When I was about to die, my life didn’t flash before my eyes. All I could think about was what my father once told me from a beige couch in an unlit study.
“Above all else, humans are survivors. When one has exhausted all possibility of survival, the mind will expand its idea of what is possible. Think of it this way: You’re alone in the woods and hiding from wolves which are hunting you. Do you call for help?”
“Of course not”, I had said. “Then the wolves would know where I was.”
“Exactly. But if the wolves found you anyway, and you knew there was no hope of escape. You might as well shout then, right?”
“You might as well.”
“The only difference, then, was your desperation. In the same way, your subconscious mind is prudent enough not to shout into the dark for fear of what might hear. When all hope is lost though, the mind begins to scream at random. It screams across time, across dimensions—and just sometimes, something will be listening.”
“What kind of something?” I’d asked.
“There’s only one way to find out, and I wouldn’t recommend it.”
I wouldn’t recommend it either. Taking a bullet in the stomach isn’t all that. The head would have been better. Nice and clean. Arm or leg? No problem, I can still get myself to the hospital. The stomach though—that bleed is slow, and there’s too much time to scream at the emptiness between stars.
It doesn’t matter how it happened. I made some bad decisions, and the man who shot me made a worse one. That’s not what this story is about. This story is about an asphalt parking lot, my twelve-year-old daughter Lizzie, and the best pizza I ever had in my life.
Let’s start at the parking lot where I died. You ever jump straight from a hot tub to a cold pool? It was a little like that, only I didn’t feel it on my skin. I felt it deep inside, radiating out from where the bullet sat between my ribs. It seemed to move about an inch a minute, and I could hear it the whole while—kinda like the slow tear of fabric that kept getting louder and louder, until I was pretty sure every cell in my body was screaming itself apart. Like the worst static you ever heard. And the louder it got, the slower it got, until each POP was a supernova and each plateau between was death itself.
And I knew—deep down I knew like I knew fire burns and gravity drags me down—that soon one of those POPS will be the last one I ever hear. And that for the rest of time, I’ll be hanging on the anticipation between. But that never happened, because something spoke to me before I went.
“Want to stick around?”
If that was the voice of God, then God is a lonely old man at a diner with nowhere else to be. I didn’t know how to answer, but I did want to stick around. Lizzie needed a dad, and I needed another chance to make up for fucking up the first time. I wanted it so hard that I think the voice must have felt it too.
“You won’t get to leave again.”
I’ll never leave her again…
“Not now, not in a hundred years when your daughter is dead, not in ten-thousand when the last man has killed his brother, and you’re left to watch the survivor grow old and blow to dust. Or you can get off now, and that will be that.”
I don’t know how long I sat there thinking, but I did know that I hadn’t heard a POP in a long time. That silence sure can be heavy. I also knew that I’d rather spend the rest of time thinking about how I tried my hardest for my daughter than let my last thought be self-hatred and regret. And as soon as I knew that, the voice knew it too.
To the other side of sky and back. But not back—not like I ought to be. I was less than the shadow of a shadow, a light breeze wafting on a calm day. And nothing broke my heart like lingering in Lizzie’s room and watching her watch the door for me to come home. And nothing hurt so much as not to be able to hold her and tell her I was here or watching her push away her food until I could see her collarbone like it was a snake beneath her skin.
But hurt is a lot like desperation because sometimes you don’t know what’s possible until it really sets your blood on fire and gets you screaming. Because one night it hurt so bad and I lashed out so hard that something quite miraculous happened.
A water bottle fell off the side of her nightstand and fell onto the carpet. Lizzie hadn’t pushed it. She was lying on her back, staring at the ceiling like she did most of the time. It was me, and with some concentration and practice, I could do it again. Little things—sliding a pen on a desk, or popping a bubble, or kissing her on the forehead as light as a butterfly. Then once I caught her smile and touch her fingers to her skin, and I knew she felt it too.
I could learn how to be in her life, but it would take time. I didn’t have the luxury.
It’s not that I was afraid Lizzie would hurt herself. Not on purpose anyway. She had to move and live with my sister though, and like a flower in the sun, I could see her wilting day by day. She stopped seeing her old friends, and she didn’t talk to anyone at her new school. My sister didn’t have the first idea how to reach her, so she’d just give my daughter money whenever she felt guilty.
What’s a 12-year-old going to do with nothing but time, money, and pain? Sneak cigarettes at first, but it didn’t stay innocent for long. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree I guess; pretty soon she was buying a bag of pills from the school janitor every week like clockwork. What could I do about that? Breathe down the bastard’s neck? Blow some sand in his eye?
The flower was wilting faster than ever, and Lizzie never kept money in her pocket for very long. To make matters worse, my sister’s guilt didn’t last until the third month. Lizzie’s allowance was cut off, and suddenly the only thing she’d done to numb the pain was out of reach. All I do was be the breeze on her knotted brow when she sweat herself to sleep or bit her nails until they bled.
Lizzie confronted the janitor the next day, and it wasn’t pretty. She shoved him in the hallway in the middle of the day, practically shouting at him in front of a dozen kids. If she’d picked up one of my bad habits, she’d gotten them all. I knew her little face seethe that things were only going to get worse from here.
