The Kill Switch by Michelle Willms

Ryan Adams

 

Michael and I stood beside each other on a concrete floor in a room where sawdust gathered in the corners, like sand in a sleeper’s eyes. Ductwork as thick as hedges traveled up the walls and spread out across the high ceiling like a labyrinth. Fluorescent tube fixtures in wire cages, suspended by chains, flooded the woodshop floor with light. While other students gathered around the teacher that first day of class, Michael and I straggled at the back, two teens in the fray. I didn’t know Michael then, our high school’s rumoured drug dealer, though I’d seen him glide through the halls with the confidence of a shark: gaze forward, jaw set, a shiver of sharp-talking boys surrounding him. Standing beside him that day, I could smell his cologne: sweet and musky, like chopped cedar, and forest floor. Like the north, where I lived before getting kicked out.

Our teacher led us around the woodshop and introduced us to each piece of heavy equipment with the affection and respect of a beast tamer. “These are great machines, but if you get too comfortable around them and forget to wear your safety gear, you could lose a finger, a hand, an arm.” At each stop, he’d press a button or flip a switch to set sharp blades spinning, rotator belts rumbling, or gear teeth grinding. The mechanical tremolo felt unbearable at times.

Finally, he led us to a small, red lever affixed to the wall. “This,” he said, “is the kill switch, and it shuts off all the electricity in this shop in the event of an emergency.” He encouraged us to pull it if we saw someone working or behaving unsafely and told the necessary cautionary tale, some shop-class-gone-wrong story that ended with a spurt of blood, mangled flesh, and a trip to the hospital because a careless student hadn’t taken his time, used caution, or worn his safety equipment.

The kill switch was just outside the small varnish room that we all crammed into next. Stacked tins of stain and lacquer were arranged on a deep workbench butted against the far end of the room. Shelves packed with wooden projects in progress lined all the wall space, save a large window that allowed teachers to look into the varnish room on their students. Standing next to Michael that day, there was no way for me to know that the varnish room would become our sanctum; or that it was where Michael would try to make it perfectly clear to me just how dangerous he was.

 

Perched on a stool behind a workbench, I watched boys make their way over to Crystal, the only girl in the class, besides me. They offered to help her, made her laugh. When Michael, who was seventeen at the time, walked over, the other boys scattered.

It surprised me to see Michael standing beside me one day, his unfinished project in hand.

“Help me with this,” he said.

I looked up from where I sat on a tall stool behind one of the large workbenches flanked with metal-jawed vises and into his unsmiling face, his whiskey-brown eyes.

“Me?” I said, a fifteen-year-old beanpole with short-cropped, plum-purple hair. I’d recently ditched my long brown locks and traded in my school kilt for boys’ uniform pants. I donned a baggy green sweater vest over a loose white dress shirt, just as Michael and all the other boys at the school did.

“Yeah, you,” he said. “I’m behind. You’ve already finished your first project, so help me with mine.”

“And by help, you mean do it for you?” I asked.

“Somethin’ like that.”

“No,” I said flatly.

He stared at me for a moment, then shook his head and walked away, and I couldn’t have cared less.

I knew Michael’s kind of people because I was those people, but I was in the process of shedding my former life as a delinquent—a conscientious ecdysis. Both of my parents were alcoholics and I’d seen where it’d gotten them—nowhere—which is precisely where my own boozy behaviour had gotten me; I’d started drinking hard liquor when I was ten, and once, when I was drunk, I rode in the trunk of a car while a kid without a license took their parent’s clunker out joyriding. I giggled in the dark, the deep thrum of tires gripping asphalt just below my face. I lay curled up on my side, like a hostage.

 

Michael kept asking for help and eventually sanded me down.

I knew I was no better than him, and that just like him, I had burls, kickback, and was considered a hack job by judgemental people who knew my past. Spending time with Michael could have been the equivalent of pouring gasoline on all my progress, if we struck a match as friends or more—peer pressure, and all that. But I felt strong in my sober resolve and didn’t worry.

Wearing aprons and goggles, Michael and I tin-snipped, spun raw materials on lathes while running blades against grain and steel, and used fine woodworking handsaws to dovetail. Due to the tool rotation schedule, we didn’t work together every day, but we worked together a lot. It was only a matter of time before we had an overlap in completed projects that required a coat of stain or varnish.

Inside the varnish room, Michael and I would take our time lacquering and talking, sealing it all in. We always stood close, his arm often just a few inches from mine, which made my skin feel charged, voltaic.

