My best friend doesn’t wanna die but his cancer is irreversible and the sky is black and booming so I’m swallowing three of his Tramadols with a nip of eighty dollar cognac, back turned, hovering shamefaced over the armoire where Jarrod keeps his dusty trophies and awards and un-drunk alcohol. I’m a shitty nurse, I know. I don’t know what else to do except stand around and take his possessions and watch him die. I’m his oldest friend. He tells me to do stuff, I do it for him. He tells me to give his suits to St Vincent de Paul, okay, I do it. Give his Hot Wheels cars to my nephew. Throw out his trophies, fair enough – it’s not as if I deserve one. I haven’t done anything to slow down his cancer. We’re supposed to be high school teachers, supposed to act brave in front of 200 kids every week, but Jarrod is behind me, watching TV slumped on his side, melting into the couch, and I can’t face him.
Because tumours are devouring his insides and he’s told me to help myself to anything in the house – his drugs, his booze, his washer-dryer, his vinyl collection, his Star Wars figurines – I’m filling a laundry basket with precious things, heavy with shame. I throw in a letter opener, a scented candle, benzies, opioids, all his pills and die cast toys and rare albums, sniffling while I work. I’ve moved the washer-dryer into the laundry, along with a suitcase of Jarrod’s shirts. I’ll come back with a trailer and take the vinyl, though I’m scared of what’ll happen after. Removing his possessions feels like removing a plug out of a bathtub. The dregs of his life will swirl away. If I stop packing up his life, will it even slow the cancer? I don’t know. People are coming round for a dinner party tonight everyone assumes will be the last. That’s pretty final.
Jarrod is snapping his fingers at me from where he’s splashed on the couch. The clicking thing is rude, though he gets a pass. Rudeness and gloomy sodden days are all we have. It’s May 14 and the rains are coming every day and we don’t expect him to last through the southern winter.
I creep back to the couch and settle down in front of him a glass with his morphine tablets crushed up in water and a long circus straw which he can sip without adjusting his body.
Since he’s sold his armchairs and his rug that he brought back from Egypt, I find a space for my butt on the couch edge. It’s gross, having a dead man near – okay, he’s not dead yet, it’s just that Jarrod sees himself as nearly dead. Jarrod embraced his bowel cancer in Feb, expected to die by the end of March, and his mood started getting really black in April. What hurts him now isn’t the cramps or the beetroot-coloured poo or the burned skin. It’s the uncertainty, the pointlessness of his days. He wants either a miracle extension of his life, or a death date. Fuck the in-between.
Jarrod extends an arm, his skin the colour of mashed potato, straining, and the blood flushes out of his face as he points out this goof in the DVD extras of Lord of the Rings.
I try to have a laugh, agree with the prick, then clear my throat.
‘You’ve been indoors for like a week, man. We should go to Burger Fuel or something, like old times. Get you refreshed before the dinner party tonight.’
Jarrod rolls his eyes without looking at me. He’s too weak to waste energy turning his head or sitting up. Chemotherapy eats up your insides and leaves you a bag of empty skin, your muscle melted, your skin burned and bumpy.
‘Fine, man. We should at least stretch our muscles. Get the wine glasses and plates from the garage; open some Christmas crackers for the guests. C’mon, Jarrod. People wanna say goodbye. You have to, you know… dress the place up a bit. Put up some bunting or whatever.’
‘The thought is father to the deed,’ he says. ‘So go do it.’
Jarrod unpauses his Blu-Ray, slips back into his sulk.
We barely speak for the next hour. I remember I haven’t raided the bathroom. I go and take his fancy soaps and his razors, hating myself. He tosses his phone at me and I read out the new messages on his Facebook for him, reciting the support and love and prayer while Jarrod snorts and rolls his eyes. He’s always taught computing, always loved machines more than people. He’s about to leave this world with no missus, no kids. A bit of money from life insurance, a pension from school. Jarrod has three hundred thousand bucks, and all he wants to spend it on is time.
Finally the credits roll and that’s his entire DVD collection over. He’s read all his books, watched everything there is to watch. Clocked Skyrim on Xbox. Unlocked every easter egg. There’s nothing left.
Rain sprinkles the deck. A gust of wind tips a bucket over. His wind chimes tinkle.
‘We’ll get through this godforsaken dinner party tonight then we’ll move on with our lives,’ Jarrod sighs. ‘Well, you’ll get on with your life. I’ll get on with my death.’
‘MICHAEL.’ The sky booms. The roof rattles. ‘We can slow it down, granted. But we can’t stop this thing.’
At 6.29, just before people file into Jarrod’s house for what could be our last dinner party ever, Jarrod and me hover in the coat room while I dust off the bumbag full of drugs me and Jarrod used to take to festivals. There’s molly in here, MDMA, enough for a little lick each. The corner of his mouth twitches, almost smiling for the first time in a month. Then he sees Sarmila and Kiran are here and he turns to his audience and hobbles over using his cane.
