It was midday when the police came to take Paul away. He did not fight them off or argue but he coiled his feet in the grass when I perched around the door. Our eyes met and he smiled, fleetingly. His smile was static, pressed against his face like an afterthought. It felt as though he wanted a show like the way curtains opened and closed. His eyes with their wicked glint were saying he would be back.
For a short while, I broke my heart to believe the words he had so graciously allowed his eyes to whisper but after a while, I stopped believing. It was not hard to stop believing he would not come back. I just knew that his time was up. Perhaps that thought came as a result of how broken my mind was, I can't tell.
Later, when they said he had been stabbed in his cell, I called a friend from Great Barford and I cried into the phone. I was not crying, no. I was whispering something about how clueless I felt and how angry I was and how I hated the world and how I wanted to die too. He swallowed twice before talking. I knew because I listened.
He told me to take a bus from Clapham, said it would only be around 10 km to reach where he was.
I had always imagined him dying in that way because he was unpredictable. And everytime, I told myself I would scream and jump and bury my head in my hands. When it did happen, finally, I did none of those things. I simply took my cellphone and I talked to a man I had once loved, somewhere, sometime.
It was the leaving that hurt the most. It was as if my brain could not register the fact that I was going away from home. It would be temporary, of course. I was only going there to watch the sunset and listen to dogs bark and see people and not feel so inwardly alone. My brain tried a different process, thought what if I did not come back. I locked up the door to his room and held the key in between my thumb. It felt to me like a dagger being held out against the world for his death and my loneliness. I pressed it hard against my thighs, imagining it was drawing blood, imagining that in the end, it would be over and my brother would be standing in front of me again. When I locked up the main door and stepped into my old car, I closed my eyes and I drowned out the world.
The grasses seemed to bend at the waging wind. The sun was out. Soon it would descend behind the clouds, bending and breaking to welcome the moon. Perhaps, both of them –the sun and the moon—would meet in one small, fleeting collide before its arrival. It did not matter anymore. It was my brother who used to make up a whole existence away from the world that we knew. A week before the police came to take him away, we drove through empty roads and arrived in a marked space. We sat in the car like two lost people and we talked as if one day, someday, we would remember that we lived.
He said, “Don’t you think that perhaps we don’t exist at all?”
I looked over at him. I would tell my friend this when I reach his place. It would be a conversation so cheap and damning like a pinned butterfly against a cold space but we would express ourselves in that way. My brother did not bat an eyelash. It was as if he knew what he wanted to say. Rarely had we ever had something worthwhile to discuss. We would often talk about the weather in countries or the broken neon light at the old barbershop. He would talk about the sun like it could someday bend over his dreams and I would talk about plastic cups and broken vases. We were like two intersecting lines, forever drawing rhythm in the flow of the other, knowing that we would one day have to fall back, one day have to die.
For the first time, he seemed like he was about to unravel secrets; as if his words were a theory of some sort. “What if,” he said, “We are just figments of someone’s creative minds? Like what if all our thoughts and dreams and indecisions are someone’s creation?”
“I don’t understand,” I told him, half blinking, half asleep.
He shook his head and bit his lips. He was the sort of guy one would find at the end of the road with a story to tell and a smile so old and so torn. At that moment, he was not my brother. He was a figment of my imagination; of someone who knew so much yet so little.
“I have been thinking about it and I am left wondering, you know.”
I could have told him I understood because I did, quietly, in a way, but I did not tell him that. I let my mind wander away to a different world, one where I was both the sad man and the one who could be happy.
As I drive now through the same road, beneath the same sun, I let myself continue his line of thought. What if everything was someone’s story? What if, at that moment, they were furiously clicking on a keypad, inventing a life that would be mine? It would be surreal, in a way, but it would mean so much. Perhaps it could explain why and how I can feel a sadness that permeates through the thickness of my bones and into my blood.
The sun marked my car with a tenderness that I couldn't quite explain. My hands on the steering wheel felt warm and sweaty as if I had been carrying much more than my own life in them. The car smelt like my brother, like sweaty mismatched socks and coffee and death. They said he killed a man and so deserved the way he went. And it was true he killed the man but it had been a mistake. I don’t suppose the person writing the story of our lives can explain the reason why a small shove, a quick prick can end another man’s life but it did and my brother paid for it.
When I reached his house, the flowers greeted me warmly. I parked my car by the side of the house, crushing his flowers by mistake. A moment of wonder followed along with questions that felt cold against my lips. What if I could turn around right now and go back home? What if that had been Paul's exact thought when he pushed the man and he fell and died? That he could maybe run away and hide in the house might have run through his mind. The what-ifs had somehow become a part of my life since losing Paul and though there were a lot of things to settle for, I had nothing.
My friend apologized over and over again for my loss. I appreciated the effort with a smile that did not reach my eyes. Still, I let him see that I was trying inadvertently in my way. That was life and perhaps that was how things had been written. He led me into his house. His wife had died a year ago so I suppose he was a master with things like this.
“I know that it is cold out there,” he said. He sounded unsure like the cold had to be asserted by me to mean something. He looked at me with doleful eyes, waiting for me to say something, waiting for my voice to break the silence.
