It’s dark, everything’s dark. I groan slightly and try to roll my neck, like I always do whenever I’m tired. Tried to. For some reason I can’t move my head that far. A flash of pain, under my forehead. I wince and try to rub the ache away. Tried to.
Now things are coming into focus, like that I’m starting to get scared. Really scared. I don’t know where I am. Do you know how terrifying that is? Millions of people are out there in the world and I am one of them and the only difference between them and me is that they know where they are and I don’t. I have no clue.
The screen flickers on in front of me, millions of miles wide and half as tall; at least, that’s what it looks like. I can’t exactly turn my head to see where it stops. “Hey!” I scream, scrambling for a semblance of humanity. “Hey! Where am I? Hey!” I yell for seconds that seem like hours. “Hey! Hey!” Rubbing my wrists raw, trying to free myself from this hell-chair that I have been so unceremoniously strapped into. “Hey!” Screaming myself hoarse, yelling my throat raw. After a few more attempts I stop and slump over in defeat, trying to save my energy.
A man’s voice cuts into my fatigue. His words appear on the screen as he says them. “Are you quite through?”
“What? Who is that?” I squint into eternity.
A woman’s voice, now: WE ARE THOSE WHOM YOU SHOULD FEAR.
“There are two of you?” I shriek, trying to sound nonchalant.
Now it’s a young boy: “Three.”
Old man: FOUR.
Small voice: “Seven.”
I close my eyes and try to shut out the noise, but the voices are too loud.
Their voices merge together into an orgiastic rush, a wall of numerical sound.
Suddenly, dead silence.
Then, all of them in unison: “We are The Mourners.” I shrink back in my chair; I can’t help it. There is a small girl giggling softly. She stops. A slight pause permeates the dark.
The spotlight jolts into blinding action, like a child’s scream, focused on me. I see the line of them: dozens, no, hundreds, their collective silhouette darker than the black of the screen behind them. I clear my throat, trying to be subtle.
“Will you not pay your respects to the dead, Mr. Bridges?” A man in his early fifties steps out of the line into my field of vision.
I lick my cracked lips. “How do you know my name?”
The man slaps my face, hard, and my world is orange for a second. “Ask us who we mourn,” he snaps. I blink and purse my lips together, then cough in a feeble attempt to force some moisture into my throat. “Who--” I clear my throat again-- “who do you mourn?”
The man lets a sigh escape from between his lips. “We mourn two people. One you know and one you should have known better.”
“What do you--” I am slapped again. Orange, all of it. Then he is grabbing the collar of my shirt, yanking my sternum closer, so I am forced to look upwards into the pain of the light.
“Don’t act like you don’t know!” a woman, hair in ringlets, blurts from The Line. That’s how I think of them now. That’s what they are to me. Official, clipped, professional. Like a ruthless CEO of a tobacco corporation. Everyone else in The Line agrees with Ringlets, and there is a smattering of yells. The screen blinks white for a nanosecond and all noise is quaffed.
For the first time in a long time, I am afraid. Truly afraid. Not the kind of afraid like oh hey it’s a guy in a mask with a chainsaw let’s all run haha good movie guys right? This is the fear that is real and tangible and horrible, the kind that grabs your throat and shakes you and squeezes until you realize that you are going to die.
A second after the screen flashes white, the man snorts derisively and moves back into The Line, replaced by a fortysomething woman with bags under her eyes. She spits on me and glares; The Line cheers. “What did I ever do to you?” I bleat.
She closes her eyes and rubs the tiny space in between her nose and forehead. “You did nothing to me…” Her lip quivers. “Nothing to me, but everything to my world.” She turns away from me and cries into herself for a moment. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but I hate to see anyone cry. I reach out to try to pat her back before I remember that I’m strapped into my chair and she’s too far.
Words on the screen. REFRAIN, MR. BRIDGES.
The woman balls her hand into a fist and brings it into my gut, shrieking, “Don’t touch me, you scum!” I struggle to stay breathing, stay conscious, stay sane. Through the pain, I hear the woman reciting something. I try to focus my hearing.
“Forrest Nathaniel Bridges, aged 23. Lives with his mom in Los Angeles.” There’s no blow this time, but I feel one anyways.
“How do you know that?” I gasp. The Line mutters its disapproval, and the screen requests NO MORE QUESTIONS, MR. BRIDGES.
The lady shakes her head, but answers the question in sync with The Line: “We know you, but you didn’t know her.”
I try my best to figure out the meaning, but come up with nothing. “Who is this girl you’re talking about?”
