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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

The Creation of All Things

Updated: Jun 28

I’ve been dead forever but only a year. My friends and family sit awkwardly hunched, tense, presented with a tray of cheese and crackers and some wine. Lena doesn’t think the occasion deserves alcohol, so she drinks carbonated water with a lime and lemon wedge, plus a couple juniper berries, plus a small container of gin in her purse should the mood strike. Michael has a dark beer.


Propped up on an art easel is a picture of me, age 12. I look vaguely like myself. It’s a picture from my yearbook, blown up and with a digital oil painting filter to make it look as though it was a Renaissance self portrait.


LENA: “He’s been gone forever.”


RICHARD: “Only a year.”


DANIEL: “I’m... glad we decided to do this. I miss the kid so much.”


Lena and Michael are my older siblings by ten and twelve years respectively. Daniel is a family friend. He dated Lena in high school and he always played with me and brought me frogs and things with frogs on them. Never toads, because he knew better. Even after he stopped being with Lena he always came over to hang out with them. He was at the party when I died.


DANIEL: “I got him another stuffed frog, but... well now I guess it’s kind of silly. Who am I gonna give it to? Your parents?”


LENA: “They’ll put it in his room. With his other gifts.”


AMBER: “Where are they? Your parents?”


MICHAEL: “Graveyard. They’re... paying respects their own way.”


They aren’t at the graveyard. They’re in a Five Pillows hotel. They’re crying, though, both of them, looking at a picture of me when I was seven years old with a brown bowl haircut and that distant look I always seemed to have. I wore a bright yellow shirt with nickel-sized Mickey Mouse heads like polka dots, rotated at every angle, and there was food on my cheek because I had to be fed sometimes and squirmed in frustration. My parents aren’t with the others because the memories are too strong and they can’t help but blame each of the party-goers in turn. It’s irrational but emotionally safe. The pictures on the hotel wall above the bed have boats and I like that.


AMBER: “I regret having that party.”


LENA: “Don’t think like that. You’ll pull yourself in. What happened would have happened at some point, no matter what we were doing.”


RICHARD: “Yeah. It was a freak accident. Statistical anomaly.”


AMBER: “I know that, but I can’t help myself.”


Richard places his palm on Amber’s shoulder. They have the sofa and chairs set in a ring in the middle of the living room as if they are about to deal a hand of Texas hold ’em using the perfectly cut squares of white and yellow dairy as cards. The sun is low.


Richard and Amber are friends of Lena and Michael. Part of a friend group. Since high school. They came to the party one year ago in early April. There were exactly 15 people in the house, not all at the same time. Some people came late and some left early, and some made funny sounds in the bathroom. I hated the parties because of the noise, but I liked to play games with my brother and sister and their friends. Richard was smart and knew everything about everything, and maybe knew even more about tailless amphibians than me. Amber was nice. She never made me feel weird.


Only five people are here now, being not-watched by a pseudo-oil painting they think is me. I don’t say anything.


As the planet rotates a little more and the sun takes its warmth a little further towards California, they start sharing stories. They become light and familiar again. The beer helps. Michael promised not to drink more than two, but now he’s promising not to drink more than five. This has been his routine almost every day since April.


RICHARD: “I haven’t played 20 Questions since then. The game is ruined for me.”


Everyone laughs a little.


AMBER: “Me too! One of my students asked if we could play it in class and I just couldn’t!”


RICHARD: “You’re teaching now?”


AMBER: “No, no. Still in school, but tutoring part time. I think if I can break past my 20 Questions phobia, and my phobia of talking to parents, and my phobia of failing my students... I’ll be the best damned teacher there is!”


I like that game. 20 Questions. I played it whenever I thought of a new good word. I never liked to guess, I only thought of the word and answered the questions with exactly ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Sometimes Michael lost patience with me but Lena never did. And neither did Daniel. But Michael would raise his voice a little and then feel bad and then take a long shower.


MICHAEL: “It’s funny you should mention that.”


Michael finishes his drink and opens a fresh bottle. Vapor exhales from the opening like a breath of air in the cold, or a little volcano winding up for something much more dramatic. 


MICHAEL: “I’ve been thinking about the answer for a while.”


DANIEL: “Answer... to what?”


MICHAEL: “The answer! C’mon, the answer?”


RICHARD: “I don’t know what the answer is, but the question is how many beers you’ve had already, Mike?”


