By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. With a sigh, I closed the door.
“You know, if you don’t put that out, Mrs Evans will have a fit,” I said.
Laura pouted. “They’re a trip hazard. You’re always saying you need to keep this driveway clear.”
“‘Clear,’ I said. Not on fire. By my house.”
“And what happened to ringing the doorbell anyway?”
“Eh. Life’s too short for doorbells.”
She looked away then. I said nothing. She didn’t know that I knew. Hopefully, she never would.
“Alright,” I said instead. “So, once we’ve put this out, what’s the plan?”
She looked back again, smile brighter than the flames. I loved that smile: it was one that said there was adventure to be had; that she had a great plan, and you were the missing piece.
“Today,” she said, linking her arm with mine, “we take the world by storm. And we start-” Here, she pointed a hand in the air dramatically. “-by investigating the haunting of Ox Creek.”
“You mean the stream down by the estate?”
God, I loved this woman.
I was going to miss her when I was dead.
The truth was: I wasn’t supposed to know my number was up. And in fairness, I didn’t know exactly when it would happen. But still. I knew.
It had started at a party. One of those loud ones at the start of university where nobody knows each other. I’d gone with the intention of being louder, of being cooler, but soon found myself hiding in the corner. Eventually, I’d decided to leave, but as I’d turned, she’d walked into me, drink spilling all over my shirt. For a moment, she’d frozen. Then she’d apologised, frantically trying to dry the shirt with her hands. I’d said it was OK, and she’d sagged with relief. Then she’d said, “Hey. Want to get out of here?”
That evening, she’d coaxed me into going up the highest place we could find. On the way, she’d played jokes and made up silly dares, and, caught up in the aura of someone so alive, I’d joined in. With the less crazy things anyway. Soon, I’d learned that she was shorter than me; her hair, the reddish-brown of leaves turning in the autumn; her eyes, warm and brown. She was studying Computer Sciences; she snorted when she laughed. And she never said goodbye, just walked away. I’d been so taken with her that a few weeks later, summoning what little teenage courage I’d had, I’d asked her out.
She’d said no though: apparently, we wouldn’t last long enough to make a life together. It was an odd comment, one she’d immediately tried to downplay, so it had stuck with me. Because while she did later realise she was gay, meaning she was right that we wouldn’t have lasted, she didn’t know that at the time. So, she’d obviously been thinking of something else. And a year later, crush conveniently ignored in favour of one of the best friendships I’d ever had, she’d inadvertently told me what.
We’d been playing a game: the loser had to tell a secret. It was her first loss of the night, and I’d sat back, a smirk on my face, and waited.
She’d said, “I know when people are going to die.”
After a second, I’d said, “You what?”
“I know when people are going to die. And how.”
I’d looked at the game. “You know the secret has to be true, right?”
“I know.” A moment’s hesitation. Her eyes had closed. “Professor Anders. She’ll trip down the stairs tomorrow and crack her head open.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I know. It’s true.”
I’d given in and played along, until an email had arrived the following evening, telling us that Professor Anders had indeed fallen down the stairs and died. For a moment, I’d seriously wondered whether Laura had killed her, before remembering that she’d been with me all afternoon.
I’d had questions, of course. She’d tried to answer them. She’d always had this ability. She’d never been wrong. She’d no idea where it came from. Medically, she was fine. She’d tried to save people before; it never worked. She knew when everyone she saw would die, including me. And no, she wouldn’t tell me.
And suddenly, her rejection of me (pre-gay discovery) made sense. If we didn’t last long, I clearly didn’t last long. She’d presumably seen my early death several times by the time I’d asked. Even now, she’d looked away, fists clenching and unclenching as I digested.
So, I’d dropped the subject, much to her quiet relief. But everything had somehow changed. Laura had always wanted to embark on thrills and adventures, and previously, I’d drawn a line at the really crazy things. Now, though, I agreed to everything. I even made my own suggestions, much to Laura’s delight. And with each crazy antic, each what the hell, each heartbeat of adrenaline, I felt more alive. Part of me wished I’d been like this before. But it didn’t matter. Better late than never, I supposed.
In all honesty, though, I wasn’t sure the trip that day counted as a thrill.
“Laura,” I said as she gestured triumphantly at our destination, “it’s a tiny stream.”
“But a haunted one.”
“There’s a condom wrapper there.”
“Ghosts get laid too.”
Her eyes twinkled even as she tried to keep her face serious. She still smelled of smoke, her hair slightly singed from the mess we’d made trying to put the leaves out.
“Alright,” I said, giving up. “How do we investigate?”
“Now you’re talking. We need to find ourselves some ectoplasm. Behold!” She kicked at a crisp packet. Something squeaked; a rat scarpered away. “Uh… After the wildlife is gone, maybe.”
“…Should we get rid of the wildlife?”
She considered this, then hid behind me. “You’re manly. You go first.”
