He thought how odd it was that she stood up so tall and straight at such a late hour. So too did he find it strange that, though fully clothed in a too-big sleeveless rocker T and dark purple skinny jeans, her feet were bare. She might have been beautiful once, but her face was gaunt and draped in shadows other than those thrown by the streetlight. A frighteningly brittle torso was apparent even through her shirt; each bone painfully prominent, the pale, sunken skin stretched over her collarbone thrown into high relief. Her hair was long, straight and dark, brushing her elbows as the breeze tossed it around. Most unusual of all was her position at the edge of the roof, where she stood, swaying slightly, blank-faced, arms hanging limply at her sides. He possessed a terrible feeling of foreboding, and called to her, cutting through the quiet with shocking power. She did not answer him, but he was sure she must have heard, because she closed her eyes as though very tired and clenched her fist before she stepped off the roof.
* * *
Charlotte watched two hands lift a lump of clay onto a potter’s wheel. One was large and rough, calloused, the darkly tanned wrist displaying the end of a brightly colored tattoo that must have stretched farther up the arm. The other hand was significantly smaller with long, slender fingers and scarlet nails. Together, they placed the clay on the circular platform with unbelievable tenderness. The fingers intertwined briefly and the wheel began to spin. As one, the hands began to mold the clay and it gradually took the shape of a human. Charlotte found this odd, for the spinning of the wheel shouldn’t have allowed the miniscule person to take form. Nevertheless, tiny fingers began to appear, as did a face and even the perfectly detailed lines of single strands of hair. Charlotte was shocked to see that the hands had left the body bare of clothing, and the nakedness of it embarrassed her because, though the tiny girl (for now she could see it was a girl) was made of clay, it seemed very nearly alive. As Charlotte pondered that, she saw the infinitesimal movement of the chest up and down, as though expanding and contracting with air. The tiny girl grew taller as the two hands shaped her, becoming more and more real with each revolution of the platform. Then suddenly, all at once, the hands dropped out of Charlotte’s line of vision, the wheel stopped, and the figure of the girl exploded into a million tiny pieces. And the pieces dissolved into powder, and the powder was flung across an inky-black sky, where they became stars.
* * *
Her name was Charlotte Riley and she was seventeen years old. John Fayne discovered these things the following week as, under the weak light of a single cracked light bulb, he read through a newspaper. He sat alone at his splay-legged kitchen table, with a cracked mug of sugarless, cream-less coffee, the taste of which was swallow-able due only to the existence of a few soggy mint leaves swimming at the top of the cup. His 5 a.m. routine was changed only by the appearance of the reoccurring leak in the corner ceiling, resulting in a steady PIT-PIT-PIT that accompanied his breakfast as the water collected in a large plastic bucket. He ate his cereal dry because the milk was sour--and indeed the lump in the bottle seemed to have long since begun its transformation into cheese. With each breath in Fayne experienced the wave of sleepiness brought on by the slightly sweet smell of tobacco that seeped through the wall from the apartment next door. That lethargy was gone in a matter of moments however, for the sounds of some death metal band he'd never have listened to abruptly began playing so loudly that, even with the wall in place, Fayne could not hear his own thoughts.
"Honestly? This early," he murmured. Getting up from the table, he stepped out of his apartment on the dim and dejected landing and knocked three times on his neighbors' door. It was flung open a second later and the pungent, rocker-child-on-crack-like man who owned the juxtapose apartment stood in front of him, waiting expectantly for Fayne to speak.
"Would you mind turning off the music please? It's a little early."
His neighbor swelled, "No I will not turn off the fucking music! Go fuck-yourself, pussy-man!" Fayne opened his mouth to respond, but just as he did, the man smiled wickedly and spit his chewing tobacco straight onto Fayne's exposed tongue.
Fayne burst into the bathroom of his apartment, gagged into the toilet, produced nothing, and so, felt no better. Wiping his mouth a bit uncouthly, he gripped either side of the grimy porcelain sink and studied the desperate man staring back at him through the mirror. Quinn had said he was "unintentionally attractive". He had laughed at the descriptions at the time, but he supposed he could see what she meant; he did have a decent body, lean but muscular. "Stronger than people think," he muttered to himself. Indeed, his opponents' underestimation of his strength had served him well so far and had made the defeat of these hyper-combative men ever sweeter.
