I shook my head. No, impossible. Even my younger brother had been snoring by the time I left. His murmured “good-night” into my room after he thought I was asleep lingered in my memory, but I pushed it away.
I glanced at the bruise-colored sky, and noticed the cathedral’s twin spires slicing into the dark heavens. Stained glass windows caught the night’s dim light like a thousand cat eyes. I wrapped my brother’s jacket tighter around me.
I flicked on a flashlight. The wavering beam skimmed over the faded names until it found hers. Springs of dandelions had already rooted themselves in dirt around the cross-shaped gravestone. My chest surged forward with a captured moan. It had been long enough for weeds to settle above her corpse, but it hadn’t been long enough for me to forget.
I settled down with the dead. My sneakers rested against the dates that reduced her life to a beginning and an end. Eighteen years. That’s all anyone would know about her. But I could still remember the dash between those numbers. That simple line held dozens of high school football games; five heartbreaks healed with pints of Ben and Jerry’s; seven half-completed college applications; and one promise left unfulfilled.
Funny. I gave her a hard time about them constantly, but her high-pitched laugh and crooked smile were the only things I could still picture about her. Yet, toward the end, those aspects of my best friend had all but disappeared.
The chill of the metal made me realize I had shoved my hand back into my pocket. With her gone, I was nothing. Everyone gave me sidelong glances in the hallway, at the store, during dinner. I could tell what their voices didn’t. They blamed me, asking themselves why I was here and she wasn’t.
Each breath felt like thick ash rolling into my lungs. I pinched the bridge of my nose to stop tears from searing down my cheeks. The therapist said I was depressed because I didn’t want to feel anything. Too bad she didn’t realize emotions inundated my veins. If I didn’t stop them, they would swallow me whole.
I couldn’t endure another day of artificial happiness.
As I pulled out the photograph and the gun from my pocket, a jagged sheet of loose-leaf paper fluttered to the ground. I kicked it aside. No doubt a homework assignment my brother had forgotten to turn in. I should have gone upstairs to grab my own cardigan, but my heart had been pounding too loudly as I reached for the front door. One glance at his clueless dreaming body, and it might have stopped altogether.
I set down the photograph at the base of her cross. Our glossy faces appeared pitiful against her name. She couldn’t see it. Couldn’t feel the absolute bliss of a simple day spent listening to the waves. Couldn’t remember how my mother snapped the picture as we laughed at my brother’s belly-flop into the ocean. She wasn’t here, and it was because of me. Looking at our matching bikinis and sand-peppered smiles, I realized that was the last time I remembered truly being happy. After that summer, she retreated deeper into herself, and I refused to rescue her.
The graveyard’s shadows pressed against me, eager for a bite of my flesh. Couldn’t keep them waiting.
The barrel of my dad’s .22-caliber pistol felt smooth and rough at the same time. He bought it to protect against criminals, the unknown. Now, the weapon would complete its duty. After sitting up to kneel, I released the safety. Tears pricked the corners of my eyes, sending her stone cross swimming. I never knew you could fear yourself so much, could feel terror at the very thought of how many more times you would be so broken, so lost.
“I’m sorry,” I said, the fog stealing the words from my throat. The gun’s metal kissed my temple. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be the friend you wanted me to. I’m sorry I promised to be there for you when I wasn’t. I’m sorry I’m not good enough to get through this alone.”
My index finger hugged the trigger, even though the barrel kept slipping off my skin. My dad had always taught me not to touch the trigger until I was absolutely certain I had my mark, but I doubted this is what he had in mind. I just couldn’t hesitant. The self-hatred infecting my body would end tonight, soaking back into the depths of the earth. I would finally know peace.
I shut my eyes. I prayed they wouldn’t open, like hers had been when I found her. Those emerald irises gazing from beneath the toilet seat—watching the empty vials of medicine dance through the blood and bile—haunted me. It was ironic how much the dead seemed to see, staring right through your façade.
One breath. In. Out. And on three—
“That’s a tad dramatic, don’t you think?”
