Your fingers are cold as you hold my hand. We sit on the dock and watch the sun rising up through the sky, like a brilliant orange balloon, like a manifestation of God Himself floating away, leaving us transfixed down below with nothing left to believe in. The world is perfectly silent and we hold our breaths, not daring to ruin it.
You stare at your toes as they brush the water, what’s left of your hair falling in front of your face. You should have shaved it by now but you haven’t. I wonder what you’re thinking about, although I know you’ll never tell me.
Last week, when you told me you were sick, I thought you would be strong. I thought you would fight through it with gritted teeth. But I think we’ve both realized that there’s no fighting it. There’s no over, there’s no under, there’s no around. There’s no through. It’s just a wall in front of you, and you’re just going to keep slamming yourself against it until you collapse on the floor, unable to go on. Leaving me behind. I can see it in your eyes—you’ve decided that it’ll be easier if you just don’t try.
Do you even want to live anymore?
I can’t ask this question, though, and you can’t answer it. Knowing this, I feel salty tears sting my eyes. I decide that if you notice it, I’ll blame it on the sunlight that’s growing ever brighter in front of us. But you don’t look at me, and I tell myself that I’m glad.
I remember the last time I saw you before this summer. Late August, a rainy day, but it didn’t matter because the darkness made your smile look brighter. I remember how you kissed me and how beautiful you looked standing in the rear-view mirror, waving and waving until we were out of sight.
I miss that girl. The girl who wasn’t afraid. The girl who smiled in the rain.
You let go of my hand to reach down and trail your fingers over the surface of the lake. You almost look peaceful like that. Like you know what’s going to happen and you don’t mind it. And then you flick your hand and splash water onto my shorts with a tiny smile that lights up the whole world. And I laugh and laugh, happy that you’re not all the way gone.
Chop-a-chop-a-chop-a chants the motor as we speed out into the middle of the lake. The afternoon sun hangs low and heavy in the air. You squint as you look ahead, one leg resting up on the front of the boat, your back straight. Like a queen. Like Arthur about to pull the sword from the stone. I’m reminded yet again of why I love you so much.
The tiller vibrates under my hand like a beast trying to evade capture, but I don’t let go of it until we’re far, far away from our houses on the opposite shore. The one that my family escapes to every summer, and the one that you’ve tried all your life to escape. Side by side, nearly identical from all the way out here.
The boat slides lazily over the surface now that it has nothing to guide it. I tell myself that now is as good a time as any to ask you.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” It’s hard to keep the indignation out of my tone.
“Tell you what?” you say absentmindedly, turning around to look at me.
“You have my number, genius. Why didn’t you tell me about everything before now? Why did you wait?”
“I thought it would be better to tell you in person,” you say feebly. I try not to be mad at you. I’m not even mad at you, exactly. I’m mad at the girl you used to be. For giving up. For dying before you actually died. I’ve never heard you sound uncertain before this summer, never seen you hesitate, and here you are, telling me this with your voice fragile and trembling. I take a deep breath. The last thing I want to do is break you.
A warm summer wind wanders curiously over to our boat. You close your eyes and let it play across your face. If I look at you out of the corner of my eye, I can’t even tell that you’re sick. “I just wish I had known sooner.”
“I’m sorry.” But you’re not. You’ve never been sorry for anything, and you never will be. And I used to love you for it but now I’m not sure.
You lean back against the front of the boat, your eyes still closed, a silent melody playing on your lips. Your face is thin and gaunt and nothing like it used to be. I barely recognized you when you came out to greet me as we drove up the dirt road. Just like you have every summer since we were thirteen.
Everything spins. I don’t even recognize you. I don’t even know who you are.
“Why can’t you at least try?” I blurt suddenly. I regret it before I even say it.
“What do you mean?” you say, but your narrowed eyes tell me that you know exactly what I mean.