He didn't pay much attention to his hair. It was curly and dark, the color of coffee beans--more brown than black. He'd never thought much of it but girls had always liked playing with it while hooking up and he supposed that must count for something. His nose was slightly crooked at the bridge from being broken one-too-many times. Fayne had always thought of this as his least attractive feature, but ever since Quinn had found it "cute" he couldn't bring himself to completely dislike it.
Fayne looked at himself and saw the usual broken mess of a man who made countless mistakes and had no way of redeeming himself…a starving artist who smoked too many cigarettes and drank too much…who spent money he didn't have on things he didn't need, things that served no purpose other than to allow him a few intoxicated hours unaware of who he was…a man so desperate for someone to blame that he would have pointed a finger at his own reflection and cried with fervor, "This is your fault."
Quinn. He made a mental note to stop mentioning her name in so many of his thoughts.
"It's bad for morale, Johnny. Don't do it," he told himself out loud.
"You tell him," he heard from behind him and turned to see T.K. standing in the bathroom doorway dressed only in an over-sized men's dress shirt tied close to her slim waist by a knotted necktie. Her warm, bronzy-brown skin practically glowed, bright against the royal blue of last-night's-man's shirt, and by the fact that she was wearing no pants. Her impossibly long legs were naked and ended in bare feet, the straps of her high heels hanging loosely from her fingers. She leaned against the doorframe, pant-less, shirt unbuttoned to her stomach, at her ease. Reaching up, she pulled the rows of long, thick braids over one shoulder and flashed one of her invaluable smiles at him, her teeth brilliant white against her skin. When he did not return it, she approached the mirror, and looked back-and-forth between his reflection and him.
"You look tired," she said gently, in her husky Harlem accent and he nodded, "And sad," she continued. He closed his eyes for a moment before opening them and nodding more slowly. And she wrapped her arms around his middle and studied the reflection with him.
"You know what Johnny?" Fayne's eyes flicked to her face in the mirror,
"He's not such a bad lookin' guy," she told him thoughtfully, a teasing smile playing about her lips. He smiled slightly at her face's reflection,
"T.K. go put some pants on."
* * *
There were people surrounding Charlotte, and though they had no bodies, they kept glancing towards her; and she could feel their eyes burning through as though with invisible fire…
* * *
Sean felt the weight of it in every one of his classes, but none so much as this one, where her old seat sat empty at the front of the room. It kept drawing peoples' eyes, as though it was a dead body; the sort of thing no one really wants to look at but can't take their eyes off of. Somehow it was symbolic of her, and Sean had heard that even in other classes, where someone else usually filled it, her desk had been left empty. He kept glancing at the chair, thinking a few times that he saw her sitting in it, her long dark hair weaving in and out of her fingers as she absentmindedly braided it to pass the time. Even his teachers had felt the weight of her absence in class; determinedly avoiding the places she sat and skipping her name while taking attendance.
And then there were those awful moments when a person wasn't aware of what had happened and asked loudly, "Where's Charlotte?" And silence would fall and someone would say dully, "She's dead." And the teacher would frown at the student who had answered and say, "Charlotte 'passed away'." Sean wondered why adults were so fixated on that phrase. Did they think by saying she'd "passed away" it somehow made her less dead? Perhaps they thought it more reverent, but Sean found it mocking, it was suicide, not cancer. She was dead, not passed away.
Mr. Leap was taking attendance now. Once again Charlotte's name was skipped. There was a pause at the end of the list, and for a moment Sean thought no one would ask. But then he heard from behind him, "Wait Sean where's Charlotte? We have to present our project." Sean stood up, overwhelmed, and walked toward the door. The boy asked again, "Sean what the hell are we suppose to do if Charlotte isn't here to do her part?" And someone leaned over and hissed at him, "Shut up asshole she died." And the kid shut up, and Sean was out of the room.
