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There were two things I was simply terrible at: saying “thank you” and saying “sorry.”
The first was a matter of phoniness. I hated how the syllables rolled of my tongue like melted candy: all sick sweetness and over gooeyness. Most people deserved true sincerity, but my appreciation always echoed false, simpering to my ears, even when my thanks were authentic. By general consensus of my conscience and respect for others, my gratitude now remained unspoken.
The second was a matter of personal pride. And at the end of the day, I savored my personal pride as though tomorrow did not exist.
Those wizened, gnarled crabs could not be my hands: the pincers all swollen and red with dirty splotches splattered across them. No one kissed crabs, but men loved to kiss pretty, fluttery white birds, coyly flirting the wind…gracefully dancing on the clouds…
I hobbled to my feet, creaks running down my spine. Regrets I pushed to the back of my head, behind gaudy prizes of vanity and arrogance; regrets only annoyed me anyhow. But still they persisted: voices of conscience calling me to turn pure and innocent, as I had once been.
Today could not have come faster. After today, they would shush their self-righteous remonstrances. Just as they had when they were alive, they meddled in affairs too sophisticated for them.
D*mn those ghosts.
The night wind shrieked, throwing the trees into a frenzied dance. Clouds scuttled across the inky expanse, ducking behind each other to hide from the silver arrows of moonlight. I shivered, pulling my overcoat tighter and readjusting my shawl over my hair. My knobby fingers fumbled with the lock on my door; it would not stick. I banged angrily on the frame. Finally it closed and I spat at it angrily. Doors were such fickle, unreliable devices. They never closed when I needed them to be closed and never opened for me when I needed them to be open.
My shadow flickered eerily across the silver pavement in the lamplight. The years weighed down on my feet and back as I made my way laboriously up the road. The scrapping of my crooked walking stick amplified in my ears; no one else would or should be out this late.
Logic never restricted the young. As I stood waiting at the corner for that accursed stoplight to turn green, a boy and a girl stumbled out from an alleyway, grinning at each other mischievously, back from some grand adventure. The boy walked up the steps of the building, paused for a split second, then rushed back down and kissed the girl full on the lips before disappearing behind his front door. The girl stood alone in the moonlight; I could practically see that moonstruck smile lighting her face. She revolved slowly with arms spread wide as though expecting a second embrace…
Finally the light turned green. I harrumphed my way across the sidewalk, deliberately stomping my feet and clanging my walking stick. Enter, stage right: wizened crone, the anachronism in this romantic comedy. A look of repulsed fear flashed in her wide doe eyes; she couldn’t hide the disgust of seeing my sunken face, drilled deep with crevices and pockmarks. Drink it in darling, because in forty years this will be you and we will see then how many boys want to kiss your lips.
As she turned to walk away, I shook a fist at her. “He’ll break your heart, he will,” I shouted. Good gods, was that my voice, rasping and grinding against my vocal chords?
The cemetery resided in a cloistered section of the city, away from the screeching nightlife. A person could actually hear herself think here. My hand grasped that familiar rusty gate. I inserted a bony finger into the keyhole, willing a spark of elixir to force the bolts open. It trickled down my arm like warmed honey, down my fingertips. I shivered, savoring that thrill, remembering when—
The lock clicked and the realm of the dead opened to me, swaying branches ushering me inside where tombstones stood at attention. I walked through their ranks, dewy grass squishing beneath my feet as I made my way to a copse of weeping willows.
He was waiting, dressed in a hooded cloak that seeped into the shadows. “Eleven times we have done this,” he stated lightly. “I am still the first to arrive. It would be so much easier if you simply converted all together.”
I spat at him. “By the devil—”
“Now, please don’t insult a dear friend,” he said mildly. “For all that I am, I cannot stand having my friends be insulted.” I could hear the smirk beneath his cowl. “Just as I always give a good word for you to the devil.”
The minutes dragged by. I leaned against a willow, stretching. My bones creaked audibly. “You know, I never understood how you endured this,” he stated. “For such a vain and bitter creature, you still resist—“
“Shut it,” I snapped, readjusting my shawl.
