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YOU MUST BE THIS TALL

CHAPTER ONE

Behind perhaps outer space, horse camp, or a Scholastic Book Fair, an amusement park is the most exciting place a kid can be. 

It’s built into the name: the whole point of the park is to amuse. An old-timey word, amusement – kids today will recognize it as a (hopefully) familiar concept called “having fun”. 

Amusement parks are predictably great at amusing, if for a high price in money and calories. They’ve got everything a kid could ever want: games, prizes, rides, greasy food, sugar. In other words, they’re paradise for both children and coronary artery disease. 

Naturally, an amusement park named FUNLAND would have to be the most fun of them all, right? In fact, you would be almost guaranteed to have fun. 

Even if it killed you. 

*************

Hate is a very strong word; you must be careful with its use. A couple acceptable examples are Hitler, the Baby Shark song, and unnecessary sequels. For other things, “strongly dislike” is preferred. 

But Connor McGrath truly, from the bottom of his heart, hated FUNLAND.

It was not that he hated fun (though his siblings and peers often thought so). It was that FUNLAND, like many other things that promised to be wonderful, was actually the worst. 

It was right up there with chocolate muffins that turned out to be blueberry, or a loving stepfather who turned out to be a big old meanie. The first few times Connor experienced this sort of disappointment, he brushed it off. But it became sort of hard to do so when everything seemed to be that way. Like life itself was a blueberry muffin. 

FUNLAND may have been a particularly bad offender, but that was not the only reason Connor hated it. He hated it because it was the place he was spending the day his mother and stepfather filed for divorce. He hated it because it was the charade he was being forced to participate in for the sake of his younger siblings. He hated it because he, too, would have to be a blueberry muffin masquerading as chocolate for the day. 

Perhaps the first annoyingly misleading aspect of the park was its motto.  The words that lay under the fading wooden sign for FUNLAND read “Fun! Sun! Run!” Which, on the surface, sounded alright. But Connor was more intelligent than most other 14 year olds, and he knew that while rhyming can be a nifty way to advertise, communicate with children, and get a song on the radio, it also often involves using the wrong words for the sake of the rhyme. And if there was anything Connor hated besides FUNLAND, it was false advertising. 

First of all, there was absolutely no running in FUNLAND: Connor knew this because he had been yelled at for it by teenagers in the signature gaudy fur vest many times before. The park was crawling with unenthusiastic employees, many of them plucked from among the more mean and stupid bullies from Connor’s school, and they revelled in their so-called power. 

Second of all, Connor was not sure that even an ant would find any of the rides at FUNLAND fun. There had not been one new ride in decades; the last was a rather disappointing “high-speed” metal coaster that had become the park’s main attraction. Connor wondered why they hadn’t used the money instead to update the park – the other rides’ paint had chipped and faded, leaving a decrepit look that was more akin to a traveling carnival than one of the top 20 attractions of Arizona. 

The only thing that could be guaranteed from FUNLAND’s motto was sun: this was the hottest summer the southwest had seen in a decade, and the state hadn’t experienced a single day of rain. In fact, the sun had become the enemy to many in Connor’s small town, who were not even allowed a sprinkler in the drought. (Many of the wealthier residents ignored this rule, however, enjoying signalling to their neighbors that they were both rich and inconsiderate.) The park itself was unspeakably hot, and only had a single water ride called Sun Garden Mill that only had a single tiny splash and mostly took place in a hot cave. 

One out of three was not very good in Connor’s mind. And besides, if anything, the sun was a detractor. 

Detractor was one of his new vocabulary words which meant it took away from something. He’d been studying very hard at school to get into the advanced summer program at Emory Park, the much nicer summer school upstate. Decisions were due out any day now, and Connor hadn’t wanted to risk seeming stupid if he attended. His little sister Josie had given him a judgemental look every time she saw him studying (in the summer, of all times!), but he’d just ignored her. He wasn’t keen on letting her or anyone else know about his application. After all, he hadn’t even decided he’d go if he got in – who would care for his siblings? And how would his mother, a waitress at the town’s diner, pay? He’d decided to wait until decisions were out to address those particular questions; for now, it was a waiting game. 

Maybe running and fun had once been allowed in the park – it was obvious the motto had not been changed in decades. The sun had long since faded the probably once-colorful sign into a dirty almost-white – sort of like Connor’s clothing, which he’d had to wash himself at the laundromat. All of his clothes had faded, until a rude yet helpful older woman had instructed him to wash colors on cold. 

It was probably better to be faded, anyways. You didn’t want to stand out. 

Connor had learned that the hard way, when he’d moved to Stoneville five years prior and bumped right into bully Tim Myers. Tim had challenged Connor to a fight; and when he got home, Connor’s stepfather told him he needed to stand up and “be a man”. So, the next day Connor had showed up to school in his knight Halloween costume brandishing a wooden sword.

It turned out, fantasy role playing was not a surefire route to popularity. And “being a man” meant some sort of sexist nonsense about yelling in a deep voice and punching walls and somehow not crying while doing these things. 

It certainly didn’t help that Connor wasn’t exactly popularity material. The other eighth graders made fun of his too-short hand-me-down pants inherited from a nameless relative (who had clearly had a problem with spilling things) and his often dirty hair. They weren’t exactly wrong when they called him a poor, low class weirdo from a good-for-nothing family, but Connor didn’t think it was very polite to say so. It wasn’t his fault the water was regularly shut off in his apartment, or that his stepdad couldn’t hold a job for more than a few months, or that all he had to read were old fantasy books. Connor actually thought he was doing pretty well, considering. He got good grades at school, at least. And one day – maybe one day soon – he was going to get out of Stoneville Arizona and become a great writer. And then nobody would laugh at him anymore.

But that day seemed very, very far away from the rusted wrought-iron front gates of FUNLAND, where Connor was busy plastering on a fake smile for his siblings, Josie and PT, and pretending Everything Was Great!! It was like being an adult without any of the perks – he had absolutely no freedom, and all the responsibilities. 

At least PT and Josie wouldn’t have to experience that, not yet. If he acted like the parent, they could still act like kids, and remain blissfully unaware for at least one more day. 

PT skipped forward, wearing the Iron Man costume Connor had gotten him at Goodwill two birthdays ago. Connor wasn’t sure if Connor knew Iron Man wasn’t a FUNLAND character, but had decided against correcting him. He was only 6, and he’d never been to an amusement park; they were all Disneyland to him. His face was alight with excitement, and Connor couldn’t bear the thought of bringing reality crashing down on him. Sometimes Connor was jealous of PT’s age; his ability to believe things were better than they were. Sometimes it just made him sad that he didn’t know their lives were bad because he’d never had anything better.

Josie was wearing her usual scowl, her blunt black bob looking almost blue in the sun, like she was wearing an ice crown. It was clear FUNLAND was not exactly Josie’s idea of a fun day, either; but she wouldn’t say anything about it. Partly because beneath her unfriendly demeanor, she loved PT and didn’t want to ruin it for him. But mostly because almost a year earlier, she had taken a vow of silence and hadn’t spoken since.

At least no one would make fun of her for being there. No one would dare. Everyone in her sixth grade class thought she was a witch after sixth grade ice queen Marcy Davis had insulted her clothes, then opened her locker the next day to see a dead bird. Josie was never caught, but Connor didn’t need rumors to tell him it was her; she loved reading books about zombies and taxidermy and everything that went bump in the night. 

Tired looking adults carting around small children surrounded them, and Connor wondered where they might be going and why. How strange that their lives intersected at this one very moment and then never would again. Or even stranger, they would – and none of them would know they had ever seen each other before.

Connor had once heard that you couldn’t make up someone in a dream – every person you saw in a dream, you had seen before. He wondered if he’d been in some stranger’s dream before. He wondered if he’d been happy.

Connor turned back to PT, who was getting too far ahead – he wished he would slow down. The last thing Connor needed was to get separated from PT, or for PT to get hurt – Connor knew his parents did not have health insurance. But he needn’t have worried – the “no running” rule seeed to also include skipping, and a pimpled employee yelled harshly at PT to stop. 

Connor recognized the employee as Tyler Drenow, a bully in Connor’s grade. Even among the employees, he was especially dumb. He’d been held back 2 years, and was due for a third – thus, he was much older than the other eight graders. As often happens, age crowned Tyler “cooler than everyone else”, and he’d let everyone know that Connor was decidedly uncool. Privately, Connor felt there was more to make fun of about Tyler than him – but he dared not say so. Middle school defied logic anyways, in an upside down version of the real world. One day, kids like Tyler would be mopping the floors of kids like Connor. At least, that’s what he told himself.

Tyler sneered at Connor as he passed, and followed them for a few steps, calling out clever insults such as “how old are you, 4?” or imitating Connor saying “I’m Connor and I’m too scared to ride the merry go round!” 

FUNLAND had always been sort of lame, but had become much more so since the Six Flags had opened upstate. Now, you wouldn’t be caught dead in a photo in front of the mascot bear unless you wanted the picture passed around during the school lunch. It would’ve been easy enough to keep attendance a secret, if it weren’t for so many of the high schoolers working at the park. Connor wondered why none of the employees got made fun of for their stupid fur vests and animal ears, but alas: it was not him who made the rules. 

Connor refused to be bothered by Tyler’s taunts – he’d expected it. Besides, it was a horrible impression of him. It was slightly frustrating that Tyler was being paid to continue him torment from school – which sounded like Tyler’s dream job – but the best thing to do with bullies, Connor had learned, was just tune them out. Actually, that was a good method with anyone who was making you feel bad – like his stepfather, who simultaneously refused to acknowledge the bullying and blamed Connor for it. Adults spoke in riddles like that sometimes, Connor had learned. They always thought they could hide what they were really saying. But Connor was very good at reading between the lines. Which had brought him to the conclusion that his stepfather, though older and supposedly wiser, was nothing more than a classic Stanton Middle School bully. 

Giving up on Connor and turning to PT, Tyler began to make fun of PT’s costume. “Does the brain dead moron think he’s at Disney? Don’t you know your parents don’t love you enough for that? You could never afford it, anyways.” PT’s face fell, and Josie shot daggers at Tyler, but Connor simply grabbed PT’s hand and led him away. Josie shook her head, eyeing Connor as he started talking loudly about superheroes, drowning Tyler out. Soon they were caught up in the crowd, losing Tyler. 

It was, as usual, unbearably hot. Everyone always said that the heat in places like Arizona couldn’t be too bad, because it was just dry heat. Everyone had never lived in Arizona, clearly.

Heat was just heat. And honestly, dry heat just sounded like another way adults tried to speak in poorly concealed code.

They stopped as they reached the center of the park, a square (which was really more of a circle) which housed an animatronic band made up of the park’s (self-touted) “famous” characters – a mouse named Herman playing the harp, a lion named Mildred playing the drums, and the most well-known of the three, the large bear named Barry playing the guitar. The animals was various shades of purple, fur rubbing and falling off as if the animals had a flesh eating disease. Garish smiles were plastered on googly-eye clad faces, a picture of painful joy as they played their instruments. They looked more rabid than jolly. 

“Come to FUNLAND, where the sun and hopes are high!” they sang in cartoonish voices, jerky movements inches away from their instruments as the song played out of tinny speakers. “Come to FUNLAND, where the animals run run run and have some fun!”

Josie shot Connor a look. She looked like she wanted to run run run straight back the way they’d come, and Connor was right with her.

But a few small children seemed transfixed on the animals, clapping along as if they were actually enjoying themselves. Even PT looked mildly excited, pointing out the games closeby where you could win smaller versions of the animals. Reluctantly, Connor brought him over to the Whack-a-Barry, parting ways with a precious $5 as PT tried and failed to win the clearly rigged game.

The park was laid out into four smaller lands: Merryland, which was near the front of the park and held classic rides such as the carousel and merry-go-round; Barryland, which housed Barry the Bear-themed rides like the log ride, bumper cars, and a small coaster; Scaryland, which contained a haunted house, a rapid drop ride, and the “high speed” metal coaster; and Fairyland, a small toddler-friendly area with a treehouse and simple rides. Connecting them all was a small railway that ran above the park. 

