This is not my story. Let me repeat that. This is not my story. No matter how true it might feel or how much you might or might not relate, I didn’t write this. Or at least, I didn’t start this. My older brother Nick did. He didn’t leave any instructions for us. I don’t know how far in advance he’d been thinking ahead, or if he even had been. I just know that when I found this, before making this story into what it’s become, it was a half-completed manuscript on a flash drive plugged into his old laptop, a coming-of-age novel he hadn’t finished called Here’s Waldo.
My brother isn’t here anymore. That’s what I’ve started saying when strangers ask, when we’re not close enough for the full story but I still don’t feel like lying. Because it’s true. He isn’t here anymore. For a while when he was still here, he wasn’t really here. You’d see this hollowness in his eyes, looking at the spot just behind the wall in front of him. When I’d try to snap him out of it, he’d put on this one size fits all smile that his eyes never quite met, and we’d just keep talking. Even now, after all these years since his death, I can still see those eyes, that smile. I can hear the way he’d trail off at the ends of his sentences.
I know it’s not healthy to read into all of the little things and see capital S Signs. Anyway, my therapist tells me it’s not healthy. She says things like suicide is something that can’t be easily understood, that it’s not a series of credits or debits. That it’s both the sphinx and the riddle. That to look for every reason behind it is to try to haul the water out of the ocean with your hands. I don’t know how canned her responses are or not, but she’s right.
That manuscript is still sitting in my apartment. Still half-completed, with an X in place of the final word count he’d put in later. What should I do with this thing?
For the first couple months, I couldn’t do anything with it. After it happened, I couldn’t even remember what he’d looked like in that room they put him in besides the stuff they’d done to keep him decent for the family. They’d dried him off, of course. Towelled off Chicago River water and did their best to cover up his arms from where they’d tried to save him, but it was too late, and I remember those two words replaying over and over in my head, at every volume, as I saw him for the last time, in that box they’d put him in, at a wake he wouldn’t have wanted but it was expected, so we were doing it, and the way that Mom and Dad hovered on opposite sides of the room, and when one of them would move, the other would move away. I thought of science classrooms as a kid and equal and opposite reactions. I thought of a time when Nick was still here, any of them, pick a card any card, and there we are making a board game using some white out and the back of a monopoly board, making cards out of pen and computer paper. Sean’s in those too, but I wonder how much of it he remembers now, because he was so little, and because our house was the way that it was. It didn’t do any of us any good to remember things about where and how we grew up.
Pictures are easier. I don’t know why, but I guess part of it is it’s different when you just have that moment. It’s like you can forget about everything else that was going on at the time and just see the smile, the reason for the smile. It was always a birthday, or a pool party in the backyard with one of those inflatable blue pools. Nick used to turn the hose on and angle it at the top of our old plastic slide, make our own version of a water slide when our family couldn’t afford a trip to the water park.
I guess I’m getting lost again.
I never wrote. I mean, I wrote lyrics for songs, some poetry, but never anything like creative nonfiction, never anything like this. Nick was the writer of the family. When he went away, I looked over his bookshelves and boxes to figure out what to do with all of his things. I found books that became signs, even though I tried not to let them be. Paging through, putting one down and grabbing another became looking for reasons. Was it something he read? What could make a person do what Nick had done? What could possibly be that wrong in a life? I still don’t know, even now. Even after reading the half-completed manuscript he left. I guess that’s why I’m writing this. To get at the why, if there even is one, or just the one.
So this isn’t my story. If I’m something in all this, I guess I’m a final editor. Someone who can bring all of the pieces together in the hopes that they’ll somehow fit. I’ve been working at this thing with Sean, and I think it’s helping. Both of us. That and going over the emails we’ve shared with Nick’s old friends. His friends who might not have been brothers by blood but who might as well have been, in the end. Sean and I went over their emails, their stories, their memories of Nick, and we put them in the best order we could find. Some of it is more than that. There are text message conversations we transferred over, phone calls and video chats we transcribed, and some stories that they wrote themselves, in their own words. We don’t have Nick with us anymore, so we had to bring him back with our words, if that’s even something that’s possible. I won’t pretend like I get it the way that Nick did, I won’t fake like I have as much passion about writing as he did, but I will do my best to understand. It’s been half a decade since Nick died, and I’m still seeing him everywhere I go. Still catching myself telling inside jokes to empty rooms.
