“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.” — Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
Friday, he burned his first American flag in the corner under the stairs right where the snow collected itself into icy sheets like waves against the concrete. His mother said that was taking it too far, but we thought it was pretty cool.
He said that America was freedom, but you could only truly be free if you did the things you weren’t supposed to. He’d tried to tell himself that his father’s freedom came from dying in the war, but we had seen the flag posted into the ground on his grave, and it seemed to pin his father down. This flag burning was a necessary evil, he assured us, just like smashing flies in the window to feed to the cat, and the government needed some resistance anyway.
When he started burning money, we felt terrifically free, but we wanted to snatch it from above the lighter just imagining the things we could buy with the twenties that curled to ash. His mother didn’t know about this part. We thought she might have suspected him of buying drugs, but the truth is she probably didn’t notice the money was gone. He wouldn’t tell us when we asked if he loved her. James was the sort of person you’d expect to die early. Not because he was depressed or unhealthy, but because he had too much faith in his ability to live. When he teased greenbacks with his lighter, he didn’t see a lack of funds, he saw power in the smoke and he held them close to his face so he might capture that power in his lungs. He was free and wild, in a soft way. We were mesmerized.
We walked to his house along the cracked sidewalk where grass split from the creases to tickle our soles, but we heard his mother slam the screen door as we approached. We began to walk back, avoiding cracks in habitual second nature.
“Leave, if you want. Or help me out?” James was standing on the steps picking at the turquoise paint that curled from the shingles. “My goldfish died. Again. I really can’t be trusted, really, really can’t… Ah well,” he smiled as we joined him.
“Shut up, James! Shut up.” His mother’s voice sifted through the windows like sand. James shrugged and bounded down the steps.
We buried Samson, the goldfish, under a bush in James’ front yard while he paced around in circles, hands behind his back singing “Amazing Grace” in a dramatic wail. His mother yelled for quiet, but he did not oblige. She was a tall woman, intimidating in stature and words, but harmless in action. Sometimes it crossed our minds that James only liked us because he didn’t think she did. We never proved nor disproved that. The problem, or the solution, really, is to believe in something. If you believe it, it could very well become true, assuming it wasn’t already. We hated to admit it, but we know we were nothing before we crossed James’ mind for the first time. He had been on a ferry, four year old hands gripping the railing in a yellow stairway. He listened to a little girl asking her mother why the ferry didn’t have wings. The boat rocked from side to side and we found ourselves rolling across the salt beaten stairs, seven legs to each, an undetermined number of iridescent black eyes and as James watched us, we became. We grew to believe that without us he’d probably shrivel up a bit, the way we might if we died on a windowsill or were kept inside a jar for too long. Much like spiders. Really quite a lot like spiders, James decided.
He sat on the stairs, lighter limp in his rebelliously un-gloved fingers, eyes red. He had been up since two in the morning, there were four stolen, torn, ashy American flags in the corner. He liked the way ashes could hold their shape before crumbling away to dust. We taught him to enjoy the idea of something becoming colorless and being held up by a simple idea. He said he wasn’t tired. His mother had been sleeping, it made the house too quiet, and there was no rest for him in silence. Something inside his brain was shifting, fusing, a clockwork machine, bursting and buckling. The rewiring configuration of thoughts, memories and motives sparked as it ground away at it’s work, dusting adolescence from him. We wanted so badly to know if he was alright. His hands clambered for the tea we had brought. He poured it out over his shoes and crouched there, staring through the jasmine steam that curled from his leather toes. Every fight with him was lost before it began, his feet remained dry. We watched him sitting there, so quiet. It was terrifying to be unheard, the barrier between us expanded like his mother had promised. James never believed her. In our own all-knowing vanity, neither did we. Just last week she said he was too old to still have imaginary friends.
“Independent…” He drug his fingers through the ashes, collapsing the folded and torn edges of the flags.
“I am…Independent…” he’d said it so many times that it wasn’t a word anymore. It had melted into something unfamiliar, fragmented like a cough drop in summer, shards of something foreign, unrecognizable.We stared up at him, festooned in ribbons across the rail, inquisitive.
He spoke to his hands, told us that he’d been at the river. He’d thrown another flag, off of a cliff this time, into the river in the night and he’d watched it smolder as it lay to rest on the water. It pulled at the tarnished fabric, anchoring the pain like his father’s grave. They had camped there once before, James and his father. We had climbed trees and tossed flat stones into the river while they sang together at the camp fire.
This time, we asked why he hadn’t taken us with him. He’d forgotten us. We were the moving shadows in the corners of his eyes, we used to be all he could see. The clouds gathered grey around the trees and James finally smiled. He had expected it to be amazing. Independence. Growing up. But he felt alone. The world was unfamiliar. It was thrilling and terrifying all at once. He was crumbling like the flags and he felt for a moment, that he might blow away in a million different directions.
Friday, we started to disappear. Nothing dramatic but loss, our numbers dropped, fell through our legs as we tangled together in fear. We had never entertained the idea of death, it was unbearable, for that singular moment before turning to nothingness, that we would only be memory. James would cry as he buried our now invisible bodies under the bush near Samson, but he wouldn’t sing “Amazing Grace.” He never liked to sing alone. He might’ve walked inside then, wiping away those tears and maybe his mother would finally understand. She would hug him and cry a little herself, over his shoulder, knowing that if he lost us, she would lose some part of him. He wasn’t that little boy he used to be, yet with the memories of us and his father and some wild determination for the future, he was more himself than he ever had been.