The Mighty Finn
I wrote this more than 10 years ago when I thought I wanted to be a novelist…
My name is Samuel K. Justice, and I have a sad story to tell.
I grew up in a small house in New Jersey. I could see the highway from my window, and though you might not think it, the highway was immensely entertaining. For instance: Every morning as the sun started to rise, it would glance off the windshield of every car that zipped by. This lit up my room like a lantern every three or less seconds, every morning, so I set up a mirror by the window. I would zap people near the window with the angry morning sunshine, pretending to be an invading space alien and seeing if I could get them in the eyes. My mother explained the whole O-zone environmental crisis, but it didn’t bother me - my attack-rays would be all the stronger.
When I wasn’t in school I used to play with the kids next door. These two brothers are actually the focus of my story. They lived in a house just like mine, except they owned the whole thing - my family rented the bottom floor. They also had a nice big TV from Sony, so I spent most of my free time over there. They were the Finns, and the brothers were Silver and John. Now, I don’t know what possessed the parents to name their child Silver. He was the older brother, and everybody used to say that “Silver Finn” had a ring to it and fit him rather nicely. Both brothers were on the short side, with thin lips and green eyes. Amazingly, though both Finns had characteristically blond hair, Silver’s was much lighter than John’s to the extent that it could indeed be called Silver. Now that I think back, I find it very unlikely that a boy named Silver just happened to have silver hair, so I suppose that name could have come second. Well - might have to look that one up later.
Silver was two years older than John and I. As you might imagine, he was used to giving orders. He was always in charge when we played, for better or worse. Our favorite game - now, I know this is going to surprise and possibly scare you - but our favorite game was called “the highway game.” We had some small inkling of how stupid it was, so that when a parent was nearby we craftily called it “cowboys and Indians.” My parents thought we loved those cowboys and Indians, and for one of my early birthdays they got me a toy gun and cowboy hat. Honestly, did anybody really think that kids growing up in the eighties played “cowboys and Indians?” We were busy pushing boundaries, risking our necks, and going to the video arcade. The highway, however, was the best and cheapest entertainment around.
It had three lanes on each side with a concrete divider in the middle. On one side was our housing development, separated from the highway by a wall with these strange sperm-shaped squiggly designs running along it. On the other side was a plain green hill that sloped up for fifty feet or so. The Wall, as we called it, was hardly childproof. It had breaks every few blocks to get through to a bus stop, but it also had a small hole, hidden by a bush, directly in front of our houses. In general the wall was pretty useless - it obviously didn’t stop the sight and noise of the highway from reaching my second floor bedroom, and we really never could figure out its purpose.
The highway game started on the other side of the Wall, on our side of the highway. We would line up and, one by one, cross the highway. I suppose that was pretty obvious, but the first time we did it we were terrified. Our parents had always told us to stay away from the highway, so we were crossing the ultimate taboo each time we crossed that road. That first time was a rush, sure, but you can imagine that the game got pretty tired after a while. It just became too easy - once you cross a six-lane highway a certain number of times, you become something of an expert. We used to have “style points,” determined by the grown-up expertise of Silver - hopping, walking, skipping - we overcame every challenge as a team. We started to include the hill on the other side in our obstacle course - cross to the hill, run all the way up, and then time your crossing back so that you ran all the way down the hill and across the highway without stopping. That was the hardest one, but I think everybody does stupid stuff in their childhood. It’s part of growing up. Some kids have playgrounds for playgrounds while others have highways, but everybody risks their neck every once in a while. You can’t stop that any more than you can stop kids from growing up.
So I grew up like most other kids at that time, I guess. I was never the fastest, strongest, or best-looking - they always told me I had an Irish nose with Asian eyes - but I had friends; I enjoyed myself. Now that I think about it, my life isn’t all that different from anyone else’s - I suppose that’s why this is a story about the Finns. Although I won’t be able to resist talking about myself and Caroline once in a while, you’re probably reading this story because of poor John - you probably read about it in the paper or something - so I’ll tell you what you came for. It all started when John got bored of the highway game.
John Finn was a thinker. Anybody who knew him could see that. You could be talking with him, having a good conversation, and then you’d realize that his eyes were focused on nothing at all, and he hadn’t heard a word about your wife’s annoying friends. He was smart, and always a little removed from Silver and I. Somehow, you always got the feeling that he was standing back just a little bit, that he was observing first and participating second. Then, when he did decide to do something, he was completely sure of himself. He might not act and succeed in the way he’d planned, but you could tell that each movement was calculated and premeditated. As you might guess, he didn’t open up easily to others. Growing up with the Finns, I think John was my closer friend, but Silver was more of an older brother to me than he was to John. They soon drew apart, but I remained close with both.
I’ll always remember that hot September day that I mentioned - the day we realized that we had conquered the highway. We were standing on the top of the hill on the other side, hesitant to drop back down. John said it first - “the highway is boring!” Silver, always boss of the highway game, was none too happy at this remark, and immediately took charge of the situation.
“Hey,” he said, “let’s play a new game.”
Silver thought fast. “Explorers!” he said, “we’ve never played in the forest before.”
I’m sure this remark worried me significantly. The forest was over the top of the hill on which we stood, a scant thirty yards farther back. We’d always joked about it. The forest was hot, and wet, and dark even in direct sunlight. We didn’t know how big it was or where it finished. I would’ve been quick to back away from Silver’s idea, but John was even quicker to accept the challenge. With that piercing, thoughtful look that sometimes came into his eyes, he stood up - we’d been squatting at the crest of the hill, squinting down at the sunny highway - and began walking towards the trees behind us.
“Let’s go, then,” he said. Silver jumped up quickly, not to be second, and I followed behind. The forest grew as we got closer. I don’t know why we’d never considered exploring it before, but I suppose we were more used to the urban jungle than the natural one. Speeding cars seemed so easy and predictable compared to raw nature. And that explains why, at the age of 13, 13, and 15, the three of us began a trek through the forest.
