Updated: Dec 30, 2019
When I close my eyes, I'm back in the cornfields of South Dakota.
A sea of green instead of blue and a pale, nonthreatening sky. The leaves are glowing with the sun inside and the soil is crunching beneath. Behind the stalks in the row adjacent, there's a head bobbing, greasy hair tied back under a purple bandana. Paisley hiding behind corn leaves and behind my eyelids, squinting hard against the sun.
Dougie? he says, but his voice disappears into the hush of the leaves. The corn absorbs every word you say into a deluge of sunlight and silence.
Do you think we're almost to the end?
Of the field?
I don't know. Like the shore, you can't see the end until you're already there.
Dougie, do you still see corn when you close your eyes at night?
Well—yeah, Ted. We've been detasseling for weeks now. Corn is all I can think about. I dream about it every night. I think everyone on the bus is like that.
Not me, though, he says.
I know everyone else is saying they dream about corn all night. But not me. When I close my eyes, all I see is the ocean.
That doesn't happen to you, Dougie?
Mom had made me promise not to tell him. I don't know why, but I promised, so I didn't. Nope, I said, just corn.
But of course it was all a lie.
Every time I shut my eyes, the sun and the corn would disappear, replaced by wave after wave after wave of blue.
Her parents are here now. They look a little older than I expected, the quintessential couple that was trying to have kids for years before finally managing to concoct a single, only child. They won't look me in the eye, and they're both wearing winter coats like their daughter was. When I offer to take them, they toss them at me blindly, and I have to cling to the coat rack to keep from falling over. It would be funny, if anything was right now.
Before they got here, I lit a fire in the fireplace. I thought it might make things cozier, take the edge off the conversation, but at the moment it's just making me sweat. "Have a seat, please," I tell them. "Can I get you anything to drink?"
They say it reflexively, automatically. I would want something stronger, myself. I do want something stronger. We have a fully stocked liquor cabinet, and they must see me standing at it, but they didn't even ask if we had soda.
Or "pop." They would say "pop." I haven't heard anyone call it "pop" in decades.
I pour them waters and I get myself a scotch on the rocks. "The good news is," I tell them, "here on the coast there's no shortage of water."
The bad news is that most of it will make you choke.
By the time Ted shipped off to O.C.E.A.N., I had been at Harvard for a couple of years, only vaguely aware of what the fam in South Dakota was up to. My mom had called me in hysterics the night he brought it up, freaking out that we were both gravitating back toward New England. I had told her not to worry, that there was no such thing as curses, that she just needed to get a grip and I'd see her and Dad and Ted in Sioux Falls in July.
That, of course, was not how it happened.
When I first heard Ted was gone, that he had choked to death before he even got a taste of the sea he'd been dreaming of, for some reason my mind immediately went to the Flying Dutchman. Have you heard of it? It's a legendary ghost ship, one sailors would supposedly see floating in the air over the water—they say it's an omen, a sign of coming doom, but I kept hoping it was real. I don't know why I cared, except for maybe the same reason anyone cares about ghosts: just a desperate desire to know things go on. To know that death isn't the end, that life is more than just a cruel joke of pain followed by nothingness.
I think about the Mary Celeste a lot too—even now, still. Unlike the Dutchman, the Celeste was real—a ship they found floating off the Azores in 1872, fully stocked and under sail, just abandoned by the entire crew. No sign of a struggle or danger, everything right where it was supposed to be, as if the captain and all the sailors had just vanished in a moment. Like the Dutchman, the Celeste would keep me up at night, thinking, worrying. There's something impossibly eerie about a shell built for life with no life inside.
A hollow tree.
A human skin suit.
I was packing up for the end of the school year when my mom called me with the bad news. O.C.E.A.N. was just a half-hour away from me, so I told them I'd meet them there. Thought maybe I could hold her hand, help her keep it together, but it turned out that I couldn't do either of those things. I was barely twenty at the time. I wasn't ready to stare death in the face.
I'm still not.
I'm still waiting for Jacinta. This sort of thing—dead students—happens often enough that she and I have a rhythm down. We cover for each other, alternating between conciliatory and remember-you-have-no-right-to-sue. Sort of a good-cop-bad-cop thing, except in the end we're both bad cops, I guess. We killed your daughter. Sucks to be you. Sorry.