‘Get your photos in,’ he says, bent, cynical. ‘This time next month, I’ll be worm supper. Hopefully.’
Sarmila bursts into tears. Kiran rubs her back and looks at me. I carry on putting out plates and silverware, breadsticks and pâté, camembert and olives.
Jarrod was an autistic unsmiling asshole even when he was healthy. He’s not going to suddenly become sensitive in his last days.
Jarrod wheels his chair over to the door when the Milners enter, saying ‘Come in, don’t be shy, you know what to do.’ All the folks here are teachers, mostly. Tall and unimpressed, in thick coats and pointless scarves. Short and nerdy and Europolitan, in shoes they picked up in Florence or Buenos Aires. Jarrod plays dictator for the evening, sitting at the head of the table in an office wheely chair with arm rests. He dismisses or hisses or snorts at just about everything anyone says. I watch him while I serve soup and arrange cubes of cheese and pour cocktails. These people have their degrees, Jarrod is thinking, but all they know is life. They know nothing of the undiscovered country Jarrod is about to go to.
After dinner I slice up a thick chewy moon cake Lisa’s mother imported from Taiwan, and Abdi shows off his Chinese. Initially when I check the time, it’s 7, and Jarrod’s conversation is confrontational, insulting, the guests clamming up, rubbing their wrists, looking at the tines on their forks. Next time I check my watch, it’s almost 10 and the windows are black and somebody’s just called the deputy principal a cunt and everyone is drunk and leaning back in their chairs, spilled wine slopped under their glasses. Someone finds a wrapped box of Cards Against Humanity. By 11.30, Jarrod is slurping whiskey out of the gold-painted plastic cup his students awarded him that day he took them bowling. Usually Jarrod has three naps a day. Right now, only the molly is keeping him awake. I pour wine into Jarrod’s goblet. He’s head of the table, three conversations circling. It’s now midnight and the table’s a landfill of torn garlic bread and glass and salt shakers and bones and corn cobs and quinoa on dirty plates.
We’ve all had a snort of molly and sucked tequila shots with lemon and salt. The Milners and Ahmed leave together, hugging and kissing Jarrod and taking a farewell selfie with him, kissing Jarrod’s bald dome before bursting into tears while Jarrod rolls his eyes.
Next, it’s 1am. We all focus on one conversation. Rico is trying to tell us how he’s been inspired by this Tibetan monk guy on YouTube who reckons death is nothing to fear. It’s like a second life.
You’re giving me advice on death, Rico?
Dude, nah, no offence, I just mean, like – Tukdam, Jarrod. You’ve never heard of it?
Jarrod looks at me. My eyebrows narrow.
‘I suppose I can tell you a story, this thing I read,’ Rico is going. He looks over his shoulder warily.
His silent sidekick Stacey, or was it Casey, squeezes his arm.
‘I don’t know if I should. It’ll freak you out, Jar.’
Jarrod thumps the table. Everybody jumps.
‘Do I look like a man with time to waste?’
Rico gets his phone out, clears his throat. ‘I warned you, okay? This story, it isn’t – like, you shouldn’t follow it. Don’t do what these guys are doing. You’re positive you want this story? Came from Nature, like the journal Nature? Listen. Here we go.
Tukdam, the Tibetan solution to death: science or supposition?
Tukdam appears to be an occurrence in which a Buddhist monk passes away but there is seemingly no physical decomposition for as much as fourteen days. Dr Richard Davidson of Wisconsin Technical College, whose doctoral thesis looked at the meditation’s effect on bodily systems, told Nature he studied the phenomenon at the Deer Park monastery west of Ann Arbor in December 2019.
The monk Davidson observed, Ongdurje, was 84 and suffering from advanced heart disease. Davidson documented the subject tidying his bedroom in the barracks, clearing a disused room’s boxes and cobwebs, preparing only a cushion, sitting down and entering a silent, eyes-open transcendental meditation which lasted two hours initially, then stretched out to three, five, and then 24 hours. Silent meditation was all that was required – no chanting; no recital of prayer. The subject simply focuses on walking through the tunnel of death without surrender. During this time Ongdurje’s pulse slowed to a marginal rate before dropping to zero, though the time of death was impossible to determine.
Davidson told Nature he wanted to create a model predicting the onset of an “intertidal zone” for subjects whose heart rate slows so much during meditation that it eventually ceases, even while the brain continues to emit gamma waves.
To find out how long life could last after death, Davidson was granted permission to attach electrodes to Ongdurje’s temporal and occipital lobes, along with a heart rate monitor, to chart the descent into death – and potentially beyond.
