Things We Never Know

The black and white sign taped to Connor’s bedroom door said GO AWAY. I should have. Should have turned around, walked down to Fleming Lake, sat on the ledge above the cove, figured out a beat, taken out my notebook and written a thousand lines about how everywhere I looked I saw Carly’s eyes and how every voice I heard used words that didn’t sound right because Carly wasn’t saying them and how I didn’t know how I was going to concentrate on anything without her in my life anymore.

She’d texted me right after school: I found the words to one of your raps in my green hoodie. About walking around on the stars. Remember that one?

I didn’t want to text her, like, instantly and look like some desperate jerk. But I did: Forgot about that one. Lame right?

No way. Where are you?

Going to my cousin Connor’s. My aunt begged me.

You mean weird Connor? LOL. What’s wrong w him now?

Depressed I guess.

I almost added, “Who isn’t?” I could never decide if I wanted Carly to know how much it was killing me to not be with her or if I wanted her to think I didn’t care.

A second later she texted me back: Who isn’t?

Okay, so she didn’t want to go out with me anymore, and she could never tell me why exactly—all she’d say is she needed to find out what she really wanted—but she texted me every day.

I stood in front of Connor’s door wanting so bad to be down at the cove figuring out a beat that would pound the world like a hammer and rhymes that burned the skin off every ugly thing I saw. Instead I knocked.

I waited until I heard a grunt, took a deep breath, went in. The room reeked of weed. My brain felt swishy just breathing.

I waited until I heard a grunt, took a deep breath, went in. The room reeked of weed. My brain felt swishy just breathing. Connor sat slouched in his ratty easy chair—the one he wouldn’t let Aunt Judy throw out—wearing plaid boxers and nothing else. Man, he looked skinny—like third world starving skinny—and pale, and his mop of dark brown hair looked like tornado damage. The little TV in the corner was on, sound off, some cartoon, and the laptop was open on the desk to YouTube. Manga, I think. Books and magazines were strewn all over the place: books about science and serial murderers and wars; graphic novels; all sorts of technology magazines. Connor had been a crazy reader since he was, like, three. “Our little Einstein!” all the uncles and aunts always called him, my parents included. “He’ll do great things when he grows up!”

I used to think, what if he gets hit by a bus when he’s twelve? What if he blows himself up making a bomb?

“Hey, cuz. Long time. Here to watch me kill myself?”

It took me a second to notice the compact, silver-bladed bowie knife in his right hand. He was watching himself run the tip of his pointer finger back and forth over the blade. Finally he glanced up, eyes glazed as donuts, and slurred, “Hey, cuz. Long time. Here to watch me kill myself?”

Typical Connor statement. I told him his mom texted me and said she thought he could use some company.

“‘Company.’ That’s actually funny.” He sort of laughed and looked around the room. “Oh, horrors. I have company and the place is such a mess. What must you think of me?”

If I’d told him the truth, he wouldn’t have liked the answer. Actually, he wouldn’t have given a crap. “Why don’t you open the window?” I said. “It stinks in here.”

“’Cause it stinks worse out there.”

“There’s no smell outside. I just came from outside.”

“Never mind.”

I asked him what was up with the knife.

“Pay attention, dude.” He waved his hand. “Shut the door. Come here and feel how fuckin’ sharp this blade is.”

Another time we were in the woods behind my house, and out of the blue he decides to light his hair on fire.

“I believe you,” I said. I did close the door but I stayed where I was. With Connor you were smart to have some kind of plan, some kind of escape route, just in case. Anything could happen. You could be walking down the street with him, say, and all of the sudden he could decide to pick up a brick and throw it into the side of somebody’s Lexus. That happened once. Another time we were in the woods behind my house, and out of the blue he decides to light his hair on fire. Would’ve let it burn, too—it was flaming up. I had to pull him down and slap the fire out with my hands. Got burned pretty bad, but not as bad as he did. For six months his head was covered in these scaly, gross-looking blisters. At least I thought they were gross; he thought they looked sick. Said he hoped they never healed.

