It wasn’t until the third time Finn killed himself that I learned you can turn your heart off. That was Finn’s problem. He never could. When the world wasn’t enough for him anymore, he went someplace else.
I go to the old wooden dresser and take the letter out from the drawer where I keep it. I look at my name in his scratchy handwriting. I don’t read it. One day I plan to open that drawer and find it empty. Or maybe one day there won’t be a drawer or a cabin or any of this, and I’ll no longer be here alone, trying to make things right.
The machine is a cold, beautiful terror. Long, dark wires surround it like coiled snakes. They connect to twelve car batteries, arranged in a horseshoe. An upside-down colander hangs over the chair, sprouting dozens of tiny wires. The yellow bulb overhead flickers as groaning generators divert power. Twin steel tubes form perfect rings behind the chair. These tubes accelerate incomprehensibly small particles incomprehensibly fast. These particles smash into other particles to make the impossible happen.
All of this is documented by a camera nestled above the door.
In the brisk winter morning, the heat from the machine is overwhelming. Fog smears the old cabin’s windows. I enter a value into an ancient Toshiba microwave and press start. The glass platter inside revolves aimlessly. The machine breathes to life, growling and churning. The steel tubes become white hot and burn dark marks into the wood floors.
I sit in the chair, place the colander over my head, and close my eyes.
My brain throbs against the inside of my skull. If I’ve done my work correctly, this is the sensation of my consciousness rocketing back along a line into the past.
Imagine your eyes are closed. You open them. Then imagine, your eyes already open, you open them again.
I am in the present, in the cabin. Strapped to my machine.
And yet, I am also somewhere else. I am a fifteen-year-old kid. I am perched on a bicycle on a barren road. In a place I never expected to see again. I am home.
I am in my cabin. I am on my bicycle.
I am a grown man. I am fifteen.
I am there. I am here.
Two opposing facts. Both true.
I am staring at my childhood home — a building that was bulldozed more than a decade ago. The shell of an old Chevy Malibu rests in the front yard. The weeds have long since claimed it, weaving in and out of the rusty compartments. I always assumed that one day the roots would pull the vehicle all the way down into the ground, returning it to the earth.
The neighborhood kids tell stories about my home. On Halloween, they don’t walk down the long, dark driveway to ring our doorbell. In those days I imagine myself as an animal in a zoo exhibit. I go about my business from inside the enclosure, occasionally peering out and wondering about the lives of the gangly primates on the other side. They terrify me. I spend my time indoors, tinkering. Finding things to fix.
It’s a Friday in June. A summer storm. I pedal and splash through puddles and crunch over wet gravel until I reach Desert Hills High School. I lock up my bike and wait on the library steps. It’s 2006, and Finn will be here soon.
He comes in a rush, howling with joy, swerving through the puddles on his bicycle. I can’t recall ever seeing anyone so free. It’s good that it’s raining because my cheeks are wet with tears. I want to lurch forward and hug him, but I’m afraid I’ll scare him off. I’m supposed to say something — to make this happen exactly the way it happened before — but I’m in shock.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he says.
I want to tell him that if he ever needs anything he can ask me. I want to tell him that I would do anything in the world to keep him alive. But I can’t say any of that. I end up staring at him like an idiot.
“We’re going to be late,” I say.
He isn’t listening. He’s pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he says. “After you.” He does a little bow, and we walk to class.
That’s when I see her. Alex Mayfield.
This was a time when many high school girls were given what were formerly recognized as “boy names.” It was a great rebellion when, sixteen years past, the parents of Rileys and Charlies and Logans reclaimed their right to call their daughters whatever they pleased. These daughters had overbearing, leathery-skinned mothers who were former homecoming queens and fathers who played golf and drank beer and disappeared inside their garages for hours. They lived in houses that looked like every other house. They were normal.
Alex is more perfect than I remember, her hair a shimmering blonde. She wears skirts with sneakers and when she laughs everyone around her lights up. She is fun and she belongs. She is everything I want to be. I avoid her like the plague.
