By Chloe Clark
“Lucy, you’re going to be all right,” I said. I liked this part of my job best. The moment of relief that crosses a patient’s face. She had a scare. Cancer. We caught it early. We took care of it. Now a couple of months of treatment and she’d be fine.
My wife was seven months pregnant, and she stopped being emotional around month five. I’d tell her about my day and nothing moved her anymore. It was a relief to come to work and see emotions flood across people’s faces.
“But, how long will I live?” she asked. She was forty two years old, and her father died years ago of the same thing. I’ve never been seriously ill and I wondered what it’s like. I’ve never thought about that before. All those patients, and I never really thought about what it’s like to be like them. To really be that scared.
“Well, no one lives forever, but I think that you’ll live a very long time.” I smiled at her.
She looked at me a little oddly, as if she was thinking about a funny story that she had heard once and only just gotten the punch line.
“I knew someone once, when I was young, who said that she would,” Lucy said. She wasn’t looking at me; her gaze focused on something that no one could see.
“Would what?” I asked. I thought about how my wife used to laugh all of the time. I loved her laugh. The way it sounded too loud for her tiny body, as if her sense of humor was bigger than she was.
She paused for a second as though not sure that she should continue, as if she worried I’d think there was something wrong with her. Finally she said, “Live forever.”
I never liked the school uniforms. They were a mix of dark blues and grays. They always seemed foreboding to me like clouds racing across a storm sky. Did the children feel the same way, like they were in the dreariest outfit the school could think up?
The uniforms looked good on no one. Well, that’s a lie, actually. There was one student who wore the uniform well. They suited Mari, a girl who introduced herself on the first day of class by saying, “It’s Mari. You don’t pronounce it Mary, and you don’t pronounce it Marie. It’s somewhere lost just at the middle of them both.”
Mari was a tall girl with dark hair. She kept her hair tied back. Always. She wasn’t friends with anyone. Or she wasn’t until Lucy arrived. The two of them were like peas in a pod. Except not. They were two different species stuck in the same pod. There was something that drew them together. I used to walk home, past the playground, and see them there together. Two teenage girls at play. I watched them once, unable not to. They seemed like how I wished I had been twenty years earlier. There was something free in them.
Mari would swing and flip over the bars.
“You’ll kill yourself!” Lucy said.
“I can’t die. I’m going to live forever,” Mari said, and the way she said it was like a book closing, a subject off limits, a stone falling down a well. I walked away as fast as I could. There was something in the way she said it that terrified me.
“Do you remember that friend I had — Mari?” Lucy asked.
We were at the café. We never met at our homes anymore, as if Darren’s death had taken us from mother and daughter to mere friendly acquaintances, the kind of person you called up when you were in town but only wanted to see for an hour or so, didn’t want to interrupt your real life too much by meeting with them. The thing was, though, I knew that Lucy liked her lattes made slightly cooler than usual; and that she was terrified as a child that her teddy bear would become possessed because she walked in once when The Exorcist was on the TV; and that she hated strawberries; and that she sometimes sings in her sleep, not talks but sings.
“Mom, do you remember her?”
“Oh, the strange girl with black hair.” Of course, I remembered her. Lucy had never made friends easily. When we moved I thought she’d hate us. Darren almost didn’t take the job offer just because he didn’t want to uproot her. But she met Mari. Sixteen and finally having a best friend. But Mari wasn’t the kind of best friend I would have envisioned for her. A girl with a tight bun in her hair at all times. So severe. So quiet and calm.
“I never thought she was strange,” Lucy said.
“You wouldn’t. She reminded me of this other girl we met when you were born.” I had never told her this story. It wasn’t something that one tells. When someone survives, one must never speak of how they almost didn’t. It was tempting fate. It was saying “almost” over and over until “almost” became “did.”
“Oh?” Lucy took a sip of her latte. She scowled, just a little. No one else would have noticed it but I did. It must have been too hot.
“There were complications, you know. We thought you were going to die. And your father kept saying ‘Please death, don’t take her.’ I always thought that was strange, even in that situation, praying to death for mercy instead of to God. An atheist to the core, your father was.” I stopped a second before saying your father. We never spoke about him; his death hung between us like some curtain I could never pull away, some door that just wouldn’t open anymore.
“What about the girl?” Another sip. Another tiny scowl.
“She was just passing by the room. But she stopped and saw us and came in. She had a cold voice but kind eyes like she wanted to be harsh but wasn’t really. She asked about you, what the prognosis was. We told her, and she just nodded, very slowly, as if considering the information. Then she said you’d live, and then you did.”
