“Celebration of Life” Dark Fiction by Emma Scott

It always hurt my feelings when you said I never understood you. I guess you’re probably blaming me for what happened, from wherever you are right now. Your mom and your granddad and the preacher and the girl who says you loved her all seem to believe that you’re in heaven. Well, they don’t say that explicitly. They say you’re “in a better place” or “no longer in pain.” The girl who says you loved her spends the entire ceremony dabbing lightly around her heavily-lined, gray eyeballs with a crumpled tissue. She makes a show out of trying to find a clean, smudge-free spot to wipe the thin tears from her cheeks, leaving one to trickle sadly between her pale, waxy lips.

That’s not to say that I’m any better. Funerals are really just that: a show. Everyone always says that they want their funerals to be a happy occasion. They say that they want it to be a “party,” or a “celebration of life.” I remember you said that once. We were laying in my bed, because mine was always cleaner and I had a king mattress and you only had a twin since you still technically shared a room with Matt. Your little brother’s not here, by the way. I haven’t seen him since he left for Mizzou and I’m assuming you haven’t either.

You always said that Matt was a pain in the ass but frankly, I think it was the other way around. You said that he resented you ever since you broke the Xbox he got for his 16th birthday in a fit of drunken rage. I remember that night clearly, and I think you remember more than you say you do given the way that your face always droops and your smile always splits down the middle when someone brings it up. I remember the silence that ensued the second after that stupid little black box went soaring out of your second-story window and splashed into the hot tub below where it sat, distorted and wavering under the water.

I remember helping you scour through your shared room, and then your beat-up Toyota Camry, trying to find any leftover cash you might have still laying around to replace it. We turned that shitty car upside down, tossing out greasy old McDonald’s containers, empty Gatorade bottles, ketchup-stained napkins, and even a musty hoodie that I briefly recalled lending you when yours got soaked playing football in the snow several months ago. Even though it did humble me to see it crumpled under the passenger’s seat, I liked knowing that it was in your possession. That a piece of me was always in your vicinity, even if you’d long since forgotten it was there.

Of course, we both knew that there wasn’t any leftover cash to find. The only leftovers were whatever was slowly coalescing in the back cup holder and a half eaten power bar. You were using by then, only at the time I didn’t see it like I should have. You had way too many unwrapped plastic straws scattered around the floor and stashed in the seat pockets, and most of them were cut in imperfect thirds. You made a joke about the straw that broke the camel’s back, an idiom that your mother frequently used, before carefully turning the blame onto Cam. I’m trying to get her to stop, I swear, but until then I can’t leave her alone. At least when she’s with me I can make sure she doesn’t go overboard. I can’t believe I bought that lie. I wonder which straw had broken you?

It was easy to blame the raw, peeling skin beneath your nose on the cold but when you barged into my room that Friday night when my heart had fallen like a drop of rain, you couldn’t hide it anymore. Your pupils had widened to the point where they nearly consumed the gentle blue of your eyes. Your hands were shaking under the weight of the pizza box steaming slightly in your outstretched hands. At that moment, I couldn’t recognize my best friend. I saw instead a demon standing outlined in my doorway.

G, I felt like a coward. I sat up suddenly feeling like I might be in danger. I think you saw the alarm on my face because you instantly froze. In the silence that followed I peered into your giant, black eyes and something deep within me loosened and gave way and the tears came fast and stinging.

It’s stupid to think about that now. To think about how you shuffled over to my bedside and awkwardly climbed into the tangled covers to rest beside me. To think about how you pulled me into your arms as though I was the one with the scabs littered along my biceps. Don’t think I didn’t notice those, too, G. Don’t think I didn’t notice the way your soft voice had become rough and scratched with sorrow. Don’t think I didn’t feel like a fucking loser as I bawled like a child into the safe cavity of your chest. Don’t think about how selfish it was for me to be lulled to sleep in your quivering arms, finding comfort in your discomfort.

I think about that night a lot. More than I’d care to admit, G. My mind echoes with the quiet little “I’m so sorry” that passed through your chapped lips over and over again as you gripped onto my shoulders with a desperation that took my breath away. Your voice, dripping with pain and sincerity, ricochets constantly through my brain. I hate myself for glorifying that night every time I go to sleep now, for pulling it out of the backseat and lovingly stretching my arms through the sleeves, finding solace in the memory just because you shared it with me.