The Line transforms into The Mob, suddenly hurling profanities and violence and threats at my chair. They stay in formation, I knew they would, but I still am gripped by terror again.
“You’re a dead man, Bridges!”
“Burn him! Burn your Bridges!”
“Hell’s too good for you!”
Those don’t hurt half as much as the woman in front of me, who only whispers, “You can’t even respect her in death.” I don’t understand; she senses this.
“Ask us who we mourn,” The Line says, demands.
I bite my lip to keep from screaming and force it out of my lungs. “Who do you mourn?” They say nothing.
Then a picture blinks onscreen of a cute blonde in a graduation cap and gown. Her smile is so beautiful it hurts. I gasp in shock. “Kathy? She’s d-dead?”
An angry roar. The woman retreats and a young boy, I’d say eight or nine years old, strides up and faces me. I can tell he’s trying his hardest not to cry. “Kathy Elizabeth Cross was my big sister. She always talked about you. Every day. She’d come home from the big high school and smile and say Forrest is good Forrest is amazing Forrest is perfect.” All one breath. His resolve is weakened a little. “One day she didn’t say that anymore. One day she comes home and says Forrest is dying Forrest won’t make it through the year Forrest cheated on me.” He grabs my shoulders with no strength and stares into my eyes. “She didn’t smile after that. Not ever again.” Tears start flowing down his little cheeks. “You said you couldn’t live more than a year. You told her that someone else was better than her. You said you were dying.”
I start crying soundlessly. “Yeah…yeah I did.”
And then his wall is up again. “But you weren’t.” He looks at his shoes.
The Line takes up the chant. “You weren’t, you weren’t, you weren’t, YOU WEREN’T, YOU WEREN’T!”
Words on the screen.
NO HOSPITAL RECORDS. NO DOCTOR’S VISITS. NO LAST WILL. NOTHING.
“Kathy was my big sister,” says the child in front of me softly. “She was my everything. She was everything good.”
I swallow the lump in my throat. “John…it’s John, isn’t it? You’re John? She talked about you a lot, kiddo. She was good, wasn’t she? She was--”
The kid looks at me, his eyes hard and glittering as diamonds. “If you thought that, then why did I find her hanging from a tie in my dad’s closet?” I wince and turn my head, closing my eyes in anguish.
The kid-- John-- leaves and is replaced by the woman with ringlets in her hair. “Kathy was my best friend, you monster. You were everything to her. And she was everything to me.” I am weighted with a life on my shoulders; I cannot lift my head to look her in the eye. “And even though the report said suicide, I know that you killed her.”
Nausea flicks through my esophagus.
One by one they come forward.
“Kathy was my student.”
“Kathy was everything.”
“You killed her.”
“You let her die.”
By the end I am reduced to nothing. I have vomited multiple times and it pools between my legs, leaving a stain on the crotch of my jeans. My tears have mixed with my stomach acid. I am broken. I am the definition of crumpled. I speak to the ground like it’s The Line, like Kathy’s Line.
“I know…I know what I did was wrong. I’ve lived with it for three years now. Three years. I can’t sleep sometimes. I see a shaved head and feel like crying. I see chemo patients and want to puke. It’s been hell to live with myself for this long. I honestly don’t know how I’ve done it…Kathy was the best thing that ever happened to me. She really was everything good. And I blew it because I was scared. I’ve taken a life…I’ve taken a life, and you all knew her, and I can’t say I’m sorry enough because it never will ever be enough, will it? It’ll never be enough. I’ll never be enough. I’ll never be enough for anyone but her. She was so perfect…and what was I? Some poor schmuck who let it all slip away. So from the bottom of my heart and with all I have in me, I want to say I’m sorry.” I’m crying now. “I’m so sorry. That’s all I have. Believe me when I say that I am so very sorry.”
For a moment there is silence, and I allow myself the hope of thinking that they accept my apology. Then there is the slow shuffling of feet and the creaking of door hinges.
“Wait,” I call. “Wait.”
The door closes and the screen flickers its final messages.
WE MOURN TWO PEOPLE, MR. BRIDGES.
“Yes,” I whisper to the ground. “Yes, I know. I think I’ve always known.”
ACCEPT YOUR DEATH, MR. BRIDGES.
I cannot speak for days, months, years, millennia.
Slowly, I force myself to admit it. “I’ve…” I swallow thinly. “I’ve been dead for a long time.”
The screen flicks off at last, and I sit and wait for never to come.