“And you think she had something to do with me living?” She took a longer sip, smiled.
It was one of the strange questions that Lucy could still always surprise me with. “Don’t be absurd! What could she have possibly done? But she did give us hope, you know. There was just something about her that I trusted.”
“Why did she remind you of Mari?”
I shrugged, “They both seemed like they didn’t quite belong.”
Lucy looked at me for the longest time. I knew that her next sip would be of cold coffee.
I didn’t tell them right away, but I think that Lucy knew from the moment I came home from the doctor. She looked at me and her eyes were sad.
A few days later, I was drinking coffee in the kitchen. Lucy came in, and Mari was trailing her as always. Sophomores in college and Lucy looked it with two piercings in each ear and a streak of violet blue in her hair. Mari, though, always looked like she was older than anyone else in the room. It wasn’t her face; it was this stillness she held inside herself.
Lucy grabbed a couple cans of soda from the fridge. Mari stared at me, blinking her wide eyes slowly, as if even blinking were something to do carefully, precisely. They had been talking as they came in and continued the conversation as if I wasn’t there.
“Jacob asked me if I believed in life after death, today.” Lucy said. I wasn’t fond of her boyfriend but never said anything. There wasn’t anything intrinsically wrong with him. In theory he was a wonderful young man with a promising future ahead of him. There was just a dullness there.
“Oh, yeah?” Mari said. “I suppose he was able to answer definitively on the subject.”
I always liked Mari. She may have been a strange girl, but she always spoke what she was thinking.
“He does believe. Do you, Mari?” Lucy handed her the can of soda as she asked.
Mari carefully popped the top of the can, listened to the bubbles hissing as they were exposed to the air, and smiled. “What do you think would be the ideal afterlife, Luce?”
Lucy thought for a moment, took a sip of soda. “I think it would be just exactly like this except everything would be a little kinder.”
Mari nodded. “I like that. It’s like life after life.”
I liked it as well.
My father looked different. I had heard once that the dead looked smaller. But it wasn’t that. If anything he looked bigger, as if he would keep getting bigger and bigger until he was the only thing I’d ever see. I touched him and his skin was still warm.
“We’re going to move him now,” a woman said next to me. “Your mother said that would be all right.”
I nodded and turned away. I couldn’t stand to see them move his body. There was a young woman in the hallway. She looked just like Mari except that her dark hair was up in gelled spikes. The girl was looking at a painting on the hospice wall. Then she turned to me and smiled. She looked exactly like Mari.
“Mari?” I asked. I knew it was foolish; she couldn’t possibly be suddenly and always there exactly when I needed her, but still I asked. The girl was gone.
I went up to the painting she had been studying so intently. The painting was of a city made of stone. There were people moving about on the streets but none of them had eyes. There were lips and noses and even delicately painted eyebrows. I walked closer and closer to the painting; I was determined to find the eyes. That seemed important for some reason. I imagined that I was missing them somehow. I practically pressed my face to the canvas. If I found the eyes then everything could be different. Then I noticed the rain puddles collected in the streets of the painting’s city. The muddy water was filled with the eyes. Hundreds and hundreds of pairs staring up helplessly at their bodies walking around without sight.
I gasped involuntarily. It was the first time I ever fainted.
She had hit an artery. Accidentally, while chopping carrots for a vegetable soup. She was so stunned seeing the red overcome the orange on the cutting board that for an idiotic second she thought the carrots were bleeding.
She held up her hand in front of her face, staring at the blood coming down in rivulets. “Jacob, this is a lot of blood.”
I took her to the emergency room. “I told you those knives were too sharp for you to daydream while using them.” I was trying to be funny, to lighten the mood, but she just stared at me.
In the hospital, I thought she might faint or throw up. She kept looking at the floor and blinking rapidly. She hated hospitals, not just since her father died, but always, I think.
She stared out the window as the doctor spoke to her. “Remember to keep the wound elevated even while you’re sleeping.”
She nodded. I walked outside. I needed coffee or something. The sight of blood made me nauseated. I never really cut myself. It was always Lucy who was injuring herself. I told her once that I just wasn’t fond of blood. She stared at me, repeated the word fond aloud, and then asked if I thought that blood was an old friend of hers who showed up a little too often and always unexpectedly.
I stood outside the room. A woman brushed past me. She looked young, maybe 16 or 17, but she seemed old. She had dark hair pulled back into what my mother used to call a severe bun, as if hair could develop a personality.
