Before We Were Lost: Story and Q&A with Kody Keplinger

Before We Were Lost*

By Kody Keplinger

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Zilar (flickr.com).

We used to be friends, but I’m not sure if you remember. It seems like a long time ago now – before we went in search of more and somehow got turned around along the way. We used to lie in our beds, separated by five miles of corn fields and quiet houses, with our phones pressed to our ears, speaking quietly so that our parents wouldn’t hear us when they got up in the night. We talked about everything and nothing. We talked until one of us finally fell asleep, and it was almost always you that began snoring first, even if you’d deny it later.

I heard the whispers; I’m sure you did, too. Everyone thought we should be together. Our friends, my parents, your sister . . . Everyone said we could have been more, that we were keeping our feelings from each other. But we weren’t – I wasn’t – because there was nothing I kept from you then.

Yet, somehow, we never talked about it. Not really. We left the subject untouched and went about our lives the same way we had since third grade, when you kicked dirt in Harvey Andrews’s face after he called me ugly. We continued being best friends like we always had and – I thought then and perhaps you did, too – always would.

Sometimes, I think the whispers, the suggestions, were to blame for what we did that night. Do you think we would have made that choice without them? Do you think you would have rolled onto your side to face me and asked, “June, do you ever think about sex?”

The metal bed of your truck was cool against my slightly sunburned arms. I folded them behind my head and stared up at the sky. It was a cloudy night in late August, two weeks before school started, and not a star in sight. Your question didn’t surprise me. You always asked me things in that blunt, fearless way. More than once, you’d questioned me about my thoughts on things like death and war. We were just past seventeen, and it felt only natural that sex would come up next.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sometimes.”

“What do you think about it?”

“How should I know? It’s not like I’ve ever done it.”

“You don’t have to have done it to think about it. So, what do you think?”

I sighed and nudged your leg with my bare foot. You were always that way back then. Stubbornly questioning everything, interrogating me until you knew exactly what was on my mind. It drove me crazy; I’m sure you knew that. “I don’t know. Why? What are you thinking?”

You shrugged and flipped onto your back. “I’ve just been wondering . . . Do you think it’s as big of a deal as people make it out to be?”

“You tell me,” I said. “You’re the one who’d know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You slept with Becky Freely last year, didn’t you?”

You turned and gawked at me. “June, do you think I’d have sex with Becky and not tell you?”

“I don’t know. They say a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”

“I’m no gentleman around you, June,” you said. “I’d tell you if I had. You’d be the first to know. But I never slept with Becky. I wanted to, but she said she was scared.”

“Scared of what?”

“We broke up before she ever told me. But that’s what got me thinking. Do you think it’s really a big deal?”

“Found in Field” by Rick Harris (flickr.com)

I sat up and scooted to sit on the edge of the tailgate. You reached for the cooler and handed me a Coke, then positioned yourself beside me.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I’d like to find out one day.”

We didn’t say much else about it that night. Midnight slithered up on us, like a snake in the grass, and you needed to drive me home. When I curled under my blankets that night, I wasn’t thinking about the question you’d asked. Nothing else about that night seemed different from any other.

Of course, I didn’t know that two nights later, we’d be lying on your bed, discussing the topic again. I didn’t know then that your father would be out or that when you asked, “Do you want to see what all the fuss is about?” I’d nod and say, “All right.” We were curious and seventeen and half crazy with the summer drawing to an end. But we weren’t in love.

We kissed, slow and tentative, as your trembling fingers slid under my shirt. Soon we were too focused on fumbling with each other’s clothes to move our lips. It was just as well that the kissing stopped; it felt strange with you, too intimate. More intimate than your hand passing over my breast or my hips pressed tightly against yours.

I didn’t really think about what we were doing. My brain registered one step at a time – shirts, pants, a hesitant whisper: “Do you have . . .?” You nodded and scrambled for your old, battered wallet – the one you’d carried since we were in seventh grade. Even when you found it, when you pulled out the condom and opened the wrapper, even then it didn’t sink in.

