She called me, just before.
"Jack, can you… do you want to come over for a bit? Just to, you know, talk?"
"Sure, sure. I'll be right over."
It came out of the blue, but I didn't confront her over the phone. It wasn't a wholly unusual story. Right around Christmas, she had made a suicide attempt. Everyone at school had heard about it, but it was the day before Christmas break and most of the kids had been distracted. I was Laura's friend, and I'd tried to get to talk to her, but her parents pushed me away. She called me just once, in January, to tell me they were sending her to sanatorium in Colorado or something. She said she didn't know when she'd be back. I'd done what I could: Offered a general prayer to whatever deity was listening and went about my business.
She had shown signs of depression before the attempt – her grades had been dropping, she'd left most of her electives and extra-curricular courses, she'd been spending hours alone in her room. I didn't know what she'd been doing. I was her friend, not her nanny. I figured it was none of my business.
Her house was two blocks from mine. It just September but it was already freezing cold. But it was such a relief to see her, alive and healthy, when she opened the door.
It wasn't like she hadn't changed. I noticed that the minute I saw her. Even underweight and exhausted, though, I was happy to see her still with us.
"Jack, hey." She gave a small smile. Her gaze flicking around, first resting on me, then up over my shoulder, than back into the house. I won't say she wasn't alert before, but she was never watchful like that. Still, she closed the door after me and welcomed me to her house.
We slipped down the hallway, past the living room where her parents were watching television, and up two flights of stairs to her attic bedroom. She was dressed the way she had before – her favorite dark blue tee-shirt with Wolverine on it and a pair of jeans she'd had for two years. But the shirt draped over her bones in a way it never had before, and the jeans just barely clung to her hips. Her hair was shorter than it had been before, cut off around her jaw. Her neck looked longer and bonier than ever. She gestured toward her desk chair as she sat down on her bed.
The room was eerily similar to the way it had been before. All the same posters, all the same books, even the same sheets on the bed. I wondered just how long she'd been back. The whitish light from the window filtered over her as she looked at her hands.
"It's been so long, Laura," I said.
"What happened? What did you want to talk about?"
"I don't know." She looked at me and smiled a little, without seeming to mean it. Her eyes kept focusing over my shoulder. There was nothing there, just a bookshelf. Her gaze flicked around the room in that nervous way, finally coming to rest on her Lord of the Rings poster.
"I got back a week ago," she said finally, talking to the Frodo on the poster. "What's everyone else been up to, over the summer?"
"Ashley got a job at the Ren Faire," I said. "Jeremy went on a road trip with his mom and didn't come back for, like, three months. I don't know what Charlotte and David did. We don't hang out much." I didn't tell her that I hadn't done anything all summer except bask in the air conditioning at the movies and try not to think about her. She simply nodded.
"Sounds about right."
She turned towards me suddenly, after an interval of silence.
"Did I tell you about the sanatorium?"
"No." She was staring in my direction, but quite obviously not at me. Her focus switched again, back to the Frodo on the poster.
"You've never seen such a place, Jack," she said. "It's like… everything horrible you never want to happen happening all at once and not being able to do anything about it. I mean, no one would look at you. Ever. I think I made eye contact with one person the entire time I was there, and that was the nurse. Everyone else… Jesus. There were three separate guys there, completely paralyzed from jumping off buildings. There was a woman down the hall from me who didn't drink quite enough Drano when she tried for the gold and God help if everyone there didn't have the scars." She looked away from the poster for a moment, at her own bony wrist. Her scars were there, running diagonally from the midpoint of her forearms to edges of her wrists. Puckered and puce, they proclaimed to everyone exactly what she had tried to do all that time ago. She smiled bitterly at them.
"They would pretend you weren't there if you didn't have them," she said. "I saw some of the others do it to this guy tried to hang himself. He didn't have the scars, so no one would talk to him. It was so… horrible. All the nurses and doctors trying to be cheerful. Half the people there would say they regretted what they'd tried to do, but I didn't. Not being there. Nothing made it worse than being there." She trailed off.
"What was made worse?" I couldn't help but ask it.
She looked back at Frodo, right fingers stroking her left scar. Her face took on an almost tranquil expression, but hardened as she spoke. Although her voice started out soft and dreamy as her face, it too grew hard and harsh as she continued her narrative.
"Do you know that feeling," she began, "when you have a dream, and everything in it is very beautiful? But there's something unsettling in it, you feel that from the minute you get there. You feel it, and then you open a cupboard, or turn a corner, or – worst of all of them – look in a mirror and it's something horrible, ghastly, crawling with decay and, and… Or not even that, just something so wrong, so completely god-damn wrong that you couldn't possibly ever say what it was because it was you, you were wrong?"
She looked at me suddenly, actually looked at me, looked at me and saw me and I could tell, what she saw wasn't what she needed to see. She turned away, looked to her scars again.
"That's all I got there. These people, every single one of them, broken beyond repair, sad, so sad, you can't imagine it. I wanted… God, I almost tried it again so many times. But… I…" She rubbed her eyes with a shaking hand. "I couldn't do it that time. Not when the time before was so close, not with all the smiling nurses and the… neutered housewives and dumb-ass kids who didn't mean it anyway. I mean, I just…" She bit her lip and stared at the end of her bed with hatred. "It's like, I mean, I looked in the mirror. The dream is real and the reality is hell. This place, Jesus, this planet, is such a wreck and I'm part of it. I'm part of it." She smiled bitterly. I'd never seen anyone that young look so bitter.
She stood up, trembling like she must be freezing. She walked softly over to the desk and reached into the top drawer.
"Jack, I want you to look away for a few minutes, okay?" Her voice was so soft just then.
"It's a... it's a surprise." There was something strange about her voice. It wasn't just soft, it seemed to be disappearing somehow.
"What is it?"
"Don't turn around, Jack, don't..." I heard a soft, strange sound like laughter then. I shouldn't have looked away.
I made for her again, but it was already too late. She had plunged – literally, like some kind of ancient tragedy – plunged a knife into her chest. I don't know where she got it, though I found out that it had belonged to her father. I'd have thought her parents would have locked up that kind of thing when she got back. Mayeb they forgot.
But I won't forget the way she arched backwards with a small sigh and the way, in such a silent moment, she fell backwards, hands dropping away from the knife, Wolverine splattered in more blood than they ever allowed in the comics.
I remember kneeling next to her. I remember touching her hair. I remember the twitches skittering through my face like spiders on my skin. I remember seeing something in her eyes, then, as she lay bleeding on the area rug. I remember recognizing the expression, but not knowing what it was. I remember her mouth forming words I didn't know.
I remember letting out a howl.
They took her to the hospital. They took me, too, crying and shouting that they had to take me too because Laura was going to die and that I loved her didn't she know it? Didn't she know it?
She died that night. She died in the middle of the night with that same soft smile on her lips like she was going someplace better. But I knew with a certainty that ached and froze that there was nothing where she had gone, that this was it.
I don't know why she did it in front of me. Maybe it was a little bit of the old Laura coming out again. She'd always loved a good show. Maybe she was afraid she wouldn't do it if she didn't have me around to prove it to. I don't know. All I know is this.
What Laura said, about the dreams. That aches in my mind, even now. Because I know – what she saw in the world, what she'd seen that drove her over the edge – that's what I saw in Laura's eyes the day she died.