Finn stands behind me wearing a Cheshire Cat grin. He shoves me and I collide with her in a flurry of golden hair.
“I’m sorry,” she blurts, even though I ran into her.
I stammer an apology.
Our eyes meet, and recognition forms on her face.
“Malcolm, right? We had biology together.”
I nod. I’m staring. I think I’m staring. Then I realize we’re still standing in the rain; instinct takes over and I guide her under the nearest awning.
“What are you doing later?” I say. I can’t believe it. Maybe it’s the adrenaline. I briefly consider running away. She’s struggling, searching for an excuse. My face feels hot.
“Um. . . .”
We’re in a nosedive. I feel an overwhelming guilt, like I’m holding her captive. Whatever weird otherness I’m sick with is infecting her now.
But Finn is there.
“We’re having a party,” he says. “You should come.”
“We are?” I ask. “I mean, we are. Yes.”
She presses her lips together, thinking.
“Can I bring a friend?”
“Well —” I start.
“The more the merrier,” Finn says.
Alex smiles, reaching for my notebook.
“Give me that,” she says.
I hand it to her and she scratches her number onto the first page, then passes it back.
“Text me your address later.”
She’s gone. Finn pats me on the back. I gaze at that page like she’s just handed me a solid gold brick. Electricity is coursing through me. I’m alive. I’m really alive.
But then I remember that I’m not a fifteen-year-old boy. This isn’t the reason I’m here.
“I need to tell you something,” I say, but Finn is already on the move.
“Later, Malc. We’ve got a party to plan.”
Somehow I’d always known Finn was a liar, but the depth of it didn’t strike me until that day. If someone said they couldn’t make it, he pressed them. He flew into animated rants about whether they were going to look back and wish they’d done more with their lives.
He said there would be fire dancers, naked girls, celebrities. He told people that their friends were going, then told those friends that the others were going, until everyone was going. He claimed I had cancer. That this was my last hurrah.
He said all of this with a straight face. No lie was beneath him. I resented his dishonesty for years.
One day, much later, I learned that life was just too plain for him. He had to squeeze and shape it like clay, until he felt it was something worth living.
I mill around my backyard, drunk and dizzy off cheap booze.
A football player I’ve never spoken to picks me up in a massive bear hug, despite the fact that he has a beer in each hand.
“Malcolm, your house is the shit!”
When he puts me down I mumble a thank you.
His friends admire my mother’s pigeon coops. It mortifies me, but they aren’t laughing. They study the birds with the fierce interest of children at an aquarium. This feels like a prank show. Like a film crew is going to emerge from bushes and stick a camera in my face for a close-up of my embarrassed expression. These people don’t know me. They don’t like me. Do they?
I feel the present day — my life in the cabin, that is — bleed into this moment. Around the edge of my vision, I see the honey-colored bulbs hanging from the cabin’s ceiling. I can just barely hear the churn of the machine.
There is not enough space in my mind to hold both of these worlds. My temples pulse with a headache. I sit down and breathe. I try to be in just one place. Nowhere else. It works, and I’m able to catch my breath.
Across the yard I see Alex look over with a “come and get me” smile on her lips. I go toward her, and then I remember that I am fifteen. That I don’t yet know the meaning of that look. That this isn’t how this happens. Talking to her would be off script. Talking to her would take me away from the real reason I’m here. I stop dead and turn away from her. I can’t help but notice how the hope in her expression evaporates.
Around that time, we had an empty pool that sat in the middle of a large patch of grass, completely and totally out of place.
The scene is almost exactly as I remember, with Finn sitting on the creaky diving board watching people chatter and laugh and drink. The type of extrovert who doesn’t always need to take part in conversation. Sometimes he just wants to bask. He’s an alien to me.
I go to him, trying to remember exactly how this moment went.
“What are you doing over here?” I say.
“Having a think. Aren’t you going to talk to her?”
I ignore the question.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I don’t know if you’d get it.”
