Stuck in the In-Between
“How did you die?”
“That’s a very personal question. I don’t think I feel comfortable giving out that kind of information to a complete stranger.”
I am sure you have heard of them. The In-Betweeners. Usually they are those of us who die too early, with things still left to do, to fix. I do not mind them very much because for the most part they leave me alone, only acknowledging me in passing, a quick nod in my direction, a few words exchanged. Their pace is fast and they never linger. But then there are those that are too afraid to leave. For them death is a black hole, bottomless and ominous. It is easy to tell these apart from the rest, there is a dusty quality to their skin like they have been siting for ages in the same place, motionless and waiting like a forgotten ornament in the depths of an attic, collecting particles.
I try to avoid them, but they find me anyways. They have gotten good at spotting people like me, I think, because they have been here so long. They creep from decaying buildings, empty corners, and quiet shadows to stare at me with their strange, wide eyes. Sometimes they stumble in the street right in front me, pupils dilated, swaying if under inebriation. They follow me home. They are like nomads searching for a place to stay. Juliet is this type.
“How did you die?”
“My five-year-old brother beat me to death with his baseball bat. He was like a squirrel on Cocoa Puffs. Completely wacked.”
“Come on, be serious.”
“My winter formal dress was so tight it cut of all my circulation, and caused me to suffer from this disorder, I don’t remember the name right now, but it was very rare and dangerous. It killed me within two weeks.”
“If you don’t want to tell me just say so.”
“Okay, the truth this time. I ate some moldy cheese and fungus started growing in my stomach. I became like this giant breeding ground for fungi. The doctors said they had never seen anything like it before. They had to do all these studies and they were even thinking about making a documentary about it, but then I died and they couldn’t make the movie anymore, so that must have been a real downer for them—hey where are you going?”
The last light of dusk is fading from the sky, but the intense summer heat still thick in the air makes up for the departed sunshine. I sit on a swing—a piece of flat driftwood held up by two old fishing ropes. I am too old to actually use it so I just sit there with my legs dangling, going anywhere. I can’t believe I am sixteen. Its not that I feel younger or older, I just don’t feel sixteen. Sixteen is supposed to be something, a type of person. I am not that person.
I met Juliet sitting on this swing. It was summer then too, but afternoon, slanting pale golden sunlight had danced on the ocean and filled Juliet’s white-blond hair with a myriad of tiny sparkles.
Her eyes were unnaturally large like those of all In-Betweeners and pale blue, fringed with long blond lashes. She wore a faded cotton shirt that hung loosely over her slim frame. She pawed the sand in front of her nervously with grey converse, black sharpie peace signs and little hearts with arrows piercing through them were drawn carefully on the fabric. She seemed about my age, though of course that was when she died, now she must be much older.
“What do you want?” I had snapped, not even bothering to pull out my earphones.
“You can see me!” she exclaimed, a smile exploding onto her face, freckles glittering like fairy dust.
“Lucky me,” I said, my voice ice. Her smile faltered.
“I was hoping,” she bit her lip, “that maybe you could help me?”
I squinted at her, dubious, “Yeah, sure, because I have nothing better to do then help dead people.” I was cruel. I knew that. My attitude was something I figured I would work on.
“How did you die?”
“That’s a long story.”
“I have time.”
“It’s a boring one too.”
“I can handle it.”
“Okay, but I am warning you, it killed me.”
“I was thinking we could practice falling again,” Juliet chirps. Two bubblegum pink elastics hold up her hair in pigtails, making her look much younger than she is. When she notices my gaze she blushes and tries to tug her hair out of them, but bits of it get tangled and she ends up having to rip a few strands out in the process.
Darkness has settled over the Earth. Dense and impenetrable. I become a shadow, part of the night. Juliet glimmers silver, a part of the moonlight. We scurry past houses, through streets, and into abandoned alleys, my footsteps quiet, hers unheard. We climb through the crack of a rundown warehouse swiftly, without thinking, and weave through the clutter inside by following the pathway we created nights before, years before. By the time we reach the roof I am breathless, bent over and wheezing. Beside me Juliet pretends to gasp for breath.
Stars hover above us, cold and distant, yet watchful. They see everything. Juliet’s legs are shaking; she chews on her bottom lip, which is permanently cracked and bleeding. Her pearly white gleam has turned sallow. Her eyes are wide, staring down at the street below us. Everything looks shrunken, doll-sized; the cars are as big as my pinky finger. I can hear Juliet’s heart beat, fast and uneven, against her chest. The falling had been my idea. Being comfortable with falling, falling without stopping, fast, without control. “It’s not going to hurt you,” I remind her, “Nothing can hurt you anymore.”