All around them were food stands selling greasy, overpriced items like giant pretzels and corn dogs, and diabetes-causing desserts like fried dough and giant sundaes. It was the kind of stuff that coated your mouth and made you feel like you’d swallowed chemicals and gave you a stomachache that lasted weeks. All of it manufactured and fake. Not real – not like the stuff that inspired Connor’s writing. Not like walks in mysterious woods and sunrises on a summer morning or the honesty he only held with himself. 

It was simply not Connor’s scene. He did not like the crowds, the food, or even really the rides. It was certainly not Josie’s scene either – except for Scaryland, of course. She tried to drag them towards the haunted house as they passed, her face lighting up in a way it hadn’t in a very long time. 

“Too scary for PT,” Connor said with a shake of his head, protecting his brother automatically. Josie’s face fell, and her eyes narrowed as she pulled PT forward. “Josie!” Connor said warningly. 

“I want to go, too!” PT said, but Connor wouldn’t have it. What PT thought he could handle and what he actually could handle were two very different things – and this day was supposed to be fun, after all; not scary. Only Josie would see the two things as the same.

 Josie pulled out her signature black pad and pen, scribbling down some words and presenting them to Connor.

I’ll go, she’d written. Stay here with PT.

“No,” Connor said firmly, struggling to be patient. Why wouldn’t children understand that he was simply trying to help them? Why did he have to be the one to be the bad guy? “We’re not separating.” 

Josie fumed the rest of the way to Fairytown, where she refused to go on a single ride. Connor tried his best to act excited as they spun around slowly on a fairy-themed, glittery spiderweb-like contraption, but PT’s smile seemed even faker and less enthusiastic than Connor’s. Connor clearly wasn’t trying hard enough. 

“I want to go on the Scarycoaster!” PT insisted when they got off, referring to the metal coaster – the only ride in FUNLAND which perhaps lived up to the name. 

“It’s too scary,” Connor resisted, distracting PT with lunch (chicken fingers that tasted more like fingers than chicken) – but there was no deterring him. Tired of saying no, Connor relented, and PT practically dragged them to the outskirts of Scaryland, where the creatively named coaster was laid out. PT burst forward excitedly, giving Connor just enough time to smile, relieved that PT actually seemed truly happy for once. 

But just as he entered the line, an arm grabbed his, pointing him towards a sign. 

“You must be this tall to ride,” the sign read. Shooting a worried look back at Connor, PT stepped underneath the sign, just reaching the line. Connor breathed a sigh of relief. 

“Sorry,” the attendant, who Connor recognized as Tyler’s friend (or, more accurately, accomplice) Jimmy, who went to the high school. “You’re too short.” 

“What??” PT said. “No, I’m not!” 

“Hair doesn’t count,” Jimmy said rudely, gesturing to PT’s wild brown curls. PT and Josie both looked at Connor, waiting for his move. 

“Let’s go ride the Bear-o-Coaster!” Connor said, plastering on his best Barry the Bear smile. “It’ll be way more fun.” 

“I want to go on this one,” PT said in a small voice. “You said I could.” 

“We’ll come back when you’re not so little anymore.” 

“I am not a little kid!” PT burst out suddenly, pushing Jimmy aside as he rushed into the line, weaving between adults and carriages and children on leashes. 

“HEY!” Jimmy shouted, running after him, pushing children and adults (including a pregnant woman) aside rudely. 

“PT!” Connor called, running after him with Josie. But they got caught up in the crowd (politeness was a rather inconvenient thing), and soon a large hand pulled at the back of Connor’s shirt, nearly choking him. 

“No cutting!” Connor turned to see Tyler’s pimply face glaring at him. 

“My brother’s in there – “ 

“Then wait in line like the rest of the people. What, you think you’re special?” Tyler thought very hard for a moment, like it required both of his two brain cells, finally coming up with a triumphant grin like he had just solved world hunger. “Yeah….yeah….” he laughed. “You are special, actually. So ‘special’ you should be in special ed.” Connor was fairly certain Tyler himself was in special ed – which really should not have been an insult anyways – so he wasn’t sure how effective of a diss that was. Besides, Tyler always called Connor a nerdy know-it-all – he was really having trouble keeping his story straight. 

“Please,” Connor said. “He’s only 6 – he’ll get too scared by himself. If he goes by himself- “

“Then you shouldn’t have let him get in line without you,” Tyler grinned, baring braces laden teeth like a cartoon pubescent shark. 

“I didn’t, he ran off – “ Connor tried to explain exasperatedly, feeling like he was trying to talk to one of his younger siblings even though Tyler was older than him. 

“That’s not my fault. Back of the line,” Tyler said, unfazed, jerking his thumb backwards. “Relax. The ride’s perfectly safe. Well, if you’re tall enough…” He cackled in a hyena’s laugh. 

Connor turned with a sigh and slunk to the back of the line with Josie, watching the exit like a hawk – but he saw neither PT nor Jimmy come out. Soon they were inside the ride and could no longer see the exit, and Connor waited impatiently, trying to ignore Josie’s looks – she was clearly unhappy with him, as usual. “We’re not going to the haunted house,” he said, annoyed. Josie threw up her hands with a huff, and scribbled something on her pad, but Connor refused to read it, even when Josie crumpled it up and threw it at the back of his head. 

It took over an hour to make it to the front of the ride, and when they did, PT was nowhere to be seen. 

“Next!” the ride operator called, and the person behind Connor shuffled forward, bumping into Connor. “Line 7,” he called towards Connor, pointing. 

“We should go out the last minute exit,” Connor said, finally looking back at Josie, who was already getting on the coaster, shooting him a look that said “we didn’t come all this way for nothing.” 

“Last call,” The operator said. Reluctantly, Connor jumped forward and got in beside Josie, still craning his neck to look for PT. “Enjoy the ride!” The operator called, pulling the level and causing the ride to begin to climb.

The ride shook through two loops, 4 hills, and 8 turns, the seats barely seeming secure, just as Connor had feared. Their heads rattled around, causing Connor’s pretzel and fried dough to come up into his throat. When they finally stumbled off the ride, Connor stumbled to a nearby bench with Josie’s help, forgetting to even look for PT as he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to regain his bearings.

“Hey!” a voice barked as Josie shook his shoulder. Connor looked up, blinking away stars and chasing away nausea to see Tyler and Jimmy. “Your psycho little brother went Wolverine on my friend!” Tyler called. 

Jimmy held his arm angrily up, presenting a large bite mark. Next to Connor, Josie nodded in appreciation. 

“Probably has rabies or something,” Jimmy added. “Little freak!” 

Josie stood suddenly, eyes blazing as she stepped up to Jimmy. Connor jumped to his feet, trying to pull her away. 

But as anyone with motion sickness knows, sudden movements only make it worse. And when you’re already fighting to keep down your lunch, they can sometimes produce….well, undesired results. 

In this case, throwing up all over someone who already has plenty of reasons to hate you. 

“Arghhh!” Tyler screamed, wiping puke off his uniform. “You’re going to pay for that, McGrath!” 

Still dizzy, Connor took a step back. Josie pulled him away as Tyler lunged for him, still dragging him along as she ran, weaving between the crowd as heavy footsteps pounded behind them and parkgoers cried out in disgust, puke rubbing off on them. This time, they were saved by etiquette being broken, and the pandemonium that broke out at Tyler’s rudeness helped them get lost in the throng. 

“You three are dead!” Tyler called from a rapidly increasing distance. “You hear me?? Dead!”

Looking for PT became rather impossible as they were being hunted themselves, like wild geese trying to find a needle in a haystack in the middle of hunting season. They used what was almost the last of their money to buy bear-ear hats, donning them as a disguise each time they passed an employee, but there were a couple near misses. As the park started to get dark, they still had not found their little brother. 

The park closed at sundown – apparently, lighting was out of the park’s measly budget – so most of the park’s visitors were beginning to make their way towards the front entrance. PT had to be among them, Connor reasoned, so they joined the group. 

They made their way through the throws of people to a tree near the exit, stepping up on the base to get a better vantage point. “Do you see him?” Connor asked. Josie shook her head.

Unfortunately, the tree was also a good vantage point to see them from. 

“Hey!” came a voice suddenly. “McGrath!”

“Crap,” Connor said, ducking back down into the crowd. “It’s them.” Tyler and Jimmy had spotted him and was heading towards them, pushing against the traffic leaving the park. “Come on,” he said to Josie, pulling her towards the side. But the teenagers had longer legs, and were gaining on them. Connor and Josie ducked behind trees, changing routes and running deeper into the park.

“You can’t run from me!” Tyler called. Connor wondered how he’d gotten the job at the park. He sounded like a cartoon villain to everyone he’d ever met – he couldn’t exactly see Tyler charming the pants off his interviewer, unless he’d been asked to give a Mojo Jojo impression. “I’ll find you!”

The crowd grew sparse as Josie and Connor made their way to the center of the park, weaving between buildings and rides. Finally they stopped to catch their breath by the animatronic band animals, turning to see if Tyler had followed them.

They waited in silence, scanning every entrance to the square.

“Come to FUNLAND, where the sun and hopes are high!” the song suddenly broke out again, causing Connor and Josie to jump. They turned to see that the animatronic band had begun playing again. “Come to FUNLAND, where the animals run run run and have some fun!” they sang in their nasally voices. 

But something was off. The tune was faster and higher pitched than normal. Their hands actually seemed to be playing the instruments, and the sounds became jarring and loud, off pitch.

“Come to FUNLAND-where-the-sunandhopesarehigh!” They screeched. Sparks began to fly from the guitar as a string broke. “COMETOFUNLANDWHERETHEANIMALSRUNRUNRUNANDHAVESOMEFUN!”

Connor took an instinctive step back, grabbing Josie’s arm as the band’s movement quickened, too, until the strokes of the ear’s guitar became a screeching cacophony, and the strings on the lion’s harp began to break, and the beat of the mouse’s drum became more of a vibration.

The animals began to shake off their hinges, almost as if they might fall. The very foundation rocked left and right, as if the animals were trying to free themselves of it. But that was insane. It was a jarring malfunction, but it was just that, Connor told himself. Most things in life could be explained – it was simply science that had not been discovered yet, or some phenomena Connor had not learned yet. It was still Normal. 

Until the mouse’s foot broke loose from the base with a loud series of creaks, then stepped forward. Until the lion’s paws broke free and it began to drag its back legs forward. Until the bear’s eyes moved to Connor’s and narrowed as his arms reached out, leering out at them. 

Until Connor watched the animals come to life, and could no longer brush the events off as anything other than horrifying, utterly impossible-yet-possible paranormal activity. 

Next to him, a grin began to creep onto Josie’s face 

“Awesome,” she said.

Hannah Writes: Underland

I’ve started another book!! See the beginning below:

GOOD SINNERS (Underland Book 1)

911 Transcript

Dispatcher: 911, what’s your emergency?

Caller: (static)….hello? Is anyone there?

Dispatcher: Can you hear me?

Caller: It’s (static) blood everywhere –

Dispatcher: Sir, I can’t hear you – where are you?

Caller: (static) woods –

Dispatcher: Where?

Caller: Kellerman Forest (static) by the (static) old stone hut (static) Hurry. (static) she’s dying – oh god – Cora (call disconnected)

Dispatcher: Sir?

Text from Margeurite Reedman to Willa Bryson

Did u hear about Cora?

Text from Willa Bryson to Margeurite Reedman

Yes

Text from Margeurite Reedman to Willa Bryson

Karma’s a bitch

Patient Name: Cora Van Helton

Injury: Neck Laceration

Time of Death: 3:15AM

ZERO

The nightmare began when she was still awake.

It was like falling into a dream with one foot still in waking. She was frozen, unable to escape the torrent of horrifying images before her eyes: images her waking half felt sure couldn’t be real. One dream turned to another, and she futilely grasped towards the fragments of each as they turned to dust before her.

The only concrete constant seemed to be fear. Fear, and pain.

As she fell deeper and deeper into the nightmare, she tried desperately to hang onto what was real. But she could no longer tell the difference.

The burning in her throat as she tried to suck in more air felt real. The horrible dizzy feeling in her head felt real. The flight of her heart into her stomach felt real.