Then we were there – together, merged, connected. It hurt. I wanted to hide it from you, but you saw. You asked if I was okay, and I murmured, “Fine.” You kissed my cheek, an apology. I turned away, tears pricking at my eyes, as we continued to explore, hands shaking and hearts pounding out of time. Did you notice that, too? We were like two harmonies with no melody, clashing notes and unbalanced rhythms.

When it was over, neither of us spoke. We dressed in a hurry, backs turned, not looking at each other. But you must have glanced over your shoulder; you must have seen me wipe my eyes with the back of my hand. I saw it in your face when you dropped me off at my house half an hour later. The guilt, the regret. Is that why you squeezed my hand and said, “I love you, June,” before I climbed out of the truck? Is that why you kissed me?

I didn’t regret it, you know. I still don’t. Maybe it wasn’t how the first time should have been, maybe we didn’t follow the traditional path, but now, when I think back on it, I’m glad it was you. I’m glad I shared that moment with someone I trusted, someone who cared. I’m glad I was with my best friend.

I should have told you that. When we were sitting on the edge of my pool with our feet dangling in the warm water as the sun sank below the line of trees – when you took a deep breath and ran your fingers through your messy, dark hair – I should have broken the silence and let you know that I was okay. That we were okay.

But the words hid in the back of my throat. Suddenly, your hand was on mine, our eyes meeting for just a second before you turned away and said, “I’ve been thinking . . . about us. I think we ought to give it a shot. What do you say?”

“A shot?”

“I think maybe we could, you know . . . go out.”

“You want me to be your girlfriend?”

“Yeah. I mean, why not? School starts tomorrow; we could start senior year together. And we’ve already . . . and I love you. Everybody says we’d be perfect for each other anyway, right?”

“I guess.”

“So . . . you want to?”

I’ve relived that moment in my head so many times since then. There were so many ways I could have told you no. So many words I could have used. I don’t think you wanted it either, did you? I always thought, even then, that it was just guilt, that you were trying to do the right thing. Turning you down should have been easy, knowing that.

It wasn’t.

A selfish part of me wanted to start my last year of high school with a real boyfriend. A romantic part of me wanted so desperately to fall in love with my best friend – the way it always happened in the movies. But it was another part, a part that was scared of losing you if I said no, that made my decision for me.

I clumsily laced my fingers with yours and put on my brightest smile. “All right then.”

And in that moment, I swear to you, I thought we could make it work. No, we weren’t in love, but maybe we would be one day. Maybe if we started down this path together, we’d find ourselves in a different place at the end.

So we started our senior year as a couple. Our friends all sighed and said things like “finally” and “about damn time.”  We held hands at the lunch table; I wore your sweatshirt when autumn set in; you walked me to class and waited for me by my locker. We even slept together a few more times, and we really were getting better at it.  Still, there was that feeling of wrongness when our lips met. You must have felt it, too. We didn’t kiss often.

It was all right for a while, I think. For a while, not much changed. For a while, we were still friends. Then, sometime near Thanksgiving, our paths slowly began to separate. It felt like we were walking through a forest, on a journey to find the other side, and we just drifted in different directions. We called out to one another, we tried to stay together, and though I could hear your voice, shouting my name, I couldn’t find you.

I remember first feeling the distance that winter, not long before the first flakes of snow frosted the now barren cornfields. The moment it really struck me, and perhaps you recall it, too, was the night we spent in Clyde’s basement. We were bundled in thick coats because it was so cold. Clyde could sneak cans of beer downstairs, where no one ever checked on us, so we bore the temperature with little complaint.

I’d just taken a sip of the warm beer we were sharing when Clyde turned to us and asked, “You two going to Rosie’s Christmas party next month?”

“Mm-hm,” you said at the same time I shook my head.

