Keep Going

Go go go don’t stop don’t look back. If you look back they can get you, the demons, the shadows, the ones who never slow down. Keep running they’re catching up. They’re always catching up. You said to me once that the truly terrifying thing, what makes you prickle cold with sweat at night and shakes your bones all day, what scares you is that you can go a long way pretty fast but they go slower they do they plod on but they never ever ever need to sleep. You slowed down and they got you.

If I keep going fast enough they won’t get me. If I keep running I’ll be okay. That’s what you told me. Your words go in my head keep going keep going keep going run run run and one syllable with every time a foot hits the ground so I’m saying the words as I go even when I’m walking because my legs might fall out from under me. Those words keep my feet forward, keep my bones working and my blood churning and my face turned up and ahead of me so I don’t look at the ground so long that I just sink right onto it. Sometimes the dirt looks so inviting.

There’s no way I give up, you have to know that, you might be gone to me but I can still talk to you in my head. It’s not like there’s anyone else to talk to either and I’d always rather talk to you than anyone. You know. You always know. Now when I have to do all the knowing when my brain has to work all the time and my body has to go go go all the time and I’m without you and all I have is your words that keep me going because I have to keep going. Now that it’s like this, I still talk to you in my head. I always did and always will. There isn’t anyone better to talk to. Even if there was someone they wouldn’t be better couldn’t not possibly because you’re always you even though you’re not here you’re not with me you’re still you. When I ask myself questions because I’m so so so tired sometimes I can hear your answers because I know what you would say. Sometimes I ask just to hear the answer you would say come back to me and I can pretend for a little minute there that you’re telling me how to survive how to be how to live and it’ll work and because of you, your words in my head, you’re gone but I have your words and so I’ll be okay.

Do you think I’ll ever be able to rest? No don’t stop run run run never stop.

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A List of the Reasons He Didn’t Go After Her

1. The day before she left, he walked into the bedroom to see May shoving books and clothes into her big overnight bag. She didn’t look up when Brian came into the room, and he didn’t ask what she was doing. He had a lurching feeling in the tangled mass of his gut that if he said anything about what she was doing, she’d have to tell him why, and her words would unravel him completely.

2. The day before that, Brian had mentioned that someday he wanted to move out of the city. It would be nice to live somewhere quieter, or at least to live somewhere and stay awake at night because of owl calls and crickets instead of sirens and car alarms. May loved the city. He said he wanted to live somewhere with more trees than buildings, and she scoffed. She said, “Yeah, and go to bed at 10 pm every night, and have a handful of kids and a minivan. Yeah, right.” He had shrugged. She started to say something, and then she stopped. Finally she shrugged too, but not in the way that meant she couldn’t be bothered to argue about it. He was well versed in her shrugs, in the flow and jerk of her body in all its expressions. She shrugged in the way that meant it really didn’t matter to her what he did with his future.

3. Three weeks before, she had gotten angry at him. They’d gone to Emily’s party together and sat like a good little couple at the table, commenting on how delicious the food was. He’d had a nice chat with Patricia, who was sitting next to him along because Neil was on a business trip or something like that. Everybody knew that Neil screwed around; he practically bragged about it every time he saw anyone. Brian smiled at her a lot, wishing that she wasn’t dating such an asshole. She was a perfectly nice girl. When they got home, May had rounded on him and accused him of flirting with that pasty-faced simpering little twit all night while she was sitting right there next to him. He had protested, because that really hadn’t been how he thought of it at all. He was just being nice to her. They went back and forth for an hour. She asked him tearfully how he thought it looked to everybody else there. He shouted that he didn’t know what she wanted him to do, just ignore the person sitting next to him for two hours, because he wasn’t about to do that. May walked into the bedroom and slammed the door. He waited seven minutes–he knew this by now, five was too short and ten was too long–and then went in to talk to her. Usually they argued for another few minutes and then they both apologized and had make-up sex. Now he went inside, sat down next to her on the bed, and she turned away from him. He tried to talk to her, and she turned back. “Whatever,” she said. “Let’s go to sleep already.” She seemed tired of the argument, tired of caring, and tired of him.

4. The day she left, May didn’t do anything dramatic. She didn’t write a letter, left on the living room table for him to find later. She just sat down next to him on the couch, where he was reading a magazine. She said, “We have to talk. This isn’t working out, and we both know it. I’m going to go. I hope that eventually we can be friends, you know? I’m really sorry.” Brian had nodded, numb, while she hefted her bag onto her shoulder and walked out of the apartment. In her absence, he melted onto the floor and spread out in wisps, a sprawling puddle. He didn’t know how to pull himself together without her.