He scoots over and I sit down beside him.
“I was imagining that there was nothing below my feet. That if this thing split in two, I’d just fall and fall and fall, forever.”
“Why would you think about something like that?”
“Stuff like that pops into my head sometimes. I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to decide how scary that really is. I mean, we’re falling right now, aren’t we? We’re on a rock falling through space. What if it’s like that after we die? Just . . . falling.”
“Are you okay?” I ask. I already know the answer.
“I’m not sure.”
“I want to help you.”
“Who says I need help?”
Anger flashes across his face. I pushed too hard. I have to take this slow. Like approaching a scared deer.
“You don’t. I’m not saying that. I’m just trying to understand.”
“What you’re . . . whatever’s happening with you.”
“You’re acting strange,” he says.
He stares at his feet.
“I just have this feeling. Like I don’t belong anywhere. And when I try to go places I’m supposed to be, I feel like a fucking leech. I mean, look at me. I’m using your house. I’m using all these people.”
He looks into my eyes and for the first time in a decade I really see him.
“I’m using you.”
He says it softly, as if he can’t bear for me to hear it.
“That’s what you think? All this time you’ve thought you were using me?” I shake my head. “Well, you aren’t, okay? There’s nothing to apologize for. We’re friends. We do stuff for each other.”
He gives a weak nod. Then he pinches the bridge of his nose and squeezes his eyes shut for the second time today.
“Fine. Just a headache.” He waves my concern away. “You should really be talking to that girl, you know. Not me.”
I grip the edge of the diving board.
“I have to tell you something,” I say. “And it’s going to sound crazy, but it’s really important.”
Wind rustles the leaves at the base of the pool. I’m not sure how to begin. I’ve imagined this moment since I started the machine, and now that I’ve finally made it here, I’m not ready.
“Well, spit it out already.”
I breathe. Steady myself.
“There’s going to come a time, really soon, where things don’t feel right. Where you think they won’t ever get better. And I just want to tell you that they will. Anything can change. I might not be able to fix it, but I can be with you. Through whatever it is.”
He studies me for a long time.
“Your nose,” he says.
“Your nose is bleeding.”
I press my fingers under my nose and blood drips over the knuckles. I feel the sharp stab of a headache. The image of the cabin flashes in my head.
“Not yet,” I cry. “I’m not ready yet.”
“What? What’s wrong with you?”
It’s as though I’ve been hit in the head with a baseball bat.
I’m in the cabin. The heat presses down on me.
No. I’m on the diving board. Finn is staring at me.
“Don’t worry about me,” I say. At least I try to, but my mouth produces other sounds.
Before I can explain anything, the diving board drifts away, and I’ve fallen into the deep end.
I lurch from the chair and knock the colander off my head. Blood from my nose patters onto the floorboards and my insides feel like they’ve been scrambled by an egg beater. I vomit. I see strobing images of where I am and where I was.
I am looking up at the diving board.
I am looking at the ceiling in the cabin.
I see people from the party staring at me.
I see the red light from the camera over the door.
The machine is off. My shirt is sticky with sweat. I drag myself to the dresser. I know it’s still there, even before I open the drawer. I take it out and examine it. The handwriting has changed. He wrote with a different color pen. But it’s the same.
I put it away.
I toss and turn in bed in a fevered sweat.
I recall the first day of junior high. The fear of not knowing how I could possibly fit in. Those feelings evaporated the instant I saw him. He was alone at a lunch table, reading Lord of the Flies, his face buried in an apple. He smiled at me with pieces of apple skin stuck between his teeth, and I sat. He could make anyone feel like the only person in the world.
That was the day we became inseparable.
There was no ramping-up period. There was just the time before that day and the time after. When I started the machine, I intended to visit that moment. It wasn’t the right time to save him, but I wanted to relive that day.