“What these guys are doing, it’s indistinguishable from deep meditation,” Davidson said. “Like a deep sleep or a coma. Zero difference. For this guy, for Ongdurje, his chest wasn’t even rising and falling. I was there for research interviews; the other monks didn’t blink about Ongdurje slipping away. They didn’t consider Ongdurje to have died, actually; they didn’t have a plan to ring a funeral director or anything. While we were waiting to see if, you know, if Ongdurje was going to be – if there were going to be any further developments – they took me to this courtyard, in the south wing. This garden full of fuchsias and lilies and vines, kind of neglected. And they were in there. The guys that had done it, before Ongdurje. And at first I thought they were statues. Like cause they were golden statues, the people in the bushes, like the way the Buddha is depicted? In paintings? Cause they’d just… put them there. Left the monks outside in the bushes to sit forever. Exactly like statues. Four of them, I counted, between the bamboo. Sitting cross-legged, lotus-style. So darkly brown that they were black, in the cracks and crevices, like around their armpits and where their heads had sunk into their collars. One guy, I don’t know if I should say. It’s… like, rats were all over him, yanking at his lips like fish nibbling bait. And he turned – just a smidgen – turned and tilted his head. Nodding. Like saying hello. Real calm. Real beatific.
“That’s when I got the hell out of there.”
Rico finishes and we all look up.
I yelp. Something is crushing my arm. It’s Jarrod, looking more energetic than he has in weeks. Black rings around his eyes.
‘You have to get me this Tukdam shit.’ He turns and puts his force on me, eyes narrowing. ‘Michael. We have to try.’
Waking Up. That’s the name of the app I download. This American-Vietnamese doctor guy, this philosopher, Thich Nhat Hanh, he’s the narrator, except he’s so robotically calm and quiet and so uninterested in making his English sound normal that you barely recognise it’s a guy narrating until you’re minutes into it.
Me and Jarrod, we’re sitting with our elbows on the kitchen table, hunched over it.
Episode 346 is a conversation with that Richard Davidson guy, the doctor, the expert, on the topic of ‘second’ life. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Except when Thich Nhat Hanh talks about spiritual planes, and we realise Davidson has hardly said anything, Jarrod goes to the window. It’s agonising for him to stand up, and he hobbles, shudders.
‘Davidson,’ Jarrod tells the storm outside. ‘He’s the one we want. He has the answer.’
‘I already Googled. Plus I emailed the university. They sacked him, I think, reading between the lines. If he’s published something recent, pbbbt…. God knows where. The dude’s a ghost, man.’
‘I’m sure he is,’ Jarrod says. ‘You need to find him.’
It’s on a Friday after-school drive home to Jarrod’s, when the sky is purple, lit by white veins of lightning, and everybody is racing towards their weekend plans, that I decide to try Reddit. Google hasn’t helped, nor has LinkedIn or Facebook or the White Pages. But I have a feeling.
I pull over under a service station awning and type Dr Richard Davidson’s name into the Reddit app on my phone.
Just a single reference appears in the results. In the single page, a single line.
On a subreddit called r/lifeafterdeath.
A whole discussion board. Someone is getting tonnes of upvotes. They’ve pointed to a Scientific American article. It says in the natural world, the less something moves, the longer it tends to live. Bacteria thrive on coral for 1000 years in oxygen-low waters. Seeds and spores – practically immortal – can have life spans of thousands of years before rising after a drink of water.
Redditor Friedman69 has an opinion.
Oxygen is a paradox. Take oxygen down to like 0.1 percent, you can keep nematodes alive for 800 years.
Then there is PneumaTool16.
U guys heard The Blackness Then The White? Audiobook. Banned in 80 countries. Tells u how you can do that Tibetan tukdam thing extend life after death. Last copy of th recording = Pirate Bay but go thru TOR b/c they are watching. It’s there. all the instructions.
I surge out into traffic, push my car through screens of stony rain and race up the motorway.
I burst into Jarrod’s home and shake him awake.
‘Jar, man. I think I’ve found it.’
The garage. That’s the place. A concrete bunker with a steel door where sceptics and critics can’t get in and undermine Operation Tukdam.
I push boxes of framed photographs and certificates against the walls. I shove skis and a paddle and hiking boots and 200 sci-fi novels in a wheelbarrow into the corner. I brush the floor clean.
We each position a cushion in the middle of the floor, tighten our wool coats and scarves. I sit easily.
Jarrod packs his painful body down like he’s easing into a hot bath, hissing teeth bared.
‘You ever meditated before, Jar?’
Jarrod shakes his head. ‘Pseudo-science, it always seemed to me. Nevertheless: Here we are.’
Jarrod is wearing a white t-shirt. His armpits have leaked dark juice into it. Sweat, mixed with something awful and cancerous.
It’s raining again today. We can smell it, sneaking through tiny cracks. Relentless drumming on the roof.
