04 Apr 2016You can also listen to this post, read by K.A. Smith.
Two weeks and four days into March, they wait. The light from the fire does not stretch far, but it is sufficient to cover everyone that lives in their small town if they huddle close. It gets less warm with every passing moon, but the luminescence stays strong, and it almost blinds them to the eyes that watch them from the dark. It is all that they have until Winter gets what it wants.
There are only a few days left before their calendars will tell them the start of Spring has arrived, but no one wants to be the first to sate the frost’s hunger. So, they sit around the fire, and talk, and share hollow laughter, and wait crooked minutes on crooked hours on crooked days. Someone is bound to work a little too late to notice the dipping of the sun soon.
They all inch a tiny bit closer to the flame. They pretend they do not see the others do the same.
It is her in the end, she realizes. It is her, in a barn, getting lost in her head and only finding her way out when she feels the cool sting of breath on the back of her neck. They will be sad to forget her name, but not enough to wish it was theirs fading from the others’ lips instead. Terror blooms from within at the sight of the setting sun, and it is only the resulting flood of adrenaline that allows her to light a nearby oil lamp before the darkness engulfs her; the lamp bites with cold at the touch, even after the flame begins to flicker, and she grasps onto the handle so hard her knuckles go white.
She stumbles backward as she feels the weight of eyes that never blink. Her back never touches a wall. She shivers, then walks toward where she knows the others are. They could all walk the long path blind.
She walks, and she walks, and she walks. It is a straight line, yet she passes fauna she knows she has already seen again, and again, and again. Her heart pounds faster every time she sees it. She convinces herself that she’s wrong, for a while. It lasts until she feels the exhaustion creeping up her legs.
She will find the fire before the last drop of oil lights up and the chill claims her. She will.
He has a Reputation, but I need, and I am shaking so hard I can feel myself tearing. She warns me not to seek him, and cries in the nape of my neck as she rips apart her story’s canvas. I spend a week’s worth on one instead, so I can hope I will not remember in the morning.
The last penny I held is now fire in my veins, but I cannot sell myself for money. I cannot. But I do it for food, and close my eyes as they’re open, and try to pretend it is any date that ends in dinner. He runs his hands down my bones and whispers how hot it is to know that I am flaking away. It has to hurt, so much. So much.
I am clean for three weeks. And then five. And then two. And then one. And then one.
And then one.
Lights, and sirens, and the light in her eyes fading away as she sees my marks. The clinic turns clinical. She is very professional, and very professionally takes my blood through the scars, and very, very professionally tells me she can’t help me with the pain. They write a note of discharge in regret, and come back soon! in invisible ink.
She places her left foot on the raised ridge, toes peeking just over the edge of the building. A surge of dread tears through her veins after an experimental look at the alley below, and she clenches her eyes shut in an attempt to smother the panic.
She’s seconds from self‐slaughter, and the last—only—thing holding her back is her fear of heights. That’s… pathetic.
Alright. She can do this. Just a few seconds. That’s all it takes. Count from five—no, three; too much time and she’ll get indecisive.
The decision’s been made for a while.
It takes longer than a second for the next count to come, but she pretends otherwise to save face. She raises her right foot so as to stand on the ledge wholly, and ignores the increased intensity of her inhibitions. You had your chance, survival instinct.
Exhale. Some of the resistance leaves with her breath.
She startles at the voice with a small, strangled cry, and an absurd irritation pulses through her as she realizes the interruption almost caused her to fall off. Not that she wasn’t going to jump to begin with, but not—it wasn’t going to be indignant, like that. For some reason, the distinction matters to her.
Her head whips around, but the source of the offending cry has already raised his hands in a show of contrition.
“Hey. Hey, I’m sorry. Not for stopping you, I mean, but…” He trails off, but doesn’t say anything else. She struggles to find something to say. They stare.
“… Could you—could you leave?” she asks.
“… Why?” Why? “What do you mean, why? I’m trying to… kill myself.” She hates how quiet the words get by the end, but it’s the only time she has yet to say it out loud, and the words ring wrong.
“Right. I mean, I can see that,” he says, in the same tone of voice one uses to chastise a child for chewing their fingernails. “But I’m not going to let you do that.”
She stares, and has to fight back the urge to fidget like she is being chided. “Not going to—not going to let me? Who the fuck are you?”
“Oh, my name’s—”
She cringes. “Listen. Can you just… let me be? For fifteen minutes? I’m sorry if I chose, I don’t know, the building where you work or something, but you’re…” She straightens herself as tall as she can and forces her tone to be resolute. “You’re not going to change my mind.”
His face pinches. “What kind of a request is that? ‘Oi, just give me a moment,’ like you’re going out for a morning stroll. I can’t very well leave now, can I?” He holds his arm up, and she notices his brown lunch bag for the first time in the conversation. “Guilt does dreadful things to digestion. Selfish, is what it is.”
“Selfish? You’re interrupting my suicide!”
“Well, you’re interrupting my lunch!”
The sheer audacity takes her aback for a moment, and she finds herself at a complete loss. It is safe to say that this was not how she pictured her life’s ending. Before she can string together something more coherent, she finds herself asking, “why are you eating on a rooftop, anyway?”
For the first time in the conversation, he has the sense to look sheepish. “Ah. Right. Not a habit of mine, but I—” He shakes his head as if to clear it. “No, no deflecting. This is not about me.”
“… Fine. I’ll come back later in the day.”
“Have lunch with me.”
She blinks. Twice. “What?”
“I brought enough for two, I s’pose. As long as you’re not very hungry, anyway.”
“You’re not worried…” She makes a vague gesture behind her, at the cold, hard alley below. “You don’t think I might be a little… crazy?”
He shrugs. “Probably.”
