Wolf in White Collar

 The room is dark but for the lamplight swinging overhead. There is no draft, so maybe it’s my eyes, swinging, swaying. But I’m sitting, so maybe it’s my mind, leaving, straying?

(So you can’t sleep?)

My eyes sting. My hands shake. The grains of the desk, stained red, flow like rivers, branching towards me, seeking escape. They are veins, spilling towards me, trying not to bleed. Across, a neck is sat inside a white collar, sat above a nametag, but there is no face. I see a bright light stained where features should be. I watch as hands appear and scribble before me. The nails are dull, clipped and cleaned, clinically. I think that’s what they’ll do to me.

The tearing of paper echoes through my head like muscle peeled from bone. A hand reaches towards me under shadows, changing shape as the ceiling sways and swings, swings and sways. What are they offering? Paper. I know it is meant to cut my skin. Our hands touch. They are cold. Why can’t I see their eyes? Why can’t I see their claws? I know that they’re there.

I look down at the script in my hand but the words shake and the ink doesn’t stay. The Z, the O, the P- run downwards as the scenery around me fractures: two pens become four, four certificates eight. Two hands become more. But still no eyes. Only teeth, and they part:

(So you can’t sleep?)

No, I can’t sleep. Have I said this before? Or was that in my head? Did they hear this before?

(So you can’t sleep?
          So you can’t sleep?
                      So you can’t sleep?)

The voices are booming. They fill up my ears. They fill up my head. My chair is confining and digs into my bones. I have seen their teeth. I can see their claws, no longer clipped, no longer clean. I can see the blood that they missed. It is on their nametags; it is on their hands. It is in their pens. It is the ink on my paper. It is the ink I saw run I saw run I saw RUN. I cannot stay long enough to see their eyes.

(So you can’t sleep? We’ve got something for that.)

Take one everyday and be sure to come back.

Kneel Before the Devil

I wrote this when I was 19 and it doesn’t suck. 

1

The room is dark and the fan next to me sounds as if it’s as adamant on giving up on life as I am. Its blades creak and wheeze as they push stale air upon me, ruffling the unclean sheets that entangle my body. I turn away from it, facing the wall, when suddenly I am accosted by an offensive sunlight.

“Aaron
, get the hell up. Do you even know what day it is? Look at you, for Christ’s sake.”
My brother, arms wide and clutching at my curtains, seems to have decided to make one of his monthly intrusions.
“Of course I know what day it is, Ron, I’m not a degenerate,” I, a degenerate, say.
I sit up as he makes himself comfortable in an armchair strewn with neglected papers, cringing  as they crease beneath his weight.
“Really? Because that’s exactly what you look like to me.”
Ignoring the insult, I sit up and take a guess at his first accusation. “It’s Friday.”
“Right, it’s Friday. Do you know what that means? Do you know what normal people do on Fridays? “
I do. They go out, they drink, they sleep with people they’ve only just met in an effort to feel something, to find a human connection, if only for the night. All this so that they can make it home by sunrise and spend the day hung over and let down with regret. It wasn’t so long ago that I was one of those people: a predator of the night, a victim of the morning.

Instead of answering his question, I stare at him blankly, recognizing the rhetoric. 
“Get up, shower, put on some clean clothes. Pretend there is still someone in there who gives a fuck. Or don’t, I don’t care, but tonight we’re going out.”
Who? What for?”
He reminds me that I haven’t written a single word since my last novel. That much is true. He says I can’t live on royalty cheques forever. I’m not sure if that’s true. He says I need inspiration.
I think I need sleep.

“What I need, old brother, old pal, is for you to leave so I may continue that which you so rudely interrupted,” I say, rising from my bed and leaning against the chair in which he resides.
“Did you know that most people call before coming over? And some of them even knock before entering. It’s astounding. A radical concept.“

“No, what you need is to get out of this house: have a night out, have a few shots, do a few lines, maybe even get laid. Look at you, you look on the verge of suicide.”
“And what if, then, a few shots, a few lines, a lousy lay, is all I need to push me over that edge?”
“Then you’re going to die tonight. I’ll see you at nine.”
He removes himself from my chair and I follow as he retreats out the door he came through uninvited. I resume my position in bed, pull the covers over my stinging eyes, and go back to sleep. When I do, I dream of corpses and the falling out of my teeth.

2

I’m in a cab headed downtown. Ron’s friends are already belligerently drunk, reeking of high expectations, discarded brain cells, and tequila. I can tell Ron, sitting in the front, has been drinking too, though not as much, as to keep me comfortable. I am tin-canned in the back seat between two men whose names, as far as I can recall, are both Joe. I can hardly move without getting an elbow in the ribs or a kick in the shin and I think I might be more comfortable in front of a speeding bus.
As this thought crosses my mind, I look out the window to see a man in a velvet blazer step before an on-coming bus, the same one I had just contemplated. There isn’t enough time to think of the incredibility of the coincidence, merely enough to brace myself for the splattering impact of flesh and bone against metal.

The bus steams through without slowing, but no splat, no guts, nothing. The man is still standing on the side of the road, sucking noncommittally on a cigarette. I guess after three months of hardly stepping outside, my mind is playing tricks on me. I must have been gaping, because our cab had stopped and Ron’s drunken companions were muttering impatiently.
“Aaron, are you coming?”
I stammer distractedly that I am, and remove myself from the car, glancing back at the man in the purple velvet blazer. He’s gone, his existence only proven by the lingering of smoke left behind in his stead.

