You stare at the corpse; the waxy complexion, and dead-eyed gaze, are a new sight to you.
It is a girl, her body beached on the side of the cave, sand and seaweed tangled in her hair. She has bruises smudged over every inch of her skin. It is bruises and broken bones and nothing else. Cold sea air shudders through you. Your wet footsteps echo around the damp, jagged walls. In death, she has soft features—the full mouth, dainty fingers—a horrifying reminder of how young she is. You are seventeen, and the girl doesn’t look a day older either.
You take a step forward.
You have been curious as long as you can remember. You have seen the sights, stretches of fields, the thrashing of ocean against rocks. You have heard of deaths, but you have never seen it. It is what makes you reach forward, pressing a hand to the girl’s arm. Something jolts through you. It rumbles the ground, a white light blinding, feeling as though it drains you of energy. You move away, waiting for your vision to clear, but once it does, you find yourself staring at the girl.
She is sitting up, gasping in strangled breaths, alive.
“What—” she tried to say, but there is hardly any voice to use.
It feels natural to lean forward, holding a hand out, saying, “Are you okay?”
Glassy-eyed, she stares at you. She manages a brief shake of her head before she twists to the side, vomiting murky water. Wiping her mouth, she looks at you again, lips wet and gaze cloudy. It is impossible concept, yet you do not need more proof than what you see.
You risk reaching out to her again. She flinches.
“Are you okay?” you repeat.
She scoots back.
You retract your hand, and she relaxes.
She opens and closes her mouth a few times before forcing out, “What’s happening?”
“You were dead.”
“And now you’re not.”
The girl stares at her hands—shaking, caked with dirt—then back at you. “Yes.”
You pause. “Do you have a name?”
“What is it?”
A crease forms in her brow. “I can’t remember.”
It compels you to reach out again, even though she looks at you as though she can see into your soul. This cave is one of wonder, but now that you see a girl who was once dead sitting in front of you, ashen-faced and shivering, it feels like something else. It can be danger, or confusion, but you do not both to figure it out. Instead you lean forward an inch.
Water drips from her hair.
“I have towels at my house,” you say.
You think she doesn’t understand in the way she stares at you, but she follows you anyway.
Your home is empty during the summer. Your parents work nine-to-five jobs, and most of your days are spent counting them. It is only ten a.m., easy to walk through the door with a girl in soaked clothes and sandy footprints. You find a towel, and hand it to her. When she doesn’t take it, you drape it over her shoulders. She does not look at you, but she tugs it tighter around herself. You sit her down on a chair.
She does not speak. You do; you have never been fond of silence.
“Is this okay?” you ask. “Are you cold?”
She answers with a shudder.
“Okay,” you say, going to your closet, and pulling out a set of clothes.
You hand them to her, leading her to the bathroom. She looks as lost as before, but emerges a few minutes later, wet clothes scrunched in her hands. She sits on the chair again, and silence ensues. It is uncomfortable, more so than her glazed-over eyes and cracked lips.
“Do you have family?” you ask.
She frowns, but it mingles with something like sadness. “No.”
You do not delve into the topic, thinking details aren’t relevant. “I’m sorry,” you say. “You can stay here for now.”
“I shouldn’t be here.”
“It’s fine. My parents won’t—”
“No,” she says, breaths wheezed. “I should not be alive.”
You pause. “Why would you think that?”
“Because it does not feel right.”
“Did you want to die?”
“No,” she says, “but I did.”
“You’re alive now.”
“I look alive,” she says. “I do not feel it.”
It is the most she has said since you found her. It makes everything much more real. She looks dead, with the damp locks of hair, watery cough, and a look that causes an uneasy feeling in your stomach.
In the end, that is all you think about as the hours tick by.
The girl lies down beside your bed in the night, shivering under the blanket you give her. She does not say anything more, but by the time morning comes in a dreary sky, sleep-deprived and sore, you ask if she wants to eat.
She follows you downstairs.
You place a plate of scrambled eggs and dried toast in front of her. It takes her half-an-hour to eat half, and five seconds to bring it back up.
She coughs—a harsh, wrenching sound, leaning over the table to vomit on the floor. It is not only food, but what looks like black sludge, spilling over her chin. You cover your face at the rancid smell, and give her a cloth. She wipes it away. You mop the mess with sheets of kitchen roll, as she watches, eyes humiliated, staring downwards.
“It’s okay,” you say; it isn’t as though you haven’t been sick before. “It’s fine.”
It sounds like a lie.
You rest your hand on hers.
She flinches, but then relaxes.
