Written for SerialXLain, who got review 98 on Without a Noumenon a long time ago. She wanted stars and water and a tattoo artist.
So this is for her.
Funerals should not be held on the hottest day of the year.
"You're Ashton, aren't you?"
I turn at the sound of my name. "Yeah," I said, digging my hands into the pockets of my jeans. Raven would have wanted me to wear jeans to her funeral.
He's got tattoos. I notice those first, the glowing and writhing and twisting colours that spread across his skin. There are fish and women, dancers and words. "Neptune," I test. I like the name. He holds out his hand and I shake it because I need something to do with myself. "She talked about you."
"Same." His tongue pushes the piercing in his mouth from side to side. "You want to go somewhere interesting?"
I let myself be yanked over the green of the cemetery, away from the mourners, and into a blue sedan. It smells like cigarettes and marijuana. Neptune turns on creaky, slow indie music and straps in.
"We're going to the river," he tells me, warns me. "She go there with you?"
I nod. "Only once." It was a night last July and she'd held my hand and leaned over and kissed my neck and told me she was glad that it was me with her and not anyone else. "She was really drunk then." Because she was. She was a lot of the time.
"She drank a lot," Neptune points out. The heat of the day is filling the car, making my skin prickle. "Don't mix pills and alcohol."
I don't know whether I should say anything, so I just nod.
The river looks the same. It's still filled with trash, it's still cold and grey and glassy. Bits of weeds float on the top, and the bridge that ended my best friend's life casts a shadow over the ripples.
Neptune climbs out of the car and slams the door, moving to storm over the grass to the bank. He sits down heavily in the grass with a bottle of unidentified alcohol and I sit next to him to look out over the water. "Here," he says, shoving the bottle into my hands. "Drink."
The tang of alcohol makes me wince.
He leans back into the grass to stare up at the sun. His eyes flutter shut and the light makes his face glow.
"She really hated funerals," he tells me.
And I know this.
"She did," I agree.
"Have you ever wondered what the difference between personality and depression is?"
I shook my head. Never had I wondered. "No."
Raven and I were curled up on my bed, staring at the clicking ceiling fan. "But the pills make me smile and talk. What if I'm not meant to smile and talk? What if I just have a quiet, morose personality?" She propped herself up on her elbows. "I think you should be worried about this."
"I don't take pills," I pointed out.
She slumped. "A good point." Her head rested on the pillow beside mine. "Would you take pills to make you normal?"
Thirteen was too young to worry about things like that.
I opened my mouth to tell her this, but instead she cut me off with a high-pitched giggle.
Those were new on her.
"I'm just teasing you," she said. "Please don't be sad."
I wasn't sad, but I nodded and promised I wouldn't be anyway. My eyes fluttered shut, the lashes sticking to the thin skin of my cheeks, and I felt her press her slim, curving body up against mine. "I'm not sad." I ran my fingers through her long, black hair. It was coarse, like doll hair, and I wrapped it around my finger. Smooth. Silky. Lovely.
She was, altogether, rather lovely.
When we were lying in the dark —after we've shut off every light in her empty house— she slid her hands up my shirt to touch my skin. "You have the most wonderful belly," she told me. "I could...eat your body."
Then she giggled and rested her head on my chest. I felt her breathing reduce to only the smallest of rhythmic gasping. My hands clung to her, kept her here, with me, where I was sitting in the blackness of her bedroom.
I could make out the lines of beanie babies on her shelves. There were neat rows of them, and they were all arranged by animal and size and then date. Perfectly aligned by her mother. That way, Raven had something pleasing to stare at when she stared off into space for hours on end.
She squirmed against me. "Ashton," she whispered, breath thick and hot against my neck. "Ashton. I love you. Stay with me."
"I'll stay if you will," I told her.
But she didn't stay.
The river is like a stretch of veins. The water is too thin to be blood, but it is still murky with all sorts of unpleasant things: disease. Disease of the blood, disease of the river. They aren't that different. Polluted. Corrupted.
I've had altogether too much to drink.
Neptune loops an arm around my shoulders to keep himself up, though it might be to keep me up as well. I lean against him and we roll to the side of the moist bank. Beneath my hands, grass.
"So how'd you know each other?" Neptune asks.
I avert my eyes and disentangle myself from his skinny body. "Sixth grade," I say. My eyes are fixed on the vermilion lines all over his skin, interlocking and interweaving. "We met each other on the playground and she beat the snot out of me." Then, to reaffirm that I can still swear and be foul, "Fucking hurt." Because it did.