We enter a venue surrounded by people whose expressions all look dulled and identical. Inside, the dimly lit bar is swarmed with them, reptilian under the overhead glow of red lights. I heed Ron’s previous advice and order a round of shots for the group. The Joes shoot theirs greedily. Ron clinks his glass against mine.
“To your health,” he says, and I note the irony as the tequila burns the back of my throat. I look down at my hand to see this drink swiftly replaced by another, and I watch without enthusiasm as the ice cubes swirl around the glass as I move it about. I’m interrupted by a clutching at my arm, and I look up to see a drunken and overtly underage girl swaying unsteadily in heels. She knocks my drink onto the floor, shards of glass scattering throughout the area while whisky stains my boots. She apologizes through overly painted lips and offers to buy me a new one. I see Ron and his cronies staring at me approvingly from down the bar. The biggest and drunkest of the Joes gives me a thumbs-up. Feeling the weight of their stupid gaze, I decline, and usher the girl back towards her group of giggling clones. Sensing what he believes to have been my failing, Ron signals for yet another round of shots. I hear his friends loudly suggest arm-wrestling. I inform them I need to have a smoke, and float outside.

I find an unoccupied bench and take a seat, lighting a cigarette as I do. I wonder if the puddle beneath my feet is urine, and as the smell accosts my nostrils, I know that it is. I have no intention of returning to my brother’s side. I sit, instead, and watch the people who walk by. None of their features are distinguishable from the next, and I noticed only blurred colours and the clicking of heels. I drop my finished cigarette to the ground, crushing it beneath my foot. The feeling of it relenting under the weight of my shoe is satisfying.
“Excuse me, are you Aaron Pach?”
I look up to see a beautiful young woman, dressed in a white button-down shirt and jeans, noticeably weighted down by the bag slung over her shoulder.
“I’ve been called that before, yes. Why do you ask?”
“I’m a fan of your book. I recognized you from your headshot. I’ve actually got it here with me.” I watch as she struggles to sift through the textbooks enclosed at her side, narrowing my eyes as her efforts are awarded. It’s true. She’s holding the book a long-ago version of me once wrote. My own face, younger then, stares at me from the back cover.

“Do you think you could sign it for me?”
I’m temporarily unarmed by her flattery and I agree. Rising, I accept the book and a pen from her hands. I glance at the cover, worn and well read, and ask her whom I should make it out to. Hearing no reply, I look up. The girl is gone, and before me is the man in the purple blazer.
3

“Aaron, is it?”
He plucks the novel from my hands before I have the opportunity to react.
“Pach, yes.”
“What a shame.”
I peer at this man through squinted eyes, not knowing what he meant. I don’t know who he is, and yet I am inexplicably intrigued by him. He stands before me with the social grace of Jesus and the looming influence of Satan. His dark hair falls effortlessly over eyes that seem a thousand years old, bedded in flesh that can’t be over twenty-five. I am absorbed by him to a nearly inappropriate level of curiosity. If he is the beautiful, then I am now the damned.
“You know, I read an absolutely riveting novel just the other day,” he says, flipping my work over in his hands, picking through its pages.
His words tear me from my near-trance.
“Really?”
“No.”
He laughs heartedly, tossing my book aside. I watch as it lands in the puddle of piss I earlier stepped in. His laugh is infectious; it creeps its hands down my throat and claws out a reciprocation despite the fact that I am completely lost. I find myself offering to buy him a drink before I even realize the words are leaving my mouth.
“I know just the place,” he tells me, speaking with the authority of a much older man.
He leads me to a venue I’ve never noticed until now, stuck between ones much larger and louder. We enter and I am struck by the quiet of the room. He seats himself at the bar, looking entirely out of place in his effortless grandeur, as though he was pulled directly out of an Oscar Wilde novel. I take a seat next to him on a swivelling stool and survey my surroundings. We are in an old English pub that looks on the verge of bankruptcy. The lights above us flicker and the air smells of deep-fried food. I find myself wishing I could put the entire scene down on paper.
After ordering drinks for us both, he turns to me, crossing his legs and leaning against the counter. He smiles using only his eyes, somehow amused. I realize I’ve yet to ask his name.
“Henry. Neal Henry”
Did I say that out loud?
I decide that I must have, as there is no way that he could have read my mind.
“So, what do you do, Aaron, other than write?”
Without pausing to formulate an interesting answer, I confess:
“I sleep, mostly. I don’t find myself writing much…these days.”
“But why not? When is the last time you felt something? What is it about sleep that attracts you?”
“You never know if you’re going to wake up.”
My answer seems to have intrigued him, though not on the level that he has absorbed me. I am enveloped by his presence. I find myself wondering where Ron and his friends are and I find myself not caring.
“Well then, Aaron, tonight, we are going to find something that will make you feel alive.”
Something in his eyes make me sure that if I accept his offer, I am agreeing to something beyond my comprehension, yet resisting feels impossible. I down my drink, and face him directly.
“Where do I sign?”

4
“Now Aaron,”
Neal wheels his stool around effortlessly and gestures toward the masses occupying the bar.
“Do you believe in the Cardinal Sins?”
“The seven deadly sins?”
He nods, and I explain: I do not believe in God, I do not believe in Satan as more than an abstract idea. But I do believe in evil: the evil of the human race. Of course I believe in sin, I tell him. It’s impossible to live in our world and deny its existence.
“Logical, yes, and absolutely reasonable. People are always asking what the meaning of life is. The meaning of life is sin. Without sin, what would we have? We would not need religion. We would not need God. Yet we would only need and never want.”
“Life would be boring, I guess.”

