فصل 20

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فصل 20

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Day 22 and I’m still here

The minute we walk into my dad’s house, I know something’s wrong. Rosemarie greets us and invites us into the living room, where Josh Raymond sits on the floor playing with a battery-operated helicopter that flies and makes noise. Kate, Decca, and I all stare, and I know they’re thinking what I’m thinking: toys with batteries are too loud. Growing up, we weren’t allowed to have anything that talked or flew or made a sound.

“Where’s Dad?” Kate asks. Looking through the back door, I can see the grill sitting closed. “He came home from the trip, didn’t he?”

“He got back Friday. He’s just in the basement.” Rosemarie is busy handing us sodas to drink straight out of the can, which is another sure sign that something’s wrong.

“I’ll go,” I tell Kate. If he’s in the basement, it can only mean one thing. He’s in one of his moods, as Mom calls them. Don’t mind your father, Theodore; he’s just in one of his moods. Give him time to settle down, and he’ll be fine.

The basement is actually nice and carpeted and painted, with lights everywhere and my dad’s old hockey trophies and framed jersey and bookshelves packed with books, even though he absolutely does not read. Along one entire wall is a giant flat screen, and my dad is planted in front of this now, enormous feet on the coffee table, watching some sort of game and shouting at the television. His face is purple, and the veins in his neck are hulking out. He’s got a beer in one hand and a remote in the other.

I walk over to him so I’m in his line of sight. I stand there, hands in pockets, and stare at him until he looks up. “Christ,” he says. “Don’t go sneaking up on people.”

“I’m not. Unless you’ve gone deaf in your old age, you had to hear me coming down those stairs. Dinner’s ready.”

“I’ll be up in a while.”

I move over so that I’m in front of the flat screen. “You should come up now. Your family’s here—remember us? The originals? We’re here and we’re hungry, and we didn’t come all this way to hang out with your new wife and child.”

I can count on one hand the times I’ve talked to my father like this, but maybe it’s the magic of Badass Finch, because I’m not one bit afraid of him.

He slams the beer so hard against the coffee table that the bottle shatters. “Don’t you come into my house and tell me what to do.” And then he’s off the couch and lunging for me, and he catches me by the arm and wham, slams me into the wall. I hear the crack as my skull makes contact, and for a minute the room spins.

But then it rights itself, and I say, “I have you to thank for the fact that my skull is pretty tough now.” Before he can grab me again, I’m up the stairs.

I’m already at the dinner table by the time he gets there, and the sight of his shiny new family makes him remember himself. He says, “Something smells good,” gives Rosemarie a kiss on the cheek, and sits down across from me, unfolding his napkin. He doesn’t look at me or speak to me the rest of the time we’re there.

In the car afterward, Kate says, “You’re stupid, you know that. He could have put you in the hospital.”

“Let him,” I say.

At home, Mom looks up from her desk, where she is attempting to go over ledgers and bank statements. “How was dinner?”

Before anyone else can answer, I give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, which—since we’re not a family that likes to show affection—leaves her looking alarmed. “I’m going out.”

“Be safe, Theodore.”

“I love you too, Mom.” This throws her even more, and before she can start crying, I am out the door to the garage, climbing into Little Bastard. I feel better once the engine has started. I hold up my hands and they’re shaking, because my hands, like the rest of me, would like to kill my father. Ever since I was ten and he sent Mom to the hospital with a busted chin, and then a year later when it was my turn.

With the garage door still closed, I sit, hands on the wheel, thinking how easy it would be to just keep sitting here.

I close my eyes.

I lean back.

I rest my hands on my lap.

I don’t feel much, except maybe a little sleepy. But that could just be me and the dark, slow-churning vortex that’s always there, in me and around me, to some degree.

The rate of car exhaust suicides in the States has declined since the mid-sixties, when emission controls were introduced. In England, where emission controls barely exist, that rate has doubled.

I am very calm, as if I’m in science class conducting an experiment. The rumble of the engine is a kind of lullaby. I force my mind to go blank, like I do on the rare occasions I try to sleep. Instead of thinking, I picture a body of water and me on my back floating, still and peaceful, no movement except my heart beating in my chest. When they find me, I’ll just look like I’m sleeping.

