Part of the ‘Stranger stories’ series
Disclaimer: The photos used in my Stranger Stories series are taken from charity shops, yard sales etc. I don’t know the real identities of the people in the photos, and all stories are entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental. The photos are a tool to brainstorm new characters.
Scroll down for Author’s Notes.
When he died, a big part of Peter thought the rest of the world would too.
He’d thought about how it might happen, many times. Not the way he’d die – that seemed fairly obvious to him – but how the world would cease after he was no longer there to watch it.
Would the earth disappear with a bubble-wrap ‘pop’ at the moment his main artery finally clogged?
Would the colors in the world start to drain as his vision swam?
Would the roads, forests and oceans, some that he’d travelled across and some that he’d only read about, start to fold up on themselves like giant monoliths in the sky as his own heart constricted and failed in his chest?
Most importantly, would anyone know why it was happening?
Peter knew that being scared of dying was normal. Being scared that his death would trigger the extermination of 7.8 billion people was, he understood, downright diagnosable.
He sat, back against the concrete wall, and lined up the needle against his arm. Malcolm had already had a shot and was slumped over on the mattress, his long, black hair lining up curiously with the straggling seam. One arm stuck out on an angle, a joint injury set wrong, wrecked in a fight years ago and now useless. It twitched.
Oy Malcolm, Peter said. Sit up mate, you’ll hurt your back.
No response. Peter could see Malcolm’s milky scar from where he sat – his dirty, dark skin split down the middle, splintering off at the elbow and travelling up his forearm. According to Malcolm he’d been sliced in a bar, telling Peter that the skin had rolled away from the bone just perfectly.
I’d’ve been happy with that cut of meat in a restaurant, he’d said, tracing the lines with his stubby fingers.
Peter had read a number of years ago that stubbed fingers were an indication of heart problems, and told him so. Malcolm asked him how many grams he thought a human heart weighed and went out to get thirty dollars-worth of crystal for them both.
The shack around them creaked and a cloud passed overhead, slicing in half the sun that had been warming his side. It was a low building with most of a roof, and sometimes Peter could feel the wind whipping around in the ceiling like a vortex. There was barely room for them to stand. Malcolm was a lot taller than Peter – almost 6”6 and wide. The room smelled like petrol and mould, and the vines that had spread all over the outside of the shack had pierced their way through the wall in some places. Not that Peter minded. He had liked having his plants indoors. And it was home, now.
Death is one of the only things that all philosophers and non-philosophers stand equal on, Peter would say.
The first college year always started with the same statement. He’d watch his new students lean forward, lined row upon row, picking at their young faces, waiting for the Professor of Mortality to start talking.
We’ve no content, no proof of what Death is or what exists after it, he’d say. Before handing out the first papers of the first class, he’d add: Death is still a complete mystery to us all. So how do we begin to study it?
His job wasn’t just to teach mortality, but the human condition and what it meant scientifically, culturally and spiritually to have to deal with the certainty of an end. An end that he hoped would come for his students on the same day that he died. It wasn’t his job to try to prepare them for it, only philosophize what it means to die. Still, sooner or later some student’s Frye-style poetry about Death would come across his desk and he would find himself unable to breathe with anger.
You’re romanticising Death, he’d say, closing his office door. You come to this class because you find Death exciting. Death excites you because you’re so far away from it.
The student would sit, hands wedged tightly in between their thighs, looking at the lock of the door in concern as he closed it.
Maybe one day soon, you’ll start to really feel the sharp edge of life, he’d say. And believe me then, you’ll only want to turn away from it. Maybe you’ll lose a parent, a close friend, a girlfriend, suddenly.
The student would blink.
On that day, Death won’t seem so much like a concept, but a threat. You’ll lie in bed and press your fingers to your neck, listening to the dub of the blood.
He’d command them to feel for their pulse. You’ll think about the human you knew, he’d continue, who hasn’t existed for the last 86,000 seconds. Death isn’t romantic. It’s cold, and dark, and final. And it’s coming for you too.
The students would barely say a word, other than to promise to re-think the essay. Some of them would drop out of the class entirely the next day. Peter didn’t mind – since the crystal, the degree had become less about Death philosophy and more about giving a dose of reality. He only hoped that they wouldn’t take that dose and snort it, ignore it, drown it like he had.
It was only a year ago that hundreds of students would be packing into his lectures every week, clutching new books that reeked of glue. His high was so intense back then that he could taste the inky print on their pages from the stage, flying along with a head full of ideas and veins pumping with poison.
The crystal had been a neat trick for a few years, something that made him stand out, that made his presence more eccentric and his saliva metallic. Then over time, sleeping became something other people did. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was crystal. Tenure was a comfy cushion of complacency.
He’d shred his notes and instead sweep around the stage, flitting from one subject to another like a black moth drawn to a bright light. His students would hold up their dictaphones to him like lighters. Some days he felt like a rock god and, other days, a very sick man.