Neal smiles appreciatively at my uninteresting addition, and brings my attention to an unbearably over-weight man sitting alone in a corner booth. As I watch, a waiter brings him several extravagantly sized dishes, followed by several more. By the time the server is done, the man’s face is hardly visible behind the food. He begins eating at a feverish pace, stuffing his mouth with chicken legs well beyond capacity. He licks his fingers as grease runs down his chin. In mere minutes, the first three dishes have been devoured, and the man is sweating. He continues to indulge at an unyielding pace and I watch in disgust and scientific fascination. Finally, when I fear he may not possibly get any fuller, his face stretches in alarm and fear. He clutches at his throat, eyes bulging from the sockets like meat through a grinder, searching for help that isn’t coming. His face turns red, then pale, and lands in his remaining mashed potatoes.
Neal is chuckling.
“Gluttony! Delightful, isn’t it? Now, to our right, Aaron…”

Not worrying about the man I now presume to be dead, and fearing I’ll miss the next spectacle, I turn to a cash register at which Neal has pointed, just behind the bar. It has been left painfully unattended and wide open. I notice a thin, dirty man also eyeing this phenomenon. His presence seems too coincidental. His eyes meet mine, and a wild abandon consumes his features. He runs for the till, arms wide, bony fingers grasping, and slips on the polished floors. In an instant, his head cracks against the solidity beneath him, shattering both the tiles and his skull. I watch blood trickle from the no-longer-wild eyes that had so recently engaged mine. The man is dead. Neal is clapping.
“Spectacular! Greed at its finest.”

Neal is nearly falling off his chair with laughter when I notice a beautiful blonde woman standing nearby. She is admiring her appearance in the reflective surface of the wall, reapplying her lipstick with unwavering scrutiny. Neal leads my line of sight to another woman, this one’s face to be described as no less than torture. She is staring at her physical superior with squinted malice. Suddenly, with an inhuman grunt, she lurches across the bar, grabbing a fork from a nearby table. She connects with the unsuspecting beauty, whose screams curdle as the fork enters her eye, again, again, again. Each time it punctures, I am reminded of the suctioning sound one’s foot makes when stepping through mud. The blonde grabs the throat of her attacker, and does not let go until the beast stops moving. Satisfied, beauty collapses to the floor. Neither moves again.
“Vanity! Envy! Wonderful!”

My attention turns to a man and a woman. The man is making wild advances at the woman, who is pressed against a wall. I watch as they move with abandon, knocking over a near-by beer bottle as he rips open her blouse. He pushes her violently against the wall, face in her breasts, hand up her skirt, and suddenly her moans of pleasure are replaced by a loud popping sound. The coat-hook behind her has gone through the back of her head. The man pulls her face forward and her brain makes a sickening suction sound as it slides off the hook. He recoils in repulsion and fear, falling backwards over a stool, and lands directly upon the broken bottle. It punctures his throat, and he bleeds out on the floor next to his date.
“Oh! Le petit mort! Lust! Lust! Lust!”

Neal’s ecstasy is interrupted by loud shouts from the pool table. There is an argument taking place amongst three increasingly aggressive men, and a pint is overturned. The biggest of the three throws a reckless punch, connecting directly with the face of another. I hear a definitive crack! and watch as teeth scatter across the billiard. The third man snaps his pool stick and shoves it into the larger man’s back, splintering through his heart. The impaled drops to his knees, collapsing on the floor, and the fight continues between those remaining.
“And there you have it, wrath! Don’t you just love a bit of violence?”
Neal sighs, appreciatively, and returns to a less excited posture.
“Come now, I’m bored.”

I follow him from the bar in a stupor. We reach the night, standing beneath a street light, and he turns to me unaffected.
“So, what did you think?”
“How? Why? You can’t have caused all of that. You…you didn’t.”
“Yes, you’re probably right.”
As these words leave Neal’s lips, he snaps his fingers. The bar’s doors slam closed, and the entire building bursts into flames. I collapse on the near-by bench, a spectator. There is no one around. No one notices the fire, no one cares. I watch it burn in amazement as Neal stands before me, unmoved. His previous charming composure remains, but now something dark stirs behind his ancient eyes as flames dance across their reflection. I want to ask him everything. I want to know all that he knows. I can feel the heat of the fire licking at my skin, growing in intensity.

“Are you the devil?”
All sound but Neal’s reply seems to have left the city.
“The devil, Satan, Lucifer. I’ve been going with Neal Henry for the past quarter-century”
“Why, then? Why now? Why me?”
“Why you, Aaron? Let’s not play the victim here. Why not you? ‘Without sin, life is boring.’ I believe you said something to that effect.
Tonight, I have shown you life. Tonight, I have shown you death. Tonight I have shown you both tragedy and miracle. I have made you believe in something.”
“By killing innocent people?”
“Surely you know by now that there is no such thing as an innocent person.”
“So this was for what, your entertainment?” I sink further into my seat as I speak and Neal seems to grow larger before me. “Did I entertain you?”
“On the contrary, Aaron, I believe it is I, who have entertained you.”
He turns to leave, but suddenly, I remember:
“Wait! Gluttony, greed, vanity, wrath, envy, lust.” I count on my fingers. “That’s six. What about the last one? What about sloth?”
Neal turns and smiles knowingly.
“I thought you had that one covered on your own.”

With that, Neal begins to walk away. The traffic returns to the street; people gather around the burning bar. Two fire trucks arrive and attempt to put out the flames. Some people are screaming, others looking on silently, and all the while I watch as Neal Henry disappears into the distance. I light a cigarette, lean back, and look at the calm of the stars over the turmoil of the city.

Tonight, I met the devil. After tonight, I believe in sin. I believe in Evil. I believe in Life. I drop my cigarette, exhale, and take the long way home.

I don’t have a name for these.