Barely a moment later a door down the hall was flung open, and Emma rushed out of the room, and slammed the door shut. She looked around her and caught sight of Sean. There was a beat of silence before Emma burst out crying into her hands. Sean hurriedly approached her, putting his arm around a shoulder and leading her to the courtyard where she sat down on a bench. He crouched in front of Charlotte's best friend, resting his elbows on her knees saying,
"Emma listen to me," she shook her head, "Emma we've got to talk about this."
She breathed deeply for a minute, lowered her hands, and looked at him, gray eyes blotchy and red.
"What is this?" she whispered, and her face screwed up again as her eyes started streaming once more. She attempted to hide her face, but Sean grabbed her wrists,
"No, Emma, listen to me," he pleaded, but she burst out,
"I don't want to listen to you! You don't want me to cry, but it’s the only part of this situation I have control over! So just shut up."
And all the fight went out of her then, and she simply dropped her head and her shoulders shook, her wrists still held motionless in Sean's grasp. Sean let go, and because there was nothing left he could do, he pulled her to him and held her. He could tell himself and Emma it would be okay and that they would get through it together. He could be the "strong one" who hid his pain; he could pretend he was okay and tell Emma not to cry. Yet underneath it all, Sean knew that though he could say anything he wanted and go on with his life, no number of brave words or stony, expressionless faces could make Charlotte come back. No amount of anything could make his Charlotte any less dead.
* * *
It could not be said that Fayne was completely awake, but he certainly wasn’t asleep. Of that he was sure, for though he felt Sleep’s heavy stupor, he could still hear that cursed music. But no, it couldn’t possibly be, for the melody was far sweeter than any death metal band could possibly be. So too was it much too soft; his neighbors never turned the volume any lower than “deafening”. He opened his eyes and felt that abrupt shock of pain that comes from too much light too quickly,
“Good morning sunshine,” husked TK coolly. Fayne groaned and pulled the covers over his head,
“TK, close the window.”
“Absolutely not. It’s a beautiful day. You’re not shutting this one out.”
“You’re always tired. Get up. Don’t be a killjoy.”
She had been the one singing; this Fayne realized as she began the chorus of some Alicia Keyes song they’d been working on earlier in the week. His usually dim apartment was brightly lit, the single, wide window thrown open, curtains not pinned back, but completely removed. The neighbors had finally hit the hay, and TK’s velvety, smoky-café mezzo now replaced their blaring bass. He smelled bacon and coffee and something suspiciously cinnamon. He couldn’t decide if he liked the abruptly extreme difference between his apartment and the apartment TK had created for him; he was still too overwhelmed by it to make a sensible decision one way or the other. There was, however, something unexpectedly pleasant about the warm breeze and the good smells. Fayne propped himself up on an elbow and looked over the back of the couch toward the kitchen, rubbing his face and eyes,
“Did you buy food?”
“Evidence would say so,” she grinned, “Hungry?” Fayne took a deep breath in, inhaling a wave of the deliciously powerful aromas and nodded, “Yeah I guess. What time is it?”
“Quarter after 3,” TK said unworriedly. Fayne swore, rolled heavily off the couch, and stumbled off the ground and into the kitchen,
“Why didn’t you wake me up? We’re supposed to be in the park right now! We’ll lose our spot!”
TK’s walked calmly out of the kitchen and grabbed Fayne’s fumbling hand, which had closed frantically around the handle of his guitar case.
“Yo, Johnny-” she waited for him to look at her. When he finally did, she held his gaze until his grip on the guitar loosened, set the instrument back on the ground and said evenly, “I think we can take a day off. No performing today.”
“No I have to be there, I have money to make and-“ he babbled, but trailed off in the face of TK’s gently stern expression.
“Give me one GOOD reason why you have to work today.”
Fayne mumbled something about bills and dependant fans to which TK responded with a laugh. Taking his hand, she pulled him to the sunken table and sat him down.
“I can’t remember the last time I slept that long,” he counted up on his fingers, “10 hour. Christ.”