A sharp pain erupted across my forehead. I lowered the pistol, its grooves streaked with hints of watery blackness.
The man strolled through the mist. Shadows simmered around him as he straightened a button on his white business suit. The cathedral appeared to recede, leaving only the mute graves and the two of us.
I inched away, dropping the gun and wiping my shaking hand against my jeans. “Am I—Did I—Am I dead?”
His snicker carried through the breeze. “You nicked yourself with the gun, my dear. Seems like I stopped you in time. Although you weren’t really going to do it.”
The world began to toss and twist around me. The one action that would finally eradicate a demon from this world, and I failed. I was worthless. Weak.
He flicked away a pale lock that had strayed from the combed strands of his hair. The red suns of his eyes encased black pits, looking at everything and nothing.
“If you’re a priest,” I said, hiccups punctuating my voice, “I don’t want to hear about Saving Grace and Redemption and all that crap they preach in Sunday school.”
“None of that exists,” I continued. My fingernails dug into the gritty dirt, scratching at it as if it was my own flesh. “God isn’t there to hold you through the nights you fall asleep with tears crusting your eyelashes. He doesn’t listen to your pleas for a single happiness, for just one day where you aren’t a slave to your thoughts. He looks away as you slowly self-destruct.”
“Believe me, darling, I know.” He winked. Every muscle in my body slackened. “People don’t need a divine being to tell them how to live. They’re too busy learning how to die. That’s why you’re here, aren’t you?”
My chest felt like it was being carved open. I shuddered, my spine pressing into her stone cross.
The man crouched down, twisting one of my raven curls around his finger. “You’re an empty skeleton of a human being. You’ve been crying out for help, but they won’t listen. They’d rather see you suffer, like you did to her.”
The rising sun cast a violet ribbon over the graveyard, exactly as it had that morning on the highway as my shabby pickup truck sped toward her house. I should’ve answered my phone when it chimed a few minutes after midnight, no matter what lies they fed me afterwards. She needed me. I knew it, but I rolled over and descended back into my dreams. By the time I finally listened to the voicemail, the vacuum forming in my heart told me she was already gone.
Before I burst open that bathroom door and saw her ashen body slouched across the vomit-covered tile, all I could think about was how reckless she had been throughout those past months. How no one but me noticed the thin scars spider-webbing across her forearms and the soft rattle of pills in her purse. How foolish I’d been for neglecting the signs that were so obvious. And how empty the world suddenly seemed to be.
I gulped the wet air, fingers drilling deeper into hardened soil. “Who are you?”
“You were the one who summoned me,” he said, looking at me like a butcher inspecting a slab of meat, calculating where to make the first incision. “What were you expecting? A black cloak and scythe?”
My legs trembled, the image of her mangled body on the ambulance stretcher darting behind my vision. The sourness in my stomach threatened to rise. For once, I was thankful for its emptiness. “What?”
“Angel of Death. The Grim Reaper. The Hooded One. The Destroyer.” He shook his head. “It’s all the same to me.”
The man picked me up, icy hands squeezing the bones in my shoulders. I tried to plant my heels into the grass, but he dragged me as if I was a part of the cool morning mist. His breath carried the sweet perfume of incense and earth.
“I need you alive. After all, once you end your life, there’s nothing I can use. No passion. No anger.”
A feeble quaver coursed through my voice. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Sweetheart,” Death chided. “There are so many like you. I hear their weak cries beckoning, the shadows robbing their prayers for relief. They’re everywhere: in their mansions’ pristine bedrooms as their parents slumber, their friends’ bathrooms as the party whirls around them, their spots on the street corners as passerbys clutch their purses and walk a little faster. You have the chance to be the voice they aren’t strong enough to have.”
The pits of eyes reflected my vacant gaze, my gaping mouth. The girl staring back at me had become my everyday nightmare, plagued by guilt for taking up space, for wishing to feel alive again, for relishing the smallest hint of kindness.
“Wouldn’t you like their sins to control them, as yours did to you?” he said. “Watch them scratch futilely at their flesh for relief, and scour for gaps in the cages they build around themselves?”