I lean forward, position my portable Bluetooth speaker between us. I hold my cellphone in front of me, get ready to push play on a recording that will change Jarrod’s life. Change his death.
For the first time in years, Jarrod looks at me with beseeching eyes.
‘Michael. D’you think… d’you think it will, you know. Happen… immediately?’
‘I don’t know but, like, you should probably text your dad, eh. Say goodbye.’
There is a small window looking out into a chrysanthemum hedge. Jarrod stares at it, then back at the speaker. Jarrod’s old man was a lot like him. A robot with as much heart as a calculator. ‘Just get it over with. Press play.’
“Our existence is not a toggle—on for alive, off for dead,” begins a slow, plodding, raspy voice. A tired, patient voice. “Think of our existence as a dimmer switch with which we move through shades white to black.”
After a pause, we descend.
‘They didn’t want me to record this. They wanted me gone. Silenced. But you cannot terminate a dead man.
‘This lesson, this sermon, this is my gift to you. You, with multiple sclerosis and 100 pills of paracetamol you’re itching to swallow. You, with silicosis and agony in every breath. This is for the crippled. The tired. For everyone who has had enough of life.’
A pause, then. The sickly, crunching sound of a snail being stepped upon.
‘If you’ve ever been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, you’ll know the first questions are all variations on why,’, continues a voice which bubbles and pops. A sickly voice. Slow and crusted and scabby. A voice trickling with fluid.
‘Why are the gods displeased with me? When did I go wrong? Can’t I go back and atone? And your doctor, she’s young. Embarrassed. Inexperienced. Turns away on her swivel-chair. Reads the script on her screen.
‘If you’ve ever been diagnosed with a cancer of the lungs which feels like you have damp sawdust at the bottom of your throat. You’ll waste money on therapists and self-help books and inspirational calendars. You’ll watch your colleagues hug the wall to avoid brushing against you in the corridors of the faculty office where you once had value. You’ll get used to the disappointment of your manager as you take off mornings and afternoons so slim doctors with good skin can pass magnets and radio waves over your body while you lie on a table and imagine what it’s like to be a corpse. You’ll burst into Deer Park Monastery distraught and drunk with vodka steaming out of your pores at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night and collapse at the feet of the only people who understand. Tell them you want to do this, this tukdam thing. This letting-go. Beg them to let you die here. They’ll rub oil into your head, give you a last bath with menthol and incense and the next morning, after a final meal of dhal and rice, they’ll guide you to a private room. There is a cushion, and there is you, and there is infinity.’
A pause, now. No breathing. Low slurping sickly breaths, like the dregs of a milkshake sucked through a straw.
‘In Erasing Death, critical care physician Sam Parnia reminds us death is a process – not a moment. The heart ceases to beat though the organs don’t die immediately. Organs can be harvested hours after the heart stops. So consider this, out there, lonesome, afraid. When a liver is rushed across the country to be put in the body of a needier patient, is this not death giving life?’
I open one eye. I’m surprised to see Jarrod staring directly at me, though he’s not looking at me. His chest is barely rising. Jarrod is entranced.
‘You’re listening intently, I know. You’re getting ready for the second phase. You’re looking down a black waterslide.
Child, this tunnel into which I beckon you. It has an end, you know. At the end is light, refreshing light – a gentle grey which twists and swirls, like wading through fog. Your eyes will be dry as onion skin. And you will blink in the new realm. And you will notice an eyelash twitch and wriggle. You’ll pick twisting grains of rice from the rims of your eyes. These things, drinking your juices. They are the children of flies. They are life renewed.
You’ll creak and groan and slosh and you push yourself to a standing position and wonder what day it is. How long has passed. Two weeks, perhaps, or maybe three since you passed over. Feels like an eternity, does it not?
You’ll stagger to the door, the hallway, the foyer. The brothers in the monastery, they’ll nod as you pass, because they understand.
You’ll put two hands hard against the very front doors, beside reception and the giftshop where postcards and gum and bonsai trees are sold. You’ll notice something sprouting on your knuckles. The green mould that grows on bread.
Twin boys on tricycles will see you and drop their ice creams and shriek. The blue man, mommy, is is is – he’s blue –
You’ll push the glass doors open and here is the world. You’ll put a hand in the centre of your rib cage. Your heart should be pounding.
School classrooms are where I carry on in my life as a teacher. A believer in rational things that I can really see. Offices and meetings and hallways stuffed with bags. Rattlers lockers and skipping ropes and screams.
During lunch breaks in the steamy staffroom, I try to do my research. I try to listen as Davidson’s weary voice bores through a tunnel of answers towards the ultimate question. I keep headphones pressed against my skull while other teachers chatter and gossip and spray chewed-up sandwich, elbowing me to get my input on the new timetable. They want me to cover a sport for Athletics Day. They want to know what I think of that little fuck that got transferred from Marist. I make my excuses, walk past unread memos in my pigeonhole. This daytime chatter, this babble and fuss, it’s a waste of life. I just want to be beside my friend as he passes.