As we got closer we could see that the forest was decadent, rotting. It was a mix of green and brown, with the occasional yellow or white flower. The sun shone through where the trees let it, which was to say that we could see, but only enough to be scared by the noises and shadows around us. We walked in a straight line for a good ten minutes, which, for a young boy in a forest, can be a very long way. The forest was obviously quite large, because we saw no sign of civilized life around us. Of course both brothers walked side by side, fast so that neither would take the lead, climbing and jumping over bushes and fallen trees. At first I worried about dangers in the forest, and even more about getting lost and not making it home before dark. Soon, however, the serenity of my surroundings overcame me. I couldn’t hear the whoosh of the highway. I couldn’t hear the hums and whirs of electronics and mechanical devices. All I could hear and see was nature and my two best friends, walking steadily onward in front of me. Even better, pretty soon the monotony of plants and trees was broken up now and again by huge boulders half buried in the dirt. John and Silver made a point of racing to the top of each one. I joined them when I could, and we had a grand time. This was definitely more fun than the highway.
I’ll always remember this, our first excursion into the forest, for what happened next. I still don’t understand it completely, as you’ll soon see, but I know that it changed everything. We had come to a particularly pretty area in the forest. There was a kind of clearing caused by a stream running between two big boulders. Large trees on the sides of the boulders and the stream hung over the clearing, keeping it shaded. The stream, along with the elevation of the ground, took a sharp turn to the right, around the bigger of the two boulders. We had been following the stream for some ways, climbing and leaping from rock to rock while keeping it in view. We reached the top of the smaller boulder in this clearing and all paused briefly, without deciding to. It was just too exciting, beautiful; we had to take in the sights. I sat down where I was. After about ten seconds Silver slapped his knee and jumped up, ready to forge onward. John was close behind him. They jumped lightly down the boulder, across the stream, and around the corner of the other boulder. I got up slowly, intent on following them but fully aware of my aching muscles. As I carefully made my way down the boulder, I heard Silver (or was it John?) exclaim loudly.
“Whoa - what’s that?” In my haste to follow them around the big rock ahead of me, I slipped in the stream and fell - I never have been very graceful. I remember hitting the side of my waist on a rock in the stream, and I remember being soaked. I got that feeling of nausea that sometimes comes from an unexpected and quick injury, and I felt dizzy. I soon regained my senses, though, enough to hear what sounded like some sort of scuffle from around the corner. I got up, bruised and wet, and finally rejoined the Finns, only to find John in the dirt and Silver with his hands in his pockets, standing over him. John’s eyes were red, and he looked like he’d been punched. Silver was breathing hard.
“What happened?” I asked, while at the same time Silver said, “It’s mine,” and walked back in the direction we’d came. John watched him go with a strange look on his face, at which point he finally seemed to notice me.
“I hate him,” he said. “I hate him. He always rules everything, and thinks everything he wants is his for the taking. I hate him.” John stood up slowly, and brushed the dirt off his clothes. He noticed I was soaking wet, and realized what had happened.
“I guess you missed the whole thing,” he said with a sad smile.
“Do you want to explain?”
“No.” He left it at that, and so did I. Of course I was burning with curiosity over what John and Silver had found there in the forest, and I wanted to ask, but I figured I would find out soon enough. I didn’t feel very suave standing there soaking wet and clueless, and that, coupled with the dangerous look in John’s eyes, kept my mouth shut.
“I guess we should get back,” he said. We slowly retraced our steps, and you know, the magic of the forest had completely disappeared. It was humid, dirty, and uncomfortable. It wasn’t even scary and mysterious - what had taken us more than an hour to walk on the way in only took us twenty minutes on the way out, even at what seemed like a slower pace. I can only assume that the forest wasn’t so big as we thought; that we’d explored every nook and cranny on the way in. When we crossed the highway and got back to the houses, Silver was standing in the front yard waiting for us, his pockets conspicuously empty. John was so angry that he looked like he was on the verge of tears, and I cautiously retreated to my own house when my mother conveniently called me in for lunch. I didn’t learn what the object was that day, nor the next. I didn’t learn about it until much, much later. But life went on.
“Have it your way,” said Lilly, standing over the prostrate bully. “You want to push people around? Come get me!”
The year was 1986, and everyone was in high school. Lilly had her mind made up. She didn’t let anyone push her around, and when she felt like it, she didn’t let anyone push anyone else around either. She was standing over another student from our school, who happened to be holding his groin in agony. She wore dark green tights and a colorful skirt with a dark knit sweater on top, and about a hundred bracelets. Lilly looked great - she always did - but there was something more to the tomboyish attitude and cute attire. She exuded what some hesitate to define, but which I now know for a fact to be panache, pure and simple, and it isn’t hard to imagine that she attracted every man in any room she walked into.
Highschool had treated the Finns and I well, or as well as a poor town’s public high school might. We were on top of the bunch, at least, in terms of popularity. Well, they were, and I was still their best friend. John and Finn, in their separate grades, were both friendly and well-liked by everyone of their age. However, though you might find it hard to believe, they had hardly talked to each other since that fateful day in the forest. At the time I had figured it to be a small insult that would blow over and be forgotten. I’d assumed we would all examine “the object” and have a fun time at it, and that would be that. However, to the best of my knowledge Silver never showed anyone that thing that he found, and John, in his pride, never once asked. As a result, the gap between them grew and grew, until it wasn’t easy to believe that they were brothers, let alone that they’d been best friends. This whole situation was made much worse by Lilly, of course. What better way to dominate and attack the other than by the objectification of a woman - and not just any woman - the woman.
The poor girl never saw it coming. One minute she was tempting hapless boys with a twitch of her lips, and the next she was assaulted by the pure energy of the Finn brothers. Their competition, rather than working against them, only served to lend strength to their individual efforts. What’s more, without having to say anything, it was soon widely known that Lilly was reserved for one of them; that she was completely off limits to anyone else. Now obviously this was terrible for the girl herself, at first. She despised being objectified - rightly so - and as such despised both Finns. But they bore on with the patience of their hatred for each other, and she soon grew accustomed to the situation. The students in the school were afraid of this love triangle, truth be told, and Lilly eventually realized that much of her pain and loneliness would cease if she’d just choose one of them.
