|At the End of the String|
I was on my way to talk to Brody when the car hit me.
It was night, the roads dark and slick with ice, making it hard to get out of the way of a speeding vehicle. I didn’t feel much on impact, only an incredible force slamming into my body, as if I were back at the beach, trying to stand against an incoming wave only to be dragged into the undertow.
My body rolled off the trunk and onto the ice with a sickening crunch. The car slowed down, paused for a moment beside the curb, then sped away, throwing chunks of ice from its back wheels as it disappeared down the road.
“Come back,” I whispered, but in vain.
I lay on the side of the sleepy suburban street, at the corner of the intersection where the streetlight hung over me like a question mark, flickering orange light in short Morse code bursts. A light snow fell in random flurries, some flakes collecting on the tip of my nose, and then melting down my cheeks in cold tears. The blood pooling around my head started to harden and freeze my hair to the slick asphalt road.
This can’t be happening.
When we were kids, Brody had this magic eight-ball he kept by his bed, scratched up from all the times we used it to play catch when no other ball could be found. After a girl in our Elementary school died from an asthma attack, I got scared of my own mortality, so Brody shook his magic ball and asked it if he and I would live forever.
My sources say no, the ball said. Brody shook it again. Don’t count on it. Five more times it gave him the wrong answer, but he kept shaking it, until from the dark liquid appeared a reluctant It is decidedly so. “See?” he told me with that confident smile. “Nothing to worry about. We have all the time in the world.”
All the time in the world, I thought as my senses gradually left my body. Bullshit.
Never thought I was going to die like this. In my childhood, I had somehow convinced myself that death would be grand, or at least substantial in the scheme of things; taking a bullet for my true love, or holding my grandchild’s hand as my consciousness faded away in a hospital bed. Never like this. This was a newspaper death, inconsequential, forgotten the next morning. The universe would be ready to move on before my wake.
“That is a rather pessimistic view of things,” said a voice from the darkness.
A dark figure emerged from the shadows, half-lit by the glittering streetlight and the pale glow of the moon. The blood that pooled around my body became insignificant as I faced an elderly woman wrapped in a heavy brown cloth. Her arms extended above her head in a circular motion, and in one quick moment, huge black wings erupted out of her back like a blooming rose.
She was beautiful.
The black winged woman knelt down, her bulbous nose mere inches from mine. Her breath caressed my face in gentle wisps. It smelt of crushed lilacs and hydrangeas. She spoke in a grainy voice that came through like my grandma’s old A.M. radio.
“Harbor Ryan, is it?” She knew my name. “Yes, you are Harbor Ryan.”
Her fingers combed through my clumped hair, straightening it out, gently picking out the dried blood and entangled bits of flesh.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Cleaning your wound,” the woman said. “It’s a bit messy.”
I squinted, trying to make out her more defined features; the network of wrinkles spreading from her eyes like tiny hands, her obsidian black lips, the soft gaze of her gold-flecked eyes. From some base part of my soul, I knew who this woman was. “Are you Death?”
She smiled in confirmation as she continued to work.
I coughed a laugh, sending ripples through my halo of blood. “Always thought you’d be a little more... intimidating, with hellfire and all that.”
“For some people, I am,” she whispered serenely. “My shape is not a definite thing. Sometimes I am an animal, a fox or an owl, sometimes an idea, envy or love, sometimes nothing at all. Whatever the soul deserves.”
“And what do I deserve?”
“An old woman to clean your wounds.”
Death told me to close my eyes, and I did without hesitation. There was a familiar warmth to her voice that compelled me to listen, to give myself over and let the tide pull me in. I forgot about the blood and the snow.
“Most people have something holding them down to this world,” she said, “like a tether on a balloon. It could be something material, a person, or persons, an unfinished goal. There are many reasons to want to keep living. I wonder, Harbor, what is yours?”
I smiled just thinking about it. “His name’s Brody.”
Her hand stroked my cheek so gently I wanted to cry. “Tell me about him,” she whispered.
I met him in elementary school. Third grade.