It’s been eight days of meditation so far. Eight days out of a final ten. I don’t think he will last until the weekend.
Jarrod has eaten nothing. I’ve pushed a sip of water into his lips and not much else. Any afternoon now, Jarrod is going to push up from the garage floor and declare this whole silly experiment a waste of time. Then he will die and I will shove his clothes into a giant steel donation bin beside a Korean barbecue joint. Place a notice in the paper.
He appears dead, when I walk in, though he’s sitting upright. A concrete man, heavy. Centre of an empty cement garage. Wind whistling at the door.
Jarrod’s eyes are becoming dry and matte and I have to brush my palm against his lashes to make him blink.
In today’s sermon, Davidson’s plodding monologue tells of how they pulled The Blue Man back from charging into the world, terrifying children. Davidson endured examinations by the monks at his monastery while they murmured and poked and looked at him hard. They tested for three cardinal benchmarks. The Tests of Tukdam. The tests of death.
Davidson describes the ways we measure whether a man has achieved tukdam and in the grey, bruised hour before my lonely microwave pasta at home, I take my friend outside and commence the tests of death. The wind nips. My skin and Jarrod’s is studded with goose pimples, okay. But the cold will preserve him. I decided this on the drive over, stroking the shelves at the pharmacy, wondering if I ought to turn back.
Through the house I drag my friend, from garage to hallway to the thud-thump-thud of the steps from the sunken lounge-pit up to his porch. His ankles scrape the carpet. His head smacks a cornice.
On the wet slippery wooden slats of the deck, I use scissors to hack off Jarrod’s t-shirt – stiff and brown – and I pull his right arm until it snaps into place. His eyelids riffle in the breeze, and a cockroach runs out of his armpit, but apart from that, Jarrod doesn’t flinch. I find a vein, pull the pharmacy syringe from my pocket, unwrap the thing, screw the needle onto the pump, shake up a bottle of Betadine and inject 80 millilitres of iodine, then another ten. 90 mils. A huge dose. Jarrod told me to, in the instructions he gave me on a spreadsheet, before this whole unreal thing became real. Iodide slows oxygen metabolism, he insisted, clutching my collar. My heart needs to sip its oxygen in tiny gasps, Michael.
Need to get him cold now. Rip the cotton off his saggy tits. Expose him to the wet wind. Slow down the movement of free radicals and haemoglobin in his cells. I bend him backwards, roll him onto his side, foetal. I take a curtain from the linen closet, spread it over his Pompeii-stiff body, hunched, awkward.
‘Jar. JARROD, MAN. You can’t hear me. Right?’
The wind answers, speaking through the plastic roof gutters which drizzle a screen of freezing rain. The lawn is soaked, bleeding mud. Brown puddles.
The first test of death is determining whether Jarrod will drink. I cup a handful of rain, pour it in his hard, rubbery purple lips. The water spills out onto his stubbled chin..
Next, I wrench Jarrod’s left hand away from his lap. I push back the watch they gave him for 20 years’ service at school. I take from my pocket a thin plastic case the size of a business card. Needles from our school’s sewing department.
I extract the longest needle, hold it up to the wan light. I mutter sorry for what I’m about to do.
I prise the fingernail back off the skin of the index finger of his left hand (long nail, needs clipping.) I jam the needle into the soft sensitive nailbed, hissing and whimpering on Jarrod’s behalf.
Thunder booms like falling logs.
Jarrod doesn’t flinch.
Next, I cup another handful of water. I attempt to pour it in his ear. Most of it sits like a pool. A single bubble gurgles to the surface.
And still, Jarrod doesn’t move. He is a hunk of defrosting meat.
I set the podcast on the deck to continue playing. I know he’s dead, and my eyes are wet, but it feels right. Davidson’s voice. It’s Jarrod’s guide.
As I walk away, I hear either the wind murmuring under the overhang, or I hear my friend call out. I don’t turn back to check.
I slam into my house, open my door in a hurry, stagger towards the shower. I warm my skin til the hot water runs out and my teeth have stopped chattering. In bed, I swallow three zopiclone sleeping pills with a slug of schnapps. It’s a gift bottle with a note thanking Jarrod for taking the kids to that hackathon in 2014. Never used.
I turn the lights out, study the backs of my eyelids.
I wonder what’s beyond the blackness.
‘Jar? You here, bro?’
It’s been a week and I’ve been flopping between druggy daytime sleeps and all-night paranoid Google searches. There are laws requiring you to report a person’s death, Reddit tells me. I’m sure I’ve broken those laws. I’ve spotted police cars on my drive over here. More cops than normal. They’ll be coming for me.
