield after cornfield. Hoosier Hill is only eleven miles from town, so we don’t have far to go. The day is cold but bright, and it feels good to be out. I close my eyes and tip my head upward. It’s a remnant of the Violet who came Before. Normal teenage Violet. Violet Unremarkey-able.
Finch rides along beside me. “You know what I like about driving? The forward motion of it, the propulsion of it, like you might go anywhere.”
I open my eyes and frown at him. “This isn’t driving.”
“You’re telling me.” He weaves across the road in figure eights, then around me in circles, then rides beside me again. “I’m surprised you don’t wear a helmet or full-on body armor, just to be extra safe. What if the apocalypse happened and everyone but you turned into zombies, and the only way you could save yourself was to get the hell out of town? No airplanes, no trains, no buses. Public transportation is completely broken down. The bike’s too exposed, too dangerous. What then?”
“How do I know I’ll be safe out of town?”
“Bartlett’s the only place that’s been affected.”
“And I know this for sure?”
“It’s public knowledge. The government has confirmed it.”
I don’t answer.
He figure-eights around me. “Where would you go if you could go anywhere?”
“Is it still the apocalypse?”
New York, I think.
“Back to California,” I say. What I mean is the California of four years ago, before we moved here, when Eleanor was a sophomore and I was going into ninth grade.
“But you’ve already been there. Don’t you want to see places you’ve never been?” He pedals along, hands in his armpits now.
“It’s warm there and it never snows.” I hate snow and will always hate snow. And then I hear Mrs. Kresney and my parents telling me to make an effort. So I say, “I might go to Argentina or Singapore for school. I’m not applying any place less than two thousand miles away.” Or any place with an annual snowfall greater than one inch, which is why NYU is out. “I might stay here though. I haven’t decided.”
“Don’t you want to know where I’d go if I could?”
Not really, I think. “Where would you go if you could go anywhere?” It comes out bitchier than I mean for it to.
He leans forward over the handlebars, eyes on me. “I’d go to Hoosier Hill with a beautiful girl.”
A grove of trees stands on one side. Flat farmland spreads out on the other, dusted with snow. Finch says, “I think it’s down that way.”
We leave our bikes by the tree line, and then we cross the road and follow this dirt path, only a few yards long. My legs are aching from the ride. I feel strangely breathless.
There are some kids hanging out in the field, swaying back and forth on the fence. When they see us coming, one of them bumps another and straightens. “You can go on ahead,” he says. “People come from all over the world to see it and you ain’t the first.”
“There used to be a paper sign,” one of the other kids adds. She sounds bored.
With an Australian accent Finch tells them, “We’re here from Perth. We’ve come all this way to see the highest peak in Indiana. Is it all right if we scale the summit?”
They don’t ask where Perth is. They just shrug.
We turn off into the grove of brown winter trees, brushing branches out of our faces. We duck onto a narrower dirt path and keep going, no longer side by side. Finch is in front, and I pay more attention to the shine of his hair and the way he ambles, loose-jointed and fluid, than I do to the scenery.
Suddenly we’re there, in the middle of a brown circle. A wooden bench sits underneath a tree, a picnic table just past it. The sign is to our right—INDIANA HIGHPOINT, HOOSIER HILL, ELEV. 1257 FT. The marker is straight ahead—a wooden stake poking up out of the ground in the middle of a pile of stones, no wider or higher than a pitcher’s mound.