My paper was called "A Simple Protein and the Age of Rapid Organ Generation." In Boston, at the American Transplant Congress, I stood up in front of several hundred of the top researchers and doctors in the field of medical transplantation and delivered my findings in a flat tone, without care, without feeling. Many experts in the then young field of biotechnology and tissue regeneration also attended, I was told. If there were ten or ten thousand present, it would have made no difference. My physical vision was permanently darkened around the edges after Jeff's death, not unlike an old photograph.
But I followed through. Even though Jeff's passing was an indication that my visions were not made of fact, I managed to conclude my work and get accepted as a guest speaker at the conference. Students rarely had the opportunity to speak, being typically relegated to poster presentations. My name and our discovery bent those rules, as the conference organizers knew they'd have a jam packed room and media coverage when I spoke.
There were questions. Dozens of questions. Time limits were annihilated, other speakers were furloughed. There was applause. Thunderous, oppressive applause.
Peter was there. After reading a draft, he contacted me immediately, and coordinated my presentation at the convention. Since this was my first big engagement, he guided me from one person to another, one social event to another, until my head could not longer sustain the influx of new information.
"I've had enough," I whispered to him, interrupting his conversation with with two men.
"Charlie, I suppose you have," he answered. "Gentlemen."
"Take it easy, Pete," said the older man, tipping his head.
"We'll be very interested in seeing what you do," joined the younger.
I acknowledged them both with a vacant nod of my head.
"My god, Peter! Just look at him! He has had it!" The older man laughed.
"I would say so," Peter affirmed. "Let's get you out of here. Nothing but dangerous men, anyways."
The two men chuckled and bid us farewell. Once we cleared the room, Peter threw his arm around my shoulders and slowed down our stride. He was at least five inches taller than me and lanky, making his arm feel like a limp rope.
"Any idea who those men were?"
Peter smiled and rocked me a bit as we walked.
"The men I was talking to. Know who they were?"
"Oh, them. No, I don't think so."
"No matter. You'll find out."
"I'm a little out of it. Sorry for not being more social."
"Charlie, you stole the show. You don't have to be anything anymore. If you're right, you'll never have to beg anyone for anything."
"Consider yourself lucky. A good portion of research is on subjects that have nothing to do with medicine. You came out swinging, and now the sponsors will seek out you."
"Right, I guess I don't really know what's next. This was all supposed to be different."
Peter knew the circumstances of Jeff's passing. Everyone knew. Many of my fellow researchers feared I might dance right off the planet after he died. Even I wondered what I was doing. Not only was Jeff gone, but my complete trust in the visions had disintegrated. If Peter hadn't swooped in after reading my paper, I'm not sure I would have made it through the conference at all.
Remember yourself, Peter? Remember that day?
"Don't worry about it Charlie. You've made a mark. No one expects you to be ready to take on the rest. They'll be pulling apart your research for years anyway, trying to figure out what you knew that the rest of them didn't."
I can guess now that Peter's sympathy included equal parts guidance and question. Even Peter didn't know my secret, so why wouldn't he wonder where my ideas were born?! At the time, I only accepted his sentiment as sympathy, and I'm glad for it. My mind never turns off, and only in times of complete exhaustion have I surrendered to the easy path, or the warmest state. Logic, analysis, motive—these things all evaporate when my mind overheats. I believe that in these moments, I am actually like one of you. I accept kindness without question, I feel instead of consider, and I maybe even love instead of require.
"I don't think I'm going to finish school."
"They'll practically hand you the doctorate, now."
"I don't think I want any of this. It feels over."
"It's only begun, Charlie! We could be growing new organs for people in our lifetimes."
Peter smiled and led me out of the door and into the street. He stopped and removed a pack of cigarettes from his coat. I'd seen him smoke, but he seemed to be always finishing a cigarette.
"Terrible habit. Or, at least, it used to be."
"Want one?" He held out the pack.
I hadn't smoked in years, and cigarettes never appealed to me after the introduction. With marijuana, I continued to get a reprieve from my psychology, but cigarettes only seemed to exacerbate my less social tendencies. During this period, I lived nearly drug-free, with the exception of a Tylenol now and again for the mild migraines which occasionally followed a vision.
The fact that Peter smoked never surprised me, as it did others. He constantly referenced his poor choice of habit to others when he would light up, but later on I realized that Peter merely said this to put others at ease. He loved smoking, and I'm sure hasn't given it up yet. Why would he?
If it means anything, Peter, I haven't smoked in twenty years. And I doubt I'll get any cigarettes from Elian!
That night, outside of the convention center, I accepted a cigarette from Peter. He offered me his lighter, but I waved it away. Instead, from my jacket pocket I produced the one artifact of my previous life, one of two things I'd asked for when Tina made the offer of Jeff's belongings.
