For a while, he would be everywhere I went. He first came to me as a feeling in the middle of my religion class. As the professor spoke about Buddhism, I looked up to see myself in a church. And I mean that literally. I was watching myself sitting in a pew in front of a vacant altar, staring at red and orange stained glass. It was his church, and he was walking up to sit beside me.
“I knew that you would come to this,” I said, and turned to see him again. He wasn’t wearing anything special, but I was only really paying attention to is face anyway.
“You didn’t seem too sure towards the end of my service,” he replied.
“Well, maybe that’s because you had the pianist over there playing your songs,” I told him. “How could you do that, anyway? You came up with them. No one else is supposed to be playing them. Had me believing you were actually dead.”
“I am dead,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I’ve left yet. I’m still around. You’ve just gotta be patient, Kia.”
I saw him again on the way back to my dorm. He was sitting at the top of the stairs, before a doorway.
“Tell me a story,” he said, and I sat down beside him.
“Once, there was a king,” I began, and went on to tell him one of my favorite fables.
It’s a story of a king, whose advisor and closest friend is a firm believer that everything happens for the best. Even after the king shoots off his thumb in a hunting accident, his friend says, “That’s a good thing.” The king is so offended by this that he locks his friend in a dungeon, intending to forget his existence, and resumes his hunt alone. He wanders into the territory of a group of cannibals who promptly bind him and prepare a fire to roast him. At the very last minute they realize his missing thumb and let him go, as it is against their beliefs to eat anyone who isn’t a whole person. The king realizes that his friend was right about the accident being a good thing, further realizes how terrible and unjust it was to have locked him up, and promptly lets his friend go, apologizing and asking if he can be forgiven.
“Of course I forgive you,” his friend says. “And you don’t have to apologize. It’s a good thing you locked me up. If you hadn’t, I would’ve been caught with you. And since I am* a whole man, they would’ve eaten me.”
It’s a story I like to tell myself when things are going wrong, and one I found particularly fitting at the time. After your cousin and person you are closest to, the one person for whom you would give up your life if it meant saving his own, goes and kills himself, it’s hard to imagine that any sort of good can ever come to you again. Yet here I was telling him the story, almost as if to make myself believe it. Unfortunately, I only got to the part where the king blew off his thumb before I heard someone coming up the stairs. I immediately jumped up and left. We never got to the part where things improve.
But there he was sitting cross-legged on a headstone as I passed by the graveyard.
“Getting comfortable in my new environment,” he told me.
And there he was, hanging over my shoulder as I walked toward the dining hall.
I would see his face in windows, and in the expressions of passing people. He would appear and disappear in instants.
At the end of the week, when I was tired and lonely, and feeling the most insignificant I ever had, he was waiting just outside my room.
“I’m still here,” he assured me. “You aren’t alone, because I’m still here for you.”
I tried to hug him, the way I once could, but there was nothing to support me.
“Let’s take a walk,” he suggested, and extended his hand. I took it in mine and we left the dorm, walking across campus. I was supposed to go to a party, but my friends had left without me.
“You aren’t alone,” I was reminded as we headed in the party’s direction, but when we got to the door I realized that I didn’t actually want to go inside. I wasn’t in a partying mood, and I also knew that as soon as I stepped through the door he would vanish. And who did I really want to spend time with? People who had left me, or the cousin who had come back?
So instead I chose to return to my dorm, slowly, in the dark. Our hands still interlocked, we didn’t speak until passing back through the graveyard.
“I’m older than you now,” I informed him. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“No, it wasn’t,” he agreed. “But you see where we are now? It won’t matter how old you are when we’re here together. When we’re both at home, your age won’t matter.”
We spent more and more time together, and I drew away from living people. He had been the person I most cared about, the one I prioritized above all others, and he was also the only one at school who came close to knowing what I was dealing with. I was dealing with him! I didn’t care much about the impressions I was leaving with other people, or the things I was missing out on by leaving them as quickly as possible, because I knew that something better was waiting for me. I had been abandoned, but now was found, and in chasing the ghost of my cousin I was becoming a sort of ghost myself.
As time went on, his visits grew scarcer. I would wait for him to show up, but he wouldn’t come. When I felt alone, he wasn’t always there to reassure me. I was starting to feel truly abandoned, when he finally joined me on a walk uphill.
“Where have you been?” I asked him angrily. “How could you be gone for so long?”
“I have other things to do,” he retorted, not kindly. “You aren’t the only person left for me, you know.”
“But you promised you would be here!” I cried. “You said that you would be here for me, and you haven’t been. How could you leave me again? How could you leave me in the first place?”
