To Find What Is Missing

You used to tell me all the time "Just believe in yourself and everything else will fall into place." Just about the corniest line ever, but you lived by it. You were always trying to get me to stick to it, too. I do try, now, but it's a little too late and it's not that easy. Because I know better, I know it isn't true. You knew better, too, but somehow you were able to smile and say those words anyway. You were such a naïve little girl, honestly, a five year old even in college. It annoyed me a lot, still does, but I wouldn't have you any other way. I wish I hadn't brushed it off all that time, but I'll start now, and better late than never, right?

At least that's what you would say, such a believer in fairytale endings that don't actually exist. Not for anyone in this world, and certainly not for people like me. Or you, it seems.

So now, all I can do for you is to try my best. Another one of your clichés.

I never thought I would be here, doing this, speaking to a piece of rock that is nothing like the person it is supposed to represent. Life is full of surprises isn't it? That things like this happen, and that when they do, that life goes on. Life goes on even when people don't, and that's that. If you can call it life, that is. For now, I just exist, going through the motions, because I think I'm still numb. I still can't believe it.

But I will try harder, for you, I'll find that strength you never seemed to run out of, for you, I will believe. Even if there isn't anything to believe in anymore.

I wonder what you would say, if you were here. But I've never been one for useless thoughts, and that one certainly is.

Watch me.

*

A poke on the shoulder and a rushed greeting.

"Hey-my-name's-Claire!" You sound like you're afraid that there isn't enough time for all the words you have to say. "I-came-over-here-because-you-looked-lonely-but-I-bet-I-can-make-you-smile-before-the-day's-over!" I can just hear all the exclamation points that punctuate your sentences. You act like everything is something new and exciting, and it makes me tired, somehow. I am sorely unimpressed with your greeting and say as much. I expect you to back away after that, but you just scowl and say I am lacking in social contact, and you will immediately help me with my problem. I am confused. Can't you take the hint? Obviously, you're unwelcome. But you keep at it, that in-your-face attitude.

All throughout homeroom and down the hallway to the first period class we share, you are a constant presence at my side, a constant chattering voice in my ear. I honestly don't know what to make of you, someone so utterly unaffected by my curt dismissal. You just keep talking, occasionally nudging my arm or pausing for a response. Every time I try to brush you off, you just laugh and ramble on. The third period bell rings, and you are still there, relentlessly forcing your company on me, and I am unsettled and more than a little angry.

"Shut up, loser. I don't like you. And obviously no one else does, or you wouldn't keep bothering me." I keep my voice cold and impersonal and glare, hoping that you will finally leave me alone. What I don't expect is the widening eyes and downcast gaze.

"I didn't think that you really…I mean, I thought you were just…but never mind. Sorry for bothering you." I feel my own eyes widening in response. How did you delude yourself into thinking anything but the fact that I dislike you? I had done nothing but insult and cold-shoulder you since homeroom. Your words finally slowed to a normal pace, and it irritates me, for some reason. So does your defeated expression. What sort of an idiot continues to bother a stranger and hopes for a warm reception? Even so, I feel a slight pang of something as I watch you look over the classroom for a different seat. I roll my eyes.

"Whatever, you can sit here. Just stop annoying me." And just like that, you are grinning again.

"See, I knew you were just kidding!" The rush of words starts all over. I can't help but drop my head in my hands, half in exasperation, and half in amusement. You're like an overeager puppy I saw once. It was my neighbor's and it was always so easily pleased, and just as easily able to switch from wagging its tail to whining pitifully. You sit down to my left and fiddle with your backpack, taking out a pencil. You drop it once and dive under the desk to retrieve it, but it slips from your grasp again. Finally, you emerge, triumphant, and set the pencil on your desk with a huff of frustration, scowling at it as if it has insulted you. The corners of my lips twitch up and I suppress a chuckle. You turn to me with an embarrassed grin.

"Pencils sure are slippery these days." Sighing, I straighten in my seat and resign myself to your company. And somehow, the thought doesn't aggravate me as much as it should.

