EXIT WOUNDS

Things would have been better if he had stayed.

I knew that look he gave me before it happened. I recall the twinge of his lips, a familiar smile he gave before he was about to do something stupid. Don’t, I would always tell him, worrying away at the flesh in my mouth. But he took my objections as a challenge.

So this is how it happened. I remember his mother arriving to the scene, shock and dismay in her pretty features. She was young, and naive like the rest of us. Like me. For we both believed he would be safe. 

But nothing is safe from this world. This is something I came to realize after he jumped. Nothing is safe from Death, for he is the closest friend any of us will ever have.

Things might have been better if I had asked him more questions, about the purple flowers on his skin, or the red circles around his eyes. It might have all been better if I’d only been better at making him stop. “God, he was so happy,” his mother had said. He wasn’t. “He was so pure.” He wasn’t. “He was so young.” He was.

He’d arrived to my house that night, nearly 1 a.m. He had that look that he always had, but I could feel that something was different this time. I don’t know why he took me with him, I don’t know what he wanted. Maybe so that I could be the first to find him, and no one else. Maybe so that he could share his last moments, his last words, with me. This was the selfish theory, but it was what I clung to. For we were each other’s before we were anyone else’s.Collapse

Where are we going? I’d asked.

I am going back to the skies. A flourish of his hands, a smile on his chapped lips. This is what he was, this is what we were.

And I said it again when he put his hands on that rail. Don’t. I had winced at the emotion in my voice, the tears shooting right through me. You’re always crying, he had said. But there was no teasing in his voice this time. He didn’t even look at me as he said it. I’m not worth your tears. He had laughed, and it had sent a chill through me that I still feel, even twenty years later. And I’ll still feel it long after I’m gone, when I’m sent back to the weeds.

This was where we’d spent our days, whether it was a hot sun blazing down on our freckled skin, or frost that bit roses into our paleness. This is where we existed, in our youthful tragedy. He mussed my hair and I punched his ribs.

It was like he didn’t exist in this world. He moved through life like water around rocks. He would say things like he was living a Shakespeare play. And maybe he was. 

He’d take me by the hand and we’d run through the woods, claiming the territory as our own. We were like gods. 

If he were here, I’d tell him to stay. I’d tell him I understood. His nervous fingers, his laugh, his smile, his dirty hair. 

I understood, you hear me? I know what it meant. Stay for me, if not for yourself. 

You remember how we used to spend our nights swimming in your backyard pool? You loved the water, but you could barely swim. But you would give me one of the smiles and my objections would just turn to ash. We would dunk each other, drunk on life and the temporary happiness. And though you were laughing, it scared you: my hands on your head, pushing you down into the depth, the void. You asked me to stop, your voice shaking. Your hands were trembling as you pulled yourself out, water dripping over your frame. The bones under your skin almost breaking free, like you had wings. And maybe, if you had, you would still be here, running your fingers through my hair and laughing at my meekness.

You were more scared than you let on, I know that now. And maybe I always did. I know what happened to your knuckles, the day you showed up to school with the skin bursting and the blood flowing. I know. You understand? I know.

So come back. Come back to me. Come back to tell me I’m right. And if I’m wrong, then tell me that, too. Tell me everything. Tell me what you wanted from this life, and I’ll give it to you.

You know they always ask about me. They always ask how I am, how was my day, how am I feeling, with their sweet voices and bitter tongues. They ask me and I tell them fine, for what else am I meant to say? They have not lived with half their soul six-feet under. They do not know what it is like to go through life half-awake.

There are no exit-wounds from you. You are, and forever will be, lodged straight into my chest, in the meat between my bones, woven into the very fabric of my being. The wounds are open, and they are fatal.

He won’t hear me, though I wish he could. I would tell him all these things that I believe would have made him stay. I would tell him things the way we would tell each other secrets, our bodies close together, his temple against mine.

I could have loved him the way he wanted me to, though I didn’t know it then. 

And I will never forgive myself for not following him over that bridge. Or even, it should be me. It should have been me.

I do not want to think about him in icy waters, his hand reaching out to the surface, while mine — cold and trembling — reached out to his, his name on my tongue, again and again. I want to think of him in all his laughter and youth. For it is in this form that he is eternal, though damned he may have been.