I trailed my fingers along the walls of the living room. It was a small space that housed records and books, as a small library. By trailing my fingers along the corners, it felt like I was trapping myself within and I was being transformed into something that I clearly was not. I glanced over my shoulders, tipped a smile at his worn face, and returned. He seemed to have aged since the last time I came to see him. His face had sagged as if his skin had peeled in the space of a year. It made me want to look in the mirror at my face and to see if I had somehow changed too.
“Where is your bag?”
I shrugged. I had forgotten to pack. In my room 10km away, my bag would be on the floor by my bed, Paul’s favorite sweater sitting at the top, his scent over it. But perhaps forgetting was my way of undoing things; my quiet way of saying that I was sorry for leaving home at all.
“Probably at home,” I said to him.
He nodded. “You seem tired. Do you want to maybe relax?”
Was that what was supposed to come next in the story? I shook my head, told him no, asked for tea. There was something sweetly satisfying with pretending I was a creator and that I knew how everything was supposed to play out. I was just an ordinary girl before his death but now, I was more, powerful in my own making. It was as if I was reborn in a simple, energetic way and I had taken control over the universe.
He made tea. We sat in the dining room, hands over our cups, the smell of cheap perfume filling the air. The window was closed but the curtains were opened. We could see the world of passing strangers but they could not see us and that was how it was supposed to be.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
I had to admit his question did sound wonderful. There was in fact a tragic undertone to his question as if he was secretly saying I know you feel dead. I know you hate yourself for leaving.
“I have been thinking about Paul,” I said to him. “He could have been here with me.”
He tipped the cup to the left, spilling his tea on the table. He did not apologize for the stain and I did not ask for one. We stared at each other for a while and then he sighed. “Now tell me what happened.”
I curled my lips and I ran a tentative hand through my hair. It was as if I was bruised within a thought of a thought. I could not speak even though I knew I had to. “I killed him. I called the police on him. He knew that I had done so. He knew.”
My friend put the cup to his lips and sipped from it. He made slurping sounds, a welcome change to the silence. He did not look at me. He was staring at the table and at the white lines that ran vertically. He was probably wondering when he would allow himself to change it just like how I was wondering about life too.
“What makes you so sure?” he asked finally.
The words sounded metallic, as if he was implying it or as if I was hearing it in my head. It sounded close and yet so far. “I killed him then,” I said. “I could have kept quiet.”
He nodded. “And do you believe that it was you who called the police?”
Reality had a way of working through a person’s mind. Sometimes it made mistakes and joined itself with subconscious thoughts. Other times, it existed outside itself. I felt that I was in a whole different world when he asked me that and I frowned and I kept the cup on the table and I buried my hands in my hair. “I did that.”
“No, you did not,” he said. He was confident. He sounded as if he had been in the room with me when my hands circled the phone and I had dialed a number. What if he had been with me though? Like something that had been planned by a being somewhere. Perhaps I should have asked my brother if he knew where the person stayed. “Try to remember, Scout.”
I bit my lower lips, drew blood. It tasted like the edge of a rusted gun, traumatizing, deadly. “I was in the room. I took my phone, called the police.”
“Well, what if you are making it all up?” he asked. He sounded like my brother now and without meaning to, I am back with Paul and we are walking into the bar. Just like how quickly things change, my thoughts do too. Perhaps I was dreaming or maybe a part of the story had been erased, it did not matter. What mattered was that I was seeing myself as someone else, doing things that I could not remember.
“I would not make it up, no.”
He stood up from his seat and leaned against the wall. “I want you to think harder this time, Scout. What happened?”
“Why is it so important? Why is remembering all so very important now?”
He twisted his face the way someone who was partly exhausted would. “If you don’t, you will never let go of the guilt.”
I closed my eyes and let myself be transported back home. Slowly, I began to remember things. It was a slow process but it stayed within me and I dragged myself to the edge because of this. I remembered my hands on the phone, cold and shaky and I remember that I had been indecisive. When I reopened my eyes, I was not in my friend’s place. I was not sitting in his dining room with my hands pressed over a cup of cold tea. I was in my therapist’s office, my back against her couch.
Her hands were poised over a notepad. Her glasses hung loosely on her face as if the very idea of something so delicate against her skin was traumatizing.
“Do you remember now?” she asked arching her eyebrow.
I shook my head and mouthed no. She could tell it was a lie, one of many I had let myself sink into. She gave a small smile, the sort one would give to a little child. “What do you say we continue tomorrow?”
I sat upright. The place was overly bright as if the sun had seen something worthwhile in the little things; as if someone out there was conjuring it, fed up by darkness and rain and death. “Perhaps,” I said to her.
She walked me to the door. “Could you stop lying to yourself?”
She was sure of a lot of things and I wasn't. I would always hang low over the fact that I may or may not have caused his death. It seemed out of place that I had done nothing or called the police on him. I did. I did. I—
That question was treacherous. Perhaps I could stop lying in the end. I nodded, touched my lips, and tasted blood. She smiled at me. I smiled back.