*

Even now, I can't resist smiling at that memory, that obnoxious manner of yours and my own self-imposed isolation. But the two of us managed to find a balance despite all our differences. I don't remember when exactly I began to consider us friends. I guess it was more of a gradual thing; before I knew it, you had already integrated yourself so thoroughly into my life that it was unthinkable that we had once been strangers. Our friendship made the transition from high school to college seamlessly, even though we attended different universities. You would always drop by unannounced and drag me out somewhere to have fun. Otherwise, you said, I would just waste away and die of boredom because I didn't know how to have fun myself.

I can still picture your face so clearly in my head. Brown hair, brown eyes and freckles. Not attractive or beautiful in the traditional sense, but you were appealing in a different sort of way. It was your vitality, your love for life that showed so clearly in your eyes.

*

It's the second Tuesday in January and it's that time again. Glancing briefly at my gently-snoring roommate, I dress in silence, my expression blank. I'd begun to mentally prepare myself yesterday, closing myself off and reviewing tired memories. Seven twenty-three and time to go. I slip on my shoes and step into the hallway, closing the door behind me with a soft click.

*

The rest of it is just a blur; my focus is not on the outside world anymore. I pause for just a moment in front of the brick building. What a place to live, I think, as I do almost every time I visit. Then I push on the door and move forward.

I fill out the usual forms with a detached efficiency. My thoughts are still focused inward, on what is ahead, on the unpleasantness that must inevitably occur. Finally, I am cleared to go in and my feet trace the steps that they have walked countless times before. Left, left again, then a dozen steps forward and I am facing another door. Only this door holds a heavy weight that I find harder to overcome. Shoulders squared, face still a blank, I step forward once more.

She is sitting by the window, facing away from me. Her fingers tap a nervous dance on her leg. I clear my throat. She jerks and turns to face me. Her expression immediately changes from neutral contemplation to wild rage.

"What are you doing here? I don't want to see that face." I grit my teeth. So this is one of those days.

"Mother. How have you been?"

"I hate you," she hisses out, eyes narrowing. She takes one step forward and then stops. My hands clench into fists, unclench.

"I've been well. My classes are fine." I am proud to note that my voice is ice. She seems to make up her mind and crosses the remaining distance between us. I fight the urge to flinch.

"How many times have I had to tell you? I don't want to see that face! You aren't him. You're not! So stop—just stop! I hate you!" Her words take on a slightly hysterical edge toward the end of her speech, and I can see her hands trembling.

"I'm sorry that I remind you of him." Control, control is my mantra and saving grace.

"Sorry, you said? Sorry? You damn well better be! You have no right…no right! Get out, get out! I hate that face!" Her voice cracks on the last word, and as if that were the signal, her right arm snaps back and then a fist is flying toward my face. How nostalgic, I note dryly. I duck, and I feel the air swish over my head.

"Get out! I don't want to see you ever again!" The same words each time, and she is shouting now. I edge cautiously toward the bed, fumbling for the call button. She seems content to watch me, her brief fit of violence over. They are rarer now, much rarer. My fingers find the smooth plastic and press down.

"I'll come next month, as always. Goodbye, mother." I still have control. My voice betrays nothing. There is an awkward sort of silence, permeated only by her harsh breathing.

"Leave! Please, just…I can't stand that face." She sounds slightly panicked. I nod stiffly and walk out of the room. I pass the nurse in the hallway; she greets me in a distracted way before hurrying onto the room.

My teeth worry my bottom lip, but I am otherwise composed. Control, control. I keep it even when I reach the safety of my car, but I feel the edges slowly slipping. My heart is beating wildly, and I keep feeling as if I'm missing something.

*

The white-and-gray spotted grassy field is a familiar and comforting sight. I make my way to you, and my throat is closing up now, vision blurring. I collapse in front of you, breath hitching and eyes screwed shut. Some part of me that is still detached, still distant is filled with disgust. Why do I still react like this? It's stupid. Completely, utterly pointless. I don't expect it to be any different, I know what she'll say, how she'll look at me. I already know; I've heard it and seen it a hundred times already. But still, I…I'm so pathetic, god.

