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Her Friend, the Death
She sees him for the first time when she's five and bleeding all over her mother's garden. The roses were so nice and white and pretty, but now they're stained red and somehow turning crisp (impossible, her little mind thinks drowsily, that's impossible because flowers don't die that fast--) and they're dying around her, even as she waters them with her life.
They're turning brown and black and they're crinkling in on themselves, like life losing hope, wilting and drooping petals around her tiny bleeding body. The atmosphere grows colder, and someone--a boy, just a teenage boy--steps over her, surveys her.
"Hi," she whispers breathlessly, because she's dizzy from the fall she had taken from her room window--three stories up. "You killed the roses."
The boy doesn't answer, just keeps looking at her. The air grows colder and colder.
"You killed them." she gasps wetly, coughing up cherry sherbert--but it doesn't taste like cherry, it tastes like pennies.
"I did no such thing." It's the first time he speaks and his voice withers. It’s odd, too, how he sounds so indignant about it, like there are more important things than the blood burning between her fingertips. It makes the tulips shiver and wilt a little, the wind howls and shudders and it hurts.
"Am I going to die?" she whispers, terrified. She's just a kid. A kid. She can't die, not yet. Maybe this boy will save her.
He looks down at her. And then he says one word that stops everything. “No."
He leaves her bleeding in the garden, the grass turning brown wherever he stepped.
She's older now, she's seven. She still remembers the incident, but no one believed her when she told them that the boy had turned the roses brown. She's in first grade and her teacher is patrolling the edge of the playground while she and her friends play in the sandbox.
"Let's go on the slide!" Tommy says, and everyone immediately follows him. She looks towards the slide and--stops.
He's there. He looks like he's waiting for someone.
She slows down a little, suddenly afraid. Who are you? she wants to ask.
The air grows to a familiar chill around her. She stays where she is, and watches Tommy climb up the slide. Watches him slip. Watches him tumble down, down, down--hears the crack of a bone, maybe two. Maybe an arm, or a leg.
Maybe a skull.
Children are sobbing, and the teacher is screaming, but all she can do is watch--watch as the boy picks up Tommy and carries him away.
And after school is postponed for the rest of three weeks, she wonders why she was the only one who could see, who watched.
She's older now. She understands more, now.
The third time she sees him is different. She volunteers at the local hospital to get some credit at school, and she sees him in the terminal section two times in two months before she gathers her courage and steps up to him.
He seems like such a boy, standing there next to a sick old woman in a hospital bed. Anyone would have thought he was her grandson.
But the air is always colder when she's around him, and though she thinks he probably knows that she's been spying on him (does he recognize her? From...before?), he doesn't approach her.
So she goes up to him one day, when he's running his...hospital rounds, and she asks him, "Where's Tommy?"
(Because a little tiny part of her still regrets, regrets, regrets--she didn't do anything, she didn't even try to stop him, all she did was watch Tommy and watch Tommy's parents cry and cry and cry and cry--)
It's ridiculous, she knows. He probably knows a hundred Tommys, thousands, maybe millions, it’s such a common name. But he looks her in the eye and she gasps because there is recognition there. Recognition and his eyes are filthy, they are disgusting and filled with revolting fragments of everything ugly and horrible and scary, murder and torture chambers and screaming and fighting and war and sickness poverty crying garbage, filth, and misery, oh god--
"He did fine." the boy tells her, and she shudders, because every breath in breathing the same air as him is like breathing cancer into your lungs.
"Is he..." she swallows a little, has to fist her hand, her nails biting into her skin, and she thinks to herself I have to do this, I have to ask, "is he...happy?"
(Because she's still regretting.)
"I don't know,” he says, and she's back to standing next to him like a disease has spread over her mind, her body, her soul and she can feel herself dying when she's next to him. She stays there, anyway. He has answers.
"How come I can see you?" she whispers softly. She knows no one else can. He tilts his head a little.
"You've seen me before and survived." he answers. She gathers that he won't tell her much, he'll just tolerate her questions. She has one more.
"Are there others? Like me?"