I

Your heart on my heart
and they’re killing time
Your beat parallels death’s
and it’s matching mine
We pull and
we hang
like we’re intertwined
Guilty like the
Gallows’ sparrows

 

II

You know you need your demon
and you know how he tastes
It’s bitter yet sweet,
you let none go to waste

As it dries on your lips
and it slides down your throat
you know you need your demon
just to keep you afloat

He grabs at your mind and
you think he might steal it
but you let it tear off
because at least
you can feel it

You know you need your demon
set behind your dead eyes
need the glint and the fire
but he won’t empathize

He knows that you need him
and he waits in the glass
He might be at the bottom
but he left you for last

You know you need your demon
and he can’t be erased
he stole all of your words
and wrote them on your face

Prescribed

Shaking hands and
earthquake eyes
they close and slip
as pills collide
The blue ones
the blue ones
The white and
the red
These will make you better
all better, they said

They hand me
prescriptions
for whatever I ask
It’s been four weeks
and four weeks
When did we see you last?

Written by cold hands
and eyes that pass through
they hand the white scribbles
just to get rid of you
You’re a number
and you number
count the whites and
the reds
But the doses move slowly
when it’s all in your head

The white shirts
prescribed you
looking up not at all
but when they come ringing
you will answer
their call

So you can’t sleep?
No I can’t sleep
We’ve got something for that
Take one every day
and be sure to
come back

You return under harsh lights
and it’s always the same
checking over your file
to remember your name
So you take pills
then you take pills
’til you’ve filled
every gap
These are great pills
Increase the mills

When did we see you last?

Hindsight

I

My mind is on fire
My thoughts are aflame
The heat scatters the ashes
and licks at my brain

If you try to get close
If you think you could learn
If you think you could know me
you will only get burned

I can’t draw back the fire
I can’t heal your raw flesh
I can’t feel for your blisters
Your wounds are too fresh

You did not heed my warning
You ignored common sense
I’ll be gone in the morning
setting flame to the rest

II

Another one
another one
because it’s never enough

Not in drink
not in men
not in feeling
not in friends
The attention
the destruction
the beginnings
and ends

I need more
I want more
and I need it to live
You’ll lend some
I’ll want more
and take all you can give

Once you’re shrivelled
Once you’re empty
Once you’ve bent to my pull
then I’ll move on
then I’ll pack up
but not ’til I have
your soul

III

You feel “Flat” they called it
Not a clinical term
Just flat,
unmoving
like windows shut in dark rooms
like a misplaced note
that should have been sharp
like a smeared black canvas
that should have been art
like a minor through silence
that should have been major
like a fragmented soul
that should have found saviour
like happiness lost
and feeling misplaced
You are flat,
you’re unmoving
and the pills were just chase

Artistic liberty, or something like that (6 poems)

I

You don’t know what you’re feeling,
not most of the time
unless you loosen the hinges,
start drowning in wine
As you plead and you gasp,
try to shut it back in,
as you bargain for air and your lungs are
screaming

That’s when he’ll find you
and he’ll offer his hand
You’ll thank your kind saviour
as you head to dry land

Coerced, young, and foolish,
you believe what you’re told
As he tightens his grip you think
you’re the one in control
But tell me my child,
can you remember your name?
At some point you’ve forgotten
Now you’re part of his game

The setting grows colder
It’s fading to black
And now you’re still drowning
with fresh marks in your back

II

You came here because
you wanted to feel something
More than you wanted love
you wanted to know
that you were capable of it
And you are…
or you were
But now it’s just another
emotional notch in your bedpost
Another hole in your belt
As you grow fatter with
experience you grow
less and less satisfied

Your waistline shrinks
and your cheek bones emerge
and you know the more you feel
the more you need to feel

You’re a sensational bulimic

Couches and dead flowers
and arguments and cleaning
the bathroom
This is your life now
You’re a modern day housewife
parading around in cloaked
dissatisfaction,
coining a front of charisma
so convincing,
for a second even you
thought it could be real
Your senses are numb
but for the scent of bleach
and boredom

As you rest your head
on his chest
his heartbeat reminds you
of your own mortality
You are ageing and
you’re dying
and the longer you wait
the faster it eats away

At least in the cold
you were preserved
on ice
You kept your heart
on the rocks for two decades
and now exposed it quivers
and threatens to crack

Yet you’re sure you can live
without it

So you seek solace in the flesh
of others
digging your nails in and
feeding off their emotions
and reactions
You draw blood as quickly
as you draw a crowd
You timed this,
you planned this
like clockwork
And you pretend you’re unsure
but immorality has always
had a special place in your bones

You’re a psychological vampire

And as you emerge
with fresh claw marks
down your back
you know neither is this “it”
There has to be something more
you can feel

There has to be something more
I can feel 

III

Your eyes
unlike oceans
show the shallow depths
of swamps
and in their muddy waters
I see not blues but browns

There are teeth
that let go at no cost
There are claws
that tear
until you are raw

Reptilian,
you take and abhor
until you need another
and swim back into shore

IV

You’re like a full bladder
an empty bottle of wine
everything you say doesn’t matter
and you take up too much of my time

You talk and you push
and I wish you’d just leave
I’ll drink ’til you drown
and I’ll plan to deceive

You’ll wake up tomorrow
to clean up my mess
and that’s why I keep you:
my tired conscience 

V

If it isn’t catastrophic
If it isn’t cataclysmic
then I don’t want anything to do with it

If it doesn’t clutch at my throat
and splinter my bones
then I don’t want anything to do with it

I don’t want half-ways
or “some day”s
I don’t want forever
or always
I don’t want anything to do with it

If it doesn’t inspire
and it isn’t this instant
then I don’t want anything to do with it