You told me once that I was anything but pathetic, that it was perfectly reasonable for me to feel like this. I guess a child never stops hoping for her parents' approval, huh? Even after all these years. A part of me still hopes. Maybe we weren't that different after all, you and me. My cheeks are wet and my knuckles hurt from the force of my teeth biting down on them to muffle the sobs. What am I missing? Please, please, tell me. You know, don't you? Claire?

I don't know how long I spend kneeling before you, but it is long after the tears stop. I just can't bring myself to leave—I don't have the strength to. It isn't until my stomach's protests can't be ignored anymore that I force myself to my feet and drive to the nearest McDonald's. I chew my food without tasting it and then walk out. When I reach my car, I am surprised to see that I left all the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition. Then again, I am always fading in and out of awareness these days. It used to worry me, but I just don't care anymore.

The rest of the day is spent curled under the blankets. Brooke makes a brief entrance, asking the required "are you alright?" before leaving again. We've been living together long enough that she knows when I don't want to be disturbed.

I let myself fall into a restless semiconscious state. I dream of you, only they are not really dreams, just bits and pieces of memories. The few times you accompanied me to visit my mother, and the way your (for once) silent presence strengthened my own resolve to be calm, to be in control, to…forgive. But mostly, you would wait outside and leave me to face my past alone. Then you would stay with me the rest of the day, just keeping up a constant stream of conversation that soothed the feeling of something-is-missing and returned me to a sense of normalcy. Your eyes never judged me, never accused or pitied. You might have acted like an idiot constantly, but you were wise, so wise in all the things that mattered. You knew exactly what I needed, and were only too happy to give it to me. I didn't even realize the depth of my dependence on your company until it was no longer available to me.

The next time I open my eyes, it is dark. I leave the comfort of my bed to grab a quick shower and to brush my teeth. My eyes absently pick out the grass stains and dirt on my jeans. Then I fall back into bed, and this time, I surrender gratefully to a dreamless sleep.

*

Classes are over for the week and Brooke is jumping around the room, trying on different outfits and holding various shades of eye shadow up to her face. I am seated comfortably on my bed with some random novel. The words float through my mind without making any sort of meaningful connection; Brooke's antics are too distracting. She shoots me an unreadable look.

"Are you sure you don't wanna come tonight? I have this green top that you would look great in." I shake my head for the third time in the last fifteen minutes.

"I'm alright." She pauses in rooting through a pile of jeans.

"Look…Darcy. I know that your friend meant a lot to you…but it's been what…7 months? More than half a year? You don't do anything. I'm sure…Carla, was that her name? would want you to have fun, live a little! It's not natural to just sit around and sulk." I can barely restrain myself from jumping up and hitting her, or screaming in her face. "I know that it's hard losing someone you love. When my aunt passed away a few years ago, I thought nothing else would ever make me happy again. We were really close. But, I mean, life goes on…it's a cliché or whatever, but it's true. And you need to pull yourself together, Darcy. It's about time you started living again." I glare at her, mustering all my self-control to grit out one word through my clenched teeth.

"Claire." Brooke is confused.

"What?"

"Her name. Claire." And Brooke's face changes in an irritatingly familiar way—the corners of her eyes drop slightly, her brow furrows, and her mouth softens. I wrench my gaze away, trying in vain to focus on black and white print. I can't stand the weight of her pity.

"Oh Darcy, I'm sorry. I really am." Her voice has lost all traces of the previous anger. "Are you sure you don't want to come? Parker's been asking about you; he's pretty cute." But her words lack conviction and she has already turned away from me again. I demur for a final time, and minutes later, she is gone in a swirl of glitter and perfume.

