I lost my best friend to war. I'm only twenty years old and my best friend died. That feels like all anyone needs to know about me, because since the day I heard the news, it's consumed everything. I miss him. Never got to tell him how much he meant to me. Never said goodbye. The best I can do is visit the memorial in the park, which I do every night. Always at midnight so I'll be alone surrounded by the dark trees whose branches, like twisted ghoul hands, stretch out towards me.
Tonight I see the shadow of a man, silhouetted by the orange glow of a streetlamp, standing where I normally stand. My instinct is to run. A strange electricity zaps and crackles through my body. He wears a suit and looks a bit like a TV show detective would. I always wear black, living in a never ending funeral.
There's something that pulls me forward. The past couple years, I've been silent mostly because no one wants to hear how I feel, but I long so desperately to share stories of my friend. Would this man understand? Would he feel the same?
His shoulders are hunched over with poor posture, and a chemical scent of cigarette smoke grows stronger as I step closer to him. The sky lights up in the distance with red rapidly flashing like very close and unnatural lightning. This war will never end. I wonder if they’re putting up memorials early because the numbers of those lost will get far too high to remember the names at some point. They claim it’s a series of battles that vaguely connect to cover the fact that this has gone on so long and will never be over. It’s not working.
“Hello,” I say weakly.
He smiles in a way that extends to his eyes, and there is a kindness in it that eases my jitters. His face is handsome with a five o’clock shadow I imagine would grate against my fingertips like sandpaper. I imagine touching my fingers to his cheek, but then flinch from the image of his jaw blown off and neck coated in blood. Guilt eats away at the pit of my stomach. It feels wrong to imagine something so affectionate and sweet while the world collapses around us.
“Anyone special you’re here to see?” I ask.
“My sister. Barbara.”
It stings to hear. I’m an only child, but I always thought a sibling must feel like a half of you.
“What about you?” His voice is deep and slightly raspy. I love the sound of it.
“My best friend, Milo.”
He winces. “That’s rough.”
We stare silently at the flags dancing in the chilling breeze, as the scent of lilacs drifts past our noses.
“We weren’t very close,” he says. “We grew up in a tough situation. Real shit family dynamics. She never let it hold her back. Smart. Obedient. Hardworking. Kind. Real hero too. Volunteer firefighter and one of those police kids whatever they’re called. Enlisted with full patriotic pride as soon as she could. I stupidly always thought that meant things were easier for her. I understand it different now.”
He slides his hands in the pockets of his pants and scrunches into himself a bit. I notice the way the ends of his hair curl and how his ears are adorably large.
“I grew up as invisible as a ghost. Then I met Milo and he could actually see me. We were in our own little world.” Now I don’t know how to face this world without him. I want ours back.
He nods. “Sounds special.”
Loneliness rolls through me like a tidal wave crushing everything in its path and swirling away my air supply. For a moment, I imagine this man and I laughing while eating cheesy fries at the local diner or laying on the grass talking about what shapes the clouds make. The guilt jabs its sharp fangs into me. What’s the point in imagining a future? He’ll die. I’ll die. We’ll probably both end up fighting. No one will even know what it’s for anymore. I doubt they do now. Rich men using the poor as pawns to play their sick game. They say it’s a war of ideas, and that lack of a solid, tangible goal is the issue. I say violence is the weakest way to solve your problems. It’s impulsive, animalistic, easy and completely lacking in solutions. It breeds resentment, not collaboration. Not that I blame the soldiers. What choice do they have? Milo sounded so sure he was doing the right thing at first. Then the letters took a subtle turn. I knew he had doubts in the end.
“I wish he knew how much I cared.”
“He does. Not everything is understood with words.” The man looks sure of this and it helps a little.
My eyes blur. “I was so mad at him for joining this stupid war. I told him it wasn’t worth it.”
“You’re not wrong,” he sighs.
“Usually people are mad at me for talking like that.”
“I suppose it’s a way of coping. Feeling in control.”
I nod. A cherry willow tree's branches dangle above the memorial showering it in pink petals. I never noticed it before. What happened to the dark claws of my memory? Had I mentally missed the season’s change? I’m here every night.
We sit on a bench, silently watching over the marble monument. The air is so cool my teeth chatter, but I enjoy the cold. They say chilly patches in the air are a sign of ghosts, so maybe I shiver from Milo’s ghostly hugs. I miss his hugs. The warmth of them. I imagine embracing the stranger beside me, and for a moment the chill feels less painful. Then I picture his car swerving and tumbling off a cliff into icy water on his way home. I imagine spending my days visiting gravestones and talking to ghosts. Tears trickle down my cheeks.
The man puts his hand on my shoulder.
We continue to sit quietly until the darkness of night fades into the gentle blue glow of morning.
“Well I should be on my way. Until next time ghost girl.” He slaps his hands against his thighs and stands.
A smile breaks through my lips and laughter rolls down my tongue. It’s not that funny, but I haven’t laughed in so long that now he started it, I can’t stop it. It feels like shaking off a bit of weight. There’s no judgment in the smile he gives me.
“Until next time.” That hint this could happen again sparks some embers in my almost extinguished heart. Please make it home safe. Please never go to war.
When he is gone, I walk up to the memorial. I find Milo’s name with my fingertips. I close my eyes and trace each carved letter. I think about the fort we built of branches in the woods when we were kids. The orange salamanders we used to catch crawl around my memory. A smile tugs at my lips and tears dampen my cheeks. The last thing we did together was hike to the top of a mountain and dance around the summit while wild wind whipped our clothing and hair in all directions. I should do that again.
Yellow daffodils and pink tulips line my path home. The cheery colors look beautiful, but I’m stunned to see them. When did they all pop up? Inspired by the floral smells and dashes of color, I take a small detour to a plant nursery. I search through the plants.
“Can I help you?” A short woman with rosy cheeks and long dark gray hair asks.
“Do you have any plants that are really easy to take care of? Like unkillable?”
She smiles. “Oh yes. I have just the one.”
She brings me to a vibrant green plant that stretches up tall. Yellow outlines its edges.
“It’s a snake plant. I honestly don’t think you could kill if you tried. They’re very hearty. I know someone who forgot to water hers for like months and it was fine.”
I hug the plant tightly to my chest as I walk home. I’ll do my best to never let you die.
Pink petals dance in the wind across my field of vision. I shiver from a pocket of cold air. Is it a ghost? Is it Milo supporting this little touch of life I’m carrying into my darkness? I think he would. I know he would.