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Death Will Never Win
“What’s up?” I asked, noticing Sammy’s pause. Her pencil was held just above the paper, her fingers wrapped abnormally tight around it. She looked up, startled, and smiled.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I was just thinking ‘bout stuff.” Her smile faltered and she looked back down at her paper, but she did not continue working on her math homework. I set my own pencil down and reached across the floor to grab at her paper.
“You got number two wrong,” I noted, scanning her answers. As I was about to explain to her how her answer was wrong, she stood up and leaped on her bed, pulling her pillow close to her chest.
“Are you afraid of anything?” she asked suddenly, her long red hair lifting slightly as a breeze from her open window filtered in. Her eyes were distant, glazed, as if she were somewhere else. I was taken aback by the seriousness in her voice. Sammy wasn’t the type of girl who asked grim questions. She was always upbeat and optimistic. Putting her paper down, I stood up and went to sit on the bed next to her, thinking of an answer.
“You already know I’m terrified by heights. Why?” I tried to keep my voice perky, but I couldn’t help it when my lip trembled. Why was I so disturbed by her question? Everyone thought about these kinds of things sometime or another. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that her question demanded an answer more deep and thorough than the one I had provided. She turned away from the window and looked at me. Her green eyes seemed bottomless, empty, almost dead. I had to keep from gasping. Her eyes had always been alive and sparkling, but now they seemed so different, so foreign.
“That’s it? Heights? That’s the only thing that scares you?” I opened my mouth to make a joke about how of course it was the only thing that frightened me, but her tone made me hesitate.
“Well,” I said, searching for words, “I guess I’m scared of getting old.” It had always been a secret, one I kept even from Sammy, who had been my best friend since kindergarten. The thought of getting old had always held this firm grasp on my heart, a frightening grip that tightened with each year that passed. I was very athletic. I played on my high school’s varsity soccer team, I ran whenever I could, and never minded walking around our huge campus. Everyone always figured that I was just one of those girls who preferred to stay in shape by working out, when really, it had always made me feel better. I had this stupid belief that if I exercised a lot, I could keep from aging. I could hold off the gray hair, the bones going brittle, the loss of energy and ability to do whatever I wanted. I just didn’t want to feel trapped in a worthless body by the age of fifty. Stupid right? Sammy’s eyes bore into mine, her gaze searching. When I didn’t look away from her hard stare, she turned away to stare out the window again.
“I never took you for the type to be afraid of something like that.” Her words sounded distracted. I touched her shoulder gently and asked,
“Why? Why are you asking me this?” When she wouldn’t look at me, I shifted positions on the bed and moved so that I sat between her and the window. Her eyes were huge and her lip quivered. I wasn’t sure what to do. What had brought this on?
“Sammy - what are you afraid of?” It took a while for her to answer. When she finally did, her voice was weak and shaking.
“I’m afraid of dying.” Her statement was like a slap in the face. Sammy was fifteen, smart, happy, a girl who didn’t fear anything. She worked at charities, she went to church, volunteered at hospitals. Everyone loved her, and she loved everyone. She was the kind of girl who didn’t have a care in the world, a girl who would smile in the worst of times, always finding a way to make you smile. Yet here she was, on the verge of tears, admitting to me that death alarmed her. What the hell? This sort of thing had never come out of her mouth, and I almost never seen her cry. I knew everyone was afraid of something, but knowing that my friend was afraid of death petrified me. I didn’t want her living with this constant fear. I took her into my arms, the pillow separating us, and she sobbed into my shoulder. I smoothed her hair with my hand and held onto her tightly. After she finally settled down, she sat back and wiped her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. I smiled at her.
“It’s okay.” We didn’t say anything for a moment. The silence felt like a heavy blanket, smothering us. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I spoke up softly. I was almost afraid that if I spoke to quickly or suddenly, I would startle her. She resembled a small frightened animal.
“Why are you afraid of death, Sammy?” Sniffling, Sammy reached over for a tissue on her nightstand and wiped her nose. She looked up and explained.
“When I was little, I had awful nightmares about people dying. I would always wake up crying and I’d never be able to sleep afterwards. Maybe it’s not death that scares me, but the thought of never seeing you or my family again. You guys mean everything to me, and whenever I try to imagine a world where you or mom is gone, it tears me apart. And then I think about what it would be like to be the one who is gone. Would I feel the pain I would if it was you who was dead? Would I even remember y’all? I don’t…” her voice faltered, and she burst into tears again. This time, though, I did not comfort her. The explanation she had given me had completely stunned me. I had never thought of death that way. I wasn’t very religious, and my view of death was very blunt. You died, and that’s it. There is no afterlife, there is no being reincarnated. You just died. But at the same time, I didn’t want to forget my friends or family, and I definitely didn’t want to forget Sammy. My eyes watered, and I felt the urge to cry. We were teenagers for God’s sake, why the hell should we even be thinking about death? I swallowed my almost –tears, and took Sammy’s shoulders firmly.
“Sammy,” I said, determination steadying my voice, “You will never forget me, or your mom, or anyone. And I will never forget you. Death can’t separate us, and I promise you it never will. You and me, best friends forever, remember?” I took her pinky in mine, and did our secret handshake. Her hand was limp, so I grabbed her wrist and lifted her hand three times, our pinkies still latched. It was stupid and childish, but it was something we always did when making important promises. The simple gesture calmed Sammy’s sobs, and her lips stopped quivering enough to curl up at the corners. Sammy meant the world to me, and though we had no control over our deaths, I would not let this fear live inside of her heart. She meant too much to me.