But so did the sharp, icy claws that dragged her across a rough floor, scraping her fingertips as she struggled to grab onto something – anything – to steady herself. She thrashed and tried to draw breath, but breathing in felt like gulping cold water. She choked the air back up, coughing and sputtering. Unable to do anything else, she tried to scream; but all that came out was a hoarse, cackling whisper.

This is what dying feels like, she realized. There was some deep human part of her that knew, knew beyond doubt that her life was ending.

But was it only in the dream? You couldn’t die in a dream, could you? Or had that simply been a myth, a remnant of a dark children’s story or horror movie in which death in sleeping led to death in waking?

“I haven’t inflicted any abuse. But I could. Remember that, Cora.”

Cora jerked, looking for the voice. But her eyes would no longer open, or if they had, then they weren’t functioning properly. It was almost as if she’d entered a different dimension, where voice and color and memory and feeling blended together into a vortex that could not be perceived with any one of the senses.

“You’re just a delusional, stupid little girl that’s so bored she ruins everyone around her for sport, turning them into characters she can kill off when convenient.”

This voice was different. Around her floated emotions of love, lust, trust, and anger…but not the bitter hate that had accompanied the last voice.

I’m not, Cora tried to cry, but she couldn’t find her voice in the mess around her.

“She was right about you. You never cared at all. It’s over, Cora.”

“I’m not someone you want to cross.”

“You’re a horrible person. You’re the worst person I’ve ever met.”

“Please. Please help me. Maybe I can help you.  If not….I’m going to lose my mind.”

“Rot in hell, Cora,”

She turned, or she thought she did, as the colors around her swirled and changed, finally forming blurry images in her mind. A classroom. A hallway. A dark office, a crystal glass of dark liquid in her hand. Brown hair over a freckled face and searching eyes. A letter in a locker.

“Stay with us, Cora,” a voice suddenly cut through the others, distracting her. This one felt tangible, like it flowed through ears as a sound, not a color or a feeling or anything else. Real – not memory. In real time. The first real thing to latch onto.

“You’re doing so good.”

Well, Cora wanted to correct. I’m doing so well. What am I doing well, anyways, she wanted to ask. Staying alive? It hardly seemed she was succeeding at that.

Cora didn’t normally like following directions, but this one felt important. She desperately tried to stay awake, only she wasn’t sure what that meant. She didn’t feel in control; it did not feel like there was an on and off switch she could just flip to alive or dead. Perhaps she could dismiss the colors, the images, the memories, rip herself into reality, while she was momentarily aware of which was which. But something drew her towards them. Something told her they were more important.

“I love you more than all the stars in the sky,” she heard, and this time the voice was her own, though she hadn’t felt herself say anything. A face materialized in front of her: a young boy’s face, sensitive and sweet, a tear rolling down his cheek that Cora wiped away. Ben.

But as she reached out to him, feeling her heart fill with love and fear, the two inseparable as they always were, he disappeared into wisps in the distance, and suddenly she was alone, and all the colors and voices were gone. It was just her, and the sounds of nature, and faraway cars, and were there….footsteps?

And now they were her own, and she wasn’t simply watching herself in a dream but now she was herself, running at top speed, her throat burning and her breaths coming fast, fear filling her like liquid poison, this time devoid of love.

She tripped and fell, stumbling back up again, running forward even as her palms burned and she felt blood on her leg.

She was being chased, she realized. But why? And what had scared her so much? Why was she in the dark, alone, at night, so far from her home in the city?

“I haven’t inflicted any abuse…”

The voices swirled again in her head, faces popping up and then blending into each other.

Her stepfather. Her friends, classmates. Her various exes.

She flashed back into the forest, and she’d fallen again, and she was screaming.

“Hold her down.” The voice ripped her back into reality, and for a split second she saw bright lights, unfamiliar faces, metal instruments, blue scrubs against red blood….

It was not just a dream. It was a memory.

Someone had hurt her. One of the faces…..

“Stay still,” a deeper voice said and suddenly she felt a weight on her chest that only made it harder to breathe. She writhed and squirmed under it, slowly becoming aware of something warm and wet on her neck but feeling little else other than the suffocating force on her lungs. The lights started to sparkle and the world around her went black, black…..

You’re dying, Cora, she told herself. One of the faces….

They hadn’t just hurt her. They had killed her.

It was funny, really, that she didn’t worry about death, about what would happen after.

Perhaps she didn’t think anything would happen. Perhaps she thought it wasn’t important.

How very wrong she was.

Instead she focused in on the one thing that felt within her control, the last thing she could do before she died: figuring out who had killed her.

Minutes, minutes to solve her own murder. To remember. To say something, to find her voice and speak, to tell her family, the police, the doctors, anyone. A name, a face, something.

Focus, Cora. Ben’s face floated again into her mind, and she latched onto it. Focus. For him.

The harsh voices were back.

“Do you really think it’s wise to threaten an alleged child abuser?”

Her stepfather.

“You don’t even care, do you? You’ll do anything as long as you benefit. Hurt anyone.”

Willa’s father, Willa herself, angry at the blackmail she’d inflicted on their family.

“Cora Fallman is fucking a teacher!”

Eric, Francis – exes who she’d left ruined….

“You walk around trying on men, on personalities, on drugs like new dresses at Bloomingdale’s, and then cast them away.”

Colton Harris. Mr. Harris. Her teacher.

“I know you took the key, Cora. You could’ve done it, you knew where it was. I’ve been protecting you, but my mom helped me see, it had to be you-“

Eric’s mother, who had always hated Cora, convinced she’d be the ruin of her son.

“You’re a slut, Cora. You’ll ruin him like you ruin everyone around you.”

Marguerite, who’d felt betrayed by her relationship with Eric, her childhood crush.

“Please, Cora. Please drop out. I’m begging you.”

“I know you’re not a bad person, Cora.”

 Anya. Julie. Girls who had asked for her help only to be ignored, cast aside.

A sudden jolt and she could breathe again. Sucking in air, gasping, gulping, then finally, when she caught her breath enough, screaming at the new pain, at the confusion. Voices were all around her, instruments were being passed, and still that red was all around her, blending with the blue into swirling, sickening purple like a magic potion to put her to sleep…

Panicked, she tried to make out a face, or an object, or anything. Someone was sobbing loudly and she slowly became aware that it wasn’t her. Mother? She wondered. As her vision focused and her mind started to clear, another wave of pain knocked her focus back and she struggled to find herself again, to find her memories, the faces. She was running out of time.

Seconds. Seconds left to solve her own murder.

Her stepfather, Willa, Willa’s father, Margeurite, Mr. Harris, Eric, Eric’s mother, Francis, Anya, Julie…..

None of them had seemed capable of murder. But she was dead, and unless it was a random act, it had to have been one of them.

Something was around her mouth now, making both worlds – the purple and the hazy memories – go fuzzy.

Anesthesia.

She was going to lose consciousness. She was going to lose the ability to focus, to plot, to figure it all out as she always did. Her one power in a world of deceit and unfairness.

No, she tried to say. Not yet. She would take the pain, the confusion, over anesthesia. She didn’t know if she’d ever wake up once she gave in fully to sleep. Just a few more seconds, she begged.

But she no longer had any power here. She no longer even had a voice. And images of bloody footprints and frantic screams turned into nothingness.

Red pain and blue-clad doctors disappeared.

Even her brother’s face, begging her not to go, faded away.

And finally she was in darkness. And nothing was red anymore. Nothing was any color at all.

Cora Fallman died at 3:15AM on a Sunday morning under mysterious circumstances. Her mother cried. Nobody knew who’d inflicted the fatal blow, or even if it had been just one person. Plenty of people had their own suspicions, but remained silent, knowing their evidence could be self-incriminating.

Some people were just glad she was gone. Her reign of terror was finally over.

Others saw her as a victim. A bright girl gone too soon. They assumed it was some crazy murderer in the woods. A man – older, probably. Maybe a stalker. After all, she’d been very pretty. Almost doll-like. Fair skinned with cherry red lips and dark hair. Like Snow White, only with more expensive clothing.

The world moved on.

Cora Fallman died at 3:15AM on a Sunday morning under mysterious circumstances.

And then she woke up.

ONE

ONE CAN’T BELIEVE IMPOSSIBLE THINGS

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Perhaps “waking up” was not the right term for it.

Waking up denoted leaving the state of sleeping into a state of waking in which reality was intact. And that did not at all describe the situation Cora found herself in upon gaining consciousness.

She felt as if someone had cut her into a million little pieces, and then put her back together in a hurry. She was dizzy, disoriented, and though her eyes were open she could not focus on anything in front of her. Instead, disparate images, sounds, and feelings ran through her ears like a ribbon, as if there was nothing tangible in her head to block them. Her mother’s face, cold and stony. Blood against her neck. The feeling of soft lips on hers, the smell of alcohol on breath, the sound of pure hatred contained in a voice.

She tried to connect them, to place each to a specific memory, but there were simply too many of them. It felt like she was trying to match a box of a thousand unique buttons. Her life did not seem to exist on a timeline, but rather in a collage of all the horrible things that had ever happened to her.

Or was it the opposite – was it the most horrible things she had ever done?

Intermingled with the strange sounds, sights, and feelings were ones that didn’t feel as familiar. A hard surface below her head. Brown stairs on a white ceiling. Sound – a slight ringing in her ears. These did not feel quite like reality. But they felt like something stable to hold onto, unlike the visions that flashed through her mind. She focused on them, and ever so slowly, her senses seemed to fall somewhat back in line, into present time.

Cora blinked at the ceiling. It was not white after all. It was the kind of yellow cheap white paint gets when it’s been on too long. Cora automatically wrinkled her nose, surprising herself when she felt the movement of her face. Shakily, she tested her limits: she reached her fingers out, splaying them over the ground, feeling the crumbling rock beneath.

Cora slowly sat up, examining her body, pale in the dim light. Besides for indents on her arms from the rough floor, it was immaculate. She traced her knee with her finger, but she couldn’t even find the scar she’d had since being a child, forever marking what otherwise would’ve been a forgettable bike ride. It was almost as if she had been regenerated, good as new.

A hospital gown adorned her body – light blue, like her nails.

She was surrounding by four walls – one of which had mostly fallen away, revealing a starless sky. There was nothing in the room but a rocking chair, an old rug that reminded Cora of a nursing home, and a broken bookshelf. The floor beneath her was hard concrete, but there were holes in it, too, and dust and rubble lay all around, like there had been an explosion.

“Where the hell am I?” Cora breathed raspily, surprising herself with the sound of her own voice. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Hello?”

There was nothing but silence around her – the kind of silence that felt like sound itself, drowning out all the rest.

Cora rose gingerly, searching her mind for the last thing that had happened, but her memories still felt out of order. What day was it? Where had she been last? Who had she spoken to? Panic began to fill her, chills running up and down her back. What had happened? How had she ended up in a place that looked like freaking Syria?

“Ow,” Cora said softly as she took a step forward and felt a sharp pain in her foot. All at once the chills were gone, physical pain providing a ledge as she began to topple off the precipice of everything she thought she had known. Cora winced, lifting her foot to see the damage almost automatically, as if she was just that same little kid who had fallen off her bike. A broken shard of glass had punctured her skin, red spilling out against it.

She took a deep breath – like taking off a bandaid, she told herself- and pulled it out, pressing her hand against the wound to stem the flow of blood.

Her hand against her neck, blood gushing out. Life gushing out.

No, Cora gasped, suddenly finding herself on the floor, heavy breaths racking her body.

“What’s happening to me?” she gasped softly, suddenly noticing the pain in her foot was gone, and the blood flow had stopped. Had it coagulated already? She lifted her foot to examine the wound, forcing cracks of dried blood underneath her blue nails to discover nothing but smooth skin underneath.

Cora’s breath caught in her throat. Her hands scratched to a fist against the dark red on her foot, then wrapped around it, trying to remain grounded. But there was no ledge this time to hold onto. There was only glass.

She looked around, locating the bloody shard. She gripped it in her hands tightly, until it sliced into her flesh, then let it clatter to the ground. She waited for the pain to recede, then forced herself to look.