‘…broken light grey zone… calling… forest tunnel.’
‘Jarrod? It’s me, man. You here?
I finally locate the voice on the deck. The podcast is still playing through the speaker I’ve left plugged into Jarrod’s phone. 24 missed calls. Richard Davidson’s voice is melted and crusty. Exhausted and melting, like a Walkman with dying batteries.
But no Jarrod.
‘Dude? You here? I’m sorry about all… I’ll call an ambulance or something.’
‘Kitchen.’ A voice low and raspy and moist, like a bubble of words burping out of a washbasin.
Beside the dishwasher, a single leg sticks out. Suit pants, rumpled as a used condom. A foot. Toes that twitch.
I fall to the lino, crawl to him. He’s fallen like a frail old granddad needing a hip replacement. Like a pile of dropped laundry.
Most of a suit is on Jarrod’s body. There is a clean white shirt over his distended belly. His arms are inside a black jacket. The pants, he must have tried to step into while standing. He’s lost his balance and collapsed, unable to bend his stiff body. There is white foam crusted on his lips. His dried-up plastic doll eyes point in wildly different directions.
‘I’m late,’ he says, ‘Have to get to… wurg.’
The head speaking to me is lavender. The colour where pink bleeds into purple and cools into blue. Where the skin bunches around his neck, the folds are deep indigo. Blue, too, are the veins snaking across his flesh. Streams and tributaries choked with unmoving cold dead blood cells.
‘Dude, I don’t think you should… School, they’re not, like, expecting you to work, know what I’m saying? They’ve pretty much written you off and said goodbye, so the whole suit thing is… .’
‘They thingb I dead.’ That mushy throat again. Hard lumpy sticky words. And eyes that roll in their sockets but can’t focus. They’re cracked eyes, hard and varnished-over, chipped like cue balls dropped on concrete floors. Jarrod is trying to look at me, but something dances on the edge of his vision. As if he can see midges flitting around me.
I pull him to his feet, guide him to the couch.
I put on those Game of Thrones episodes that he loves, Season 4, episodes 2 to 5, specifically, the height of the show. I position him upright on the couch. As I’m sweeping cobwebs off the ceiling with a broom, I hear his body slide and thud onto the carpet. I drop my broom and rush to help.
He’s on his side, after that. Back to the foetal position. No catching up. No reports from beyond. He’s a baby again. A pet rock.
But he’s still my friend. I can get used to this. We both can.
I will walk with him.
A knock at the door wakes me. I’ve slept in my work shirt and tie on Jarrod’s cold carpet.
It’s a real estate woman, carrot-haired, tight belt. Fuckable, gorgeous – but she’s trying to peak around the door.
She slides a brochure at me.
Lost a loved one? the brochure says. It’s time to sell.
I throw the door at her, put my back against it. Listen as her high heels clack on the path. She’s phoning some boss or authority or stakeholder. ‘You guys said he was dead though, right?’
A noise comes from Jarrod. I rush to my friend, check he’s okay. It’s his stomach. Something is shifting in there.
Around six, I insist on getting pizzas delivered. I forbid the Uber Eats guy from coming to the front door, and wait outside on the street for him.
When I stagger in the door the next day, exhausted from the all-staff meeting, the pizza appears alive, bubbling and roiling and squirming with black jellybeans. Blowflies. They rise from the pizza, do a dizzying spin, and settle on his nose, guzzling the stream of brain fluid that flows through his nostrils and pools above his lips.
The pizza is not the meal. The meal is Jarrod. My friend.
I try to bathe him, on the fourth day. To get him to move, I have to stand under him. Juices stain my tie and shirt. I tip Jarrod into the tub, pull his underwear off. Maggots around his cock. I begin with a blast of warm water until Jarrod’s purple hand reaches out and squeezes mine.
‘No,’ he gasps. Melting, rotting, weary voice. ‘Colder.’
Jarrod – the new Jarrod, the changed Jarrod, the passed-over Jarrod – cannot comprehend time. I put on another of his favourite films, Dune, a miniseries, and after the four hours has passed and the credits have run til the end, he remains staring at a black screen with a faint fishbowl reflection. The flies return, big shiny jelly bean-sized bluebottles, drinking his eyes while he gawps. Later, when I haul him off the couch and we stagger to the bedroom, I observe a pool of maggots in his wake, little wriggling creamy grains of rice that fall around his ankles. I clean his socks in the sink, though the smell is impossible to conquer. The salty stench of rotting shoes pulled from a muddy river.