I had to try harder. My next breakthrough came in the form of a housefly. I was nudging it back and forth when I began falling into the rhythm of its motion. Pretty soon I was that rhythm, and before I knew what was happening I was inside looking out, swerving wildly to avoid slamming into a wall. The shock knocked my mind straight back to where I was, but it wasn’t hard to get back in again. Next a spider, crickets, even a squirrel for the fraction of a second—I was breaking my way into simple-minded animals.
The animal mind was in there too, but I was getting better at keeping them down. Pretty soon I might be able to send her a message somehow or even become her friend through a dog or cat. But pretty soon wasn’t soon enough.
Lizzie was stubborn, and just like her father, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She slipped from her bedroom one night and snuck out of the house while my sister was asleep. She didn’t have a car or money, but she did have a hammer, and that scared me even worse. She walked the whole 2-mile route to her school, her face as blank as if she were still lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. I tried to intervene by slipping into the minds of a few moths we passed, but even these were suddenly too difficult for me.
I couldn’t get into their rhythm. I didn’t feel like a moth. I felt like her father, the worst father in the world who was helpless to stop whatever happened next. She broke into the window of the computer lab and stole a dozen laptops from the school. She hid them in the bushes around the corner, then walked all the way home and slipped back into bed as if nothing happened. The next morning she ditched after the bus dropped her off, then straight to the hidden computers and a pawn shop nearby. An hour later and she was back in school, a giant wad of cash in her pocket and a fake doctor’s note for the front desk.
I would have been almost proud if I hadn’t been watching her face the whole time. I hadn’t seen that much quiet, self-loathing since the last time I had a body to look in the mirror.
“How much did you bring?” was her first question for the janitor after school. They were under the bleachers of the soccer field.
“How much you got?” he asked.
Don’t. Don’t be that stupid.
She pulled out the entire wad of cash. I don’t think she ever even counted it. She didn’t care, as long as she got what she came for.
The janitor’s face lit up like a kid on Christmas. He reached out to take it, and she let him. She stuffed her hands into her pockets and waited while he flipped through it, checking surreptitiously over his shoulder as he did.
Maybe this will be the last time. Maybe she’ll take a bunch of pills and get sick and never want to touch the stuff again. Or maybe she’ll be stoned for a month, and by the time she sobers up, I’ll be a little further from her mind. Maybe I’ll be stronger by then, and I can hold her like I’m supposed to and tell her that everything is going to be okay…
But the janitor didn’t believe in ‘one day’. He stuffed the cash in his pocket and, as cool as a cucumber, started to walk away.
“Where the fuck you going?” Lizzie whispered as loud as she dared.
The janitor started walking faster. If she is anything like her father… right on cue, she charges at him, hurling herself onto his leg and wrapping herself around it. He kicks her, but she holds on fast.
“Just give it to me. I’ll tell everyone.”
“You wouldn’t dare. I can guess where you got the money. The whole school is talking about it. Get off of me.”
“Fuck do I care? I’m going to tell the principal. And the police. And your fat cow of a mother—”
I don’t know if he intended to stomp on her. It all happened too fast. She was already wrapped around his leg, and the shaking wasn’t getting her off, and — BAM, right in the face. But she held on, and that seemed to make him even angrier. She didn’t cry — she didn’t even whimper. She just closed her eyes and clung on like a drowning man on the last stick of wood in the world.
“You never… talk to me… again,” he said between kicks. Each one was harder than the last like he was trying to get out a whole lifetime of frustrations all at once. He kicked her like she was every woman who had ever failed to love him and every man he’d ever looked up to and let him down. Like it was the only power he’d ever had in his miserable life, and he couldn’t stop because he was he’d never get it back again. He kicked her and he hates himself for doing it, and that made him kick her even harder.
That rage—that pain—that helpless despair—now that’s a rhythm I could understand. I was inside his head all at once, and I wasn’t going to let go. I felt his mind screaming inside my head, but Lizzie wasn’t getting kicked anymore, and that’s all that mattered. Everything that he had poured into hurting my daughter I poured into him, crushing his spirit until it was a shadow—less than a shadow—and then nothing but a distant thought in the back of my mind.
I was alive again. I had a body. I didn’t get bounced out, I couldn’t get out even if I tried. And I was standing over my barely conscious daughter who lay bleeding and crying into the dirt. I fell onto my knees right beside her and started crying too. There wasn’t anything else to do.
I tried to reach out for her, but she recoiled as if I was a serpent. How could I blame her? She’d just seen this body beat her bloody. How could she ever speak to me after this? She started running, but I couldn’t let that happen. If I let her out of my life, she’d never trust me enough to let me back in. This was my one chance, and I couldn’t waste it.
She wasn’t hard to catch in the state she was in. And the janitor had picked his spot well—there wasn’t anyone else around the soccer field. I’ve been watching long enough to know which car belonged to him, and it didn’t take long to force Lizzie inside and stomp the gas.
Doesn’t hatred get tired eventually? I’m going to be there for her, and I’m going to protect her from here on out. She’ll understand how hard I tried one day, and she’ll forgive me. Who cares if the lines on my face are different, or if I sing her to sleep in an unfamiliar voice? I’m her father, and I’ll love her until the end of time.
It took her almost a year to speak to me, and almost three before she said: “Can we get pizza tonight, dad?”
But you know what? It was the best pizza I ever had.