5. When she left, she kissed his cheek in a polite sort of way. That’s what undid him the most. Her lips touched his cheek as if they had never been anything other than casual acquaintances. He didn’t know how she could kiss his cheek and walk away from his life as if they weren’t already entwined and impossible to untangle from one another. If he had gotten up and chased her down the stairs, what could he possibly have said? Already he didn’t matter to her. He could tell.

6. He didn’t know that she wanted him to.

The Missing Self

In his eighteenth year, Ben’s self went missing. He didn’t realize for a long time. Perhaps, he realized later, it had been missing for years. One day he woke, stretched from his bed, and realized that it was gone. His shadow on the wall was motionless, crooked across the corner, somehow emptier than he thought it was.

His parents didn’t act like anything was different. They were sitting at the kitchen table. His mother bent over the newspaper sprawling on the table, and his dad was already making Ben a bowl of cereal. They always kept to their morning routine. His dad used to say that it kept them stable. Ben hadn’t understood it for a long time because he thought the word only had something to do with horses. He ate his cornflakes just like he did every day. They crunched in his mouth the same way. The tinny edge of his mother’s hum of interest still bit into his nerves just as they always did. He couldn’t explain why everything was different. It wasn’t even something that he could put into words. It was just that suddenly, with no warning, his self was gone. He barely knew what that meant, but he felt the gape in his chest where his self wasn’t.

School didn’t change. His teachers didn’t care if Ben had his self with him, or if he was conscious. He got through his classes and nodded through lunch just like always. High school was almost over, and nobody really noticed any of the seniors anyway. After school he caught up with Vanessa, his girlfriend. She always waited for him at the next corner. Her face held a worried sort of hope until she saw him. She was relieved he was there, every single day. He still marveled at that.

They held hands and walked down the street, bumping shoulders. Vanessa talked for a little while about her science teacher who was a jerk, and about her best friend, who was also a jerk. She asked him how his day was and then got anxious when he waited to answer. Finally, Ben said, “I don’t know, babe. Something’s weird today. I don’t know. I woke up feeling really funny, like I was all screwed up. I don’t know why though.”

She asked him a lot of questions, and he struggled to answer her. When it started to get dark he kissed her goodbye and went home. His parents talked about the news at dinner, and he thought dimly about how he would sort of miss tuning them out when he left next year. When he brushed his teeth, he stared at himself in the mirror and wondered what was missing. His eyes were the same brown eyes as always, but he didn’t recognize them. It was like he was looking at a photograph of somebody he didn’t know very well instead of his own reflection.

When he woke up in the morning, his self was still gone. The next morning, too. It came to feel like a little numb patch in his chest where the flesh had healed over until you could barely tell that anything was wrong. Ben was quiet normally, but he was silent now. His parents worried that he was having second thoughts about his future. Vanessa worried that she’d done something wrong. Ben worried that he’d never get his self back.

After a month of missing self, Ben’s grandfather slipped and fell. He was okay, but Ben’s mom freaked out. Both his parents left for a night, and Vanessa took the opportunity to come over and sleep in his bed. She stroked his skin and whispered to him, trying to get him to respond, but he didn’t know what she wanted. She clung to him, so he held her. In the morning when he woke next to her, he didn’t feel anything. His self was still gone and the middle of his chest was numb. He put some of his clothes in a duffel bag and wrote an email to his parents that he was going to go camping with his friend Trevor and they shouldn’t worry. He made breakfast for Vanessa.

His girlfriend came downstairs and kissed his neck. He gave her eggs and toast. They sat and ate, and finally Ben said, “I want to talk to you.” She knew enough to be afraid, and she looked at him with fear. He said, “I don’t think we should, I mean, can we? I want to, we should, break up be friends stop seeing each other.”

She started crying at once, and he got up from the table to grab his duffel bag. “Why?” she said. “What did I do?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I need to go find my self.” And he left.

Losing Light

The sun was singing on the bricks the last day of Malcolm Trench’s life. He had always liked to sit and watch as the sun went down. The day aged and the light yellowed until it faded and left altogether. Something in it enchanted him.

