I do not think this story makes any sense at all. But... it kind of spilled out of my fingers. So, if you feel like sticking your head in an oven, you can read this instead. Lower death rate.
Come; hold my hand. I know it's yellow and withered and dry, but please come closer. Don't look at me like that. Can't you hear the smile in my voice? I promise I won't bite. I lost my real teeth years ago anyway.
I want to tell you a story, but I don't know if you'll understand. I guess it doesn't matter. Understanding isn't important. What's important is the telling. I have to tell someone, for, you see, I'm bursting with it. You're here, and even if you're too young to understand, you're all I have—you and your soft pink hand. I'm at a loss for contact, and you'll have to do.
I was born alive—I think. I really can't say, for as soon as I became conscious of the nature of my existence—of its supreme ephemerality—I became aware of my impending expiration. I came to live in fear of death, and by that act, I ceased to live.
Are you listening carefully? You have that far-off look in your eyes. I apologize. Age has riddled my thoughts. They aren't linear or logical anymore; they aren't anything but a dusty attic of "could haves" and "should haves." I'm doing it again. I'm sorry—again. I'll try to tell this in order, now.
I can't quite say how it started. It's something I heard about, once—the correlation between intelligence and happiness. It's negative, and in both my opinion and personal experience, that's perfectly rational. The more powerful a brain, the greater its ability to process the universe as it is, and after my century on this humble little planet, I can assure you that truth isn't something to be sought. You see, I found the truth. I found it much younger than I should have. I couldn't have been more than three years old. Three! God, what an inhumanly small quantity! Look, I'm holding up three fingers now with my free hand. One, two, three circles around the sun, and that did it. My brain was still mush, though maybe firmer than it is now. It was my birthday and everyone was singing and dancing and laughing. Then my parents put a pineapple upside down cake in front of me, decorated with three spindly candles, each topped with its own fragile orb of flame.
It was beautiful, and I don't mean the cake. It was those little pinpricks of light—the candles' fire. The faint flickering of the flames mesmerized me as they fluttered to and fro. I stared, transfixed, as my parents scurried around for a camera. They didn't see the furtive glimmer in my eyes; they didn't see me extend my hand, just so. My index finger inched forward—no one saw—and into the central flame. I pushed into the heat and stayed. I felt the initial lap of warmth, the progression to a slow, oppressive bake, and the final searing frigid fission as hot turned cold and life went dead. I could feel my cells shriveling up like dried prunes, my atoms shrieking with fright as I murdered them alive. My finger was hurting, screaming, begging to just fall off—but I could not move my hand. The fire had seduced my soul, and I was prepared to sacrifice my body for it.
But I didn't. I couldn't. At the last moment, when I imagined my finger black and ready to crumble to ash, my eyes clamped shut. I screamed. My mother cried out, and my father pulled my hand away. And then he snuffed out the three brilliant flames—one—two—three.
Like that, we snuffed out the spark.
All was dark.
I had seen something in myself that I wasn't old enough to put to words. In some ways, I still can't. Suffice it to say, that day, my inglorious third birthday, I became aware of my morbid fascination with mortality—and I became frightened of it. I did not want to cease to be—but some part of me—it did. Some sliver of my soul was hell-bent on suicide, and I was powerless to stop it. I didn't know how to fight my own mind. I became terrified of my brain, of sour thoughts I just couldn't escape.
My brain continued to develop. It grew, folded, contorted, took on the most terrifyingly complex of shapes. I grew up, unable to escape the omnipresent specter of the future. I was going to die, and I knew it.
In retrospect, it's a bit ironic. The elderly always speak of their regrets—of what they would have done if they had considered how intolerably small the quantum of a life truly is. They say it's such a shame that the young don't know the value of what they've got. They say that the young are foolish for taking what risks they do—that they don't cherish the truth in living. Their brains are dementia-addled, their contradictions too tangled to unwind. But it doesn't matter. Whatever they're trying to say, or whatever I understand them to mean, they're wrong. They're so very wrong.
It is not a blessing to know of your mortality from an early age. It is not a great gift to be fully cognizant of the cessation of electrical impulses. It is not something to be wished; it is something to be cursed. It is a child who cries, alone, in the dark of the night, not because of the monsters under her bed but because of the monster of her mortality; it is a child who suffers panic attacks, the fear of nothingness welling up in her too-fragile heart, the victim of her too-active imagination. It is the life the child doesn't live, for fear it will end before she is ready.
It is the life that I did not live. I was that child. I was alone and afraid. I sequestered myself in my own soul. I isolated myself in the dark of my room. I cried each night, utterly alone, for 15 years. And my parents hadn't the slightest idea. I put on the face they wanted. I put on the tired smile, made the appropriate small talk. I did well enough in school. I spent enough time with acquaintances to appear social within three standard deviations from the mean. I never had anyone I considered a friend. Some reached out, but I pushed them away. I clipped contact. I needed security, above all else, and I couldn't trust my species to provide it.
