"Brain Freeze," by Michelle Brafman

Michelle Brafman

Michelle Brafman

Michelle Brafman has received numerous awards for her fiction, including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story prize, and first place in the Lilith Magazine Fiction contest. Her fiction has also appeared in the Minnesota Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program and George Washington University.

Brain Freeze

It's nine o'clock at night, and I'm jonesing for a Slurpee. I want to suck down that cherry syrup until I have to use the little spoon at the end of the straw to scoop the bare ice from the basement of the cup. My blood will chill, and I'll shiver, but no monster headache will attack my skull. During our senior year of high school, Dexter Krup and I cut history every day to hang out at 7-Eleven where he taught me the fine art of avoiding a Slurpee headache. You just need to be patient and drink slowly.

It's Virginia-July humid, and I walk down the steps from my room in the attic to the family room, the coldest spot in the house. My mom and her friends are lounging on our sofas watching an episode of Downton Abbey. My dad's been in France all week, giving a paper on some new vaccine, and they've been coming over every night for their Abbey-thon. My mom started watching the show because people have always told her that she looks like Elizabeth McGovern. I look like Elizabeth McGovern too, same full lips and button nose, and I'm tall and skinny unless I lift weights for hours a day, which I do, because what guy wants to be skinny? It's worse than having Elizabeth McGovern as your biopic.

"Justin?" My mom calls.

It's sixty-eight menopausal degrees in the family room, but it doesn't lessen my drive for my Slurpee. My mom pauses the show. Hi, Mrs. Reilly. Mrs. Shapiro. Mrs. O'Malley. Mrs. Fox. Mrs. Kendall. They're all crunchy types, like my mom, and they all belong to our community pool, where they show up wearing bathing suits under their big sundresses. They never swim. They watch me coach, which used to make me nervous. But the kids are into me because I'm the only coach who will actually get into the water with them and teach them how to do a decent flip turn.

My mom turns the show back on, unfolds her legs, gets up from the couch, and follows me into the kitchen. She's wearing worry on her face. "You're flushed. You can always sleep in your old room, honey."

"I'm good." I like the attic. Besides, last fall after I left for college, she turned my old room into her office, and the floor is covered with files. She sold my bunk bed. When I was in elementary school, she used to climb on the top bunk and lie next to me after my dad and I would frustrate the hell out of each other trying to finish my math homework.

"Mrs. Reilly brought over her guac. You want me to make you a quesadilla?" She opens the door of the fridge and rifles around for bags of tortillas and shredded cheese.

"Think I'm going to go out, get some air," I tell her as I do every night when I take off for my Slurpee run.

She closes the door to the fridge and crosses her arms across her chest. My mom hates Slurpees. She tells the parents of the kids she counsels that red dye #40 wreaks havoc on the nervous system and that once their children (who are way younger and less ADHD than I am) realize that this poison makes them mean and fidgety they will self-regulate.

"Okay, Justin." She looks stressed, but she's not going to nag me in front of her friends, or when we're alone either. Last year she caught Dex and me at the 7-Eleven while I was supposed to be taking my history final, but we didn't make eye contact, and she never said anything. I don't want to think about that right now. I just want to drink my Slurpee and be done with it.

I'm about to head out the back door when Liam texts me that he's sitting in my driveway. His moody old Volvo idles.

"Sounds like Liam." My mom's face brightens. I know she worries that I've been spending too much time alone, playing Call of Duty.

"Cool. We'll hang out." Not that I want to spend any more time with Liam than I already do. He's been coaching with me for the past three years. Four law schools are throwing money at him, while I had to play the parental alma mater card to get into college. My mom once told me that my IQ was higher than Liam's, and I don't know how she knew that, but I believe her. I'm gifted according to test scores, a fact that she'd flaunt to a teacher or to us after we'd flunked an exam or gotten in trouble screwing around in class.

Seconds later, I'm out the door and sitting in the front seat of Liam's car. I'm not supposed to be sitting here with Liam. Dex and I had saved up to travel to Peru this summer. His mom is Peruvian, and we were going to crash with her family. Dex died in a motorcycle accident last fall.

"Let's go get a Slurpee," I say.

"What are you, like nine?"

"Come on. It's still baking out here. " Had Dex picked me up, he would have driven us straight to the 7-Eleven, and he'd be cranking Wilco or Radiohead, not this bullshit rap.

"No, I've got something else in mind to cool you down."

"Whatever, let's just stop by the 7-Eleven. It's right there." Dex never had a plan, we just hung out, and when I talked to him, I felt funny and smart, like my thoughts actually made sense.