If it doesn’t gratify my wants
and set fire to my needs
then I don’t want anything to do with it

I don’t want 9-5’s
and staying barely alive
I don’t want insurance or security
I don’t want routine or mundanity

I don’t want truth
or sincerity
I don’t want confession
or honesty

I want worn flesh
and chapped lips
I want high winds,
an apocalypse

I want bruised thighs
and shattered lights
I want believed lies
and ruined lives

I want matted hair
and nails across skin
I want Christ cast out
and the Devil in

I don’t want hesitation,
or useless contemplation
I want here and now
instant gratification

I don’t want soft
I don’t want gentle
I want to come apart
watch as you dismantle

I don’t want conscience
I don’t want conviction
I want reveled sin
soaked in inhibition

I don’t want subtlety 
I can’t stand euphemism
I just want you and me
lost in hedonism

VI

Looking up from the cracks
I see the dirt on your shoes
and it won’t break your back
to step over my view

The heat seeps from beneath,
The flames cased in cement
As to whether you’ll join me,
we are all in suspense

I clutch at the sediment
until my fingers turn black
I did not mean to leave you
I just fell through the cracks

Yes, the company’s fair
and the wine never stops
There are thousands down here
That Time and God forgot

But it’s lonely, you know
here at Lucifer’s side
That’s why if you look low
You might still see my eyes

Glinting up from their prison
looking up from the flames
I thought I was special
Down here we’re all the same

The next time you’re walking
take a peek down below
For the cracks that you trod on
might be someone you know

Take Two

As I’m writing this, exactly six months ago today was the worst day of my life. No, I didn’t lose my job or break up with my boyfriend. I didn’t miss tickets for my favourite band, get in a fight with my best friend or get a bad haircut. As part of a generation who exaggerates as readily as we breathe, I can without contemplation say that July 8, 2014 was actually the worst day of my life. It was the day my brother died.

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Jordan, my brother.

It’s easy to go about your life not taking responsibility for the place you hold. It’s easy to blame other people or say, “good things come to those who wait.” Passivity is, let’s face it, the easy way, and we all do it at some point. But when my brother got into a car accident all I could do was wait and wonder, “why him? Why my brother?” and on that day I’d have done anything to have had an active choice.

Jordan was driving on his way home from work in the rain. It was the worst rain we had all summer. I spoke to a cab driver some months later who remembered this as the day his entire basement flooded—but I’ll always remember it as something more. While the reports are mixed, speed and the weather were most likely the factors that lead to my brother’s accident. After swerving into the opposing lane, he hit an oncoming van and veered into the ditch. The family in the other vehicle was fine, if a little banged up, but my brother was not. An ambulance was called and, according to a paramedic I later spoke to, it arrived on the scene within seven minutes. They pulled my brother from the car, and at this time he was unconscious and seizing for over five minutes. The paramedic said that in his experience, when he has seen an accident victim seizure for more than 30 seconds the person is, as he put it, a “goner.” He said he was sure that my brother wouldn’t make it. And according to my brother’s lawyer’s reports, he should have been right: Jordan died on that scene.

But he was revived.

All the while that my brother was fighting for his life I had no idea. I was at home. It was just like any other day and my brother should have been back in an hour or so. But when a knock came at the door it wasn’t one of his friends arriving to see him. It was a police officer. I had to assume Jordan or my mother had done something wrong. It didn’t even cross my mind that something genuinely horrible could have happened. I dialed my mother’s phone number since the officer wouldn’t tell me what the problem was. It wasn’t until I overheard their conversation that I knew something terrible had occured. My chest tightened up in a panic I’ve never felt before, but one that, since, would become very familiar to me. The police officer hung up the phone and told me that someone driving my brother’s car had been in an accident and was in the hospital.

I pictured the worst. Why couldn’t they recognize him? He must be unconscious and disfigured, I thought. But then I remembered that he left his wallet, as usual, on the kitchen table that morning. That gave me hope as far as disfigurement, but reasoning led me to believe he must still be unresponsive. How bad was it?

Whilst these thoughts whirled about my mind I brushed my teeth, changed my shirt, tied my hair up. I think I was in shock. When your brother might be in the hospital dying, the colour of your shirt ought to be the last thing on your mind, but my mind hadn’t fully grasped the situation. Led by the now heightening panic I had felt initially, I ran to the hospital. During that run, I’ve never felt more afraid or weaker. In that moment my legs were too slow and my lungs were too tight and my body seemed to barely move while my mind went a mile a minute. I got to the hospital and asked a janitor where car accident patients would be. He answered in a nonchalant way, not realizing that saying the words out loud to him was the hardest thing I had ever had to do up until that moment. Saying it out loud made it real. And as I moved in the direction appointed, hearing my mother crying made it realer still.

In a room with lighting and wallpaper as bleak as the immediate prospects of any person forced to sit there, hospital attendants briefly explained what happened. I barely listened. The only thing I wanted to see or hear was my brother. They lead us down the hall into a private room, and there I got my wish. My brother was lying on a stretcher in the middle of the space. His face was fully intact. He looked like he was asleep, except for the seizing and the machines that were hooked up to his body. It was the most surreal moment of my life. That man laying on the hospital bed unconscious was the same one who came home every day from work, the same one who played with our dog and cooked us steaks and made us laugh harder than anyone else could. But it is easy for the mind to compartmentalize and disassociate. From the moment I looked down at my brother in that hospital bed I separated him from the memories of everyday life. There was Jordan before the accident, and now there was this new person whose outcome was as of yet unclear. To allow my mind to fully grasp what was happening was too much.

