Authors: Mark Ferguson
Henry was so rigid. He stayed solid in his belief that they had lucked out to find each other at such a young age. He said that all the exploration most people do, the exploration she claimed to want, was unnecessary for them. They had been chosen for each other by some unseen authority, and she either saw that and loved him and had a responsibility to fight for that love, or she didn’t. Val, like always, agreed to Henry’s premise but surprised them both by saying that in that case she guessed she didn’t love him. He didn’t believe her, forced her to enumerate the reasons why, and in a moment of anger and frustration she obliged him. She told Henry he was clingy. That they had both been naive to think that they could last. That she couldn’t stomach being the one person on earth who could understand him, that she wanted to have lots of friends, to do all kinds of things that Henry thought were stupid or a waste of time. She said he was fragile and immature, that his tight grip on her and Gabe were signs of his childish fear of exposing himself to the world. Worst of all, she said he was too eccentric for his own good.
In reality, the weaknesses she articulated about Henry were the very things that had made him so easy to hold on to. His need for her taught Val that she was desirable. His obvious joy in her presence made her worth seem palpable and measurable. And as for his eccentricity, unlike every other teenage boy she’d ever met, Henry seemed not to think about the past or the future at all. He didn’t posture, he didn’t pretend. For him, the present was all-encompassing and overwhelmingly beautiful. Of course that made him strange. Sometimes it was even frightening. But Val respected that part of him. She envied it, even.
So when she asked herself why she’d used all those wonderful things about Henry against him, why she’d turned them into defects that had forced her to abandon him, there was only one answer that made sense. The truth about why she was leaving him would have been even more painful for him to hear. Her world was bigger than him, or at least she wanted it to be. The moment wasn’t enough for her.
She ended it in March. The pain lasted long after she was accepted to NYU in May, but it was suffering of the most unremarkable and predictable kind. That was a comfort. Val did homework alone in her dorm at night and drove home every weekend. By the end of the school year, hours would pass when she didn’t think of Henry. By the end of the summer it was days. Just before she left for NYU, she understood that she was okay. More than that, she was happy. She arrived in New York, unpacked her things, and cheerfully embarked on the life she’d been dreaming of. And that happiness made her wonder: Maybe all those things she’d said about Henry’s neediness and childishness were true. Maybe he was just strange and lonely and would always be so. Maybe her clinging to him and trying so hard to see the world through his eyes was as sad and pathetic as it must have seemed to her mother and the girls she used to call her friends. She
not having to be Polaris in Henry’s otherwise darkened sky. She could go in search of her own stars.
But it hadn’t turned out to be that simple.
Val really did love NYU, but it was love at a distance. Her new friends, though funny and world-wise and interesting, seemed like set pieces in some strange movie about her life. They gave her places to go, made her feel a part of the marauding group of reckless city kids that they all longed to be. They gave her funny stories about who she was and the kinds of things that she liked to do. But so far Val couldn’t quite get those stories to fit her. Despite its downsides, Henry’s suffocating reliance on her had been proof that she was someone important. His strange kind of affection, however isolated it had required her to be, had nevertheless given her a place that was uniquely and undeniably
. Now that she had moved on, she felt like she was watching another girl’s life unfold from some deep, passive place within her. And though there was nothing inherently wrong with this other person’s life, Val longed for her own.
enry’s eyes hurt.
He rubbed them, but that only sent irritated, burning blood to his swollen eyelids. It made him want to blink the world away.
He was a few hours into his sojourn and he’d been walking nonstop since his escape. He kicked a stone as he went. It hadn’t seemed important at first. It was jagged, charcoal-colored, speckled with bits of silvery white. It jumped unpredictably and he was always having to chase it down. But after a few hundred feet, a few dozen kicks up the hill toward the highway, the stone turned dark green and mossy-looking. It rolled more smoothly, then smoother still, until eventually it was a perfect sphere that moved forward before Henry’s foot even made contact. It had become Henry’s navigator.