“That’s because you never sleep, you needed it. Why did you think I didn’t wake you up?” She set a plate of food in front of him; the scent practically knocked him out. If Fayne though back, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a hot meal at that table.
“Johnny I’ve never seen these before.”
Fayne turned to see what she was looking at, and found her crouched, looking at a section of the thousands of photographs that served the same purpose as wallpaper in the tiny apartment. He stood up and joined her on the floor. She pointed to a row of pictures, right along the line of the baseboard, where Fayne saw his own face staring out at him in black and white. He sat on the ledge of a large, circular window, which was opened wide. He was looking out of it, a cigarette in the fingers of a hand that rested on his knee. One leg on the ledge with him, the other hung loosely over the side. Most of his body was painted in translucent shadow, his face just barely illuminated by the light from the open window. It was a set of 10 pictures, each one displaying the very smallest of changes; a slight shift of the fingers, a difference in the shape of the tiny stream of cigarette smoke, and gradually the turn of his head toward the camera until his eyes pierced the lens. There he saw a glimmer of pain so fierce it made his stomach ache to think he had once felt it. And there again appeared Quinn in his thoughts. His eyes traveled up to the top of the wall where he found her face, filling the frame with her laughter, sun making her skin making her skin glow, and wind tossing her hair about. The picture could have been alive, breathing. And he though of Quinn, her breathing, her skin against his skin-
“When did you start doing self-portraits,” TK interrupted his thoughts, looking closely at the pictures, studying them.
“I don’t,” he said dully, with no further explanation, getting up and sitting back down in front of his food.
“Where is that?”
Fayne shrugged, “I don’t know, I can’t remember.”
This wasn’t entirely true. The photos had been taken in the downtown hospital. Someone had rushed him there after finding him completely passed out; worried he might have been dying, when he was, in fact, simply drunk to a point of catatonia. Upon his revival the next morning, Fayne found that his Good Samaritan had, after being told of his true condition, simply left an address and asked that the doctor be sure Fayne received it. Fayne also found an already paid hospital bill and a note wishing him well. That knowledge, atop his Quinn-induced intoxication, was what prompted him to set up the auto on his camera, and position himself on the window ledge.
The reality of the situation was, Fayne’s lack of any memory of that even was not, in actuality, true at all. It had happened barely 3 weeks before, and what memory he had was all-too fresh in his mind. Even now the tiny the address lay waiting in his wallet, recorded in the tiny, slightly crooked script of an arthritic hand that might once have taught a classroom.
“So what’s the plan today Johnny?”
Fayne looked around the bright room and thought of how it must have looked outside. He thought of his weeks of constant depression, of Quinn. He thought of his and TK’s performance corner in the park, which by that time was undoubtedly occupied by someone else. He thought of how much he hated taking days off. And he thought of that address sitting patiently in his wallet and standing up, he walked towards his closet, pulling off his T-shirt, and saying to TK as he went,
“We’re going to Staten Island, get your coat.”
* * *
In Charlotte’s head, tiny creatures flitted about, filling her ears with a vicious buzz that drowned out every thought.
* * *
Charlotte Riley was known for being a dynamic girl, happy in the public eye. Vastly talented and overachieving, she was never ever lofty, almost too down-to-earth. She wasn’t always friendly, she told terrible jokes, and she bruised easily. She hated small dogs and talked too loud. She was afraid of butterflies, and ate tomatoes like apples. Her teeth were perfectly straight, but her nose was terribly crooked. She knew how to fight, but not how to cook. She wrote poetry, but it never rhymed. She always had a story but never an alibi. She was perfectly imperfect. She looked happy, but she wasn’t.
There had been an assemble about suicide awareness at the school that day. It had made Sean angry. Why let people recover first? He thought dryly as the twig-like woman from the program took the stage and cleared her throat in a way that made Sean want to attack her. She began with “Sadness may be the most powerful emotion human beings can feel-“ and at that point Sean stopped listening. Their sweaty, middle-aged principal joined the woman onstage and they began their speeches in tandem. He didn’t particularly feel like listening to statistic and politically correct solutions as to how to deal with depression. These weak attempts at advice were things the students already knew, but had never given real thought to because nothing like this had ever happened to any of them, except maybe Alex Banks, a clarinet player whose sister had… done it the September before. She had been in her thirties, though, so no one at the school had really known her. Sean thought that Alex was possibly the only person who could even begin to imagine what was going on inside his and Emma’s heads. It was mocking the way his peers pretended to understand.