As she steps onto the railing a wind that was not there a moment before picks up and blows her blond hair in all directions, so that when she spreads her arms for her balance she looks like an angel expanding her wings. Once she has jumped she falls slowly like she is not falling at all but swimming, like the air is thick and she has to push her way through it. She lands on her feet. Even though I can’t see her face, I know she is biting her lips, hard until she pulls blood. I imagine the dark crimson dripping down her pallid chin. The poignant, metallic scent of blood.
“How did you die?”
“I didn’t die. We would not be having this problem if I had.”
A group of boys leans nonchalantly against the concrete entrance to the beach. One of them is Paul Lynch, whose dark, stormy grey eyes send a shiver down my spin every time I see them. His skin is smooth and gold. His hair raven black. I pull my hood over my head and quicken my pace. When I walk past them, I keep my eyes averted to the sidewalk. Next to me, Juliet stares at them with unwavering blue eyes. She grins, slightly diabolically at me, “You like him don’t you?” I can feel the color flush into my cheeks. “Are you going to ask him to homecoming?”
“I am not even going,” I snap, and as a sort of after thought, “Besides he would never go with me.”
Juliet grabs hold of my arm, forcing me around. Her eyes glitter violently, “Why not?” she demands.
I brush her hand away. “Lets see,” I drawl, in mock hesitation, “It could either be because I have never said a word to him, or maybe, just maybe, because I am the freak with no friends.”
A silence follows. You can hear the rustling of leaves. The crickets. Finally Juliet says, “You have me.”
“You don’t count,” I tell her; I have no control over these words, they just come out. They float in the air in front of us; they suck up all the oxygen. Juliet blinks back her tears. My throat burns. I turn around to walk up the street.
“How did you die?”
“Don’t you have any manners? Its common knowledge that living people cannot just come up to dead people and ask them how they died. Talk about rude. What’s your education?”
“I am just about to go college.”
“Is that so?”
“That reminds me, I wanted to ask what college did you go to?”
“I never went to college. Something got in the way.”
I do not see Juliet after that for months. I draw swirls on my converse, and when I have covered them all in black sharpie I sit on the swing and trace swirls into the sand. I meet a new In-Betweener, she sits next to me sucking on a cherry flavored lollipop, that stains her lips a lurid scarlet. She does not say much besides point out the weather, “It’s a nice day,” she announces like it is somehow of importance. I nod, “Yeah,” and continue my swirl.
I am working on my biggest swirl yet. I stand upright, pushing the sand aside with my foot, starting from the outside, and moving toward the center. I do not notice Juliet for a while, I am lost in my swirl, but when I finally look up there she is. Long hair wet, glittering drops of water trailing down her translucent skin. She crosses through my swirl on tiptoes, careful not to step on any arches, and finds the place where the core will be. We shovel sand, wordlessly, until we meet and our swirl is finished.
That night we climb onto the roof of the warehouse again. “This time you fall with your back to the ground, so you cannot see what is coming,” I instruct her.
Her knees tremble slightly, her wrists clench, but she lets herself fall anyways. She has become good at falling. You can tell she has practiced.
“So,” she asks, when she is back on the roof, “Did you ever talk to…”
She means Paul. I turn my head away, “No,” I admit, flatly, “I was too scared.”
She sighs and shakes her head, “I don’t understand. It’s just talking. People do it everyday.”
“It’s just dying,” I retort, “People do that everyday too.” Again, the words come out before I can stop them, but this time there are no tears in Juliet’s eyes. She tucks a stray hair behind an ear, and looks out over the rooftops to where the blinking red light of an airplane is crossing the dark horizon. She seems a thousand years away.
“How did you die?”
“To tell you the truth I don’t actually remember. Its all blurry.”
“You must remember something.”
There is a knock at the door. Only one I can hear. I am sure of this because my mom continues to fuss with dishes and my brother continues to stare with vacuous eyes at the ceiling as though the answers to his math questions are inscribed there. Although the knock is quiet, a soft tap at the door, its sound rings throughout the house, echoing in the hallways. I rise, slowly, and open in the door.
Juliet stands in front of me, her blue eyes are even larger than usual, and darker too, the stars dance silver in their depths. Her dress falls all the way to the floor, white and flowing, with golden lace at the hem. We walk silently, wordlessly, our bodies inches apart. I can hear the soft up and down of her breath, like wind chimes.
Over the black ocean a full moon rises in an explosion of light, drowning out the stars. For a while we stare at it, the crashing of waves echoing in our ears. Then, Juliet turns around and kisses me on the forehead, long and hard. I still feel her lips when she is in the water, a receding fleck of light against the vast blackness of the night. I blink and she is gone.
The wind howls, low and monotonous. Silver rain starts to fall from the sky, but I do not move, I continue staring out at the ocean. I am waiting, I realize, though I do not know what for.
“How did you die?”
“Why are you asking me? Only living people care about that kind of stuff.”
“Can you at least describe how it felt like?”
“It felt like death.”
“Do you care to elaborate?”
“Not like life.”