“I’m not hungry anymore,” she says.
“Me too,” you say, taking her plate away.
If it is possible, she looks worse; paler, like the stone of a statue, not belonging.
It is curiosity that takes you outside, searching through the woods. The girl stays close to your side, jumping at all the little sounds. You have walked through these woods most of your life, gazing at the naked branches in winter, or red and white flowers of spring. It is beautiful, but it can be unpleasant, rubbish littered by kids, doggy bags left by lazy owners, and dead animals left to rot.
Which is how you find the dead bird.
The girl, quiet, tenses beside you.
She knows what you think, going to say something, but you stop her.
“It’s okay,” you say.
“No,” she rasps, face gaunt with death and weariness. “It’s not.”
You lay an open palm on the bird before she can say anything else.
It erupts within you, that something that feels like power. Earth rumbles beneath you, brilliance of white blinding you. You are drained again, heaving in uncomfortable breaths, but then you hear the squawk of the bird. You cradle it in your hands, its feathers frayed, skin half-decomposed, and eyes white. You smile because you feel like you have done a good thing.
“That wasn’t a good idea,” the girl says, and you see she is shaking.
You stand, nestling the bird in your coat pocket. You take her hands in your warm gloved ones, but she cries out, yanking away. You see a layer of skin has come off, raw and cracked, simply by touch. You take your glove off, and press your hands together again; it is a weak glow by now, healing the skin over. You smile, but the girl does not.
“Okay?” you ask.
“No,” she says.
You sigh. “Would you have preferred I left it?”
“It reminds me of who I am.”
She walks ahead of you, back towards the house, back to where she will think for the rest of the day. You know she thinks because she picks at her fingernails, and stares into space. You begin to think maybe she is right. She looks alive but she does not feel it. She does not have the rosy colour in her cheeks, or humming of a pulse in her wrist. She is dead, and deep down you know it, but you have been in denial ever since you brought her back.
You catch up to her. “I’m sorry. Do you wish that I had not done it?”
She does not answer, but nods.
“You know I can’t take it back.”
“Because you know you can’t, or because you don’t want to?”
She nods again.
“I wouldn’t want you to die again,” you say.
It is the truth. Sometimes you find yourself looking at the nice things of her, like the sheen of her when she brushes it, or the way her hand feels in yours. You look at her like she is more than a miracle.
Her voice is softer. “I cannot die if I am already dead.”
“You know what I mean.”
You let her walk on, back through the trees. Night creeps along the sky, painting it in dull pinks and oranges, but it does not ease the black and white atmosphere. As you walk into the opening of your garden, the bird in your pocket squawks, and it sends a shiver down your spine.
You know the difference between dream and nightmare, but you cannot tell the difference between if it is happening as you sleep or as you are awake. Blurred edges, distorted shapes, blank faces, suspended in a moment.
All you know is the ground has split open, tendrils of black twisting from it. It wraps around you like a web, around each of your limbs with a tightening grip, until it ties over your mouth and you cannot scream. Everything shakes the same way, as when you had touched the girl and the bird, but it feels like the force of it will tear the ground beneath your feet. It does, opening a gaping hell of nothingness.
“I told you,” a voice says behind you; the girl.
“It isn’t real,” you say.
“You believe it,” she says.
You do, but before you can do anything, the darkness swallows you. All your senses are silenced; silence has never been something you are fond with, but now it kills you. Your lungs feel like they are being stuffed, collapsing around gasping breaths. It is like vines lick at your skin. It is a blind prison.
You are in bed.
You look down beside you, and the girl lies with wide-eyes too. You realise that she has seen the same thing—a vision. She looks at you with a similar terrified look, but even though you are away from the sight, it does not bring comfort.
In the morning, you go about your normal routine, smothering away the memories of last night.
You shower, scalding away the ugly sensation of darkness. You go downstairs, pouring yourself some cereal, but only eating a mouthful on a churning stomach. You go to look out the window—
You see it.
A crack, split down the middle, in your garden.
You run to the bathroom, hunched over the toilet, and wretch.
When you look down, you see the black sludge that should be vomit. Your hands shake.
“You should have listened,” the girl says, avoiding eye-contact, looking more dead than yesterday. You had thought you were accustomed to her looks, but you think maybe that was a lie. “Why didn’t you listen?”
You stand, splashing water on your face, gripping the edge of the sink with white knuckles.
You look different.
Pale skin, and cloudy eyes.
“I have listened,” you say. “You’re over-reacting.”
“What is this?” she says, pointing at the toilet.
