Story 3: 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.”
“We walked in careful silence, our hands inches apart, our shoulders almost touching. The scent of salt was thick in the air, and gusts of wind disrupted the silence of proceeding night. The descending sun reflected scarlet in the sea painting the sky a brilliant orange and filling her hair in a myriad of golden sparkles. I observed her with the odd breathlessness that had possessed me in these last months, I had not yet fully grasped that my endeavors had truly paid off; that I had indeed triumphed. She was even more miraculous than I had ever anticipated; her eyes were those of newborn, a wide stunning blue that glittered with excitement for every marvelous moment that life gifted to her, and otherwise she was perfectly the same.”
“Remember when I toke you up there that night to show you the stars? I asked her pointing to the tiny outline of a lighthouse sitting on the edge of a hill. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the piercing sunset and gazed at the lighthouse with a slight crease in her smooth forehead, an emptiness flickering into her eyes. Its okay if you don’t. It was a long time ago after all, I added quickly into the pending silence.I continued walking down the path, and after a few minutes she trailed behind. Do I like the ocean? She asked, I grinned; Of course you like the ocean. You love the ocean. She smiled, and the rest of the journey she remained that way—peaceful, quiet, and smiling.
“Lucia opened the door after my third knock, a tight smile plastered on her sallow face. You’re here she stated, allowing herself only a quick glance in the girl’s direction before drifting back inside. I wiped my shoes on the doormat, motioning for Lydia to do the same and then followed Lucia. The windows were closed and opaque from the suffocating warmth that inhabited the house. The walls were bare, except for a collection of small holes that suggested that they had once been filled with artwork and photographs. Lydia traced over one of the holes absentmindedly, and I watched her with unquenchable fascination.”
“Pleasant sunshine faded into unforgiving night. Harsh swirls of storm shuck the house in violent rage; rain thundered against the windows, pounded on the roof, and howled in retched moans. Memories blurred and lucid tormented my sleep; vacant images parched of all emotion, and men with white coats and long metallic claws. A monster wearing Daddy’s face rising with blood soaked hands from a body identical to my own; abandoned blue eyes, bruised alabaster skin, grotesque and mangled limbs, blood caked hair. An eerie smile illuminating a father’s face, Please help me! I cried out in blind agony, my mind petrified from glaring fear.”
“The monster came running and stood in front of me concern in his chocolate eyes. What is it darling? His voice was savage fire, scorching red flames consuming my soul. I shivered, then, with the certain cruel realization that I might not even possess a soul, after all I was only a shadow, an imposter, to fill the emptiness the girl had left. I trembled with a deep revolting disgust for myself. In the doorframe Lucia wondered to peer into the bedroom, her arms tightly laced over her chest, and her lips permanently sealed. My heart hurt; both longing for her arms to wrap me close and hating myself for the desire, but when I do catch her gaze the desire was vanquished by the disgust reflected in her eyes. Walter she hissed in between her teeth. Walter rose, blowing a kiss in my direction before shutting the door.”
“I closed the door behind me, wishing my Lydia a good-night, and stepped with soft feet onto the carpeted hallway. You! Lucia’s posture was stiff, her lips twisted in vile grimace, you never loved your daughter the way you loved your work. Your science was more important! I cannot begin to comprehend that you love this thing, this imposter, more than your own daughter. It sickens me to infer that you were working on this thing when she was still alive! I listened strangely reposed and then preceded to rub her shoulders and insist solemnly that Lydia was the same Lydia she had always been. Lucia’s hysteria seemed to be dissipating until with rising alarm I recognized that instead the truth was dawning on her. All color drained from her face, leaving her pallid and trembling, You killed her. But why? Couldn’t we have both?” My panic subsides at her questions for I know my answer, You would never have accepted her if the other one was still alive.”
“I was strolling down the hill, relishing the sun’s golden rays and the picturesque view of the azure ocean that shimmered beneath me when Lucia’s wild shrieks splintered the veneer of calm. Her wails ripped through my skin and slashed at my heart and I ran in great haste but the deed had already been done.”
“Lucia sat on the kitchen floor clutching Lydia’s lifeless head, lost in a curtain of tears and bloody hands shaking. She wasn’t real, she was real, she wasn’t my daughter, every word a painful gasp of breath that burned her throat. She grabbed the knife once more, revitalized determination gleaming her dark eyes, with a feverish speed she dug the knife deeper into Lydia’s flesh breaking into pearly bone and crying through her senseless slaughter it can be there, it can’t be there. Rivers of scarlet dripped over my beautiful Lydia’s flawless snow-white skin and I stood petrified in complete horror. A loud agony filled moan churned from Lucia’s small chest and shuddered throughout her fragile figure; for a moment she held the blood drenched muscle in her hand that she had cut from daughter’s body and than let it fall with a deafening thud. Amidst all insane delusion I wrenched the knife from her pulsing hands and with unshakable anger plunged the knife deep into her stomach.”
“A deafening silence pressed against my ears, a monotone drone that escalated with unsettling momentum. My legs carried me outside into sundrenched nature, and with an unearthly noise I hurtled my wretched body into the waiting arms of the sea.”