Aunt Judy and my mom are sisters. Pretty close. So when we were kids, Connor and I hung out a lot. Back then it was okay, sort of. He was already strange and moody and “impulsive,” but not as much. But by the time we were teenagers I’d gotten tired of always feeling nervous around him. Plus, I was into my own stuff. Music, poetry. Carly. I mostly saw Connor on holidays or so-called “special” occasions.

Aunt Judy’s text made me feel like if I didn’t go I’d be letting her down. I have a weird thing about letting people down. If I do, the guilt kills me. Blaise, please please please come keep Connor company. He’s in the dumps. You’ve got such a good head on your shoulders, and the two of you used to be such good buddy-cousins.

“Buddy-cousins” was some tag one of the adults put on us—I think it was Connor’s father, Uncle Ritchie, who Connor calls “the Bastard.” He’s a college professor and a writer. He published this book about how he cheated on Aunt Judy with like twenty different women and got away with it for ten years. When it came out it made him semi-famous, at least for a few months, especially after he was interviewed on the radio by Howard Stern, who thought the whole thing was hysterical. Stern kept calling Aunt Judy a moron. How could she not know, the moron? How blind can a person be? Anyway, now Aunt Judy was divorcing Uncle Ritchie and everybody in the family hated his guts, Connor most of all. Except Connor always had problems with him, even years before the stupid book came out. Maybe he suspected his dad was a lying cheating bastard even when he was little. I mean, he was a born genius, right?

Not that we talked about our parents. We almost never did.

So I asked him if he felt like walking down to DQ. Aunt Judy’s idea: get him out of his room, get him some fresh air. “I feel like a Blizzard,” I said.

He looked up from the knife, his green/gray eyes all bloodshot and out of focus. “You look more like a McFlurry to me. No, make that a McBlurry.”

I laughed. A little. Couldn’t help it. Connor could be funny sometimes. A little. Funny, weird, super smart. Smart enough to get into The Ward School, which was this our-shit-don’t-stink private school on the north side of town. Everybody in the family made a huge deal about him getting in. “That kid is going to make a name for himself!” Sometimes I wonder if they went overboard because he was so weird and wild that they needed to convince themselves he’d do something worthwhile with his life.

Of course my parents wanted me to go to Ward, too, except I didn’t “qualify.” The day we got the rejection letter my dad told me, “Don’t sweat it, you’ll thrive at Kennedy,” and my mom nodded, but I could tell they were disappointed. No matter what people say, I always know when I let them down. My parents, teachers. Carly. It’s a gift I have.

So, yeah, Connor was smart, but in this whacked-out, who-knew-what-the-hell-he-was-thinking way. He’d say things that sounded brilliant but that didn’t make sense, at least to me. (Example: “I’d rather be a particle than a wave. More covert. Plus a particle can be in two places at once, a wave can’t.”) He was smart in the way that he could ace any test he wanted to but usually he didn’t care enough to want to. Most of us were freaking out about our scores on the SATs—were they going to be good enough to get us into a half-decent college? Would our parents be pissed off because we were only “average” or whatever? But Connor could get any score he wanted. Didn’t have to study or pay some nerd to come over and practice with him like a lot of us did.

It’s like he was certain that there was all this bullshit in the world underneath the skin of the regular stuff like banks and schools and cars and TV shows and malls and smartphones and everything else.

There was another way he was smart, too, but it’s harder to describe. It’s like he was certain that there was all this bullshit in the world underneath the skin of the regular stuff like banks and schools and cars and TV shows and malls and smartphones and everything else. Except he wasn’t able to pretend he didn’t know it like most smart people do, so he was always pissed off because basically he felt like everything was a big lie but nobody would admit it.

To me, the surface was where the bullshit was, and it was easy to see, but if you went deeper down you’d find the good stuff. The real purpose of things. The pureness of things. My problem is I’ve never been any good at explaining myself. I could explain things in school, like how electricity works or why a heart eventually stops pumping or what the theme of some classic novel is (usually death), but I couldn’t explain the important stuff. The under-the-surface stuff. Maybe that’s why I like to write raps. It’s how I get at things.

Sometimes I think rap saves my life.

I said to Connor, “Maybe I don’t look like a Blizzard, but I feel like one. Want to go or what?”

“What’s a Blizzard feel like? Always wondered.” His eyes were practically melting out of their sockets.

I shrugged, played along. “Cold. Sweet.”