Everyone chuckles, even Michael. The mood is warming well for the celebration of her dead brother, Lena thinks with a smile. Daniel strokes the plush frog, a Lithobates clamitans or something close to it in intent, manufactured in China and shipped halfway across the world over twenty-five days to end up where it is, soon to be entombed in a room where I no longer sleep.


Across town, maybe fifteen minutes by car if all the lights are green, my mother is lying down. Father combs her hair with a limp trio of fingers. The wallpaper is green, but lightly so. There’s a book in the drawer to their left that I’ve never read, but I know every page. Or at least I think I know. My Uncle Kerry used to always say, “I think therefore I’m hungry.” I’m not hungry. But Michael’s hungry. He needs something. That need stirs inside his bowels, snakes his throat, and curls in the cavity of his mind like black smoke.


MICHAEL: “The answer he thought up. Before he popped off.”


AMBER: “Popped off? Really Michael?”


MICHAEL: “Before he... passed away or whatever. Before that, we were all playing 20 Questions with him.”


DANIEL: “We always were. Kid couldn’t get enough.”


Lena remembers my face fondly as she recalls the culminating moment of guessing an answer correctly. The face she imagines—my face, she thinks—is part memory and part fantasy. The eyes look at her in a way they never had, and brighter. The nose is barely perceptible, and the smile wide and unnatural but clearly full of life and happiness, like a caricature of a police sketch of a boy who stole from the cookie jar. Her memory is oil.


MICHAEL: “This game of 20 Questions was, like, the last thing he talked to us about.”


DANIEL: “His last words.”


MICHAEL: “Exactly. Last words, last thoughts. Those are important.”


LENA: “We didn’t even get to play, Michael. Remember? He said he had a great answer, and that he’d be right back. Then he...”


Then he died. That’s what she’s thinking, and it’s sparse on details but factually undeniable. The room is quiet now. I died almost exactly twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds after asking them to play with me. They were all in various degrees of inebriation at the time but still didn’t hesitate to play along. They loved me.


MICHAEL: “Not a ‘great’ answer, Leen. The ‘best’ answer. That’s what he said. Dude was so excited to play he was about to fly out of his damned pajamas!”


DANIEL: “I loved when he bounced around like that.”


RICHARD: “And you’re still stressing over the answer, Mike? After a whole year?”


MICHAEL: “Well, yeah. C’mon. We’re here to keep his memory alive, right? To celebrate him and everything he loved? I’ve been thinking about it over the past few months, and I think we can figure out what his answer was.”


Amber wipes her forehead. She tries to remember that night, the details, and even me. She was maybe a little more drunk than the others, and she barely remembers me there. Her eyes were on Richard. They had heavy feelings for each other, even though Richard was flirting with other men and women at the time. He was ‘playing the field,’ as Uncle Kerry liked to say between wives.


AMBER: “We didn’t get to ask any questions though.”


MICHAEL: “So what?”


DANIEL: “So... we just guess? Without hints?”


LENA: “It sounds dumb.”


MICHAEL: “We’re keeping the memory alive, though. We’re playing his last game! This is an honor of an enormous magnitude.”


This is when Richard takes the opportunity to pee. He spots himself in the mirror and doesn’t like the look. He’s sick with something and he doesn’t know what it is, and I don’t say anything. 


Behind the mirror is a wall, and behind that wall is my room, overstuffed with deflated balloons and wilted flowers from people I never knew. A green nightlight in the corner. The carpet is clean. Scientific frog posters and wind-up plastic frogs and books about frogs and frog-print blankets and a wooden frog carved by Daniel that looks nothing like a frog. Only the terrariums—speckled with river stones and empty blue pond dishes—no longer have any frogs.


MICHAEL: “I’m tired of dancing around this. I’m just gonna say it: I think he killed himself.”


LENA: “You’ve gotta be fucking with us now.”


MICHAEL: “The situation was totally bizarre. He could’ve orchestrated it.”


LENA: “What the fuck for?”


MICHAEL: “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It was his final answer. Death. That’s what his 20 Questions was about. The ultimate answer.”


LENA: “He was 12, Michael. He wasn’t Moriarty!”


Richard walks back into the room. He reseats himself in the wooden chair next to Amber and readies a cracker-and-cheese mini-sandwich.


RICHARD: “It was pretty clearly an accident. The police confirmed it.”


MICHAEL: “Okay okay okay, he didn’t kill himself exactly. But he didn’t avoid it either. It could have been avoided and he still walked right into it. He knew death was coming, you know? I’ve always felt he had a sort of... infinite connection to the universe.”