I snapped open Thorn with the same fluidity he once exhibited. A moment later, the flame from the lighter set the cigarette ablaze and I inhaled. I kept the lighter in perfect working order, replacing the flint and fluid more than necessary to ensure a proper flame at any time.
"Charlie, you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"What's going on?"
"Nothing. Sorry. I was just thinking about my friend. This was his lighter."
Jeff had indeed crossed my mind, as he did every day, but my long mental absence was not a simple reminiscence of him.
While I lit the cigarette and inhaled, a vision had entered my mind. I'm never completely catatonic during these sessions, and each year I survived with them, I grew more capable of maintaining some degree of consciousness. Certainly, I'm not all there either, but I can still detect people around me and give them some indication that I have not gone completely mental.
The smoked filled my lungs as the vision crept over my eyes. Once again, I stood on the old road I first saw in Patterson's office. Buildings loomed on both sides of the street, and cars sped past in a kind of hyper slow motion. They appeared to be racing, but I was easily able to dodge them and move to the sidewalk. There, lying on his side, huddled around an empty bottle, was Peter, decrepit, dirty and without hope.
In each hand I held a tool. I pushed his shoulder with the hatchet, and he looked up at me.
"Cha-Cha-Charlie," he stammered.
"Take this." I handed him the hatchet.
He accepted it and sat up, admiring the edge of the thick blade.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you." He babbled.
"Get up, Peter. We need to go."
"Not me," he answered, and swung the hatchet down on his left shin. He yelped and blood gushed out of the incision. He winced and brought the hatchet down again and again on his shin, blood splashing up at me every time he raised the tool. It sounded someone chewing through rotten cabbage—a mushy yet fibrous chop. Finally, the hatchet reported a loud clank as it pushed through and struck the pavement. Freed from the last tendon and muscle, the foot stood up from the weight of his shoe, like a ship righting itself from the mass of its ballast.
Grinning like a proud parent, he set to work on the other, shrieking with each swing of the hatchet. After both feet were amputated he set the hatchet down on the sidewalk and leaned back on his hands.
"Tha-tha-that's better. Better without them. Better, Charlie."
I nodded to him and inhaled another mouthful of cigarette smoke.
"Okay," Peter said, standing next to me. "I understand. Shall we walk or get a taxi back to the hotel? It's a nice night."
"We should walk," I answered, looking at his feet.
Later than year I was awarded a doctorate in medicine. Although I finished the necessary work to submit my thesis, my interest in attaining a doctorate withered after Jeff died. Originally, I felt I needed to be a doctor to legally treat Jeff myself. With his absence, I no longer needed to focus on a becoming a practicing medical doctor, so I skipped the residency.
I didn't really know what to do, other than to complete the remaining aspects of my vision. Acquiring a doctorate allowed me a great measure of freedom, legitimacy, and Peter all but insisted I finish.
"You won't be able to keep this up without it," he told me on the phone, shortly after I returned from the conference.
"I'm not sure I need to."
"Come on, Charlie. I know that losing your friend was hard, but you need to get on with your life. You've got important work to do."
"I don't know," I answered. "I just need to see what's next."
My cryptic answer, perhaps the casting of a line in Peter's direction, bounced back to me.
"You know what's next! Getting that thesis in!"
I wanted to tell Peter about my visions. Without Jeff, the secret lived only with me, and its fallibility had not been discussed with anyone. I had lost my faith, as it were, and did not know where to rediscover it, or even if rediscovery was possible.
My visions since Jeff's death came with astonishing regularity. Many, like the one with Peter that occurred after the conference, I simply shrugged off. I could find no interpretation, and I had lost the necessary faith to read into it. Others, the ones I channeled into my work, revealed just enough to show me what the very next step would be.
"Okay, then, Peter… What about after that? What do I do then?"
"Get your thesis in," he answered, calmly, in nearly a whisper. "That's all that matters right now. Once your thesis is in, come out here and take a look at what we're doing."
I sighed into the phone.
"Just put it together. If they don't accept it, it'll be suicide for the lot of them."
"The panel would be insane to not have you as an alumnus. If we can implement your findings, it'll be a solid win for these guys just to have signed off on it!"
"I finish it. Then I go to Louisville."
"Okay. I'll do it."
"That's good, Charlie. We're going to make history," replied Peter, without a hint of arrogance.
"Okay," I mildly returned.
Although my knowledge of proteins was profound, my understanding of politics and image was disproportionately shallow. Once again, for the second time in my life, I thrust myself into another person's shadow, hiding my face, my scars, and let him lead.
