Head over knees

By: Eric Schlich*

In seventh grade, on the bus ride home from school, I heard what happened to the Stokleys. How late Friday night the oldest Stokley son, Jared, had driven home from a movie he’d seen with friends and parked the family van in the garage. Jared Stokley was sixteen, he’d just gotten his license. He was a careful driver. Hands on ten and two, mirror checks, all that. His parents trusted him to knock on their bedroom door to let them know he was back, safe and sound.

Which Jared did. He knocked on their door, tip-toed over, and kissed his mother goodnight. Maybe she turned on a lamp. Maybe he sat on the end of their bed and told them about the movie. After, he stumbled down the hall and crashed in his own bed.

Meanwhile, the Stokley van was running, running, running, filling the garage, the kitchen, the living room, and three bedrooms with carbon monoxide. Jared had filled the van’s near empty tank like his father asked him to. The van ran all night, killing the Stokleys in their sleep.

Kyle Stokley, Jared’s brother, was in my grade. He used to have sleep-overs at his house. The Stokleys had a finished basement, complete with pool, foosball, and air hockey tables. I was never invited. Maybe this was why the first thing I thought, the first thing I felt, when I heard the news that he was dead, they all were, was— good.

I didn’t say it out loud. What came out was— Oh.

Everyone had a theory about how it happened.

“He was drunk or high or some shit.”

“Maybe he had a girl. You know, they were making out in the backseat and…”

“No, man. He did it on purpose.”

The bus came to my stop. When I got off—I don’t know why—I was running. I ran to my house like an idiot. Backpack thumping. Stitch in my side. I wanted to see my house. I wanted to see my parents in my house. But when I got there, I just stood in the driveway, heaving. I put my hands on my knees before remembering it was better to put them on your head. A counselor at summer camp had told me this.

Two campers at a time were made to chase each other around a circle on the gymnasium floor. My opponent, Ryan, and I were too closely matched. I wasn’t counting, but it felt like we’d gone around at least fifty times without either of us gaining. The other campers cheered us on.

“Craig’s got the legs!” the counselor yelled.

“Yeah, but Ryan’s got the speed.”

I don’t know if it was Kyle Stokley who said it. Might as well have been. The point is they were rooting against me. I lost heart. Ryan caught me.

High-fives all around. I couldn’t breathe.

“Hands on head.” The counselor lifted me up from my knees.

A car honked from the street. It was my dad, home from work. He pulled in the drive behind me. I was standing in his spot. He rolled down his window.

“Craig?” he said. “You okay?”

I moved out of his way. He parked. An Elton John song was playing on the radio. The car idled in the drive. My father waited for the song to end. This was a habit of his. He once made me sit in the car until Don McLean’s “American Pie” finished. That song is ten minutes long.

Our house does not have a garage.

This is what I have always thought happened to Jared Stokley. He pulled the van in, parked, closed the garage door. A song was playing. A good one. He sat listening to it. Maybe he snapped off his seatbelt. Maybe he drifted off for a second. Maybe he sang along. The song ended. He got out of the car. He went to bed. He died.

Who cares what the Stokley basement looked like? Who cares?

I did. At one point, it was all I could think about. I could see it. Flat-screen TV. Black leather couches. Those bar stools with the swivel seat. Dart board, liquor cabinet. I could see it so well, so clearly, it was like I’d been there myself.

*Eric Schlich is a PhD candidate in fiction and Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University. He is the Nonfiction and Production Editor for The Southeast Review. He earned his MFA in fiction at Bowling Green State University, where he was the Assistant Fiction Editor for Mid-American Review. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Schlich completed a BA in English and Spanish at the University of Kentucky.