DANIEL: “He predicted the future of his own death? And instead of preventing it he played a game of 20 Questions with a room full of drunk people?”


LENA: “He wasn’t Nostradamus, either.”


MICHAEL: “He didn’t think like normal kids, Leen.”


DANIEL: “That’s a little unfair. It doesn’t mean he was suicidal.”


LENA: “Can we just shut up about this?”


MICHAEL: “No, this is important. We’re keeping his memory alive. He’d want us to keep guessing.”


LENA: “Yeah, well, I think it’s disrespectful. And what makes you think he’d want us to keep guessing? You’re assuming what he wants, basically putting words into his mouth. If he wanted us to know he would have told us.”


RICHARD: “But he didn’t. So now we guess, I guess?”


Micheal doesn’t look like himself. Or at least the himself he used to be. In turn, everyone takes a sip of whatever they’re drinking, eyes down. The lack of conversation is a cold front, a weather condition, an agitating stillness.


MICHAEL: “It’s death.”


LENA: “Can you quit saying it’s death? That’s the worst thing.”


MICHAEL: “What else could it be?”


LENA: “Probably... an animal.”


DANIEL: “Why that?”


RICHARD: “Don’t play along with him, you two.”


LENA: “He told me before the game started. In the kitchen. It’s an animal. Can we stop now?”


DANIEL: “Which animal?”


LENA: “Does it fucking matter?”


Daniel shrinks a little in his chair. He no longer has any romantic feelings for Lena, but their relationship as a couple set them into an unchangeable dynamic. When she snaps, he shrinks.


MICHAEL: “She doesn’t know anything, Daniel.”


RICHARD: “He did love animals, though. It’s as good a guess as any.”


Michael sets his bottle down a little too hard. The cheese tray shakes. A single crumb of cracker falls to the floor, and because of some combination of deep carpeting, table position, and an old vacuum cleaner, remains there until next November when the house gets sold—well below its value—to a new family.


MICHAEL: “You’re lying. He didn’t tell you what it was. He never tells people what it is.”


LENA: “Well, he told me!”


MICHAEL: “He wanted us to guess until we got it, no matter how long it took. Always. That was his style. Question after question.”


RICHARD: “Took us 35 tries to guess it was a telephone pole that one time.”


Thirty-seven tries.


LENA: “And now we got it. So I guess there’s no more guessing. He said it was an animal.”


MICHAEL: “Look who’s putting words in his mouth now. You can’t play high and mighty and then pretend you’re his personal prophet.”


LENA: “Just... shut the fuck up, okay? I can’t handle you right now.”


DANIEL: “An animal does sound right, though.”


Daniel flips the stuffed frog in the air, then grabs it by the neck and wiggles it like a hand puppet. No one smiles. 


Lena storms into my room and sits by the green nightlight, knees to her chest. She brings the bottle of gin with her but doesn’t drink, instead holding it like a totem or a religious ward against evil spirits. Her acrylic memory dances with images of things she imagines me doing and saying that are based on infinitesimally small fractions of reality. She does this over and over, on purpose, until she escapes into warm tears. Then she opens the gin.


Amber takes Lena’s spot on the sofa, Michael to her left and Daniel in a chair to her right. She examines Daniel’s plushy in her hands. Her smile is soft and genuine.


AMBER: “He truly did love frogs, though. I never got that. These ugly things. Always reeling off little factoids.”


RICHARD: “And yet... he never used it as an answer to his 20 Questions game. Anyone find that weird?”


DANIEL: “Hm, yeah. I think you’re right. Maybe it was too obvious.”


AMBER: “Maybe that’s exactly why he thought it’d stump us to use it this time. Frog. Simple. Wouldn’t that be neat? He used everything else over and over again, hundreds of times, saving up his favorite answer for last. He thought he’d... blow our minds with it. It’s so sweet.”


MICHAEL: “It wasn’t an animal. And if it were, it’d be a damn dog because he’s made us guess dog a million times, every different breed.”


RICHARD: “But he never made us guess concepts, like death.”


MICHAEL: “So what? There’s a first time for everything.”


RICHARD: “So... then it could be frog? You’re contradicting your own logic.”


MICHAEL: “No way. It wasn’t an animal, I’m telling you. He was way too excited this time for something so shallow.”


AMBER: “He was always excited! It was his favorite game.”


