|original image by rachel a. k.|
So many ask those same questions, despite the fact that they know what death means. I suppose they want to know if all the symptoms apply.
They ask me with a thin veil of resolve, and I feel better when their bravado crumbles, and their expressions break, and they tell me, “I don’t want to die.”
I wrap them in my arms and let them hang about my neck, heads heavy and hot with tears as they wail and panic. I feel better when they cry for themselves, because that is how I know that they truly understand what is behind that bucking, banging door at the top of the stairs.
I have held girls my age, listened as they described their dreams of marriage, their goals of someday becoming something—a mother, a lawyer, a nurse—as though my sympathy could revoke their sentence and send them back into the arms of their loved ones.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It isn’t fair,” she responds.
Then I hug her. I stroke her hair and cradle her trembling body as she pours out the last of herself to me. I cannot say more. I can only say one word after the hug.
“Goodbye,” I whisper, and watch the sacrifice climb the stairs on unsteady legs and cling to the railing. I watch their hands shake as they drink the tonic on the landing, and imagine the coldness of the knob as they turn it, opening the door beyond.
Then he came. The lottery drew a name, but I didn’t remember it. I spoke it when he walked in, but he was nothing to me yet. I didn’t remember.
“Well,” he said, facing me. “Goodbye.”
I nodded, waiting. If I said “goodbye”, he would have to walk up those stairs, and it was too early. I watched him, waiting for words, but none came. He looked down at me, and I don’t know the color of his eyes, but his hair was short and inky black.
I could tell he was waiting for something, but couldn’t divine what it was. After a moment, he nodded to me, and turned to the stairs. He gazed up, eyes fixing on the shuddering door-frame. Without another word, he put a heavy, booted foot on the stairs and began the ascent.
|Photo by adamjonfuller|
He would not be the first to ascend with a bitterness I couldn’t resolve. I watched his back, watched as he reached the landing and turned, half-silhouetted to my eyes.
Black hair in my hands, thick and cool...
A memory! I had hugged him. Not at the bottom of the stairs, but years ago. Not for the need to retrieve his last moments, but for a different reason.
I looked up, trying to brush aside the shadows and see his face. I knew that face, those hands that reached for the tonic, hands that had once felt rough in mine.
“Wait,” I rasped. My heart beat in my throat. I needed to know—who was he? Who were we? I wanted to call after him, but my heart had filled every cavity in my chest, and my lungs had no room for breath.. The guards were prepared to catch a man coming down the stairs, not a girl going up. I rushed past and felt their fingers catch the ends of my hair.
I stopped just before the landing and stared at the man I almost didn’t remember. The tonic glittered in the vial as he drank, showing me the strong pulse in his neck.
“I know you,” I breathed.
He let the words hang for a moment, then lowered the vial. “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” I said, though I remembered only that I had promised him his last hug. If his name was chosen as the sacrifice, I would be there to hold him. Now he stared down at me, eyes accusatory and afraid.
“You’ve forgotten me,” he said. “They say our faces become the same to you Goodbye Girls. I didn’t believe it of you.”
“Only for a moment,” I insisted. I opened my arms, imploring him to believe me. He watched me a moment longer, still wary, but stepped into my embrace. His body warmed me. His arms were strong and I remembered their safety, but now he trembled and bent his head. His tears soaked my collarbone, as I gripped his back and stroked his cool black hair. His breathing slowed, and I could feel his heartbeat slowing against mine. The tonic was taking effect, turning his veins to ice.
Was it possible, that he couldn’t feel his last hug?
The guilt of my forgotten promise crashed over me. I reached for the glass behind him and tipped the last crystal drops over his shoulder and into my mouth. The glass shattered to the floor, and he gripped my face tight in his hands and kissed me. No, it was too rough for his kiss. He was trying to drink the poison from me. I locked my arms around his neck, but he leaned away.
“I don’t want you to die!” he slurred, his hands clenching hard in my hair. He staggered. His weight sagged around my shoulders and slammed me back against the door. I heard the moans of those who demanded death echoing behind us and knew a brief moment of fear. Would it hurt? I caught him under the arms, the warmth of his body fading as frost spread from my fingertips.
“I’m not really alive,” I whispered, pressing my face against his ear. His breath fluttered over my collarbone. “I’ve said goodbye a million times. I won’t say it to you.”
I reached behind me and turned the knob. His arms tightened, his head pressed against my chest, and together we fell back through the opening door, into the unfeeling arms of the hungry.
I was his last embrace, and he was mine, and we would not come back.
Tomorrow, there would be a new Goodbye Girl.