You don't understand that, do you? You don't see the connection between thanatophobia and human contact; you don't understand the emotional thread. It's about self-protection, see, about making it all hurt the least. It's a fear of loss. Once you recognize that life itself—that, in a manner of speaking, your entire universe—is impermanent, you recognize that you must eventually lose everything—even without your consent. And when you tie yourself to something—to a person, a place, a thing, an idea—and you have to watch—helplessly—while it's slowly ripped from your too-tight grasp—it hurts. It hurts more than I could stand to bear. See, even my fear of death fell under this domain. If I tied myself to my life, then losing it would hurt more. But that isn't the point. The point is, I couldn't stand the idea of loss. I wanted to hoard my universe, my life, my reality, to keep it all in my meaty hands. I knew I couldn't, so I then only took what I thought I had some chance of holding. I had been burned once, and as my flesh gained the wrinkles of years, I knew I wouldn't be burned again. I couldn't.
I built a firewall around myself. I made it strong enough—tall enough, thick enough—to withstand a nuclear blast. It only got worse when I went to college. I purposely went away, so that I would clip all ties to my childhood, however flimsy. And then, during Orientation Week when everyone else went to awkward luaus and made new best friends, I played the recluse all over again. I stayed in my dorm. I didn't leave. I locked myself away. It was as it had always been. It was as I wanted it. I was safe. I was twiddling away the years, studying, studying, studying—doing nothing like living.
One day, my roommate made a half-hearted attempt to pop my bubble. She asked me if I would like to go on an adventure with she and her friends. It seemed they had a plan for the weekend before finals. They were going to spend two blissfully freezing nights camping, huddled around a small fire. Then, on Sunday afternoon, they were going to go skydiving before returning to campus. A part of me—that part that I had spend too many years suppressing—wanted to go. It was yearning, raging, burning to be free—and to die. For me to die. For my fear to die? No, I can't say anymore. The thoughts aren't right. It doesn't matter. I didn't go, my roommate stopped trying to change me, and that's what this anecdote is meant to say.
My life went on like that. I never could—never wanted to—never did break out of that mold. The years went by, and I passed the time. I passed it, but I didn't fill it. I burned calendars. I locked doors. I built fences. I breathed alone. I came to exist as an interloper in my own life. I didn't belong—not even to myself. I was a slave to fear—to death, to loss, to isolation. I had sold myself, and it took me so damn long to realize it—too damn long.
That is the tragedy of my existence. I went through so much, so blind—all because of that beautifully bright fire.
I didn't realize it until, instead of me pulling away from life, life began to clip its connections to me. It was only as I began to die—in a more immediate sense—that everything came together in my mind, just as everything else fell apart.
My body broke—slowly, at first. I couldn't do things that I had once done. My arthritic fingers grew too stiff to handle matches; I could no longer burn calendars. My shriveled hands grew too weak to turn the deadbolt; I could no longer lock doors. My battered knees grew too temperamental to kneel; I could no longer build new fences. My asthmatic lungs burned; I realized—slowly, tortuously painfully—that I would soon cease to breathe. Dying was everything I had expected—except that it wasn't. The days stretched on, and yet my brief candle persisted. I did not die. And yet I could do nothing. I retreated to my bed, accumulating bed sores, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, waiting for the fated end. It did not come. I did not die.
No. I wilted up, a leaf without water or sun. I neither ate nor drank nor moved. My physical form came to be what I had been socially all my life. I kept shriveling. I couldn't have moved if I wanted to. My leathery skin sagged loosely around my brittle bones. I kept thinking I would break.
But I didn't. I was waiting, breaking—but not dying quickly enough.
And when that thought struck my consciousness, I would have screamed, if it hadn't been for my atrophied speech apparatus. I was not dying quickly enough. I thought it again and again, trying to figure out how I had landed there. I was not afraid of death; I was praying for it. I thought, for irony's sake, my mind had rotted, but the more I pulled it out of disuse, I saw that it hadn't. I was no longer afraid of death. Indeed, no. I wanted to die, for it was living I had come to fear.
The memories came rushing back so fast. The levees broke at the force, and down went my precious mental dam. I saw the truth flash before my legally blind eyes. It was my own fault. It had always been my own damn fault. I could have stopped it—but instead I caused it. What's that you say? Oh, no. Not dying. Of course not dying. I was going to die all along. That isn't it.
What I mean to say is this.
I didn't have to kill myself. I didn't have to deny my humanity. I didn't have to deny myself the chance to love and be loved. I didn't have to lock my heart. I didn't have to build fences. I didn't have to be alone. I didn't have to live as a corpse. I didn't have to be afraid of the fire; I didn't have to let it burn the strings. I didn't have to, I didn't have to—
I have to stop. I have to stop this. Thinking like this. Lying like this. Living like this. There's only one way to end this self-induced agony, only one way to make it right.
Before I do, there's one last thing you should know. My parents were afraid of fire, too. There were never any candles on my birthday cake—not on my third birthday, not ever. The only fire was—well, you already know.
Yes, you can have your hand back now. Keep that light in your eyes; don't forget to let it shine. That's all the advice I have for you. It's all I have to give. It's time I clipped contact, now, so thank you and adieu.
I apologize for the lack of coherence of the piece. I know it sucks. Sorry.