“Do you not want it?” He dropped his voice beguilingly, all sleepy sweetness. “That cold, frozen beauty? That beautiful assurance—“
“I said shut it.”
“Suit yourself. Simply stating that you are making this much harder for yourself.”
We lapsed into silence.
Wrong! went the clock as it struck midnight.
“And here we go,” he whispered, slipping off his hood.
Wrong! His face gleamed in the moonlight, his jet black hair catching silver reflections. He resembled a marble Greek statue excavated from a ruin: unadulterated by time, as unyielding as ever. He extended a perfectly smooth hand.
Wrong! A smoke stained vial formed at his fingertips.
Wrong! “Well,” he asked, raising a supercilious eyebrow.
Wrong! I outstretched my fingers, contorting them. The ground groaned in protest at this blasphemy against the natural order.
Wrong! A skeletal hand shot from the ground, tenaciously gripping a silver dagger. I ripped it free from the rotted fingers.
Wrong! I pressed the blade against my neck, resting the tip upon my jugular vein. Sudden cold swept over me, sinking deep into my pores.
Wrong! I could feel it leaving. Viselike fingers groped and probed my head, extracting the last vestiges. Laughing faces whirled before me like a dark, dizzy merry-go-round.
Wrong! His face shot across my eyes with all the brilliancy of a comet, leaving a reminder of where light should always be. How he had begged, grabbing me by the shoulders—
Wrong! He had me enwrapped in him, murmuring in my hair.
Wrong! He told me to stop.
Wrong! He screamed as a bloody flower bloomed across his chest.
I screamed. The dagger dropped from my fingers and warmth rushed back into my body. I doubled over, my heart beating erratically against my chest.
“Interesting,” he murmured. As black dots blinked across my eyes, I could make out the hem of his cloak sweeping toward me. He picked up the dagger and ran his finger along the blade. Golden elixir licked onto his skin. “Very interesting.”
I glanced up, slitting my eyes. The vial dangled from his graceful hands. He tapped the elixir inside. It hovered for a second, a gleaming beacon of golden wonder, until hitting the bottom where it disintegrated into soot.
He cupped my chin and lifted my face to his, gazing into my rheumy eyes. “Well done,” he murmured, a finger tracing the outline of a wrinkle that sagged down my left cheek. “You know, each time I do this, I feel so tempted just to leave you,” he commented, “as the sniveling, pathetic bag of bones your are. My friends so dearly wish to meet you.”
My eyes widened. “But-but-,” I stuttered, horror constricting my vocal chords.
“But,” he interrupted, “they do so appreciate your tribute. We all have such a wonderful symbiotic relationship: you want to forget and we need to feast.” He lowered his lips so that they were an inch from my trembling, ruined ones and exhaled.
The years fell away as sunlight baptized me. My cheeks filled and I shut my eyes as my tendrils of hair thickened, cascading in a waterfall down my back. I placed my hands upon my face, relishing the feeling of new skin, supple like a baby’s.
“Rise,” he commanded.
I rose, my movements as smooth as water. I looked my hands: white, smooth, tapered birds. My eyes welled with tears. So pretty, so light, so pure.
He glanced at me curiously but said nothing. “Until next time,” he said and then he walked away, his figure growing smaller until the shadows finally swallowed him.
Shivering, I retreated back the way I came, brushing fingertips against the tombstones.
D*mn ghosts. The wind howled at me and I shut my eyes, clamping my hands over my ears. Blot it out, blot it all out. Those meddling, self-righteous voices beseeching me, warning—
If I did end this all and joined those voices, how could I face them, the avenging angels of my past? How could I beg them for forgiveness when they terrifed me from the grave?
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry: the words faltered at my cowardly tongue.
But then again, they had been the ones who had betrayed me. They had thrown me to the wolves, even when I came begging for sanctuary. Their doors had not opened for me. Wooden frames had been slammed in my face. My experiments had always been for them. I remembered their grief when they begged me to save him, her, it. Why should I not be the last one standing, when I had sacrificed in my lifetimes more than they ever could have? Their potential died as they resigned their lives to mediocrity while mine flourished.
New skin, same life: the past can go screw itself, apologies and all.