There’s a physical component to grief that I didn’t know about until I experienced it, till I told my therapist about the stomach aches and migraines and when it got really bad the tightness in my chest and tingling in my left arm that I thought had to be a heart attack, and she told me all about the physical manifestation of emotional pain. That it’s not all in your head, even though some of it lives there. For me, it was bringing groceries home to my new place for the first time, first time living on my own, and having to stoop with hands on knees when I got there, thinking I was out of breath but having no reason to be. Remembering all the times Nick and I talked about getting out of that old neighborhood, out of that environment, and how we’d do it different. We’d make the right choices, the ones our parents wouldn’t make. Maybe couldn’t. We’d do it different.
I know I shouldn’t, know that he’s an adult now too, but I catch myself keeping these things from Sean. Sean didn’t have to see him then. Right after it happened. To identify the body. I was the first family member to see him, and the rest just saw him after he’d been cleaned and dressed and made into a version of Nick that never was, never could be. I don’t blame the person who did the job. They’d never met Nick before. And even if they had, it would’ve been hard. Because the thing is, and I love my brother, but the thing is you only ever saw of him what he wanted to show. It was always edited, trimmed down. The version that he was comfortable with being seen as. He could give you a smile and say everything was going great, and the next week you’d find out he was barely hanging on. My brother was an editor as well as a writer, and the thing about editors is they eventually have to choose what to cut and what to keep.
He’d be turning thirty in a month, if he were still alive today. I can’t help but track these things, even if he’s no longer here. Like he’s living out a parallel life next to mine, next to Sean’s, and if I just look hard enough he’ll be there, waiting for a bus as I pass a stop, or maybe in the aisle over as I shop for groceries. It’s not a delusion if you know it isn’t real. If it’s just that you want it to be real.
I’m twenty-three years old, a year younger than his main character is in Here’s Waldo. A year younger but kind of in the same boat. I can relate.
I thought it was cursed, at first. I thought there had to have been something in there that brought him over the edge. Why else wouldn’t he have finished it, why else would he have ended his own life? That and it was still too raw. So I didn’t read the thing for months. I found it while going through Nick’s old apartment. His ex cleared out from the place for a while, let Marcos and Yuriy and Brian and I get his things. I don’t know where she went, but she left us to it. I found the flash drive plugged into his computer. On it were the older things he’d worked on, the screenplays and the short stories, and his numbering system of D2, D3 and so on, but then there was Waldo. No second draft, no third. Just what he’d written so far, which wasn’t even all of it. I got through the first page that day, got through Nick’s description of Waldo’s hometown, of our hometown–Des Plaines, IL. I got through a peek into Waldo’s family life, and then I just couldn’t do it anymore. I pocketed the flash drive and kept packing the rest.
While I packed, I saw all the things that would and could never be. I saw the birthday cards I’d make for him when I was a kid, crude pencil drawings of him holding a book with his name on the cover, the title being whatever he was working on at that time. Now I’m seeing something that can never happen. Here’s Waldo in his hands, finally done, and here’s the proof. It’s no longer just a drawing from your kid brother. It’s real. I want to see him do these things. I want to see him do anything. I can’t accept that these things won’t happen. And that scares me, but I haven’t told that part to my therapist. Not yet.
It was six months after his death that I started to read the book. I’d almost forgotten about it, or at least compartmentalized it. The flash drive sat in a drawer, and I just went on with my life. Eventually, though, I found it while cleaning stuff out. I was cleaning a lot after his death.
But the flash drive. I found it in that old drawer, forgot at first what it was. Had a moment like waking up for the first day after Nick’s death. A moment where for just a couple perfect seconds, you forget that your loved one is dead. You forget all you’ve lost. And then you wake up a little more, and it all comes back. It’s there.
I don’t know what I am in this. Writer? Editor? Curator? Probably a little of all three. Anyway, I’m going to try to keep it straight as best I can. I’ll copy and paste texts and emails as they are, and any excerpts from Here’s Waldo or other story stuff, I’ll mark that as we go too. My name is Carl James Olson, but you can call me CJ. My brother Nick is dead, but he isn’t dead here. So let’s stay here for a while.