Clyde raised an eyebrow at us, and you turned to look at me.

“You’re not going?”

I shrugged. “Rosie didn’t invite me.”

“Yeah, she did.”

“I think I’d remember if she had,” I replied.

“She invited me,” you said. “She just asked me for the both of us. So you’re invited.”

“Why didn’t she just ask me?”

“Why should she?” Clyde asked, sitting down in the battered recliner across from us. “You’re just going to go together, aren’t you?”

I looked at you, but you shrugged and took a sip from our can of beer. “It’s not a big deal, June. We don’t have to go if you don’t want.”

But it wasn’t about Rosie’s party. That’s not why I asked you to take me home. That’s not why I spent the entire drive back to my house staring out the window, not saying a word.

As I watched the dark houses glide past, I debated how to tell you what was bothering me. It wasn’t about Rosie – it was about me. About us. It may have been selfish or immature, but the conversation in Clyde’s basement made me realize just how others were beginning to see me. I wasn’t just June anymore – I was your girlfriend. I was part of a couple. I know now that this happens to everyone when they’re in a relationship, I know that some of your individuality is lost, but I wasn’t ready for it then.

I wanted to tell you that, but I was scared. Scared you’d hate me, scared you’d be upset with me. I could feel the tug between us, and I was terrified that my words would sever the rope that still held us together. I wasn’t ready to lose you yet.

Of course, now I wish I’d spoken up. Maybe you were feeling the same way. Maybe we could have retraced our steps and gone back to where we started – as friends. Maybe, if I’d told you how I was feeling then, we would have called the whole thing off amicably.

But I kept my mouth shut.

And we went to Rosie’s Christmas party in December.

I knew it was a mistake as soon as we arrived. Rosie had only invited couples – do you remember? Becky had come with her new boyfriend, Allan. And Susan and Todd; Laura and Michael; Edith and Clyde.  I always hated being around a lot of other couples, because you were always so competitive.  But for once I was grateful for it when Rosie’s mom suggested we play cornhole in the shed behind the house – we won.

But once the games were over and the bags put back into the old wooden chest under the tool bench, your constant sense of competition seemed to shift. Allan put his arm around Becky’s shoulders, so you put your arm around mine. Simon kissed Rosie on the cheek; you kissed me on the lips.

I shrugged away from you, feeling frustrated. You knew I hated showing off like that, but you gave me an annoyed glare. Like I’d done something wrong.

You were annoyed with me a lot that winter. You stopped liking the way I sang along with the radio, you told me to stop cheating when we played Monopoly on my bedroom floor even though you used to think it was funny, and you stopped asking me questions. Once, to remind you, I asked “Do you ever think about lying?”

“I guess.”

“Well, what do you think about it?”

“God, I don’t know, June. Lying is wrong.”

“But don’t you think it can be more complicated than that?”

“Not really.”

And then you changed the subject.

That night at Rosie’s you were annoyed with me because I didn’t want to kiss you in public. I felt tears stinging the corners of my eyes, and turned away from the group. “I’ll be right back,” I said.

I ran into Rosie’s house with the tears slipping slowly down my frozen cheeks. A lump was rising in my throat, and I wondered if I could do anything right. I missed you. I saw you every day, but I missed you so bad it hurt sometimes, and I didn’t know how to fix this, how to get you back.

“June?”

I was sitting on Rosie’s bed, the door mostly shut so that her mother wouldn’t walk past and see me crying alone. But the door slid open a bit and Clyde stuck his head in. I tried to wipe the tears away before he could see them; it was too late, though.

“June? What’s wrong?” Clyde slipped inside and shut the door behind him.

“Nothing.”

“June.”

“None of your business, Clyde.”

“Sure it is,” he said, walking over to sit on the bed beside me. “When one of my friends is upset, I make it my business. What’s going on?”