When he was younger, he had used to sit with Eva, his arm around her shoulder, and watch together as the sun went down. He worked odd hours as an engineer, so he was home around sunset. She was an accountant and she got out of work just after five, usually, so she would meet him at his apartment at six and they would sit in the living room by the big window. They used to just be friends, because she had been the younger sister of his childhood buddy. He had loved her forever. Even when they were friends she often came to his apartment to watch the sunlight disappear. There wasn’t a very good view from the living room window. The buildings leered at them, dirty windows and chipped paint, and they could barely see the sky. Instead they watched the sunlight shift colors, briefly making beauty skim the cracked and crumbling buildings. The white inside of the apartment cooled to eerie blue-gray as if the apartment was closing off to the rest of the world, dipped in shadow, and it was just them inside with the blue-gray walls around them.

One day Eva brought a pizza over and they ate and talked in low voices as the sun went down. She made a joke and he grinned. They were quiet for a moment. Malcolm remembered, later, how she looked then with the light cast in a glow down the line of her face and the hair curling free to her shoulders. She leaned forward, as if it was a casual calm motion and not one that sent shivers through him, and she pressed her mouth to his for the first time. Her lips were slippery with grease and soft. They didn’t notice the sun slip past the horizon or the dimming of the world to darkness.

After that Eva came over every evening and they watched the sunlight sidle away across the sky together until they were too distracted by the press of his arm on her back, the warmth of her thigh against his, and they scrambled and pushed at each other on the living room sofa. He could still remember what her sweat smelled like.

When she got pregnant he knew they had to get married. It was the right thing to do. She cried, tears trapped between her cheek and his shoulder, and he held her. They were too young, but they didn’t know that until later. They sat together, her with her growing belly, in his living room looking out the window. He rubbed her feet while the sun retreated. They got married in a courthouse ceremony. Malcolm’s mother came, and Eva’s parents sent them a letter of congratulations. The baby was born three months later. They named it Henry. Malcolm wanted to love the little red monkey as much as he loved his wife. He tried very hard.

Two years after they got married, he left. Perhaps she left. Probably neither of them really knows anymore. There wasn’t any reason to stay together any longer. Technically, they never got divorced. It comforted Malcolm for a while to know that there was still a piece of paper somewhere tying his name to hers. Eva sends him postcards sometimes with updates on Henry, who recently turned fourteen and has so far obstinately refused to discover girls. They both visited Malcolm last year. It was a short and awkward visit, except for the last night they were there. The three of them, the disjointed family, had sat in Malcolm’s new living room in the chairs he picked up for cheap down the street. There were two windows without curtains. The family sat with their dinners on their laps, waiting for the sun to go away. The light stretched thin and the shadows invaded. Henry was calm and quiet, not in the sullen teenage way he was growing into but in a peaceful way. Eva smiled unconvincingly at Malcolm and there was a kind of recognition in her smile. For one moment, they were together again in the onset of evening.

Earlier this evening, Malcolm left work. His boss had finally handed out the Christmas bonuses, apologizing grudgingly that it had taken him all the way into the new year. Malcolm cashed the check and waited too long to tuck the money into his wallet. A teenager shoved into him and yanked a gun out of his shorts. Malcolm looked into the trembling barrel of the gun and the kid told him to hand over the money, now. Malcolm backed away, tried to look around. The teenager whipped the gun into Malcolm’s head. It bounced off his skull with a thud, and Malcolm collapsed back onto the bricks. The kid grabbed his wallet and took off without looking back.

When the gun hit Malcolm’s skull, a blood vessel burst in his brain. He died at once. The kid would probably have been horrified to know that. His name was Brian and he carried a gun without bullets because he wanted to look threatening but didn’t want to go to jail. He thought he had just knocked out the guy outside the ATM. He ran and congratulated himself on making so much easy money. Brian had a long and convoluted life that led him to this moment, that thud, and the pieces of his life fit together in interestingly intricate ways. However, this is not Brian’s story. It is Malcolm’s and it ends here, with the setting sun singing on the bricks.

Messy

Mashed potatoes were all over the ceiling and the boots were making the table muddy. She knew she should never have let Harry look after the kid. As Emma stood in the doorway of the kitchen, she watched a clump of potato detach and fall, with a wet thunk, to the floor. There was a scuffling sound in the hallway and Harry appeared with a spray bottle of cleaner, a sponge, and a dawning look of guilt.