“Not quite an oxymoron,” he said. “So, what, Judy texted you to come over and save me from hurting myself? Like you could even do that.” (Connor called his mother Judy.)

“She just wanted me to hang with you for a while.”

“Did you bring a noose?”

“Ha.”

“Actually, I don’t like the idea of my eyes getting pushed out of my head. I’ll slit my wrist. Or my throat. Guess I could drown myself in Fleming Lake. Never liked guns. Never liked the sound.”

Classic Connor. He loved to make you feel uncomfortable, see how you’d react to some outrageous thing he said or did. It always seemed like he was trying to see how much he could get away with, you know, how far he could go. Which was probably why he never had many friends. He’d hang out with one kid for a while, then the kid would be out of his life and there’d be some other kid hanging out with him. Then that kid would be gone. Big surprise, right? Who could take somebody like Connor for long?

I had some friends—Sully, Dave Cappella, Greg O—except when I started going out with Carly I pretty much stopped hanging out with them. I went out with her for a year and two and half months. After we broke up, those guys didn’t want anything to do with me. Guess they thought I dissed them. What the hell though? I had this awesome girlfriend, man. If any of them ever had a girlfriend like Carly they’d have done the same thing.

Actually, even Connor had had a girlfriend for a couple months. This intense emo chick who called herself Mary Magdalene. But she moved away, like, the day after freshman year ended. I don’t think she told him until the night before she left. I used to ask him about her, but he didn’t want to talk. At all.

“You want ice cream or not?” I said, still standing by the door, hoping he’d say no so I could go write a rap. I mean, I had this urge.

He yawned a wide, snaky yawn. “Maybe. I got pretty bad munchies.”

He climbed out of the chair in super slow motion and walked toward me, knife dangling in his bony fingers.

“You should wear clothes,” I said.

He looked at himself. “Oh, yeah.” He put the knife between his teeth, bent down and picked out a black tee shirt and a pair of jeans off a heap of clothes on the floor.

“You won’t need that knife,” I told him. “I have money.”

He took it out of his mouth, stared at it, turned it this way and that. “Dude, I’m taking this.”

“Why?”

“Because you never know.”

“You never know what?”

“You never know a lot of things. Think about it. Think of all the things you never know. There’s a billion more things you never know than things you do know. We don’t even know the things we’ll never know.”

I wasn’t in the mood for his crap. “At least fold it and stick it in your pocket.”

“Duh. Think I’m stupid?”

I looked at the TV in the corner. Some cartoon character was pounding another character over the head with a gigantic sledgehammer.

As Connor tried to fold the knife it slipped out of his hand, blade first, and just missed stabbing him in the big toe. I picked it up, but as I handed it back I accidentally touched the blade with my pointer finger and, damn, it sliced me. Pretty deep, too. The kind of cut where you don’t feel the sting right away, where it takes the blood and the pain a minute to get to the surface.

“Be ironic if you killed yourself before I did,” Connor said.

“Shut up.” I licked my finger to try to stop the bleeding before it started. “Why the hell do you need a friggin’ knife anyway?”

“Dude, you don’t listen. I might not come back, okay? I’m just waiting for the right moment.” For one second his eyes unblurred. “Don’t tell Judy.”

Connor being dramatic. Connor trying to see how I’d react. I didn’t.

He shoved the knife in his pocket and went over to this dresser and started picking through one of the drawers. He pulled out a couple of expensive-looking gold watches that he probably got from his parents for being a genius, or for not destroying the world. “Which one you think is sweeter?”

I looked at them both and pointed at one at random. But right then an idea hit me. An idea for a beat: ticking. A clock ticking. Tick, tick, tick. I’d rap about how without Carly I could hear every clock in the world ticking. My life was ticking away because I didn’t have her.

Connor shoved the watch into the same pocket as the knife. He said, “Dude, want any of the crap in that drawer? A watch or gold chain or anything? I don’t need it anymore. Never did, actually.”

I told him I didn’t either. I sucked on my finger and tasted blood.