That is why, after gyrating between the brothers for a year, and after countless heart-to-hearts with me, her window into the brother’s hearts, she went to the Senior Prom with John. That’s right - me. I did play a small part here, one that the brothers didn’t know about. While they were busy being alpha wolf, I used my neutrality as each one’s best friend to approach and talk with Lilly like I’ve never talked with anyone before. That’s because Lilly, besides being stunning and strong and cute, was quite intelligent and sometimes emotional in times of trouble. We both recognized that she needed someone to talk to, and though I knew I could never have any sort of sexual relationship with Lilly (which, face it, is the only thing on a teenager’s mind in this kind of situation), I was happy to be closer to her, to communicate and help her. She was Silver’s age, which put her two years older than John and I, so you can imagine how great I felt talking to the coolest, prettiest girl in school, who also happened to be a senior.
By the way, my friendship with Lilly was also how I met the lovely Caroline, who is now my wife. Between Lilly’s friendship and Caroline’s love, as well as the Finns’ charisma and energetic fun, I had a really excellent time. I was never bored, I was popular, and everything was easy. I still don’t know how I pulled that off exactly, and I know I always felt a bit like I was trespassing - not that I ever complained. Caroline and I had some trouble through the years, it’s true, and I’ll get to that, but I’m sure you’re anxious to hear about the Senior Prom. As I said, Lilly finally realized that she had to choose someone. The Finns’ style and determination finally got through to her, and she realized that she might be honored by the complete attention of the two most popular boys in school, instead of insulted. After discussing the matter with me, at which point I gave her a very conservative, “I don’t know what to tell you,” Lilly made up her mind. As I’ve mentioned, Lilly was unstoppable, once she decided something. In her senior year she started dating John exclusively, and they did go to her Prom together. This was a huge blow to Silver, as you might imagine, though some students at the time said that it was less a matter of Lilly picking John than it was of Lilly not picking Silver. The rumor was that the older Finn made some sort of aggressive play for her on the hunch that he could catch her off guard and force a surrender, as it were. Neither one of them ever mentioned this to me though, so I can’t really say.
The senior prom (which John and I went to as Sophmores to accompany our girlfriends) was a strange night. John and Lilly, Caroline and I, Silver and his backup date. John positively shown that night; he was triumphant and handsome. Everybody had tuxedos and flowers. The theme was so stupid that it hasn’t stuck in my mind after all these years. I do remember Silver leaving pretty early, and his date leaving with him. Lilly seemed happy with John, too. The whole thing would have been normal were it not for Caroline, who was acting strange. I’ve mentioned that Caroline and I have had some problems throughout the years, and as far as I can tell, this night was the first time that they manifested.
We were enjoying ourselves with our classmates, and though we both agreed on the inherent stupidity of “the prom,” we could appreciate the opportunity to dance and socialize with classmates before they went off to college. Soon, though, I realized that Caroline was acting slightly strange. She had a distant look to her, as if she didn’t want to be near anybody, and was at the prom against her will. At first I thought I might be imagining it, but throughout the night she got worse. At one point a song that we both loved came on, and I stood up with a grin and asked her to dance. She refused, though, and inexplicably recommended that I dance with a friend. Now I don’t know how you might feel if that happened to you, but it was the prom, a song we both loved, we’d been sitting and not talking for a while, and now this. Obviously I was surprised. I recommended then that we get some fresh air, and we walked outside the school’s gym and sat on a nearby bench. The conversation we had then has remained in my memory.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked, in a friendly tone of voice. “You seem upset at something.”
“No,” she said. “No, I’m fine.”
“I don’t know. This whole night you’ve seemed pretty different: withdrawn, even.” She didn’t answer.
“Please, Carol.” I said. “I want to know what’s on your mind.” After a while I noticed a single tear roll down her cheek, and then another. Something was happening, at least. The awkward silence had troubled me. Through her tears, she started to talk softly.
“It doesn’t have to do with you,” she said. “I swear. I’m so happy with you, but sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve you. Sometimes I get so sad. You should be with someone who isn’t like this.”
Poor Caroline, with her short black hair and tiny nose, those sparkling eyes and tiny, fun and tiny body. I held her to me, on the bench.
“I’m just a stupid boy. I really don’t understand, but you know you mean everything to me Carol, you know that I’m happy…” I trailed off. The tears were flowing now, and I hadn’t helped at all.
“It’s not that. It’s just that sometimes, sometimes I don’t want to be, you know? I don’t want to live.” For that I had nothing to say, so I held her there. Eventually I realized that I now knew her a bit better than I had before, and told her as much.
“It’s like a secret,” she said. “you know something that no one knows.” We rejoined the party then, but I was deep in thought.
John had been slowly losing ground to the ball of energy that was his older brother during high school, and Lilly’s choice gave him a much-needed boost. Previously, Silver had bested him academically - 3.7 to John’s 3.5 - and athletically, becoming captain of the school’s hockey team. When John and I became juniors and Silver, Lilly, and Caroline graduated, things began to look up for John. Lilly stayed in town working as a waitress while studying at the local community college and Silver took on a job with a moving crew, which had him frequently out of town. The next two years passed quickly, and though I was still close friends with John, I didn’t see Silver very often. John and I became closer, if possible, sharing our experiences in the same class in school and our experiences with the loves of our lives. Caroline attended a local private college, one slightly more prestigious than Lilly’s, and I was able to see her often as well.
I remember realizing at one point that John and Caroline both had this same quirk in common - that which I described earlier. Of course John never told me as much, male friendships being as they are, but I could see many similarities. Every so often, they would fall into a spell of loneliness and despair. It was sad, disturbing, and for me, inexplicable: there seemed to be no obvious cause, and the best course of action was to be consoling, to a point. I let them know that I cared, but that I knew that I couldn’t really help. However, I do think that John’s spells of sadness came from a source more distant than Caroline’s, and I hope you could figure out by now that I refer to his brother. One day during our senior year I caught him at such a moment and, seeing that he seemed to need a sympathetic ear, I sat with him and resolved to talk things through. If it seems to you like I do a lot of counseling, a lot of therapy, you’re right. I’ve always been this way, and I won’t say I enjoy it, but between Lill, Carol, and John, I had my hands full.
