The Capsule

Joseph Helmreich

According to one going theory, the time capsule floated from Huckleberry Brook into the East Branch Delaware River, hit the Delaware’s main stem at Hancock, and then traveled all the way past Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Salem and into the Atlantic Ocean, where after a dozen or so years of homesick wandering, it decided to turn around and journey back to Marionville. The other theory is that the capsule had spent the past twenty-two years lodged in the rocks of the Downsville Dam’s spillway, a mere twenty-six miles from its origin, which the fisherman who discovered it considers a much more realistic possibility. To each their own. 

I’m working late when I get the news. Her parents had naturally been contacted first, but they said it should be me. I’m in the midst of reconciling invoices when I hear the voicemail and when I put down the phone, the whole room vanishes and I see only her face; those sharp, almost trapezoidal eyes, framed as always by incongruously girlish pigtails. She was not pretty in any conventional sense, but there was something fierce and wholly distinct about her face. When she reacted strongly, no one had ever worn that expression. Leaning back in my chair, I can see her smiling at my preteen self with a slight hint of mockery---certainly no warmth. She doesn’t much like me, but she’s chosen me.  

As with the elderly, we other the dead even as we know we’ll someday become them. But are the dead even real?

Her folks are more right than they know, but I call them anyway to make sure. They tell me it would be too painful and though I believe them, I can’t help but wonder if they’re not a little happy for me to feel that pain, instead. Maybe it’s survivor’s guilt, but I’ve always sensed a deep resentment from the parents of the Chester Twelve toward the rest of us. At the memorials and ceremonies in the years following the fire, whenever the band would play “In the Arms of an Angel” or “In My Life” and the inevitable slideshows would play, I could swear I felt various  grief-stricken eyes landing on me. I, who hadn’t even been around, who’d been absent with mono most of that month, was particularly deserving. This might be why I’ve returned to Marionville so rarely and why I was relieved when my parents moved to be near my  grandparents in Poughkeepsie. 

I should feel that pain and probably will. Nevertheless, from the moment I heard about the capsule, I’ve experienced a strange surge of electricity coursing through my body. I’m not yet finished with Quinn. 

The kids have gone to bed when I mention it to Sheila. 

“The girl from your school?”  

“Yes. We had made our capsules for each other. The teacher had told us to make them for our future selves and we thought that was pointless because we’d still remember what we put in them.”  

Sheila gives me a look and I smile sheepishly. “I know. Anyway.”  

“So you’re going to go?”  


I feel guilty talking about this to Sheila. I know that’s ridiculous; it’s twelve-year-old me and a twelve-year-old-girl. Yet sometimes I wonder if that fact itself isn’t why I try not to think about Quinn. It feels inappropriate. I was so powerfully drawn to her and when I remember her, that power returns and, as a married father of two, it feels shameful. I remind myself that I’m not perceiving her through my adult eyes, but through the eyes of myself as a child and that the  feelings, too, are just being borrowed from him. But it does little to ease the discomfort. Maybe what I’m really hiding from is something more inscrutable: that I’m in love with a ghost. 

Sheila needs the car for work, so I take a Greyhound up to Pine Hill, from where I’ll walk to Marionville. When the bus stops short for a crossing deer, a cryptic image comes back to me. Quinn, eyes wide, tracing a chalk line around a dead deer in some dark, damp space. Where were we?  

When the dead die, they abandon our shared memories. Between Woodstock and Phoenicia, I think more on the dead and the mysterious contours of our relationships to them. As with the elderly, we other the dead even as we know we’ll someday become them. But are the dead even real? If we can agree that people don’t yet exist before they’re born, does it follow they cease to exist after they die? Arash, my sophomore year roommate at Binghamton, was adamant the dead do not exist. To him, their significance was like that of fictional characters, but this seems troubling. We revere the dead. We protect their reputations and honor their wishes, and often we love them. But unless we believe in the afterlife, are we all a little confused? Are the dead really no one?

“Now you’re getting it, bud,” Arash would say. Central to our debate was the question of harming the dead. Arash argued that because the dead don’t exist, they can’t be harmed. Even if you slander them and ruin their reputation, you haven’t done anything immoral to them, only to any descendants who might feel bad. But this never sat right with me. Doesn’t our concern for our own reputations extend beyond our lives? If you ruin a dead person’s memory, aren’t you obstructing their goal of being remembered well, and therefore harming them? 

“There you go again,” Arash would say. “There is no them.” 

I arrive in Marionville early and pass the time at Betty and the Beatnik, sipping iced coffee out on the front deck. Across the street is a broken-down-looking structure which I think might once have been Elmore’s Books and CD’s. Even years later, the damage from Hurricane Irene is everywhere, though Main Street still looks a scruffier version of Disneyland, its pastel-colored, Victorian storefronts and cozy breakfast spots as charming as they’re run down. I’m amazed by how much everything feels the same and yet how little any of it feels like home. 

I get a firm grip on the cap and slowly unscrew. The electricity rises in me again. This setup might resemble an autopsy, but it feels to me like a resurrection.