Mornings, I sit him on a backyard bench to watch birds. I give him a log of luncheon meat. He chews, pulls the soft pink meat into his decaying throat. I hear the meat roil and churn in his belly, which has become a swollen hump, pushing out against the depressing wool jersey I’ve forced on him. On a Thursday, I race to his place from work and walk in and have to stride to the kitchen to turn a tap off. An inch of water has pooled in the kitchen, the larder and laundry. He’s been leaving lights on, too, as he lurches up and down his house, haunting rooms, leaning against walls for hours, leaving sticky smears on the wallpaper where juices leak through his back, soaking the pathetic suitjacket he wears for a job he’ll never attend.
Then the power company shuts the electricity off. No more lights or warm water. NO more DVD marathons.
After ten days, we hobble to the park, me with a hand around his squishy shoulders, urging him like an old man. Spring is coming down. The wind nibbles with gums instead of teeth.
On a bench looking through the playground roundabout and bark chips and rope cage, we gaze toward the brook. A girl comes up the grass slope, clutching a fistful of broken-off bulrushes, babbling Hotdogs, hotdogs, getcha hotdogs.
Her eyes lock with Jarrod’s. She trembles, begins rocking side to side. The girl’s pants are yellow at first. As she takes in the horror on the bench beside me, her pants turn black.
The pier, the week after. Slapping wind, blades of sun. Wet droplets in the air. Seagulls circling.
‘Bad here,’ Jarrod is mumbling, ‘See them waiting. End of the pier. Mouths. Tails.’
Jarrod more inflexible, harder to lug and heft, his legs stiff as glass.
‘Them. Swarm. People… black. Devils. They want me. To join.’
Jarrod’s hobbling foot lands in a crack between two floorboards. He twists. I hear his tibia snap. He bends, wobbles. Falls over on his back, his foot upside down, twisted as a fettucine noodle. Seagulls immediately bomb us, nipping, tearing, squawking. They land and begin gobbling mouthfuls of meat from Jarrod’s snapped-off foot, a white bone oozing purple blood in a leg that’s blue.
As I pick Jarrod up – most of him – and scurry toward the car, a rottweiler wrestles out of the grip of a woman on rollerblades and bounds after my friend. I manage to get the car door open just as the dog bumps the side, arfing.
I drive us home. There is a long sleek brick of a car in the driveway. A black hearse.
Behind it, an ambulance, and a skinny police officer, all uniform, neat shaven head, official hat, notepad. I keep the car running, idle past, sure I can see in the rearview the funeral director step out onto the street with a paramedic beside him, pointing as I disappear.
I’m in trouble. But I want to protect my friend.
X-Base Backpackers on Queen Street. A place we last came to when we were 19 and ridiculous. We take a dorm room. Downstairs, there’s breaking glass and shouting. French girls chanting. Relentless nightclub unst-unst-unst.
‘It’s over, Jar,’ I say, sniffing the disgusting hostel pillow. ‘We gotta face it, dude. If there was a way out, a shaft of light or something, you’d’ve said so, right?’
I pace wall to wall, peeling awful patterned green leaf-patterned wallpaper, dark and hopeless and depressing. I pace because I think I can walk out of all this. Walk til they forget, at school, that I abandoned my teaching career to be Jarrod’s carer. Walk til the police and health services and coroner forget that a man died at 2289 Mairangi Drive and his body disappeared, parts of a foot later discovered at Murray’s Bay Wharf, the blue flesh bitten off the white foot-bones by gulls. I pace and peel wallpaper and Jarrod lies a metre away on a tomb-sized bunk, two arms and 1.5 legs, as if practising for his coffin.
His stomach is slopping and rippling like he’s got hunger cramps, so I sneak him down the Fire Stairs and drive us to Burger Fuel. Our old favourite. Our routine.
I pull up in a disabled parking space, right outside, where tarmac meets concrete kerb meets linoleum.
It reeks in the car. I open a window.
‘Hungry,’ Jarrod gasps, drunk with death, hair trickling down his skull, head lolling and wobbling. ‘Hung – hung – you’ve… you have to -.’
From his mouth BLURGHS a river of yellow fluid, sickly thick custard. As he’s beginning to say sorry, fumbling to open the car door, a second torrent of maggots pours onto my lap. He’s vomiting so hard he’s pushed back. He squeezes the door open. Jarrod, puffy and blue, falls out onto the tarmac, begins to crawl, toward Burger Fuel, away from Burger Fuel. Anywhere. But he cannot walk with just one foot. He can’t even get on his feet. Instead, tearing his knees open, he crawls.
A family tips over their table and runs as the blue lumpy creature in a torn black suit reaches out, begging for a helping hand to pull him up. Panic. Spilled chips. Overturned burgers. Screams and roars and me, cursing Jarrod as I wrap my arms around him and haul 80 kilograms of meat toward the tarpaulin-lined trunk of the car that’s just big enough to fit a man, except his head is sticking out. Hanging over the licence plate and the towbar. I can’t cram the corpse any further into the trunk and the Burger Fuel manager has a cellphone against his ear and he’s slipping on squashed chips, asking police to come imMEDiately, and I have to get the trunk closed so I slam it right on his neck and blurt SORRY, JAR, OHMYGOD I’M SO SO SO SORRY and I crouch and catch the blue squishy coconut as the last flap of neck-skin detaches and it falls to the tarmac.