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Jordan and me at our cottage, May 24 weekend, 2014

I realized that my father still had no idea. I called him, and when he answered I could barely speak.
“Jordanwasinacaraccidentcometothehospital”
Whether it was my dad’s bad hearing, my muddled speech, or the inability to comprehend such a life altering statement, my father asked me to repeat myself.
“Jordan is in the hospital. Just come here.”

I hung up.

I don’t know how long it took my father to get there. I don’t know where he was driving from but it can’t have been far. When he arrived he looked confused and worried, but perhaps that is an understatement. As he walked into the room and saw his son’s unresponsive body, all colour left his face. At some point we were informed that Jordan was next in line for the helicopter that would take him to get the treatment that could save his life; it was between him and one other patient, and the patient whose situation was direr would go first. My brother was chosen to go first.

I don’t remember much of the scene that followed. I think we can’t have waited more than an hour but it felt like years. Looking down at my brother I felt constantly dizzy and fought my body’s instinct to pass out. My mind had decided that the situation was too much for my body to handle but I fought it. Throughout the wait, I called two of Jordan’s best friends and my father called my cousin. Hearing my father say the words out loud hurt more than saying them myself. Anyone I spoke to sounded like they didn’t believe me when I told them what happened. But when the time came to drive to Hamilton to meet my brother at the ICU, there they all were. I only called two people, two of his best friends, but when I walked out of the hospital three or four were there waiting. When we got to the Hamilton Hospital, there were at least ten. And by the end of the night as we all waited to hear whether my brother would live or die, there were at least twenty of his closest friends and family there waiting.

It’s possible that amongst all the pressure, my narrative and timeline might differ from that of the other two-dozen people who were present. But what I remember the most as we waited for the best or worst news we would ever hear is that the only thing that got me through it were friends and family. Any time it got to be too much, which was a phenomenon that occurred more often than not, there was always a shoulder to cry on, for any of us. By the end of the night we were told that it looked like Jordan would live. But there was swelling and bleeding in his brain and the next 72 hours would tell if he would need surgery. That night we all went home, emotionally and physically exhausted, except for my father. Knowing that my dad was still there in case any thing took a turn for the worse was as big of a relief as we could have asked for at that moment.

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We took a photograph of just some of the people who were still there the first night and everyone signed it for Jordan over the weeks to come.

The next day, or maybe it was the day after that, we were told that Jordan would need a bi-frontal bone flap removal of his frontal skull. They would remove two pieces of bone from his head on either side in order to relieve the now growing pressure of his ever-swelling brain. The surgery was done routinely, and my brother’s life was saved once again—but just how much of a life that would be, no one knew.

For the next while, I went to the hospital wearing Jordan’s plaid shirt every day. It made me feel closer to him in a time when, even though I was right beside him, he had never felt further away. I made it to two weeks straight before my mother said it would have to be washed, and she was probably right. Throughout the next few weeks Jordan’s vitals remained relatively stable but his blood pressure was high. High blood pressure meant the swelling in his brain could not go down, and it was this that would cause permanent damage. I sat next to his bed quietly, holding his hand and watching the numbers on the machines. I memorized every medication being fed into his body— Fentanyl, Ciprofloxacin, Propofol, Midazolam—and I listed them over and over in my head to keep from crying. The nurses said he could hear us crying, and I knew this to be true from watching the numbers. Anytime some one would get audibly upset in Jordan’s vicinity, his blood pressure would rise. So I sat there in silence and waited.

One day, during what I think was still the first week post-accident, we were called into a private room for a meeting with a neurologist. Immediate family only was requested, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s who came. My mother, father, and cousin came in the room, but so did three or four of his best friends. When the doctor asked each person his relationship to Jordan, each friend said, “I’m his brother.” The doctor didn’t question it, even though one of the friends was visibly of a completely different ethnicity. For this I’m glad, because in this moment, we all needed to be there—for Jordan, for ourselves, and for each other. It was in this meeting that we learned that the areas of the brain responsible for personality and memory were, though damaged, relatively the least affected. But the motor function areas had been hit the worst. It was called a “shearing” head injury, and one nurse said it was the worst possible brain injury one can acquire, before stopping to correct and compose herself. A few days later we were told that the damage was irreversible.

These days were the hardest thing I have ever experienced. When I was with my friends and family I was distracted. They brought a solidarity and necessary humour into a situation that was otherwise dismal. They wouldn’t for a second—at least not out loud—let anyone believe that Jordan wasn’t going to get one hundred percent better. And sometimes, I believed them. When I was alone, it was harder. When I wasn’t depending on Xanax for temporary mental relief, I felt genuinely crazy. I wondered if my brother would survive, and if he did, would he have a life worth surviving for? I knew that if he came out of his coma without being able to function, that he would have rather died. I feared this the most. I wondered what I would do if Jordan didn’t live, if I would even want to remain living, but knowing that Jordan would need me when he woke up kept me strong.

And he did. Jordan woke up from his coma about two weeks after the accident. This was both a blessing and a huge shock. We still had been holding onto the flimsy hope that when Jordan woke from the coma he would be himself. But he wasn’t. His eyes were open but they couldn’t register. He couldn’t see us and we weren’t sure if he could hear us anymore. But I talked to him and told him stories. I told him about what had gone on since the accident and tried to sound as hopeful as possible. There were a few nurses who said Jordan would stay in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. I couldn’t let myself believe this because any moment where I did was the darkest I’ve ever had. But not long after waking, within the third week, Jordan started proving those nurses wrong—and from there, he hasn’t stopped since.