In 2013, a man in Pennsylvania committed suicide via carbon monoxide, but when his family tried to rescue him, they were overcome by the fumes and every single one of them died before rescue crews could save them.

I think of my mom and Decca and Kate, and then I hit the opener, and up goes the door, and out I go into the wild blue yonder. For the first mile or so, I feel high and excited, like I just ran into a burning building and saved lives, like I’m some sort of hero.

But then a voice in me says, You’re no hero. You’re a coward. You only saved them from yourself.

When things got bad a couple months ago, I drove to French Lick, which sounds a helluva lot sexier than it is. The original name was Salt Spring, and it’s famous for its casino, fancy spa and resort, basketball player Larry Bird, and healing springs.

In November I went to French Lick and drank the water and waited for it to fix the dark, slow churning of my mind, and for a few hours I actually felt better, but that might have been because I was so hydrated. I spent the night in Little Bastard, and when I woke the next morning, dull and dead feeling, I found one of the guys who worked there and said to him, “Maybe I drank the wrong water.”

He looked over his right shoulder, then his left, like someone in a movie, and then he leaned in and said, “Where you want to go is Mudlavia.”

At first I thought he was high. I mean, Mudlavia? But then he said, “That up there’s the real deal. Al Capone and the Dillinger gang always went there after some sort of heist. Nothing much left of it now except ruins—it burned down in 1920—but them waters flow strong as ever. Whenever I get an ache in my joints, that’s where I go.”

I didn’t go then, because by the time I returned from French Lick, I was tapped out and that was it, and there was no more traveling anywhere for a long while. But Mudlavia is where I’m headed now. Since this is serious personal business and not a wandering, I don’t bring Violet.

It takes about two and a half hours to get to Kramer, Indiana, population thirty. The terrain is prettier here than in Bartlett—hills and valleys and miles of trees, everything snow covered, like something out of Norman Rockwell.

For the actual resort, I’m picturing a place along the lines of Middle Earth, but what I find is acres of thin brown trees and ruins. It’s all crumbling buildings and graffiti-covered walls overgrown with weeds and ivy. Even in winter, you can tell nature is on a mission to take it back.

I pick my way through what used to be the hotel—the kitchen, hallways, guest rooms. The place is grim and creepy, and it leaves me sad. The walls still standing are tagged with paint.

Protect the penis.

Insanity please.

Fuck all you who may see this.

This does not feel like a healing place. Back outside, I tramp through leaves and dirt and snow to find the springs. I’m not sure exactly where they are, and it takes standing still and listening before I go in the right direction.

I prepare to be disappointed. Instead, I break through the trees to find myself on the banks of a rushing stream. The water is alive and not frozen over, the trees here fuller than the others, as if the water is feeding them. I follow the creek bed until the embankment grows into rock walls, and then I wade right into the middle, feeling the water push past my ankles. I crouch down and form a cup with my palms. I drink. It’s cold and fresh and tastes faintly of mud. When it doesn’t kill me, I drink again. I fill the water bottle I brought with me and then wedge it into the muddy bottom so it doesn’t float away. I lie down flat on my back in the middle of the stream and let the water cover me.

As I walk into the house, Kate is on her way out, already lighting a cigarette. As direct as Kate is, she doesn’t want either of my parents to know she smokes. Usually she waits till she’s safely in her car and down the street.

She says, “Were you with that girl of yours?”

“How do you know there’s a girl?”

“I can read the signs. Name?”

“Violet Markey.”

“The sister.”


“Do we get to meet her?”

“Probably not.”

“Smart.” She takes a long drag on the cigarette. “Decca’s upset. Sometimes I think this Josh Raymond situation is hardest on her since they’re practically the same age.” She blows three perfect smoke rings. “Do you ever wonder?”

“Wonder what?”

“If he’s Dad’s?”

“Yeah, except he’s so small.”

“You were small till ninth grade and look at you now, beanstalk.”

Kate heads down the walk and I head in, and as I’m shutting the door, she calls, “Hey, Theo?” I turn and she’s standing beside her car, nothing but an outline against the night. “Just be careful with that heart of yours.”

Once again: Just be careful.