The silence is intolerable, but what can you say? How was your flight? Did you get one of those tiny pouches of pretzels? Did you get it open? How do you open those things?
There's really only ever one thing to say. (Where is Jacinta?)
"First off," I say, "let me say that I'm deeply sorry for your loss."
It's not untrue, even if it is canned and scripted. But the ghost of Ted, sitting across the room in a wingback chair, mouths the words right along with me. He winks.
"Oh, get lost," I tell him, without thinking. "Make yourself useful, go find Jacinta."
"What?" says Mr. Smith-Jones.
"I—I don't—never mind. I thought I saw someone, sorry."
Twenty-one years ago. That's how long ago it was that I was on the other side of this conversation, when it was Ted's body on a slab at the morgue and I was the one on the couch, sitting in between my parents, being told again and again that they couldn't sue. My dad just stared at the floor and my mom kept mumbling That curse, that goddamn curse over and over again.
Here's the thing, though. I had played linebacker on my high school football team. For my first two years of college, I had basically lived at the gym. I was bigger than both my parents, by at least a hundred pounds.
And yet, for whatever reason, that's not how I remember that moment.
Every time my mind dredges up this scene, I'm a child, cowering in my catatonic parents' shadow, asking over and over when his little brother is coming home.
The human brain is weird like that.
Jacinta is here now. She's taken the lead, like she always does—I'm always too stuck in my own head, always leave too much of the job to her. Maybe it's easier if you've got another decade or two of dead relative under your belt. Maybe it's easier if you don't have to look said dead relative in the eye every day.
"Here's a copy of the waiver you signed," she's telling them. "Here's what I need you to sign right now, and as soon as that's done I'll sign the check for the cash settlement."
"Can we at least see her body?"
"Shhh, in time. Yes. But first I need you to sign this."
"This paper that says you're not 'responsible.'"
"Yes," I butt in, doing my best to pull my own weight. "I'm sorry, I know how hard this must be for you."
"Well, I agree you folks aren't 'responsible.'"
"Mr. Smith-Jones, I assure you I did everything in my power to prevent your daughter's death—"
"And now you're doing everything in your power to get me to just take your money and go away."
"That's—that's basically it, yeah."
When I saw Ted's ghost for the first time that night, I wanted to be scared. I wanted to be scared of seeing a ghost, or angry he was dead, or thrilled he was still around, or something.
I felt nothing. Nothing at all. He was still around, but—why? What even is a soul without a body? Is it any better than a body without a soul? At least his body is real. At least the Mary Celeste is real.
The Dutchman? The Dutchman just replaces the endless blackness with an endless pointlessness.
Ted's soul is smiling at me from across the room right now. Which is nice, I guess.
But it's not him.
I grab the papers out of their hands, right as they're about to sign them. Right as Jacinta is signing the check.
I take it all. All the paper in this room, all the bullshit bureaucracy that forces people through a sieve that says Death is okay, I guess. I take it all and I throw it in the fire.
There's a museum brochure in the bottom drawer of my desk, one I've been saving for twenty-one years. It's time to go get it.
"What are you doing?" Jacinta demands, and I ask the same question of myself, but I can't take it back now, can't unburn what's been burned.
"Jacinta—" I say. "Jacinta. If there was a chance you could save your cousin—save Manny—even if it were a million-to-one chance, would you do it?"
"I—what kind of question is that?"
"It's yes or no. It's a yes-or-no question. Sunny's got a plan. It's insane, it's absolutely insane, and I doubt it will work, but—well—what if it will? Even with the slightest chance it might work, I—I can't not try it. And—Mr. and Mrs. Smith-Jones—I can't stand here and tell you your daughter is lost. She's fine. Well—not fine, exactly. But I just talked to her. And I can make her fine. I mean, probably. Possibly."
"Mr. and Mrs. Smith-Jones, I will bring your daughter back or die trying."
Have you ever said the exact worst thing you can possibly say?
Because based on everyone's faces, I think I might have done that. Just now.
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