Sometimes Michael would tell me he got lit the night before and laugh. I’d smile obligingly but say nothing in response. It felt unnatural not to stack my drunken stories on his—the wobbly foundation that kids like us built friendships on. I just couldn’t find the humor any more. A couple of kids I’d once partied with had died; like them, my life had once existed on a knife-edge, as I suspected Michael’s did then, where kids balanced on blade and died on point.

 

When we worked together, Michael would often say, “Do this for me.”

“Do it yourself,” I’d say.

At first it seemed like he just didn’t want to do the work, but I came to realize he didn’t think he was capable. Some adult had probably told him he’d never amount to much, just as my mother had told me when she was plastered three years earlier, kicking me out soon after when I asked her to get help for her drinking. Michael hadn’t yet learned to tilt his head and listen beyond the excruciating noise of a broken home, which wasn’t so different than the noisy woodshop, where he and I had to tilt our heads just-so and concentrate to hear each other’s voices.

 

One day Michael said to me, “Yo, can I talk to you about something?”

We walked into the small, narrow varnish room for privacy, and stood by the workbench littered with tins of stain and lacquer.

“I want you to know I have a gun,” he said.

My skin went electric. I looked him over, searching for it. “Like here? On you?”

“No,” Michael said. “Keep it down. It’s at home.”

“Well are you going to bring it to school?”

“No,” he said.

“Ok,” I said, relieved that I didn’t have to snitch on him.

Michael reminded me of one of my uncles who was also a rumoured drug dealer with a gun; while some people feared him, to me he was the wonderful uncle who took me on Ski-Doo rides through dense, snowy forests into open fields, showing me idyllic displays of nature’s beauty.

“If it’s at home, then why are you telling me?” I asked. Did he want me to respect him for it, feel appalled by him, or frightened of him? Did he want me to reject him, tell him we couldn’t work together anymore?

“I told you because I wanted you to know,” he said.

At the time, I didn’t consider how Michael’s admission might be an act of vulnerability or an invitation to express my inner darkness, which he probably sensed. I didn’t consider it because, at the time, vulnerability felt more dangerous to me than a gun.

“Ok?” I responded. “Well… be careful.”

He stared at me for a moment, then smiled and laughed. He made a fake gun with his two fingers, aimed it down at the ground, and said, “Pop pop,” before walking away.

The next day, Michael ignored me. In other words, he pulled the kill switch on me. One day turned into weeks. I missed him, and once, while I was wearing a thick, cowhide apron and a welding helmet, soldering metal together with a blowtorch, I thought I sensed Michael behind me and turned. But he wasn’t there. I stood alone, sweating under all of my protective gear.

***

All of a sudden, I was forgiven.

Michael walked up behind me and stood so close that the tips of his shoes touched my soles. To lean back, I’d have pressed my shoulder blades against his chest. He smelled amazing.

“When I was a kid,” Michael told me one day in the varnish room, “whenever I’d cry, my dad would get in my face and tell me that if I didn’t stop, he’d give me something to cry about.”

I stopped working, looked over. “How old were you?”

“I don’t know. Little, though,” he said.

“That’s horrible.”

“Yeah, it was. Because sometimes he actually did give me something to cry about, when he’d throw me hard against the wall.”

I shook my head. “He shouldn’t have done that to you.”

“Yeah, well…” Michael said.

“I’ve been roughed-up, too.” One of my mother’s ex-boyfriends, someone I’d once trusted wholeheartedly, had overcome me in a drunken rage, wrapped his thick arms around me, and squeezed so hard I could barely breathe.

“Shit,” Michael said, with understanding.

When the bell rang, we said our goodbyes. I felt closer to Michael than ever.

The next day, he pulled the kill switch on me again. This time, for longer. Michael’s locker was far down the row from mine, and sometimes when I’d walk by, he’d slam his locker door while looking at me.

I understood Michael’s pushback and how the fear of rejection, of a possible breach of confidence, made him want to punish me for knowing his most damaging secrets. It didn’t make it right, but I understood it. Just the year before, I’d punished a new substitute teacher who fancied himself an iridologist. As I was handing in an assignment at the front of the class, the young teacher-man looked into my eyes and said, “Are you ok?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. Why?” I’d responded.

“Because I study iridology, and your eyes are showing emotional trauma.”

“What?” Between my pupil, iris, and sclera, he kept assessing my eyes like an optometric voyeur. “Are you kidding, me?” I said.

“No, I’m not.”

“I’m fine,” I said, and turned around.