Henry thought this was fine. He was glad for a guide that seemed so self-assured.
The stone led him to the base of the George Washington Bridge, then circled the main drag in Fort Lee, New Jersey. None of the banks or bagel places or Korean grocery stores were open yet, but the traffic coming in and out of the city never ceased. He spent an hour just strolling through empty parking lots, kicking weeds that grew up through cracks in the asphalt. Then, at six o’clock, the stone led him back to the bridge. Henry watched a police officer unlock and open the gate to the pedestrian walkway. The cop got back in his car, turned on the lights and sirens—a dramatic touch, thought Henry, and the stone seemed to agree—pulled a U-turn, and sped away. When the car was out of sight, Henry cautiously approached the now opened entryway.
He was the first to walk on the bridge that day. The sky was a calm shade of predawn blue-gray. The palisades towered over the Hudson River to the north and west. To the south and east was the great city, rising colorless and jagged from the water like a splintering mountain. The air was clear enough that Henry thought he could see the Statue of Liberty down at the mouth of the Hudson. The statue waved and her torch sputtered and smoked as the motion of her arm fanned its flame. Henry waved back. Cars passed in the twilight, their rear lights burning purple lines into Henry’s retinas, lines that drew fantastic loops and arches, spelled out unspeakable truths that were just barely readable before they faded back into oblivion. It was a beautiful morning, Henry decided. Val was, perhaps, waking up. She would see the day and she would
even if she couldn’t quite understand, that it was special. That he was coming.
Henry grinned and inhaled deeply. The stone led him to the first great tower of the steel giant he stood upon, but then jumped ahead too eagerly and slipped underneath the guardrail. Henry watched it fall, as silent and slow as a feather, to the water below, where it broke the surface and sent multicolored circles rippling out and out from the point of impact. Henry shrugged, furrowed his brow, and considered whether the stone wanted him to follow it. He felt less sure of himself than he had just a moment before. Could he really be expected to jump? Perhaps, he decided, the stone’s only goal was to lead him to this tower. He would have to find another guide.
He heard a long, far-off sound. It was ghostly, almost not there at all, and yet still somehow lush and full. He turned his head, searching for the source, then rested his forearms on the railing and closed his eyes to better focus.
His arms felt the noise too, and Henry understood: the sound was the bridge itself, vibrating in the gentle wind coming down the river. He was standing on a massive harp complete with hundreds of woven steel strings, and the wind was running across it like a bow. Henry smiled. It was a sign, he thought. The bridge was his guide now, and it was singing to him.
He kept walking. The thickly twisted ropes of steel, the surface on which he stood, the long sloping cables above him—each part of the bridge resonated with his every footfall, and those resonances combined to form a song. Joyful now, he began first to jog, then to sprint. The faster his feet landed on the walkway, the faster the music got. The faster the music got, the happier Henry became and the faster he ran. When he finally reached top speed, it felt as though the bridge was a massive orchestra and Henry’s feet were the conductor. It had just been warming up before, but now it was playing a fugue so loud and haunting that he could no longer hear anything else. It was frightening and aggressive but breathtakingly powerful. Henry had never heard anything so incredible in his life. The song obscured the pain of his burning chest. It cleansed the spit flying from his mouth and buttressed his legs though they threatened to give out beneath him. It emptied his mind of everything but a single question:
Why hasn’t anyone tried playing this bridge before?
How long has it been waiting for me?
Still running, he was almost at the second tower when a new noise disrupted the fugue. It sounded like the buzz of a mosquito and it went from mezzo piano to fortissimo in just a couple bars, nearly drowning out the bridge song completely. Henry tried to push himself harder to save the melody of a moment before, but his thighs were overworked. He collapsed forward and lay on the cement. The music was still there, but faintly, as if from a great distance. Henry’s focus was now drawn to this new blast of sound, so strong that he was afraid of being torn apart. He saw the air ripple where the towers met the sky and knew that the bridge was singing by itself now. He’d awakened it and it was angry and would destroy the very atmosphere itself if Henry didn’t find some way to stop it.