“That’s it. Sacrifice the black guy.” I placed a hand to my chest dramatically. “Remember me as a hero!”
She laughed. I tried to hide my disappointment. I often made jokes about my death, hoping to trip her up, but I’d never managed it. Still, I thought this day might be different. After all, we both knew I wouldn’t survive the week.
(I wished this was intuition on my part but actually, I’d bought tickets to see her favourite band the following week. Her reaction to this, bizarrely, was sadness. Then, before I could ask, she’d suddenly declared that she wanted to spend Saturday with me, and not to worry, I’d be home before sunset. I could read between the lines. We wouldn’t be at that concert. She hadn’t reacted to my plans to visit my mother on the Sunday, so I thought that might be safe, but after that…
The ticket company, incidentally, wouldn’t accept my impending death as a valid reason for a refund. They put me in touch with the Samaritans though. And sent the police to my house. Fortunately, Dave the Samaritan had assured the officer that he’d check in on me daily. I wondered what he’d think of the day’s adventures.)
With no further reaction forthcoming, I obediently waded into the stream. Nearby, another rat scuttled away. Two boys emerging from the nearby trees pointed and laughed. I half-heartedly kicked at a rock.
“What am I looking for?”
She walked into the stream, jeans soaking up dirty water, and slung an arm around my shoulders. “Now you’re asking the deep questions, Mark.”
“My questions are as deep as this stream. You’re dodging them.”
“Well,” she said, drawing the word out, “we’re really meant to be following the stream towards the river.”
“OK. So, why am I in here?”
“I just wanted to see if you’d do it.”
I stared at her for a second, before kicking water at her. She squealed, hands going protectively to her chest even though I was aiming for her shins. Then she kicked back and soon, like the mature adults we were, we were having a water fight in the world’s shallowest and most junk-filled stream.
Once we were both soaked through, Laura decided that we’d found enough ectoplasm (by which I could only assume she meant Weil’s disease), so we started off down the path by the stream. It was a chilly day for October and the bite in the air made the water in our clothes particularly unpleasant. In addition, as we walked, we kept tripping over each other due to our linked arms and close proximity. I wanted to tell her to move away, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. At least her body warmth made up for my constant stumbles.
She told me ghost stories as we walked. I never knew where she got them from; I suspected they were how she comforted herself. The stories were never scary: ghost kids were reunited with ghost pets; lovers met in the afterlife; benevolent spirits helped lost wanderers. This day was no different: I soon learned about Bernie the Ghost Rat who helped a kid get away from his alcoholic dad; and Eddie, a ghost man who led two orphans to treasure deep in the woods that ran by the very creek we followed.
“Laura,” I said at this point, “these aren’t woods. There are houses literally behind this fence. The road’s over there.”
“Hush,” she said, poking my side. “You’re spoiling the mood. Don’t you know it’s nearly Halloween?”
“In three weeks.”
She pursed her lips. “Good to get it out of the way though.” She shivered suddenly, hands rubbing together. “God, I hate this time of the year.”
She looked at the muddy path ahead, damp leaves strewn so carelessly across it. “I like summer,” she said. “It’s warm, the days are long, and everything feels so … free. And winter, I can get behind. It’s cold and dark but you know the score, and you can keep cosy. But autumn’s … between. It’s not free like summer. It’s not warm or sunny, but you can’t stay inside and wrap up warm like winter. It’s damp and dark but nobody wants to admit it. And you can’t do anything in it. You just realise summer has ended and you’re waiting for winter to hit.”
“Not tempted by the pumpkin spice lattes then?” I asked.
Her lips quirked. “No.” Then she looked at me. “What do you think?”
“About autumn?” She nodded. “Dunno. I like having the time to adjust, I guess. If we went straight from summer to winter, it’d be too sad. All that sunshine and then cold?” I shrugged. “Autumn’s like a goodbye to summer, I reckon. We need it to help us move on.”
“But sometimes we don’t get to say goodbye,” she said. “Sometimes, we just have to keep living.”
“You would say that. You always run off.”
She smiled. “Want the truth?”
“No. Lies. Always.”
I grinned. “Sorry. Go on.”
She looked suddenly shy. “It’s just, to me, every day feels like a goodbye. I see when everyone dies, so it’s like I’m always waiting for the end. And I hate it. That’s why I try so hard, you know. I just want to feel like I’m moving, like I’m living. How can I do that if I’m always saying goodbye?”
“Jeez,” I said, freeing an arm to give her a one-armed hug. “Maybe if you told people-”
“No. They try to change it. They always try. Then they waste time, trying to fight the inevitable. Honestly, the best gift I can give them is not to say anything.”
“Yeah. Nobody should have to live in the time between life and death. Better to live hard and then end. Like ripping a plaster: a short, sharp pain, and it’s over. You die, your loved ones move on. It’s better for everyone.”
Is it? I wondered. Or do the people left behind wonder if they should live, when you couldn’t?