Sean wasn’t listening to the speeches, he found this entire event a waste of valuable distraction time, time he could’ve buried his thoughts in Calculus or gym. Hell, he would’ve taken a discussion on Grapes of Wrath above this. But he did notice the glances and wished he had Emma beside him, her hand ready to be squeeze, to help him maintain control and so he didn’t have to be alone. Each time they said her name or mentioned “her friends and loved ones”, there was a ripple as a group of people turned to watch Sean’s face, as though expecting a change. He defied them again and again, pretending it didn’t hurt every time they said it. Pretending he was managing all right, even though he wasn’t. There was a candle-lit vigil on the football field that night. This display of reverence to her memory was far more acceptable to Sean, less like something the school was forcing upon the students. The people who wanted to be there showed up, the rest stayed home, and no one was any the wiser. Sean found though, that as it went on, it proved itself nearly as difficult as the assembly in some ways. The principal, a sincere man, despite being a little insensitive, invited students to come up and share memories and Sean was disgusted by some of the people who had the nerve to mount the platform. He watched as Anna Davis (an airhead who never had a good word to say about her) wept through a story in which she was provided a tampon in the girls’ bathroom, wailing that “When I needed her most she was there” as though they had truly known each other. Then her ex-boyfriend (the one who had treated her so badly she had practically begged him to end the relationship because she always refused to do it herself) said a brief piece about how he “never stopped loving her” in a tearfully unsteady voice.
Once again people glanced periodically toward Sean where he stood, Emma situated quietly at his side, arm hooked through his. She was not crying now, but simply listening, silently fighting ever-welling tears as she heard people speak, never letting them fall. They simply remained perched in her eyes; replenished over and over as yet another person took the microphone. And then, to Sean’s surprise, Alex Banks took the microphone from Principal Tibs’ hand. It was shaking, very slightly,
“I just want to make it clear that I did really know her and I’m not going to pretend I did to feel important. But I know that she always treated people the way they deserved to be treated, and most of the time better than they deserved. Um, she was really cool, and she was always nice to me. But I just really want to say something to Sean and Emma,” his eyes searched the crowd for them, following the sea of faces that had turned in their direction, Emma was staring at the ground, so Alex locked eyes with Sean, “I just want to say I’m sorry. Doesn’t help, I get it. And I get that you’re tired of people saying sorry. I just want to tell you don’t pay attention to the people that tell you ‘everything happens for a reason’ because it’s the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard,” Principal Tibs shifted uncomfortably at the profanity, Alex continued “But dude; be grateful you got to know her that’s all I can say because everybody else missed out. Emma? Someone smart said once that crying isn’t weak. Every since birth it’s been a sign that we’re alive. You have that to be thankful for. You still have a chance at something she gave up on.”
At his final sentiments, Emma took a shuddering breath and Sean could hear her crying ever so quietly. Then he heard his own name again, coupled with Emma’s, summoned to the podium. He did not want to go stand up there, or say anything to anyone about her. But a path was cleared in the crowd, like some heinous parting of the Red Sea. They were shepherded through the mass of people and onto the platform where they both stood, at a loss. Emma was offered the mic, but it was too much for her. She shook her head and hurried down the stairs leaving Sean there alone. The microphone was held out before him, and his arm, as if of it’s own accord, lifted and closed his fingers around it. He worried he might vomit as he looked at all the people, but he began talking, without planning it, or considering the effect it would have,
“You what’s funny? The number of people who supposedly knew her,” made himself say her name, “Charlotte. You all think that because she killed herself you have some sort of understanding of what she was going through, how she felt. The simple truth of it is: none of us did. I didn’t, Emma didn’t, her parents, teachers, coaches: NO one. She was always trying to take care of everyone, so I guess maybe she was afraid of being taken care of,” his voice was tremulous, “or maybe she was afraid of being a bother, I don’t know. So I just want to say that before you pretend you knew her for attention, leave a little grieving time for those of us who actually gave a fuck.”