The more we talked, the more we discovered how little we had in common. We didn’t agree on much of anything. I was a budding atheist. He believed in a higher power. I thought paranormal experiences were bullshit. He recounted several vivid, unexplainable events. He liked rain, loud music, talking to strangers, adrenaline, drugs, and danger. He was the first one in the pool. I liked finding quiet corners in the library to read. I had never even tasted alcohol.
It was as though we’d started out with two different sets of instructions. I didn’t know it then, but over the next few years, he was going to drag me kicking and screaming into my life.
Back in the cabin, I pull the sheets around my shoulders. My visit changed nothing.
Finn is still dead.
This time I’m prepared.
When the light in the microwave winks on I feel a sense of calm wash over me. I sit in the chair, close my eyes, and weather the churning sensation in my gut. Again, I feel myself become two things. I feel myself inhabiting two places. I feel my mind stretch along an axis I never knew existed.
I wipe my nose. Blood smears the back of my hand. Off we go.
I’m behind the wheel of a 1984 Buick Skyhawk. It’s the summer before college, the day I turned left in front of a Chevy pickup doing sixty. Only this time I remember that fact and I don’t turn. I just sit there in the intersection with my breath trapped in my throat until it passes.
I feel numb. I see the crash happen again and again. Each time it’s fainter. Then it’s gone.
“Malcolm.” Finn points out the window. “The light.”
I hear him, but I don’t do anything. A car behind me honks.
Then I drive. Fear prickles my skin as I pull through the intersection. Avoiding the accident feels like cheating. Like somehow the universe will remember, and someday it will settle the score. I pull the car over at the first opportunity — a dirt road overlooking a large canal. The water has slowed to a trickle.
“Is this about what I said?” Finn asks.
He’s still ageless in that movie star sort of way. Smooth features, little facial hair. Only now he’s got these dark circles under his eyes.
And the vertical scar down the middle of his wrist. The one he had when he came back from staying with his uncle in Pasadena. The one he won’t acknowledge or talk about. The one that—if he wasn’t breathing in front of me — I could only describe as a mortal wound.
“What?” I say.
But I know exactly what he’s talking about.
“When I told you I was moving for good, you got all . . . foggy.”
We were planning to go to the same college. To rent an apartment in Tempe. And now he isn’t going to college. He isn’t even going to live in the same state. After Pasadena, he’s going to distance himself until he’s so far from the world that he wants to leave it.
“I don’t understand why you’d want to go back there.”
“I have to.”
“You’re isolating yourself.”
He slams his hands on the dashboard. It’s awkward, like the movement came out of his body involuntarily.
“I can’t be around you anymore, okay?”
“You know me too well, Malcolm. You know me and you keep trying to help me. I get that. But the more time I spend with you, the more you act like I’m something that needs to be fixed.”
I gape at him. I don’t remember him saying this. Not in this moment. Not ever.
“I didn’t know,” I say. I feel remorse, and I try to ignore it. I’m not ready to accept this. I’m not willing to let him move away.
“I have to go back,” I say. “Further.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not trying to fix you. I’m trying to stop it from happening.”
“You know what. You fucking asshole. You selfish piece of shit.” I grab him by the shirt collar and shake him. I say it again and again as I shake him. “You piece of shit. Fuck you. Fuck you. FUCK YOU!”
I start the car again and throw it in reverse. The tires spew dirt into the air. A car behind me honks and slams its brakes.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Finn shouts.
I put the car in drive and floor it, swerving around a sedan. I watch the speedometer climb to forty, fifty, sixty. The engine groans.
“Maybe I should’ve hit that car,” I say.
“What are you talking about?”
I swerve and Finn presses into the passenger door.
“Maybe I should hit one right now.”
I swerve again, cutting off a truck in my blind spot. The speedometer climbs to seventy, eighty, ninety.
“Malcolm, stop the fucking car.”
“Why? You’re the one who wants to die so bad, aren’t you?”
I’m so angry I can’t even look at him. The engine sounds like it’s going to explode. The temperature in the cab’s gone up five degrees. The gas pedal is so hot I can feel it through my shoe.
I press harder.