BURNING

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

— Henry David Thoreau

It’s a long way from home now, this broken path. But it was better this way, leaving the body back home. Death had been the final catalyst for running. Though, maybe, now that it was over, he was not running at all. At least not running away but running towards.

His father had clung to his clothes as he thrashed around, his eyes rolled back, blood inching down from his nose, spilling into his mouth. It was the only time he had clung to Henry like he was begging for life, for comfort, rather than for violence. Henry had winced as his father had beat against the scars on his son’s skin, courtesy of his father’s Malboros. And then it stopped. The broken beer bottle sagged in his lap, and the white powder fell from his collar. 

Henry panicked then, hot tears shamefully flowing from his eyes. He had no one to tell, no other family to confide in. He phoned the authorities, not knowing what to say except there was now a dead body in his home and it was his father’s. After he hung up he sobbed, staring at his father before him. Then, as if something had switched off, the crying stopped, replacing the release in his chest with something hot and heavy. And that is how he felt: heavy. He thought that, one day, when he was able to leave, that feeling would go. It was something he had known since he was young, and had only gotten worse with age, like eyesight or back pain. 

But as he walked now, the feeling was not gone. His backpack took the physical form of it, sitting heavy on his shoulders.

He did not want them to take him away. He wanted no new home. He did not want to see people with soft voices and harsh grasps. Touch scared him and he was tired of being afraid.

He wanted the familiarity of the trees, hearing them whisper as he passed. He wanted all the dirt on his shoes and under his fingernails, leaves in his hair. He wanted to know what it felt like to finally feel free and feel complete in loneliness. 

He had never known the comfort of another person. He had come close a few years ago, when he had quickly become friends with another boy in his class, a boy whose eyes were rimmed with red and whose hair was dark like pen ink. The boy had moved to another state only a few months ago, leaving Henry here. He had not wanted to go, told Henry that all the time. (You’ll be okay, hey, he held Henry’s face in his hands. Henry was, always shamefully, crying.) Which was some comfort to Henry because he knew how much he had hated this place, in its staleness and norm. But still, words were unsaid, as they often are, and all he was left with now were his hands. 

Sorry for the broken bones and the bruises. Sorry for all the red I left you with and the narrowness of my words when there was wideness to my intentions. Sorry that I didn’t stop the car from leaving. Sorry about the body in the house, I wish it were me.

And as his feet met gravel, then grass, then sand, then dirt, he discovered that he had not yet known himself. With every step his mind cleared while his vision blurred. The weight was there, again, to remind him of what he had done, what he had not done — and he was far more ashamed of the latter. It was a warm pain that spilled in his abdomen. When he went to touch it, doubling in grief, his hands came back red, as they often do with regrets. And he was bleeding from a life he had not lived to its fullest, dying on the road to better days.

He smiled, then laughed. But he began to cry. He thought of his father again, the last image of him — he was thrashing around, a broken beer bottle in his hand. He thought of his friend who left — embracing him as he cried. He knew he had tainted him, almost wanted to push him off of him, but the warmth was too soft. He had wanted to comfort for himself, and sacrificed the boy to get it. 

Someone always had to leave, there was no other way for this to go. He was here, in the woods, his hands leaving from his body, stained with red, and he knows now that he is his truest self in this form — bleeding out, and on his knees.

He had not felt it when it happened, the glass wedging itself into his stomach, his father’s wild, teary eyes. There was something in there that Henry had never seen before, and it was regret.

And he fell, no one around to hear the sound. He watched as the sun slowly began to rise, hearing the faint sound of sirens. They would find him, he knew, alone in the dirt.  He liked the image of his grave being here, the woods — an empty graveyard. More souls in the trees to ponder with than the ones under stone. 

He smiled, gasping for a life he had not yet tasted, his mind reaching out to a tomorrow that would never come, an image of his father’s rage, his friend’s farewell; he saw the sirens, broken green glass, rural churches, flickering street lights, a boy’s smile, bloody knuckles, bruised shins, someone waving in a car, a hand pulling him back by the shirt. 

The sun overwhelmed the images playing through his mind, like burning film, and then they were gone.