"Dude, you're obsessed." He shakes his boxy blonde head.

"It will only take a minute." Liam's A/C barely works and warm air blasts into my eyes, making them scratchy and dry.

"You're whining like a little girl," he said. "What I have planned is way better than a Slurpee. Totally sick. Trust me."

Dexter never trusted Liam, said he was a total d-bag, but I thought he was just jealous. Dexter's parents didn't have the money to join the pool. He told me once when we were really fucked up that he didn't know how to swim. I couldn't imagine him in a Speedo. He was even skinnier than I was. Dexter worked at The Bagel Box during the swim season. Once Liam and I went out for bagels after practice, and I pretended I didn't see Liam ask Dex to add more cream cheese to his Everything bagel, like four times. Dex treated him like he was any other pain-in-the ass customer, smiling big like he did when he was most pissed off. When Dex was alive, I never let myself think about the bagel or the smile, but now when I'm with Liam, I play this memory over and over, like a favorite song.

Liam pulls into Dick's Liquor on Genesee.

"Ah, come on. 7-Eleven is right there. Just let me run in." Dex and I hated this particular 7-Eleven, but I don't care at this point.

"Dude. We gotta book. We've got people to see."

Two girls are standing outside of the 7-Eleven, sucking down a Slurpees. I want to dump Liam and bum a sip from both of them. I follow him into the liquor store, and he buys three six packs of a malt brew. I don't want to go home, but I don't want to be here either. The only time I don't feel like this is when I'm farting around the water with the kids or at a swim meet helping my swimmers keep their heads in the game. Funny. Me the person who helps the kids focus. I get them.

I know where Liam is going before we even get into the car. I like smoking the occasional doob at the pool at night when it's dark and quiet, but Liam has something bigger in mind, I can tell. I don't want to know. He drives north and passes Dex's house, an old bungalow that his parents sold to a developer who already tore it down. The tire swing is still hanging from the big oak in their backyard.

The Honda parked in the pool lot belongs to Amber, the sixteen-year-old lifeguard Liam's been talking about banging all summer. I never thought he'd be stupid enough to try.

"Amber? Seriously?" I ask.

"I knew you were going to be a wuss about this."

"Dude, you're twenty-one. Not cool."

"Nobody's going to find out."

Probably not, but I hated the idea of buying beer for Amber. Liam parks behind her car, and we walk down the path to the pool. I check my iPhone. Ninety degrees.

Amber and her friend, Bianca, who has been crushing on me all summer, are waiting for us at the front gate. Bianca is smile-smirking at me with her pouty lips, as if I've been fantasizing about this night my whole life. Fuck. "Awesome," she says loudly.

"Hey, pipe down," I tell her. An old couple lives in a cul-de-sac that butts up against the pool, and apparently the acoustics, the science of which my father once explained to me, enable them to hear everything we say. Once the old man came over to the pool and told Liam and me that he'd call the cops the next time he caught us here.

Liam looks over at Amber and rolls his eyes at me. "Let's go get wet." He smiles, flashing his freakishly long eye teeth. In the moonlight, he looks like a vampire.

Liam and I both have keys to the pool. The men's locker room smells like the Lysol I'd used only a few hours before. The water is smooth and dark. A rabbit darts across the grass in front of us, and Bianca holds my arm like she's scared. I let her, but I'm not hooking up with Bianca. She brags about how she's never once cleaned the women's bathroom and swipes Diet Cokes from the storage room. Amber's not afraid to plunge the toilets when some chick flushes down a tampon. I'll give her that.

The girls kick off their flip flops, and we sit on the edge of the pool and dangle our feet in the water. Liam pops open the beers and hands one to Bianca and Amber, and they guzzle them down, chasing a buzz hard. The bitter carbonation makes my tongue tingle. Now I want a Slurpee more than ever. I'm half listening to them talk trash about the pool members, the perv who fills his water gun with ice cold water and squirts girls to see their tits pop and the tranny lady who mows down feeble old swimmers in her lap lane for sport and the soccer mom Amber caught stealing a designer bra out of a locker room cubby.

Bianca and Amber slide their T-shirts over their heads. Bianca is leaking out of her hot pink bra, and Amber's wearing a thong. Their broad backs make me miss my ex, Tiff, sturdy, and smart mouthed, but tender too. I was an asshole after Dex died, and she won't return my texts. She's off to the Peace Corps next week, so there goes that.