“Anyway,” she said before I could speak, “this is depressing. Point is: autumn sucks, bring on winter. Now, let’s make a fort.”
She smiled. I gave up. “OK. But only if I can be King.”
“Of course. I’ll be your assassin!”
“Naturally.” I grabbed a branch. “Let’s do it.”
Laura had few friends, something I suspected was by choice. She loved computers, loved the logic of them, the lack of personal touch. She’d helped me find my perfect job but hated hers. She adored her mother, yet never mentioned her father or sister. When my girlfriend had cheated on me, she’d sat with me all night, then egged the girl’s house with me. Immature, probably illegal, but it had helped. She was my best friend.
I’d decided, once I’d realised it was the end, that I’d spend my last days doing whatever she wanted. I never felt like I offered enough in our friendship: she’d pushed me, made me stronger, made me really challenge life. I felt like I’d just sort of egged her on and never really pushed her. Now was my opportunity to change that.
So, once the fort was made, I acquiesced to her wanting to play hide and seek. To her sudden desire for selfies. To an improvised sword fight that drew the ire of a nearby dog-walker. I laughed loudly and freely, and tried to memorise the way her eyes crinkled with laughter, the way her nose wrinkled. Let her have her short, sharp pain, I decided: I would draw every second of this out. Maybe take Monday off or, hell, the whole week. I wouldn’t die without saying goodbye. I wouldn’t let her torture herself, wondering if she could have been more. She deserved every happiness I could offer her. This was my last week to give it.
By the time we reached the river, it was evening. We were wet, tired, and heady with laughter. The hunt for ghosts had long since been abandoned; whatever plan Laura had had, it had fizzled out.
“Let’s sit,” she said, so we did. Our feet dangled above the rushing water. Leaves the colour of Laura’s hair twirled down. Already, the sky was grey and darkening. “If you could do one thing, what would it be?”
I wasn’t expecting that. My first thought, that I’d do whatever she wanted, was too weird to voice. So, I said, “Climb Mount Everest.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
The idea was intoxicating, suddenly. Perhaps because I’d never do it. Perhaps because we could have done it. “Yeah,” I said. “I want to see the world from on high and shout.” I raised my arms and she laughed. I lowered them. “What about you?”
She kicked her feet. “I’d have a fling.”
“Really?” It was so … quiet. Not like her at all.
“Yep. I’ve never … knowing what I know, it’s always felt…”
“Then let’s do it.” It felt right, suddenly. “Let’s find someone who lives to old age. Have your night of passion, guilt-free. Why not?”
She considered me for a second. Then she leaned forwards and kissed me, her lips soft and sweet on mine.
I stared. “Uh…”
She smiled. “Sorry. I just … I wanted to show you how much I wish…”
My throat hurt as I said, “You should have said. I think I’d look great with breasts.”
She laughed. “Prat.” Then she looked up at the darkening sky. “Crap. I need to go.”
“Already? We just got here.”
“Yeah, but now I’ve reached the end. Nothing lasts forever, you know.”
I wanted to protest. I wanted to pretend this would last forever. But this was for her now, not me, and I had time. So, I said, “OK. Lead on, O Wise One. I’ll get the bus.”
Reluctance crossed her face but her arm threaded through mine as we headed towards the road. “OK.” A pause. “I’m sorry, by the way. A-about your driveway.”
“Huh?” I’d already forgotten the burning leaves. “Oh. It’s fine. No structural damage.”
“Still.” She swallowed. “I … just wanted to pretend that this was a normal day. That we’d always be this wild and free. It was hypocritical of me. I’m sorry.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
She hesitated. My heart began to thump. “Mark…” She took a breath. “I love you, you know.”
We’d reached the road. A couple holding hands walked nearby, a kid with a dog darting ahead. An old man limped behind them.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just … it’s not this year, OK? Or the next. I know what I said, about autumn and everything, but if you need to pause, before your next adventure, I’ll understand. I’ll still love you. I’ll love you whatever you do. But I think if you give up on our adventures entirely, you’ll hate yourself. I don’t want that.”
She smiled faintly. “Did you know autumn’s one of the only times you can climb Mount Everest? Maybe I undervalued it. You should tell me.”
I realised then that Laura knew what I’d thought. That she could see herself in mirrors; that our relationship also wouldn’t have lasted if she was the one who-
“No.” I shook my head. “No.”
A shriek, sudden and scared, split the air. Immediately, she twisted, hands reaching out to push a child away from a bus I hadn’t even seen.
I thought: But I haven’t even said goodbye.
Then the bus inched forwards, microsecond by nanosecond; the time between life and death already slipping away.
“But sometimes we don’t get to.”
My hand reached out-
“Sometimes, we just have to keep on living.”
And everything ended.
“It’s better for everyone.”
Everything I should have said-
“You should tell me.”
Everything I should have done-
“I’ll still love you.”
I still had to do.
My eyes closed. My hand dropped.
I hoped the view from Mount Everest in autumn would be spectacular.