The first indication that Jordan was still responsive came in the form of a simple hand gesture. We asked him to squeeze our hand if he could hear us, and he did, but it was hard to be sure that it wasn’t his brain misfiring. Then one day, my father asked Jordan to give him a thumbs up, and he did. My dad told the doctors, and they confirmed it to be true and ran and got more doctors. They were all impressed. Jordan was acting against all odds and medical precedent. From there progress was small but steady and significant. Jordan’s eyes began to focus more, he responded to more gesture commands, and he was sat up in a wheel chair with support. Still, despite all progress, even after moving back to the hospital in our hometown with secure vitals, it was unclear whether Jordan himself was still there.

Amongst the hardest days of my life was also one of the best. One of Jordan’s friends, my father, and myself were sitting beside him. I was playing his favourite songs, which he had been responding to by tapping his feet and looking to see where the sound was coming from. Roy, the friend, was making fun of Jordan light-heartedly, and I suggested that Jordan should “kick Roy.” Jordan lifted his leg, and booted Roy in the chest. I don’t think Roy has ever been so happy to be assaulted. As if that wasn’t enough, my dad made a joke, which I won’t repeat here, and Jordan laughed. Seeing him smile and laugh for the first time since the accident was one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced. I left the hospital that day feeling genuinely hopeful not because I had to be, but because for the first time, I really felt I could be.

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Jordan and some of our friends in our hometown hospital. Still kicking Roy.

From that day on Jordan continued to progress at a remarkable—even miraculous—rate. He went from a man who was predicted to be catatonic for the rest of his life to being fully responsive. The first time we heard him speak was one of the best sounds we’ve ever heard. Steadily from there, Jordan got his voice back and started physical therapy. He went from moving his arms and legs to sitting up and eventually to standing and shuffling. After being moved to a physical rehab centre, Jordan began walking. Each day he walked further than he had the day before. It was a surgery that saved his life, but Jordan’s motivation and will are what got him as far as he has come—that, and according to him, the support of all of his friends and family. A few months after the accident occurred, Jordan finally got to come home.

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Jordan finding out the expected day he could finally go home from physical rehab.

Now, my brother is walking almost entirely unassisted. He no longer needs a wheelchair and he’s doing more and more things on his own. He has been walking on a treadmill and swimming. But most importantly, he is completely himself. His personality hasn’t changed at all. He still has the exact same humour, the exact same stubborn streak that we love because it was that stubbornness that made him survive. It’s hard not to repeat the fact that this has been the most difficult thing that any of us—especially Jordan—have ever done. Even writing this was a huge challenge. The entire experience is one that I will never get over because from the moment I saw my brother’s comatose body, some part of me had no choice but to start grieving his loss. Emotionally, we all lost something that day we may never get back. But today, exactly six months after the accident, Jordan got his final surgery to place the pieces of his skull back inside his head. Now, both symbolically and physically, Jordan can only get better from here.

On the day of the accident, when we first arrived outside of the hospital as Jordan’s helicopter touched down, there were two rainbows casting their mark in the sky. Though I’m a notoriously unspiritual person, I chose to interpret this to be a sign that Jordan was going to be okay. I took a photograph of it and decided I would show it to him when he woke up. Now, six months later, the shadow of that fateful day has finally retreated, and I think we are all better people for having gone through it. Jordan is alive and well and I couldn’t possibly be more relieved and thankful to know that today…

I have my big brother back.

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July 8, 2014

A few more poems

I’m like a depressing Doctor Seuss.

Crack

An image of
a helping hand,
admired and revered
Upon which you are all
dependant,
diluted and adhered

It holds you up
and weakens you
Your strength, unneeded, lacks
So when the hand closes
its fist
I’ll hear as your bones crack

Man Over God

“Praise Jesus”
they say
“Thank God”
they all gasp
but the man
who loses self
to God
is the man
who will come
last

Take action,
I plead
Go forward,
I urge
For the man
who’s ruled
by none but self
is the man
who will
come first

Life

It grabs ahold of your neck
and digs its thumb into
your throat
It pulls the colour from your hair
and your eyes begin
to float
Your chest caves in,
cavernous
and canyons bed beneath
your eyes
And you try to breathe
and try to scream
but your airways
are all tied

Some call it stress,
anxiety, depression,
grief, or strife
But the term that I am partial to,
I think I’ll call it
“Life”

Fever

We wait until the fever breaks
I keep quiet for both our sakes
Your face is swollen
It’s hard to take
Choke back tears
It’s hard to fake
Propofol, Midazolam
I’m holding on the best I can
Fentanyl, Ciprofloxacin
These are just names, just medicine

But they keep you here
so I’ll stay with you
Until you wake,
I wish I could sleep too

Blink

You hear about it in movies or books: that pivotal moment where suddenly your entire life changes. It seems like an exaggeration. Like you’re going to lock eyes with some one and realize they’re what your life has been missing. Or you’re going to meet some one on a train who changes your entire career path, Jagger-Richards style. But what they fail to highlight in these romanticized Hollywood moments of epiphany—which are real, by the way—is that the strongest ones, the ones that make the most impact, are the unexpected ones that change your entire life in a single fatal blow.

On Tuesday July 8, 2014 my brother, Jordan Houle, was in a near-fatal car accident. A cop car showed up in my driveway as I was about to start a workout. I opened the door, nervous and somewhat annoyed at the interruption. The officer asked to speak to my mom, who wasn’t home, so I called her on her cell phone. He paced back and forth as he spoke to her and I heard him say, “Do any of his friends drive his car? We don’t know if it’s him.” and I realized they were talking about Jordan. I waited impatiently for the officer to get off the phone, trying not to let my mind travel to its darkest assumptions. Finally he asked me if I was the sister. He told me someone driving my brother’s car had gotten into an accident and that they couldn’t be sure if it was him. I knew instantly that it was, because Jordan, who is always misplacing his wallet, had forgotten his ID on the table when he left for work that morning. I ran inside to change out of my workout clothes. I brushed my teeth and changed my shirt twice and thought, why am I changing my shirt? Why does it matter? My brother is in the hospital. I couldn’t think.