He panicked and got to his feet. When he was able to walk again, the repetitive melodies of the bridge song continued. The notes he chimed with his sneakers now mixed with the towers’ sustain in a perfect harmony. Soon the harmony was no longer simply audible. It extended over everything around him. The early-morning sky, the purple headlight afterimage of the cars as they passed, the waving torch of the statue, the rainbow circles on the surface of the water, the sinking of the stone, Val in her apartment, the bright green spastic low vibration—they all merged and the whole world was singing-glowing and humming-looping and the joy and terror Henry felt were complete and total and utterly essential to his being and he felt sure that if they went away he would die. He let go. The boundaries of his body felt obviously, inevitably meaningless, and he opened his mouth to scream but his voice was lost amid the din.
He was all sound.
He was pure light.
And then it stopped.
The change was immediate. One moment a bright cacophony, the next dark silence.
He was comfortably cool. He lay on his back, though he didn’t remember falling. The surface beneath him was soft, and his head was propped on a pillow. His throat hurt. He opened his eyes as wide as he could, hoping to gather enough ambient light to make sense of his surroundings, but it was useless.
Where am I?
The question left his mind as quickly as it had entered. There was something more important to consider, something much more pressing that would not be ignored. Though he didn’t know how he had ended up in a strange bed in a pitch-black room in an unknown location, his world was more intact than it had been in months. There were no voices. There was no green light. It all seemed like nothing more than a particularly vivid nightmare. His body felt like it belonged to him and him to it, and it responded to his commands effortlessly as he stretched and curled his fingers and toes.
The tears started hot, dripped down his cheeks cold, and pooled on his neck and in his ears as he gazed up into the blackness. Suddenly the wall next to his body buzzed with the low baritone of a man’s voice coming from the other side.
“I think he’s awake,” said the voice. Then, louder, “I’m pretty sure of it.” The voice was familiar, though Henry could not immediately place it. It sounded ugly, but not in any obvious way. He simply didn’t like it. It was wrong.
“Yes,” said another voice. It sounded older, quieter. It was hard to understand what came after. All Henry could hear were hard consonants divorced from their context.
The louder voice returned. “We should go see, don’t you think?”
Henry sat up, his ears straining so acutely that they actually moved, his lobes craning involuntarily like little satellites. He was confused but not afraid. It occurred to him that maybe he was dead, but this didn’t particularly bother him. He was sane again, and nothing could be worse than the hell he had escaped. He giggled nervously.
There was more mumbling through the wall. Then he heard a loud screeching, like the moving of heavy furniture. Footsteps approached, then silence. A few moments later, Henry heard a small mechanical chink, and the outline of a doorway was painted in light somewhere off to his right. There was a knock, soft and sensitive, like the knock his mother would use to wake him up when he was a kid. It betrayed a reluctance to disturb, and it put Henry at ease. He did not feel threatened, merely curious.
“Henry? I won’t hurt you. You have to trust me,” said the older, quieter voice. “I want you to close your eyes until I say. Are they closed?”
Henry nodded in the affirmative with his wide-open eyes fixed on the spot where he supposed the doorknob to be. It glinted as the door opened further. The light coming in painted a triangle on the floor. His eyes adjusted and the figures that entered the room became clearer. Henry recognized them though he’d never seen them before, and the recognition forced an otherworldly sound from his throat. When all his air was gone he gagged, vomited, and passed out.
t was almost
spring break, though spring never came to New Jersey in mid-March. The last pebble-studded mounds of snow still stubbornly blocked sidewalks and narrowed roads. Henry was worse every day, but Gabe had not yet given up hope. He brought extra slices from Tata’s and left them in Henry’s room. He ignored the deep, dark smell that effervesced from the damp armpits of Henry’s sweatshirt. He got used to starting conversations that were destined to be aborted, making jokes that were ignored.