RICHARD: “Plus, who’s to say what he would think is shallow or deep?”


DANIEL: “Hm. I’m in the animal camp still. Not sure which, but definitely an animal.”


MICHAEL: “There is no ‘animal camp,’ okay? Animal is just what Lena said to get us to shut up.”


DANIEL: “I don’t see why she’d lie about that.”


MICHAEL: “To get us to shut up!”


DANIEL: “Still. I think she’s telling the truth. It just makes sense.”


Michael can’t handle any more. He’s in the kitchen. He has a stronger drink this time: vodka and orange juice. A screwdriver, it’s called, although he doesn’t know that. He drinks it because it’s cheap and fast and gets the job done. He will manage to evade cirrhosis of the liver for another forty years, and just when it starts to become an issue he will die in a car crash on purpose. The other car will be bright red.


Amber, Richard, and Daniel snack cautiously. The two hosts are no longer in the room, and even though the three of them have been in this house more times than they can count, and even though they have always felt welcome, at this moment they all think this was a bad idea.


Amber peers at the other two from under her eyebrows. Richard has lost weight. He has also become angular, in mind and body. His gentle intelligence has sharpened over the months into pointed cynicism. She no longer sees him the way she used to. There is no lust. Instead, he’s a brother and a stranger. Mostly a stranger. In contrast, Daniel was always brotherly, to her and to anyone else. A sweet man, inside and out. A father waiting to happen. 


Maybe they all could have grown together into a family one day, through some twisted knot of romance and history and togetherness. But their glue is cracking, their staples popping out. The only string binding them today is the person who is in every part of the house and yet in none of it.


AMBER: “It was one of us.”


Richard and Daniel both look to Amber’s round, freckled face. She’s holding the stuffed animal in her lap.


AMBER: “Maybe me, maybe you. Or all of us. Or just the concept of ‘friends’ itself.”


Richard curls his nose. He’s getting tired for reasons he doesn’t understand.


RICHARD: “Wise, Amber. Beautiful. Like poetry.”


DANIEL: “He never went for concepts, though... like Richard said. The concept of friendship? Seems a little advanced.”


RICHARD: “Thank you for citing your source.”


AMBER: “Think about it. All of us were there, like a family. It inspired him. Lightning hit his imagination that night, and he thought of all of us and how much we meant to him. I think that’s what excited him most. He was thinking of us.”


RICHARD: “Super vanity.”


AMBER: “What?”


RICHARD: “Like, of the millions of things in the universe he could have modeled his answer after, you think it’s you.”


AMBER: “Not me. Us.”


RICHARD: “Me, you, us... whatever. Pure hubris.”


AMBER: “You don’t even know what that word means. You just like it ‘cause it sounds big.”


DANIEL: “Isn’t it that Mediterranean dip we eat with the pita bread?”


RICHARD: “It means we’re not the center of the universe. He could have created anything in that wild noggin of his, and the chances of it being any of us is slim.”


AMBER: “The chances of anything is slim, when you compare. I get that. So why not believe he was thinking of us?”


RICHARD: “Why not believe he was thinking of... a can of clam chowder? I don’t know! It’s such a silly exercise. And worse, we get to plug in our own philosophical meaning to make ourselves feel better, or to pretend like one of us has a closer connection to him.”


AMBER: “But wouldn’t that be nice? If it can be anything, why not choose to believe the thing that makes everyone feel the most loved?”


RICHARD: “It doesn’t make me feel loved, Amber. Pretending to be loved is not the same as being loved. Do you feel loved, Daniel?”


DANIEL: “I just think it’s an animal.”


Michael drops onto the sofa like a rock.


MICHAEL: “It’s death. It has to be death.”


Richard rubs his hand on his forehead. Somehow this conversation has lasted most of the night. What was this 12-year-old kid thinking when he wanted to play 20 Questions? Such a simple answer, yet impossible. I don’t say anything.


RICHARD: “But you have no proof, Mike.”


MICHAEL: “It fits, though.”


RICHARD: “But without proof it’s meaningless.”


MICHAEL: “You can’t disprove it, though.”


AMBER: “We can’t disprove anything!? Only he knows!”


Amber is pointing at the easel which happens to hold the picture that happens to hold the distortion of my likeness.


MICHAEL: “It makes the most sense. I mean look, the death idea is the oldest one we have so far. It correlates to the circumstances surrounding the whole dilemma. It can’t be disproven. It’s a thematic parallel, the answer to it all.”