My tongue stuck to the sandpaper roof of my mouth. “What do you mean?”
He chuckled, and I noticed my dad’s pistol swinging around his finger by the trigger.
“I see it all the time.” He nodded toward the photograph lying abandoned like a wingless bird in the dirt. “You sacrifice your life to hurt them. You use suicide to punish their ignorance and deceit. You humans thirst for revenge, don’t you? Quite a noble cause.”
A familiar hollowness gnawed within me. I could see it all. Her family’s suppressed tears and hunched shoulders at the funeral. My mother’s scowl as I mindlessly speared my roasted chicken and broccoli at supper. My father’s screams as I spent another holiday in my room. Even my brother’s pursed lips as I refused to laugh at his stories.
No, my death would be helping others. They would no longer have to deal with my miserable mind or aching heart. I would no longer be a disappointment.
Death’s snakelike nostrils flared. “Help me bring about mankind’s destruction, darling. You already caused one death, so why not do it again? I need people like you to assist my apocalypse. Feed their evil thoughts, encourage their self-harming habits, and inspire the conflicts arising within their souls.”
Something about his words seemed amiss. Was that why I was here? For vengeance? Her suicide had destroyed me. But I’d still rather have her, even with her sullen eyes and battered spirit, than stand above her bones. I stared into the fading constellations above me. The hazy glow of dawn bled into the clouds.
“Believe me, give them enough incentive and they’ll do the rest. Your friend and you are proof of that.” He laughed. “Live for me, and together we can become gods of legends.”
“I’m not a god,” I answered. His crooked fingernail scraped under my chin. “I barely feel alive enough to be called a human being.”
“Foolish girl, when will you realize nobody wants you?” His hot snarl lashed against my face. “I’m offering you a chance for redemption. I’m giving you a purpose.”
I yanked my sweater’s sleeves over my hands, fingers curling into the frayed fabric. The inside fleece was warm, as if my brother had just worn it to football practice. I closed my eyes.
Suddenly, I felt as if he was there, enveloping me in his sturdy embrace. He already had to stoop to hug me, despite the fact that he had barely entered middle school. His chuckles—alternating every day between the shrill titters of childhood and the deep guffaws of manhood—came to me through the escalating wind.
My body shot sideways as I collapsed to the ground, the graveyard flashing red. Death recoiled the gun. My pulse soared, panic igniting my veins. Had he shot me? Was I gone? Was that it? I didn’t—I couldn’t be—
But as I sucked in a breath, the scorching tingle spreading across my cheek reawakened me. He had only smacked me with the slide, and the electricity humming through my nerves slowed. I curled into a ball, resting my throbbing face in the damp weeds.
Something rustled near my elbow.
The loose-leaf my brother had forgotten in the pocket of his jacket, the one I had left to soak in the morning dew. His scribbled handwriting crisscrossed the paper. Chunky letters spelled out my name, along with “My Hero” bolded at the top of the page. I inched my fingers toward it, brushing against the pencil marks.
“What’s this?” Death bent down to snatch the essay.
“My brother,” I said, the words choking me. “My brother.”
Hero. I remembered my brother’s stolen glances at dinner and gentle jokes as I stared at the television. Maybe he hadn’t been judging but watching, waiting to bring me back to life. Had he sensed the sinister thoughts circling my mind? Had he guessed I contemplated ending my own existence as his was only beginning?
I wanted to run. To wrap my arms around him. To listen to the steady pound of his heart as my head burrowed into his chest.
The sun broke the horizon. I spread my arms wide in the grass and let the bitter light drench my tired skin. Giggles quaked my chest as the tears released, burning my cheeks and falling against my lips. Death howled, but his banshee cry seemed far away.
When you’re alive, you can feel all the pain, all the hurt. Sometimes it’s easier to block it out, starving yourself of emotion. But beauty can be found in bearing our crosses.
It’s been too long, and I’m done. Done denying myself every sunrise, every thundercloud. Every laugh, every tear.
For the first time in a long time, I’m hungry.