One normal day, he saw a friend from the army in the back of the lecture hall. The man’s cap was tipped to the right, his blond hair curling out the side. A uniform big enough for two, a tie barely knotted. He looked out at Peter from below the projector.
Peter’s feet failed to move. He stopped in mid-sentence and watched as the soldier threw a grenade – a silvery visage that flew through the air – before ducking below the back row. There was a pause and then Peter almost felt his bowels uncurl as he watched it happen, he watched the grenade travel back to where it had come from, and the lecture hall rocked with a white hot blast. He felt the heat on his skin.
He was shown a video of what happened next, uploaded from a student’s phone. His face was ash white and his mouth was stretched open so wide that he was surprised it hadn’t ripped in the corners. He emitted a scream so loud and so high that the phone crackled.
Fucking hell, the student holding the phone said.
Is he having a heart attack? Another one to the right of the screen started to get out of his seat, as if to run down to the front.
Peter fell to the ground in a heap and covered his head with his hands. Behind him, the figure of the Grim Reaper, the first slide in his third presentation of the school year, had flickered on the projector screen.
You understand we can’t have you teaching here anymore Peter, the Dean said. You’re scaring the shit out of your students.
It keeps them awake, Peter said.
That’s not funny. Jesus, every day for the last two weeks you’ve had an episode in the middle of a class. It’s all over the fucking internet. Why someone didn’t warn me while I was away so that I could have pulled you out myself before the parents started freaking out? He ran his hands through his hair.
I think I’m having a breakdown.
Yeah, looks that way, he said. The Dean laid his elbows on the desk. According to the university counsellor it looks like PTSD. But whatever drugs you’ve been taking doesn’t help, Peter. It puts me in an impossible situation.
So that’s it?
I think it’s best. Get yourself some help. Come back to me when you’re better.
What if I told you I’m not seeing the soldiers anymore? Peter said.
A cough. Are you?
He could have lied but the crystal was flickering in his eyes like a kaleidoscope and one of the soldiers was standing behind the Dean’s chair.
After his job came his savings, then his house, then his children, then his dignity. That’s the order he’d agreed with himself to give things up. He was somewhere beyond that now, lying on the floor of the shack with Malcolm.
Sometimes he laughed as he injected – so ridiculous it all seemed. The murky liquid would leave the needle and as his chest tightened it would push out a laugh that sounded like a sob. Or maybe it was a sob. A second later he was too high to know.
Malcolm looked at him today, and shuffled over.
You seeing them now, pal?
No, Peter lied.
What are they doing?
The soldiers stood by the door, blocking his way out. Seven of them now, almost the whole squad. Two of them flickered in and out like a dying signal and he remembered how young they were. How little they had meant to everyone but the squad. He couldn’t bear the idea that he was worth that little. After all this, his life couldn’t mean nothing.
And if I’m not worth nothing, he heard himself saying to Malcolm, then maybe I’m worth everything. He got up and moved away to another corner with difficulty as the warmth spread up from his arm to his brain and settled over it like a warm blanket.
Hey man, Malcolm said, a hurt expression on his face. I know what it’s like. I see my boys who died too. See them all the time.
When Peter died later that year, the church bells had already rung twice on their way to eleven chimes. When he felt himself rise up out of his body and leave the room, they had reached eight.
The world didn’t stop. He, Peter, himself, had died – and yet everything kept on. The bell that had chimed before his heart stopped would chime again afterwards. There wasn’t even a collective pause for breath to acknowledge him leaving. Not a beat.
So this started off as one cool idea, and then got less and less fun to write over time. I think I lost the immediate intrigue about it once I started fiddling with it too much. It became such a long and convoluted idea, when really all I wanted to do was communicate something quite simple – that this ex-soldier had started self-medicating with crystal to come to terms with PTSD. He was angry that his students were romanticising death because he’d seen it in its worst form, and as a result couldn’t fathom that his death would be an exit only for him, but that it would be catastrophic for the whole world. I don’t think that came across because I was trying to do too much.
I really liked the character of Malcolm and might try to do something else with him in the future. Initially Malcolm and Peter were partners as well as living together, but that was another string to add to the story and it made it even more complicated.
I was trying out a new technique for dialogue – one that I read recently in Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ which I reviewed on my website last week. She doesn’t use quotation marks at all, and it creates this curious feeling of giving the actions of the characters as much weight as what they say. I really like the idea behind this, although I don’t think I’m the best at incorporating it yet.
There were a few small parts of this short story that I really liked though – mostly the start where the language likens the various elements of his body shutting down to how the world could do the same, and when Malcolm talks about the attack on his arm being a fine cut of meat. They were quite natural things that came to me when I managed to get some momentum on the writing (before I got bogged down) and I liked the imagery so although I don’t like this story overall, I’ll keep it for those little gems.
What did you think?
What part should I have cut out to make the story more concise? Where did I include unnecessary detail and what did you need more info on to understand Peter’s perspective?
Thanks for reading!