I was playing on the monkey bars by myself, as usual, when this soccer ball came out of nowhere and hit me in the back of the head, knocking me to the ground. It took me a few blinks and groans to realize what had just happened. Someone came over to see if I was all right; a black-haired boy with a hook-shaped scar running across his chin.
“Are you okay?” he asked, looking down at me. At first, I didn’t answer, too mesmerized by the scar and its inherent coolness to register anything. Once the shock wore off, I asked him, “Where’d you get that scar?”
“I fell on the sidewalk,” he said smiling. “There was all this blood on my face. I had to get stitches.”
I never knew anyone who had to get stitches before. I stood up, not bothering to brush the dirt off my butt. “Can I touch it?”
He held his chin out proudly. The scar felt smooth under my fingers, like a bump under a cloak of silk.
“That’s awesome,” I whispered.
The boy picked his soccer ball up off the floor, and gave me a measured look. “Do you want come to play with us?” he asked.
I looked at the black and white ball, at the boys waiting out in the field, and started to panic. I was supposed to be the invisible kid at school, the ghost haunting the playground. How strange, I thought, to be noticed all of the sudden. “I don’t know how to play,” I said.
“That’s okay,” he said with an easy smile. “Come on. I’ll show you how.”
So he taught me how to dribble the ball, how to kick it with the side of your foot so you can control where it goes, how to fake out the goalie. I was having fun, enjoying how easy it was to be with this boy. If I messed up, he’d laugh encouragingly, if I spoke, he’d respond like he actually wanted to talk to me. Pretty much the opposite of my parents.
“Brody was my first friend,” I told Death. “It’s funny, I never liked soccer. The only reason I joined the high school team was because of him.”
“He had quite an influence over you,” Death observed.
I nodded. “I was ready to follow him anywhere.”
Brody gave me my first joint. He dragged me to the back alley of our middle school, where the dumpsters hid us from the view of any passersby, kept looking around, as if at any moment a teacher would pop out of a trashcan and shoot us.
“Why are we back here?” I asked. “It’s cold, and I need to pee.”
“Shut up for a sec,” he said, his eyes still darting all over the place. “Look at what I have.”
From inside his thick winter coat, Brody pulled out a joint. He placed it in my hand.
“It’s so small,” I whispered. Maybe it was all the movies I’d seen, but I always imagined spliffs to be bigger, and more... elegant, if that makes any sense. What I held it my hand was a small, papery stick that was odorless and lighter than air. It may not have been all I’d imagined, but still sent excited shivers through my body. “Where did you get it?” I asked in awe.
“Swiped it from Avery’s locker,” Brody said with a wicked grin. “The fool doesn’t even realize half the school knows his combination.”
I thumbed the end of the spliff, where it twisted closed like a screw. “What do we do now?”
“Hold on,” he said. He dug a pink plastic lighter from the front pocket of his jeans, struck the trigger a few times until a steady flame danced off the tip, and told me to hold out the joint. I did, and he waved the flame underneath the tip until it began to glow orange. A wisp of smoke rose from the joint’s mouth. “So, who goes first?” he asked.
“You found it,” I said, holding the stick out to him. “You do it.”
Brody hesitated for a moment, then plucked the spliff from my hand and gingerly placed it between his lips. He sucked on it like he was drinking a milkshake through a straw, swallowing down the smoke. Color fled his face and in moments, he was on all fours, coughing and hacking. “Your turn,” he said, wiping spit from his lips.
As soon as I reached for the joint, someone cleared their throat behind me. A janitor was standing between the dumpsters, holding a trash bag. He dropped the bag, took the spliff from my hand, crushed it beneath his boot, and said, “Come with me.”
Principal Yeardley looked like he was about to fall asleep as he lectured us on peer pressure and burnouts, a hint of annoyance spreading across his face as Brody kept coughing during his speech. When Brody threw up on the carpet, I burst out laughing. Mr. Yeardley sighed and said our parents would be contacted.
“We got a week’s suspension for that,” I said. “First time I ever got in so much trouble. It was kind of exciting, almost like I had come of age.”
“Were you at all angry with him for the trouble he got you into?”