Behind the blood, there was no cut.

She stood and rushed to the opening in the wall, not even bothering to watch her step. She would heal – as insane as that thought even was.

She needed to see where she was. No more careful, slow observation.

Rip off the bandaid, right?

She caught herself on the edge of the crumbling wall, gazing out, eyes flitting left and right as her new world hit her like the chill of walking outside on a cold winter day.

Rubble lay out on the streets, broken street lamps lining a broken and cracked road, buildings crumbling out onto it like a child had utterly failed at coloring inside the lines. Ten, twelve, fifteen story buildings, teetering on their foundations, holes ripped throughout as if they were as fragile as the pairs of black nylons she wore to school. It almost looked like a giant had come through and turned the world to ruin, like a toddler stepping on a sandcastle.

Everything looked empty. Abandoned.

The sky, as she had seen from her position on the floor, was blank. Only it was not quite black – it was more of a dark gray. The color seemed to be all around her, too, as if the air itself was gray. Everything was dull and drab, like she was wearing the opposite of rose-colored glasses. It was dark, but she could still see, and not just because of the streetlights. It did not look like anything Cora had ever seen in real life. It looked like a Godzilla movie set come to life.

Suddenly she heard footsteps coming from below her, and whipped around to face the door. Someone was running. The footsteps grew louder – they were getting closer.

Towards the door. Towards her.

Cora took a tentative step back, almost falling out the side of the building. Should she run? She turned back and stared down. She was only three stories up.

You cannot scale this thing, Cora. You’ll die.

And then she heard it – an ear-shattering, inhuman roar that shook the whole building.

Before she could even react, the door burst open and a dirt-encrusted, wild-eyed girl who looked more like a feral cat flew in, slamming the door shut behind her as she flung her lanky body against it.

“Don’t just stare!” the girl screamed, jolting a frozen Cora. “Help me!”

Cora stared blankly at her. She had never in her life been spoken to this way. Especially not by a teenager who, by the looks of it, was homeless. “What?”

“DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? Help-” she slammed on the door with her hands and then pointed to herself “-me!! Or -” She sliced her finger across her neck. “we die!”

Feeling like everything was happening in slow motion, Cora walked forward hesitantly, placing her hands lightly on the door. The girl gave her a look like she was the most idiotic person on the planet – a look Cora recognized well, though usually its place was on her own face.

“Okay, you clearly have a death wish, but I don’t, so for the love of all that is holy,” the girl said, shifting her eyes up in a way suggesting she didn’t find anything at all holy, “PUT YOUR BACK INTO IT, or I swear to god I’ll kill you before he does!” 

“He?” Cora asked weakly, still feeling as if she had missed something.

Screeeeechhhhh.

The growl was back, only now it was more like nails on a chalkboard, penetrating deep into her ears, followed by a force against the door that almost pushed it open. Cora quickly threw her whole weight against the door, holding it closed, feeling like she was in some kind of horror movie.

“Go away!” the girl screamed. “I don’t want to hurt you!”

There was no response, predictably. Cora didn’t think whatever was behind that door was human. The girl reached back and grabbed a pistol hidden in the back of her jeans, stood away from the door, and shot through it three times without hesitation. Cora screamed and jumped away from the door, staring at the bullet holes inches from where her head had just been in shock.

The girl shot her a haughty look, an eyebrow raised, as if to say “really?” She then strode forward, opening the door.

To Cora’s horror, the newly dead body of a boy about her age slid into the room.

Cora stared at it. That wasn’t right. It hadn’t been a person. It had been an animal. Or, or….a…

Cora shook her head of such fantasies. There was no such thing as monsters.

There was no such thing as injuries that instantly healed, either.

There was no such thing as having your throat slit and then waking up.

Cora watched as the girl knelt down next to the boy.

“Okay, I lied,” she said, cupping his bloody cheek with her hand. “I totally wanted to hurt you.” She stood, wiping her bloody hand off on her filthy jeans and then extending it towards Cora. “Hi. I’m Lee.”

A handshake. The first familiar thing in this terrifying world.

Except it wasn’t quite right. The girl had to be no more than fifteen. She was still holding a gun with her other hand. A dead boy lay beside them, the girl’s victim, and the hand she held out was still smeared in his blood.

None of this was right at all. None of it was familiar. Even Cora herself felt unfamiliar. This was not her – an inactive participant, looking for an escape, allowing herself to be belittled at the whim of others. She was Cora Van Helton. And wherever she was, however real it all was, that still mattered.

And so, she drew herself up to her full height, ignored the hand in front of her, and glowered down at the filthy girl in front of her with her best stern look.

“What. The Hell. Is Going On.”

The girl – Lee – refused to be intimidated. She looked rather like she was watching a child play make believe. “Funny you should mention hell, as that pretty much sums it up.” Cora stared at her. “Either the fashions have seriously changed since I was alive, or you just got here,” she nodded to Cora’s garb. Cora self-consciously tried to pull the back of her gown together.

“Alive?” she echoed, searching for some confirmation of what was going on.

“Sorry, the welcome committee must’ve been busy,” Lee rolled her eyes. “You died!” she sang in a mockingly grand voice, wiggling jazz fingers. “Welcome to the land of the sinners!”

“That’s-I’m-Hell doesn’t exist,” Cora said, almost laughing, feeling like she was the victim of a cruel practical joke. She was not dead.

Yet a voice in the back of her mind protested, reminding her of the vision of blood gushing out her neck.

Not a vision. A memory.

Lee shrugged. “Yeah, denial’s fun while it lasts. My suggestion? Just accept it or you’ll end up dead-”

“But-if we’re already dead-”

“Death is relative,” she said significantly. “The version we are is the least bad. Trust me – you don’t want to die here. Too bad for our friend over here. ” Cora followed her eyes towards the boy. Lee bent down and grabbed his hand, forcing it to wave. “Bye bye, free will!” she said.

“What….what is he?” Cora asked in horror. Was it even worth talking to this homeless girl? She was clearly psychotic.

The girl – Lee – shrugged, dropping the hand as if it was a piece of trash. “The worst kind of monster. A boy.”

“I wouldn’t….I would never be in hell, even if it was real.” Cora rolled her eyes, trying to seem confident. “I….I’ve never done anything bad,” She insisted, ignoring the voice in her head that told her you couldn’t reason with crazy.

Crazy’s all I’ve got, she countered.

Lee raised her eyebrows, the universal expression for you’re full of shit.

Was she?

I know you’re not a bad person, Cora.

The voice echoed in her head, twisting and turning into a memory. And not just a fragment this time.

The note in her locker. Anya.

I know you’re not a bad person, Cora, Anya had written. I know that you’re unhappy. Like me. I see it on your face. I think maybe we could understand each other.

Please. Please help me. Maybe I can help you.

If not….I’m going to lose my mind.

Not your fault, Cora thought, chasing the memory away with her usual narrative. After all, she had never bullied Anya. It wasn’t Cora’s fault, so therefore it was not her responsibility.

Lee was still eyeing her doubtfully. “Yeah, I don’t really have time to play judge and jury for your life, or sit down and figure out how you ended up here. Actually,” she said, looking at an imaginary watch. “I’m already late.”

“Late for what?”

“Everything!” Lee said, walking past Cora towards the door. “There’s so much to do, you know, people to torture, a girlfriend to find so I can get the hell out of….well, hell – hah! Didn’t even do that on purpose.” She laughed. Cora did not. Lee shot her a look, disappointed. “Alice would’ve thought it was funny.” She shrugged, turning to leave.

“Wait,” Cora said, grabbing her arm. Lee looked down at it, then up at Cora, seeming impressed Cora even had the gall to do so. Cora tightened her grip, wanting to show this girl she was not afraid of her.

“I demand to know exactly what is going on,” she said, raising her head high.

“Dude,” Lee said, ripping her arm from Cora’s grip and shooting her an annoyed look.

Dude?

“Look, you’re new here. Which means you don’t have any use to me. So – goodbye. Have a nice afterlife.” And with that, she walked past Cora to the door, disappearing from sight.

Cora stood, a strange feeling filling her. That had never happened before.

She had always had leverage, something to offer. She’d always been able to make a deal. She’d always been able to bend people to her will.

But it was like this girl didn’t even care that she was Cora Van Helton….

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Right. She had no reputation, wherever she was. No one cared how rich her stepfather was. And as she knew nothing of what was going on, she couldn’t even offer information.

She was, for lack of a better word, a loser in Hell.

You’re not in Hell. You can’t be, she fought against herself.

She was just in a land that looked a lot like Hell. With boys that fought like monsters and girls that tortured people.

If it looks like a duck, and talks like a duck…

Cora had heavy disdain for the art of self-deception. Why willfully ignore that which you knew was true? How could you possibly fight back if you didn’t know the facts?

How can you fight back if your throat’s been slit?

But still, all she had to go off of was what Lee had said and a handful of shaky memories. She needed more evidence than that. She needed to gather intel. The first step in any new situation. Cora closed her eyes, realizing what she had to do.

She had never seen a dead body before. Not even her father’s – her mother had not allowed them to see him after they’d pulled the plug.

Cora felt stupid for her trepidation. She took a deep breath, trying to comfort herself.

It’s just a thing. An empty husk. Being afraid of it would be as juvenile as fearing a doll, or a place, or a film.

The only things in the world to really fear are people. Dead people don’t count.

Once people were dead, they could’nt hurt you anymore. There were no ghosts; no spirits; no demons. As a little girl, she’d often been kept up by nightmares of such things, comforted only by her father’s assurances that they were not real. But she was not a child anymore. And her father was dead, just like the boy in front of her.

Death was a fact, not an illusion or a semicolon or anything else. Nothing, not false hope or intense grief or consuming self-delusion could change it. She knew that from experience.

Death was just death. It was just over.

At least in the world Cora knew.

Suddenly she realized, staring at the boy with bullet wounds in his torso, his eyes still open, his chest still and unmoving, that none of these solaces applied anymore.

Because Cora could remember dying. And yet here she was.

What was it the girl had said?

Death is relative. The version we are is the least bad.

Before she could even think to run, to leave, to go far away, the boy’s hand whipped up and grabbed Cora’s neck with superhuman strength. His eyes turned black like squid ink spreading throughout a blue and white sea; his hands turned rough and scaly; his nails extended into claws that dug into the back of Cora’s neck; his lips stretched into a too-wide smile of jagged shards of glass, releasing a scream more terrible than anything Cora had heard before.

Death was not finite. It was relative.

And some form of it was coming for her.

Again.

Hannah Writes: Chapter 2

AN EXPERIMENT IN LIVING

CHAPTER 2- Bloody Sarah

Math class. By far the most pointless class of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. Math was important. But calculus? When was I ever going to use calculus?

I sighed and escaped into my mind. School was incredibly boring. Just like my parents, the teachers were predictable. They just spoke out of a textbook that I could easily read on my own.

Luckily, I had always had a good imagination, a thriving internal life. It was what separated me from Sarah, what saved me from her same disappointment and anger in life. If I was ever disappointed, or bitter, or simply bored, I could always Escape. Daydream. My own personal superpower.

What would it be today? I flipped through the genres in my mind. Romance was always a fun one. I pictured my mystery dream man (who always looked suspiciously like our quarterback).

What will it be today, my love? I asked him. A fantastical epic filled with dragons and royalty? A story of forbidden romance set in 1920s Hollywood?

A murder mystery in a haunted house?

Perfect. 

Images and thoughts filled my brain, fragments of familiar stories and dreams combining to create something that was more interesting than the smell of whiteboards and the kid picking his nose in front of me.  

White hands covered in red.  

Stop.

A body no longer moving. Almost alive, but not. Such a fine line between life and death. Breathing, and then not. Still. Gone. Waste.

Rotting.

1, 2, 3, 4…I counted the scratches on my desk, trying to calm myself down. The fantasy, I reminded myself. The quarterback – no, my dream guy – fending off ghosts that attacked me in a dark house…..

