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There is a word that can ruin lives in a single blow.
This word takes perfection and turns it into chaos, the hidden sins of your existence pooling at your feet. It takes your life and shatters it, and like a rusted mirror your reflection is plastered in shades of tarnished bronze and burgundy, your heart and soul scattered among the bloody shards. It lays a thousand paths before you, but the only one going forward is that of desolation and despair. This word is why you take that path, whether you want to or not.
But who would ever want to?
Six letters to take my breath away. Make my head spin. Have me running for cover, the charred remains of my life streaming down around me in blazes. A world that’s on fire.
Six letters to ruin my life. And end yours.
There is a word that can ruin lives in a single blow. There is a word that snatched you from me in a span of four seconds. It took your life, my life, and now I have nothing. Nothing but this word to stalk me in the middle of a silent night, to tap me on the shoulder under the grey sunless sky and smile cruelly. To spin me around and around until my life blurs into one smeared stain, the painting that no one wanted, the artist’s mess-up.
Six letters. One word.
Everything used to be perfect until you died.
We were a family. A unit. You, me, Mom, and Dad, all coexisting peacefully under one roof, together. But then you died and everything fell apart.
I wonder if you know that Mom and Dad no longer speak. That we live in different houses in different towns in different states in different worlds. Different lives.
Before you died, the sun used to shine. Every day it would catch fire at the highest point in the sky, and you would take my hand and show me the sunbeams streaming through the atmosphere like shooting stars plummeting to earth.
Sunbeams. Like moonbeams, you said, only brighter. They carry all your hopes and dreams and wishes down to earth for you. It’s like wishing on a star, you told me, only better because these dreams actually come true. You know they will, just like you know that the sun will rise again tomorrow, even when you feel like it won’t. Just like you know that life will go on, even when you aren’t sure you want it to.
The sun doesn’t shine here anymore.
Now that you’re gone, the sky wears a mask to cover its sunbeams, and I wear a mask to cover my broken dreams.
Today is the day of the wake. I stand sheathed in a blanket of guilt with a plastic smile frozen in place, the smile I gave to the sobbing cousins and glaring uncles who saw right through me. Though I’ve had plenty of time to absorb all that happened, I still don’t know if I’m ready to see you wrapped in clothes you’d never wear and powdered with blush to make your face look less broken, less dead.
The coffin will be nailed shut for the funeral.
I stand outside the white double doors, the entrance to the viewing room. I am the last one. Everyone else has already been in and out and now they’re in another room, eating and drinking their troubles away. The last one.
I’m wearing my favorite blue dress. You always loved when I wore this dress. You said it was the best color on me, that deep cerulean blue that was nearly as bright as your eyes. And I’d always joke that the dress must make me look bad, since boys have no taste in fashion.
“I don’t need taste in fashion to know I have a beautiful little sister,” you’d reply with a laugh, and then you’d take me in your arms and give me a noogie, just because you knew I hated it, because you always knew how to make me laugh and oh my God I don’t think I can do this.
A kind looking man in a black tuxedo sees me standing alone, uncomfortable. He hands me a tissue and I take it, for good measure, but my eyes are dry and will stay that way.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” he offers gently, and waves a hand towards the door. “Do you want to go in? No one else is in there now.”
My body must be detached from my brain, because my head slowly bobs yes while my brain is screaming, “No!”
And when the man opens one of the doors, my legs start moving and walk me through the doorway and down the strip of light blue carpet that matches my dress and reminds me of your eyes and walk me straight up to where you lay with your lids glued shut and your face pale white and oh my god is this really happening?
I stretch over into the coffin and lay my head on your chest, listening for a heartbeat. But there is nothing beating in that cold, hard chest, not anymore. There is no life in you or me or anybody here. We are nothing.
I draw back and study your features. Everything is the same; the light gold freckles splayed across your face to match your golden hair, the slight upward curve to your lips that seems permanently set, even the slight flush on the apples of your cheeks that appeared whenever you laughed.
I reach into the casket and pull back your bangs, searching for where they said you hit your head that night. I study the skin, pallid and rubbery, and sure enough under all the make-up they layered on you I can still see the slit where you were cut and bleeding, a scarlet river spilling your innermost thoughts in a puddle at your feet. No, no, no, no.
I used to have dreams where I was trapped in a dark hole with no way out. And with every minute that went by the air condensed more and more until I couldn’t breathe and then everything went black and there was just nothing.
I don’t think I can do this.
Next my eyes move to your neck, slightly swollen despite all the work they did to try to cover it up. The autopsy said that’s how you died—a broken neck.
I remember asking a doctor at the hospital if it was quick. That’s all anyone ever wants to hear. A final desperate attempt to find solace where no solace actually exists.
“Yes,” the doctor had told me. “The way his neck was broken, he was gone in about four seconds. Quick and painless.”