“A little.” I shrugged best I could in my position, frozen to the ground. “My dad gave me a few bruises for the principal’s phone call, Mom just watched as he hit me. I never told Brody what my parents did. I guess I figured the pain was worth it, just to be his friend.” I smiled ruefully. “Was that as pathetic as it sounded?”
Death shook her head. “Harbor, at this point, there is no such thing as pathetic, or stupid, or thoughtless. There is only ‘what was’, and that is something no adjective can describe. Everyone’s past is so specific, and so peculiar, there are no standards to set it by. You were suspended from school, your father beat you, you moved on, and that’s all.”
I laughed in between bloody coughs. “Simple as that?”
“Simple as that.” She smiled with such warmth, made me feel as though I were in a cradle again. “Please continue,” she said.
During our suspension from school, Brody and I played soccer nonstop. Living in this podunk town there was nothing else to do but play soccer. There was a wide field out behind the townhouse projects, completely flat, as if run over by a pack of steamrollers. We’d play there for hours, only stopping when our legs went numb.
Time slowed down that week. We were isolated, like an air bubble floating in the middle of the ocean. That isolation, from responsibility and from school, had a weird effect on Brody. He’d get this far away look in his eyes as he dribbled the ball between his feet, and would start talking about the future.
“Do you know what you want to do after graduation?” he asked me.
“No,” I said, caught off guard by the question. “Why? Do you?”
“Kind of.” He balanced the ball on his head. “I want to get out of here, go somewhere far away.”
Brody smiled, then shrugged. “Anywhere. You’re going to think I’m nuts when I say this, but sometimes, when I wake up early in the morning, just before the sun is about to rise, I get this feeling in my chest, this thump thump thump, like a beating drum. It’s as if my heart is telling me I’m meant to do something big, like... climb a volcano, or save an orphanage.”
“You sure it wasn’t heartburn?” I asked.
“I’m sure,” he said with his usual confidence. “I have big plans, Harbor. The last thing I want is to be stuck here. All I have to do is find a way out.” He eyed me cautiously. “You’ll help me, right?”
I punched him in the arm. “You go, I go.”
He ruffled my hair with a laugh. “Then let’s go.”
“It’s weird,” I said to Death, “You think you’re going to be someone’s friend forever, but at the same time you know nothing lasts forever. It’s this contradiction in your mind that you know exists, but you don’t really acknowledge it, hoping that you’ll be the exception. But everything ends, no matter what.”
Our friendship was no different. The cracks appeared in the strangest places.
We were playing soccer with some other guys from school in Charnon Park when this group of high school girls sat down on the bleachers and started whistling at us. One of them winked at me and giggled. Some of the guys waved or hollered back, but I kept my head down and continued playing. Brody did too, but I could tell he was distracted.
A week later, he came into my bedroom, smiling this bizarre smile, like he wasn’t sure why he was smiling. He pulled a magazine out of his backpack, a Playboy.
“Found it under my dad’s bed,” he said. We flipped through it together on the floor, staring at the dozens of naked women smiling back at us, their breast popping out of the page and into our eyes. Brody’s face got closer and closer to the magazine with every turn of the page. He started to rub himself through his jeans.
I pretended not to notice, instead staring intently at one of the model’s dark nipples, wondering when I was going to ‘get it’.
The moment I ‘got it’ came a few weeks later.
In the locker room, as Brody talked to Avery about some girls in their World History class, my eyes began to wander down the aisle, where a guy I didn’t know was undressing. He unbuttoned his flannel shirt, all the way down, revealing his smooth, rippled stomach. I watched in a mesmerized curiosity as his fingers wrapped around the slender waist of his shorts and pulled down.
A fire ignited in my heart, causing my blood to boil and my breath to quicken, and all I could think about was what it would feel like to brush my hand against his skin. The confusion made me nauseas, like there was some small, crazed animal clawing its way out of my stomach.
That was when Brody’s hand slapped the back of my head.
“Were you listening at all?” he asked. When I didn’t respond, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Hey, are you alright?”
