Something Lost [A Short Story]
When we were sixteen years old, the world was a much smaller place than it is today. Whether we didn’t understand, or we just didn’t want to, I’m still not sure. But we should have. Our days were spent with an undiminishable exuberance, a desire for nothing other than to live our lives and keep on going - paying for one sunrise with one sunset - and never running out of change. We never imagined that there were things in this world that could hurt us, it just wasn’t something anyone had let us know. But life has a funny way of teaching lessons to those ignorant of its ways. I say funny, but perhaps what I should say is hard. Sure the signs were there, and I’m as sure today as I was then that we all saw them; just as I’m sure that we all ignored them. The proof of that is abundant, now. We all smoked, we all drank, we all did a little too much of what we probably shouldn’t have been doing. We never thought it was anything but harmless fun. A fine way to pass an evening, a self-prescribed release given over to us by what we deemed as mother nature herself. We were all doing it; maybe that’s why we couldn’t see the signs, hidden in plain view, but accessible for some ungodly reason only from the other side. Some twisted operating theatre, where we were the surgeons and the patients, and the ones looking in all at once.
He was a bright kid. Not do your homework for you, get an A on every test bright, but who gave a damn about that. He simply understood why, if that makes any sense. Even if it doesn’t, I’m not sure that I could describe it any other way. True intelligence is rarely something that can be quantified. I still remember the year we met, and that project for chemistry. We were all as a class to make an attempt to save as much water as we could and to record the endeavor for our homework each night for a month. Most of us stopped washing our hands so much, didn’t flush the toilet every time. Easy things. Not him. Two weeks in his hair was already a matted mess, and dirt clung to his fingernails like mud caked on a tractor tire. For most of us, not taking a shower for a month seemed unthinkable; after all, what would they say? What whispers would follow us through the hallways, as our unwashed stench lingered long after we had departed? He didn’t care. And so we each continued on in our own ways, recording our piddly savings night after night, sometimes resorting to lies, to cover up for the fact that we had just blown the whole thing off. I don’t think he ever even wrote one thing down. The assignment wasn’t what was important to him, the cause was. As reproachable as it might seem to some, this was one of the good times. The times when a young man existed who was so steadfast in his convictions that he would do whatever it took to satisfy his own desire for justice, to fulfill the need he had felt deep within himself to make the world a better place.
Now, years later looking back, it seems as if this very conviction was his undoing. Not his conviction to do what was right, but rather his conviction to do what he wanted - always. Not long after that chemistry project was up, we all began to see something in him change. Days would go by and no one would see him, calls would go unanswered nights on end. When we did see him, he was always a little different. We just chalked it up to what at the time it probably was, the drugs. Sure, we all smoked pot, and drank way too much come the weekend, but what he had gotten himself into was an entirely different beast altogether. There would be days when draped along the walls of his dimly lit bedroom there would be bags of cough medicine, all different kinds, draining their liquids to reveal only the crystals commonly unseen by the naked eye. Days when cooking sheets of strange dusts and grains would line his freezer, hidden from his mother's’ view by nothing more than a thin brown baking sheet, set away to solidify for use at a later date. Every time we saw him he was changed, not as one would expect, gradually heading in one direction, but wildly. One day we would be calm, distant, seemingly depressed. The next he would be screaming, ranting. About what? Who could say. It wasn’t long after this had begun, that it became a challenge to see him. Not only because, most of the time, he didn’t want to see us, but also because when we did see him, we just couldn't understand. We couldn't understand what was happening to him, what he was doing, or why. Hell, maybe we didn’t try hard enough. Maybe if we had, things would be different today. Within another year he had left school. His parents had finally caught on, god knows how it took them so long. He was in and out of institutions and hospitals from then on; all of them desperately trying to help a thousand different people in a handful of different ways, and course having little success in doing so. When we would see him, the young man we had known was a mere shadow. Sometimes, if you caught him in just the right moment, bathed in just the right light, you could still see him in there. Most times he was just gone.
He was speaking wildly. Ranting. His hands waving throughout the air over his head, his mouth nearly frothing in his rabid discourse. “Honestly man, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Why can’t anyone see what’s right in front of them? It’s all a bunch of lies. Hey, have you ever heard of Operation Northwoods? It was pretty crazy man, back in the seventies…” Suddenly, silence. It was as if his mind's very slate of cognizance had been struck barren in a mere moment, unceremoniously and without warning, leaving him not only unattached but completely unconcerned with any previously held notion. Upon the prompt I placed forward, an attempt to return to the previous topic still, for myself at least, very much at hand, I received from my friend nothing. Not only was there no sign of recollection of what it was that he had been speaking of mere moments before, but there was something else; or rather, a lack of something else that could be seen deep within his eyes. You could almost watch as his mind wandered, searching for something unknown to the rest of us in the room. It was as if sightless, and to most - voiceless, beings were calling to him. Diverting his attention from what we his friends still saw to be reality, they called to him and he listened, as only he could do. His eyes shone suddenly as if he were caught in a waking dream. He listened intently; with a sort of rabid passion that one not familiar with what this young man was now being forced to endure would only be able to gaze at with wonder, perhaps even with some sort of sick, misguided envy, to what was surely now the most important message that he would ever receive in his short twenty-one years on this planet.
