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Before I tell you how Braden killed himself I have to tell you about Chubbs. How he changed colors when he was upset. How his tongue would snap like an elastic band, velcroing up the lazy crickets littering the tank. His eyes wobbling like little traffic cones. The slow plod of his LEGO hands.
Chubbs was Nick’s. And Nick loved Chubbs. I think. I think Nick loved Jenna. But I don’t know how a man who hates himself that much can really love anyone else.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to get Chubbs high. I’m not even sure if we thought he’d like it. I don’t know if that matters. After we smoked him out he wasn’t the same. He wouldn’t change colors. He stopped eating. He crawled into the corner and turned his back to us as if he couldn’t stomach our ugliness. The next day he started climbing. He climbed to the highest branch in the terrarium. One by one his hands opening like tongs, his limbs patiently extending away from his body until he only dangled from one hand. Then he let go.
He didn’t die the first time he fell. Or the second. But that didn’t stop him trying. I remember his tiny hands opening, almost leisurely, like a time lapse video of a flower. I can still hear the dull thud of his body on the bottom of the tank. How it sounded almost wet. How he looked past us like no one was there, like he was seeing something we couldn’t. Sometimes, when I think about it, it feels like I wasn’t there, like I’m outside my body watching myself stare through the glass. And Chubbs is locked into this never-ending freefall. And I’m falling too, at the same rate, the one they taught us in school, where the farther you fall the faster you travel.
My sponsor used to have me say this prayer where I pray for god to relieve me of the bondage of self. When I read it to Nick, I dropped to my knees and pretended to sob while I clutched at his ankles. We laughed till our heads rolled off. Everything is a joke when you don’t know the punchline.
Braden wasn’t like us. Or anyone for that matter. Braden was the best of us. You couldn’t help but look at him and see everything you weren’t, your shortcomings cartoonishly reflecting off him like a fun house mirror. In this way our unspoken aspirations, our insecurities, and self-pity cast a halo over him. We called this love. Of course we resented him for this, but only as much as we resented ourselves.
I don’t know what happened to Nick. But I can tell you it was nothing good. Word had it he was banging dope out near Borculo—but that was years ago, and what’s the shelf-life on an aging junkie anyway? I’d like to believe he’s still alive. I’d like to believe some part of him is still more human than animal, that there’s a dog-headed god for wayward fiends, a future where his cruel laughter rings out over the cracked gravestones like a leper’s bell. But I suppose that’s a leap of faith.
The last time I saw Braden was at Schippers’ wedding. My memories from that night are a fistful of sand. Just outlines. Impressions. He’d grown brown as a boat shoe in the Florida sun, his teeth luminous against his skin. He was a skydiving instructor. How glamorous. How much braver than you. I remember that—my fear. My shame. How I ginned up humility, to ask how he did it, as if I could trap him in an answer. Him just flashing those pearly whites, never skipping a beat, “How do you put on your pants?”
“One leg at a time.”
“That’s it, you just let go, one hand at a time.”
An old head once said something at a speaker meeting that stayed with me: We cannot fully understand the universe. The simple fact is that we cannot even define space or time. They are both boundless, in spite of all we do to limit them. We live in a box of space and time, manufactured in our own minds based on our so-called knowledge of the universe. The simple fact is that we can never know all things, and more importantly we are not made to know them. Much of our lives must be taken on faith.
When I was a boy, a newscaster described a plane crash as falling into the drink. I remember liking the sound of that. I don’t know if any of this helps. My grasp on things is shaky. I often fantasize about finding a nice secluded place to hole up in, to cozy into nothingness like an old blanket, where death is just a slow dream I pour myself into. To draw it in like a breath. How easy it would be to let go.
I haven’t seen Braden in years. I can’t tell you how he killed himself, if his teeth chattered on the muzzle of a gun or if his legs rocked back and forth against each other like a wind chime. I wasn’t there. No one was there. But I can tell you how he fell. He fell just like the rest of us— letting go, one hand at a time.
David Joez Villaverde is a CantoMundo fellow and an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan. He is the winner of Black Warrior Review’s 2018 poetry contest. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fanzine, Wigleaf, The Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Detroit, Michigan and can be found at schadenfreudeanslip.com
“9.8 m/s²” was chosen as the runner-up in the 2020 Ryan R. Gibbs Flash Fiction contest, judged by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint. Please see our contest page for more information.