***

This girl Patricia who lived next door to Connor was out on the sidewalk in her wheelchair. For years I’d seen her out there whenever I came over to Connor’s. She was around fifteen now. Special needs. She also had something wrong with her bones. Could hardly control them. There was this big bald spot on the back of her head where she rubbed it against the leather headrest too much. Connor knew all about what was wrong with her. In, like, the actual medical terms. One Christmas afternoon he described her condition to me. For two hours. I didn’t want all the details, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by blowing him off, so I sat there and listened.

Whenever Patricia was outside, her father, who was this thin guy with a caved-in face, sat on the porch reading a book. Her mother was dead for some reason.

“Hey, Petunia.” Connor sounded totally stoned when he walked over to her. The father looked up for a second, then went back to his book.

“Patricia,” the girl drawled. Her head moved all over when she talked. “My name is Patricia, Connor.”

“Not to me it isn’t.”

She made a face. “You smell funny again.”

“Told you that’s the way I smell, Petunia. Seen any crows today?”

“Only one. She was in the gutter. A big fat shiny one. She flew away.”

Connor explained that Petunia loved crows.

“Oh, I almost forgot. Here.” He pulled the knife halfway out of his pocket. He mumbled “Not that,” and took out the watch. “Crows like shiny things like this.”

“Okay,” Patricia said. Connor slipped it on her wrist. It was way too loose, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Bye, Petunia.”

“Patricia.”

“Not to me you aren’t.”

When we walked away Connor said, “She ain’t gonna be around much longer either. They never expected her to live this long.”

What do you mean either? Shut up.

***

We walked three blocks without saying a word. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon, early April, kind of cool outside. The sky was blue and the sun was shining, but it wasn’t giving off much heat.

I said, “You like Hip Hop? You listen to rap?”

Connor grunted, “Nah.” I thought maybe he’d like it because it was, in our town anyway, scary to people. Subversive. Way too black, way too inner city. Mortonberg was mostly white, with some Asian families mixed in and a handful of blacks. Super conservative. The sign on Route 333 as you drove into town said: Mortonberg, Where Family Still Matters.

“Aren’t there any rappers you like?” I pushed.

He made a face like it was going to take this huge effort to answer the question. “I used to,” he said. “Tupak. Beastie Boys. Jay-Z. I don’t know. I stopped listening.”

“I like those guys, too,” I said. “I like Eminem best.”

“Should’ve pulled a reverse Michael Jackson and turned his skin black. For cred, you know?”

“Why? Why can’t he be white and rap? He’s friggin’ great. What’s the big deal that he’s white? You can’t be white and be a legit rapper?”

“Yo, dude, chill,” Connor said. “I don’t give a crap if he’s purple.”

“Michael Jackson was confused.”

“So who isn’t?” Connor said. “You’re either confused or you’re dead.”

I looked across the street, into the trees, down at my Nikes. “I write raps sometimes. I ever tell you that?”

“No.”

“Maybe I’ll play one for you sometime. I recorded a few of them on Garage Band. I’m thinking I might put them on Facebook when I get them just the way I want them.”

“I don’t listen to music anymore,” Connor said. “I don’t listen to anything. Actually, I do. I listen to nothing.” He hawked a wad of spit into the curb. “You should try it. Pure nothing. It’s the only thing that makes any fucking sense.”

“But don’t you think music helps?” I felt like my voice was plowing up through gravel. “Like, helps you get through things? It helps me, man.” I wanted to say that it helped me deal with the whole Carly thing, but so far nothing helped with that. “Like…take all this SAT crap? All this ‘where-you-going-to-college’ and ‘What are you going to major in?’ crap. I totally tune it out when I’m into my music.”

“Music’s irrelevant to me.”

I swear I didn’t get that. That made no sense. None. It made me feel like Connor wasn’t even human any more.

***

My phone beeped.

Carly: Bored to death! Studying AP History. Ugh. having fun with mr. sunshine?

Me: No. This sucks.

What I didn’t text: why are you doing this to me?

What she didn’t text back: because I still want you.

***

We came to a place that used to be woods but now was a construction site for some new McMansion. All they had up so far was a foundation and some of the framing. Nobody was working that day.

Connor stopped walking. “Wait here a second, okay, Blaise?” But then he stood there and stared at me like it was this complicated question that I had to really think about before I could answer.

“Okay,” I shrugged. “Got to take a piss?”