His eyes are boring into hers right now and she feels vomit in the back of her throat, she wants to be sick, she wants everything to burn and for H*ll to come and for the skies to rain and she wants the world to end--
"More than you and I can imagine," he tells her softly. He raises a finger up to her temple, holds it there. She becomes paralyzed with fear.
But then he just backs away and takes the old woman in his arms. He's obviously stronger than he looks.
And before she can stop herself she calls out, "Don't."
He looks back, and there's something different about his eyes this time, and she looks at the old lady on the bed and she says again, desperate and pleading, "Don't."
"This happens to everyone." he says softly, and she doesn't want to, she swears she doesn't want to, but she stays rooted in her spot as he walks out the door.
He leaves her shaking there in the silence, trembling and pale. Later, when she's done throwing up in the toilet, she thinks back and wonders how terrible he was, how terrible and horrifying and he didn't even do anything to her.
She quits volunteering at the hospital.
She quits trying to find him and seek him out.
(She quits climbing up to her room window's ledge at night and staring down at the ground, wondering if he'd come for her again if she fell. Quits thinking that maybe this time he'd catch her.)
She quits trying to be his friend. All he ever does is bring misery.
Instead she focuses on school, friends, boys. What all the other girls like her are focusing on. What she's supposed to be thinking about, not the dark boy who haunts her in nightmares.
The fourth time she sees him is when her little brother is sick. Pneumonia, small and growing and oh god he's here, he's here in my room oh god oh god oh god--
"No." she tells him, firmly, and even though she's terrified she can't let this happen, can't just stand there again and watch as he takes another person away. "No."
"I must," he says softly, and it's eerie, the way he says it and she's frightened but her brother, her brother her brother her brother.
"You can't have him!" she screams, and she tries to hit him, throw something at him, make him go away. But nothing works. Her palms burn when she tries to grab his shoulders, they burn black and her skin is frying, it's frying and dying and growing wrinkled and old and dead and corpse-like.
He throws her off of him then, slams her against the wall, and for a moment she had seen shock and panic register at his face, panic at her being hurt, at her touching him, and was he trying to protect me?
But then the panic is gone and he walks towards her brother's bed and lifts him up, very gently, and walks out the door. She screams at him. He takes her brother anyway.
Hours afterwards, she looks down at her hands and sees that they've healed completely, leaving only a small inky word, curled in cursive, the type of font that seals fates on an executioner's list, on the center of both her palms.
She tries every kind of hand lotion, every kind of soap and treatment and tattoo remover. Nothing works.
She feels disgusted at the mark he's left on her, horrified and angry and furious, so she scrubs until her hands are raw and the skin is bleeding, and then, after hours and hours of this, her parents drag her out of the bathroom and put her in her room. That's when she sees her brother's bed in his little corner and starts to cry.
"It's grief," the therapists tell her parents softly, while she sits in the room next to them. "It's grief. She's just lost her little brother. You've lost your son. You're all grieving. Give her time to heal herself a little." Her parents take in every word of it, so at least they know she isn't crazy. The thought is not as comforting as it should have been.
She drives home by herself. Goes into her and her brother's old room, leans against the wall and instantly, he is suddenly leaning right next to her.
"I had to do it," he whispers urgently. "I had to. I don't have a choice."
She ignores him. He's done too much, now. She doesn't know if she could ever, ever forgive him.
"I don't have a choice, when they go," he argues, and suddenly she throws herself at him, yells and screams and cries, of course you had a choice, you've always had a choice, you let me live, didn't you? You let me go.
"That was different," he shouts back, and she cries and she hates him, she hates this boy who’s left his mark, but left so many scars that it doesn't matter, none of it matters anymore.
His eyes--eyes that can hate and kill and tear through screams all at once--are sad and aching and tired, now. "I never chose this," he says. "I never chose this."
"Nobody does," she whispers softly, and suddenly his eyes aren't so horrible anymore, and it's easier to breathe around him now.
She kisses him and he holds her, tucks her into him, and this time his touch doesn't burn.
They see each other occasionally.
He has a busy job, and though she tries hard not to think about it, every time it slips silently into her mind, but she remembers Tommy, and the old woman in the hospital, and also her little brother. She hasn't forgiven him yet, but she knows that somewhere inside of her, something's started to change.
