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Bugs in Amber
Kayla Henn

It starts with a simple conversation: music is playing quietly from the television in the living room, my friends mingling around cups and crackers carefully placed along the counter. I’m standing in the kitchen with them, the drink in my hand building condensation that trickles down and across my fingertips. Somebody is talking about something in the summer, during the dog days when heat endlessly stretches out into oblivion. 


I am only half tuned into the conversation, my ears picking up different bits of other conversations, but I gather the clues quickly: somebody is talking about a concert they went to in the summer, on July eleventh, when the dog day heat endlessly stretched out, an oblivion. 


I once sat in my brother’s kitchen as I watched people mill about, the house still full of him. Fruit and vegetable trays from the grocery store down the road and around a corner were scattered across the dining table, red solo cups full of mysterious beverages perched dangerously close to the edge. It was summertime then and the days felt like oblivion, stretching out before me as I had to learn how to accept what had happened—


I read Henry IV Part 2 while studying Shakespeare in England during a summer I had thus far come to love. Night fell slowly, raindrops beat a tender rhythm on the windowsills of my foreign bedroom, and a single line resonated so deeply within the cavities of my chest that I tore the words out of my brain and slipped them into my pocket, a keepsake for later: Stay, and breathe awhile. 


I reach into my pocket and brush over those words again, so many years later, as the condensation on my fingertips sinks into the imaginary paper words. July eleventh. 


There was somewhere I had to be on July eleventh. 


More flashes of iambic pentameter cross my mind—Lord, what fools these mortals be!—but it confuses me. Before I studied him in college, I hated Shakespeare. I read his plays in high school, but I was never devoted, could never bring myself to understand the lilting tones of his language. It confused my brain, the letters all jumbled up inside with nowhere to go. 


What happened on July eleventh?


When I came home from studying Shakespeare plays abroad, at the curved end of June, I had to write an argument about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What is a midsummer night’s dream? I cracked open my copy like it could save me, running fingertips over paper words to tear out and save for later. The course of things never did run smooth. Lord, what fools these mortals be! Expecting their brother to wake from death a in a midsummer dream—


I read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut the autumn after July eleventh, leaves falling outside my bedroom window as I became unstuck in time with Billy Pilgrim, who fought in World War II and got abducted by aliens and learned the secrets of the universe, but not in that order because Billy was unstuck in time. When Billy asked the aliens why they had abducted him, they said there is no why, that we are all just bugs in amber. They said, Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment.


There is a picture of the five siblings, me and my brothers, from when I was a baby. Alex was sitting on a chair with me in his lap while the other three—Michael and Greg and Thomas—were gathered around us. In the photo, Thomas is reaching down behind the chair, the one Alex and I were sitting on, and the others were watching as he looked for something beyond what we could see, beyond the picture in front of me. Later, so many years later, Thomas told me he dropped one of his toy trucks down there and was trying to grab it, prompting a sharp order from our mother behind the camera to Sit still. But if someone were to look at the photo they wouldn’t know that; they would just see five siblings doing whatever it is five siblings do. 


Bugs in amber, caught in a moment, locked away in a silent forever. 


Photographs are always the hardest because sometimes the memories attached to them have been lost, the synapse keeping it alive inside the brain dead. Sometimes the neural pathways connected to certain memories go unused for too long and they wither away, so the memory is not haunting you but the idea of it is; a reminder caught in an amber photograph.


I wonder about the others, the countless versions of us locked away in ambers full of a southern summer and its dog day heat stretching into oblivion over our heads as we throw footballs across backyards with dryer sheets stuck inside our worn-out jeans. Ambers full of Atlantic saltwater and military-grade shoeshine, Sunday football games and Easter evening mass. Ambers with Alex waiting for us to go back and meet him again—


I read Slaughterhouse Five in the silence of my bedroom during evenings spent detaching myself away from all others, the resounding quiet of stagnant air pushing my body farther into the mattress as I found myself craving the moments when I was reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2 during a summer I had come to love, autumn leaves replaced by warm rain beating a tender rhythm on my bedroom’s window sills. 


But there I was, trapped inside an amber I desperately wanted out of, July eleventh beating upon me like foreign rain. 


July eleventh. Waking from a midsummer nightmare. Alex.


Everyone had been there; everyone had been waiting. The diagnosis and the prognosis and the body in between did not look good. So many things were failing, so many needles sticking out of his body at odd angles to try and disrupt the inevitable ending we all knew: everyone had been there to say goodbye, everyone had been waiting for him to die. 


Shakespeare uttered in my ear, Stay, and breathe awhile.