Another text: FYI: I’m going to dinner with Walker Livingston Thursday. Not a date! Just friends, swear to god! :-)

Fuck.” I punched my cell phone. “Fuck you, Carly.”

Connor shook his head and smirked. “That chick still playing you, dude?”

“You don’t know anything about it, man,” I barked at him. “So just shut up, okay? What the hell do you want from me anyway? What do you want from me?”

“Nothing, dude. I don’t want anything from you.”

“Then go take your piss so we can get this over with, okay? I got somewhere to be.”

“Okay, cool.” He turned, stuck his hand in his pocket. He walked over a bunch of ruts in the ground, past a small bulldozer and a stack of two by fours, and disappeared behind the foundation.

I thought about sending Carly a text but I had no idea what to say. So I started making up a rhyme:

Don’t know what to do, don’t know what to say
My whole fuckin life is tick, tick, ticking away
Blue sky turning gray
Wish my parents taught me how to pray
They don’t know shit anyway
Nobody knows nothing, not today,
Nobody has nothing worthwhile to say
Carly, girl, why didn’t you stay?

Lame. Then, shit, fist-to-the-gut: what’s he doing back there so long? I screamed his name and my voice came out like this wild caw.

I ran, found him sprawled in the red/brown mud, his head leaning against the foundation, his eyes closed.

“Connor. No. No, Connor.”

His eyes blinked opened. They looked like they were covered in red cellophane. That’s when I smelled the stink of weed and saw the ghost smoke dissolving around him. His eyes clicked over me like he was processing who I was. He smiled this weird, weak, broken smile. “Dude, you’re all upset.”

“What the hell do you expect? What…”

“Like I said, you never know. It could happen just like that. Gonna happen just like that. Except, don’t worry, you won’t be there.”

“You’re an asshole, Connor.” I thought I was going to cry, so I turned.

“Think I don’t know that?”

The sky was totally blue, but I couldn’t find the sun. Some insane prisoner was beating his fists on the walls of my heart.

Connor picked himself up like he was ninety years old. “Still feel like a Blizzard?”

“No.”

“Good. Let’s go home. I hate DQ.”

***

Patricia was still outside.

“Connor, the crow came back,” she called out, all excited. “She liked the shininess.” She tried to make her arm point toward the gutter, but it pointed into sky instead. Connor’s watch slid up and down her arm as she moved it. “She was so close, Connor.”

“That’s good, Petunia. You know what? It’s good luck when a crow gets close to you.”

“It is? Oh, goody. I had good luck, Connor. Connor, you smell.”

My phone buzzed again. Connor watched me. Go to hell, Carly, I thought. I didn’t mean it but I wished I did. I let it buzz. When it stopped, Connor actually smiled. I turned away.

A crow landed in a tree across the street. I said, “Hey, Petunia. Look over there. There she is again.”

“Where?”

“Right there.” I stretched my arm as far as I could, and she tried to get her head to move in that direction. “There. See?”

But her head wouldn’t let her see it, and she got all agitated, her whole body twitching like she was being electrocuted.

“Wait,” Connor said. “That’s not a crow. That’s an old black hat. See, Blaise? It’s a hat.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. I felt like an idiot. “It’s a hat.”

Petunia calmed right down.

“Dude,” Connor said, “you got somewhere to be, right? Go ahead. I’ll tell Judy you did your duty. Hey, there’s a rhyme for you. Don’t say I never gave you anything.”

“I won’t.”

“Later, cuz.”

But I just stood there like this human knot. Maybe I wanted to apologize, maybe I thought I’d never see him alive again. Everything felt wrong. “Know what,” I sputtered, “Petunia’s lucky to have you around.”

For, like, two seconds, Connor’s eyes closed. I swear he looked five years old. He looked…I don’t know… pure.

Steven Ostrowski is fiction writer and poet who teaches at Central Connecticut State University. He has published stories and poems in numerous literary journals and zines, including Literary OrphansSleetMadison Review, Harpur PalateWisconsin ReveiwRaritan, and many others. He has also published two poetry chapbooks, one from Bright Hill Press and one from Finishing Line Press. “Things We Never Know” derives from the first chapter of a novel-in-progress called The Suicide Walk.