The concern in his voice only made me cry harder, making it impossible to deny how I was feeling. So I told him. I told him how you didn’t seem to like me as much as you used to, how my best friend seemed so far away now, how I worried, secretly, that dating you was a mistake.

Clyde didn’t offer any advice. He didn’t tell me that it would be all right or to give it time – the way they always say on television. Instead, he put his arms around me and let me cry into his shoulder for a while. He only let me go when we heard Rosie come up the stairs looking for us. With my face red and puffy, it was obvious I’d been crying, but we lied and said I was looking for my gloves, which I thought I’d left in Rosie’s room. She didn’t ask questions, and after she’d been gone for a few minutes we walked back downstairs.

Everyone had come back inside, unwilling to spend another second in the freezing shed, and I found you standing in the kitchen. You smiled at me – I don’t think you had any idea that I’d been upset – and we shared a glass of apple cider before you took me home.

I didn’t tell you about Clyde. I should have, I know, but the truth was, I felt guilty. Clyde and I weren’t close friends, not the way you and I had been, but somehow, having him hold me like that had felt good. Better than it did when you put your arms around me. It felt more natural. Guilt sealed my lips together that night, and I told myself it would be all right because Clyde would never hold me like that again.

But then, in February, Edith and Clyde broke up. You probably remember that big fight they had in the cafeteria on Valentine’s Day. She screamed that he was a “lazy son of a bitch” and Principal Johnson heard her and gave her detention. Edith stormed off into the bathroom. You watched her go and then turned to Clyde.

“What did you do to piss her off?” you asked.

“Hell if I know,” Clyde muttered.

I didn’t like Edith much; she always came off as arrogant and spoiled, and she once called you trailer trash when we were in seventh grade. You acted like it didn’t bother you then, but I knew it did, and I’d had a grudge against her ever since.

But that didn’t explain the bubbling joy in my chest the next day when Clyde told us he and Edith weren’t together anymore.

Clyde and I started to spend a lot of time together after that. Sometimes I told you, and sometimes I didn’t – not that I had anything to feel guilty about, not yet. But when you stayed after school for baseball practice, Clyde would drive me home. Some days we’d go back to his place and drink beer in his basement, which was slowly warming up as spring inched its way north. We’d sit on the same couch and talk about classes and gossip about our friends. There were moments when he’d look at me, and I’d stare back, my heart speeding up in my chest for no reason. Then he’d look away and clear his throat and talk about something else. For the rest of the week, Clyde would drive me straight home, barely saying a word.

By May, when our senior year came to its end, you and I had reached our breaking point. I could feel it, feel the rope that bound us fraying to shreds. And then, at the bond fire the night of graduation, it snapped.

We were sitting in the broken lawn chairs, watching the flames claw their way toward the black sky. It was starless, just like the night when you first asked my thoughts on sex, the night things began to change for us. Our friends were shouting and singing around us, celebrating the freedom we’d waited seventeen-plus years to receive.

But for us, the celebration was cut short.

“Have you decided what you’ll major in yet?” I asked.

You shook your head.

“How about Physics,” I suggested. “You like roller coasters, don’t you? You could build them. And then we could ride on them. You could have your own amusement park and you could name it after me.”

“June –”

“I was kidding. You don’t have to name it after me.”

“No, June . . . I’m not going to college.”

I stared at you, shocked. “What? But you got in. You showed me the letter.”

“I’m not going.”

“But we were supposed to go together,” I argued. “Get out of here together. Go to Nashville together. How come you’re not –”

“Goddamn it, June – I can’t afford it!”

“W-what?”

You buried your face in your hands. “The baseball scholarship didn’t happen. That’s the only way I could go – and it didn’t happen. I’m staying here and helping Dad at the garage. I can’t go, June.”

“You . . . you didn’t tell me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You used to tell me everything,” I whispered. “You used to . . . Now I have to go alone? I don’t know anybody in Nashville, and you’re not coming with me?”