The bell rings, as I stumble into the classroom. Every seat is taken, except for the one in the back row next to Tanya. I wind my way over to the seat and slump down. I start rummaging around in my backpack, pulling out pens, pencils, and loose papers, trying to place them in some sort of order onto my desk. When I look up I catch Tanya’s eyes on me. She twirls a string of electric green bubble gum around her finger, while simultaneously chewing it. Her eyes are rimmed with dark eyeliner, her lashes thick with mascara. Her dull apathetic grey optics scrutinize me. “You look different,” Tanya states.
I quickly avert my eyes back onto my paper. “Yeah, I grew.” I mumble, color rushing into my face.
“No, that’s not it,” she says, flatly. She blows a bubble that pops with a loud smack and she tilts her head slightly to the right to observe me from a different angle. I keep my eyes trained toward the board where Mr. Martin is explaining something about fractions, but his words blur into one another becoming garbled. I can feel Tanya’s gaze scorching my skin, every pore burns. When the bell rings signaling the end of class, Tanya blocks my path. “You should sit with us at lunch today, we eat under the willow,” she says, unsmiling. She spins on the heel of her black boot and strides away without waiting for me to reply, her motions swift and graceful.
* * *
“Oh god, oh god!” Abigail runs over to me, her long arms flailing wildly in the air, “I think I failed my math test! I don’t know what to do! My mom is going to kill me, oh god oh god!” Abigail paces back and forth in front of me, digging her fingers into her hair. A few strands have fallen out of her usual perfect bun.
“That’s terrible Abi,” I say, my voice lukewarm, “Listen, I am going to sit with Tanya today, so I will see you tomorrow?”
Abigail whips her head around to look at me, disbelief shimmering in her hazel eyes. “What did you say?”
“I am eating with Tanya.”
Abigail blinks a few times, furrowing her brow, “Why would you do that?”
“Because, she invited me,” I say lightly, trying to keep my veneer of calm. Abigail opens and closes her mouth a few times, fruitlessly searching for words that won’t come to her. I curve my lips into a smile, “Well, see you later, I guess,” I chirp.
“I guess,” Abigail mumbles, staring after me, as I head toward the willow.
* * *
Tanya’s group lies spiraled underneath the beautiful willow tree, whose leaves sparkle with trapped sunlight. My pace slows as I near them, suddenly unsure. They seem almost surreal with their worn bulky leather coats they wear despite the heat.
“Who is that?” a boy asks, staring at me from beneath his mess of black hair. Tanya looks up and motions for me to come sit down. “This is Scar,” she says. Then she points to the rest of the group, “Eva.” Eva smiles, her freckles dance on her cheeks like golden flecks of fairy dust. She brushes her unevenly cut chestnut hair out her face with a long pale finger so she can see me better. “Zack.” A corpulent boy, with green hair and small blue eyes lifts a casual hand. “Archer and Aireonna.” Archer doesn’t bother looking up, busy playing with Aireonna’s bra strap. Aireonna however lifts an elegant eyebrow, “Scar?” she asks, disgust clear in her voice.
“Scarlet,” I say hastily, “Its Scarlet.”
Aireonna snorts and turns back to whisper something into Archer’s ear, clearly dismissing me as not worth her time. “And Tristan.” Tanya ends, pointing to a tall, brawny boy. Tristan smiles, a large gap-toothed grin. “I remember you.” I nod, we had been going to school together since Elementary. His grin widens, “You’re really pretty.”
I feel heat crawl up my neck, “thanks,” I stutter, flustered.
“So we are all going to go to this party at 11:00,” Tanya says, “You in?”
“Yeah, sure, cool,” I say.
“Cool,” Tristan repeats. Aireonna cackles and Eva gives me an apologetic glance.
* * *
My alarm clock glows 10:30 and I quickly slip out of bed. The silence is palpable; I can almost hear my parents soft breathing from across the wall. I get ready in candle light; pulling on the low-cut black dress, I kept hidden underneath my bed, and paint my eyelids in dark magenta. It is surprising how easy it is to climb out of my window and step onto the grass below unnoticed. A crescent moon shines above the quiet houses bathing their white-picket fences and pruned bushes in an eerie glow. The night feels alive and ominous, a shiver run down my spine. I strain my ears and hear the low rumble of a nearing vehicle.
Tristan’s rundown jeep rolls down the driveway, another fleeting shadow passing through the streetlights. The back door opens and I jump inside, squishing myself between Tanya and Aireonna. “Watch out,” Aireonna snaps, as I accidently step on her foot. Tanya’s pale grey eyes are vivified; flaming with anticipation. She fidgets in her seat, constantly crossing and uncrossing her long legs and playing with strand of her freshly raven black hair.
“I like your dress,” Eva whispers in my ear, from the behind me.
“I like your’s too,” I whisper back. She blushes a little, flattening her dress that is little more than a formless green sag of fabric with holes for her arms. Even in the darkness, I can see the ugly discolorations that stain her pale alabaster skin.
“Yeah, both of you are unbelievably beautiful,” Aireonna laughs, her emerald green eyes glittering dangerously. The scent of her cheap lavender perfume is pervasive and I have to fight the urge to breathe through my mouth.