I was out of breath as I ran there, my stamina drained away by panic. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t him, that it wasn’t as bad as I was letting myself believe. I tried to remember what the last thing I said to him was and I couldn’t. I felt guilty for not remembering. I arrived at the hospital and could barely hold it together as I asked the janitor where my brother might be after getting into a car accident. He pointed in the direction and as I neared I heard my mother’s cries. I knew instantly that it was as bad as I initially thought. I don’t remember very much else, but suddenly I was beside Jordan’s hospital bed looking down at his unresponsive face, his unmoving body, and in that moment my entire life so far changed.

It’s been less than a week and already I don’t feel like the same person I was only a few days ago. I feel like a fractured, greyed version of my former self; if not distracted then crying or catatonic. In an instant my entire life has been altered. My shallow perception has been molested by grief. I no longer care about my career progression; I don’t care about working out or looking good. I don’t care about my social life or money or living in Australia. I am just thankful that he is still alive.

Jordan was flown by helicopter to intensive care in Hamilton. He is still on life support in an induced coma after going through a bifrontal bone flap removal of his skull, which saved his life. Some days are more optimistic than others, and it is a fresh debilitating pain each time I see him unconscious in his hospital bed, but every day his friends and family are here. I know now more than ever that nothing else matters, not a single person or thing. Nothing is more important to me than being here for him. Nothing is more important to me now than getting my big brother back.

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Stranger

There is something uniquely horrifying about the sensation one feels when they return to their hometown to find out that they are the only thing that has changed within the entirety of their absence. Everyone looks a little older, a little more pregnant. There are offspring running around who look vaguely familiar; the spawns of the people you went to high school with, strange echoes of your not yet passed youth. There are buildings that have been erected since your departure but you almost don’t even notice them. Because beyond the snot-nosed toddlers and recreation centers, the gas stations and old folk’s homes, the air still smells as stagnant as ever, like the faint scent of rotting flesh and discarded dreams. It is a hellhole, wherein, if you don’t get out while you’re young, you likely never will. The hair on the back of your neck rises as you realize: this is the place where people are born to die.

You stay, because you’re committed now, to seeing friends and seeing family. You sleep in your old bedroom, which, let’s be honest, is now little more than a storage room. And you listen to the incessant chatter of “is this your towel on the floor” and you’re a teenager again, getting woken up by the abysmal voice of those decaying around you. No one is happy and it’s infectious. But how could they be? They are the product and infectors of a highly transmittable disease. If you’re not careful, you’ll catch it too.

Suddenly you find yourself sleeping later than you might, if only to avoid the fact that there is nothing to do upon waking. You stay in your room longer than you have to, if only to avoid talking to anyone, to avoid the realization that this is the sound of person’s voice when they’ve lost all hope and ambition. And in your efforts to avoid the disease, you start to become one of them. Like a flu shot that maltreats the elderly, suddenly you’re getting sick too.

Your head is pounding. Your vision is blurry, distorted, misguided, like your decision to come back in the first place.Your breathing is quick and shallow, just like you. Your throat is swollen, swollen with rebuttals and monologues of regret. You’re losing weight. Because you’re sick. You’re sick. Sick. Sick.

         Self-medicate. That’s how everyone deals with their sickness in this town. Everyone has an illness. Not all are identical but the treatment is the same and it approaches you with a smile full of sharp crooked teeth. It whispers in your ear and pokes you in the ribs if you ignore it, with splintered nails and false promises.

I know what will make you feel better
Smoke. That will take the edge off.
Not your thing? Have a drink. We have something for everyone here.

This town has very little but what it does offer in plethora is the ability to numb your inability.

         If you had to count—you can’t, but if you could—think of the calories you’ve consumed since you came home. How many of them were alcoholic? Half? More? And why wouldn’t they be? The food is infected, the land is infected, the people are infected. The only thing sterile here is the alcohol. It’s excused, because you’re home and you’re young and why shouldn’t you party? It’s normal; it’s what everyone does here. But be honest. You’re not drinking just because it’s fun. It stopped being fun a few rounds ago. You’re drinking because of the town. You’re drinking because it’s the only way to never realize that while you stay, your visit is short-lived and so are you. You’re drinking because at least while you’re drowning, you can’t feel the grip that it has on your throat.

         But you’re not one of them. You’re better. You got away. You’re just visiting. You have ambition. You have a plan. You’re from here, but you never really felt at home. You out grew it. It’s like an old shoe, you tell yourself. It’s too small for you now and what you’re feeling is just the blisters. It’s just the wear and tear of your resisting soul, insistent upon discarding its unnatural, depressing enclosure. But it’s just temporary! When you take it off, when you get out, you’ll be better again. You won’t need their treatments, you tell yourself. You’ll be able to breathe again, you repeat in your head. But repeat as you may, the town is still there, holding your hand. And when you leave, it will be there, even still. You’ll think that it’s gone, but you’ll look in the mirror someday, and there it will be, smiling its cracked smile, resting its calloused hands on your shoulders and softly assuring you that you’ll be back. You’re from here. It will always be apart of you. We’ll see you soon.

You hear dogs barking, lawn mowers mowing, people yelling. But no one is going anywhere. It’s the hotel California of your nightmares, and you can’t stay any longer. This time, you have outstayed your welcome.

I think it’s time to go.