“I said stop!” he screams, and the engine makes a loud bang. White smoke billows from the hood. The speedometer plummets to zero. I pull over.
The smoke is everywhere, and we have to get out of the car to stop coughing. We don’t talk. We wait outside a gas station. He goes in and comes out with a little packet of Tylenol, swallows the pills dry.
Eventually I tell him my mom can take him home and he says he’s sorry and I say I’m sorry, but it isn’t clear what either of us are sorry for. I just say it because I feel like I’m supposed to.
I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I’m still angry that he doesn’t understand everything I’ve done for him. If that comes across as “fixing him,” then fine. I am fixing him.
This time I only made things worse. This time, when the image of the cabin takes over, I sink into it without any resistance, relieved to go back.
Three months and seventeen days pass. I know because each morning I scratch an X on the calendar. I’m not sure what I’m counting toward. It’s just a ritual, I guess. Another ritual is the walk. I walk through the snow fields, do a little loop through the trees, and return to where I started, every day. We all move in loops like that.
Some days I fantasize about killing myself in those woods. At least then I’d stop feeling this way. At least then I could ensure I get sorted correctly and sent to whatever place Finn went. But I know I’ll never do it.
On today’s walk, a raven turns its head to watch me pass. I can picture its glossy black eye following me long after I’ve turned away.
On Wednesday mornings I drive into town and go to the grocery store. There’s a nice woman at the checkout who tells me I need a dog. This time she isn’t there. I ask the cashier and he says she saved every penny she earned and took the Amtrak someplace else. He says it with a proud smile. I leave him and return with a bottle of whiskey.
Back at the cabin, I drink the whiskey and stare at the machine for a while. I go to the drawer and get the letter. I’ve only read it once. The day I got it. After that I put it away.
I open it carefully, afraid it could fall apart.
Even after all my meddling in the past, the words are just how I remember them. The handwriting itself may have changed, but what he says is exactly the same. His profuse apology. His insistence that I couldn’t do anything more. The terror he felt, knowing that he was going to die. And more than anything, the realization of his deepest fear — that no one wanted him, and that he didn’t belong. That he was some kind of parasite who fed off the lives of others.
But there is one thing that’s different. One thing I’m certain wasn’t there before, at the bottom of the letter, where the edge of the paper is starting to curl.
P.S. Maybe we’ll both be dinosaurs in the next life.
I run to the machine, and punch the numbers into the microwave.
My voice is all wrong. Squeaky and high-pitched.
“Your nose is bleeding.”
We’re laying in the grass in the backyard. It’s taking longer to adjust than it ever has before. There are spots in my eyes. I wipe my bloody nose with my sleeve. I look at my hands — they’re so small.
I remember this night. It’s the first time I invited Finn to my house. It’s the first time I invited anyone to my house. I never trusted anyone enough to bring them that close to me. There’s a lantern between us and bugs flock to it, mistaking it for the moon.
He’s still looking at me.
“Where’d you go?”
“That big brain of yours is always turning, huh?”
“I guess so.”
“Did you hear what I asked?”
The world still feels like it’s spinning.
“I asked what dinosaur you think I’d be.”
“You know. If I was a dinosaur. Which one do you think I’d be?”
“I don’t know too many dinosaurs.”
“Yeah right. You know everything.” Finn sits up in his sleeping bag and looks at me with his glassy little kid eyes. It’s strange to see him this way. No scars or wrinkles. He looks new. Maybe I can get through to him here. Before our lives happen.
“Yeah. Just a little head rush.”
“What dinosaur, doofus? You never answered. Here — I’ll go, so you can see how it’s done.” He holds the lantern up, squinting. Then he snaps his fingers. “I’ve got it.”
“Well, I don’t know the name of it,” he says.
“I thought you knew.”
“I do know. You’re the one with the club tail. You know which one I mean?”
“Yeah. Why that one?”
“Because it’s all covered in armor. Almost impossible to get through.”
I stare at him. How had I forgotten this conversation? It feels so important.