Gabe had considered relocating to some Floridian beach party for the one-week vacation, but he never would have done that even if his best friend weren’t coming apart before his eyes. Staying in town would give him the chance to work extra hours at the Magic Dragon. Though it was technically a tobacconist, most people in New Brunswick thought of the Dragon as a head shop—a store that sold glass pipes to potheads or worse. To the cops and lawyers who worked downtown, the Dragon was a decent if eccentric cigar shop. They came in to buy Dominican Cohibas and rag on Gabe when they wanted a laugh. It made him feel like a zoo animal: North American bearded pothead. To them, he was a walking joke, the living personification of the college burnout stereotype. The pay was good, though, and the work was easy, so he continued to show up despite his misgivings.
The Wednesday before break began Henry had a rare moment of lucidity and mumbled something about going home, so when Friday evening arrived Gabe came home from work and, not wanting to confront the stranger his best friend had become, went to his bedroom and closed the door. He ignored hunger and thirst, opting instead for periodic tokes from his one-hitter and a handful of cigarettes smoked out the window. When he had to pee, he held it until it burned with vicious urgency, then tiptoed to the bathroom as quietly as he could. He needn’t have worried. Henry didn’t leave his bedroom either. Gabe watched cartoons on his computer until his eyes began to close, then crept into bed slowly, as if not wanting to wake himself. He slid comfortably into sleep.
In a dream, he saw Val. She looked young, the way Gabe remembered her from when they’d first met. Silver clips pinned her bangs up and away from her forehead, and she was on the couch in her parents’ living room, staring at a television. The living room was a forest. There were no tree trunks, but a canopy of leaves hung overhead, and it felt vast, as if beyond what Gabe could see there was an endless expanse of dense woodland in every direction.
Henry sat next to Val on the couch. He smiled and played with the zipper of his hoodie while humming a tune. Gabe recognized it. He looked away and saw that Henry was then in another chair, on the other side of the room—the recliner that Gabe himself had just been sitting in. A lovely warmth spread up from Gabe’s own palm, and he looked to his right to find Val next to him on the couch. She held his hand and laughed. She was teasing him about something, and he laughed too.
Leaves fell from above, a peaceful green snow of big flakes, alive with light. Val let go of Gabe’s hand to catch one right in front of her face. She brought it to her mouth and bit into it, then laughed as she chewed.
The television was gone. No more couches. Gabe and Val stood on a footbridge that crossed the stream in the nature center at the edge of their hometown. Henry was crossing the water below them. In reality the bridge was just a few feet off the ground, but as Gabe looked down he saw that Henry was far away; his tiny form kicked at the water with bare feet, and the splash they produced repeated and folded on itself in dense waves. Val was in the water too. She was naked. Henry reached out to her, and then Gabe’s own hand was suddenly on her face. His feet were in the water. It was icy cold and moving fast. He felt Val touching him and he was afraid that he was going to lose control, and though he wanted to, he knew it was the
one thing he must not do.
The splashing grew louder as leaves fell fast like rain. They caressed Gabe’s skin, licked and stroked him, and he felt a full-body pleasure that was all-encompassing and without precedent. Gabe knew he would give in and release unless he did something, so he lifted his hands to protect his head and he ran. He looked back to beckon Val to follow him, but the figure that was once her turned around as Henry. He was naked and crying and rocking and singing full-throated at the sky. The leaves came down harder, as thick sheets of water. Gabe looked up and his body locked. His mouth was open, he couldn’t close it, and the rushing leaves filled his lungs.
He couldn’t breathe.
But he was locked in place.
And he ran.
He couldn’t breathe. Or he could but the air did nothing.
The sound of the water was everything, so incredibly loud.
Gabe awoke in the dark, still hearing it. Even as he opened his eyes, the loud rush of liquid static echoed in his ears. As his senses returned to him he had the instant and unmistakable feeling that he was not alone. He heard the sound of measured breathing and the shifting of cloth. He opened his eyes wide and saw a dark silhouette of Henry’s hair cast like a shadow against the wall on the other side of the room. He was sitting on the floor. The light from the streetlights outside was just bright enough that Gabe could faintly see his friend’s open eyes.