But Alex couldn’t breathe. We were gathered around him on July tenth as he lay in an ICU bed struggling to breathe even with an oxygen mask to help him. A medical, modern device made by man to help this man, my brother, live a little longer. Please, give me a few more hours before you move him to the basement where dead things go. Please, give me more amber time with him than just this, give me more than my hand caressing his arm as he lay dying. Please, please—


What was it William Faulkner wrote about death in As I Lay Dying? A matriarch, Addie Bundren, died and her family was tasked with transporting her body to her hometown. Through rivers and trials, trails and tribulations, the family eventually gets her there but at what cost? Faulkner’s moral of the cost is the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time, and I remember this so clearly because I read this right before Slaughterhouse Five, when I became unstuck in time with Billy Pilgrim. I remember it because the books talked about death so much and so often and someone, my someone, had just died.


A phone call, Alex, my someone dying, and I needed to be there. I should have already been there, but I was tired of waiting. I went home the night of July tenth because I was tired of looking at Alex and waiting for him to die, those dog days stretching into oblivion. 


I sped over limits through my hometown—a sharp left turn at the traffic light drivers constantly ran through on red—while thinking about the RMS Carpathia—five hundred feet straight ahead and a hurried right—because the most intriguing part about the Titanic to me is not the drowning, but the saving.


The RMS Carpathia was a transatlantic steamship many years in service—hundreds more feet in a hundred more seconds—carting passengers back and forth until one night, deep in the early morning hours of April fifteenth—another right into the parking lot, quickly find a spot or you won’t make it—they received a distress signal from the RMS Titanic. It had hit an iceberg, the unsinkable was sinking—a screeching halt—and there were not enough lifeboats on board. 


The Carpathia turned around at full steam ahead—a slammed car door—knowing full well it would still take hours for them to reach the Titanic—quick feet on pavement—but they turned off the heating and hot water to redirect the steam while passengers created makeshift hospitals out of banquet halls—the main entrance is closed, run around to the other side of the building—so the Carpathia reached Titanic before they predicted. The ship saved hundreds of aching, frozen lives—forget to brush off the security guards, abide by the rules even though your someone is getting ready to stay dead a long time—that were left behind in Titanic’s detritus—fluorescent lights flickering overhead in the elevator, painfully slow and agonizingly silent—left behind in disaster’s wake—because somehow the RMS Carpathia took their average speed of fourteen knots—steps echoing off tiled floors as nurses watch you go because they know what you will find—and turned it into an unprecedented seventeen.  


My knots were all in my shoulders because I arrived at the hospital, deep in the early morning hours of July eleventh, too late to watch my brother die. Alex never went home, Alex is—


Alex was the oldest. He stepped into leading like it was made for him, looking out for the microcosm of the world our parents created within the walls of military duplexes. His body was all golden tones encased in warmth, brown skin and brown hair and golden eyes, contrasted by his stark personality bathed in the obscene. Everything from his mouth was curse or crude, but he didn’t apologize because we loved him for it. A deadly poison of disease and alcohol ran through his veins, but we loved him.


Before the lethal concoction took his life though, way back to when he was my big brother and not my dead brother, Alex murmured sweet everythings into the car I was driving us around in. It was back when liquor was not a killer, when it was just a family pastime, and we were tasked with picking more up. I pressed play on a song that rumbled lowly through the speakers and his head whipped towards me, his golden body a lighthouse in the border of my eyesight. 


“You know this song? I used to listen to this shit in high school.”


“Of course I know it, I have amazing taste.”


He snickered and I smiled, excited for the day we could be more than siblings and become best friends who knew each other’s favorite songs but never stop being impressed by one another. What I got instead was a mumble two years later, when my family was watching him slowly become nothing more than a memory. He mumbled but the oxygen mask made it hard to hear. I leaned down and close, trying to hear his voice for one of the last times before I left and came back too late to save him. 


“Don’t bury me.”


“What did you say?”


Don’t bury me. Burn my ass.”


I leaned up and away and looked at my mother without actually seeing her. My eyes focused on a spot over her shoulder in the distance because I was afraid to witness what I would find; that I would look her in the eyes, and it would break me so cleanly in two that I wouldn’t be able to stand back up.


“He said he doesn’t want to be buried. He said to burn his ass.”


Faulkner echoed around the room, beeps and heavy breathing rivaling the stay dead a long time


So we didn’t bury him but set him alight instead, trembling flames performing for nobody but a dead man. The rest of us—those still alive—picked out our own, miniature urns for our own, miniature collections of our someone who was once human and alive, breathing and bone, tissue meeting tissue to make up a being that deserved a better ending than the one he got. 