“Excuse me,” she said coolly. She had a voice like a whisper even when it was a shout. She walked into Lucy’s room. I saw Lucy look up and break into a smile. Then I remembered the woman, Mari. She had been Lucy’s friend in college, though she disappeared shortly after Lucy’s father died. Lucy had been nonplussed by this; she told me that Mari was always disappearing.
I stood closer to the door, eavesdropping.
“Mari! It’s been—“ Lucy’s voice was so happy. I hadn’t heard her that way in years.
“Too long.” Mari walked in and touched Lucy’s shoulder.
“You haven’t aged a day.” Lucy said. It was more of a statement then a compliment.
“I live forever. Why would I want to age?” Mari smiled.
“I almost believe it. You look wonderful.”
Mari smiled. She stared at the bandages on Lucy’s hand. “You should keep that elevated.”
“Yeah, the nurse said that.” She raised her hand and even from outside I could see that blood was already beginning to seep through the gauze — the red spreading out across the white like some living ink blot test.
“Raise your hand if you’re happy.” Mari said. I remembered that this was an ongoing joke between them. Lucy explained it to me once when I asked why Mari said it so often. It was a question one of their teachers asked after they received their grades on a particularly difficult exam.
I watched as Lucy lowered her hand.
At my grandmother’s funeral I stared at the woman in the coffin and felt that the worst part of death was how empty your body seemed afterward. It was like you had never been in there at all.
“Are you scared of dying?” I asked Mari.
“I’m not. You don’t fear death when you live forever,” Mari said. Her voice was lower than usual — a thing I had never imagined impossible — and there was none of its normal laughing quality. At eighteen, she already seemed so old. I wondered sometimes what she would be like when she was ninety, but I thought she’d probably always be the same.
“No, really, are you?”
“Are you, Lucy?”
I thought about it, the sudden not knowing that must come with death. “I think so.”
“Don’t be. Imagine death as a door. We’re in one room for our entire lives, and there is this door on the wall. We’re not allowed to peek behind it, so we think about it constantly. But it’s really just a door. It opens. It closes. It takes us to another room.”
“But what if we don’t like the next room?”
“Then there’s probably another door,” Mari said and almost smiled at me.
The prognosis was that Lucy wouldn’t live. Her doctor seemed genuinely shocked at the ferocity of the illness.
I could feel it moving inside her body. It felt like the disease had tiny paws encrusted with ice. From miles and miles away, I could feel it in her. Always that link between us.
I could hear her thinking as I came to her. Her thoughts were clearer then they had ever been to me.
She lay in the hospital bed and waited for death. Her life had been a string of things that she hadn’t gotten quite right. She wondered what it would be like if she could start over. Would she make the same mistakes in an endless repetitive loop like a glitch in a computer game?
I opened the door to her room. She looked up. I walked in. Lucy looked older than ever before. She had always seemed so perpetually young to me, but no human stays that way forever.
“Mari, how did you know I was here?”
“I always know where to find you.” I sat down in a chair by the bed. This was the first time she had ever seen me with my hair down, let loose from its bun and coiled over my shoulders.
“I never knew how long your hair was.” Lucy said. She stared at my hair as if it seemed to go on forever, as if it were growing before her eyes.
“I’ve never cut it,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
“Like my next visitor will be the Grim Reaper.” Lucy tried to grin. She couldn’t.
I glanced at the door and shook my head. “I doubt that.”
“What’s it like to live forever?” Lucy asked. She smiled as if she still thought of it as a long-running joke between us.
I sighed, unsure how to say it so she would understand instantly. “It’s like being on the bus for a very long time, and everyone keeps getting off at their stops but yours never comes up. A long book helps, but not forever.”
“That sounds kind of boring, actually.”
I shrugged. “Sometimes the scenery is beautiful.”
“Mari, I think I could’ve done better.”
I stared at her for a moment. I had never before so wanted to hug a person.
“If you could, Lucy, would you want to live forever?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Lucy always hated how she could never answer a question directly. “But, I’m not sure about death, either.”
“Then how about just living?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you trust me?” I asked.
Lucy nodded. She closed her eyes. I touched her shoulders softly, as if I were about to pick up a newborn child. And the years fell backward until Lucy was free of them.
Chloe N. Clark is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing & Environment. Her work has appeared such places as Booth, Menacing Hedge, Bookanista, and more. For her rants on cake, magicians, Supernatural, and more, follow her on Twitter.