The Golden Light That Keeps Us Alive (Daniel deRock)

Puffin was the slowest kid on the cross country team, but he did have a triple black belt or something. Coach gave him that name because he wasn’t a good runner and had some form of asthma. Coach would say, “Look at him go, huffin’ and puffin’.” It was funny because he was the biggest stoner at school. And, actually, he did kind of look like a puffin. 

Puffin did cross country just to hang out with us, I think. He came to practice baked out of his head. Running wasn’t his calling, he said—he was a large kid with flat feet. Still, he stuck with it. I was on the varsity squad and severely depressed. 

At practice, we ran between four and ten miles through the neighborhoods. Puffin always wore a fanny pack that he said was to hold his inhaler and those little electrolyte pouches for marathon runners. He did bring those things, but he also brought plastic baggies of weed and a switchblade. Besides smoking a lot of weed, he also sold it.

This one day, Puffin kept up with us in the varsity pack. The suburban streets were wide and freshly paved. Fall colors burst from the trees. The air was cool. A mile in, he gave me a nod and split off. 

What happened was a group of middle schoolers arranged to buy weed from Puffin at a playground. Somehow, these kids stole half an ounce off him. Just grabbed it and bolted. They ran through backyards and Puffin lost track. He ran back to us, red-faced. He said, “Which way did they go?” 

“Who?” I asked, but down the block I saw three kids hop onto bikes. “Them?”

Puffin hunted them. None of us started a stopwatch, but I swear he was on pace for a four-minute mile. The kids fled. Puffin pursued them five blocks. The rest of us, we couldn’t keep up. We could only watch from a distance. 

Everyone always thought Puffin was lying that he was a triple or quadruple black belt in karate or something. But he was. He leapt into the air, seemed to hang there, shimmering. He came down swiftly upon the middle schoolers. Then he just kind of limped back to school. 

About a week later, my depression was getting worse. It was close to switching from the sad kind to the scary kind. I had never bought weed on my own before, but I thought maybe it could help. I still wanted badly to stay alive.

Puffin’s parents were gone for three months, in France or something, so it was just him. His sister was in college. I texted him and he wrote back, Come on by, I’ll give you the cross country discount. When I got there it was almost night. Lights turned on in all the houses. Puffin’s house was dark besides a weird flicker from a window in back. 

I parked my bike next to the garage. A white strobe light flashed from Puffin’s first-floor bedroom. The light was throbbing and brutal. It seemed dangerous from a neurological standpoint. I knocked on the window and Puffin opened it. His pupils were glassy and, honestly, stunning. He waved for me to crawl inside. I fell onto a pile of pillows. Relaxing ocean sounds played loud through speakers.

Puffin slunk to a beanbag chair in the middle of the room, crossed his legs, closed his eyes. I waited. I felt jostled violently by light and waves, and I imagined this is how particles feel getting smashed in the accelerator. 

“Puffin,” I asked, “you got the stuff?” He kept his eyes shut. Then he cried. “Puffin? Are you alright?” 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t have any more weed.” He sobbed now, really weeping. I tried to tell him it was fine, it wasn’t a big deal at all, but we couldn’t really hear each other over the nature sounds. I asked if I could get him some juice or something, maybe a granola bar or a blanket. He shook his head and reached beneath the purple beanbag.

“Here,” he said. “Cross country special. I got this stuff instead.” What he gave me was a paperback-sized sheet of blotter paper that I knew was soaked with LSD and probably worth a lot of money. I tried to give it back to him. He groaned, pushed the paper back into my grip and held my hands in his. His palms were tender and warm. He began some kind of breathing ritual and I fell in with the pattern of inhale and exhale. It was good. 

That was that. I knew I’d have a better chance returning the drugs another time. Walking my bike down the driveway I felt light and sort of dizzy. The outside came as a shock after Puffin’s bedroom. I slipped the acid into a pocket of my cargo pants. I thought of it melting into my thigh, turning my muscles to gooey rainbow sherbet. 

It was a Thursday night. I couldn’t be gone too long without my parents getting worried. If I went out, I was supposed to check in frequently. At home, the policy was I should come out from my bedroom every half hour just to say hi. A compromise up from never closing my door. I had asked them, What exactly are you worried I’m gonna do? That made my mom cry. 

A busy road cut through town. At this time of day there was nothing. Just one car still far off but really going for a speed record. The engine growled closer. I crossed the road when the car was a block away. It must have been doing 120 in the 35 miles per hour zone. I got a quick look before it got wrecked. This car was a classic silver Firebird with a red decal on the hood in perfect condition. It crashed like only a stunt driver could do, or else somebody vodka-drenched chasing a ghost.

The car jerked at a right angle and flipped on its horizontal axis. Smashed upside down into a big tree. The tree wobbled. The car hissed and steamed. Everything else was quiet and completely at peace. Nobody came out of their houses or looked from windows. All of this was for me.

A rusty gear cranked deep inside my soul. I found my cell phone in my pocket and called 911. My life force buzzed, some fundamental energy. It turned out the emergency operator misunderstood me. They sent the ambulance to a street with the same name in a nearby town. Until it came, the responsibility to keep this man alive, if he wasn’t dead, fell upon me.

I crouched down by the crushed window. The man hung against his seatbelt. His face was studded with glass and it sparkled in the soft light of a streetlamp. His hair glistened, streaked with blood. I did everything the right way, said all the right things. I said, “Stay with me, don’t go to sleep, help is on the way, you’re going to make it.” 

He didn’t do or say a thing. No muscle spasms, even. The car creaked and his neck shifted in a bad way. I felt sick. The car creaked again and I remembered scenes of explosions after crashes. I said, “I’m not going to leave you. I’m just going to stand over there.” 

They finally came. Ambulance, fire truck, three cop cars. The cops took control. Some families stepped onto lawns looking confused in their flannel pajamas. Soon I was one of many people huddled around. I felt a need to reclaim the situation. 

“It was me,” I said. A cop turned, pushed her glasses down the bridge of her nose. 

“What do you mean it was you?” she asked. 

“I mean, I’m the one who saved him.” 

“Nobody’s saved anyone yet,” she said. She pulled me aside and took my statement. I gave it as detailed as I could. The cop never asked for ID, but I assumed she would need it, so I reached for my wallet in my cargo pocket. The blotter paper fell to the grass.

I froze up. The cop looked down. I looked down as coolly as I could. Back at Puffin’s place, I hadn’t got a good look at the artwork on the paper. It was a scene from the game Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Link sat on his horse, Epona, sword outstretched, the mountains of Hyrule rising behind him.  

The cop said, “You dropped your comic book.” I picked up all that LSD. 

Biking home, I took it slow. My phone vibrated in my pocket against my keys. I crossed a kind of threshold that separated one type of unreality from another. The one I left behind still glowed golden, and I reached back with one hand to scoop up some of its light, but I was already too late.


Daniel DeRock is a writer from the American Midwest living in the Netherlands. His fiction has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Rejection Letters, Gone Lawn, Reservoir Road, and others. He’s working on a novel. You can find him on Twitter @daniel_derock. 


image: John Bottomley