As soon as the door slams shut behind her, I close my book with a sigh. Brooke means well, I know, and has patiently dealt with my antisocial behavior and my miserable moods these last several months. I should call her back, should apologize and thank her. I should tell her, if I were any other girl; her offer of genuine friendship would be enough. If I were any other girl, Brooke would be able to start healing the gaping holes in my heart. But you were the only one, Claire. The only one who could ever unbreak me.

*

You said you would be here, but I guess even you can't overcome death. I almost thought you could, because you never seemed worried. I remember my inane hopes that you had some sort of last-minute plan, the kind you always used to whip out for those hundred-point projects back in high school. 11o'clock, the night before the deadline, and you would suddenly spring into action, and voila! The thing would be done by the next morning, bearing the marks of your insane creativity. Whenever I would ask you why you had waited so long when it seemed like you had the whole thing planned out from the start, you would grin in that manic way of yours, eyes lighting up, and say that it was simply no fun if you did it the boring way.

I really have no idea where you got your boundless energy and enthusiasm. It certainly wasn't from a bright childhood. You grew up without any sort of parental guidance; they died in the sort of rainy-day-tragic-car-crash that made headlines. You were five, I think. And your aunt took you in, but she was never a loving mother. You lived comfortably but you were always searching, like me, searching for the love and human contact that your parents took away when they died. Maybe that's why we became friends. You can't overcome loneliness alone, no matter how much you might try to cover it with smiles and chatter.

You would probably be angry with me now, sitting alone in my room on a Friday night, nursing a beer. I glance listlessly over to the clock and watch the numbers slowly peel onward. 11:23…11:24…11:25… You hated wasting time like this; you would much rather be out, doing something, anything to feel like you were a part of the world, to feel like you were really living.

The alcohol burns its way down my throat and I welcome the feeling. Five more swallows and pleasant warmth finally settles in my body. I glance at the clock again— 12:41. The party is probably well under way. I can hear your voice, impatience lining every word "hurry up, let's go already!" and I stagger to my feet. I can see your eyes, sparkling with delight and mischief. I spot a flash of green in one of the disheveled piles of clothes and pull it on, Brooke's earlier words coming to mind. I manage to apply a touch of mascara and grab my purse before heading out the door.

Neon signs line the street, and I pull over to park. I pull out my ID and am quickly ushered in. I am immediately greeted by a mass of bodies, swaying and undulating to the pounding music. I make my way slowly through the throng, scanning for familiar faces. Finally, I see Brooke and three others, chatting on the edge of the crowd. I am surprised to recognize Parker among them. Brooke spots me and waves, a look of surprise etched faintly on her features. Parker turns, too, and a smile blooms on his face.

"Hey! I'm glad you decided to come after all." I just nod and try to smile—the expression feels strange. We make small talk for several minutes before Brooke makes some excuse to pull the other two away with her, leaving me alone with Parker.

A vague memory comes to mind—you, annoyed and frustrated.

"It's not fair," you said, "that the guys always look at you. You don't even care!" I remember shrugging.

"Most guys are still so immature…they see a pretty face, nothing else." You gave a pout and started talking about a boy you'd been crushing on for weeks. Parker, I remember with a jolt. I let out a giggle, not too sure why I find this funny. Parker looks at me questioningly and I make a vague sweeping motion with my hand.

"I was just thinking, I had this friend…but, never mind." He makes an "ah" sound, like he understands. Which he doesn't. Not a clue. I giggle again and apologize. He considers me for another moment before tilting his head in the general direction of the dance floor.

"Wanna dance?"

"Sure," I say, "why not?" He grins and tugs me into the crowd.

*

"Darcy? Darcy? Where are you?" I scramble to my feet to meet my mommy at the door. At seven years old, nothing delights me more than seeing mommy come home. I greet her with a bright smile that she doesn't return. I falter, eyebrows knitting together.

"Mommy, is something wrong?" Mommy has been acting strangely lately, going to sleep later and later, and then getting up in the middle of the night to pace around. She laughs less, much less, and always seems grumpy.

"Something wrong? Yeah. I guess there is."

"What is it, mommy?" A grimace twists her mouth.