Sitting at my desk, I opened my pencil case and took the caps off my pens. When that teacher stood and turned his back to write on the chalkboard, I quietly pushed my chair back and stood before whipping the handful of lids at his head. His shoulders rose to his ears protectively as Bic lids pelted him and the chalkboard. I sat down quickly. Some kids looked at me amused, some afraid. I sat still, gaze forward, jaw set. Nobody betrayed me when the teacher demanded the culprit.

***

One day Michael followed me, holding a new project.

“I made this for my mom,” he said. “Help me stain it?”

I stared at Michael, my rock-hard resolution never to speak to him again softening.

“You know,” he said in the privacy of the varnish room weeks later, “I don’t think I have any real friends. I mean, there’re kids I drink with, get high with, and do crazy shit with, but none of it feels real.”

I knew the pattern. No matter how I responded—if I told him I wanted to be his real friend—he’d hate me the next day anyway. So I changed the subject, and inadvertently rejected him first.

He pulled the kill switch with greater force and crossed a line by calling me names—Loser, Werewolf Neck, Crackhead—and when he did, I looked right through him as though he didn’t exist.

One day our teacher was sick, and our class relocated to a boardroom to do bookwork around a long table. A new substitute teacher assigned a chapter and questions to review, then excused himself and left the room.

“Yo, what’re your answers?” Michael eventually said to the guys around him. They gave him their answers.

He glanced at me. “Hey you.”

“Me?” I said, surprised.

The room grew quiet. Crystal and the boys looked back and forth, from Michael to me.

“Yeah, you. Give me your answers,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Do the work yourself.”

He shook his head and laughed. “Whatever, Crackhead.”

“I’m not the crackhead, Mike. You are,” I shot back.

He froze, and I felt regret.

 

Our high school’s senior star athlete, whose locker was next to mine, started groping me whenever I reached up for my books, continually laughing off my objections. Finally, I yelled at him and stormed off to the office to get assigned a new locker.

A couple weeks later, I stopped seeing Michael around school. I walked by his locker. It was empty. The kids he hung out with told me he’d changed schools. I was devastated that he hadn’t said goodbye.

I agonized over what I’d said. One day, as I was looking through a magazine in a doctor’s office, I smelled his scent. I quickly flipped through the pages to find the source: a cologne sample called Swerve. I rubbed it on both of my wrists.

***

Years passed without hearing from Michael. Then one day in class, during my senior year, there was a knock on the door. My teacher answered, and there stood Michael, looking handsome in his dress shirt and jeans. Excitement and anxiety pooled in my stomach. He scanned the class until his eyes fell on me, then asked if he could speak with me. I rose immediately and walked out into the hallway, closing the door behind me. We were alone. I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and hug him.

“I came back to tell you I’ve cleaned up,” he said. “I quit smoking and stuff.”

I smiled wide. “That’s great.”

“Well I wanted you to know. Because you changed lockers.”

“What?” I said, confused.

“You changed lockers,” he repeated. “Because of me.”

“No,” I said. “I changed lockers because the guy next to me kept grabbing me. Not because of you.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No.”

It was a lot to process for both of us. His eyes started wandering to the exit door behind me. “But yeah, hey,” he said, “I gotta get going. I just wanted you to know I’ve cleaned up.”

“Can you stay for a bit? Class is almost over for me.”

“Nah, I gotta get going.”

And then he walked away from me.

***

Months later when I was tidying the storefront of the bakery where I worked, Michael walked by outside and glanced through the window. I was ready to jump the counter, run to the door, and call his name, but he slowed to a halt and turned. I waved, and he walked in. There were no customers inside, so we caught up. Before he left, we made plans to see each other and he wrote down my number.

 

The dark theatre felt like the varnish room—quiet and loud at the same time: whispers over tremolo. Michael and I shared an armrest, the edges of our hands touching, our shoulders pressing lightly together. When one of us turned our face to whisper in the darkness, the other would tilt their head and lean in, just-so—friends. No hostage in the dark trunk, no hostage with a gun.

 

Author’s note: Thank you to my old friend Mike, for allowing me to use personal parts of his life story in this essay.

 

Meet the Contributor

Michelle Willms’s work has appeared in Scrivener Creative Review, In/Words, as well as other literary journals, and most recently in the anthology, THIS SIDE OF THE DIVIDE: Stories of the American West (Baobab Press). She holds two degrees from McMaster University and is currently a creative writing MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia through the optional-residency program. To read more of her work, please visit: michellewillms.com.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Ryan Adams

 

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