He brought a gun to the house.
It is a cold and heavy and alien-looking thing that Daniel waves in his left hand–the hand on which he wears his grandfather’s watch– too big for him and sliding down his wrist as he gestures– the cool metal of the timepiece clinking against that of the pistol.
“My father could never wear this watch,” Daniel says. “Because whenever he did, time stopped.”
I try to glimpse the watchface, see if it’s still ticking, but Daniel is flailing. He points the gun at us, then himself, then the ceiling. He is a blur of arms and time and death, and he won't hold still, not for one measured second.
Two months before his diagnosis, Daniel asked me to go on a walk, just the two of us.
Our friend group clings to one another with the same desperation that we do to our twenties, to the promise that life would be as glamorous and charming as an episode of Friends. Thus, the two of us were rarely alone together. Still, I believe that we had this understanding: that we were one another’s favorite.
I met him under the silver oak at the edge of my neighborhood, and he handed me a pair of headphones, directing me to pull up Gillian Welch’s “Everything is Free.”
As I did, he tucked the headphones into my ears before situating his own. This had felt oddly intimate– his proximity to that hole into my brain with all of its sensitive cones and drums and wax. It also reminded me of the safety talk on an airplane: secure your own mask first before assisting others.
When I got home, I googled the anatomy of the ear. I was delighted to find that, at the end of the canal, there lives something that looks like a small snail. The cochlea: a tender, spiral of a creature without a shell, filled with nerve endings that turn vibrations into sound.
As Daniel plugged my ears with pieces of plastic, I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t say a word, trusting the certainty in his pale blue eyes, the color of sea glass, as he lifted one finger, then two, then three.
There was only a fraction of a second between us as we both hit play.
“What my father didn’t understand,” Daniel continued without looking at us. “is what happens when you let time stop…”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a car drive past my living room window, and I beg them to see me, to save me, to make this impossible thing stop.
“...It’s only when time stops that we can all finally be one. I know now,” Daniel closes his eyes briefly, a small sob dribbling out of his mouth. “that time isn’t real. You don’t know it yet, but I’ve broken it. You understand? I’ve broken the motherfucker,” he laughs. Daniel tells great jokes. “Do you hear me, Anna?”
I jump a little, hearing him say my name. I force my gaze away from the dance of watch and gun to look into his eyes– still sea glass, though the man pointing the gun at me couldn’t be Daniel. Daniel, who sends me screenshots of poems he thinks I’ll like and cried with me when my first dog died. I don’t mean that he held me while I cried. I mean that he began to shake while I shook and our bodies became an earthquake I could slide into.
“Do you hear me?” he repeated. “I can free you from the trap that is your human body. We can be music and trees and each other. I know the code that will nuke the goddamn universe, Anna. I wrote it in my head. I wrote it twelve times. You’re just trapped. But I can free you. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” I say. “I hear you.”
The day of the walk we moved side by side, him grabbing my hand to turn me so we wouldn’t have to break the spell of the song, the melancholy of those sparse guitar chords.
Our steps synchronized as we moved under the dabbled sunlight, filtering through the green of summertime. We didn’t speak at all, and we only made eye contact twice:
The first time, I’d slowed to watch a gust of wind dance through the treetops, feeling something like worship. I looked down to catch him looking at me– looking at me in a way that I understood meant he knew exactly what I was searching for in the wind even if I didn’t. Meaning, maybe.
The second time happened when I thought he’d said my name, but when I turned, he was staring forward, tears streaming down his otherwise neutral face. He didn’t try to hide or explain them when he faced me. We just stood there as Gillian Welch crooned the line, no one’s got to listen to the words in my head into our plugged up ear holes.
I thought, we’re the same, you and I, but I didn’t say it. I didn’t want to end the moment.
Through my living room window, I recognize the truck driving past the silver oak– Laura! Our friend. I’d forgotten, she’s come to borrow a dress for her sister’s wedding.
Daniel’s back is to the window, so he can’t see the car get closer and closer. Still, with every foot of distance the truck covers, Daniel’s ranting escalates. Nothing seems real– not the gun, or the fear, or the cocktail dress I can see laid out on the counter. I begin counting in my head:
one, two, three…
Laura’s car is close; we all only need to survive a few more counts before this is over, before this is fixed.
four, five, six…
To make it through this moment, I pretend this is something that can, in fact, be fixed.
To make it through this moment, I pretend that the gun in Daniel’s hand is something else.
seven, eight, nine…
At first, it’s a heart. I visualize a beating heart in his hand because I want to replace the cold metal with something human and slippery, but I can’t stand the image of the blood running down his arm, dropping onto my carpet. I don’t want to wonder whose heart has been ripped from their chest.
Instead, I imagine it’s a phone, and as he points it away from where I sit, as he plugs the barrel against his ear hole, I imagine the barrel is headphones.
I pretend that he’s only listening to a song that I can’t yet hear, and that there’s a shell-less snail inside his brain, waiting for music.
I imagine him not inside my living room, but outside, under a canopy of rustling trees, looking for something in the wind. Meaning, maybe.
I imagine that there’s only a fraction of a second between us before someone hits play.