Four seconds. I take your hand. It’s freezing and rock hard, and your skin, stretched white over the bone, feels like rubber under my touch. I squeeze it one, two, three, four times. And then I let go and stare at you.
Out of your coffin a black hole opens up to swallow me whole, blue dress, blue eyes, blue blood and all.
I back up. I open my mouth to speak but the ice in the air jumps at the opportunity and closes in, choking me. All that flows from out of my breathless lungs is a strangled whisper, my soul further rupturing with every letter:
And then I bolt out of that room as fast as I can, once more leaving an icy vortex to swallow you instead.
Today is the funeral.
I will cover myself in a sheet of black and become a black smudge on the Paper of Life. I will blend in with all the other black smudges and watch smudges on smudges streaming down their faces, while my face remains blank. Blank is strong; blank is safe. Blank is what I must be or I won’t make it through this day at all. Blank is blank and I can do this.
I can’t I can I can’t I can I can’t I can I can’t I CAN.
Armed with eyeliner of the darkest shade, I find myself facing a shell in the mirror. The shell that contains what everyone wants me to be but what I am really not. I am empty.
I draw a thick line around the pink rims, coloring them black. Nobody will see. They never do.
A sudden breeze throws chills down my spine and makes the thin strands of my hair dance along my collarbone. I hear the soft whisper of your voice riding on it: Your fault.
Black dress, black shoes, black eyes, black blood, black life. Black is blank. Blank is safe.
You are broken, the wind whispers.
I grab a matching purse and head out the door.
The funeral. The church is white as my face, no, your face, and I sit in the first row of seats sandwiched between my mom and my dad, neither of whom are speaking. Like opposing countries in a war, and I’m stuck between fire.
The preacher is overweight and smiles at us once everyone is seated. I glare at him. Smiling is not allowed here. You are not allowed here. You.
You are lying with your eyes squeezed shut in a coffin at the front of the room. It’s huge and black and shiny, like a limo to take you up to heaven in style, and it’s covered in roses and yellow lilies. Lilies. The people from the funeral home are claiming that it was your favorite flower, but I happen to know for a fact that you hate lilies.
You had a girlfriend named Lily once. She cheated on you. I remember strolling up to her in school one day, after I’d heard, and punching her in the face. Hard, right across the jaw. Knocked out two of her front teeth. She was out for a week, and I got in-school-suspension for three days. You were there with me, in that tiny airless room that smelled like vinegar, even though you didn’t have to be. You snuck in with a forged detention slip all three of the days. You said you could afford to miss a few baseball practices for a sister like me.
My eyelashes are damp but I’m not crying.
The preacher’s singing now, a slow, droning tune in some language I can’t even begin to guess what it is. His voice sounds like a low moaning that mimics the cries echoing in my core.
My mother nudges me, and I realize that I am the only one still standing. I kneel absent-mindedly, my eyes locked on your coffin. My vision, my world, blurs with the ice in my eyes that betrays me. I can’t tell if I’m crying; I don’t think I know how to cry anymore. I reach up and feel my cheeks. They’re cold and hard, but not wet. Not yet.
Your casket is nailed shut. So is my heart.
When the day is over, you are in the ground and I’m standing above you with unwashed hair and a manicure. I clutch four deep crimson roses between my fingers, and as a cool breeze plucks russet leaves off the branches of a wilting oak tree and lays them by my feet, I lay the roses by yours.
Your tombstone is huge and slate grey, with simple wording: Brennan J. Trauer, 1992—2010. Beloved brother and son. Underneath is a picture of a baseball glove and a baseball, and abruptly I flash back to the night you were stolen from me forever. The after-game party. The drunk driver. The sudden agony rips through me like a knife, the tender scar bursting open and all my guilt and grief and pain seeping out. Why did I make you bring me home early? You had told me it would happen, it was a senior party and I knew no one except for you. Why did I make us be there, at that intersection at that time? Why, why, why, why?
I lift up the sleeve of my dress and run a finger along the cut from where the glass wedged into me. It really was my fault.
Suddenly the sun bursts through the sheet of clouds, casting a brilliant array of iridescent beams over the cemetery and a long, dark shadow behind me. I draw back and gaze at the glinting stone, with the roses, now sparkling subtly, resting beside it. And finally, the ocean of tears barricaded behind my eyes for so long floods over, streaming down my cheeks in warm trails that smooth my rough skin. I lift my face to the sky and breathe deeply, taking in the warmth that defrosts my frozen veins and fills my empty lungs with the purity they have so long been deprived of. The pealing bells of your laughter echo across the graveyard, bouncing from stone to stone, free at last. I kiss the top of your tombstone gently and bid you my final goodbye, and, turning on heel, I am gone.
The wind exhales, and the last shriveled leaf on the oak tree shivers and slowly drifts to earth, coming to rest where the foot of my shadow had stood not four seconds before.