At 4:00 p.m., I head over to the Middletown Gazette, where I’m introduced to the fisherman who found the capsule. His name is Baard, and he’s originally from Norway. He has a bushy blond beard and smiling eyes and seems a little confused over the fuss. Gabriel, the reporter doing the story, makes us pose for a picture and some video. He’s a transplant from Brooklyn and seems to think he’s got a real feel-good story on his hands, as opposed to one that will only reopen old wounds and that will almost certainly be killed by a higher-up with a sharper sense of the town’s history before it ever goes to print.  

Meanwhile, by this point, the story with the deer has come into focus. Quinn and I are in some sort of abandoned wooden shelter in the woods, possibly somewhere along Dry Brook Ridge, a hiking trail we knew well from many school trips. There’s a rotting deer on the floor and Quinn is using a small rock to scrape chalk lines around the carcass. She’s grinning, and her eyes are radiant with mischief, though I don’t find it funny. It feels somehow sacrilege to be making a game out of a corpse and I tell her it’s weirding me out. She laughs, but when I threaten to leave, her whole demeanor changes. She clenches the rock tightly and continues scraping the floor while staring at me with a look of sheer ferocity. “If you want to go, go,” she says. 

Except there’s the slightest quiver in her voice. The eyes, too, betray just a little more than she intends. Beneath the toughness, there’s a hint of vulnerability and when I look back on it now, I’m astounded at what I may have missed.  

Quinn’s parents used to be a little too nice to me in a way that suggested I was doing her a favor by hanging out with her. She didn’t have other friends. Her family had emigrated from Israel when she was six; they’d been Samaritans, a religious sect that claims to practice the true  Judaism, but in this country, where “Keren” had been refashioned into “Quinn,” they seemed to  worship some kind of hybrid of multiple faiths and kids at school said her dad was a cult leader.  Quinn couldn’t care less what other kids said---what anyone said---which was surely part of her allure. She didn’t seem to need my friendship either, even though she had initiated it. We’d been sitting in the back of our fourth grade classroom; I’d been fumbling my through an attempt at an origami fortune teller when, without a word, she snatched it out of my hand, refolded it from scratch, and handed it back. Still, it was her world, and she was always coolly rebuffing any attempts to get her to reciprocate my warmth. She didn’t even like to acknowledge we were friends, and I don’t think she ever used that word to describe us, or any other word.  

But what if this was just a script we’d been playing out? When I recall her voice at that moment with the deer—“if you want to go, go”—and the trace of desperation in her eyes, all because I didn’t want to go along with her game, I can’t help but think I’d misjudged our whole relationship. 

In a poorly lit supply room, the capsule sits before me on a round wooden table. I’ve convinced Gabriel that it’s better for the story if I open it alone. It will seem less staged, more personal. I take it in my hand, this stainless steel cylinder that our teacher had claimed would last two hundred years but looks rusty at twenty-two. I’m amazed, though, that her name, scrawled in full across its side, hasn’t faded in the slightest. 

I get a firm grip on the cap and slowly unscrew. The electricity rises in me again. This setup might resemble an autopsy, but it feels to me like a resurrection. What had Quinn put in here? What did she mean for me to find?  

I reach into the capsule and pull out three objects, all totally dry, and place them on the table in a row. The first is a psychedelic yin-yang pog. The second is a ticket stub from a joint 1993 performance of Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall. The third is a folded piece of paper that, when I open it, reveals a half-assed pencil drawing of Mickey Mouse. Like the others, I recognize it well. 

I know there are a few items still inside the capsule, but I don’t need to take them out to know what they are. I look again at Quinn’s name on the side and this time, it’s obvious the handwriting is mine. Somehow, I’d forgotten that we’d addressed our time capsules to their recipients. 

There’s a monument to the Twelve around where the Chester Academy grounds meets the woods. A granite sculpture of a small, winged cherub holds out his hands in mournful supplication and the names of the victims are carved in the base. Their real legacy, however, is the massive overhaul of Delaware County’s fire safety regulations that followed the tragedy and the more than 400 school buildings across New York State that were eventually brought up to code.  

It’s a beautiful memorial, but she’s not there. No, she’s in her capsule, wherever it might be. Maybe hers really did reach the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it’s in another continent by now, or maybe it’s been swallowed by one of those 200-year-old-whales and won’t be seen again until the whale dies and its body drops to the ocean floor to be eaten by worms, clams and blind shrimp. It’s out there somewhere, a secret, unknown part of her that’s still here in the world. There are times I like to imagine she scrawled out a long note to me in which she dropped the facade and told me something kind and sentimental. But whatever is actually in there is some kind of message to me, and it only makes me more annoyed about Arash’s stupidity surrounding the dead. If Quinn doesn’t exist anymore, how is she still reaching out for me?


Headshot | Joseph Helmreich


JOSEPH HELMREICH is the author, most recently, of The Return (St. Martin's Press). He teaches creative writing at Pace University.

Photo Credit | Greg Starr