“Well, you have to write something,” I argued.
“After all this time, it still seems to me like straight and fast is the only way out—but I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it.”
one hundred thirty-six days after
TWO WEEKS LATER, I still hadn’t finished my final for the Old Man, and the semester was just twenty-four hours from ending. I was walking home from my final test, a difficult but ultimately (I hoped) successful battle with precalculus that would win me the B-minus I so richly desired. It was genuinely hot out again, warm like she was. And I felt okay. Tomorrow, my parents would come and load up my stuff, and we’d watch graduation and then go back to Florida. The Colonel was going home to his mother to spend the summer watching the soybeans grow, but I could call him long-distance, so we’d be in touch plenty. Takumi was going to Japan for the summer, and Lara was again to be driven home via green limo. I was just thinking that it was all right not to know quite where Alaska was and quite where she was going that night, when I opened the door to my room and noticed a folded slip of paper on the linoleum floor. It was a single piece of lime green stationery. At the top, it read in calligraphy:
From the Desk of . . . Takumi Hikohito
I am sorry that I have not talked to you before. I am not staying for graduation. I leave for Japan tomorrow morning. For a long time, I was mad at you. The way you cut me out of everything hurt me, and so I kept what I knew to myself. But then even after I wasn’t mad anymore, I still didn’t say anything, and I don’t even really know why. Pudge had that kiss,
I guess. And I had this secret.
You’ve mostly figured this out, but the truth is that I saw her that night. I’d stayed up late with Lara and some people, and then I was falling asleep and I heard her crying outside my back window. It was like 3:15 that morning, maybe, and I walked out there and saw her walking through the soccer field. I tried to talk to her, but she was in a hurry. She told me that her mother was dead eight years that day, and that she always put flowers on her mother’s grave on the anniversary, but she forgot that year. She was out there looking for flowers, but it was too early—too wintry. That’s how
I knew about January 10. I still have no idea whether it was suicide.
She was so sad, and I didn’t know what to say or do. I think she counted on me to be the one person who would always say and do the right things to help her, but I couldn’t. I just thought she was looking for flowers. I didn’t know she was going to go. She was drunk, just trashed drunk, and I really didn’t think she would drive or anything. I thought she would just cry herself to sleep and then drive to visit her mom the next day or something. She walked away, and then I heard a car start. I don’t know what I was thinking.
So I let her go, too. And I’m sorry. I know you loved her. It was hard not to.
I ran out of the room, like I’d never smoked a cigarette, like I ran with Takumi on Barn Night, across the dorm circle to his room, but Takumi was gone. His bunk was bare vinyl; his desk empty; an outline of dust where his stereo had been. He was gone, and I did not have time to tell him what I had just now realized: that I forgave him, and that she forgave us, and that we had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth. There were so many of us who would have to live with things done and things left undone that day. Things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future. If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing better is useless.
And as I walked back to give Takumi’s note to the Colonel, I saw that I would never know. I would never know her well enough to know her thoughts in those last minutes, would never know if she left us on purpose. But the not-knowing would not keep me from caring, and I would always love Alaska Young, my crooked neighbor, with all my crooked heart.
I got back to Room 43, but the Colonel wasn’t home yet, so I left the note on the top bunk and sat down at the computer, and I wrote my way out of the labyrinth:
Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home. But that only led to a lonely life accompanied only by the last words of the already-dead, so I came here looking for a Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life. And then I screwed up and the Colonel screwed up and Takumi screwed up and she slipped through our fingers. And there’s no sugar-coating it: She deserved better friends.
When she fucked up, all those years ago, just a little girl terrified into paralysis, she collapsed into the enigma of herself. And I could have done that, but I saw where it led for her. So I still believe in the Great Perhaps, and I can believe in it in spite of having lost her.
Because I will forget her, yes. That which came together will fall apart imperceptibly slowly, and I will forget, but she will forgive my forgetting, just as I forgive her for forgetting me and the Colonel and everyone but herself and her mom in those last moments she spent as a person. I know now that she forgives me for being dumb and scared and doing the dumb and scared thing. I know she forgives me, just as her mother forgives her. And here’s how I know:
I thought at first that she was just dead. Just darkness. Just a body being eaten by bugs. I thought about her a lot like that, as something’s meal. What was her—green eyes, half a smirk, the soft curves of her legs—would soon be nothing, just the bones I never saw. I thought about the slow process of becoming bone and then fossil and then coal that will, in millions of years, be mined by humans of the future, and how they would heat their homes with her, and then she would be smoke billowing out of a smokestack, coating the atmosphere. I still think that, sometimes, think that maybe “the afterlife” is just something we made up to ease the pain of loss, to make our time in the labyrinth bearable. Maybe she was just matter, and matter gets recycled.
But ultimately I do not believe that she was only matter. The rest of her must be recycled, too. I believe now that we are greater than the sum of our parts. If you take Alaska’s genetic code and you add her life experiences and the relationships she had with people, and then you take the size and shape of her body, you do not get her. There is something else entirely. There is a part of her greater than the sum of her knowable parts. And that part has to go somewhere, because it cannot be destroyed.
Although no one will ever accuse me of being much of a science student, one thing I learned from science classes is that energy is never created and never destroyed. And if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself—those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be. When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.
So I know she forgives me, just as I forgive her. Thomas Edison’s last words were: “It’s very beautiful over there.” I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.
some last words on last words
LIKE PUDGE HALTER, I am fascinated by last words. For me, it began when I was twelve years old. Reading a history textbook, I came across the dying words of President John Adams: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” (Incidentally, he didn’t. Jefferson had died earlier that same day, July 4, 1826; Jefferson’s last words were “This is the Fourth?”)
I can’t say for sure why I remain interested in last words or why I’ve never stopped looking for them. It is true that I really loved John Adams’s last words when I was twelve. But I also really loved this girl named Whitney. Most loves don’t last. (Whitney sure didn’t. I can’t even remember her last name.) But some do.
Another thing that I can’t say for sure is that all of the last words quoted in this book are definitive. Almost by definition, last words are difficult to verify. Witnesses are emotional, time gets conflated, and the speaker isn’t around to clear up any controversy. I have tried to be accurate, but it is not surprising that there is debate over the two central quotes in Looking for Alaska.
“How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”
In reality, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” were probably not SimOn BolIvar’s last words (although he did, historically, say them). His last words may have been “José! Bring the luggage. They do not want us here.” The significant source for “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” is also Alaska’s source, Gabriel GarcIa Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth.
“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
FranCois Rabelais is credited with four alternate sets of last words. The Oxford Book of Death cites his last words as: (a) “I go to seek a Great Perhaps”; (b) (after receiving extreme unction) “I am greasing my boots for the last journey”; (c) “Ring down the curtain; the farce is played out”; (d) (wrapping himself in his domino, or hooded cloak) “Beati qui in Domino moriuntur.” The last one, incidentally, is a pun,1 but because the pun is in Latin, it is now rarely quoted. Anyway, I dismiss (d) because it’s hard to imagine a dying FranCois Rabelais having the energy to make a physically demanding pun, in Latin. (c) is the most common citation, because it’s funny, and everyone’s a sucker for funny last words.
I still maintain that Rabelais’ last words were “I go to seek a Great Perhaps,” partly because Laura Ward’s nearly authoritative book Famous Last Words agrees with me, and partly because I believe in them. I was born into BolIvar’s labyrinth, and so I must believe in the hope of Rabelais’ Great Perhaps.