a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
[Content warning: death]
He comes to her in August, darkly-coated with a swift step. He comes to her and that is the beginning.
He steps into this motel. ‘The Grand Motel.’ It is a dim and minimal sight, the colors muted and homely. It is as grand as a lobby can be.
A cough is heard. It is small but grating.
From the lobby counter, a girl appears. Thin-boned and blemished, she coughs again. The hacking is hoarse and stubborn. Her lungs are not kind.
”You need a room?” The girl sits on the counter. ”Fifty a night.”
”I’m here to introduce myself.” He puts himself in a chair that cannot possibly be made out of real velvet.
Stiffly, the man introduces himself as Death.
There is silence. Death thinks about a reflection of himself as the earth crumbles.
The girl laughs hard. Then she coughs hard. Death stares and wonders how the moon views the sun. She says it’s just a cold. He says it's cancer.
Sitting and strangled, she introduces herself as Jessica.
She speaks about her father and his own cancerous rhythm of breath. That’s all breathing is to Death, a rhythm. She talks about Jackson, her brother. Her timid-toned guardian. He does not know about her cancer. He does not know that the girl will end up like their father. He’ll be angry. Jessica isn’t, she is tired and does not ask one question to Death about his existence. She seems content with what everybody knows about Death. She’s just surprised that Death is a he.
Jackson arrives and Death knows he is not a boy for confrontation. Their confrontation is only expected. Jackson is made of clenched fists, his rhythm droning with hope that this is a mean joke. Death could never be that rude. But he is not gentle, just an outcome.
When Jackson is finished with the attempts at emotional punches, he tells Jessica to get off the counter. She does not.
Jackson asks too many questions. Death thinks about cellars and screams of the damned. He asks for a discount on the room. Jessica coughs with a wink and Death feels a twitch in what would be his bones.
In the night, Jessica decides that chemotherapy is overrated. Jackson is less than happy about her opinion. Death figures out why most people would not want to die in a motel.
The girl explains that it’s because it didn’t treat her dad too kindly.
”Anything that has to do with cancer wouldn't treat anyone too kindly,” Death quips. He has existed too long to not be cheeky.
Jackson scoffs. ”You would know.” It rings true.
Death imagines a paper mache moon. Jessica believes her lungs must be made out of acid. Jackson knows that Jessica will not change her mind and that she’ll hate him if he forces her to. He won’t try.
For the next three months, Death’s existence is all checkers and realization. It starts with the dead father. On day five, Death needs a change of clothes. To Jackson’s dismay, Jessica remembers their father’s suits. There, he finds out that Jessica carries herself with the quickness of a bewildered child. The suits become routine. Jackson asks him if his father came to him standing.
”Yes,” Death lies. The truth of the end for cancer patients is not a comfort.
It snows on day eleven. There, Death finds out that Jessica is the worst at checkers. He laughs at where she places her reds.
Day twenty is when Jessica teaches him how to play the spoons. Jackson smiles and it is not one of spite.
Day twenty-nine is when they play in the snow. There, the girl was suspended and open, in a way Death couldn’t understand, she found a way to burn and be open. Death forgets the reasons why he’s here.
Month two is when Jessica does nothing but sleep. Her tumor is quick. Death sees her suffering as a burden and it scares him.
Day fifteen on month two is when Jessica winks at Death as she sweats out five pounds. He asks her why she did.
”Just because.” He imagines her as a beast in a forest.
This stubborn child who he thinks of in the snow. He smiles at her like he knows her.
It is month three and Death knows that it is time to be the outcome.
Jessica is shrunken. Jackson does not know that this is the end. Death can only pity him. These months between them have only been the cargo of second-hand illness.
”I’m heading to bed.” Jackson slows his rhythm. Death needs to give him subtle closure. They have been discreetly lonely for so long.
”You’re doing a good job.” At that moment, Jackson looks like Jessica. He assumes he looks like the father too.
They share a look of knowing and the boy is off to bed.
He makes his way to Jessica’s room. He thinks about a tree that weeps seed. The door creaks.
With an unsteady standing, Death enters.
The room is stained with sickness and he can only stare at this thin-boned girl, heavy in her bed. She is all aching limbs, all frailty. She has made him quiet, all desperate. All her, all her.
She looks as if she’s never winked at someone for no other reason than to make one curious. She looks as if she’s never sat on lobby counters when she’s not supposed to or has never learned how to play the spoons. She only looks like she’s only ever suffered.
She looks like she’s ready.
Her breaths are rattling, something made for a sharp epilogue.
”Jessica.” He whispers her name like it’s a secret.
Her eyes shift to his frame, the suited silhouette.
Silence. A clattered breath.
Death is still.
The name is a knife. It is a weapon that Jessica grips with delirium. He has seen this all before and he cries. It is not a burden and he cannot decide if that was progress or grief.
”Dad, you’re home.”
He’s seen this all before, he knows all you can do is pretend. Brittle, he pretends.
”Yes, I am.” Jessica gives a jangled smile and wheezes out a laugh.
”You don’t seem happy about it,” she chuckles and hacks away at her lungs. That’s the loop. A laugh, then a cough. Joy despite disease.
Death laughs despite the inevitable result. For her.
”How can I not be?” She reaches for him, a paternal reunion. Death seeps into the bed. Jessica only smiles.
”You’re here.” Her head falls onto his shoulder.
”I’m here,” He holds her and he can’t stop crying. He holds her because he knows her and he knows she’s ready. ”I’m here.”
”You’re here,” She says once more. ”You’re here.
Her rattling rhythm speeds up. The girl wears a shadow of a toothy smile. Death begins, collecting her softly.
”I’m here.” he whispers. It’s not a secret.
The rhythm is rasping. ”I’m here.” It does not scare him.
He collects every part of her and hopes that he was kind and simple and gentle in all aspects. He hopes she knew that she was easy to know and that he knew her simply and whole. He hopes that her soul will haunt him. He hopes that Jackson will forgive him. He hopes they know that they showed him perfect love.
The rhythm stops.
”I’m here.” he says. Her soul is bright and only in his arms for a moment. He hopes they know he will be burning forever.
In the morning, the brother wakes. He its up in his bed and he knows.
He makes his way to Jessica’s room. When he sees her in her bed, sleeping but not, he remembers her laughing with all of her chest. He does not attempt to revive her.
Jackson looks at his little sister, sleeping but not, and calls 9-1-1.
Death is nowhere to be found. Jackson is too tired to be angry and he is trying to figure out if the hard part is over. He sits in the hollow noise of others. It is not comforting. Two months later, when he goes through Jessica’s belongings, he weeps.
It’s the spoons that get him.
He laughs, wondering if Jessica is teaching their dad how to play them. He knows that grief feels like everything. A guest above plays a tune that is reminding of smiling voices. He opens the drawer of the nightstand. He thinks there might be more spoons.
There sits a small note.
‘Thank you. Look at the sun and remember her. Stay brutal.’
Jackson realizes that the hard part is not over.
Death lingers on a train filled with boys who believe they are ready for war. He disagrees.
The morning star begins to rise. He looks towards the east. He remembers.
Then he burns.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.
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