It was a simple contact. He’d touched my shoulder before, but it was different now, almost like he was trespassing on sacred ground. I needed to get away from him.
“Don’t touch me,” I yelled, shoving him into the wall of lockers. All the combination locks trembled under the force of his body. Someone started chanting “Fight”, and others crowded around.
Brody looked like I had kicked him in the balls. “What did I do?”
I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what he did, only to realize he didn’t do anything. It was all me. Before I could apologize, someone shoved me toward him. I probably looked menacing since Brody threw his fist into my face without any hesitation. Shaking off the pain, I jumped onto him, punching at his sides, kicking at him with my knees. The cheers were deafening as we wrestled on the bleached locker room floor. All the while, I kept thinking about how close our bodies were.
It took a few minutes for a gym teacher to come and break us up.
“That was a strange day,” I said.
“Did you have feelings for Brody?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, not really. Sort of. It’s complicated, I—” Then I smiled, perhaps because I didn’t know what else to do. “It doesn’t matter. We started to drift apart after that fight. He got a girlfriend last year. Laura McNally. She’s captain of the field hockey team.”
“They are a good match for each other?” asked Death.
“So good that Brody realized he didn’t need me anymore. She was better at soccer than I was, funnier, smarter...prettier. The woman he was waiting for.” I swallowed a particularly large wad of spit. “I’ve seen Brody maybe three times this year.”
“When was the last time you saw him?” Death asked.
“Two days ago.”
He called me, said he needed to talk. I met him in the convenience store he worked at, people walking in and out, some saying “hi”, others keeping their head down the entire time while he checked their magazines and condoms through the laser. At one point in the night, customers stopped coming in, and it was only him and me.
He said nothing at first, only began to close up the store, sweeping some trash off the floor and straightening out the soup can pyramids and hanging posters. He spoke as soon as he finished counting the money in the register.
“I can’t take it anymore,” he whispered. “It’s too much.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “What’s too much?”
Brody flicked some switches behind the Bonsai Banana slushie machine. He then sat on the counter. I took a seat beside him as all the lights in the store shut off systematically except for the one directly above us, creating a halo of light. A veil of shadow covered his eyes as he spoke.
“I feel like I’m living someone else’s life. Someone a lot older than I am. Someone who’s more… I don’t know, more capable. I can’t handle it.”
I could hear the air conditioning shut off with a hum, leaving only Brody’s voice occupying the lonely store air. He leaned over the counter to grab a cigarette, which was somehow already lit, and took one long drag before continuing.
“Laura’s pregnant,” he said, the cigarette trembling in his hand.
“Oh.” What else can you say to that? “Is she going to keep it?”
Never before had I seen him look so lost. Brody, the risk-taker, Brody the one with all the answers, at this moment seemed like the loneliest boy in the world. I patted his shoulder, unsure how to comfort him. “It’ll be okay,” I said.
Then he started to cry.
“It’s not fair,” he sobbed, his trembling hands pressing up against his eyes. “Why me? I’m only seventeen. I’m just a kid. It’s not fair. We were only having fun, that’s all it was. I’m not ready, I’m not fucking ready. What am I supposed to do now?” He cried for a while, and I just sat there, wishing I knew what to say so that the tears would stop.
Brody wiped his face against his sleeve and jumped off the counter, a manic smile breaking across his face. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.
“And go where?” I asked, a little unnerved by the crazed look in his eye.
“Anywhere.” His voice grew more excited with every word. “We can take my mom’s station wagon, pack up all our junk, and keep driving ‘till we hit the coast, never come back.”
“What do we do at the coast? Become cabana boys?”
“Sure, if you want. Or we can take a boat and sail out to sea. We can make new names for ourselves, become completely different people.”
“Teenage pirates?” I suggested.
“I like it. I like it a lot,” he said, snapping his fingers. “But why stop there? A whole world is out there. We can sail to France and be mimes on the street.”
“While moonlighting as crime fighters?”
“And woo the local girls with our foreign ways,” Brody said with a wink. “More action than you can imagine.”
I grinned. “Taking all that we can get.”