“Yo,” said Gabe. The word elongated into a sigh.
Henry’s breathing stopped for a moment, then started again, softer than before.
“What the fuck, Henry? What are you doing?”
Henry’s voice, when it came out, was unguarded and calm. It was a voice Gabe hadn’t heard in weeks. “Can I just stay in here?” he asked. “Please?”
Though there was nothing outwardly threatening about the situation, Gabe felt panicked. He felt as if he was in the presence of a dangerous stranger. A diorama of sick fantasies flooded his imagination: Henry caving in his skull as he slept, his hands sticky with blood and gray meat, Henry throttling him while laughing and crying and screaming. Gabe imagined darkness descending over his own open eyes followed quickly by resignation and sad unconsciousness. Then he imagined fighting back, bludgeoning and cutting and tearing his way free, but that was even worse.
Minutes passed without another word. Gabe lay with his eyes open. He hated himself for fearing Henry, but he also hated Henry for being so fucking scary. With each breath he took, Gabe’s heart beat slower. He felt the tension leave him in a wave that moved down his body, relaxing each muscle and joint it swept over. Henry wouldn’t hurt him. He knew that.
“You can stay in here,” he said, and he rolled to face the wall. “Just go to sleep.”
Gabe didn’t dream any more that night, and when he awoke to the light of mid-morning, he was relieved to be alone.
Spring break came and went, but Henry just went. His phone went straight to voice mail, and if he was checking his email he didn’t respond. Gabe dreaded going through Henry’s mom to get information, but there was no one else. It was a lonely Sunday in early April when he finally gave in. He found Jan’s name in his contacts list and spent a minute with his thumb hovering over her phone number before pressing down.
Four rings, no response.
The result was the same the next day and each day for a week after that. Henry might have a good excuse for not returning phone calls, but Jan’s silence was puzzling. She seemed to be saying something with her silence. Whatever it was, Gabe didn’t think he wanted to hear it.
With little else to occupy his thoughts, Gabe brooded. He imagined Jan in her big, beautifully decorated kitchen. A skylight in the slanted roof illuminated an old-fashioned wooden table and benches. A big window above the sink looked out onto the wooded backyard. Jan used to wait up for Henry and Gabe in that kitchen when they were in high school. Not to see if they were slurring their words or if their breath smelled like cigarettes, but because she was curious. She wanted to make sure that if they were hungry there was food to eat, that she got to talk to them before they went to sleep. She wanted to
them. They’d appear at one in the morning after an Upstart show, their skin salty with dried sweat, ears still ringing. Jan would have a pan heating on the stovetop before they walked in the door. She’d make them quesadillas or eggs or a big bowl filled with “leftover” salad that couldn’t have been more than half an hour old.
She always had questions for Gabe. She made him feel important and interesting in an adult way, a way he never got to feel with his own parents. Her lack of response to his increasingly pleading voice mails said that Henry was gone. More than that, it said that he wasn’t coming back, and that maybe it was Gabe’s fault.
May arrived and brought with it the choking smell of sun-warmed garbage and the buzzing of bass lines from open car windows. Gabe felt like the whole campus had sex playing in the background. So far he’d been generally unlucky with girls at Rutgers, but sometimes, at the very beginning of summer, when the first short cotton dresses of the season appeared as if in answer to some desperate hormonal prayer, it was enough just to look.
Cal was the perfect replacement roommate for Henry, mostly because he invited no comparisons with Gabe’s lost friend. He was stubborn and opinionated, an unabashed and self-proclaimed contrarian who started arguments just for the fun of it. Gabe had met him in the dorms their freshman year, and always thought him too interesting to dislike despite his sometimes combative attitude. When Gabe learned that Cal was couch-hopping after having been kicked out of the house he’d been living in, it seemed like a happy bit of serendipity. They smoked pot and played music and talked politics and philosophy. With Cal, there was no need to dive into the muck of feelings and insecurities. Most of the time that was exactly what Gabe needed.