"I can't stand it anymore. I can't stand looking at you anymore!" My eyes widen and I take a step back.

"W-What? What do you mean mo—" A sharp slap hits me squarely on the left cheek; I press my hand lightly to the spot, feeling the skin heat up. I am shocked more than anything. My legs crumple under me. Mommy seems shocked, too, and she opens her mouth, as if to say something, before clamping her lips shut. She strides past me into the house, not saying another word.

*

We are eating dinner, silently, as we always do lately. I keep my eyes lowered to my plate; mommy has been radiating anger the whole day and I don't want to set her off. Suddenly, she speaks up.

"He did this on purpose. I know it. He did this just to torment me! You look exactly like him—the same eyes, the same nose. But it's not going to work! I'm going to change it. I can't stand it, can't stand seeing you look like him!" There is a crazed note in her voice and she stands up abruptly.

"Mommy? What do you mean? You're scaring me, mommy!" I've spotted the gleam of silver in her hand. She has never armed herself before. I lied. I am terrified, so much so that I can't even move to defend myself. The knife flashes down and the fear that had rendered me immobile now pushes me to move. I turn my head at the last second; pain flares down the left side of my face. I scream, or maybe mommy does. I get up as quickly as I can, how had I ended up on the floor, anyway? Then I run, run outside, not thinking about where I am going, just knowing that something big has happened, something huge. I know that something has changed.

*

I must have passed out eventually. I wake to an unfamiliar face creased with worry. I am disoriented and still frightened. The man next to me smiles, and puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder. He tells me that I had been bleeding a lot when he found me last night, lying in a pile of brown-orange leaves. He'd panicked and called 9-1-1, and here we were. He asks me if I am alright, and I nod my head numbly. He smiles again and leaves.

My cut has been taken care of (23 stitches) and the nurses say it shouldn't leave much of a scar. They ask for my name, phone number, and parents' names. I begin to tell them and stop.

"What's wrong, dear? Just tell us who your mommy and daddy are, and then we can call them to come get you. They can take you home." A chill passes through me. It is the first time it happens, the first time I call up a cold exterior to mask my inner turmoil. Waking up in a bed of white sheets, surrounded by these kindly women in white uniforms, feeling the scratchy white gauze on my face…the starkly foreign surroundings allow me to put distance between myself and the recent past. I feel weighed down, as if several years have passed without my knowing.

"My mommy is the one who…" and there is a lump in my throat, blocking the rest of the words. Suddenly, I am seven again, and I feel tears sliding down my cheeks. The chill is gone, and all that is left is this quivering mess who just wants her mommy back, the mommy who tucked her in at night and brushed her hair in the mornings. But that mommy is gone, has been gone for a long time, and I know it. So I try to regain my composure and begin again. "My mother is the one who did this to me. And my dad—my father is dead." The nurses all take a step back and exchange significant looks with each other. Their faces hold identical horrified expressions, and their eyes are filled with pity.

"Oh, baby, I'm so sorry. We'll get this sorted out, okay? You'll be safe here." I turn my face away and curl up on my side. I cry myself to sleep that night.

*

Looking in the mirror now, I can still see a faint white line that stretches from my left temple down my cheek to my jaw. It is barely noticeable, but it still bothers me. As did my entire appearance for a while. It was painful to feel peoples' eyes on me, and be reminded of what a disaster my life had become. I still have pictures from the years where my hair was dyed a different color each month, my face always hidden by heavy makeup, and my eyes disguised with colored contacts. After the stunt my mother pulled with the knife, she'd been diagnosed and shipped off to the Center. She's been in and out a couple times since then, but her condition continues to worsen, so she's taken up a semi-permanent residence. I guess I'm still bitter about it, angry at her for not being able to control herself, angry at myself for not being able to do something about it, angry at my dad for dying in the first place. But it can't be helped, as you told me several times.