I swear I hear that same tiny apology when I lean down to grace your cold, pale forehead with an awkward kiss. It’s the first time I’ve ever kissed you in public, isn’t that funny, G? Even though your body is mostly covered you’re still so gorgeous that my vision is instantly blurred and all I can do is focus on the stupid golden cross peeking out from beneath your stiff, white collar and try not to think about how you cast it into your trashcan the first day that you ever told me you loved me. I wonder how long it took your mother to find it there, simmering next to an empty container of your contact solution. Did it hurt her to see it there as much as it hurt you to string it around your neck? Did she think about how blind she was to your suffering, to your dependent disease? Could her pyrite halo guide her through that heavy fog?

In the moment, I want to crawl into the casket with you, to hold you like you’d held me that Friday night when my heart had fallen like rain and you had swaddled it dry and told me you were so sorry. I want to rest my ear against your heart and listen to its steady reverberation until my own heart stops beating and we can both finally be still, your shaking limbs resting, finally, in peace. I would trade my heartbeat in an instant just to have the steady drum of your internal music consume me for just one more minute. But I know that’s selfish.

Instead I straighten and adjust the blue tie that I had borrowed from my dad’s closet and remember the sympathy in his eyes as he’d helped me loop the ends into a knot earlier this morning. As my fingers had stumbled with the fabric, losing track of it through my bleary vision I think my dad had realized what I had known about you for all of my life. As his big, careful hands had redone my clumsy, despondent work he didn’t say a single word. His square, angular face that many people thought looked like mine had understanding written within every sun and smile-spotted wrinkle, written in bold, sky-colored letters that said YOU’RE LOSING MORE THAN WE THINK YOU ARE, AREN’T YOU?

I wondered if he could see the response, dripping white and chalky from my eyes: Dad, I’m losing EVERYTHING.

* * * * *

Your dad speaks. So does Maggie and Coach K. Don and Jacoby both read poems. They look so comical in their suits and dress shoes, clutching their printouts like anxious schoolboys reciting Romeo and Juliet in front of an amused classroom. Your mom is too choked up to speak. She spends the whole ceremony clutching one of your old baby blankets to her chest. It’s worn and torn and frayed at the edges but she holds it as if it’s made of gold. I wonder if she’s imagining that your tiny self is in it, still warm and glowing with newly acquired life. The girl who says you loved her claims that she’s too choked up to speak. She shakes her head when the preacher asks if she wants to say a few words and squeaks out a feeble, “I can’t!” while covering her face with her ring-clad hands and letting out an equally feeble sob. Everyone else looks at me with pity. Your mother hugs me with one arm while still grasping the tattered blanket to her stomach. Your dad asks me how I’m holding up. I start to tell him that I’ve “been better,” but words fail me and I feel myself choking on the sadness that creeps up my throat and then sits, burning behind my eyes. Jacoby’s stupid, serious little brother approaches me eagerly as I’m hiding near the flower display.

“Was there a lot of blood, Dallas?” He asks, his dumb, ignorant, enitled little face flushed in anticipation of the answer.

My heart plummets as if it’s been thrown from a window but instead of landing in a hot tub, it lands on boiling tarmac. I can do nothing but stare at him and hope that he picks up on the hatred and the horror behind my eyes. I want to bash him over the head with the massive bundle of lilies to my right, until the stained, gray carpet is covered with severed stamens and slivers of an entitled little face.

No, I don’t actually want to do that, G, I promise. In fact, I’d really like to bash my own skull in with the lilies until I can rest with you again, until I don’t have to see those black eyes and bleeding arms which I’ve tried so hard to block out up until now. Because now, I can’t help but peer through the carnations and the chrysanthemums and see you sitting on the tile next to the bathtub with your legs stretched out in front of you and your eyes dark and dazed and not fully recognizing me when I opened the door and sank down next to you. You. The shell of the boy I once loved. What happened next? Can you explain it because I simply can’t? I can only remember, even though I wish I didn’t.

I sat down and you looked at me and you weren’t you on the inside but I still loved you and so I put my arms around you. Your body was hot, too hot, and you were shaking so hard I briefly thought you were having a seizure already. I reached for my phone and your voice was gruff but I recognized it when you said, “Please, angel, don’t.”

Maybe it was because I heard a spark of yourself within those three words or maybe it was because you called me angel but I didn’t dial 911 like I should have and instead I pulled you into me and let you breathe into my neck, each shaky, desperate puff of air a blessing on my skin. And maybe I shouldn’t have said what I said next, maybe I should have just let you shiver and crumble into my arms, maybe I should have just let the fucking thing go and let you leave me in peace but I was a fucking selfish idiot and so I said, “I can’t watch you do this to yourself” and then since I couldn’t leave it at fucking that I added, “I’m gonna tell your parents, okay?”