"And you?" I tilt my head to one side, examining his slender body. "How did the two of you meet?"
"Bar," he says. "We fucked one night. We fucked the next night. We fucked every night from then until we were dating. We stayed together."
Raven spent a lot of time at bars. She had a fake ID that sparkled in all the right places, her pretty face, lipstick smeared over her lips like war paint. She drank shots and shots and shots until she threw up and then even that wasn't enough to burn the taste of all her men from her mouth.
"She talked about you," I say, as I've said before.
I try to recall the way Raven's eyes would light up when she talked about him. Usually so dim, her black eyes would grow wide like saucers of India ink and she'd peer up at me. "Beautiful," she would say. "I think I love him."
Soon, though, her expression would grow blank and her attention would be caught by something else: invisible windows; tiny, glittering butterflies hiding in her coke can, voices that would read to her poetry composed in dactylic hexameter. Or so said she.
Like a film in reverse, pieces of her began to disappear.
"She talked about you too," Neptune muttered around the slim mouth of the bottle. His eyes are glazing over as he eyes the river. "Said you were an artist too. What do you study?"
Raven wrote poems, each a thousand words long.
"High school," Raven squeaked. She pushed black hair out of her face. "Aren't you excited, Ash?" Her eyes slid over to look at me.
I shrugged, blushing. "I'm not good with people, Raven. You know that." I ran a hand through my hair, tacky with orange spray-on colour. My fingers came back the colour of carrots and I wiped them on my jeans. "I'm excited to take good classes though."
Grinning, she grabbed my by the wrist and began dragging me down the hall. "English," she bubbled. "You and me, learning the wonders of the English language. The semi-colons. The commas. The full stops." She looked over her shoulder to grin at me, teeth bright in the fluorescent lighting.
"You're crazy, you know that?" I asked, struggling to keep up with her long legs.
She raised an eyebrow, the stomping of her boots slowing just a tiny bit. "I know," she said. Her fingers slipped down to lace through mine, pressing our sticky palms together.
Guilt wrapped itself around my stomach, coiling in my belly like a thick snake. "I didn't mean it like that," I began helplessly. "I just—"
She stopped walking and stood in the middle of the hallway. "I know what you mean," she said. "I know exactly what you mean and I'm just teasing you, Ash, really." She leaned forward to press her smooth, dry lips against my cheek. I felt my skin flush dark with heat.
We sat together in English class that first day. We sat together in English class the next day. We sat together in English class every day until we were a unit. We were happy together.
When her eyes began to wander, I shook her arm until she focussed on the blackboard again. But then, without much warning, they wandered again: out the windows, over the desks and bodies of our distracted peers, at the creases in her palm.
"My life line is short," she whispered, holding out her hand for me to inspect. I saw nothing there, no magical lines and no mystic story. Her hands were blank to me as paper fresh from the package, just empty lines over a smooth expanse of white.
"I'm sorry," I said, rolling his fingers up, into a fist, which I pushed back to her. "Maybe you're..." Unable to come up with anything reassuring —that her lifeline wasn't really that short, that she was reading it wrong— I fell into silence.
The only sounds in that room were the droplets of rain on the slick roof of the school and the drawling of our English teacher. The clicking of that woman's heels too, the scratch of chalk. Breathing. Sighing. Raven's earrings clinking together.
But she didn't say anything else to me then, and I had nothing left to say.
The bottle is gone. The second bottle is half gone. My mind probably never existed at all.
"I want tattoos," I say, running my hands through my hair. It's blond now, not orange. It's not cut like it was in high school either, because now it's long and shaggy and then it was short and trendy. I used to look like a film star, some ages ago, so long as I had my beautiful femme fatale by my side.
Now she's dead.
She jumped of that very bridge because she was crazy.
"Come by sometime, I'll give you a discount."
I stretch back to look at the stars. They stretch and swirl over us like stitches in a blanket, mismatched and malformed and beautiful. My body sags like a wilting flower, dipping against the ground. "I want cogs," I tell him. "Cogs on my arms and blackbirds on my ankles."
His hands ghost over mine, wrap themselves around my wrists to hold me still. "Blackbirds on your ankles, huh?" He buries his face between my shoulder blades. "You know, our blackbird—" the one that will bind us perpetually together, "—told me I should ask you out."
I lean against him. "But you only just met me." My head is spinning, spinning. Too much to drink. "Why'd she say that? She loved you."