Without warning he spoke again, as if returned to this planet in a flash by beings outside of our own human levels of understanding, what the uninitiated would refer to as little green men. “Man I could use a smoke, anyone want to go outside with me?” And for a moment it was as if the past six years had never happened. Perhaps the four of us had, along with our friend, been hurled through some rip in the universe, wrought from our own time and returned to a place free of the burdens of adulthood, back to when all we did was what we wanted, and the only worry we could conceive of was when we would finally have to head back home. We looked at one another, unsure of if this was even allowed at this place. An orderly in a white tee shirt and black cotton pants was by our friends side almost as soon as he had uttered his desire aloud, as if to simultaneously ensure him that we would be fine with whatever he decided, and to enforce the idea that it would probably be best for us all to remain where we were. But still we all stood, and like some mad percussion line we followed our temporary ringleader as he strode confidently from his spot of the spotted yellowed and decaying couch in which he had been slumped to the large white double doors leading to the courtyard beyond, and out into the sunlight.
Sitting in the cascading sunlight, abated only by the small flecks of shadow being left by the sycamore leaves above us, we all sat and watched. It seemed, ironically, that in moments of substance use our friend was more himself than he ever was. With his cigarette firmly pressed between his lips, we could all see the man we had known as a child before. The same man, the same child, that he had always been, now not so cloaked in the shadow that was his present condition, but almost fully realized. The cause of his condition, his schizophrenia, was known to all of us. Even if the doctors didn’t all agree, it was apparent to each of us. Drugs used to be fun, but now they seemed as if they were burdens, dark and ever lingering. Each of us had had our own experiences, our own successes as well as our own defeats. But none of us were so destroyed by our own negligence as our friend was. None of us had had to endure the loss of the very thing that we had all sought to expand, our minds.
On those days, when we were able to come and visit him, he was always different. We would never know what to expect from one day to the next, but rather we only knew to expect something new. In talking to him, you could tell that something was missing, some piece of him that had held him together all those years ago, eroded away by the constant tide of substance abuse that had been his crutch. It was ironic, that the very thing he had most assuredly thought would keep him sane would have been his undoing. We could all understand that, maybe myself even more than the rest of us. We had all believed so ferociously that one more hit would keep us thinking, that one more sip would hold the pain away, for even a moment longer. What we didn’t know then, but was what I wish we could have been told, by someone who had actually had any idea what they were talking about, was that we weren’t expanding our minds, or fighting off our sorrows, rather we were pushing them further below. I see it now like a splinter, being dug deeper and deeper into the skin. We thought we were making our problems disappear, but we were really only making sure they never did. Those scars still stay with us today, where the splinters were driven home and the pain resides, deep within our very being. But none more so than with him. At least our scars, as deep as some of them might be, can be ignored, can be dealt with. He lost that chance when the wounds refused to heal. His scars never even got the chance to exist, the wounds were simply too deep.
His speech was always disjointed, but not because he was anything less than eloquent. His mind just wandered, unabated by the constraints that held the rest of us down onto this earth. On his good days, it was almost something to be envious of. Such a lack of regard for what the rest of us, of people as a whole, deemed important in life. It was at these times that I was reminded of the young man who had existed all those years prior, who had refused to take a shower as if his small contribution would save the world. And maybe it would have if only the rest of us had been more like him. On his worst days, it was as if you were, to put it bluntly, speaking to a wall. He would listen, sitting patiently, eyes seemingly alert and attentive, but the response we would garner would not pertain to what we had put forth. It was as if he were having his own conversation with us, filling in what he thought we ought to have said in place of the words that had actually come forth from our mouths. It’s been months now, since the last time I had seen him. He was out for a time, a little while back, but he wasn’t really. All I can see of that last meeting in the outside world of him is a man in shambles, lying on my friend's basement couch, perking up only when the mention of cocaine had drifted through the air, heavy in its connotation. Most of us still got high, drank too much. I stay away. I can look at my friend and see what could have been, what could still be. It wouldn’t take much I think, sometimes lying awake at night staring at the ceiling, to bring me to where we had gone. I worry often about the rest of us, about where we might all end up, and where we could have had it all be different. It could have been any one of us, lying in those sterile white sheets, but it wasn’t. It was him. It was him, him who was tormented by sounds nonexistent to anyone else, plagued by questions wrought forth from his own mind, dredged up from the darkest corners usually so dutifully ignored by the rest of our so-called healthy minds. Him, who would never be the same. Perhaps it should have been a warning, even then when it had begun. Maybe it was just a mistake, some sick cosmic fluke. Who knows why anything happens, or why they don’t that part of life has never been for the living to understand. The only thing that could be said for what had happened to him for sure, was that it might have saved the rest of us from meeting the same fate. If only it were that simple.
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Written by @matthewmunseyart
Picture found on Pixabay.com