I’d found John that day on the dirt around a corner of school. He had skipped gym class to sit and think here, alone. I sprawled out with him in the dirt.
“Do you remember that day,” he said without preamble, after two or three minutes, “that day we explored the forest on the other side of the highway?”
How could I tell him that that day had been in my thoughts on and off for years? That they’d never explained to me what happened? I was sure he had no idea, and my suspicions were confirmed.
“You probably don’t,” he said. “That day that I fought with my brother. The last day I talked, really talked and enjoyed myself with him. How could I have held a grudge for so many years?” He trailed off.
“It was the object,” I prompted, hinted. I couldn’t ask what it was. To this day I’m not sure why I didn’t ask. I had been waiting for such an opportunity all this time, to be able to ask naturally. I had waited for John or Silver to bring up the forest, and now my chance had come, but my mouth would not respond. Maybe I would have managed to, but John began again.
“Yeah. That. There’s something about it, I’m telling you. I’m sure you noticed too.” Here I realized that it wasn’t deliberate - he thought I’d seen it too, that day. He didn’t remember my clumsiness, that I hadn’t been there. “When I saw it, I knew I needed it. I grabbed it but Silver took it from me. We fought over it, and he won, of course, but why wouldn’t he let me see it after that? Why wouldn’t he share? I wish I could hold it again. I hate him for that!”
At this I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t out and admit to my cluelessness now, after such an emotional outburst. I don’t remember what I said after that. Probably nothing, or nothing important. The gym teacher found us when he heard John’s raised voice, and we were both marked down. John didn’t mention that day again, which should make sense, and our conversations usually stayed away from Silver. And life went on. We both graduated high school in due form. We’d been popular, we’d had a good run, and it was time to continue. Time to do something real. Well, real enough, anyway, for middle-class suburban teens. The way it worked out, John ended up going to a nicer university about an hour away, and I attended the nearby private college with Carol. Lill continued her job and studies, and I’m sure she understood John’s decision. They could still see each other often, assuredly, and he could live his ambitions. John wouldn’t settle for good when he could have better, and since his family had some money put away, it was no problem.
So you have a clear picture of where we all were. It was a time for learning, a time for charging, a time to become acquainted with life away from the housing development and the highway. Carol and I were at your standard cheap/state-subsidized private school, Lilly was working and studying nights, and John was away at a big university. Silver was the outlier in the group. No girl, as far as we knew. No plans for the future, as far as we knew. Just trucking back and forth across the country, moving people’s possessions and making good money, or so we heard. Our time passed, in that way time has of passing before you know it. Clichéd as that may sound, as I look back I realize that it’s true. College finished so soon that it was over before it started.
Here is where everything could have gone well for everyone. We were all split into our little units. No one was in a position to cause friction with anyone else. We were educated, contributing members of society. Pretty soon, the time came to decide our futures.
At a dinner party at the Finn’s house, the five of us were reunited once more. This didn’t happen often, what with Silver’s job. There we learned that we weren’t the only ones with big plans in the future.
“It’s fantastic,” Silver was saying as Caroline and I joined everyone in the house’s living room. “I think this project is going to be huge.”
“What is it?” Carol asked, “I missed what you were saying.”
“Don’t worry,” Silver said, “I’m just getting to the good part. It’s a small business that I’m starting with two friends from my moving company. We’re going to use this new thing, it’s called the World Wide Web, and some people call it the Internet…”
Of course much of what he said went right over my head then, but I’m sure you and I can both admit now that he was something of a visionary. His company’s capacity for success would be unlimited. At that point early on, he seemed to know what he had, and he was flush with excitement. The future was beckoning, and nothing could stop him. John was there, of course. It was one of those rare times that the brothers communicated.
“Sounds good,” John said, looking Silver straight in the eye. “I’m eager to see how it turns out. I have no doubt that you’ll succeed.” There seemed to be some secret communication beneath those words, something dark. It was enough to be obvious to Lilly and Silver and I, and measures were taken to steer the conversation in another direction. Soon we were eating our hamburgers and enjoying ourselves, and the tension between the Finns was forgotten. After dinner, though, it came up again.
“And what are your plans, John?” Silver said it in a slightly nasty tone of voice, as if questioning any answer his brother might have. “You’re educated now. Are you going to make good on that education?”
“I have plans,” said John, caught off guard. “Lilly and I are going to get married. I’ve been interviewed for a job at a national publishing company, and it looks like my prospects are good. I’ll be helping to decide which books to publish, which authors to sign. I also plan on spending some time with my own writing. I have a lot of ideas.”
“Good, good.” There was a smirk at the corner of Silver’s mouth as he took a huge bite of cake and said with his mouth full, “good luck with that.”
“Sam!” said Caroline, eager to divert the impending conflict, “Why don’t you tell them our plans.” I was more than happy to comply.
“Well, we haven’t told anyone yet, but we’re getting married too! The date is all but set, and we’re starting to plan for a life together.” Nobody was surprised, but everyone was happy and excited. A toast was made, jokes and congratulations were said, and the brothers’ problems were once again forgotten. I went on.
“Yeah, Caroline and I don’t have anything so grand lined up, but I have a job offer from a local bank. They needed a man with an economics degree, and I came in at just the right time. If it goes well I could be doing investment banking in a few years. They say there’s money in that.”
“And I,” Carol cut in, “am working on a newscasting spot. I had an interview at the local news channel the other day.” We didn’t have anything huge, as I’d said, Carol and I, but we were supremely satisfied with each other, with our life to come, with our future. Our friends could see that, and overall it was a pretty happy dinner, as far as the Finn brothers were concerned. In the next few weeks, in fact, our plans unfolded in exactly the way we had all discussed. I started work at the bank, Carol at the television station, John at the publishing company, and Silver with his new company and partners. Carol and I rented a small apartment near the center of town, and John, with his parents’ help, purchased something similar for Lill and himself. Silver was staying with his partners somewhere north. I hope you can get the idea, now, that his whereabouts were largely a mystery to the rest of us. I was surprised for that reason when he called me a week later. He asked if I’d like to come up to his new company’s offices, which were rented in a suburban office building, and chat. I assured him I would, and the next day found me kissing Carol goodbye and getting on a bus for the three hour trip.