A few seconds pass before it occurs to her that he’s not going to add to that sentence. She shrugs helplessly. She considers saying something along the lines of ‘what do I have to lose?’ but the answer to that question is far beyond the point of demonstration.
He walks up and sits down on the ledge beside her, and she follows suit after a beat. He pulls out a sub—turkey?—and plastic knife, and cuts it down the middle; by the end, it has less food than an average lunch, but it could get someone through a workday. He pulls out a single can of cherry cola, and pauses.
“Er, don’t mind sharing, yeah?” She shakes her head, and he pops it open, offering it to her with an exaggerated flourish. A smile forces its way through her lips before she can offer up proper resistance.
They eat quietly for a bit. For her part, she’s too—uncomfortable isn’t the right word—confounded to initiate any proper conversation. For his, he simply seems content, if a bit lost in thought, as though this entire sequence of events is little more than a quirk of life.
When the silence starts to suffocate her senses, she decides to try asking an earlier question once more. “So, why do you eat lunch up here?”
That same disquiet paints its way across his face. The thought is mean, but she cannot help but find it satisfying. She can’t be the only one a bit out‐of‐control, right now. She simply cannot. His mouth opens and closes a few times.
“Like I said. This is the first time.”
“I don’t remember you saying that, actually.”
He scowls at her. “Semantics, innit? I’ve said it now.”
“Then… why today?”
He looks out to the distance; it is only midday, and their rooftop resides in the middle of a city, so the view is less ‘dramatic sunset dignifying the horizon’ and more ‘morass of muted steel,’ and yet he manages to imbue the act with some measure of gravitas. She can’t help the mental image of him practicing that look for hours, and she has to fight back a giggle.
“I wanted it to be special.”
“But why today?”
“I work here. I was off, the entire week. Medical leave. Just got back.”
“To pursue a ‘small anomaly’ in my blood. It’s… not.”
“… Oh.” She looks away, suddenly unable to meet his eyes.
“Mm. I wanted my last meal to be—fuckin’ poetic, or something. I don’t know.”
Her eyes shoot back to his in alarm. “Wait. ‘Last?’ If it’s that serious, why aren’t you in—”
“Oh, it’s not.” A pause. “I mean, it is. I’m still dying. Terminal. Dead‐man‐walking. But it’s not, uh, immediate.”
A look of confusion morphs into one of horror, and she sounds humiliatingly hysterical when she asks, “you were going to—”
“Oh, now you’re all for self‐preservation!” he interrupts. “So happy to fling yourself off of tall things, but when a single dead man wants to do it—”
“—but you’re…” Her mouth hangs open even as she flounders for a response, and she feels heat spread across her face for reasons she promptly represses. “You can’t just—you have time left, surely?”
His eyebrow raises. “And you don’t? I mean, you actually might not. Sorry if you’re dying too.” He tilts his head. “… But admit it, that would be kind of funny.”
“… I’m…” She bites the inside of her cheek, hard, because she refuses to let herself get teary‐eyed right now. Fuck.
“… No. But you’re… kind.” She cringes.
“I… don’t want to die.” He laughs, and then acts as if the action startles him. “I mean, right? Who wants to—uh. Poor choice of words, sorry. But I’m not going to die in a hospital bed.” His eyes drift away, settling on some unfocused spot in the distance. “You know what I do here? I’m a web designer. I’m a web designer.” He laughs, harder. “I’m not even good at it! I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing, I just get paid whenever I manage not to completely mess my company’s shit up. For fourteen years, I’ve been paid to sit down, shut up, and not fuck up.”
“I’m… sure you’re better than you think you are.”
“No, you’re not.”
“… Well, you’re good at other—”
“—but it doesn’t matter, does it? I mean—listen. Do you know what everyone’s goal in life is? Every single person. Every single person.”
She cocks her head. “Uh. Happiness?”
“No. Misery. Not their own, and not immediately, but it’s to make as many people as possible fucking miserable when you die. We measure the worth of an entire lifespan by how many people get their lives crushed by grief. That’s what we all want. You’re here because you think you’ve failed at something, right?”
She snorts. “Life?”
“Yeah, but what in it? What specifically? What do you want to do? Or wanted, I guess.”
“… Don’t laugh. It’s… cliché, and dumb, but, uh. I wanted to be a writer.”
He shakes his head. “No, it’s not dumb at all. I’m sure you’d be great at it.”
She smirks. “No, you’re not.”
“Hey. That’s plagiarism. That’s breaking, like, the first rule of being a writer. But why? You wanted to be famous, right? Or, at least, wanted everyone, or as close to that number as you can reach, to read your books. You wanted to touch them, emotionally. You wanted to make sure that when you died, as many ‘everyones’ as possible remembered you. You wanted to destroy them as people, just for one week, when they read that headline.”
She does giggle this time, despite herself. “You sound like you just watched Fight Club for the first time.”
He feigns offense, clutching his chest, and she giggles harder, but both of them find their good humor fading away by the end of the minute.
“No one would be sad if I died. And yes, I am sure of that. Not really. Not beyond dehumanizing me as a ‘nice guy who never had anything bad to say’ above a casket. I’m not going to fade away in a nice, clean hospital bed, in an empty room.”
He’s not looking at her, so he startles a slight bit when he feels her lay an unsteady hand on his arm a second later.
“I would. Be sad, I mean.”
He shakes his head. “You don’t even know my name.”
“But I would,” and it shocks them both to hear the hard edge in her voice. “And I’ll be there with you. I promise. I’ll sit next to you, when you…”
“Well, if you have go and be selfish about it, yeah.”
“That’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
She shakes her head in false disgust. “Chauvinist.”
“You’re assuming I’m not going to finish what I started.”
“Of course not. Because I’m not going to let you do that.”