But it wasn’t working. There were ghosts, but the ghosts were more like memories chasing me. Memories of a cold silver object in a drawer. Of a horrible action taken in the dark, after everyone was asleep. Memories of blood and yelling. Fingers turned pale. Eyelids opened and blank eyes stared. I heard a scream ripple through the whole room, reverberating against the walls-was it her, was it the person who had found her, or –

“Posie?”

Boom. Just like that. Brought back to earth. No red against white tile. No dead eyes. Just a musty old classroom with fluorescent lighting and a wrinkled woman in an Amish-looking skirt, and about 20 bored looking kids my age, at least 8 of them texting.

I looked at Ms. Gafner. She was staring at me expectantly, her tiny spaghetti-like arm lifted and pointing at a map on the SmartBoard. God, that thing was annoying. Those 4 points on the screen you had to click to calibrate it- if hell was real, it was definitely just watching Ms. Gafner shuffle endlessly between clicking each one. Like a sloth. A really, really old sloth.  

But she had saved me. What had happened? Why had that happened? I was simply trying to escape, go back into my head like usual. I hadn’t even been thinking about Sarah. But it was like she was an intruder there, just waiting for me to enter.

Focus, Posie. What had she just asked? I tried to go back in my mind, but it was full of the terrifying images.   

 “Um-“

RING! Saved by the bell. Ms. Gafner was still looking at me, but I got up to go anyways. She was one of those “class isn’t out ‘til I dismiss you!” teachers, but she didn’t say it this time. The other students around me accepted it, and began to shuffle about as well, packing up. I liked to think they appreciated me for it. But probably they just felt the same pity I could feel emanating from Ms. Gafner’s beady eyes as I left the room. I hated that. Pity. It was so useless.

It was kind of nice that I got that free pass, though. I guess that was one of the perks of your big sis offing herself in the school bathroom.

Oh, sorry. I wasn’t supposed to say it like that. I was supposed to say “passed away”. “Moved on”. Moved on to where? Disneyland?

Always the freaking euphemisms. There were worse euphemisms than those for dying, too. Things like “checking in” and “how are you doing”, that really meant “how does it feel to have your sister die”, “did you know”, and, worst of all, “are you going to kill yourself next?” Ah, yes, the Golden Question that my mother had asked me just the night before: are you next?

I guess I preferred the euphemisms after all.

            It was funny how people tried to cover up something horrible and make it look nice. Might as well tie a big freaking bow around my dead sister, right? So that no one had to see her in their mind, picture her lying there in the bathroom….

Stop. You’re seeing things again.

Except, no. I actually was in front of the bathroom. A bathroom that was no longer blocked off by one of those yellow triangles.

Caution: wet floor. No one else seemed to see the humor in that but me.

Except now there was nothing. Nothing, except, I realized as my eyes travelled next to the door, a gaggle of freshmen waiting to go in.

Not waiting. Arguing.

“Come on, this was your idea!” one of them, a girl who looked much too small to be in the 9th grade, whined to her Juicy tracksuit-clad friend.

“It was my idea for you to do it,” Tracksuit corrected. Her back was to me, and I couldn’t help but stare at the “sassy” emblazoned on her butt in rhinestones.

“This is so dumb, nothing’s gonna happen,” another said, though her pink flushed face said otherwise. “Right?”

“Then why don’t you go in?” Tracksuit shrugged innocently.

I felt trapped, forced to watch in horrid fascination, like slowing down to see what animal’s been killed on the side of the road.

“It’s easy. Just turn the lights out, spin around, and whisper her name,” Tracksuit continued.

Ah. So it wasn’t just about going in. No, they were playing a real life Bloody Sarah.

God, the teachers were idiots. They were limiting bathroom breaks to 3 minutes so that the dogs were sent out when you did anything more than apply chapstick, but they had re-opened the Bathroom of Death and left it unsupervised after school.

It was kind of funny, actually, their efforts to Help Us: the assemblies on suicide prevention, the letters sent to parents. All it had done was freak out parents whose kids were never in a million years going to kill themselves, and anger parents whose kids had any sort of chance.

No, that was a blanket assumption. Maybe it had helped. Maybe it had stopped someone else.

I almost laughed out loud at the thought that Sarah’s suicide had actually helped someone.

She would’ve hated that.

I swallowed my horror, concentrating on the humorous image of Sarah’s imagined anger as I tore myself away from the gaggle of girls and walked on, feeling the wall of icy air hit me as I kicked open the door. I liked the way it felt. Biting and angry, telling me to go back inside. Just hide from it all. Familiar thoughts, for me.  

I gently reminded myself to smile as I walked to the car, and not about wet floor signs or my sister’s annoyed face. Maybe try something actually happy, I told myself. I searched my mind for something….warmer than the cold wind that whipped my face. Maybe the fantasy again?

“Posie!” I heard behind me, interrupting me just as I got ready to dive back in.

Could I pretend I hadn’t heard it? I paused to think – too late.  

“Wait up!” Lily caught up with me and grabbed my arm.

She always did that: always touching people. I hated it. It reminded me I actually existed outside my head.

I turned reluctantly. “Lily!” I said, acting surprised to see her.

In reality, she had pinned me down each time she’d seen me since I’d come back to school. Remember what I said about “checking in”? Yeah, that was her specialty.

Lily was, unfortunately, my best friend…..very loose definition of “best”. We ate lunch together, we occasionally went shopping or saw a movie, and that was about it.

“How was your day??” she asked with fake positivity.

“Fabulous,” I smiled, widening my eyes. My own little trick, devised out of the fact that among the many things Lily did not understand was sarcasm.

She looked unsure, but smiled back. “That’s great! I didn’t see you at lunch.”

“No, I had my….daily appointment,” I said with a fake grimace.

Sometimes euphemisms were useful, actually. Especially when you wanted to lie. I hadn’t been with the counselor this time, actually. I had been in the library, reading Harry Potter for the 12th time. Avoiding her.

Her smile froze then, plastered on her face as the wheels moved in her brain. I watched her reach each step with amusement. An appointment. At school? With who? Who would you meet everyday….ah. The school counselor.

I watched these thoughts go through her head at an alarmingly slow pace until she finally gave me a sympathetic look.

“That’s too bad. We miss you.”

That was a funny way of putting it. “We” consisted of exactly 3 people besides Lily and I. The first and my personal favorite (though we’d maybe spoken twice) was Lily’s boyfriend JJ, who spent most of his time silently drawing borderline pornographic anime – I’m not joking on this, they stopped letting him show his stuff at school art shows.  The next member of our table was….well, Table. He was a foreign exchange student Lily had taken pity on who had actually chosen the English name Table, though I was convinced he was actually American and faking his lack of English to get into easy classes. Last, and definitely least, was Mary Elizabeth, whose two first names and multitude of knockoff Hermes scarves did not make up for the fact that that she lacked any personality beyond desperately gossiping about those around her. It really was a random assortment, like someone was just trying to get rid of the extra ingredients in their pantry and ended up whipping up a pile of mush.

But none of us really had anyone else. Lily used to have other friends, but there had been some falling out with her and this girl Bekah who had dated her way into the Fringe Group (what I called the people who were almost popular, but not quite). Lily had adopted all of the rest of us because we either moved from another town (like JJ), or didn’t have any friends before. I fell into the latter category. I had lived in Philipson, Colorado, for most of my life, except for a year-long sabbatical my parents had taken in India back at the beginning of middle school. By the time we returned, my best friend Janie had moved away and all the kids were pretty set into their middle school cliques. Which, then, turned into high school cliques.

Anyways, the thought of JJ saying “you know who I miss? Posie” actually put a smile on my face, which Lily of course mistook for gratitude.

“….but I get it. You gotta practice self care”

Oh, my god. There it was. The S word they kept using at assemblies instead of Suicide.

“Oh, I practice self care religiously every night,” I said earnestly, knowing the joke would go over her head. “But I really have to be going. My parents-well. We have a Thing.”

Another euphemism. I was actually changing my mind about them! Or perhaps it wasn’t the euphemisms but the simple fact that it wasn’t polite to ask questions when someone died. Whatever it was, it was quite useful. And it wouldn’t last forever. I knew it had a deadline.

I hated myself for even thinking that, that I’d better take advantage of it before the annoyingly concerned looks turned into judgmental pursed lips and raised eyes, looks that said “yes, but that was weeks ago.” What was the limit on grief? What was the time when things were supposed to go back to normal? Personally, I would love for there to be one. But that limit seemed to exist only in other people’s minds. What was a person’s life worth, not in money but in time? Was it suspicious to act “normal”, to smile so soon after a death, yet selfish to refuse to do so a month later, a week? How much allowance were you given? Did it matter how many years the person lived, or how close you were to them in blood, or how long you knew them?

“Of course!! I wouldn’t keep you!” she said, as if horrified by the thought. “I’ll text you later!” she waved, backing away, her straight black hair whipping back in the wind against her lilac floral backpack.

Well, the allowance was clearly still in effect now. Thank you, Sarah.

As I walked back to my car, I ignored the cold air, slipping back into my mind….maybe I just needed to try a non-ghost fantasy. Maybe I could imagine myself famous, or a queen, or a renowned inventor….

But each time I tried to start one of my stories, it inevitably shifted back to the bathroom. To Sarah.

I shook the images away. Yet still they lingered, floating through the air, waiting for me to grab on. Tired of fighting, I reached out. What was the harm?

And suddenly it was me, and I was on the floor, and I couldn’t breathe, and then I was staring blankly as people screamed around me, ashamed, disgusted, hurt, alone, and then it was all black around me and there was nothing and I was screaming too and then-

BAM. I slammed on the brakes-too late. My car skidded to a halt. My car? Since when had I gotten in the car?

I looked around me, bewildered. I was halfway home, passing Jameson street. I had hit someone’s trash can, which had fallen and gone flying back.

I sat still for a moment, breathing heavily, blinking rapidly. What was happening to me? That hadn’t been me. I hadn’t died. I was alive, hadn’t this reminded me of that? Painfully, truly, alive. And in trouble.

Crap. Could I just…drive away? Someone came running out of the house. Damn it.

It was some guy with a dadbod and some scruff-maybe late 30s? I quickly tried to produce some fake tears so he wouldn’t yell at me for knocking over his trash can and spilling a copious amount of what looked like either vomit or a disgusting attempt at cooking macaroni. I rubbed my nose to make it red, put the car in park and stepped out, coming around to the passenger side.

“Are you ok??” he asked worriedly, stopping just short of me.

“Ye-yeah,” I said, confused, still unsure if I should act like I’d been crying. I wasn’t exactly an Oscar-winning actress, despite my fantasies. “Um-sorry about the….trash. I’ll clean it up, I can get you a new bin-“

“Oh no, don’t worry at all!” he said, looking at me closer. “What happened?”

“I….I guess I was…distracted. Not texting!” I quickly added at his face. “You can see my phone in my bag if you want, it’s off….just…just, please don’t tell anyone, I was just….upset and, and lost in thought, and-“

“Here, sit down, it’s okay,” he said, looking concerned. “What’s your name?”

Crap. Was this for some kind of police report.

“It’s-It’s Posie Larson, please don’t tell my parents, they’ll kill me-“

“Larson?” He frowned, trying to place something. Then a wave of recognition passed over his face. “Oh. Oh. I see.”

Great – just my luck. Now he was Really Worried.

Perhaps I could twist it to my advantage. I covered my face in my hands, accepting I was not going to be able to produce any fake tears.

“It’s been a rough week,” I sniffed. “I was just….lost in thought.”

“It’s okay,” he said, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder.

Was he seriously buying this? Perhaps I was a better actor than I thought?

“Do you want a ride home? Or could I call someone for you? Your parents?”

“I….I’m on my way home to see them. We have an Appointment.”

He nodded-his processing was better than Lily’s it seemed.

“Well, I don’t think there’s any damage to the car,” he said, stepping away to examine it. I quickly rubbed my eyes to make them red as he looked away. “Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I said. “Thank you, so much….and I’m sorry….again….”

I began backing away, slowly.

When I realized he wasn’t going to stop me, I jumped into the car and put it in reverse, then drive, as I drove slowly and carefully down the road until the trashcan became a speck in the distance.

I tried to concentrate on the road as I drove home, instead of whatever lurked in my mind.  Except…it kind of demanded attention.