Liam takes off his clothes and soon he's standing naked on the diving board. His shoulders are huge, but with his new beer gut, his old swimmer's body looks oafish. He dives in the water, and Amber swims over to him.

I'm still sweating, so I take off my shorts, but I leave on my boxers. In Dex's memory, I tattooed a purple 7-Eleven logo on my left glute because grape was Dex's favorite Slurpee flavor. I dive into the pool and the water bubbles under the loose cotton. I float for a second, like a dead man, savoring the weightlessness and the vacation from Bianca's attentions. When I emerge, Bianca shrieks as if I've just tickled her armpits. I decide that this is the worst sound I've ever heard in my life.

I hear splashing, and Liam gets out of the pool with Amber. He picks up his beer and climbs on the high dive.

"Get down, you idiot," I whisper as loudly as I can.

He starts jumping up and down, naked, boner rising, beer in his hand. "You're such a buzz-kill, Justin. Can't you just have some fun?"

"I'd have more fun if you didn't kill yourself." My words surprise me, but he doesn't seem to hear them.

He jumps up again. I swim over to the deep end, trying to decide whether I should climb up on the board and grab the beer bottle or wait for him to jump in the water so I can save him if he hits his head. My mouths dries up. He jumps higher and higher.

I picture the Nissan that swerved in front of Dex's motorcycle, a block from his dorm, sending him flying in the air. My arms are so heavy that I can barely tread water. On Liam's highest jump, he brings his legs to his chest mid-air and flips.

Dex is somersaulting over the handlebars.

Liam drops the beer bottle, and it hits the diving board, the brown glass shatters.

Shards spray. Dex flies through the windshield of the sedan. Milliseconds later, Dex is dead. But Liam, fucking Liam barely grazes the board with the side of his shoulder. I gasp. And then he's entering the water, a few inches from me. I wait for him to emerge for what feels like five minutes. It's dark, and the pool lights are off. I'm just about to dive under water to look for him, to grab him by his thick neck and drag him to the side of the pool and breathe life into him. A finger tickles my leg; a swirl of water rustles the hairs on my calves, and he pops up, shaking his bangs from his face.

"Gotcha," he says, laughing his ass off.

Amber and Bianca are staring at him, half amused, half terrified.

I want to dunk his head under the water and hold it until he's so scared that he's going to drown that he shits himself. But then I'd have to clean that up too. "Yeah, you got me." I get out of the pool, not caring that my boxers have slid down my ass, and he can see my tattoo. Let him. I put on my shorts and flip flops.

"Aw come on, Justin," all three of them are pleading with me to come back inside the pool. I wave my arm over my head and walk back through the men's locker room, out into the night.

I walk two miles to Dex's and my 7-Eleven. The fluorescent lights and air conditioning and shriveled breakfast sausages, lonely in their glass case soothe me. I don't recognize the man behind the counter. He must be new, but he looks like the regular clerk, Sammy, a lanky Ethiopian man with a glint in his eye who told Dex and me to get our butts back to school.

"Where's Sammy?" I ask.

"His wife had a baby this morning," he says. "I'm the proud uncle."

"Oh, congratulate him for me, okay?"

I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror, and my hair is spiking out and my clothes are drenched. I grab a large cup and walk over to milk the Slurpee cow, as Dex used to say. I palm the familiar black udder and push down, staring at the torrent of red slush. I cheat and take a sip before I get to the cash register, and I hand Sammy's brother the last three dollars in my wallet.

Outside, I sidle up to the bike rack where Dex and I did our best drinking. It hurts to sit here without Dex, so I walk another mile home. I can see through the window that my mom and her friends are done watching television. Too much A/C gives my mom migraines, so she's opened a window. I sit on the back steps and this stupid part of me wants my mommy to come outside and yell at me to put down the goddamned Slurpee, to tell me that she knows that Slurpees were my thing with Dex, but he's dead, and this dye is frying my brain. I'm not self-regulating. "Mom!" I want to shout over her adenoidal voice, cutting through the din of her friends' chatter. She's fretting about some poor boy's treatment. Soon, with a combination of righteousness and concern, her friends will join in devising a strategy to deal with his parents' denial.

I unwrap the straw and stuff the flimsy paper in my pocket. The plastic feels smooth against my lips. I take a big sip, and I'm so thirsty that I'm sucking down the soupy ice, gulping as Amber and Bianca had done with their beers. This is no way to drink a Slurpee, Dex told me the first time he saw me attack the ice like I am. I stop. I'm too late. The cold freezes my brain, and there's nothing I can do but wait for it to thaw.