breathe that fire

When asked, he will tell them that he doesn't remember anything; he will be lying, but no one will ever question him further.

--

It begins with night -- a dark, stifling night at the end of May, the kind of darkness that makes you forget light exists -- and it ends with a sunset. He will always think of it like going back in time, second-by-second, watching everything happen in reverse real-time. He knows how the story will end before it begins, but he cannot make it change.

It begins with a restless night in May, a trio of people on a dimly-lit porch, a cigarette, too-loud music and too-soft voices and too-strong alcohol. It begins with a sentence -- I wonder what it feels like to die -- and a discussion on the merits of suicide. It does not end the way it is supposed to (which is to say, it does not end with the most reckless of them finding out), in fact, it really doesn't end at all.

Restless night in May, idle, on the porch -- I wonder what it feels like to die, he says, takes a drag on a cigarette, feels sick. I wonder what it feels like to give up.

Probably like masturbation, one of his friends says -- Probably like throwing up, the other says.

--

It evolves, slowly, like a cancer, the morbid fascination with the art of dying. They bring it up more often, refine their theories -- they decide that it doesn't hurt, but it doesn't feel good either. Kind of like a bad bout of diarrhea, he says one day, the kind of discomfort that comes from voiding yourself of everything you've eaten -- a sick, dull sort of suffering. Like sucking the poison out of a wound, one of his friends says, trying to find a prettier metaphor. Life is the poison.

What, he muses, is the wound, then?

It sounds so epic to him at the time, so... so lyrical. If life is a poison, what is the viper that bites you? God, he wants to say, or Shiva, or Allah, or or or -- or your mother. Or all of them at the same time.

Or none of the above, he thinks, but doesn't say aloud. You can't be poisoned by nothingness.

(Or maybe that's the only thing that can -- he doesn't follow this path of thinking.)

Life is poison, death is the art of removing it -- but where does emotion fit into all of this?

--

Maybe it feels like falling in love, one of them says one sultry afternoon. Scary, exhilarating, dangerous -- you don't know where you'll end up, if your heart will be broken or if you'll spend the rest of your life happy. Death, then -- you don't know what is to be found beyond that step. Scary, but adventurous nonetheless. This descends into a discussion on how Indiana Jones would tackle Death, and if he would be buried with his whip.

They refuse to take life seriously, even as it whirls around them -- adolescence is ending, step-by-step. In his mind, he will always see this as an omen, they way they stubbornly refuse to accept their futures, instead dwelling on fictional characters and fictional theories about abstract concepts. In his mind, he will replay this conversation in reverse (it begins with a burial and ends with a love story), and he will tell himself that they are growing younger, dissolving into children. It's comforting, and haunting, and horrible.

At this moment, they don't know love, they don't know death, they don't know fear. They know lust, and life, and Indiana Jones, and it's enough -- for this moment. They talk about things they can't comprehend, and it feels good.

Why do we keep talking about this? he thinks, idly, between adventure stories and future plans. Why can't we stop bringing it up? Why can't we come to an agreement?

--

The ending begins with a funeral -- car accident, friend of a friend, some nobody they had a couple of classes with. He will remember it in shades of green. The casket is steel-gray, embellished and padded, with flowers and condolences everywhere, and he cannot get over how useless it is. Why is there padding in the coffin, he thinks, when the person inside is dead? Why do people think that the dead need comfort?

The flowers are all the too-bright, chemically-enhanced kind of flowers you buy from stores -- except for one small bouquet. Right there, in the casket, are a handful of little, white-and-purple blossoms, soil still sticking to the roots of a couple. It's tied with a vivid green ribbon and placed right beside the corpse's left hand. He looks around to see who might have picked them, and he sees -- beside the grieving mother -- a small girl of no more than six, her black dress dirty with mud and tears, dirt visible on her hands and fingers.

It seems unbearably tragic -- far sadder than any of the commercially-processed flowers placed around to be pretty -- the blossoms and a child's ribbon next to the gray pallor of death.

He will remember the funeral in shades of green -- the color of a ribbon, of leaves, of flower stems, of life. The sky that day is blue, bright, hurt-your-eyes blue, and the graveside is the livid green of late summer. It all looks so alive that it aches, and while the priest says words he doesn't care to hear, he takes in the scenery and the color and the beauty of it all. He picks a vibrant pink flower from a bush, and presents it to the child.

She hugs him, and thanks him, and gives him a watery smile but does not cry. For the rest of the funeral he kneels beside her, holding her small hand in his, and thinks of what death feels like.