We picked him up a week later, parts of him separated through ash and time and death and space, and I went home to place his golden body on my bookshelf. My urn has only been opened three times, ever, because it was a cruel reminder of the person I lost to add that permanent fixture of ash to my growing collection of things with meaning. I’ve only opened it three times because it is never dust or fine particles that fall like sand; cremated remains are rough, nothing fine about them, with fragments of bone littered throughout gray matter. And when it is open I inevitably wonder what parts of his body, contained in that gold urn, sit on top of my bookshelf night after night, right next to Slaughterhouse Five and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other books full of endings that are contrived, beautifully written, and satisfying. 


Alex’s ending was ugly, leaving holes in my soul that will go unfilled until I get to meet him wherever he is waiting for me, in some wonderful after. I wonder if Michael will be there, because I fear his demons may drag him down before he ever makes it to us, the second of us—


Michael is the second child, not quite in the middle and not quite forgotten because he is always doing things to make sure we remember. They didn’t say boys will be boys when he did something senseless, something stupid while growing up. They said Michael will be Michael because he is Michael the problem child, cracking open his skull by jumping on the bed; Michael the problem teenager, dropping out of school before getting his diploma. Now, even now, he is Michael the problem adult, cracking rocks across windows and dropping out of families he created like he didn’t want them to begin with.


But it’s hard to hate Michael because at his core Michael loves people so much, too much that he holds on so tight, too tight, leaving marks behind because he doesn’t know how to express all the feelings bottled up inside him. He means for his bruises to heal in kaleidoscopic beauty, but they don’t because Michael hurts, so it is easy to dislike him. Michael hurts because he is hurting so he is quick to anger and insult, forcing a distance between him and the world that is never quite breached. I’ve tried to reach him over the cavern of emptiness separating us with quiet apologies—I’m here for you, no matter what—deafening sins—this is why I don’t talk to you anymore—and whispered declarations of love—you’ll always be my big brother—but it was never enough, nothing is ever enough to keep him tethered to me. Michael is either too much or not enough, never in between.


Greg is in between, the middle child, a through line easily forgotten because he talks like silk with soft words whispered into air. He is like a ghost, once loved and never touched, but if close enough—if wedged inside his brain that saves demons like it should be saving grace—Greg will hug often. He wraps his arms around bodies until they are safe, until they are protected from things that may hurt them. 


One evening, deep in the embrace of alcohol because one of the ways we feel closest to Alex is through his killer, we collapsed onto the couch as he fumbled with the remote in his hands. Greg wanted to play a song right that very moment, no it couldn’t wait for me to go to the bathroom, I needed to hear the song. 


It only took a few seconds for me to recognize the wistful rhythm of “My Heart Will Go On,” playing as loud as we dare let it. 


“I don’t care if this makes me seem girly, I fuck with this song.”


His eyes were closed, body swaying softly to music that played as a fake Titanic drowned, and I snickered because Greg isn’t very tall, but Greg is bulky. He built muscles over the years as he marked the skin wrapping around them with varying patterns, tattoo upon tattoo until sleeves covered his arms. And there he was, sat right in front of me, softly singing along to a whimsical and heartbreaking love song. 


My head turned quickly, like a fake Carpathia, and I narrowed my eyes because his comment had finally settled inside my brain. “You know that’s not an insult, right?”


He opened his eyes with annoyance written all over his face, engraved into the lines around his eyes. “Of course, I have a daughter and a wife and a sister. I can’t be misogynistic with you guys around.”


“So, you’re saying you are when we’re not?”


He rolled his eyes, the engravings turned up slightly with amusement. “Shut up, Bones. You know what I mean.”


He lightly shoved me, only slightly, but I still ended up on the other side of the couch we collapsed onto as Thomas walked back into the room, alcohol clinging tight as he squinted at the screen. His eyes work unless he’s been drinking, takes every sober opportunity to remind others how perfect his eyes are, how perfect he is. The truth, maybe a secret, is that Thomas is insecure, afraid to let himself be loved in fear he might find out he is unlovable. He has always been a six-year-old boy waiting for someone to hug him asleep.


“You’re burning your potatoes.”


My phone crackled on the counter with the sound of his voice, a different night with sober minds wrapped up in idle, dinnertime conversation. His eyes were still squinting but at his phone screen now, like he could lean his head over and through the camera to peer at my pan below. He was making his own dinner, a mirror, and we have always been mirrors because our faces are most similar. Our twin voices get loud as our dual hearts get damaged in tandem, we are always in tandem, like our souls were cut in half so we could trade with each other like the collectible cards we traded as kids. 


I raised my eyebrow at his raised eyebrow. “How would you know?”


“I can smell them from here, doofus. And they’re turning black.”


What Thomas doesn’t know, the thing I think he is just discovering, is that he can never be unlovable as long as I am around. I want to protect him because the world is too greedy, too callous, so I hug him long and I hug him hard because I am afraid he will disappear if I don’t. I am afraid of the demons his brain saves too, saves like Greg’s, and the demons have almost run him over more times than I count, more times than I would be able to save him like he is Titanic, and I am Carpathia arriving hours after he has already drowned. 


