EMPTY IS THE NIGHT
Details of what happened on that high rock face fell like intermittent rain upon my memory over the next few days, bookended by sleep, lots and lots of sleep.
It’s easy to call it shock, but my condition belied that simple little word. I became a grotesque, limited to jerky, breathless movements and frequent bouts of spasms. I could walk only a few feet at time before slumping, resting, sitting upon anything within reach, panting like a dying dog, a half-human centenarian trapped and wanting to die, writhing inside my own sixteen-year-old gut.
In those descending moments, when breath was hard to find, that’s when the memories came, filling in gaps like random puzzle pieces falling into place, filling out the nightmare.
I remember my soul leaving my body when Chloe hit the ground. There was not one death in that moment, but two.
I remember a breeze that wasn’t there before, it came and swept away all tendrils of human emotion at the rock face cathedral of Chloe’s demise. Four teens standing, figures unfinished on a canvas, outlines of figures and nothing else, dwarfed by the woods and the trees and the rock face and the import of the intervention of God. Everything human had been sucked away. Until it reentered like a hammer. And then the screaming started.
James was the first. It was at that moment, I remember, even as I was merging myself into that cursed rock forty feet in the air — it was then that I realized that James loved Chloe, was in love with Chloe, for his scream upon his loss of her was something I would never want to hear again, for fear it would render me lifeless as well, such was its mourning, such was its grief, such was its sheer and utter emptiness. I’ve heard of no such greater horror upon this earth.
Clarissa followed, but her scream was perfunctory, as were the actions of the other, painfully average youth. Paolo muttered something about not touching the body, while Tyler was the one who made the 911 call, lending a TV-show staginess to the whole thing, an element of the mundane that triggered another illness in me.
I, on the rock, I remember being spoken to. But the indignation of James’ voice, as he shrieked at me, it was too much for me to bear. I squinted and flexed my face muscles, and clutched the rock precipice even harder, anything to try and deflect the rage he was directing at me.
“What did you do?” he screamed at me, the words echoing off of me and the wall and resounding. I imagined the whole world could hear. “What did you do?”
The others tried to calm him, I think. It’s hard for me to say, for upon hearing James’ words I had tensed every fiber of my being into mutant flesh and nothing else. They were going to have to pry me off that rock. Which, eventually, they did. (The paramedics, that is.)
I got home, somehow. The police report would wait, I think someone said.
My mother was writhing on the living room floor, pulling out her hair, twitching, contorting, screaming. She ignored me as I calmly stepped over her and went upstairs to my room. I fell into my bed and was asleep when my face hit the pillow. I did not dream.
There’s that moment upon waking when one is unsure in what world one resides, the waking or the reposed. It can often be a source of wonder especially for souls such as I who prefer the limbo times as a source of idealized being neither within or without the world.
But my first waking into a home without Chloe was a step from the rock wall into an infinite abyss. There was no intermediary. The air was instantly heavy and weighing upon my chest, my bones. My very flesh struggled to function, and the obvious wasted no time. I, of course, was not whole. My self/other was gone, leaving half a self and half an other in its place. Its manifestation was physical, and I suffered an impairment akin to paraplegics and dystrophics. My motor functions, my cerebral abilities, all compromised, all only partially functional, like an instantaneous disease of both mind and heart. Blood slowed in me, movement required effort, reactions decelerated, food I rejected altogether. There was no solace to be found in the natural world. I visited my Miss Emily, as I was want to do, for I knew she traversed the origins of death as a common preparatory practice. But my eyes much less my soul could not take in her words. The visual had become blurred, the aural, muted, touch begat numbness, and the only smell, rot.
Nary a word was spoken between my mother and I in the day following. I have no recollection of Doris planning or doing anything, but activity must have been done. There was the matter of the police report (I discovered the death was ruled “accidental”). There were the funeral arrangements. In my brief spats of waking, my mother informed me that there would be a service, and I was to attend. I had no will to oppose.