RICHARD: “You’re both giving way too much meaning to a set of poetic ideas.”


MICHAEL: “And what do you think it is then, Rich? You’ve been knocking down ideas left and right. Sniping at us safely from your little tower. You must have your own idea to be so confident.”


RICHARD: “I already said my piece. It could be literally anything. He had a complicated and simple mind. Literally anything.”


MICHAEL: “So you choose nothing?”


RICHARD: “I just don’t see the point in picking sides here.”


MICHAEL: “It’s not picking sides. It’s taking the time to respect my brother and the challenge he left us with. Maybe his death wasn’t intentional, but his thoughts certainly were.”


RICHARD: “You’re making too much of his stupid game.”


AMBER: “Don’t call his brother stupid.”


RICHARD: “I wasn’t. The game he played is stupid.”


DANIEL: “He loved that game, Rich. It’s part of who he is... or was.”


MICHAEL: “Which is exactly my point, and why we should keep playing it.”


RICHARD: “I’m just saying that... there is no answer. It’s gone. We can toy around with what we think he was thinking until we fall to our own terrible deaths in the filthy street, but we’ll never be able to prove it. Any wild thing we want to believe can fit that gap, no matter who thinks of it first or how cool it sounds.”


DANIEL: “Guys, Lena said it was an animal... so why are we even arguing?”


MICHAEL: “For the last time, Dan, she was lying.”


AMBER: “Maybe she wasn’t.”


MICHAEL: “Oh, God, not you now, too. We have two people believing an absentee liar, and another person who doesn’t think he was thinking of anything at all!”


DANIEL: “I’ve known your sister a long time, Mike. She’s not a liar.”


MICHAEL: “Maybe it’s not a lie on purpose... but it’s not true.”


AMBER: “That doesn’t make sense.”


RICHARD: “Can you quit accusing me of thinking he had no answer? Nothingness is just one of many possibilities. Maybe he had nothing, maybe he had something. Again, it’s statistically likely that anything we choose is wrong compared to the infinite other options.”


MICHAEL: “Oh, don’t bring statistics into this.”


RICHARD: “Why not?”


MICHAEL: “I don’t remember you doing any scientific study on what my brother was thinking before he died. There is no publication about this. You can’t call in your friend ‘Statistics’ to just wipe away the emotions. There are no statistics!”


RICHARD: “Well, maybe not statistics, but logically—”


MICHAEL: “I’ve been thinking this over every night for what feels like the beginning of time. Every night. What was he thinking? What’s the answer to the unknowable question in his head? Why was he so excited? How could he just leave us like this, leave us without telling us the answer!? Didn’t he love us!?”


Michael is standing now, his voice a little too loud. Amber is scared. Her thick-set thighs are pushed flat against the sofa arm, away from Michael. She has never seen him like this, so forceful, his face large with retained water from months of alcohol, soggy like bread. She is trying not to cry.


Daniel says nothing. His mind is on Lena, wondering where she is and wondering if she has changed as much as Michael has. He wonders briefly about himself, but not enough to recognize the issues growing inside that will lead him into dangerous financial decisions a year from now. He gently takes the plush frog from Amber’s lap and walks in the direction of my old room.


Michael has recognized himself and feels embarrassed and angry and right now he hates Richard almost as much as he hates the feeling that there is no truth in the universe worth grasping. And he hates himself. He doesn’t know this yet. He believes in his heart the answer that he has created for himself, more tonight than any other—as does Richard and Amber and Daniel and Lena, all in their own little ways with their own little stories. I don’t say anything.


Michael goes for a drive. Amber and Richard share a cab, Amber dropping off first at the gated entrance of her cheap apartment, Richard at a nearby park where he walks for another few hours before sleeping under a tree. Their opinions of each other have changed in some subtle way that neither understands and neither will recover from.


Daniel and Lena sleep naked on frog-print bedsheets in a soft green light, a cotton amphibian watching from a lightly dusted desk. They pretend to be sleeping for each other’s benefit. Their mouths taste bitter and sweaty. Neither feels better about the evening. They did for a minute, but no longer.


Across town, in that rented space, a mother and father sleep. Soundless wallpaper. Portrait of a boat unmoving. Prescription medication beside the bed, uncapped. They are unaware of the happenings of the remembrance, unaware of anything. They promised themselves they wouldn’t dream tonight, so they don’t. They promised themselves they wouldn’t question the universe tonight, so they didn’t.


Again, I don’t say anything.



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