In that moment a switch went off and suddenly your mood shifted into something that you couldn’t control.

“Don’t you fucking dare, Dally, don’t you fucking do that to me!”

You were crying then, and bloody drips of snot were running down your face and I found myself scrambling over half-empty syringes and broken rubber bands to get away. Your face had turned a devilish shade of red and you were twitching and glancing around as if I wasn’t the only other person in the room with you.

“You don’t understand, Dally, you don’t know what it feels like!”

I was trying to calm you down but I’ll admit, I was terrified of you. I was terrified of the needles strewn across the cold, white tile–where did you even get those, G? Was it Cam? Would she tell me? Because you sure as hell wouldn’t, no matter how much I pried. You made me feel like a fucking idiot just for caring about you.

I was trying to tell you that as I crawled away from you, that I cared about you and I was trying to understand but that you needed a kind of help that I simply could not give you no matter how much I wanted to. You were delirious and paranoid, saying I needed to try it, to feel it, in order to understand what it was like. I didn’t know what you meant until I saw you grab one of the needles, already coated in a thin layer of your own skin.

“No, G, please stop,” I pleaded as I felt behind me for the door handle and called for Maggie, for your parents, anyone who might have been home even though in the back of my mind I knew that your dad would be playing tennis and your mom would be still at work and Maggie would be at volleyball practice and nobody else could help me when you grabbed my foot and dragged me towards you, pinning my body beneath you and pulling my left hand out to the side while I begged for you to get away from me, the only time I would ever ask that of you. My heart was pounding so fast that I felt lightheaded and all of my strength was pushing against your syringe-brandishing right hand which loomed shakily above my other arm. I was exhausted and the scent of Matt’s Old Spice deodorant that you always borrowed was suffocating me like the lilies are now.

I promise G, I didn’t mean for it to happen. I don’t know what came over me but suddenly I was just so angry. I couldn’t believe that this would be the thing that broke us. Not the secrecy nor the sin nor the cross around your neck, but the stuff now winding down your veins and taking with it the only boy I had ever loved.

And so, I pushed against you as hard as I could and even though you were taller than me by several inches and usually took less than five seconds to pin me down, I was just so fucking angry. In the same moment, you were relenting, and I saw your fingers alter their position on the syringe and as I shoved you to the side I watched, helpless and horrified, as the needle sank into your exposed neck, burying itself into the tender area underneath your jawline. I used to plant kisses there when you were falling asleep, when your parents were out of town and nobody would suspect that the little pink marks I left behind were from me.

Disoriented and suddenly scared of yourself, you sloppily yanked the needle out of your flesh, and I rushed, too late, to stop you. The blood flowed out like the water from the drowned Xbox, leaving something spluttering and vacant in its wake as I desperately tried to hold the spurting red liquid inside of your body to no avail. I cupped my palm to your neck and the phone to my ear, choking out the address to the operator at the end of the line. I remember looking down at you and noticing that your eyes weren’t black anymore and I could see the sky within them again. You raised a shivering, skeletal finger to my lips and traced a silent heart as I rocked back and forth and pretended we were back in bed on that Friday night when you said you were so sorry and promised you would make things better.

* * * * *

An orange-haired EMT had stayed behind after the rest had taken you away in a whirl of sirens that sounded more mournful than urgent, as if they already knew that even time could not save you. She forcefully washed the blood from my hands even though I told her not to, told her that I wanted to keep some part of you with me for as long as possible, as evidence that you had once been living and breathing and battling in my arms.

I took something else, too. Don’t be angry, G, I had to. I couldn’t help it. It’s resting now in my breast pocket, wrapped carefully in tissue and filled with nothing but air. I’m not even sure why I took it until Jacoby’s stupid, serious little brother runs away from my hideaway beside the lilies.

“He doesn’t wanna say,” I hear him whisper loudly to the cluster of sadistic little faces gathered around the modest easel in the corner that’s holding your senior picture in its frail arms.

Feeling suddenly hot and suffocated, I grab the lilies and walk briskly past your reposed body and through the wide-open double doors that seem to embrace me as I burst into the parking lot. A giant blue sky is waiting to greet me, filled with chalky white clouds and a sun that reminds me of your smile before it turned so sorrowful and split down the middle. I set the lilies down carefully at my feet. I draw the syringe from my breast pocket.

This is how I’m celebrating your life, my love. I’m ending my own.

Emma Scott is a full-time college student and part-time stablehand who writes to escape her life as a full-time college student and part-time stablehand. She is an avid fan of Ruth Ware and Agatha Christie books and she hopes to publish a novel of her own one day.

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