“June, I’m sorry. Can you drop it?”

“You should’ve told me.” I stood up. I needed to move, to run, to punch something. It wasn’t just you. Sure, I was angry you hadn’t told me sooner, but mostly, I was scared. I’d had you by my side for years, for over half of my life, and now you were abandoning me – or maybe I was the one abandoning you. “I’ve got to get out of here.”

“June –”

Photo courtesy of Adnan Yahya (flickr.com).

But I didn’t turn around. I walked out of the clearing, through the thin, dusty paths of the woods behind the high school. I didn’t know where I was going and, just then, I didn’t care. But after walking in circles for half an hour, I found myself sitting at the base of a tree, my knees pulled up to my chest as tears slipped down my cheeks and into the grass.

In the woods, I wasn’t lost. I knew this place too well; we all did. But still, I felt like I’d been wandering for ages, searching for something that I doubted now even existed. You and I – we’d been found once, and we let ourselves get lost. So lost.

Clyde was the first to find me. I knew it was him without even looking up. I knew the rhythm of his breath, the weight of his footsteps. Shame tugged at my chest; these were not things I should have known about Clyde.

“Hey,” he said, sitting down beside me. “He told me why you ran off . . . You all right?”

I shook my head, and Clyde reached out and wrapped an arm around me. I curled into him, closer than I should have.

“I’m not going to Nashville,” Clyde murmured into my hair as he stroked my back. “But my grandpa lives about half an hour from the city. I decided to go work on his farm – at least until I can go to technical school. I can come visit if you want me to.”

“I’d like that.”

“Good . . . because I want to keep seeing you, June.”

I looked up at him, our eyes meeting in the darkness. My heart sped up, the way it always did when Clyde stared at me for too long, and then . . .

I never meant to hurt you – you know that, right? But when Clyde kissed me, it didn’t feel wrong or too intimate. It felt like something I’d wanted for a very long time. It felt right. I won’t say I was in love with him then, but I could see it on the horizon, galloping toward me faster than anything I could imagine.

When he kissed me, I wasn’t thinking of you.

Then the kiss ended and Clyde said, “Oh, shit,” and I looked over my shoulder and there you were – and I shattered.

You were staring at me with that broken expression I recognized too well, though I’d only seen you wear it once: we were in fifth grade, and your mother walked into the living room while we played Shoots and Ladders – and she announced she was moving out. You didn’t cry then, just stared at her in stunned devastation.

The way you were looking at me then.

I scrambled to my feet, reached a hand out to you, but you backed away. “Please,” I said. “Just listen. We can –” You shook your head. “Please.” Then, without a word, you turned and walked away. Out of the woods. Away from me.

I called you every night for two weeks, but you didn’t answer.

I came by your house the day before I left for Nashville, but your father said you were gone.

I sent you postcards and letters from school, but you never wrote back.

For a while, I hoped that we could fix things. Maybe we could find our way back to the friendship we once had, the friendship that had been so strong. But we were too lost. I tried to find my way back, to the place where we started, but you had gone, and I was there alone.

Copyright Kody Keplinger, 2011

Believe it or not, Kody wrote this story in an undergrad fiction workshop!  Yep, she’s a published novelist—and a writing student, just like so many of our readers.  YARN thought that Kody’s story was so cool, and her situation was so unique, that we wanted to ask her a few questions about the writing of this story.

YARN: Since you are already a published novelist, what was it like to write this story for an undergraduate creative writing class?

KK: Writing this story was a real learning experience for me. I’ve never been one to write short stories. Even when I was little, I gravitated toward longer pieces of fiction, but my assignment in this creative writing class was a short story – not an excerpt of a novel, but an actual short story. It took me a while to figure out a plot that would fit under twenty pages, but in the end I came up with “Before We Were Lost.” I discovered that, even though it is a harder genre for me to write, I really love short stories now.