You flush it.
“You’re becoming death,” she says. “You’ll spread it everywhere.”
You scrunch your eyes shut. “Please—”
“It isn’t right.” Her voice is raspy and weak, but has an underlying tone of force. “You’re paying the consequence of what was supposed to stay one way.”
The haze veiled over your eyes clears. You see that she is shaking, but her skin is ridged. Around her lips the skin is falling apart. You reach up and press your fingers to it. This time she lets it happen; the ground rumbles, and light blinds you, but it is accompanied by a wave of nausea. You barely have time to vomit again.
The girl looks sad. “See?”
“I don’t like seeing you like that,” you defend.
“I don’t like seeing you like that either.”
You don’t know much of what to say.
So you ask, “How did you die?”
Wind whips your face, drained of colour, the crashing of waves loud below you.
The girl stands by you, timid, shrunk even further into herself. She had taken your hand, and brought you here, claiming the hills. A dark, shadowy sky hovers over you both, a cold and unforgiving evening. You know why you are here, but you ask anyway,
“You died here?”
“I wanted to see the view,” she says, staring at the dark blue stretches of ocean. “And the ground gave out.”
You sit down, because the ache in your back, and the nausea stirring your gut. The girl sits beside you, knees touching, but you’re too numb to feel it. You stay until night turns black, waves fierce as they thrash against the rocks. You cannot tell when the odd feeling inside you begun—though you know it was after you brought the girl home, dead and alive—but it came as if to surprise you.
You are surprised, because you are on the edge of a cliff, with a dead girl’s hand in yours.
Still, you see it; a crack, splitting the ocean, separating the waves.
You have disrupted what holds the impossible together.
The girl asks, “Do you see now?”
“Yes,” you answer.
The bird is perched on your shoulder. It is dying.
Much like the girl, its skin is the first thing to go. It rots from the inside, feathers fluttering to the ground, one eye shrivelled. It doesn’t take long, letting out drifting squawks. You are itching to bring it back, away from the quickening grip of death. You manage to keep your hands to yourself, but the girl does the honours of burying it. You do not feel comforted.
Because you feel.
“How long before you go?” you ask.
You feel obsession.
It feels like a knife twisting your stomach, heat that floods your cheeks, and a selfish compulsion that overshadows everything else. You touch a gloved hand to the girl’s cheek. She flinches, and looks at you with startled eyes.
Her mouth opens.
You look down at it.
They are not falling apart.
You lean forward, and she doesn’t move away. She holds onto your hand tight. You kiss, and although it is barely-there, it is warm.
Her hands are cold, her cheek is cold, but her lips are warm.
The ground shakes again, white light burning behind your closed eyes.
You think this is a good thing.
You think this is a good thing until you pull away and see her nose is bleeding.
She dabs her thumb in the blood, and you cannot read the expression on her face, but it is close to relief. A new feeling of panic jolts within you, forcing you to take your glove off, but the girl moves away. You try to follow her, even as she stumbles back, and so do you, desperation a smothering sense.
It happens too fast—
How long before you go?
Fainting, to you, has not been a dramatic thing until you watch her fall. She crashes to the ground, her eyes half-open, blood gushing from he nose and smearing her mouth. Your chest clenches, struggling to breathe, but you go to touch her.
She is conscious, whispering, “Don’t touch me.”
“You’ll die if I don’t,” you say.
“You’ll kill everyone else if you do.”
“I don’t care.”
A broken smile cracks her face. “You bring life with your touch, and you bring death.”
You do not know what that means, if you have over-used your power, or she is now immune. When you feel an ache in your chest, pressing your hands against her cheeks despite it all, you know it is none of those things, but what she warned you of. You have disrupted what was supposed to remain, untethering the forces of the afterlife. A tear rips through the ground, through your skull, screams merging together, one of pain, and one of despair, but you cannot tell which belongs to who. You see her. Her skin is wavy, crumbling away before your eyes, looking at you with a dead gaze. She is crying, or maybe you are crying, but you don’t let go.
The crack pulls the earth apart. You see dark tendrils, webs of them, come towards you. They wrap around you until you cannot see your house, or your garden, or the forest in the background. The darkness holds you in a suffocating embrace. It is like the vision, and you feel sick, but you do not look away from her. You do not let go. Somehow you manage to take hold of her hand, through the pain, and amongst the feeling of withering away.
You are the dead one.
You are death.
Yet you only care about the one girl you saved.
Death is numbing. The light is gone, the ground opens, and the screams that shredded your lungs are drowned out by darkness.