Catch my friend.
Catch his head.
South of Auckland is Pukekohe. South of Pukekohe, the expressway lets us drive at 120 kays an hour. South of that, back-roads through Limestone Downs. Green wilderness. All valleys and castle of rock. Hedges. Windbreaker trees marching for miles. Oceans of waving green cornstalks. There are surprises over each hill and corner, and eventually, warm signs counting the kilometres, then Te Awamutu, and Smith Street, where I ease back the throttle as the orange empty light comes on.
I phoned him last night. While Jarrod slept. Had a talk on Skype, actually. Richard Davidson wouldn’t say which country he was in, but I’ve got a theory. I think it’s Bhutan. I think he’s high up in mountains where the air is cool. In the snow, maybe. Refrigeration holds the meat on his bones.
Davidson – who took a hundred emails and seven phone calls and a tonne of private Reddit messages to track down – contains himself in a hoodie and says nothing while I hold him on our video chat. His face is darkened. I’m not even sure if there is a human in there. I can tell he’s in a tent, talking to me. He listens as I tell my story. We’ve been winning, I argue, we did okay. We got through. But there’s not much left of my friend. And I don’t know where we’re going.
The man in the tightly-drawn hoodie says little. It is only when the sleeping bag he’s rested his laptop on shifts and catches fresh light that I see a snapshot. That skull, from the Misfits logo. A skull with eyeballs in it shrunken like marbles. That’s what’s inside the hoodie. A skull without eyebrows or sideburns or nostrils or lips. All bone and eyeballs.
Finally, a noise comes out of him.
‘Wish I had a fren,’ the skull says, ‘Fren like you.’
A bone falls out from under his jaw. He is reaching for it and pressing it back into his throat when he terminates the call.
The woman behind the reception counter looks like she’s been tumbled under a truck. Violently bleached hair with black roots. Rubbing a keycard against her hip, standing up, suspicious.
‘You ain’t got much luggage.’
We’re at the two star Pirongia View Motel. Hardly an establishment to fight over. I tell her I just need a room. Farthest from the road. No windows, I don’t care. We just need shelter. And she has to let me know if any cops come past.
‘You can wash that, you know, your towel,’ she says, leading us across the gravel parking lot. ‘We got a laundry. What you got in there, anyway – bowling ball? Me, I love to bowl.’
‘Totally,’ I say, shifting the big round weight from the crook of my right arm to my left. ‘Bowling, right.’
The windowless motel cube we hole up in feels safe. It’s our bunker, our fortress. There is unlimited SkyTV with all the American channels. A block of showers and sinks. Fish and chips over the road, not that Jarrod will eat anything.
After dinner, we kick back on the bed and watch South Park and I guffaw til I cry.
Jarrod’s eyelids are half-down. He looks sleepy.
This laundry that the hag at Reception mentioned. I’ll be needing it. I’m almost ready to think of tomorrow. Depends if tomorrow comes or not. Because if I do wake tomorrow, I’ll need to do intense, heavy, hot washing. The bowling ball bag is so saturated with juices that it drips. And I’ll need to get the bloodstains out of the sheets before the motel asks questions. He’s leaking, Jarrod is. Soaking through the bed. His cut-off neck oozes endless fluid, much of it blackish-purple blood. Other fluid is clear stuff with pink veins in it, like crab guts, that cascades out of his nostrils like a sticky moustache, pooling on lips that he struggles to lick. It’s the frontal cortex of his brain, putrifying.
We watch silly shows til midnight and I even pop out for a bottle of wine and come back and ransack the cupboards and find a plastic sippy cup. I pour wine into my friend’s lips and it gushes through his jaw, fingers of wine and blood trickling across the bedspread, but it’s okay. I believe Jarrod appreciates the gesture. His eyes have shrivelled to nearly nothing, now. Like lights switched off, with just a little afterglow.
Me, I turn the ceiling lights off and crawl under the gooey covers, wriggling til I find a dry spot. I roll on my side and stroke my friend’s scalp. I have to halt the stroking every 30 seconds, wipe off chunks of skin and sticky hair.
In the blue hour before dawn, we listen to trucks rumble past. Hear a fight, broken glass somewhere. A cat’s claws on a steel drum.
‘Goodnight, Jar. Love you, bro.’
In the blackness, I see two teeth appear, dull blue, as his lips pull back and his cheeks fold.
One thought on “Test of Death”
Love this story, grizzly, dark but about undying friendship at its core. I recently heard it on Scary Stories Told in the Dark, Otis sent me!