I arrived a bit before lunch and was met at the bus station by Silver. He greeted me warmly, which, while not exactly strange, was slightly out of the ordinary, and we drove in “the company car,” as he explained, to a nearby diner. There we chatted amiably and without focus until the food came. It was only after he’d done quick and efficient work to his beef steak that he came to the point.
“Sam,” he said. “Sam, Sam - I guess it’s a bit strange, but you’re probably used to it. Everybody always comes to you for advice. You’re like the official therapist.” He looked troubled, I suppose, to the extent that Silver could ever look troubled, and I was caught off guard.
“Is there something you want to talk about?”
“Well, yes and no,” he said, “I’m having trouble deciding if I should. More than that, though, I really just wanted to talk to a friend. My business partners are good guys, really intelligent, but they don’t really fill that need that people have.”
“The need for friendship?”
“Yeah, that. Ever since me and John…” He trailed off for a second. “Well I just don’t feel as close to all you guys as I once did. I guess I was always more of a big brother than a best buddy, but I get lonely too. I don’t suppose you know that Lilly and I have become friends again?”
I was mildly surprised. Although Lilly didn’t hate Silver, I hadn’t thought of anything between the two of them.
“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d heard.” Silver read my surprise. “She’s come down to see me a few times now. We agreed that it might be better if John didn’t find out. Not that there’s anything improper,” here he paused, and looked at me strangely, “but we all know how John is. Fierce, that one. I guess I don’t like secrets, and I wanted to tell someone.”
“Well, that’s fine,” I started.
“Yeah,” he cut in. “It’s really great to be able to talk to you again. Let’s get out of here. You want to see the office?”
That night I was a little perturbed, I suppose, when I returned home, but Carol didn’t seem to notice. Actually, she was acting much stranger than I was, so I decided not to mention what Silver had told me. I carefully kept my distance, at first, seeing as I didn’t want to upset her if she was in a bad mood. I soon realized that she wasn’t in a bad mood, just quiet, really, but it wasn’t very comfortable. In fact I realized that she hadn’t so much as kissed me on the cheek in greeting on my return from the meeting with Silver, and I told her as much. She looked at me sadly, and said nothing. I figured out then that she was feeling depressed again, possibly. I held her close to me, but she didn’t respond. She felt limp in my hands. I let her go and looked at her closely. Before I could say anything, she said, “I’m going to bed.” It was about nine at night.
I followed her into the bedroom and sat next to her on the bed. “What are you doing?” I asked. She looked at me quickly. Had I said the wrong thing?
“What would you do if I got pregnant?” she asked. Out of nowhere!
“Huh?” A good answer. I followed it up quickly with, “Are you?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t think so.”
“What’s wrong, baby?” I didn’t know what to do or say.
“Oh, Sam. You’re always so perfect.” Her eyes were brimmed with tears. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do. I feel so lost, and I get mad at you, and I do stupid things, but then I realize how bad it was, and I hate myself even more.” Alarm bells were going off in my head. What did she do? I decided it was best to keep quiet and let her tell me.
She was quiet for a moment too, and then looked back up into my face. “I killed the dog,” she said. That one came out of nowhere, I thought.
“I killed it and I hate myself but I was so mad and I was mad at you and your stupid dog and…” she stopped, slowed down, took a deep breath.
“I came home from work early today, because I was in a really bad mood. It’s just not fair! Sometimes I feel so alone, and you weren’t there… So your dog came over to greet me, and he seemed happy, and I was annoyed that he was so carefree, and then he peed on my shoes. It was disgusting. I started crying, and I couldn’t see so well, so I picked up your dog and I…” she broke down. I patted her knee. What more could I do, exactly, at this point?
“I threw him out the window. I felt a lot better after that. I went down and swept him up, which was also gross, and threw him out.” There was a pregnant pause between the two of us, and her tears stopped falling, and we both started to laugh.
“You mean,” I said with relief, “you didn’t cheat on me?”
“What? No, honey, never!”
“You didn’t quit your job?”
“You didn’t stop taking birth control pills?”
“Huh,” I said, and, “Poor Charles.”
“Well, I’ll be alright. We don’t have to get another dog, if you don’t want to.”
“Actually,” she said, “I was thinking about a different sort of addition to the family.” I kissed her quickly, and then again.
“Huh.” It had been a surprising day and night, but I think everybody came through unscathed. Oh, well not Charles. Truth is, I never really liked him that much either, so I wasn’t mad. Maybe that strange day was a warning of things to come, though, because the very next week, a bombshell dropped.
It was 6:30 on a Monday evening when John called. I was sitting in the main room of the apartment with Carol, and we were playing chess. One of the great things that Carol and I have in common is our enjoyment of the game. We play at roughly the same level, which keeps our games interesting. John called, and Carol answered, and I heard a “no, I don’t think so…” and a “do you think something is wrong?” I won’t say I was worried, but when Carol came back to the table, I could tell she was. The chess game was momentarily forgotten.
“It was John,” she said. “He told me that he hasn’t seen Lilly in two days. She went out Saturday night, said she needed some time alone, and hasn’t come back since.”
“Oh. That’s bad… did you ask him what we can do?”
“He’s at his wits end. I almost get the feeling that there was more to the story than he was telling me, but I didn’t push. Felt that would be a bad idea. He had no idea what to do, so I told him I’d talk with you and take care of him.” She sighed. “Poor guy. And I hope Lilly is OK, but knowing her, I’m somehow not so worried.”
We sat for a couple minutes, thinking, and we called some of Lill’s acquaintances, in the most discrete way possible, of course, but they had no leads. Eventually I called John back. I could tell he’d been crying, and between choked sobs he told me that he didn’t know what to do, that everything was going wrong, and that he wanted to see me. I told him we could meet anywhere, anytime, so he suggested immediately, at his house. He told me Carol could come, but she told me that it would probably be better if she didn’t, and I agreed, so ten minutes later I was walking the six blocks between us at a brisk pace.
