This is what I learned: in the seconds after death, do nothing. Hold still and let it beat past into permanence because in the seconds after death everything is flayed open to the softest nerve-strung tissue and any move you make, any word you say, anything you touch will live forever on the end of your unsteady finger like a sucker detached from a tentacle, and you will spend your life trapped between the struggle to remember and the struggle to forget.
We sat on the edge of the trestle with our legs swinging loose and watched the boy in the black hoodie walk the river bottoms, isolated and unreal as a ghost. Then your flip-flop slipped from your arched foot and you let out a little scream and we collapsed together laughing. His black hood turned up towards us, faceless in the near dark. He retrieved the flip-flop and ran up the steep bank that led to the trestle and then he was kneeling next to us, sweaty and heat-breathing like an animal, holding it out to you, and we were wordless, our fingers snatching frantically at each other under the fall of our long hair. He knocked back his hood and his hair was short, there was stubble on his face, he was older, he was hard and dangerous and beautiful, we had never seen anything like him up close. You took your flip-flop and thanked him and your voice sounded ridiculous to me and I laughed hysterically into your shoulder. He looked us over longer and slower than anyone ever had and I felt the goosebumps on your arm raised by a stiff mineral wind winging up from the river, sliding under our hair, tangling it together like twins. Jesus, he said. Are there really two of you or am I seeing double because all the blood in my brain is headed south? And we laughed, we were always laughing, hiding our shock and fear and pretending we knew what he meant, and we sort of did, and we wanted him to think we did, and that was all it took for him to pull us in.
Remember when having long hair meant you were pretty and having glasses meant you weren’t, it was that simple? You got contacts but you couldn’t bring yourself to touch your eye, so I did it for you the first time. You sat in a chair with your head tilted back against the edge of the bathroom sink and blinked spasmodically like an epileptic and I stood with the contact on my finger and one hand on my hip and called you a spaz and asked if you wanted to go to high school a loser with glasses. I remember leaning close over you, the smell of bubble gum from the center of a cherry Blow Pop ground between your clenched jaws, your eyes darting around scared, the red threaded pouch of tissue exposed as I pulled down the lid and dropped the contact onto your blue iris, and you breathed again. I dream about that now, I dream that I push my finger inside your eye like a mouth, I dream that my skin is clustered with thousands of contacts like egg sacs, like soft scales that protect me from nothing.
The words he said to keep us performing and licking praise from his palm like dog treats, pretending we knew what the hell we were doing, pretending we didn’t know how bad it was: You girls are too much for me, you girls are something else, you girls make me fucking crazy, do you know what you do to me? Do you see this? feel this? that’s what you do and you know what you’re doing, don’t you, little purebred never touched holy fuck sweet Jesus how the fuck did I get so lucky, and he is laughing in the back of his voice, fingers tightening on our necks, the press and breathlessness, the adrenaline, and whatever drug he had given us rolling open like anesthesia. I couldn’t look straight at you anymore, our eyes flew sideways away from each other and your hands shook against me, your skin glancing and sticking to mine, and the way he sucked air through his teeth like he was in pain—sometimes it was all I could see, his hissing mouth, his full bottom lip swollen from hard friction. I focused on it to escape my own skinned cringing nakedness under the stark lights of his apartment. I focused on it to block out your whimpering when it got too real. I hear it now, the tilting pitch of your voice, and the reality of what I let happen breaks over me and I atone, atone, atone.
Afterwards your brother and I stick together in unhealthy ways, like a bandage peeling off layers of skin. Our classmates left the state for universities but we stayed back, he failing community college courses and snorting cocaine in his car, me working a job that required a polyester uniform: our failures directly proportional to the dragging weight of your death. At first I only go down on him with the stick shift bruising my collarbone; then he is fucking me, dry compulsive sex that leaves me raw and gutted and it feels like the old days—I can taste you in my throat, the cherry Blow Pops, the lemon juice when we tried to lighten our hair, the acrid dissolving pills he fed us, the flat oily salt of semen, it feels like home, and I smile in the dark. You fucking bitch, your brother says as he pulls out of me, and he’s crying, and I know he knows that I let you die, and I know I will come whenever he calls. This is atonement.
Here is what happened: he took us down to the river bottoms and spread a blanket over the tall dry grass. He shot you up first and then me and even with nothing but dusk and orange streetlights to go by I could tell you got more than me, at least twice as much, and I felt the high but only distantly. I watched your body unravel itself. I watched your jaw yawn open, I watched your head hit the ground as he lowered you back and unbuttoned your shorts, I watched your skinny limbs go loose and unstrung. He told me what to do to you and I did it and your flesh was unresponsive, doll rubber, and I felt sick. Then he was on top of you and I lay next to you on the blanket like we did all summer the year your dad finally let you get a bikini, and your head was turned towards me and your eyes were open into mine. I said your name and you didn’t move and I knew you were dead, I knew it before I knew it. Your empty body rocked under him and he was making noises that sounded like pain and I thought someone might hear but we were alone, and had been alone for some time, and now I would be irreparably alone for the rest of my life—I knew this before I knew it. I watched my hand creep across the blanket, I watched my clumsy finger against your face and then the surface of your eye, skidding hard across the already drying surface, and there was no flinch, there was nothing: you were dead. Your contact came away on my finger, a sucker detached from a tentacle, a soft scale clinging to my skin, and looming above us with the moon at his back, I heard his voice grind tortured from his throat, I felt the final push. He looked down at you then and put his hand on your neck, and there was a moment of his harsh breathing and nothing else and then he was scrambling upright, belt buckle jostling against fly, saying, This is fucked, I gotta get out of here, and he was gone. I lay there with your contact hardening into the ridges of my fingerprint and felt the world come back down around us gently as snow, the spines of grass at the edge of the blanket sharpening slowly into focus, the cars on the highway roaring in—they sounded like the ocean and I imagined us entwined, Siamese twinned by self destruction, sinking together, silence sealing over our heads like the chlorine water at the community pool cold against our sunburned scalps, I imagined us succumbing together, and in my memory when I allow myself to love you as much as I did, this is what I see. We sink like ships into the silent earth and the second we disappear, time cat-cradles back onto itself: your pink flip-flop falls from the trestle to the bank of the river, to the boy in the black hoodie, and the story starts all over again.
Chelsea Laine Wells is a graduate of the Columbia College of Chicago fiction department whose work has appeared in PANK, Bluestem, wigleaf, Evergreen, Hypertext, the short fiction anthology Nouns of Assemblage (HOUSEFIRE, 2011), and a limited edition letterpress anthology released by Lark Sparrow Press. Honors include first place in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association Awards for Traditional Fiction, nomination for a Pushcart Prize, and first place in the Guild Complex Literary Awards for fiction.