It was the first time I had directly expressed pain toward him, or indicated that I was unhappy with him in any way. Now that I’d finally started talking, I couldn’t stop. “What you did, One, it was horrible. You left me here alone, and you didn’t even say goodbye. You left me to deal with the family at Christmas, left me hiding from everyone all by myself. Who was there to run to when people got drunk and started pulling out knives? Who was there to talk to about looming divorces and parental scares? I had to deal with everyone looking at me, watching me, like I was going to run down to the train tracks and jump in front of them the way you did! I had to smile and pretend to be happy when all I wanted to do was cry. And there are other, physical problems in my life besides the psychological trauma you left me with. When you LEFT me. I was staying alive for you. I would have killed myself first if I thought it would save you, but–”
“Well, maybe you should have,” he snarled at me.
“What?” I was ripped out of my thoughts, which had been swirling around me as I spoke. “What are you talking about?”
“You should’ve killed yourself,” he said. “You should’ve done it first. If what you say is true, if killing yourself would’ve trapped me here, then it’s what you should have done. Think about it. What can you possibly do with your life? You’re pathetic. You’re alone. No one cares about you.” His voice was changing, becoming rougher with each word.
“That’s not true,” I protested.
“Oh, but it is,” he continued. “Now, I on the other hand, I know people cared about me. And so do you. You were at the funeral. Remember how you spent so much time thinking it was a joke, or an elaborate ruse concocted by my parents to show me how supported I was? People came out. My boyfriend was crying. I was loved, and I was smart. I could’ve done anything. Not like you.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, and turned to face him. He wasn’t there anymore. Standing where he had been standing, and speaking in the rough voice I had been hearing, was a man. A hunched man, with ratted hair and a mean smile that seemed to take up the entire lower half of his face. He had a crow on his shoulder, and another on his head, and all of them smiled at the mix of astonishment and horror on my face.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Don’t you recognize me?” For the briefest part of a second, he was One. Then his features melted away to become the stranger again.
“Who are you?” I repeated.
“I’m the same thing I’ve always been,” he said, “Just in a different shape. The old one was boring me, and it was more of an access point anyway. I’ve got to you now. I don’t need to fool you to come back.”
“Go away,” I told him.
“I can’t,” he replied. “You don’t understand. You won’t understand. You pulled away from everyone else so much that you’re stuck with me now, even if you can’t see me. You’ve become ghostly enough that I can consider myself a part of you.”
That was how I met The Man. It was the only time I completely saw him, because after that he chose to linger, usually in my peripheral or in the back of my mind. Sometimes I got the feeling that he would be in corners, staring at me. Location never mattered much, because he was always there.
If I was stressed about school, or worried about a meeting, or missing One – especially if I was missing One, he was there. The Man embodied every doubt, every fear that I had, and played them on blast over and over in my head. He undermined every conversation and every interaction I had with other people, until I was even more of a recluse than I had been before. I hated Him, and I was afraid of Him, but after a while I learned to accept Him and His constant torment. It scares me how quickly people can adapt to hellishness, and how easily we can learn helplessness.
Even then, I knew that a part of myself was keeping Him there. Some part of me knew that I was quietly going crazy with grief, but for the sake of everyone else I held onto my sanity, spectacularly. What I most wanted, He knew, was to lose my mind to the point where I no longer knew my present situation. I wanted to truly believe that I was with One again, and to continuously relive our old times and invent new ones so that I never had to face his death. The Man just wanted me in the ground. We used each other; I staying sane and healthy for as long as possible, then crying out for One; Him occasionally transforming into One when I did break down, in the hopes that I would finally give into my pain.
I never did, though. Somehow, I think by finally telling friends about The Man, I was eventually able to distance myself from him, and decrease the frequency of his visits. Then I went to Chicago, One’s old home.
My plan was to visit the tracks he’d jumped in front of, in the hope of gaining some peace, but I never needed to go. As soon as I walked into his house I realized that there was not, and never had been, a ghost. There was nothing. No feelings as I snuck into his room late at night; no remorse as I sat on his sofa, or played his piano. Nothing. Only a mild emptiness as I realized that he was really gone, and I would never be able to use The Man to call him up again. I knew that if I tried, I wouldn’t believe it. I didn’t even really believe in The Man at this point, and I knew then that I had only used Him as a way to bring all of my negative thoughts to the surface. The Man didn’t exist, but my self-loathing and guilt did.
Except now, some of it was going away. Chicago made me accept that One’s suicide had been inevitable. He had tried twice already, and he had lied. And he hadn’t been happy. Although I still wish I had called One before it all happened, just to hear his voice again, and I wish he had somehow said goodbye to me first, I know that there really wasn’t anything I could have done to stop it.
That’s probably the scariest realization of all. Inevitability. Facing that made The Man go away.