When I arrived, I realized that John was in bad shape. The place was a mess - furniture overturned, broken glass on the floor, empty bottles of alcohol in abundance, pizza boxes (with and without pizza) lining the table. John himself was sitting in a darkened living room, on the couch, staring at nothing. I had let myself in (I had a spare key) and he hardly acknowledged my presence. This was going to be bad, I thought.
“John.” I walked towards the couch and sat down. “Tell me what happened.” There was a pause in which neither of us spoke. The TV in the bedroom was on, but all I could hear was white noise. The apartment smelled.
“John-“ I started, but was interrupted when he started to talk.
“It’s worse than you think,” he said. “Lilly and I fought. That night I actually told her to get out, which was a terrible idea. I was so stupid!” his fist pounded against the arm of the couch. “How could I let her go? I thought maybe she would come back, maybe she wasn’t sure, but then I found this note. Someone had stuck it under the door some time yesterday.”
He was holding a crumpled piece of paper in his hand, which was shaking. I wasn’t sure if he was telling me to read it, but he pushed it towards me, so I took it. Before I could look, John went on.
“Everything is falling apart!” The words poured out of his mouth. “Last week I lost my job.” Whew. I hadn’t had any idea. This was a lot worse than I could have imagined. He continued: “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t tell Lill at first, and spent a few days alternately searching for a new job and getting drunk during the day. Eventually Lilly found out of course, oh, Lill-“ here he broke down. I waited for him to continue. “Lilly wanted to bring back my fighting spirit. I didn’t deserve any help from her. I was drunk, I was stupid. We fought about the future, about what I would do. Soon it just turned nasty.” He stopped again and looked at me. “Read the letter.”
I looked down at the paper with dread, because at this point I had a feeling that I knew what I would find. The letter was written in black pen on standard white printer paper. At the bottom Lilly had signed her name.
I’m sorry to have to say this to you by way of letter, but I don’t want to see you right now. I left, Saturday night, and I went to a friend of mine who you know quite well - your brother. Actually we’ve been meeting on and off for the last few months. I hadn’t told you because I knew you’d be mad, but we really enjoy each other’s company. I was so mad at you that night! Now I’m not. Now I’m just disappointed. I did back-breaking work for years and years just to support myself through community college, and after your fancy education, you lose one job and completely give up! What’s wrong with you? How could you say the things that you said when I was just trying to help?
Whatever. I’m staying with Silver right now. I don’t know what I plan on doing with Silver here - I suppose that will depend mostly on him. He drove me here the other night so I could drop off this note. He has a car. He’s successful. I know his business is going to take off, and I know he’ll be rich. I also know that if it fails, he’ll keep right on going. So don’t expect to see me for a while. Silver says you don’t know where he lives, which is all the better in my opinion. I hope you don’t drink yourself to death when you read this.
What would you do if such a thing happened to your best friend? I was at a complete loss. Poor John was even worse - now that I understood the cause of his current state, I could understand everything. Something had to be done to bump him out of his tailspin, so I did the only think I could think of. I stuck the letter in my pocket, stood up, stuck my right arm under his legs and my left arm behind his back and lifted him bodily off the couch. All I could think about was that I had to remove him from the apartment and take him back home with me. He couldn’t be left alone like this. John hardly moved as I was doing it, which made my job slightly easier, and when I got him out the door and put him down, he stood himself up. I locked the door and walked slowly with him to the car; the man was in a daze. I know what you’re thinking, that this was just another example of his inability to cope with failure, and I suppose it’s true. However, he was still my friend, and I was still going to support him, so that meant that Sam the Therapist was back in session. We got into my car and headed back home.
Carol was hardly surprised to see John with me. In fact, she’d had the wisdom to prepare the couch for a guest, and to cook dinner for three. It was impressive. We sat at the table, John still silent, and ate salad, chicken, and rice. She’d prepared a bottle of wine which I noticed sitting on the sideboard, but I motioned her not to open it. John, poor John… The best we could do was to make him feel at home and comfortable. We told him that he could stay as long as he liked, that we’d take care of him, that we could help him look for a job. I think he was looking a little less depressed when I led him to the couch and he passed out. I hoped that in the morning a more sober, rested John could properly assess the situation. And you know what? He did. Or at least he seemed to. The next morning his eyes had light in them once again, we talked, and he seemed almost up-beat. Well, not really, and he still lapsed into silence now and then, but it wasn’t so bad. He was away from booze, on his feet, and communicating. A few days and nights passed like this, and we had a couple leads for a new job.
A week later (during which time, I must admit, the apartment was starting to feel a bit crowded) I woke up to some noise, and got out of bed to use the bathroom. I heard a sound from the living room on my way back to the bed, so I took a look. John was sitting by the window, staring out at nothing. He was crying, and shivering, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood there for a minute, and then he must have noticed my presence.
“He still has it, you know,” were the first words out of his mouth. At first I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. I was still drowsy and very confused, but John spoke again. “It’s gotten him everything. He took it from me, and he can do whatever he wants. It lets him achieve whatever he wants.”
I realized that John was talking about the thing, the object, that they’d found that day in the forest. I could hardly believe that he was still thinking about that. We hadn’t discussed it in years. Looking back, I can only assume that he thought about it quite often.
“Um…” I said. The therapist wasn’t yet running at full steam.
“You don’t understand,” said John almost calmly, preempting my attempt to steer the conversation away from the object. “It’s everything. I need it! I can’t stop thinking about it, about that day. Don’t you know why Lilly went to him? Didn’t you read what she wrote? He’ll always succeed. Anyone can see it - and I bet he carries it with him all the time.”
Here, here is where I finally lost it. I just could not stand the curiosity any longer. Maybe it was tactless, but I had to ask, I just had to ask John what that thing was.
“I don’t remember,” I said meekly, “what was that thing you found in the forest?”
John turned slowly and looked at me. He looked at me as if he hadn’t seen me for a long time. It was a long, strange, disquieting look, and I didn’t like it. I can only guess now that he’d assumed I understood and shared his opinions on the object, on Silver’s theft, on its almost magical properties.
“You don’t know?”
