I wonder now if I could go back and undo it all. Clean up the whole mess somehow and fix what you told me in your final defeated moments could never be fixed. Unsqueeze the killing trigger. Pull the fatal bullets from your skull and from the bodies of your poor family, she lying slumped and bloodied in the stairwell from kitchen to basement and the child tucked in unsuspecting in his race-car bed sheets. Pull you from atop that innocent girl, the sole survivor, struggling against you and crying on her mattress or maybe by then complaisant in surrender. Coax her back from the corner store parking lot, where she appeared just after midnight stark naked and catatonic. Take her by the hand and walk her back along the silent neighborhood streets and across the backyard up to her second-floor bedroom, through the sliding door and stairs this time, not the window and the roof’s eaves, and then stand at a respectful distance facing away as she modestly dons her pink cotton sleep shorts and white tank top. Wipe away her tears and put her to bed with a fresh glass of water on her nightstand and her phone’s alarm set at 6:30 for school tomorrow morning. Key in your security PIN—still the same sequence, 2541, after all these years—and set the alarm on my way out as you all sleep peacefully in negation of the horror you’d wrought.
Of course, I’d call off the police and the SWAT team who, only vaguely aware of what had happened inside, pled with you from the front curb in the desperate aftermath to stay on the line—It doesn’t have to end this way, man—only to storm the house upon hearing the final shot to find your body doubled over and spilling its life all over the garage floor next to the family SUV, the Christmas decoration storage boxes and the assorted bicycles and lawn care implements. I’d cancel the two, not three, funerals and delete the closed-casket, in-lieu-of-flowers obituaries and the hand wringing social media posts condemning you and grasping futilely for sense.
Could I then write it over again and give you all a better ending? Not a happy ending because, ultimately, no one gets one of those but also not the violent holocaust that now serves as your legacy and, whether your victims like it or not, theirs.
I wonder how far back I would go. I could start at the very beginning with us as blank-slate kids of the late 1980s and then move forward, editing and making the necessary corrections here and there for a different resolution, but the chronology is too jumbled and incoherent. There’d be no controlling its trajectory; it could end up anywhere: grandiloquent character-study or seafaring adventure or maybe post-apocalyptic young adult dystopia. Better yet to fix on a single resonant moment that best defines you and me and then to oscillate forwards and backwards randomly in time to arrive somewhere different. Somewhere at least tolerable.
Or is it my own ineffective narrative I should emend? I could tweak the setting, develop the central character more purposefully, focus on a different set of themes and motifs. I could stay behind with you in our stifling hometown instead of leaving all those years ago and putting half a world’s distance between us and, perhaps, prevent everything from happening.
Maybe I’ll start here: with you on the third barstool from the left at our favorite hometown haunt, Pour Richard’s, finishing a pint of something dark and syrupy and me sipping one of those IPAs you think taste like shampoo. You’re talking encyclopedically about sports and who the Browns will take in the trade, and I’m nodding along and mind-mapping something relevant to offer. Yeah, I mean…let’s hope things turn out better this season. You’re not talking about politics now because I feel like there’s a direct correlation between the onset of your devotion to all things partisan and your homicidal decline, so that all ends up among the errata.
I’m sure you’re still grieving your father’s death but maybe you’re over the ruin of your first marriage by this point. You’re remarried now with a young son you can’t stop gushing over—you should see the little guy, so advanced for his age—and a teenage stepdaughter you’re making steady inroads with and trying just to be her friend, not her replacement father. And certainly not her lover or assailant. You’ve had a dark few years, but you’ve made it through the worst and you’re hopeful that things are looking up.
And it must be late June or anytime in July or maybe that three-week span around Christmas because I’m back in town and not somewhere in Asia or the Middle East building a life and career that have nothing to do with rust-belt Midwest provincialism, a life lived in opposition to its origins. And we’re not awkward and politely ignoring the fact that, despite having shared so much of our lives, we’re becoming increasingly less familiar to each other each time I return.
My wife has been in remission for a few months now, and I’m relieved, of course, but still in free fall from the colossal world-fuck of her diagnosis and treatment. You ask after her and also after me because it’s obvious I’m a disaster, and I say, “I just keep thinking that my life is basically half over, and I don’t want to have to live the second half without her.” And you tear up. Actual tears. I remember that so clearly.
It has to be that moment of empathy and connection as my starting point. And if I can’t redeem you because, let’s be clear, it’s unthinkable even to try to, maybe I can at least give you a more suitable conclusion as a character in my own self-absorbed narrative. As Adam, whose lifelong best friend Matt, wants nothing more than to mourn him as someone whose entire life hasn’t been invalidated by an act of utter villainy.