She watched him approach without saying a word, her mouth tight, her fingernails engraving lines on her palms. Harry shuffled past her, into the kitchen, and applied himself to the table. She didn’t move as he scraped the mud off of the wood with a rag and then sprayed the table with surface cleaner. He scrubbed until the sponge had removed all the mud, and then it seemed to occur to him to take the boots off. He dropped them, and they thudded on the tiles. She signed at the spray of dirt from the soles.

“Mama, what is Daddy doing?” Great, Emma thought. Angie was up again. She turned and picked up her daughter.

“Don’t worry, baby, he’s just cleaning up the mess you two made. It’s okay. Go back to sleep, okay?” She bounced Angie on her hip, gently.

The child clung to her neck. “It’s dark in my room. I don’t want to sleep. I’m not tired.”

Emma disentangled her daughter and held her hand, pulling her down the hall. “I know. I’ll put the nightlight in, honey, but you’ve got to sleep. Can you try?”

Angie nodded. Her eyes were round and trusting. Her daughter’s face sent a wave of warmth through Emma, edged with irritation. She lifted Angie into bed and dragged the blanket over her, kissed her forehead, and plugged in the nightlight. Motherly duties dispensed with, she returned to the kitchen to check on her husband’s progress. He had found a mop and upended it to wash the ceiling. The stringy bits of the mop scraped against the ceiling, wiggling at the end of the handle, while Harry dodged the ends.

Emma walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She had left the house so neat that morning when she’d left. She had known it wouldn’t stay that way. Harry had a magnetic power to him, a charisma that charmed grease and grime to creep shyly over surfaces. He persuaded everything to get a little crooked, just for him. He was very convincing about it. He liked things a bit messy.

Emma was neat, usually. She tidied and dusted. Harry used to tease her about her domestic tendencies, but she’d been hurt, despite the affection in his voice. He’d tugged at her apron and called her Mrs. Clean. She’d spritzed him with water and they’d ended up getting very messy. She smiled, remembering.

Now Harry had somehow managed to spread the mashed potato in a thin smear from the refrigerator to the space over the stove. Emma wondered if it would dry that way, making a bumpy crust on their kitchen ceiling. It had been a long day, and she couldn’t bring herself to care very much. She would fix it tomorrow. Sometimes it felt to her as if she spent more time cleaning up after her husband than she did after her child.

Harry paused in his efforts, his lips pursed and his gaze resting on her face. He propped the mop against the counter and leaned toward her. Emma’s husband put his dirty hands on her shoulders and he kissed her. She didn’t respond, didn’t move, for a moment. He was soft, but she was annoyed. Harry moved back and looked at her. “Hello,” he said. “I’m sorry, babe, long day.”

“Mine too,” she said, her tone forbidding.

“I know,” said Harry. “I’ll fix it.”

“The kitchen, or my day?”

He smiled, hopeful. “Both?” He held steady, looking at her, waiting for her reaction.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think you will.” His eyes flickered, and she could see him holding his smile in place.

“Okay,” he said. “I won’t. I will try anyway, though. Come here one second.”

“Okay.” This time she kissed him back, letting him pull her face to his.

They looked at each other, his shoulders hunched and her brow furrowed. A chunk of potato that had been awaiting its moment freed itself from the ceiling and fell with a splat to the tiles between them. They couldn’t help but laugh.

A Woman Named June

June never liked to be in anyone’s face. She was the type who would be in the room so quiet you didn’t even notice her. Her therapist liked to talk about this tendency for “passivity. A kind of introversion that lets you fade into the background. Your relationship with Matthew shows me this desire to, you know, not be any bother. You don’t want to be trouble to anyone so you take it all on yourself.” It’s very comforting to hear her life explained to her like this. June sits in her therapist’s office and nods. She doesn’t want to disagree, and she wouldn’t know what to say if she did.

When she walked up High Street last week she ran into Matthew. She can’t stop thinking about it. He was surprised to see her, hey June I haven’t seen you in ages how are you doing I hope everything’s going well. Matthew always did manage to talk a lot without communicating much of anything. She said she was doing fine, thanks, and asked how he was. He rattled on for a while, and she nodded. He said it was great to see her, and she nodded. He hugged her goodbye and she froze, stiff and unresponsive and too startled to bring her arms up around him until he was already pulling away. That’s how it had always been with them anyway.