I keep going, even though my mind’s yelling at my mouth to shut up. Stop stop stop stop stop, I tell myself. You said you didn’t want to break her. But I don’t stop, because I’m a terrible person. “It’s like you’ve already given up. Like you’re not even trying. Like you don’t even want to make it. Can’t you at least try to care? For me? For the people who care about you? You’re not the only one who’s being affected by this. You’re not the only one who matters.” It sounds selfish even to me. But I don’t take it back because that’s how stubborn I am.
You stare at me, like you can’t believe what I said. Like you don’t even know who I am. I don’t even know who I am anymore. You were always the one who helped me figure that out, but now I don’t know who you are either.
Look at us. Two strangers who have known each other for five years.
“You have no idea,” you say, every word trembling—this time with rage. “You have no idea what it’s like to know that you’re going to die. You have no idea what it’s like to know that the one person in this world that you love is going to move on without you, and there's nothing you can do. And I don’t know how you can say that to my face, when you’re the only thing that’s keeping me going.” Your voice is choppy with emotion, your eyes shiny with tears.
“I-” I start, even though I don’t know what to say.
“No,” you snap, plain and simple. You look away from me.
I keep trying, but you ignore me. Finally I rev up the engine and steer us around.
Tears stream down your face the whole ride back.
I wake up to sirens screaming. Not far off on the distant interstate—right outside. In the muddled haze between sleeping and waking, I’m confused. Then everything sharpens and I remember what happened yesterday. I remember that you’re sick.
No. It can’t be. I jump out of bed and run outside. There they are, red-and-white flashing omens of death. No. No. No.
Your parents stand there, stunned, still in the stage where they don’t realize what’s happened. No. I can’t do anything but watch the chaos happening all around. Then your dad sees me, and seems to snap out of his daze. He strides towards me, and I’m surprised to see that the look on his face is one of anger. He grabs me roughly by the shoulders.
“How could you do this to her?” His every syllable quavers with fury. I don’t know why he’s saying this, but it somehow makes me sure of what’s happening. No. No. It isn’t possible.
“What do you mean?” I whisper hoarsely. “She was sick.”
“Her doctor said she was getting BETTER,” he roared. “And would you like to explain to me, boy, why you took her on a boat ride yesterday, and when she comes back she refuses to talk to us, and then this morning we find her HANGING FROM HER CEILING FAN?”
It can’t be.
The world spins and spins and spins. I turn and run because I have to be somewhere that’s not here. I run and run and run into the woods, where I finally collapse onto a rock and sit there for who knows how long.
You can’t be gone.
It can’t be because of me.
She wasn’t even getting better, the back of my mind whispers. The doctor lied. She was going anyway.
But the rest of my mind screams YOUR FAULT. Over and over, like the beat of a drum. It’s my fault. My fault you’re gone. Maybe you were going anyway. But it didn’t have to be now.
I can’t think. I start running again. I have to go somewhere, but everywhere my thoughts follow me, press down on me like an unliftable weight.
Your face appears in my mind. Not how I’ve seen you recently, but how I’ve seen you every other summer. The face that I fell in love with. The face that smiled in the rain.
That girl was already halfway gone. But now she's dead for good. And it's my fault.
The pale moon trembles on the rippling surface of the lake. I sit on the dock and look down at it, but it doesn’t even feel real. Nothing feels real anymore.
I remember something you once said to me. If you ever live to see me die, you said, you better burn me. Burn me and sprinkle me somewhere special. Not in this goddamned excuse for a lake, obviously. Somewhere I like. Or would’ve liked. You can decide where that is. I promised I would.
I don’t even know where they put your body, but I decide then and there that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my promise.
As if that will be enough.
I try to pretend you’re here, right now, sitting next to me. But it doesn’t feel quite right. I don’t hear the tuneless song you always hummed, I don’t smell that shampoo you always wore, I don’t feel your hand that always wanted to hold mine.
You’re really gone.
I wait and wait and wait for the sunrise, but it never comes.