One of the whales died today.
They don’t die as gracefully as they live; it’s a terrible keening, a terrible crashing, falling out of the sky and headfirst into a field. We saw it from the windows of our classroom. Helicopters had been out there for a whole week now, with ropes and shit to make sure it didn’t land on any nearby populated areas—like my hometown of Sloan, Iowa.
I imagine, vividly, the whale falling over this shitty town and squashing the fuck out of it, out of everyone in it. It brings me satisfaction to imagine all this as dust.
People have been flooding into Sloan to see the behemoth go down. Reporters, artsy photographers, just regular people from big cities who drove in to get pics for Instagram or whatever. Right now, people are out there in tents or just sleeping in their cars, ‘cause most of the time, Sloan doesn’t even matter enough to need a hotel.
I’m bitter about all this, mostly because they’re just here to watch a whale die, and then they drive away leaving me stuck here forever to watch myself die slowly again and again.
Is that dramatic? Mom says I’m too dramatic. Ever since I was a little boy, I have been. Dad always said, even then, I’d turn out like some kind of faggot, but that’s besides the point. Or maybe it is the point, because around here all people like me can do— should do— is die. Everyone knows it. Each broken bone and black eye I’ve had is just their way of giving back to the community.
Speaking of community, school has been a fucking drag lately. In all my classes we’ve been learning about the damn whales for the past month, I guess to commemorate it or just so we can feel smug that our blister of a town is special for once. But all of us high schoolers are pretty much over it. I guess we’re too cool or jaded or something like that. Whales die occasionally, and even though this is the first one to go down in the U.S. since before anyone can remember, it feels like the motherfucker’s been dying for a long time now.
I can relate.
My friend texts me one night. Well, to be honest I don’t know if Jack is my friend. I know that we look at each other sometimes and feel guilty about it later. He doesn’t step in to help me when I need it. Why would he? He has everything. He has a football scholarship, and I’d just ruin that for him. I only started hanging out with him ‘cause we were partners on a project one time. But he texts me one night:
yo wanna touch a fukin whale tonight???
R u crazy, I want to reply. I don’t wanna touch a fukin whale tonight. But I do want Jack to keep looking at me like I’m maybe something special, so I agree.
He picks me up at midnight. I have to climb out of the window. I’ve done that for Jack before. My coat is too big; it flaps in the wind. I’m a struggling stick insect drowning in it. I pull open the passenger door. I get in. Jack’s excitement is tangible; his hand grips the stick shift of his Dodge Ram like he’s gonna rip it off. The thrill sets into my bones as I click the seatbelt.
“You ready for this?” he says, grinning at me.
“I guess,” I say. I’m not ready for any of this, though.
We drive. The headlights rake the lines of road before us, and we drive. We buzz. We’re boys, and we’re breaking the rules. That combination is better than anything.
“Oh shit,” Jack mumbles excitedly as we near the Aylesby fields, where the whale crashed. We can see huge swathes of earth pushed up by the impact. So many crops ruined, probably, but who cares. “Oh shit, it’s huge!”
The whale itself at night is a wall of solid black, almost like you cut out some of the dimly lit world and just left a yawning void there instead. It’s white on the other side, but this is the best side to approach in secret. Any teenager in Sloan knows how to break into private property.
Jack parks kinda badly, but under the circumstances it’s understandable.
“This is it,” he says, a frenetic light in his eyes when he looks at me. I wonder why he didn’t bring one of his cool friends. Why am I here, with my skinny legs poking out of my oversized jacket?
I nod. We get out of the car and go through the gap in the fence.
“Oh my god, come on, come on!” he whispers to me, eyes shining, hand motioning. I go as fast as I can. My sneakers are squelching in the earth.
I guess they didn’t really think anybody was gonna try this ‘cause they’ve got minimal security—only some police tape, and nobody’s on lookout on this side. Everything must be on the side closest to Sloan.
“Oh shit!” Jack says again, taking out his iPhone. He points the camera toward the whale.
“It’s probably too dark,” I say.
“I’ll just use flash,” he says. “Stand there. I want a photo of you.”
I don’t know why the fuck that makes me feel weird shit, but it does. Like a small stone stuck at the base of my throat. I stand by the whale’s dorsal hump. I’ve never felt so tiny, and that’s saying something.
The world is briefly illuminated by the flash from his phone. I smile nervously for the photo.
“Do you think anyone saw that?” I ask.
“No, it’s cool,” Jack says, coming over to show me, relaxed like he has some way of knowing for sure. “Let’s take one together.” He switches the camera around and holds it out in front of him, slinging his other arm over my shoulder to pull us together. We’ve been this close before, and it’s always strange and wild and wonderful. Sometimes I almost think he’s doing it on purpose but I’m probably just crazy.
“Sweet!” he says, pulling away, looking at the photo. “You can totally tell that it’s the whale, and how close we are. I’ll text them to you.”
I feel the corresponding buzzes a couple of seconds later.
Jack now reaches out and places a palm against the whale’s smooth side. “It’s cold.”
“It’s dead,” I say.
“Touch it,” he says.
I look like I don’t want to, I guess, ‘cause he grabs my hand and presses it against the whale. It feels weird and alien, ridged and too still.
“Well?” Jack says, like he already asked a question, but he didn’t.
“It’s strange. It’s sad,” I reply. “I can’t believe it’s hundreds of years old.”
“Imagine if it were still alive,” he says. He rests his cheek against it. “You could hear its heart beating.” He leans against the whale, body turned out toward me. “Kinda beautiful, right?”
“I guess—in a depressing way?”
Jack looks at me. “You ever wish you could go out majestically like that? Flying around all the time then BOOM, straight into the ground.”
I just shrug. I don’t want to die; I want to live. Doesn’t Jack? I want to tell him that not living really fucking sucks. He turns to look at the whale again, with some kind of longing. I look at Jack with another kind of longing.
“Todd—” he begins, but he’s interrupted by voices and flashlights. There’s people coming around the other side of the whale.
“Fuck!” He grabs my hand and we run. We run away from the whale back to the gap in the fence. We slide under. We take deep breaths.
Jack whoops, “Shit, man, that was close!” He hugs me, but that’s probably not the right word. I can feel him shaking with adrenaline just like I am. I am suddenly everything. I know what it’s like to be alive; I’ve lived—for a few minutes at least.
Finally when the sun starts to bleach the landscape again, we let go of each other. We look out over the fields at the trajectory the whale forever carved out against the sky. The world kinda seems different today.