I had to figure out what was going on with me. Could I no longer escape without my mind going to the darkest possible conclusion, image? My daydreams had sometimes been…dark, dramatic, but not like this. Nor had they been as consuming.

So consuming that I didn’t even feel like I was really driving. A part of me felt like the little mini-crash had never even actually happened. Like I wasn’t capable of doing damage in real life.

My parents’ cars were in the driveway when I got home, but they must’ve been in their offices, because I didn’t see them as I walked brusquely up the stairs to my room, desperately seeking my bed, as if it would somehow solve my problems just because it was soft. I needed to think, I needed to figure out what was happening to me-

I stopped as I passed the bathroom. More unwelcome images flooded my brain: images of blood splattered on dirty yellow stalls, police tape, and limp hands….

No. I was bent over, breathing heavily. No. Don’t think about it, I told myself. These visions, these images, weren’t real. They weren’t things I had really seen.

“Stop,” I told myself softly.

I quickly walked past the bathroom and into my room, shutting the door behind me. I sank onto the bed. “Think,” I said, to make sure I could still talk. My own voice sounded from another world: warbly, strange, and unfamiliar. Meanwhile, the walls, the chair, and the colors in front of me felt like an illusion, a screen – fake.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight, beginning to breathe heavily. This is real, I told myself, concentrating on each breath. In. Out. In. Out. 1, 2. You’re alive. You’re breathing. You need air. You’re human.

I dug my fingernails into my palm until it stung.

See? You’re alive. You still feel pain.

Focus. Count. I looked at the ceiling, meaning to count each stroke. But it didn’t feel real. Time didn’t feel real again. The images were leaving, thankfully, but I still didn’t feel present. I didn’t dare escape back to my head, my fantasies. I couldn’t risk getting stuck again.

Without my daydreams, everything in Real Life felt quiet. Not just in volume. Quiet like an old abandoned building in a ghost town. Quiet like a heart that’s stopped beating. Quiet like the clouds fading away from view. Like an unplugged machine. Quiet like dead. I felt dead.

Shouldn’t I have felt alive? Shouldn’t have crashing my car been a loud reminder that I was still there? A reminder that I couldn’t just fade away?

Shouldn’t my sister’s death have done that? Shouldn’t those girls in the hall?

Everyone else seemed to React to things. Even those that didn’t really know Sarah, like Brynn, had Reacted to her death. And I looked at them all and I couldn’t relate to them. I couldn’t relate to the dad who had showed concern when I knocked over his trash can. I couldn’t relate to anyone who felt anything more than vague annoyance at being disrupted. It wasn’t just my grief that was abnormal. It was me. It was everything I felt.

When had this happened? I had always used daydreams to escape. But lately, something had changed.…the more exciting my dreams had become, the more unpalatable real life had become. And so I was always in my mind. I existed in real life only as a hologram, an imprint left behind by someone who used to Exist.

Whatever reality that reality had lost, my dreams had gained. Only they weren’t dreams anymore. Or they weren’t mine. They were Sarah’s. She had her grip on me, even in death. How? And why?

Most importantly, how could I escape her? How could I escape a mind I had trapped myself in?

It was simple, wasn’t it? Just ignore it. Just….don’t live in your mind anymore.

But it was easier said than done.

I did my homework. I watched some TV. I had dinner with my parents. I painted my nails. I kept busy, and I kept sane.  

But then it was night. And there was nothing to do, nothing else to focus on but my own thoughts.

Thoughts that called out to me, pulling me in, asking me what the harm was in just letting them in. Just for a few moments. Why try so hard to keep them out? What harm could something that only existed in your head do? Maybe it could distract you while driving, but before bed….?

Yes, the images seemed scary on the surface. Yes, they were dark. But….at least they weren’t quiet. At least they filled the silence.

It was normal to be curious, wasn’t it? About what Sarah had done? There was no harm in curiosity.

And so I closed my eyes and I found myself back in the bathroom. Back in her bedroom, that one night. I tried her experiences on like a costume.

What was it like, Sarah? Why did you do it?

Like I’d said, I’d never know. But I could wonder. I could picture each possible conclusion, situation, all night long.

Hannah Writes a Book!

So I’ve been working for a while on this story – it’s sort of a John Greene – esque contemporary YA book about a girl in the aftermath of her sister’s death trying to change her life. It’s still a work in progress as of now, but I thought I’d post the first chapter!

An Experiment in Living
CHAPTER 1: REST EASY BRO
Funerals had to be one of the weirdest things in existence.
Even when it was your sister’s funeral.
…..especially when it was your sister’s funeral.
It was so weird that it was almost comical to me. How we were all wasting
a perfectly good Sunday crying around a box with a corpse in it. All of us, from the extended family there out of obligation, to the morbidly curious classmates, to the little balding man going on and on about some old dude and his weird make believe world. All of us choosing to be there rather than, I don’t know, doing literally anything else that might be a little less depressing.
I didn’t mean to sound insensitive. Of course I was sad and all, not just
about her death but everything before. I just didn’t much like publicly mandated crying. And I couldn’t for the life of me understand why our society, and all of the societies before ours, felt a funeral was necessary. It was embarrassing, really, especially in our case. I snuck at look at my mother with her tear-stained face and my father with his too-wide eyes. Did we really have to publicly acknowledge Sarah’s death? Why, to give everyone an opportunity to judge us for our part in it? Because I’m sure that’s what they were thinking, behind their masks of pity.
They weren’t thinking “I’m glad I’m not them.” They were thinking “That could never be me.”
Was the point of a funeral, then, to give the people of our town the
opportunity to assure themselves they were better than us? Or, less cynically, was it a collective act of apology to Sarah? Did they not blame themselves, too?
Or maybe they were just there to cry, like watching a sad film on a rainy day. Maybe we were their entertainment, existing only to give them catharsis.
A little ringer went off in my head, warning me of my level of bitterness. I
had never been a cynical or bitter person, but Sarah sure had. Not everyone had seen that side of her, but Sarah hadn’t really censored herself from me. Sisters are like silent observers – always around, watching each other try on different roles and personalities depending on their age and who they’re talking to. And each time, I had seen her retreat back to her baseline of negativity. Everything was fake, love was a lie, nothing mattered.
It had just sounded like normal teenage angst.
And then she had killed herself.
Now, I was a generally positive person. But I had to admit, this particular
event had rocked me a bit. For a lot of reasons, not just the fact that my sister was now dead.
Of course, there was guilt. There was “could I have done anything to stop
it?” There was confusion, too. Confusion because my sister hadn’t been a very good person. And then more guilt piled onto that, guilt over the tiny sense of relief I had that she was dead. And then even MORE confusion on top of that, because even though she was dead, it was like her voice was still there in my mind, taunting me. Putting me down. Making me feel alone. As she had in life.
Now, I knew this was stupid. Dead people couldn’t speak. It was just a
little holdover, an unwelcome gift Sarah had left behind after years of negativity whispered in my ear. She had died, but had planted plenty of seeds in my mind. I just had to make sure those seeds didn’t sprout.

Okay, try again, Posie: maybe the point of a funeral was to allow people to
mourn Sarah.
There. That thought was more me
Except, of course, no one in attendance had really known Sarah. I tried to
ignore this fact, along with my opinion that mourning someone was just choosing to be sad on purpose. Now that I thought about it, it was actually a little twisted to mourn someone who had chosen sadness by choosing sadness ourselves.
Well, actually, that’s probably what Sarah would’ve wanted. For us to feel
as horrible as she did. Guilt flooded me again at that thought. I picked absently at the white trim on my dress, frustrated. Why did I have to feel guilty, when it was Sarah who had done all this?
I noticed my rich Aunt Betty giving me a side-eye from the pew over,
looking my dress up and down. Probably she thought it wasn’t quite grim enough, with the white trim and belt. Perhaps she thought I didn’t look sad enough, or dead enough.
She was wearing one of those funeral veils. Seriously? I couldn’t even
remember the last time she had visited. People were so ridiculous when it came to death.
Or maybe she just found my dress ugly. To be fair, it was. It was an
incredibly unflattering dress made of velvet that barely fit me anymore, but it was the only black dress I had. I wasn’t going to buy something new only to wear it once. No, after you wore something to a funeral, it was a Funeral Outfit and you could never wear it again without being reminded of the person dying. Reminding you of when, and where, and how….
I shook my mind of such thoughts. Best not to think of the details. But that
was another thing about funerals – you had to think of the details. That was the main event on the agenda: remembering.
I supposed some families enjoyed this. But I didn’t have a whole lot of
good memories about my sister, and thinking about her only brought up
unwanted images of her death. So maybe it wasn’t funerals in general that were weird. Just this one.
The balding man had stopped speaking about an eternal afterlife of
sunshine and rainbows run by a really old white guy, and my mom had taken the stand.
No. Not the stand. This wasn’t court. Though it was just as ceremonial and
boring. I wished they’d have my mother swear on a Bible here, too. It would be a good reminder to her to be honest too. Tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Mom. Only I wasn’t certain my mother knew what the truth was.
My parents were fine, but they weren’t the best parents in the whole wide
world, contrary to the “#1 Dad” mug Sarah made for him at Color Me Mine when she was six. I grimaced at the sentimentality that characterized my dad and all those other well- meaning but emotionally ill-equipped fathers. They didn’t know how to say “I love you”, but they’d openly display an ugly trinket of yours for years, until it embarrassed and frustrated you. It had certainly annoyed Sarah.

My mom didn’t keep any of that stuff on her desk: it would be far too much
clutter. She collected key chains when she traveled, but she refused to put them on her keys. Instead she hung them on hooks by the back door, which I found hilarious. Was she planning on grabbing one on the way out to work? What did they do to deserve to share such prime real estate with our spare house keys and winter gloves?
I thought back to that mug on my dad’s desk. I wondered if he’d get rid of
it now. Not much to be proud of, or advertise, about Sarah anymore. That wasn’t the way it should’ve been, but it was the way it was. And since Sarah had died I was trying this new thing where I tried to be honest with myself.
I took a deep breath to prepare myself. My parents hadn’t said much since
Sarah had died. My mom had run around making all the preparations, always looking a bit like she was watching Titanic on a loop somewhere in the back of her head. She was Rose at dinner, perfectly composed, but she was just one suffocating night away from falling into freezing water. My dad had kind of been like that too, but he didn’t get the whole emotion thing, so his body was basically malfunctioning. “Can-not-compute” and bam, he was frozen with this awkward polite face. I felt the urge to warn him it might get suck like that.
But I didn’t. They needed to live in this unreality – they knew Sarah was
dead, but they were still fully in denial about the daughter they had lost. They were not confused, like I was; they were deluded. For now, they were stuck pretending this person who died was some kind of martyr. My mom’s Facebook status calling Sarah “a light in a sea of darkness” had actually made me laugh out loud. And it got 373 likes. 373!! That was more than I had gotten on every profile picture combined.
People loved a good tragedy. A good “we lost her too soon” and “God has
gained another angel” and yada yada yada. My dad’s post had been more
straight to the point, giving the time of the funeral along with a photo I knew for a fact Sarah had thought she looked fat in. It actually wasn’t that nice of a picture: Sarah was standing alone in front of our Christmas tree, somewhat greasy brown waves falling against a blue winter sweater. But everyone had commented how beautiful she’d been, lamenting not talking to her more, sharing brief interactions with her as if they had truly been visited by an angel in disguise.
Yeah. I shared a house with my sister. And I can tell you, she was no
angel.
It was all pretty fake. That was to be expected. And if it made them feel
better, fine. But my parents? Really? Was I all alone in this, then, was I the only one in this band of mourning freaks that was mad at Sarah? That remembered all the horrible things she had said and done? How convenient, that Death excused them all. How utterly kind of Death, to turn her from monster to victim.
I wasn’t being dramatic, which had been one of Sarah’s favorites things to
accuse me of, next to stealing her clothes. She really had been a monster. She hadn’t only hurt herself; she had hurt everyone around her. That was the thing about pain. It wasn’t like matter, unable to be created or destroyed. It was more like a virus. It infected you and spread to those around you, a never-satisfied force that brought everyone you cared about down. Her bitterness had spread like a disease and infected all of us, and she had never said sorry for any of it.