Upstairs, I brave Decca’s chamber of horrors to make sure she’s okay. Her room is enormous, and covered with her clothes and books and all the strange things she collects—lizards and beetles and flowers and bottle caps and stacks and stacks of candy wrappers and American Girl dolls, left over from when she was six and went through a phase. All the dolls have stitches on their chins, like the ones Decca got at the hospital after a playground accident. Her artwork covers every inch of wall space, along with a single poster of Boy Parade.

I find her on her floor, cutting words out of books she’s collected from around the house, including some of Mom’s romance novels. I ask if she has another pair of scissors, and without looking up, she points at her desk. There are about eighteen pairs of scissors there, ones that have gone missing over the years from the drawer in the kitchen. I choose a pair with purple handles and sit down opposite her, our knees bumping.

“Tell me the rules.”

She hands me a book—His Dark, Forbidden Love—and says, “Take out the mean parts and the bad words.”

We do this for half an hour or so, not talking, just cutting, and then I start giving her a big-brother pep talk about how life will get better, and it isn’t only hard times and hard people, that there are bright spots too.

“Less talking,” she says.

We work away silently, until I ask, “What about things that aren’t categorically mean but just unpleasant?”

She stops cutting long enough to deliberate. She sucks in a stray chunk of hair and then blows it out. “Unpleasant works too.”

I focus on the words. Here’s one, and another. Here’s a sentence. Here’s a paragraph. Here’s an entire page. Soon I have a pile of mean words and unpleasantness beside my shoe. Dec grabs them and adds them to her own pile. When she’s finished with a book, she tosses it aside, and it’s then I get it: it’s the mean parts she wants. She is collecting all the unhappy, mad, bad, unpleasant words and keeping them for herself.

“Why are we doing this, Dec?”

“Because they shouldn’t be in there mixed with the good. They like to trick you.”

And somehow I know what she means. I think of the Bartlett Dirt and all its mean words, not just about me but about every student who’s strange or different. Better to keep the unhappy, mad, bad, unpleasant words separate, where you can watch them and make sure they don’t surprise you when you’re not expecting them.

When we’re done, and she goes off in search of other books, I pick up the discarded ones and hunt through the pages until I find the words I’m looking for. I leave them on her pillow: MAKE IT LOVELY. Then I take the unwanted, cut-up books with me down the hall.

Where something is different about my room.

I stand in the doorway trying to figure out exactly what it is. The red walls are there. The black bedspread, dresser, desk, and chair are in place. The bookshelf may be too full. I study the room from where I stand because I don’t want to go inside until I know what’s wrong. My guitars are where I left them. The windows are bare because I don’t like curtains.

The room looks like it did earlier today. But it feels different, as if someone has been in here and moved things around. I cross the floor slowly, as if that same someone might jump out, and open the door to my closet, half expecting it to lead into the real version of my room, the right one.

Everything is fine.

You are fine.

I walk into the bathroom and strip off my clothes and step under the hot-hot water, standing there until my skin turns red and the water heater gives out. I wrap myself in a towel and write Just be careful across the fogged-up mirror. I walk back into the room to give it another look from another angle. The room is just as I left it, and I think maybe it isn’t the room that’s different. Maybe it’s me.

In the bathroom again, I hang up my towel, throw on a T-shirt and boxers, and catch sight of myself in the mirror over the sink as the steam starts to clear and the writing fades away, leaving an oval just large enough for two blue eyes, wet black hair, white skin. I lean in and look at myself, and it’s not my face but someone else’s.

On my bed, I sit down and flip through the cut-up books one by one, reading all the cut-up passages. They are happy and sweet, funny and warm. I want to be surrounded by them, and so I clip out some of the best lines and the very best words—like “symphony,” “limitless,” “gold,” “morning”—and stick them on the wall, where they overlap with others, a combination of colors and shapes and moods.

I pull the comforter up around me, as tight as I can—so that I can’t even see the room anymore—and lie back on my bed like a mummy. It’s a way to keep in the warmth and the light so that it can’t get out again. I reach one hand through the opening and pick up another book and then another. What if life could be this way? Only the happy parts, none of the terrible, not even the mildly unpleasant. What if we could just cut out the bad and keep the good? This is what I want to do with Violet—give her only the good, keep away the bad, so that good is all we ever have around us.

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