“No responsibilities,” he said.
“No responsibilities at all,” I echoed. I bit my lip. “Sounds tempting.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Shadows dripped down Brody’s face like black paint. “It could be so easy. All we’d have to do is get in the car and drive.” He walked back to the counter and sat beside me, his right hand fumbling with his pink lighter, striking the trigger a few times before letting it go. From his mouth left a long, slow sigh, the kind summoned from the lowest regions of the lung.
“I’m stuck here, aren’t I?” he whispered.
We sat under the light in silence, neither of us knowing what to say next.
Eventually, Brody said he was tired and that he had a test tomorrow, slipped off the counter, and switched off the last light. As we disappeared into total darkness, I wanted to say something to him, words of comfort maybe, or even a simple “I’m here for you” to let him know he wasn’t alone, but when I opened my mouth, nothing came out.
I had no more words.
“Didn’t even say goodbye,” I said under the flickering streetlight, a strange ache throbbing in my chest. “Yesterday, I’d been going over and over in my mind things I could’ve said to him, should’ve said to him, but nothing ever sounded right.”
“It never does,” Death said. “You were on your way to see him tonight?”
“What were you going to say to him?”
“I was gonna tell him that as long as he was stuck in this town, I’d be stuck too... that I’d always be there for him, no matter what, because I love him.” A long, bitter laugh flew out my mouth and into the frozen air. “Now that sounded pathetic.”
“No,” Death said simply. “Not at all.”
Of all the things to make me cry that night, it was that.
Death raised her hands into the air and summoned forth all my memories of Brody. The memories flitted around the air like fireflies, pulsing with a soft yellow glow, some dimmer than others, all circling each other in confused spirals. Death pushed her hands together, squishing the memories together until they were a nothing more than a strand of golden string, the length of my body. It glinted orange under the streetlight, smiling at me from her hands.
“This is Brody’s thread,” she said. “This is the tether holding you to this world, the strongest tie.” From beneath her cloak, she took out a pair of old rusted scissors, snapped them a few times to make sure they operated properly, and placed them in my hand. “No one can cut this string but you.” She laid the string out between the blades of the scissors and then stood back, watching, waiting for me to cut my lifeline.
“Is this it?” I asked, more to myself than her, my voice trembling like a violin string. “I cut this string and I... is this really it?”
Death placed her hand on my chest. “It’s not very satisfying, is it?”
I shook my head as tears flowed down my cheeks. “Not at all.”
“And it’s not fair?”
“And you wish it could be any other day but today?”
“That’s life.” She smiled at me with those golden eyes, and every sound on earth seemed to quiet, as if the world was holding its breath. “Cut the string,” she whispered, “It’s time to go.”
Her hands clasped over mine, and I squeezed the handle of the scissors.
As the blades dug into the string the streetlight stopped flickering, letting the darkness settle in. It was then I remembered something, a fragment of a memory from long ago. The memory rushed over me like a revelation, and, despite everything, I found myself smiling.
“Sweet Jesus, you’re heavy,” Brody groaned as he pushed the shopping cart up the hill. Since I had won rock-paper-scissors, I got to ride in the basket, and was painfully aware of how slow we were traveling, gliding slowly along the river of streetlights.
“I can walk faster than this,” I said.
Sweat was pouring down Brody’s face, his arms straining to keep me going. “I’ve never wanted to punch someone as badly as I do you right now.”
“You look hot. Will it help if I fan you?” I waved my hands in his face. “Here, does this help?”
“Thanks,” he said, laughing. “That helps a lot, asshole.”
It took another ten minutes to reach the top of the hill. Brody caught his breath, then jumped into the cart with me. We peered forward. The road ahead was steep. Chances were the cart would flip before we reached the end.
“So whose idea was this again?” I asked.
“Probably mine,” he murmured.
He shifted his body weight, and the cart edged forward.
“You know,” I said, panic creeping into my voice, “now that we’re actually up here, looking down at the drop, I gotta say... I’m a little scared.”
Brody turned to me with a look of genuine confusion.
“Why are you scared? I’m here.”