She had never said goodbye, either. Well, unless you counted a yellow post-it slapped on the hood of her old Jeep with the words “For Posie” on it. Gee, thanks, sis. She hadn’t cared that she could forever ruin the lives of those around her, including mine, but she had wanted to make sure I didn’t lose my ride to school.
“Sarah Katherine Larson.” My mother started, slowly but surely. “A beautiful girl, who never quite got to be a woman.”
Oh, my god. Was she quoting Britney Spears?
“She was taken from us too young in a tragedy we never could’ve seen
coming-“
Nice, Mom. It was important to announce your complete innocence to the
whole town.
“-but before that, she was the light of my life-“
Geez, what was I then?
“-along with her sister, Posie.”
Aaaand there I was. She gestured vaguely to me and it felt like a spotlight
had found me in the audience. No. Congregation, I reminded myself.
It felt like everyone was staring at me. My skin started to crawl, and I
silently begged everyone to be a bit more discreet. This was a funeral, after all.
Couldn’t they show some respect?
“They both lit my world like fireworks.” Now Katy Perry? “I always wanted
to be a mom, and my life was forever changed when I became one.”
Well that was definitely false. My parents were basically absent, obsessed
with their work. It had always seemed like one day a couple kids had shown up
on their doorstep, and they had just shrugged and accepted it.
She paused, her voice cutting off at the last words. She struggled to
compose herself. This really was starting to feel like a movie. Which actress had
replaced my mother? Please be Jennifer Lawrence, I thought.
“But it changed again a million more times. Every time she smiled,
laughed….”
She hadn’t been doing a lot of that lately.
“Sang, danced outside in the rain….”
…went on a hunger strike until my parents agreed to put a lock on her
door, screamed obscenities at them when they asked her to turn her music
down….
“….those are the memories of her I will cherish forever. This is how I
remember her-“
She gestured to the giant blown up version of the aforementioned
Facebook photo standing next to Sarah’s casket.
“Happy. So vibrant. So alive. Caring so much about others. And her
legacy lives on…..it will live on in me and my husband as we try to help people who may be struggling.”
Please, God, I prayed: tell me they’re not going to start giving school
assemblies now. And sorry about the make believe world thing. Also, sorry for calling you old.

“It will live on in her sister, who will spread her memory around and
emulate all that Sara was.”
Jesus! (Sorry again). Emulate her? So did she want me to fall dead right
then and there, then, or would she prefer I waited until I’d hurt a bunch of people first?
“Please, lead others to your light, as Sarah did…..Posie, we love you so
much. And maybe we don’t say it enough.”
She paused for dramatic effect. The room was silent and stuffy. I felt like I
couldn’t breathe. I had never heard “I love you” said in such a performative way.
And Sarah had once been in Beauty and the Beast opposite possibly the worst 12-year-old actor of the 21 st century.
“And her legacy lives on in all of you. I want you to go from here and tell
everyone you love, no, everyone you see, that you love them. Because we don’t.
Say it. Enough.” She paused again, peering out at everyone over the top of her reading glasses.
Had she really needed the reading glasses? That had been a pretty short
and generic speech, filled with Hallmark card lines and Britney Spears quotes. She had really needed to write it down first? With disgust I realized many people were nodding, some with tears streaming down their faces. I recognized a lot of them vaguely from school or family gatherings, but as I inspected the sea of grief stricken faces, I didn’t see a single person who my sister had actually liked.
Had she liked anyone, though? She certainly had not liked me.
I felt bile start to rise in my throat and began to regret the huge bagel
sandwich I had scarfed down from Dunkin’ Donuts that morning. My mom had been “too sad to eat” but meanwhile I was an actual human being who required sustenance. Though maybe I had eaten a little too much this time.
To my complete and utter horror, I started to see heads turning, and hear
murmurings in the crowd as my mother walked back to her seat. They were saying “I love you” to those around them. They were idealistic, delusional, fake fools. And I couldn’t take it anymore.
Luckily the meat of the service seemed to be about over with that, and
Flitwick was having us stand again and hold hands or some other senile thing. I slipped out, mumbling “excuse me” to my father and hiding my face in my hands. They’d all see what they wanted to see anyways.
I strode down the red carpet in the halls (what was this, the Oscars?)
unsure of where I wanted to go. It wasn’t a very big church, and it probably
wouldn’t look very good if I hid. I could wait outside, but then I’d have to talk to my parents when they came out. And I really, really did not want to talk to anyone, I realized dully. I just wanted to be away. Away. Far Away.
Unfortunately, there were not many options for Away at that moment. Just
outside. Or….the other one. The one Sarah had chosen. The batshit crazy one.
Option 1 it was, then.
I still couldn’t understand why she had done it. That was the Golden
Question, wasn’t it? What everyone wanted to know? Behind their “we’re sorry for your loss”es, what they were really thinking was why. Everyone wanted to know what would make someone end his or her life. Weren’t we as animals instinctively wired to stay alive, no matter the cost? Our bodies didn’t want to die. You’d have to overcompensate a lot to force them too. Your mind would have to beat your body.

I shook my head. I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about it. Our high school
had sent around this letter to parents about suicidal ideation, which I guess was just thinking about suicide. And there was suicide contagion too. They were all worried it was going to spread like a case of mono.
Besides the letter, though, no one was actually saying the words. It was all
euphemisms. “Losing her battle” was about the closest they got to saying Sarah had chosen this. Otherwise she might as well have been hit by a car on the way to school.
I didn’t believe in suicide contagion. But I had to admit that along with my
newfound cynicism courtesy of Sarah, I was having more dark thoughts too. Not about myself, but about her. About how she died. That, too, had been planted in my mind and spun into horrifying endless imaginings of how it had happened, what it had been like. Even as I stood in the bright sun, darkness flooded again into my mind. It was like the more I tried to keep it out, the more it forced its way in.
Bloody bathroom floors flashed in my mind.
Stop, I told myself.
It was best to focus on something when this happened. When I started to
think of Sarah, and what had happened to her, a little too much. Something in reality and not in my mind. I looked at the red carpet, scanning it for stains, counting them. Like counting sheep.

1,2, 3….

I blinked away stars, feeling bile rise in my throat again. I tried to focus on
the numbers, tried to allow them to bring me back to reality.
4, 5, 6….
The images faded, but an unsettled feeling remained. This happened
sometimes. It was like a shower of ash, a wave of magma overtaking me into the earth, deep, deep, down. Like there was this dark undercurrent, this malevolent force in the world and no one else could see it but me. If I let my defenses down, it would eat me alive. It was like that feeling of being the last one awake at a sleepover, all alone. No, it was more than that. It was closest to the feeling I got when I found out about death, I guess. Like there was some horrible truth in the world I could no longer ignore – but I would have to in order to survive.
Survive. Like Sarah hadn’t.
It was hard for me to grasp. Youth had given me a false sense of
permanence. Even though I had changed, I guess, everything around me had always seemed to stay the same. Especially in my small town of Philipson, Colorado. Same streets, same friends, same family, same house.
But then Sarah had died, and I had to come to terms with the realization
that everything I held dear existed in a state of transience and ephemerality. Like balloons let go of and floating up into the sky, never to be seen again.
I was still making sense of it. How did a human just cease to exist? Each
person contained a whole world. They weren’t just a person. They had thoughts and feelings and dreams, and relationships, and all of a sudden that was all just wiped out in one moment. Like a sentence that just stopped in the middle. You could try to add a period, or an exclamation point, or a freaking emoji, but it was still unfinished.

Where there was once life, there was now nothing but a blank stare. No
more words would come out of their mouth. The world would go on without them in it.
Blank eyes staring.
NO, I told myself firmly. You didn’t see that. You never saw her dead.
Focus. I started my count over, focusing now on each stone that lined the
exit. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…..
I wondered if she’d known that was what she would become. A dead
body. It sounded silly, but I didn’t think she did. Maybe she had been surprised to die.
Maybe Sarah had thought she was invincible, like I had before being
confronted with her death. That that was her curse. To have to live forever, or what felt like forever, feeling the way she did.
She had always said, in a bitter tone, that nothing extraordinary would
ever happen to her. Maybe to her, Death itself had even seemed too much a Thing to Happen. It was too dramatic to ever happen to her. No, she would just go on the same way, just existing, forever.
Maybe that was why she did it. Maybe Sarah wanted one Thing to Happen,
for once. Or maybe she thought that it would never work, that the universe would never allow anything at all to happen to her.
“Well, we’ll never know, will we, Sarah?” I said softly, kicking the dirt as I
passed the exit.
I took a deep breath and looked out at the sky, focusing on it rather than the images in my mind. The sun was bright, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust.
Everything felt fine. Fine. Normal. Like life just went on.
Maybe that was why people held funerals, then. Because otherwise it
would feel like nothing had changed.
Most people imagined death as dramatic – this horrible thing would
happen, and there would be this big Before and After. But really it was a tearful phone call and an untouched bedroom and a quiet house. So much quiet.
Nothing in life was ever as loud as you thought it would be. And it could start to drive you crazy if you let it, that you could lose anything, you could lose everything, without a single sound.
So people wanted to separate it, maybe. Wanted to make it into a Before
and After. They wanted people to acknowledge it, so that it felt real. And what better way than to throw a party?
My Cynicism Alarm went off again, but it only reminded me further of
Sarah.
Stop thinking about Sarah, I told myself. Sarah, Sarah, Sarah. Sometimes I was tired of thinking, of talking, about Sarah. What kind of person did that make me?
I was a bad sister, probably. That’s what they were all thinking, in the church.
And they were right – I was a bad sister. Because I didn’t miss her.
She had been a bully. Was I supposed to mourn my bully?

Now I was really starting to sound bitter, angry. I didn’t want to be that way. I wasn’t that way, I reminded myself. But even as I tried to be Sympathetic towards Sarah, and Understand, more cynicism flowed into my mind.
Was that normal? It felt like I wasn’t really Grieving like everyone expected
me to. Like there was something wrong with me.
I supposed maybe I was still in shock, or something. Not, like, actual
medical shock, but just still…Processing.
I had taken to doing that – capitalizing important words. It was good to
remember what was important. Words that meant something more than just what they seemed to. Also, it was good to notice words other people used a lot; then you could notice trends. People didn’t usually mean what they said. They just used euphemisms. If they repeated it enough you could figure out what they were actually saying. People were confusing.
Speaking of…
“Oh shit-sorry!”
I looked up. I hadn’t even realized it, but I’d been walking around the grounds of the church, ending up around the right side, where the green grass rolled down a hill that led to a cemetery.
And there she was- Brynn Fawcet, resident Barbie. She came complete with a heart-shaped face, bright green eyes and tousled blonde mermaid hair. She was wearing a formal black dress that somehow managed to be both trendy and sensible.
I blinked. What was she doing there? And….holding a joint? I crinkled my
nose. She quickly hid the joint behind her tiny back.
“I’m SO sorry! I was just…stepping out, and…” She sniffed, and to my horror I realized from her red eyes and Rudolph nose that she’d been crying. Ew.
“Are you okay?” I asked reluctantly. “What’s wrong?”
It was a small town – everyone knew everyone. But Brynnie I knew a bit
better; or, at least, I had back when we were 4. Then we had gone to different elementary schools and the next time I’d seen her she was Brynn with a big old extra capital B. She was fine, I guess. Nice. We didn’t really talk anymore.
She gave me a funny look. “Um-it’s just. Funerals. Sorry.”
I frowned. Right. We were at a funeral.
My sister’s funeral.
“Why are you here?” At her shocked look, I revised: “You didn’t have to
come.”
I hated how many people were there. Sarah would’ve hated it. How many
cared during her life? Certainly not the girl I used to play make believe with.
“Oh-I ….my brother wanted to come.”
That was right. Brynn’s family had had a new baby near the end of our
friendship – he had to be around 11 or 12 now. He had gotten in some sort of car crash maybe 2 years ago, and now his brain was all messed up, or something. I didn’t know. That was probably not the polite way to say it. I needed to figure out that euphemism.
Still, it wasn’t making sense.