He blushes, maybe worried that he hit a bit too close to home.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean. . . .”
“No, it’s okay,” I say. “Keep going.”
“You’re like that guy. You’re tough. You protect yourself. Sometimes it seems like you could survive anything.” The whirring of the cicadas seems louder than ever. “But there are little soft spots in your armor. The right person can get through to you. Like me.”
“Prescient as ever,” I mutter.
“Huh? What’s that mean?”
I picture the microwave spinning with the little light on. How much time do I have left?
“You’re talking different,” Finn says.
“Finn, I have to tell you something.”
“But you didn’t do me,” he frowns. “What dinosaur am I?”
“I don’t know, but there’s something really important I have to tell you.”
“You can’t just skip me. That’s messed up.”
He isn’t going to let this go.
“Okay, okay.” It comes instantly. “You’re a pterodactyl.”
“What? No way. That’s lame.”
“No. It isn’t.”
“You’re just saying that because you don’t like the one I gave you. I’m a T-rex or a velociraptor at least.”
“I’m serious! And it’s not lame.”
I suddenly realize how lucky I am. I’m talking to my best friend. He’s right in front of me and I can hear his voice and I can see him and his life isn’t over. Right now, he’s alive. Even if it’s long past, this moment still exists. And that means he can never really die.
“It is lame. It’s like a dinosaur duck.”
“No, it isn’t.” I smile.
“Because you can go anywhere. You can fly over the ocean, see the mountains, perch up in the trees. You can do anything. You’re never on the ground for long and no one can touch you. You can fly, Finn. You can fucking fly.”
He stares at me.
“I guess that is kinda cool.”
I gaze up at the sky. I feel a tug on my mind. Parts of the night ripple and peel away like old wallpaper. Glimpses of the cabin walls peek through. Not much longer now.
He looks at me the way he looks at anyone he cares about. Full, undivided attention. Center stage. Spotlights. That look kills me.
“You can go anywhere. You can move to Paris or Kathmandu. You can become a youth pastor or an Olympic athlete or a mountain climber. Remember that, okay? Can you promise me you’ll remember that?”
“I mean, sure. I guess. Why though?”
The moment of truth. How do you tell a kid about their own death?
“There’s a day coming. And, well. I have to tell you about it. So it doesn’t happen. You’re going to —”
He grabs the side of his head.
“Shit,” he groans.
“What is it?”
“Nothing. I just . . . I get these headaches. And . . . And I keep having this dream.”
I glance at the sky again. Pieces of it dissolve away. I can see the machine. Feel the waves of heat rolling off it.
I’m running out of time.
“Dream about what?”
“I’m not sure. There’s this weird dude. He’s in the snow. And he looks really cold. And he’s surrounded by all these wires and tubes and stuff like that. And he’s got a big beard and he looks skinny and it doesn’t look like he’s slept.”
The moonlight is encased in his tears.
“I think I’m losing it. It feels like I’m supposed to say something to him, but I just don’t know how. There’s something wrong with him. He’s hurt. I can’t see where but I can feel it. Something is squeezing him and he can barely breathe and I don’t know him but I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to him.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“You’re the smartest person I know. I just want to know how I can help him.”
It’s time. The sky crumbles away. The ground beneath us dissolves. He’s fading away too. Half of his body is already gone.
I squeeze his shoulder.
“You did help him,” I say. “You already did.”
I can see in his eyes that he doesn’t understand, but it’s okay, because all of this will be gone in a heartbeat. I hug him and he’s gone.
All that’s left is me and my machine.
I get a full night of sleep for the first time in months. I pour the alcohol down the drain. I take a sledgehammer out from the shed and I smash every bit of the machine to pieces, from the microwave to the chair and colander to the car batteries and the long steel tubes. I break it all down until it’s unrecognizable. I wipe the sweat from my forehead. I have the letter in my pocket. I step out into cutting wind. Into my life. It is freezing cold, it is empty, it is bright, and it is only mine.
Image credit: Welleschik