It was a descent into hell. The smallish hall was packed with the mawkish denizens of Griffin Hills High, faces swirling by me like ancient reincarnations, students and teachers and the witnesses from the fall, Tyler, Clarissa, Paolo and James, seated at the front. Occasionally a face became more defined from the blur. There was Ms. Bowles, reveling in her grief. And Mr. Spellman, stoic as expected. But mostly it was just impressionistic faces, little balls of epithelium, and they were all pointed at me, like I was the guest of honor at a mass execution. I took a seat on the aisle at the front, and it wasn’t until I reached my seat that I caught a glimpse of Chloe in the open casket bordered by flowers of all colors. She looked asleep, not dead. I guess that was supposed to help. I was grateful to be seated at the front. I could be alone. But when the organist started playing a hymn, my mother broke down. It was as if she needed the mask of the music to unclog her sorrow. Now with the silence broken, she had accompaniment for her pain, and she let everyone in the place know it. She howled like a dying coyote. I didn’t see the point in it. Why do that, when there’s only grace in numbness?
Thankfully the hymn was finite in length. And then, as if rehearsed, James rose from his seat and took a spot at the podium at center front, with his Chloe lying behind. He barely afforded her a glance, and I genuinely believed he was physically unable to, such was the sincerity in his bearing. I remember thinking to myself, an animal is becoming man, a man is becoming spirit, and the spirits dance upon graves, and the graves pull me in. It all made sense at the time.
James himself wasted no time. There was no initial display of grief.
“Chloe just became my girlfriend,” he said. “I love her.”
More of me died. James wasn’t done.
“To be taken from me, from all of us, so young, in the prime of her life, both physically, and mentally, in some stupid... accident...”
He knew people were watching him. He knew people were watching him watch me. He knew how to time it, so that when he stressed the word “accident” all eyes knew that his eyes were on me — he knew that. He was a conduit for every other person in that room. His gaze upon me grew from grief to accusation to wrath, and everyone there knew it, and felt it, and shared it, like daggers were drawn, and some ghastly Roman drama was about to unfold, and I had no choice but to remain still, a statue, enduring, until death. And like some forbidden recital of the damned, that savage organ began anew, serenading my sentence to the petitioners, as James left the podium and walked straight out of the place, and Doris once again howled her dying hyena howls, and I sat, smothered by it all. I attempted to will myself into unconsciousness, and failed. But at least the effort to do so gave me a preoccupation that lasted until Doris and I arrived home, whereupon I went upstairs and resumed my sleeping ritual.
The little death of my precious slumber ended far too soon. I’m not normally roused by slight noises, but the nature of this was different. It was night, from what I could tell very late, or very early, going by sense alone. Downstairs I could hear Doris, but she was not wailing. She was speaking in a loud voice of unfettered madness, in words I could not still decipher, yet her timbre alone startled me. I moved down the stairs with more purpose than I had felt for days, ever since running for that rock wall. Then, in the adjacent room, with the house fully encased in darkness, I could understand what my mother was saying. She was speaking on the phone.
“How could you not? That’s bullshit! That’s fucking bullshit! I wish it was you instead of her. You heard me. Don’t ever come around here again. I want you dead. Dead!”
I made no sound as I entered the room, but it didn’t matter. Doris turned to me, her face wracked with lines of harrow and anguish and streaked with tears, like an animal in its death throes feeling its first emotion. She gasped when she saw me, and lowered the phone from her ear. I knew she was talking to my father.
“Oh dear,” she said to me, “I’m so sorry! He’s a bastard! He’s a fucking bastard and I wish a cancer on him! I do! I swear I do!”
To say I had never seen my mother even approach this level of spite would be a vast understatement. It was too shocking, and I hated her for it, even more I think than I hated my father at that moment for not coming to Chloe’s burial.
I left the room slowly, with Doris calling after me, but she didn’t follow me, she just stayed in the living room, saying my name, and I heard it get fainter and fainter as I walked back up the stairs to my room to sleep.
Then at some indeterminable time later, I woke again, but this time of my own volition. There was no noise, no voice, indeed it was too silent, eerily so. I rose in the dark, and tread a path that I had done before, to the room adjacent, to Chloe’s bed. It stood there emanating nothing, as if there was no time before when anyone had ever happened upon it. The whole room was filled not with the death of the past, but with a sense that the past had never even existed.
Did I dare violate this? I lay down on the hard floor next to the bed and breathed in the air to see if I could gain a smell or any sense of Chloe at all. I kept taking deep breaths for as long as I can remember. Then I must have fallen asleep.