“I guess he liked….Sarah,” Brynn said slowly, feeling out my sister’s name in
her mouth, as if her sickness was contagious. “He saw her in that play when he was younger.”
Right. Beauty and the Beast. “Oh,” I said.
“Yeah. We sometimes put on old videos of school concerts, plays, things he
might remember from before. It…calms him. Sarah’s play was one of them. He always quieted down when she sang.”
Really? She hadn’t been a very good singer. And why was she telling me all
this, anyways?
“It was nice of you to come,” I said formally.
There was an awkward silence. Brynn gave up trying to hide the joint and
resumed her smoking. I didn’t move.
“What are you doing out here?” she said finally.
“Celebrating my sister’s life,” I said dully, reaching out for the joint.
I didn’t even know why I did it. Something came over me – something quite
simple that just said that I wanted to try it. And I followed it.
I never did that.
She looked surprised, but handed it over.
“Isn’t that what they’re doing inside?”
“I don’t know who they’re talking about inside, but it’s not my sister. Most of the people there didn’t even know her. None of them, maybe.”
She shifted awkwardly. “You’re….you’re mad. That they weren’t there for
her.”
I shook my head. Right emotion, wrong direction. To my utter horror, I
realized my throat was starting to burn. Crap. Really, Grief? You’re choosing NOW to show up? In front of Miss Popular?
“Look, if you ever need to….talk…..”
Great. She was getting into the Things You Say. The things everyone had been saying, like “sorry for your loss”, and “I’m here for you,” and worst of all, “keeping you in our thoughts and prayers.”
Their thoughts? What use was that? What were they thinking – gosh, how
utterly tragic that family is, and I’m glad I’m not them? Or, what a selfish, horrible daughter?
Even worse was “sending you my thoughts and prayers.” Were they sitting
down, squeezing their eyes tight, and thinking “Thoughts! Thoughts! Thoughts! Good vibes!! Send to: the Larsons!”, willing their thoughts to be beamed through the air and somehow do something?
The prayers part was no better. “I’m going to tell some higher power to give
you strength, because I’m not going to.” An excuse. People always made excuses.
I guess I couldn’t blame them. Those were just Things You Say. After. Would I be any better in their shoes?
I was no stranger to the “if you ever need to talk” one. A couple people had
written it on my Facebook wall. Seriously? Was this 2007? What had they expected, that I send them a message pouring my heart out? And if I did, what would they say back? Would we be friends then? It all seemed so odd. I really didn’t understand humans.

Crap. One of them was standing in front of me, awkwardly awaiting my
response. Back to reality. That pesky little thing.
“Thanks. But no thanks.”
“I know we don’t really talk,” Brynn added, giving me a look. It was funny; I hadn’t even meant to be rude, but her reaction told me that I had been. “But I meant it, Posie.”
Oh, great. She was going through that whole Crisis now, like, Everyone
Around you is Fighting a Hard Battle, and Be Kind to Others, and whatever. She was taking on a guilt that wasn’t hers. How wonderful, that she could try on guilt like a new hat and discard it when she got tired of it.
“Sure.” I tried to take a drag (was that the right word?) from the joint and
ended up coughing. I handed it back.
She was giving me a look that was half concerned, half frustrated. She gave a little “huff”.
“There’s this party on Saturday,” she said, grabbing my hand and pulling out a pink fluffy pen from her Kate Spade clutch. “Here’s my address.” She scribbled a few words down. “That’s how much I mean it. Come, and I promise I’ll teach you how to smoke.”
I stared at her. She had actually surprised me. That was rare.
Of course, there was no way in hell that I was going to that party.


Luckily, my parents hadn’t noticed me sneak out of the church.
Or, more likely they had noticed, and were staying Tactfully Quiet (their
strong suit), assuming I had left to cry in peace. That was the best thing about my parents. They never asked questions when it was something personal.
Hindsight. It was all making sense now.
They were speaking in hushed voices, like they were scared to shatter
some silence that was keeping us all afloat. It wasn’t even worth eavesdropping on, though. My parents spoke in preset conversations. I could often anticipate exactly what they’d say just because of the sheer amount of times they’d said it. I swore I’d heard the same conversation about a million times. I wondered sometimes if they ever had original thoughts that were not job related, or perhaps if they were so set in their ways and routines that they never were forced to come up with any. Even Sarah’s death hadn’t forced them out of it. It was still “did you
hear Susan had her baby” and “let’s take the train tomorrow”.
My parents were mostly absent, though not necessarily in a bad way.
They were both academics who loved their work (gene research), and they were good at it. I always thought it best to stick to your strengths, and parenting was not theirs. They were well meaning but ill equipped to handle a suicidal daughter – though probably everyone was. Not that they had known. It wasn’t exactly like she had burst out of her room one day, singing “I’m suicidal” at the top of her lungs. It wasn’t something anyone regularly assumed about their child. Most of us liked to pretend no one was capable of that.
I wondered if my parents thought about the why, like I had. I wondered if
maybe they felt guilty. Or maybe they were just embarrassed.

We hadn’t really talked about Sarah. They had immediately cremated her
– I didn’t know if this was our family’s tradition or something. Sarah certainly had never said anything to that degree. But now my sister was ash sitting in an urn in our living room next to the ashes of our childhood dog. I suddenly had a brilliant yet horrible image in my head of switching them.
Okay, I definitely was not Normal in my Grieving.
It had taken a whole month for our family to have a service. It had been
one week of no school and silent takeout dinners, one week of doing work at school while my parents worked from home, and two weeks of “normal” before my parents decided we should do something for Closure. Personally, I found Closure to be an excuse. Hence all my ruminations on why we even have funerals.
My parents were really not bad people, despite their emotionally
unavailability. They just hadn’t known how to Deal With It. Any of it. They still didn’t. They were only doing their best, which basically meant checking in more and giving me more worried looks. Not very effective, but even I didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing instead. It wasn’t like there was any guidebook, like, “So Your Daughter Killed Herself and You’ve Still Got Another Daughter”. And so they had simply Gone On.
Sometimes it felt like Sarah hadn’t even died. Or maybe that she’d never
existed at all. Sometimes it felt like she’d died a decade ago, or she hadn’t died yet. Time was weird. At times it felt like time was going too fast. Like just yesterday I was a baby, and tomorrow I’d be old, and I was just sitting in a chair as wrinkles set in my face and my hair turned gray, like some kind of dark time lapse. Like I was stuck there. Trapped.
But then sometimes I felt stuck in time, like I was in the chair and the whole world moved around me but I stayed still. Like everyone else got old and died, but I stayed the same. Eternal. Nothing ever changed.
Chair. Why was I thinking about a chair?
I blinked and sat up, looking into the corner of my room.
My room? I couldn’t even remember having gotten home.
That happened sometimes. When everything felt automatic, when you lived in your head, when nothing noteworthy at all happened, what use was it to actually pay attention enough to turn another gray day to memory?
But I had actually noticed something in Real Life this time, at least
subconsciously. There, wedged next to a dresser and a juvenile fuzzy white lamp, sat an old white rocking chair. Well, it was supposed to rock, but it had never seemed to do so very well. White, with peeling paint revealing the tan wood underneath, the chair seemed a remnant of another time. It reminded me of old plantations, of some rich man smoking a pipe on his deck. Not a $10 yard sale pick.
The chair sat there, spruced up with some golden beaded accent pillow my
mom had picked up at Pier 1. I had never really had much of a style. That was clear from my room: a strange assortment of souvenirs from my dad’s work trips, participation trophies from sports I had long ago stopped playing and had never really been good at, cheap picture frames with fading pictures, stuffed animals won at carnivals, and a stained carpet covered by dirty clothes I hadn’t bothered to put away. The only thing I had actually picked out in my room was the focal point: the bed. I had insisted on a full bed even though my room was really too small for it, because Sarah had gotten a full bed. And of course it had to look the same as Sarah’s:
like something out of freaking Versailles. Robin’s egg blue, shiny, with gold accents, the comforter spilled over the bed in cascading waterfalls of some sort of faux satin that was actually rather nice. Though now the whole thing seemed old. Outdated. Tired. Holding onto something that was gone.

I stared up at the ceiling. At the uneven brushstrokes on the white wall. Was
that a style, or was it inadvertent?
I kind of liked it. The more you looked at it, the more you saw. Like a puzzle. Or a person.
But the chair. Why the chair? It wasn’t like I ever really sat in it.
Perhaps it was the placement: the way it faced the door. Like it was waiting
for some news that was never to come.
A knock.
Ironic.
“Come in,” I said, but it was too late. My mother was already inside. No lock, anymore. She liked the door open. It was almost like I was a Normal Teen, whose parents would call “make sure you keep the door open!” each time a boy came over.
Except I didn’t have boys over. I just had a dead sister hanging over me. Much more dangerous.
My mother had long brown hair that cascaded down her back, with streaks of gray throughout. Her smile was warm, but distant, like you weren’t the one who had caused it. She had a faraway look in her eyes, one that probably mirrored my own.
But her mind was focused on scientific discoveries and equations instead of daydreams and cynical thoughts about funerals. She had a tendency to get an Extremely Worried look stuck on her face whenever she had to come close to actually being a parent, like it was the most terrifying thing in the world. I hated that look. The best way to avoid it was not make her be a parent.
Like I said – it was best she stick to her strengths.
“I just wanted to make sure you were all set for this week,” My mother said in her usual high pitched, almost singsongy voice, though her fidgeting hands gave her nerves away. “I put some lunches in the fridge, already in lunchboxes.”
“I’m not six,” I grumbled, having fallen back down onto the bed.
“No, you’re 16,” my mother said, with a small smile. “Newly.”
Newly. It had been a little over a week. We hadn’t done anything, of course.
Not so soon after.
“Yeah,” I responded. “I’m a new person.”
My mom pursed her lips. She was not ignorant. But she would ignore it
anyways. It was more convenient for her.
“Any plans this week?”
It was a desperate attempt at small talk. But why? Why linger in the room?
Why come in at all? To make sure I was still alive? No, it was more than that. She clearly wanted something.
“Class. Homework. It’s just another week of high school, mom.”
“Maybe we could do something fun. See a movie.”

“Sure,” I said absently.”
Silence. Time to get her point across.
Four weeks later.
“You would tell us if….if you were ever feeling the way Sarah-“
“Yes,” I cut her off abruptly and firmly. “But I don’t feel that way, mom. I am never going to do what she did. I could never.”
She nodded. “It’s just….well, they told us maybe these things run in the
family, and I know on your father’s side his sister was bulimic, and you know my mother was an alcoholic and…”
“I’m not Sarah,” I said firmly, for my own sake as well as hers. “I’m not even capable of that. I promise. I don’t want to die.”
She nodded, formally.
“Well then. If that ever changes….you know you can always talk to me.”
It was incredibly awkward. If ever I had not wanted to talk to someone, it
was now.
“I know,” I said. “Thanks.”
Was this the appropriate situation to say “thank you”? I supposed so.
I could tell she felt as awkward as I did. She gave me another curt nod and
went to leave the room, leaving the door open a crack behind her.
Well, at least I had gotten that over with.
It had been the truth, too. No part of me wanted to die.
That was why I couldn’t understand why Sarah had done it. I couldn’t
conceive of not living anymore. It gave me the creeps, thinking of myself in that dark coffin deep in the ground, withering away into bones. Or of being incinerated into a million little pieces. For all the discomfort, for all the disappointment, all the pain, life was always better than the alternative.
Maybe I wasn’t exactly thrilled with how my life had turned out. But I had
friends, even if they were basically placeholders for the real thing while I waited for college. I had hope of a better future. I had good grades. I had a family (minus one member).
Once, Sarah had had those things too. So why had she done it?
Maybe it hadn’t been to escape her life. Maybe it had been to escape her
mind.
A mind that I was slowly inheriting as the seeds she had planted there grew.
No. I was fine. I knew what thoughts were mine and what were Sarah’s
leftovers. I just had to be careful, that was all. The influence would wear off as her death disappeared in my rear view mirror – it had only been a month, after all.
Everything was going to be fine. Just fine. I just had to follow my parents’ example and Go On.