Books about dead people almost always interest me, but there’s a big difference between a Nancy Drew dead person and a Donna Tartt dead person. Part of the difference is detail– Nancy’s pink sweaters and healthy lunches, and Donna’s snakes and water towers, leeches and spreading trees. Part of the difference is voice: what Nancy thinks about life, which is, come to think of it, pretty much nothing, and what Donna thinks. What do we learn from Nancy? Mr. Tindle tried to hide the fact that he embezzled money. What do we learn from Donna? Life is unpredictable; one cruel accident can unmake a family: the loss can be absorbed, but never repaired. These are the reasons I put one book down, distracted, and stay with the other one, reading late into the night.

He smokes too much dope. He knows this, each time the burn hits the back of his throat he tells himself this has got to stop, and then the floating starts, all the edges of the world get softer, and he forgets, again, the list of things he should be doing instead. He vaguely remembers the time before he started, a time when he would wake up in the middle of the night, sliced by something cold and sharp— the idea that he might have gotten poisoned by the old taco he ate just before going to bed, or that the ticking he heard was somebody in the house, or an electrical wire shorting out, a spark, smoke, everything about to go up in flames. Back then he would wake up tired, if he ever went back to sleep, which wasn’t clear, was he sleeping, or just counting until time blurred into something droning and dark. When he came into the kitchen, bumping into things, not remembering where he put his history textbook, or even if he had history that day, his mother would say, touching his cheek, “you always look so happy.” He saw himself once, reflected in the glass door of the microwave, a stupid half-smile on his face. He did look happy, which was a joke, really, too bad she couldn’t see into his head.

How many joints? One a day, minimum, if there’s a party, more. It didn’t seem like much until some girl asked him straight up, really, how much, and he said thirty a month. He rounded down, and still her eyes got wide. He had to get a job to keep up with his habit. Walked into the corner store and signed up to work, three afternoons a week. His parents talk about the job at dinner parties. He heard them once, calling him a go-getter. His father said I didn’t have his drive, that’s for sure.

What’s on the list? Get into college, number one. He’s not even sure what college means, more parties, more dope, not having to smoke in the park. The advice column his mother left on his bed said “find your passion.” So that’s on the list. The cheerful article pointed out you can start looking as early as fourteen. The sooner the better. Practice guitar, then, that should go on the list, because his twelve year old dream, musician, is starting to fade. The other day his father said “I always wanted to play the bass–” and shuffled off, stooped and gray, to take care of some house project, clean the gutters, replace the steps. Also on the list: make a list. Stick to the list. Do your homework. Exercise more. Eat healthy food. Don’t screw up. Don’t get old.

It’s not just a joint. Every single joint is different, each one brings a slightly different high, the surge of hope, the adrenaline rush, the sleepy peace of a sweet dream. They’re like blind boxes, you never know until you touch the flame to the tip what adventure will unfurl with the wooly smoke. You get better at it, he wants to say, at letting go, holding yourself in that delicate place between exertion and inertia. If you push too hard, you crush it, if you don’t stay alert, the whole thing sails off without you, like a good idea you forgot to write down. He knows how to catch the first surge and then float, like Aladdin, watching the subtle changes in space and time, kinks and ruffles most people never notice. He knows now that time isn’t what it appears to be, that it doesn’t unfold neatly, in an orderly fashion, one minute after another, until the end.