“I never actually saw it.”
“You weren’t there?”
“Well, actually, I fell in some mud.” I was happy that John was distracted, at the very least.
“You know, all this time I haven’t really been sure what it is.” I was stunned. “I saw it briefly, it’s true, but that was only briefly, and more than a decade ago.” He stopped, and chuckled a little. “Funny, actually. I have this image, this image of it in my mind, this image I’ve been following forever, but it’s more of a feeling than an image. It’s a feeling of success and confidence. That’s what I need, Sam - confidence.”
I could tell I wasn’t going to get a straight answer, and frankly, I was tired of the whole stupid ordeal. I was likely also just plain tired, seeing as it was probably three or four in the morning.
“I don’t know, John, you’ve always seemed pretty confident to me. Can we talk about it in the morning?”
“Yeah,” he said, with a strange look. “We’ll figure it out.”
So I went back to sleep, and I assume John did too. In the morning things were clearer, and neither of us brought up the night before. John went out to look for a job, Carol and I went to work, and the day passed. It’s amazing how quickly a given day can pass, whether you want it to or not. That evening we were all together again and John informed us that he had to make a phone call. It had been a week and half since he had talked to Lilly, and I guessed correctly that he had abandoned his pride, and was going to call his brother. He took the phone into the other room for some privacy, which Carol and I would have gladly granted him, except that our apartment was small, with very thin walls. We heard every word of his side of the conversation.
“Hi…” John’s voice sounded pensive from the beginning. “It’s John… your brother… I know… no, she doesn’t have to talk to me… no, it’s something else… I’m not mad… no, it’s something else I have to ask you.” There was short pause. “Can I see it?” A longer pause. I can only imagine that neither brother talked for a while. Then, “You know exactly what I mean… Can I meet you somewhere? I just want to see it… I need this, Silver, please… Um, your house? Near your house… right… got it. Can we meet tonight? Tomorrow night. Fine… At 10:30? Right. I’ll see you there.” The conversation was over.
Carol and I quickly became occupied so that John wouldn’t know that we had heard. He came back, giving no indication that anything strange had just happened. He sat for a bit, staring at nothing, and then announced that he’d like to sleep. Carol and I moved into the other room, and John turned off his light. Knowing him, I’m fairly sure that he laid on the couch, awake and thinking, into the early hours of the morning. Carol and I talked about it briefly, but she obviously didn’t know what was going on, and I felt that it wasn’t right to tell her everything. It isn’t that I didn’t trust her, of course, just that I felt a wariness on her part. I don’t think she wanted to be drawn in to the whole thing; she could tell that there was a sadness to the whole situation and decided to stay away, which was certainly a wise decision. Caroline has always been very good about things like that. Intuitively understanding and never jealous or curious. It’s a rare and wonderful trait.
Next morning we could tell instantly that John was agitated. He hardly spoke a word; he was lost in his own thoughts. I knew, of course. I knew he was constructing the events of the coming night in his head. After breakfast he told us that he wouldn’t be home that night, that he had to meet someone, that we shouldn’t worry, and that he would spend the night in a hotel. He went out for the day on his standard job search (I think he also had an interview, which he probably either skipped or bombed), and Carol and I went to work. There I received an unexpected phone call.
“Hello?” It was Lilly.
“Hi Sam,” she said, “how’re you?”
“Well, yeah, the last few weeks have been strange, I must admit.”
“Yeah, for me too. I bet you want to know how John is.”
“You got me, I admit it.”
“Not so good.” I wanted her to know the effects of her actions. She was my friend too, of course, and I didn’t want to make her unhappy, but I had slipped comfortably into my therapist role.
“Well, he’s looking for a job at least, and he’s not drinking as far as I can tell, but I don’t think he’s trying very hard. He’s obsessed with Silver, and Silver’s success. He is, frankly, a bit lost.”
“I know,” said Lilly, in a soft voice. “I know exactly how he is. I know him so well. The truth is, though, that I’m just not sure if I ever want to go back.”
I was pretty shocked. I had honestly assumed that she would decide to see him again, at least. I was silent for a second, and she went on.
“I want to talk to you in person. Silver does too, and he asked me to invite you over here for a night. You can come and have dinner, oh and bring Carol, of course.”
I wasn’t sure, though it did sound fun. I only worried about John, but conveniently he would be staying out that night, so I decided to accept.
“Sounds good. I’ll have to ask Carol, of course, but she’ll probably be delighted. I think she’s been a bit worried about you, and we’ve never seen Silver’s place.”
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” said Lilly. “The first round of investing on his company has already made him a pretty wealthy man, and he had enough money to start paying for something of a mansion. Oh, which reminds me, he asked me to tell you that he’d schedule a limousine to pick you up and everything, so you don’t have to worry about the bus.”
“Wow, I… I don’t know about that.” Silver’s generosity should not have surprised me.
“Don’t say no. Just call me later today after you talk to Carol and we’ll arrange everything. See you soon!”
“Bye,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I decided it would be a fun night, though possibly a little strange. I wondered about Lilly’s current relationship with Silver, and then called Carol. She thought it would be a great idea, so I let Lilly know, and everything was set. After work I met Carol at home, we packed a small bag, and before we knew it the car had arrived to take us north.
Lilly and Silver were happy to see us. They greeted us warmly at the door. John’s name was not mentioned that night, and I suppose we all tried not to think about him. We ate a nice lamb dinner together, which Lilly and Silver cooked, and we played a board game and chatted late into the night. If I had known how important that night was to be, I probably wouldn’t have spent it chatting, laughing, and drinking. As it was, everybody was very loose and happy. Carol and I were both wondering about Silver and Lilly’s relationship, which was obviously very close. I don’t really want to speculate here.
