Despite the indiscernible conversation between radio chatter and song occupying the air, and the rhythmic humming of the tires below, the usually lilted atmosphere of their car is far too quiet for Griffin’s liking. He scoots down, shifting his legs out, before changing his mind and pulling them closer again. Fidgeting with the cuff of his button-up, he watches as patches of the sky slips in and out of view through cracks between the houses and trees passing by. It’s a bit too bright for the occasion, he thinks. Or maybe, given the circumstances of the death, the sky reflects an appropriate amount of poetic brightness, or whatever. Either way, everything has a bit of a sharp, uncomfortable edge today. Griffin shifts in his seat again, unable to settle into a position that makes wearing such a confining suit any less unbearable. He turns his gaze to his brother, who appears to have his full attention occupied by the road ahead, but Griffin knows there’s just as much grief and conflict bouncing about his head as his own. He opens his mouth to say something, only to have the words die before they can form any meaning. Where his words had caught, the collar of his shirt seems to, once again, coil tight around his throat like a snake around prey. All day, he’s been feeling claustrophobic, teetering on the edge of an asphyxiation-induced panic attack because of this damn shirt. For the hundredth time since that morning, he hooks a finger under the collar, pulling it away to ease the constricting feeling in his throat. It hasn’t helped yet, but that won’t stop him from trying.
“We’re almost home, I think we’re far enough away from his ghost that he won’t notice you loosen your tie, Ditto.” Travis says, slicing through the quiet tension like butter.
A small smile spread across face, Griffin lets out a single huff of pained laughter. He loosens his tie, sitting straighter against his seat. Responding with as much humor laced into his rasped voice as he can manage, Griffin replies, “You think his ghost is at his memorial? I figured ghosts lingered around the scene of the crime.”
“Was his death a crime? He wasn’t murdered in a terrible passion!”
As the car jerks around a smooth curve of the mountainside, Griffin returns his gaze towards the window yet again, this time fixed on a scattering of bright orange wildflowers growing on the sheer cliff to their right. “No, I guess it wasn’t exactly a murder.” They turn again. “But it was kinda a passion, of the terrible type.” Their mutual friend had indeed died passionately. Passion, in fact, being the very cause of his tragic undoing.
“Do you think,” Griffin starts, finding the words torn from his grasp once more. He tugs at his collar, forcing himself to cough, hoping to shake up whatever the aggravation may be. After a moment, he struggles to continue “Do you think he would’ve been better off if he took the red pill?”
Travis worries at his lip with his teeth, obviously concerned. He’d asked Griffin earlier about his cough, to which they both agreed was either due to his shirt, allergies, or a mix of the two. He decides to leave it alone for now. “Honestly, I don’t know. He’d still be here, probably. But he wouldn’t be the same.” This was true. Griffin hadn’t done too much research on it himself, but he knew the general side effects of the inhibitor. Sure, you survive the disease, the caveat being a guarantee of lifelong, loveless nihilism. No, his friend wouldn’t have been the same at all.
The rest of the car ride home is spent pondering the strange phenomena that killed their friend, chaparral foliage and wildflowers guiding their way along. Griffin admires the sheer irony of such a fate as his friend’s, the abundance of intricate flower arrangements at his memorial having not gone unnoticed.
With unceremonious kicks of their shoes, the boys slump into the cool air of their shared apartment. The familiarity of home is welcoming enough that Griffin’s unashamed to begin shredding the uncomfortable suit holding him prison for the better part of the day right there in the foyer. Pulling off his tie and unbuttoning the top of his shirt, the choking feeling from before subsides as the pressure is slackened. Travis does the same, eagerly removing bits and pieces of his suit as the two settle in for the night.
Raising his hands to the heavens, Griffin gives a mighty cough, feeling something dislodge in his esophagus. The cough rattles for a few seconds more, before whatever it was disappears. Whilst metaphorically shrugging the anomaly off, he shrugs off the jacket of his suit as well, sighing with content at the freedom to move his arms however he pleases. Griffin realizes then just how exhausted he is, feeling the blood pool under his tired eyes. All the worries of the day slips away as he imagines how soon sleep awaits him. Anticipating the numbing anonymity of laying in bed without any of the responsibilities that comes with inhabiting a corporeal body, Griffin is down to his undershirt by the time he reaches his bedroom door. He imagines losing his identity entirely to the temporary death of slumber. However, before dissociation can take him away completely, Travis touches his arm, gaining his attention.
“Yeah?” Griffin asks, snapping back to reality as he turns towards him.
Looking down, Travis sighs, then says quietly, “Today sucked.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, feeling a wave of sympathy cascade over him.
“But, you did a really good job like, keeping it together today.” Knowing his brother, he should’ve expected the embrace, yet Griffin still sucks in a shocked breath as Travis wraps his arms around him, squeezing him tight. The hug is only a few moments long, but Griffin finds himself paralyzed for what he assumes is an eternity. The points of contact between he and Travis buzz like millions of electrically-charged fire ants venturing about his flesh. It’s surreal, and unusual, and probably some new medical condition Griffin will have to add to the list. And it’s intoxicating. For not a sensible reason he can surmise, Griffin suddenly wishes the embrace would never have to end. He can feel the warm rumble of Travis’ voice in his chest as he murmurs against Griffin’s shoulder, “I’m proud of you.”
And then, the nagging tightness in his throat comes back.
Exhausted yet, slumber fails to adhere to his pleas as he tosses and turns for hours. The strangling feeling in his throat never reaches a point of alarm, but is present, more so than earlier that day.
All he wants is to lose himself for a few blessed minutes, but the unshakable feeling of the previous embrace rouses his consciousness too much to rest. Between the coughing and long periods of a mind racing alone in the deafening dark, Griffin’s anxieties pull him to medical article after article. He’s read too many now, none of them settling on an agreement. Is it early-onset MS? Bronchitis? A minor stroke? A new form of bacterial infection? Anxiety? The last is something he’s all too accustomed to: an anxiety attack over an anxiety attack! He curses his mind for as long as he can bear, pondering again, the irony of it all.
He’s unsure of when he falls asleep, probably around four in the morning one could reckon. Though a fitful sleep it is, one full of nightmares wracking his mind and coughing fits squeezed from his burning lungs.
Mid-morning light filtering through the blinds, Griffin his ripped from his miserable slumber as mental alarms shoot down his nervous system like lightning. He bolts up, dark red in the face and drenched in sweat, with the absolute certainty that he is suffocating to death. Punching himself in the chest, he forces his lungs to contract, though no air makes its way in. He punches his chest again, and again, until finally, something dislodges. Bent over, Griffin heaves into his shaking hands, tears streaming down his cheeks. After a few good heaves, whatever it is blocking his airways tumbles up his throat and into his mouth. He spits it out in to his hands, immediately forgotten as he takes the biggest, most relieved breath he’s ever had to. His lungs shudder, gratefully welcoming the cold air in as it floods his body and burns his throat. Griffin cries for some minutes more as he catches his breath, his tear-streaked face slowly returning to the usual, non-purpling color.
After enough time has passed that his pulse has quieted some and his lungs have run their marathon, Griffin cautiously sits back up in his bed. He already knows what he’s going to find when he looks at the culprit, still enclosed in his hands. The frail weight, in actuality hardly as heavy as a balled up piece of paper, feels like a firey hot iron ball burning through his skin. Closing his eyes, he takes a deep breath, and opens his palms up. When he looks down, his stomach hurls a thousand feet down, leaving him cold and nauseated. Resting in the palm of his hand is a small pile of crumpled, delicate while petals.