* * *
Archer parks the car in front of an old apartment building. The walls vibrate from the sound of muted music. Aireonna keeps on pulling her dress down as we walk up the steps leading to the apartment. We trudge in silence. I can feel Tanya’s breath, hot, against my neck. Tristan stops abruptly in front of a bland beige colored door engraved with the chipped gold number 116. “Welcome to the underworld,” Tristan drawls, his dark eyes glinting in the moonlight.
The door opens with definite creak, “My lady,” Tristan whispers, a stifled chuckle in his voice. I waver, my body tingling with mix excitement and fear. Aerionna lets out an exasperated sigh and jabs her skinny elbow at me to push her way inside. For a moment her red hair shimmers, before she is swallowed by the darkness. The others follow her, wordlessly. Tanya moves with her unearthly grace, while Archer and Zach slouch behind her. I am last.
The apartment is drenched in a deep indigo glow. Music thunders in my ears, a discord of noise that mutates into a line of shrill blaring tones. There are people from our school; juniors, seniors, and people I have never seen before; older people. Hot bodies rub against me and I realize with inclining panic that I am surrounded. Tanya is wrapped tightly around a stranger; their arms so entwined they seem to have become one swaying body. Aireonna bangs her head and jumps up and down oblivious to the tightening crowd. Archer pumps his fist to the music, his arm around a girl with bubblegum pink hair. Tristan and Zach lean against a wall nonchalantly puffing smoke. I search the crowd for Eva’s pale ethereal form; but there are too many people. I am drowning. The sea of pulsing bodies is endless. I grasp hold of Tanya’s arm, “Where is Eva?” She shrugs my hand off her arm with a disinterested ‘check the bathroom’.
The bathroom door stands open ajar and I hear a soft sobbing coming from inside. I step in. The pungent smell of sweat and vomit is almost unbearable. Eva’s body hangs draped over the toilet seat; her hair falls in greasy strands over her face. She raises her head when I come up, her eyes vacant bottomless pits. Dark trails of mascara run down her cheeks; black tears of infinite despair. Her body shakes as she clings to the rim of the toilet seat. Her baggy dress that is ripped on one side displays vivid purple and blue bruises.
Without a word, I grab hold of her, hang one of her fragile arms around my shoulder and hold her waist. I fight my way past the bodies; through the crowd; the giant black beast with gleaming teeth and thousands of rough, calloused hands that grab at us from all sides. I walk out supporting Eva. Away from the apartment, the music, and the monsters.
The air is cool and clean on our skin as we drag ourselves down the sidewalk. Eva’s weight is heavy on my knees. “Take, the bus.” Eva’s breath reeks of alcohol.
* * *
I knock on the door, no answer. “The key is under the mat,” Eva rasps. I bend quickly. Eva sways slightly, but manages to keep her balance. I jiggle the lock a few times and then the door swings open. Darkness. My hand searches for a light switch. It flickers a few times then stays on. A stained grey sofa stands in the middle of a small beige room. Empty Doritos bags, candy wrappers, dirty clothing, and cigarette buds litter the floor. On the table dirty plates, and leftover food piles.
I heave Eva onto the sofa. “Where is are your parents?” I ask softly.
“Somewhere over the rainbow,” Eva chuckles dryly, “somewhere over the rainbow.” Her head lolls to one side and her eyes fall shut. The hum of the refrigerator and Eva’s slow ragged breaths fill the air. I slump down into the worn couch and watch the hypnotic tick of the clock for a while, fighting the sleep pressing against my eyes.
When I open my eyes again the clock shows 4:00 in the morning. I shift to get up, but Eva’s skinny fingers clench my wrist. Her touch is ice cold. “No, wait!” she cries her voice laced with fear. Her pupils dilate and shadows play on her gaunt, skeletal face. “Don’t go!” she begs, her voice windchimes in a roaring storm. I take her hands in mine and promise her that I will stay the whole night.
* * *
The sun blazes white in a cloudless blue sky. “Hey Abigail,” I sigh as I slide into my usual place next her. Abigail doesn’t acknowledge me. She is in a heated rant about the B-plus Mr. Gibson gave her on her math test with Tara and Kate who are both nodding earnestly, their red ribboned ponytails bobbing up and down. I pull out my lunch that looks bland next to their colorful polka-dot lunch bags, filled with warmed pasta and gourmet salads. I nibble at my sandwich and listen to Abigail. When she finishes her tirade she turns to glare at me; her familiar kind brown eyes livid. I shuffle my feet, uncomfortable, but force myself to meet her eyes.
Her gaze softens a little, “You look terrible.” I nod. I borrowed Eva’s tie-dye shirt and worn out jeans and the make-up from last night still stains my face. She sighs and rolls her eyes. “Just, don’t ditch me again, Scarlet, or else you will be in some serious trouble,” she teases, pinching my side.
I catch sight of Tristan and Eva meandering toward the willow. Tristan nods at me and behind him Eva smiles meagerly and gives a tiny wave. Abigail follows my gaze, “You know you can sit with them, if you want.” I nod.