Little did I know that around midnight, a bit before we all went off to bed, John was leaving a strange and scary message on my answering machine. In a choked voice that alternated between hysterical and strangely calm he left a long message that I’ll include here now, although I didn’t hear it until later. If only I had known beforehand! The message said:
Uh, hi, Sam. It’s John. I just had a weird experience, and I, uh, decided something. See, what happened was that Silver never showed up. (a pause). Yeah, we were supposed to meet at this park by his house at 10:30, so that’s when I was there, and I looked everywhere. Sam, he stood me up! It was terrible. It was dark, and I was alone, and then it started to rain. I got soaking wet and didn’t know where to go. I walked back to the bus stop, but there was no bus coming for hours. Then I… Then I just started walking. Pretty soon I came to this big bridge. I stood in the middle of the bridge and looked at the water… (A pause, and a choked sob). I hit bottom, Sam. I thought I had already hit bottom but this was worse. I looked at the water, and shivered, and looked some more, and then I stood up on the guard-rail, and it all seemed so clear. I could just jump. So I did it! Or I thought I did, but then I realized that I was still standing there, standing swaying on the rail, looking at the water. I didn’t jump, and I knew I wasn’t going to, so I climbed down again. Then a thought hit me. (A third pause, and then continuing in a louder, faster voice): I knew what to do! It’s around midnight now, Sam, and I’m on a payphone at a nearby gas station. I know where Silver lives, and if he didn’t want to meet with me, I’m going to meet with him. I’ll let you know how it all turns out tomorrow, Sam. (A long pause. I thought the message was over, but then, in a near whisper): It’s my turn, Sam. I’ll let you know. (A click.)
And there we were, enjoying ourselves, not even thinking about John, or at least I wasn’t. Then we started yawning, and drifted contentedly off to bed. Carol and I occupied the guest room next to the study on the second floor, and Silver (and Lilly, I suppose, although we went to bed first) was in the main bedroom across the hall. It was an enjoyable and romantic night.
I’m not sure how long we had been sleeping when I was awakened by the noise of broken glass. I turned over slowly, and then came to my senses. Broken glass! I think at this point I had some clue as to what it might be. I got groggily out of bed and padded into the hall. There were more sounds coming from the room next to ours. At this point Silver appeared on the other side of the hall as well. I think he knew, or suspected, who was making the noises as well. He took a quick look at me, and then strode toward the study without saying a word. He entered, and I entered behind him. As I had imagined, there was John, slightly bloody, standing next to a broken window, caught in the act of searching through the room. He looked up as we entered.
“Where is it,” he hissed. “Where is it!”
“Stay out of this,” said Silver pointedly to me, and strode forward. The room was dark, but I could see Silver reaching for something around his neck, beneath his shirt. I didn’t know what to do. Interfere? Let the brothers meet? I didn’t know what would happen one way or the other. Silver pulled something free of his neck and held it in front of him, and I heard John gasp. I inferred that this was the object, that thing from the forest, the subject of John’s obsession. Silver’s body and the dark were blocking my view, but I had to know what it was. I circled around the room to the left, which put me behind a large couch and recliner setup. At that moment the moon broke free of the rainclouds and shone in through the broken window. A knife! Silver was holding a small, ornately jeweled dagger in his hands. The blade was about four inches long and looked wickedly sharp. It glittered and shone in the moonlight, and seemed to have a life of its own. I could almost understand John’s obsession.
Silver held the dagger out, and John fairly jumped over the desk. He had been holding a crowbar behind his back, and before anyone could act he struck Silver’s forearm. The dagger fell to the floor, and Silver stepped back, clutching his arm in pain. At this point I tried to get to the brothers, of course, but I had forgotten about the numerous pieces of furniture in front of me. I stepped forward and hit my foot, and then looked frantically for a way around. During this time John snatched up the weapon from the floor and held it carefully.
“Give it back!” said Silver.
“Never.” They approached each other, and John raised the knife as if to strike. I finally managed to circle the couch, but I tripped over a chair and landed hard on the floor. I looked up to see Silver cowering, with John standing above him with the knife. John’s eyes flashed madly, and I knew that he would do it. Suddenly I heard a shout.
“No!” It was Lilly, who had just burst through the door. She pushed Silver aside and faced John, who had already begun his downward swing. I watched with horror as that split second timing substituted Lilly’s neck for Silver’s face. She fell to the floor.
There was a shocked pause. The world, for a second, was completely silent and still. Then Lilly moaned and time started anew.
“Wait,” said John in a small voice, “I didn’t mean to…”
“Lilly!” Silver was crouched over the figure on the floor. I could make out a pool of blood that was increasing at a terrifying rate. I managed to stand up and crouch next to her too.
“Lilly,” whispered Silver. At this point I noticed Carol, who had recently arrived at the door. “I’ll call an ambulance,” she said, and left. Silver and I were huddled around Lilly, but we were helpless. She had lost what seemed like an inhuman amount of blood and was now hardly moving. Suddenly her eyes focused past us, towards the window. John had been standing a few steps away, staring helplessly at the scene, mortified. He had been looking at Lilly, at the knife in his hands, and back at us. As Lilly, with her last bit of strength, looked up at John, he took the knife and plunged it under his ribs. With a grunt he fell forward, on the dagger, on the floor. The room was again silent, with that terrible silence of death.
I won’t dwell on the aftermath of that night. Of course you know that by the time the ambulance arrived, it was too late. How did it all happened so quickly? Could I have done something? These questions will haunt me forever, I fear. The police did not press charges against any of us, though they offered us all grief counseling. Carol and I went home the next day: Silver had withdrawn into a shell from which he would not emerge, while on the outside he became blank and businesslike. We didn’t know how to talk with him, what to do, so we took the bus home. I have heard that his business continues to thrive, but we’ve visited him many times since, and he hasn’t changed. He’s become empty, a mere shadow of the man he used to be. The deaths of Lilly and John have affected us all terribly.
As far as this history is concerned, there are only a few things left to tell. Nine months after that terrible night, Jonathan Justice was born, our first child. The decision to name him after poor John Finn was not a difficult one, but it certainly won’t make that night any easier to forget. Not that I can ever forget. Someday, when my son is much older, I’ll sit him down and tell him about the story of John Finn and Lilly. There is one thing I won’t be able to explain, though. When the police finally arrived behind the ambulance, they asked about the murder weapon, as a matter of course. They never did find it. Either Silver managed to grab it in the confusion, or it went to the grave with John. At this point, though, I don’t think it really matters.