* * *
Hirschel Riley stared at his living room ceiling. His back was sore, unaccustomed to sleeping on the couch; it had been many years since he had last elected to do so. His ex-wife was in his room; presumably fast asleep in the bed he’d given up for her. It had proved a curious afternoon: he had been sitting numbly on his apartment balcony with a fifth of whiskey beside him when a car stopped in front of the building. He recognized the vehicle and was, for a moment, furious to behold Olivia step out of the BMW and hand the keys to an eager valet. But when she’d buzzed him, and then arrived shortly afterwards at his door, the anger had melted. It was awkward, but not so awkward that Hirschel turned her away. The expected dislike of one another had been replaced by a mutual understanding of each other’s feelings, a caution that guided their movements, a reminder of the many years apart. She looked just as she always did; stunningly polished, black pantsuit perfectly ironed, hair flawlessly curled, makeup pristine. She almost seemed as though nothing was the matter, but Hirschel knew better.
Few words passed between them, they both sat in front of the television, staring blankly at the screen for hours into the night. Olivia was wrapped in an afghan, a mug of hot tea between her hands, wearing a pair of his pajama pants and a baggy T-shirt. They didn’t speak, and when the clock struck midnight Olivia rose, untangling herself from the afghan and walking into Hirschel’s room. He couldn’t sleep, same as the night before, plagued by the thought of his beloved only daughter. If he focused on the memory of her face it made him feel nauseous. He felt a great wave of horror rush over him. His daughter, his baby girl, his Charlotte was dead, gone. She would never come to his concerts again, never wake him up in time for an interview, never write him lyrics or come home from school in the afternoon. She’d never laugh or smile or knock him out of his moments of insanity, never beg to go shopping or have friend over, or hide his cigarettes or sit at the kitchen counter doing homework. She was gone.
Hirschel shot off the couch, stumbling into the kitchen, vomiting into the trash bin and causing a tumultuous clatter as a pan fell off the counter onto the floor. He was sobbing, he knew. His breath came in short, shuddering gasps as he clutched at his face where it rested in his hands. The overwhelming feeling gradually subsided, and he pulled the whiskey bottle out of the cupboard, returning to the floor, taking great gulps of it. It was with silence he sat for a half and hour on that cold wood, tears escaping his beadle-black eyes, growing steadily drunker as the minutes passed.
Olivia appeared in the doorway to the bedroom at some point, Hirschel didn’t know how long she stood before he noticed. Her mascara ran down her cheeks in messy lines, he thought she was beautiful,
“Liv,” Hirschel hiccupped, “Baby, come here.” She shook her head. He was upset; he just wanted to sit with her was that so wrong? After all, he was in love with her wasn’t he?... Was he?
“Livvy,” he begged in his drunken drawl, “Just come sit down. Please. I don’t wanchyou to be mad at me. Why-you mad at me Liv?”
Her feet fell lightly on the hardwood as she closed the distance between them,
“Hirsch…” she said quietly, her voice tremulous, “I’m not mad. I’m not mad at you. You’re drunk.”
Hirschel took her face in his hands, stroking it gently and nodding, saying desperately,
“Olivia, babe, it’s my fault she’s gone. It’s my fault, I must’ve done something wrong, but I didn’t know I swear. I’m so sorry, I’m sorry.”
Olivia shook her head, half-sobbing that it wasn’t his fault, half hugging him. She grabbed the bottle from the floor, swigging at and kissing him in one swift motion. They made-love that night for the first time in 8 years, the haze of heightened emotion granting permission, in the shadow of their lonely misery. Encouraged by their intoxication, they bound themselves together again, tangled in unexpected feeling, a confused blur of passion brought to life once again by the loss of the only thing that had kept them together in the first place.
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Fayne-ing Death (In Progress)