I grabbed my potatoes off the stove before they were unsalvageable and drifted closer to the phone, like I did the other night too, with Celine Dion and fake Titanic deep in the embrace of alcohol. The other night when I drifted across the couch and into Thomas and Greg’s chest cavities, as close to their hearts as possible so I might soak up as much of them as possible. I may never have enough, trying to salvage the time we have left together because something I learned too late in the night but too early in this life, is that us five siblings will die one after another until only one is left standing. The odds I will be the sole survivor are greater than theirs, so the odds are not in my favor because I may be forced to lose most of all. The dominoes have already started falling because the first of five is missing, the first of five is dead. Alex is the oldest, the eldest, and he is—


The thing about the five of us is that we don’t have the same father because Alex and Michael and Greg were products of our mother’s first marriage, Thomas and I the second. But we all share the same fathers and stepfathers because they have become interchangeable between us over the years, confusing like iambic pentameter. Our mother boomeranged between two husbands so some of my siblings are half, but we were never raised as half because we are raised five whole siblings with origins that don’t matter. All that matters is the five of us growing up together, always. 


The five of us are like a unit, like a body with a brain and a heart and a liver and a stomach and lungs: organs and a nervous system designed to keep things alive. We are the five boroughs of New York City, with Manhattan and Queens and Brooklyn and Bronx and Staten Island; a city with bridges and ferries connecting us because one borough does not make up a city, there must always be five in the network. We are books, with forwards and prologues and interludes and epilogues and afterwords; we are read from left to right and up to down. Times of day, with Michael as morning and Thomas as afternoon and Alex as evening and Greg as nighttime, my blue body hour breaking up each one with motley colors and sweet clouds in the sky; like I am fractured into five parts and four are in each of them. Seasons, spring Thomas and autumn Greg and winter Michael and summer Alex because he loved summer so much he died in one, laying to rest in those dog days that stretch out into oblivion, on July eleventh.


I must remember, there are only four of us now, and there is often a moment in the telling, a bug caught in amber, when it all becomes real again. There are moments when I say I have a brother, dead, and it feels like a betrayal suspended in a moment of solidifying his nothingness. I wonder how many ambers will come when I have to do this telling, and all the ways I can move words around like puzzle pieces or lilt emphasis like death is iambic pentameter. The question is what to reveal or what not to reveal, which sonnet of sentences disclose the least sorrow. 


What was it the aliens told Billy Pilgrim, when they abducted him and revealed the secrets of the universe? When a person dies, he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past… And time, they kept telling Billy that experiencing moments is eternal, all time is time, and we must take all things moment by moment. Everyone is just bugs in amber caught inside midsummer night dreams during the early morning hours of July elevenths that stretch into oblivion. We are locked inside silent forevers with the heat of dog days from our youth a memory we will eventually relive, time and time and time again. 


Alex is not a ghost. He does not haunt me. He simply fades into the background of every amber moment as I learn how to stand back up from the detritus of his death. He is there when I video call Thomas and Greg to swallow a beer and eat our laughter, salvaging potatoes we may or may not be burning as we sing along to Celine Dion. He is there as I stare blankly at Michael’s name on my phone screen, wishing it would do more than stare back. Alex is here and there and everywhere, a memory that feels like a midsummer dream, and maybe even somewhere trying to understand the lilting tones of Shakespeare’s language, unstuck in time but caught inside an amber in the middle of a summer he had, thus far, come to love. 


Living in the moments without my big brother merely a phone call and quick car ride away are a grief that may never be good. The melancholy knowledge of yesterdays makes tomorrows a bitter promise as I continue to grow up and learn the things I love will eventually become the things I miss. The antithesis of my childhood has not been adulthood, it has been loss. One member after another will break down into death until I am the only one left standing. I am afraid I will forever be craving different amber, trying to live inside my mind next to memories of Alex as I long for the current moment to change, for the next one to come so I might be full of love and not longing.


There is a moment in Slaughterhouse Five when Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time and landed in a moment before his death, when he told those around him not to be afraid. It is time for me to be dead for a little while—and then live again. So it goes, and so maybe Alex is merely waiting for us to meet him in the next amber, to be bugs caught together, all five, a unit, once more. 


But I don’t know when that moment will come, or if it ever will, so I must take the ones I am given as they are. I must take the moments like something simple, like a conversation about something in the dog days of summer, when heat endlessly stretches out into oblivion.

Kayla Henn is a soon-to-be graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in Nonfiction Writing. She is currently working on a hybrid project of personal essays and research about parasocial relationships.

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