It was the warmest day of the year. To celebrate, Gabe and Cal shared a joint over their respective breakfasts—Doritos for Gabe and a handful of granola for Cal. Gabe took his guitar out to the porch. With bare feet resting on the wrought-iron railing in front of him, he plucked a melody out into the neighborhood. He liked how his music mixed with insect noises and traffic.
He heard the light shuffling of feet on the steps to the house and looked up. It took him a long beat to recognize that the thin bearded face he was seeing was Henry’s. When he did recognize his friend, there was no relief or joy, no fear or anger. All the emotions that had accompanied his long wait for that moment were strangely missing. Instead, he felt a quiet sort of curiosity. He smiled and Henry smiled back, but it didn’t look right. His lips disappeared in a line of tightly crimped white.
Cal came out through the open front door. “Hey, man,” he said, his voice taking on the timbre of a kindergarten teacher.
Henry didn’t answer.
Cal took a swig from his water bottle, then wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist and stared.
Henry stood still. “I need to get some things,” he said. “My mom wants me to be at home.” He walked past Cal and into the house. The sound of his feet on the stairs sounded impossibly quiet, as if he weren’t substantial enough to make the wood whine and squeak as it did for everyone else.
Cal looked at Gabe, his mouth open with amused disbelief. But then he saw that Jan was walking toward the house and he spun around on his bare left heel and quickly stepped back inside.
Jan looked older than Gabe remembered. Her silvering hair shone as she leaned heavily on the splintered railing and climbed up the steps. Gabe was happy to see her, but he felt ashamed, too. He wasn’t sure why. He tried to pin it on the pot, but that didn’t feel right. This particular shame was too deep and hot to be the result of standard chemical paranoia. For weeks he’d wanted to talk to her, but now that she was in front of him Gabe just wanted her to go away.
Once on the porch, Jan made no attempt to get closer to Gabe. There would be no hug, no cheerful hello. Gabe could feel the depth and purpose of her gaze. He busied himself with leaning the guitar against the railing, shifting his chair back, scratching his upper arm—anything to keep his body focused on a discrete task.
“You should have said something,” she said.
The words tore at a vital part of Gabe somewhere deep in his gut. He felt a surge of nauseous adrenaline flit from his scalp to his fingertips. She sounded more sad than angry, but the edge in her voice was unmistakable.
“He’s going to live at home now?” It was all he could think to say.
“Yes,” she said, and she breathed in so deeply that Gabe could hear the air cascade over her teeth and down her throat. “Henry’s staying at home.” She stepped closer, sat down on one of the canvas camping chairs that furnished the ash-covered porch, and squinted into the early-afternoon sun. “You really should have just called me, Gabe. Before it got as far as it did.”
The words made Gabe feel something unexpected. It was the distinct desire to hurt her. He kept his mouth shut.
“Gabe,” she said. “Why didn’t you say something?”
He let the silence of his tree-lined block make its presence known, but despite his anger he knew she wasn’t being rhetorical. He wanted to give her an answer. “I don’t know,” he said. It felt like the truth.
“Henry told me that you guys have been smoking pot together.”
“Was that a question?”
“I don’t care what you do, Gabe, I really don’t. I smoked pot when I was a kid.”
Gabe saw her turn toward him, but he didn’t look back at her.
“Something happened to Henry,” she said. “Something must have started all of this.”
Gabe stared at the house across the street, examined the peeling tar and roof shingles, the light green mold on the siding, the dislocated gutter.
“There must have been something that set him off,” she said. “You need to tell me whatever you know, right now. I need to know whatever it was that started him off like this, so I can tell his doctors. They said it could affect his treatment.”
“Nothing happened,” he said. He turned, looked her in the eye. “He’s been smoking pot. Nothing else.”