“You can’t control our deaths, retard. But what you can promise me is that you’ll be with me till we’re both old women, breaking each other’s hips for entertainment, ‘Kay?” I grinned at her. “I promise.” I would do everything in my power to keep the promise. Sammy was like a sister to me, and something as stupid as death wouldn’t keep me from her. Again, silence descended, and Sammy absentmindedly picked at a stray fabric poking out of the pillow’s threading. Serious conversations like this one weren’t exactly usual for us and neither of us had any idea of how to erase the grim thoughts from our minds. Wanting everything to go back to normal, I got off the bed, stretched, and went to pick up our homework off the floor.
“So, wanna know why you got number two wrong?” I asked, shoving the paper in her face obnoxiously. She grinned and ripped the paper from my hand. “Who said I got it wrong? Maybe you’re the one who didn’t get it right.” I tossed her a pencil, rolled my eyes, and said, “Yeah, like that could ever happen.”
That night, when my mother picked me up at the usual time, Sammy gave me an extra hug. Her tight embrace reminded me of how scared she had been just hours before. The promise I had made her burned brightly in my mind. I wouldn’t let death take her. Yet as Mom pulled away from the curb and I buckled my seat belt, a heavy weight settled in my heart, and a wicked voice whispered in my mind: You can’t save her…
One year later
“I’ll go wait in the car honey,” my mom whispered softly. I didn’t answer. She gave my shoulder a sympathetic squeeze and walked away. Everyone had left by then, even Sammy’s mother. I was alone, stranded among hundreds of headstones. But my mind wouldn’t register the other ones, just the one that stood solemnly in front of me. It was black, and was apparently very expensive. I wouldn’t know, because I had refused to take part in any decisions regarding the funeral. I had thought that maybe if I didn’t make any decisions, the whole thing would disappear. Days went by and I had actually fooled myself into thinking that it really hadn’t happened. But then my mother had walked into my room and informed me about the date. Today was that day. So there I stood, probably looking stupid in the black dress my mother had picked out for me, with nothing to say. What could I say? My mind wouldn’t work. My eyes blurred for the fiftieth time that evening, and this time I didn’t try to swallow the tears. I let them slide down my cheeks, let them fall from my face to the recently disturbed dirt at my feet. Sammy Renee Youngblood. Her name, etched in the stone, burned incredibly bright in my eyes. A gentle breeze floated in through the cemetery, rustling the leaves that had settled around the graves. My hair, a blond mane of curls, lifted slightly around my face. She was gone. Throughout the days following her death, even throughout the funeral, I had managed to keep at bay the realization. But now it hit me full force in the gut. I doubled over, feeling a physical pain in my chest as harsh sobs racked my body. She was gone. She was gone. Again and again, the words sped through my mind. I fell to my knees and rested my forehead against the top of the headstone. The cool stone sent a chill through my skin to my bones. It made it official in a way that the news of the car wreck hadn’t. Because now, feeling the stone and the dirt beneath my knees, I knew I couldn’t change what had happened. I couldn’t turn back the clock and save her. She was gone, and I hadn’t been able to keep my promise. The wind picked up and goose bumps rose on my arms. It whipped away the sound of my crying, and looking down at the dirt beneath my knees, I slowed my sobs till I was whimpering like a hurt dog. I recalled the conversation in her room a year ago, and heard her voice as if she was right next to me; “You can’t control our deaths, retard.” She had been right of course, but in my determination to make her feel better, I had been able to pretend like it wasn’t true. Sitting on her bed, in a nicely painted room with our homework on the floor, I could say with certainty that death couldn’t take her. But this was the real world, and no one could control anyone’s fate. I was only a child, and of course I had thought that my love for her was all I needed to battle death and keep her safe. But out there in the real world, death was blunt, sudden, and simple. We all died. We all left this world sometime or another. It just wasn’t fair that someone as young as her had to leave so soon. She had had her whole life ahead of her. She hadn’t even had a boyfriend yet. All she cared about were her friends, grades, corny jokes and cool movies that she couldn’t wait to see. Another tear escaped as I realized I would never see another movie with her again. I closed my eyes and imagined her bright smile and playful eyes, her red hair and optimistic personality. Suddenly, I stood, ignoring the dirt now embedded in my knees. I stared at her grave, and just as the wind picked up another notch, I spoke:
“I couldn’t keep my promise. I couldn’t keep you with me. But I can keep you alive. I can keep alive your memory. I’ll make sure no one ever forgets you. I love you Sammy.” Just as I finished my declaration, the wind settled instantly, my hair falling again to my shoulders. The leaves stilled. I looked up into the darkening sky, and a single star appeared. I smiled, knowing that somehow, my promise had pleased Sammy, wherever she was. I looked one final time at her grave, and felt a little better. The headstone only marked the place where her body lay. It did not, however, seal her spirit within the coffin. I would live my life for the both of us, and make sure that no matter what, I wouldn’t live with fears or regrets. I let one last tear leave my eye and trail down my face. It fell to the earth and sunk into the dirt. I wiped my face, turned away, and walked with a new conviction to the cemetery’s exit. As I got into the car and gave my mom an assuring smile, I glanced through the gates to see her headstone. I let the image sink in and leave a permanent reminder of my promise in my heart. My mom pulled away from the curb. I turned away from the place that held Sammy’s body, and never looked back.