In no way do I mean to suggest that my codependency was regretful or misguided. When I take inventory of my psychology, I find this ability to not only lean on, but lean into someone to be a tremendous asset. Certainly, a level of discomfort may arise in the person who must survive my spatial assault, but I never stay long, and I ultimately donate as much as I consume.
Jeff attempted to set boundaries with me during our early friendship only to remove all boundaries as he lay dying. Judging by the reactions of his other friends, I can only assume that his sudden and intense need caused them to set up similar barriers, to the point where they no longer visited him at all. But not me. I stayed until the darkest hour and beyond, donating all I had and more.
Peter saw me coming—the lost boy alone in the world; someone with a miracle in his briefcase and a back so full of pits he had to scrub the lint out of them. Surely he knew the package contained both good and bad. I was the talk of the medical world, a media darling and giving myself over to him even though our relationship was new.
A few news vans showed up to my commencement ceremony, but I didn't even get out of my car. I knew they were waiting for me. I knew that my mother was there with Tina, no doubt towards the front row of the seats of the Dean's Lawn. The two women had become friends during Jeff's first hospital stay, no doubt finding common ground in their failed marriages, their sons and their general disappointment.
I imagine my mother saw herself a class above Tina, and felt sympathetic not only for Tina's sick son, but her lack of opportunity in life. Though Tina possessed no ambition and the focus of a butterfly, I believe she knew that my mother felt this way, and accepted her nonetheless. For me, their friendship granted me permission to leave. Both were safe, leaning into one another, each taking refuge in the other's shadows.
Even my father received a ticket to the event. I'm sure he was as proud as possible. We never forgave each other's flaws, and we never trusted each other either. Our was an unbreakable stalemate, so pervasive and woven into our lives that neither of us would even know how to broach the subject of reconciliation. Whether or not he showed up to the commencement, I'll never know.
I started my car. The older, reliable Honda Accord, was given to me by the mechanics at my old shop when I was accepted to medical school. I drove out of the parking lot—a lone vehicle escaping as hundreds piled in. I arrived at my apartment, collected a small bag of clothes, my laptop and files, and a few personal possessions. I flushed my two fish, Hansel and Gretel, down the toilet, shut off the lights and left. On the way out, I pushed my keys through the slot in the door of the manager's office along with a note of apology for leaving my things behind and a few hundred dollars to cover expenses.
I drove up Interstate 80 towards Sacramento. It was a Sunday in June of 2000, an excellent time to flee the bay area of California and its imploding tech industry. I remember thinking that not enough cars were heading east with me. Though it was a Sunday morning, more cars flowed into San Francisco and its interconnected cities than away. I sped easily through Emeryville, past the exit to Berkeley, over the hill, down into Vallejo, and out into the flat, arid valley. I arrived in Sacramento around lunch time, stopped for a bite at a taco truck parked in front of a closed drug store.
I found a pay phone and called a taxi, requesting that it pick me up at the car dealership where I once worked.
I scribbled a letter to my former coworkers thanking them for everything, and assuring them if I ever did anything with my life, I would mention them, as I had promised when I first drove the car away so many years ago. I also asked that they give the car to the next young kid who worked with them, someone whom they felt deserved the chance.
When the taxi arrived, I put my belongings into its trunk. I set the letter on the dashboard, locked up the car and slid the keys into the drop box mounted next to the entrance of the closed service bays.
Being back at the dealership, I felt an overwhelming desire to tear a car apart, so I stood there for a moment, smiling. So many cars in the lot, some new, some old, all falling apart on the inside. There's no way to keep a car running forever without replacing parts.
Finally, the taxi driver touched me on the shoulder and pointed to his watch.
"Man, it's your dime, but the meter's running."
"I hope it is," I said, still smiling.
The taxi driver dropped me off at a nearby storage facility, where I entered my pass-code and opened the black gate. I slid my belongings onto the interior side of the gate and then let it close.
I found the correct storage locker, the largest one they offered and opened the lock with one of the two remaining keys I had left. I yanked the heavy rolling door open.
I grabbed one end of the enormous tarp and pulled. It came off easily, the thick canvas unable to gain any friction on the multiple coats of wax I applied before I left.
I started it up. The engine roared to life, its ferocity accentuated by the three walls of the storage locker.
I put the car in gear and drove out and up to the gate.
After transferring my things into the trunk and entering the pass-code once more, I returned to my seat, and revved up the engine.
"You seem like you'll fit in better in Kentucky, anyways," I whispered to the car as the gate slowly ambled open.
Like a bright orange sign of things to come and things never to return, I drove the General Lee out of the storage facility and onto the road, found the freeway onramp and headed east. It was the only direction I could go.