He doesn't mean to, she argues with herself, back and forth, back and forth, a thousand times over. He told me. He doesn't mean to. He doesn't want to.
But there is still a disturbing, clogging doubt in her mind, one she always tries to brush away. She focuses, instead, on mourning, on grieving for her brother and Tommy and the old woman whose name she never even knew.
She stares at the tattoos on her hands and tells herself he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to. He doesn't mean it.
She looks at the corner in her room where her brother used to sleep and thinks, he didn't want to do it. He didn't. He said so himself.
He visits her sometimes. They sit on her rooftop at night and talk about many things, everything and nothing. She asks him about his past, where he came from, but that is the one thing he will always refuse her of.
"I can't tell you that," he whispers, looking at the stars, "I don't remember myself."
One day, something changes inside of her, something snaps. It's like all her emotions were bottled up and waiting for this moment to lash out and explode.
Maybe she couldn't handle it, could never have handled it. Maybe he just wasn't good enough. All the same, when he walks into her room that night, she tells him to get out.
"I can't," she starts, and then stutters, stops, and has to begin again. "I can't, can't do this. We can't do this. I don't--just, leave."
He stays still, predictably. "Did I legitimately f*** something up?" it's the first time she's ever heard him swear. She's seen him frustrated, she's seen him at his worse, she's seen him guilty and she's seen him happy. She's never seen him angry before.
"My brother," she starts, and his head ducks down low, guilt hanging on his shoulders. He's regretting.
She plunges on anyway. "He was my brother." she whispers, and it's all she can say. She can't tell him how it's not only because of her brother, it's also because of Tommy, and that old grandmother, and the thousands and millions of others that he's taken, and one day, it will also be about her, as well.
He nods, just once, a small, jerky movement of his head, and then he leaves. Just like that.
She shudders, then leans against the wall, staring at the ceiling. She can't help thinking that it was that easy. It was, just that easy.
She's old and worn and she hasn't forgiven him, will probably never forgive him for as long as she lives. But it's alright, since he's probably never going to forgive her, either.
She knows it's time when she sees him at her doorway. He hasn't changed a bit. He's still a boy. Still a teenager.
"Hi," she whispers weakly, like the day she first met him. She is old and full of regrets, thousands of them during her lifetime, but he is not one of them.
Leaving him is not one of her regrets. She thinks he knows that. She also thinks that he will understand.
"I'm ready to go, now." she murmurs softly. He just stands at her doorway. She smiles. "Take me to my brother." He nods with acceptance, and walks over to her. He takes her hand and turns it so the words Mort are facing up at him.
"That's my name," he says softly, and she knows that it’s not the only one.
She hasn't heard his voice in years, and it still sucks the life out of her and everything else.
"I know." she whispers, and her eyes are full of tears when she sees him standing there, all alone. Have you been alone, all this time? she wonders. Since the day I made you leave?
She doesn't want that, had never wanted that. Not even when she'd forced him out of her life, when she'd pushed and pushed until there was nothing left to fight for, anymore.
"Will it hurt?"
"Not for you."
"Good." she climbs out of bed, and the world instantly changes around her. She's young again, she's five and standing on her window ledge. The wind is blowing in the trees and her mother's white roses sway in the wind. He's next to her.
"You can fall, or you can jump." he tells her. She nods and understands. She won't be seeing him, ever again. Not after this.
"Your brother's waiting for you down below," he says softly.
She shrugs, the unfamiliar lightness of five-year-old shoulders jutting out awkwardly. "You've been waiting longer."
He doesn't say anything, just looks down at the ground. She stares at him.
Do you remember when you found me there, bleeding on the flowers, you saw me start to believe for the first time.
She squeezes his hand tightly. "You don't have to be so alone," she whispers, and she doesn't look at him. "There are others like me. There probably always will be. You said so yourself."
He nods. She continues, because she doesn't want to leave without knowing that he'll be okay. She needs to know. She needs to know if he'll be alright.
"Go find them."
"Good," she says, and smiles her last farewell.
"Geronimo," she whispers in goodbye, and she lets go of his hand and jumps.