"She loved you too," he says. "She wanted you to be happy because she was like that, you know?" His body is warm up against mine, curled around me. I feel like falling asleep. "And so I told her yes. She called me the night before she jumped and she told me you would be lonely."
He kisses my neck. His mouth is electric on my warm skin.
"I am lonely," I tell him.
There lights on the far side of the river: the cars, the ravers, the flashing bikers. They spin and twirl and refuse to stay still in my line of vision. Everything is beginning to blur together.
"Come home with me."
"Forget all about her?" I turn to face him and his lips are against my cheek, my jaw, the corners of my mouth. "I don't think I want to forget all about her."
"Meaningless sex then?"
His mouth is making its way down my neck. His hands push the cloth away from my skin, exposing it to the blistering night air. I shut my eyes, distracting myself from the lights with the blackness of my eyelids.
"Meaningless sex it is."
Raven bound her hair up and I helped her. She looked beautiful for prom.
"I look okay?" She turned to me in her spinning chair, peering through an eye liner lined eye. "Be honest, Ash. I don't want to look bad."
I stared at her. "No," I squeaked. "You look so beautiful."
She shook her head and pushed her hair around absently. She eyed her reflection in the mirror, looking for just a moment glassy-eyed and confused. Her eyes widened, snapping on a place behind my head.
Even now, I wonder what it is that she saw.
"You're the best," she said finally. She climbed to her feet, long legs stretching beneath her endlessly. They were bare and pale and perfect like starlight, bright against her ruby dress. I was enthralled by her skin, and my eyes followed the stretches of flesh up to the hem. "Checking me out?"
"You know it, babe."
No. Never. I am not fit for her consumption.
"I miss her."
We're awake, the two of us, in a lonely room. I run my fingers through his black hair, pushing it behind his ears. "Don't cry," I tell him. I kiss his cheek, his neck, his temple. The blood is pounding beneath his skin.
"It's my fault."
But it isn't.
"No, it's not," I tell him. "She was really sick for a long time." My mouth fails to console him, so I put space between the two of us. I eye him in the dimness of my bedroom: his naked form is shivering despite the heat within the walls. The air is thick with the smell of sex.
"She was sick but I couldn't help her."
I shake my head, touch his shoulders with the tips of my fingers. "I couldn't help her either. Nobody could: not me, not you, not herself." The only things that could soothe her were her little blue pills and an ocean of alcohol. "People make choices to leave and that choice is only theirs. It's their fault."
For a long time, I was in mourning. I woke black beneath the colour. Her face was everywhere and everything: ever store clerk, every bus driver, even stranger on the street begging for change. Raven was omnipresent, and I couldn't escape her.
Now I'm bitter and she's made me bitter. I can't miss her, I hate her.
"It's always my fault," he whispers, voice ragged. He rests his face in the crook of my neck, hot breath ghosting over the thin skin there. It tickles. I am unashamed that I can feel something stirring in my blood. There is no surprise that there is intimacy here.
We sit there in the Indian summer, waiting.
"We have to move on."
I miss her too.
I make Neptune waffles. It's almost midnight, and it's not summer any more: the hot nights have been traded out for the coolness of autumn; the lazy days become shorter and more tightly wound. We sit on the porch, dangling our feet over the edge, staring at the horizon.
We fucked one night.
We fucked the next night.
We fucked every night from then until we were dating.
We stayed together.
She would have wanted it this way, I think. She would have wanted us to be happy, somewhere between her whispering voices and glowing hands with their magical lines.
"I know what you're thinking about," says Neptune, taking another bite of his waffles. "Don't. You'll cry."
She knew me better than I know me. He knows me better than I know me. There is a comfort in this, and I will cling to it until it dissolves around me.
I don't cry though. I swing my feet back and forth, watching them intently. The clicking of fork against plate against knife covered in syrup makes me feel calmer. Anchored. I dig my nails into my jeans, tugging at the loose strings.
There is solace in my losing her in stages. To her disease and to her medication: pills and lovers and a long-necked bottle of vodka.
When she finally disappeared from me forever, it was only another stage to go.
There are tattoos on my ankles. There are birds in flight, pieces of a watch, her name in block letters over the canvas of my body. It will haunt me forever.
Neptune kisses my mouth. He tastes like syrup. My eyes drift shut and I kiss him back, hands grasping for his elbows to hold him still, keep him near me. My body prickles, alive and electric. Hands run up my chest, cold and dry. This is autumn. I may be in love all over again.
On the distant horizon, a blackbird.
With that, the ending of an era.
I wouldn't let this hang over my head.