YARN: What kinds of feedback did you get from your peers on the early drafts, and how did you implement it, if any?

KK: I can honestly say the feedback from my peers was great – but they had nothing major to criticize with this piece. They all loved the voice, so that was the thing I held on to in edits. But they did have some suggestions regarding character development and relationship development. Clyde and “you” had less screen time in the original, so in edits I added more scenes with them to show off their characters a bit. The ending also changed a lot. My peers thought it wrapped up too neatly originally, it felt too much like an epilogue, so I cut almost a page of text and tweaked some wording so that the ending feels a little more bittersweet. I think that was the suggestion from my peers that I was most grateful for.

YARN: The first draft you sent YARN was a bit different from this final published version.  Can you share a little bit about what you decided to change and why?

KK: In the first draft I sent YARN, the dialogue was completely different. When I first wrote this story, I imagined the southern setting playing a very big role. So, my first instinct was to have the characters talk like “southerners.” Which is to say, talk like the kids I went to school with. Words like “ain’t” and improper grammar were involved. But it was pointed out to me that this language really contrasted with June’s prose. I didn’t know how to balance this, but after taking a break from the story and rereading, I realized that the southern landscape didn’t really play as big of a role as I’d imagined it had. So I changed the dialogue to match a little better with June’s language, and I really think the story runs more smoothly for it!

YARN: Thanks, Kody—for sending us this fabulous story, for being open the revisions, and for answering these questions!  I’m sure many writers, especially all the frustrated teen writers out there, will benefit from your experience 🙂

Kody Keplinger is the author of “DUFF: (Designated Ugly Fat Friend)”, and is currently majoring in writing at Ithaca College in New York, though she is originally from rural western Kentucky.  When she isn’t writing, she’s spending time with her friends and, most likely, doing piles and piles of homework.  Kody is a contributor to the writing blog YA Highway and a member of the contemporary, realistic YA fiction group The Contemps.

 


*YARN Note: In December 2012, we had to eliminate 2 of the original illustrations because of technical difficulties.  Pleae accept our apologies.

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11 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Fantastic story and interview!

  2. Emilia says:

    AMAZING. Especially the last line: “I tried to find my way back, to the place where we started, but you had gone, and I was there alone.” That’s so easy to relate to. The narrator’s voice is really great. Amazing, Kody! 🙂

  3. KODY KEPLINGER! Why are you such a genius? “We were like two harmonies with no melody, clashing notes and unbalanced rhythms.” OMG. That’s all I can say.

  4. Thanks guys!

    SUZIE TOWNSEND!!! <3 That is actually my favorite line!

  5. This is a beautiful story. It seems so genuine. Wonderfully written.

  6. Phoebe says:

    This is SUCH a beautiful story, Kody. Love the bittersweet ending.

  7. Lourdes says:

    Kody thanks again for sending us this brilliant short story. I loved “The DUFF” and as soon as I was finished with it I told the editors about it. I think you have such an original, thoughtful voice that is firmly realistic and candid. I cannot wait for your next book.

  8. Lacey says:

    I love your writing! I’m not a big reader, but your writing makes me interested. I can actually feel what the characters are feeling when I’m reading! By the way, the DUFF is my all time favorite book! I can’t wait to read another one of your books! 🙂

  9. Isabelle Seeto says:

    This was a wonderful thought provoking story that really forced me to reflect back on my own personal life experiences. The emotions that were brought on when she lost him were so strong they could be compaired to love, even if it wasn’t the love they suppossedly shared.

  10. Emily Johnston says:

    This was such a good story. It was so well written and I felt like I could actually relate to how the characters felt. It’s reading stories like these that makes me want to look back on all my regrets in my life and figure out what I did wrong to make sure I do not repeat the mistake.

  11. Julia says:

    i love your book. i read them i like a day. Do u have any more books coming out soon. your a awesome writer. your books are really good. i a usually hate to read . but i cant put your books down

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