When she told her therapist about this encounter, her therapist’s mouth twisted and her eyes gleamed with speculation. June could just feel the analysis waiting to rush out. She didn’t hear any of it, though. She heard her therapist’s voice tumbling over her and caught the odd word–aggression–anonymous–relationship–depression. June’s mind was roaming, though, and she nodded and nodded without taking in any of the explanation of her life.

When she left her therapist’s office, she sat in her car in the parking lot. She put the key in the ignition but she didn’t start the car. The expectant light on her dashboard faded, disappointed. June folded her hands in her lap and stared ahead. She didn’t know how long it had been (five minutes? thirty?) when she was jerked from the reverie by a tapping. Matthew was outside her window, smiling his well-isn’t-this-funny smile. She rolled down the window and he burst into speech. Hey June so funny to see you again twice in a week after a whole year seems strange doesn’t it what are you doing here? She looked up at his eager face, the sweat shining on his forehead and his abashed smile. June said, “I feel like a robot.”

“Yeah,” said Matthew. “I know what you mean.”

June nodded, then she got in her car and drove away.

Probability

There is a 98% chance that you are not the reader this is intended for. From this statement you can deduce a variety of things. For one, that my paltry words, scribbled in this mangy journal, are going to be read by a very small subset of people. More importantly, there is only one person for whom I have scribbled them. Most importantly, I am almost certain that you are not him.

Let’s see, then. That would have to mean that if there is one reader, then there will be forty-nine people reading this who aren’t him. That’s fairly nasty odds, I think, though pretty good that all those people are reading this right now. Are you one of the forty-nine? How did you stumble across this tattered book, then?

If you are he, then here is the message I wanted to send to you. You, my 2% chance, my uneven odds. You used to tell me what you learned in school. Do you remember that? You would march into the kitchen and announce, “i is an imaginary number!” Can you believe that? You were ten years old and learning about imaginary numbers. Though, I suppose, you always did live more in your head than you did anywhere else.

When you left I stayed in the house for days. Weeks, probably. I became a sullen shadow until your father threw up his hands in disgust and walked out too. Don’t worry, baby, he was back eventually. I know you didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have shouted at you. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can still hear the sharp sound of my own voice, can still see the round shapes of your eyes because you were afraid of me. Perhaps you close your eyes and hear it too. I hope not. You’re seventeen now, your birthday was two weeks ago. Did you celebrate with anyone? Did you have cake? I would have made you a cake, you know. You would have said it was silly and rolled your eyes and huffed your breath out like any seventeen-year-old, and I would have waited until your back was turned to roll my eyes too at your antics. Instead, I curled up in the bedroom while your father reorganized the kitchen. He clanged pots and pans to such a cacophony that he didn’t hear me, even when I called.

It’s been months since you’ve been gone. If you’re reading this, maybe you’re back. I probably won’t show it to you when you get back, though. I’m going to start keeping up some kind of journal because Dr. Bachman told me to try it. She said it would help. I don’t think it will, most likely. Yesterday the phone rang and I knew it was you. Nobody spoke on the line. There wasn’t even breathing audible, but I knew. It had to be you. Didn’t it?

You are supposed to be old enough for empathy. I read something about the stages of children’s development once. Around nine or ten, children move past the egocentric stage, that solipsistic phase when they think that it is impossible to be anyone but themselves. I used to joke that they also develop self-awareness around then, and as teenagers become so self-aware that they forget about everyone else all over again. You, though, at seventeen. You should know better. You are supposed to have the kind of sympathy for other people’s pain that means that you are just not supposed to do this kind of shit. You should know better, and you don’t. I guess I’m kind of angry that you don’t care, or that you don’t care enough to do anything about it.

I know that’s not fair. Probably you tried to come back, but you can’t afford the bus ticket. Or you’re, I don’t know, the hostage of a psychopath in some basement somewhere. You can’t understand how I worry, how it eats at me. You’re not supposed to. Somewhere I didn’t do my job right. I didn’t teach you to care how I felt, and I didn’t make sure you’d be safe, and I didn’t make you feel loved enough that you wanted to stay home with me.

There is a 2% chance that if you’re reading this, I’m talking to you. I’m not sure if I’m giving myself good odds or bad ones with that. Maybe the chance is slimmer than that. I don’t know. I can’t know. I hope you come home and you never have to read this, because I’m sure you’ve had plenty of your own grief to hold. I’m going to go now, I’ll write more tomorrow. My hand is cramping, and I think I hear someone at the door.