He thinks it must feel the way a flower feels when it's been tugged out of the ground -- like you were just dragged away from everything you know, and you go on to wither, alone and afraid and wrapped in a ribbon, still clinging to the soil you called home. And then he thinks that he's thinking too much, so he holds the little girl's hand tighter and tells her that everything will be okay, that her brother is in a better place.

He doesn't believe a word of what he's saying, but she does, and that's what matters.

--

The air around them is somber; that funereal weight is still hanging in their minds and their souls. The cigarette is bitter on his tongue, unwanted, the product of addiction and compulsion -- the love story of a madman.

I wonder... one of them begins, but doesn't finish. The sentence hovers around them like a shadow, but it seems morbid to speculate on the nature of dying when they've just buried a classmate. Instead, they change tacks -- how did his sister take it?

Badly, he wants to say. She's so young, and she probably worshiped the ground her brother walked on, she probably thinks that God is in the coffin with him and that she is alone -- she'll be okay he says instead. Because she will be. Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe this trauma will haunt her for years, until she sees a psychiatrist and gets on medication to fix her, or maybe she'll self-destruct instead, become a slut, a junkie, one of those broken women you see in movies all the time, a warning to the daughters of the world, of what not to become.

She'll be okay. It sounds better.

--

For several months following the funeral, he feels like his classmate is watching him. It isn't quite like a haunting, but the end result is the same.

--

It ends with a sunset. A sky the color of hatred, bleeding into the horizon and setting their world on fire. There are things to be done tonight, but seducing the darkness inside his mind seems like a better waste of his time. There's a bitter, mid-October chill on the wind, like Halloween's perfume, and it seeps under his skin but isn't enough to make him leave the porch. He wants this cold, this fire, this sunset and this hollow emptiness in all the cracks of the world -- he wants to feel broken tonight, unfixable and tragic.

He and his friends are already drinking -- cheap wine and cheaper vodka -- but not because they really want to be drunk. They stand outside in silence and mutual loneliness, and drink until they go numb and the sky goes black, stars half-blanketed by clouds.

It's a shitty night, the kind of night that no one ever talks about but everyone goes through. They go inside when it gets too cold, and put in a vague 80's action movie for background noise, make idle jokes about bad physics and worse hairstyles until they pass out on the couches and floor.

He makes a joke the next morning about hey guess what, this is what dying really feels like and, after throwing up what little they ate last night, they laugh and mock their poor, drunken choice of movies.

None of them talk about why they spent four hours on the porch watching the world die. It isn't important, not really, not in the scheme of things. But the fact that no one had to be reminded of their long-standing and never-resolved discussion about the art of dying tells its own story.

He still feels haunted, and he's staring to realize that it isn't his dead classmate's ghost that's following him. It's the image of fresh-picked flowers on a dead man, a child's dirty black dress, the vibrant green of late summer. He hasn't spoken to the little girl or been inside a church since the funeral, and he while he has no obligation (or desire) to do either, he feels like there's a disapproving God somewhere, looking over his shoulder.

He shakes it off, but badly.

--

He will tell everyone that he doesn't really remember adolescence, that he went to bed one night a child and woke up the next morning a fully-grown man. And everyone will always laugh because everyone tries to forget adolescence, because they all know he's really lying, of course. But they'll never question him about it because, well. No one likes to talk about awkward conversations and wet dreams and bad acne.

He isn't lying, though, not entirely. He doesn't really remember being a teenager, just an unresolved discussion with his two best friends about how it feels to die, just a funeral, just a few too many shots of Absolut and a pack of cigarettes. It all seemed to go back in time, like he was more of an adult before he grew up, like he messed up somewhere along the line and never got back on the right track. Like the right track just stopped existing after he missed his turn.

It ended with a sunset, a silence, a bad movie and a worse hangover, the texture of a small, dirty hand in his own. He stopped being fascinated with death as quickly as he started, like the very thought of it all was just... blasphemous. But he has no God to blaspheme and no clergy to condemn him, except himself and his own thoughts.

This is what it feels like to die -- like a child being told her brother is gone, being plucked out of comfort and happiness and dragged to a funeral on a bright, sunny day. Like the world went completely mad and left you standing at the epicenter, clutching flowers and a green ribbon and only just starting to understand that normal doesn't exist anymore, that you'll always be that girl whose brother died when she was little. Like the ground dropped out from under you and left you breathless.

And maybe there's an afterlife, a moving-on-from-the-pain. Maybe she'll be okay.

Or maybe she won't.

He doesn't care to find out.