The first time you asked me about my scar was about two months after we first met. I brushed you off and didn't speak to you for the rest of the day. You were apologetic at first, trying to be understanding, but you were furious by the end of the day, shouting at me for being so withdrawn and offended by such a simple question. You said of course people would ask. If I didn't want to talk about it, fine, but I couldn't act so insulted by simple curiosity.

You forgave me quickly, like you always did. I thought that maybe you were bipolar, too, what with the way your moods changed so easily.

You got into the habit of asking the question every few weeks or so, casually slipping it into conversation. "Yeah, I have a boatload of homework tonight, too. How did you get that scar, again?" Not very subtle, but I just ignored it. You even got the nerve to trace it with your fingers, at random. The first time you did that I nearly jumped out of my skin. Then I slapped your hand away and glared, saying that such an action couldn't possibly be passed off as harmless curiosity any longer. You flashed a sheepish grin at me and inquired if it had hurt. I snapped.

"Of course it hurt, you idiot. It left a scar." But instead of apologizing or shouting back, you just looked at me with those impossibly sad and wise brown eyes and said "That's not what I meant." I was taken aback, because no one had ever asked that question before. Yes, it had hurt. It still does, to this day, that my own mother acted with such malicious intent toward me. It hurts, a deep ache that I've tried to bury along with the rest of my past. And in that moment, it all rushed to the surface, the pain, that awful day, and the loneliness I'd felt. Still felt. But you were there, arms around me and whispering comforting phrases in my ear. I was crying, harder than I had since that first day in the hospital.

I told you everything. The words tumbled out of my mouth in a rush, and I continued to speak until my throat rasped. I kept you up well into the night listening to my story, and you listened, not judging, not pitying. And that ache started to heal.

You were the one who first suggested that I visit my mother, for closure.

"You need to do it," you told me, "You need to forgive her. You need to forgive yourself, Darcy."

*

Finals are coming up and spring is being its usual rainy self. The TA drones on and on about something I couldn't care less about. I groan irritably. Parker puts a hand on my arm; I can read concern in his eyes. He's been kind, too kind, always asking if I need anything, anything at all. The perfect boyfriend. And I've been apathetic, at best. Maybe the me a year ago would have been flattered to receive such attention. I don't know though, I can't really remember how I felt a year ago. He can tell that I don't really return his feelings, and it hurts him, I know. But I don't have the energy to care, even though I know I should. I ought to apologize, at least, for not being the girl that he deserves.

The group of girls behind me is whispering about their plans after graduation. It's the topic of conversation for most students these days.

The TA lectures on, but no one is listening.

The boy in front of me has dropped his head in his arms, chest rising and falling evenly.

Outside, the rain has stopped, and the sun is shining.

And just like that, I'm furious. There's no point in being here, no point to anything at all. I throw my books into my bag and leave, ignoring Parker's worried shouts behind me.

*

I'm standing in front of you and crying, again. I never thought it would come to this. Long story short: two people form a friendship. They're both happy for a while, but the world decides it doesn't like that, so it rips the happiness away.

Long story long: there's an ordinary kid. Dad dies. People cry. Mom pulls some fucked up shit and the rest of the kid's life is basically a long stretch of resentment and anger. A lot of people try to help, but the kid doesn't want to be helped. The kid wants to live alone, in misery, and she does. At one point, it almost seems like she'll be normal again, but nope. Kid continues to lead a fucked up life.

Short story short: a girl is standing in front of her best friend's grave with a broken heart.

*

You gaze up at me with a smile on your face. You still look so out of place in that drab hospital gown, but I've slowly become accustomed to it.

"You don't have to come here every day, you know. I'm sure your other friends miss you." I shake my head furiously.

"They don't matter." You raise your eyebrows.

"Darcy, that's not true. You can't keep this up. I won't be here for much longer—"

"Shut up. Just shut up. You're such an idiot." You smile again, tiredly. We spend the next few hours quietly. Sometimes you ask a question about this friend or that friend, but mostly we just sit together. It's so easy to be with you; we know each other so well that words aren't necessary. And you don't really have the energy to prattle on endlessly anymore.

A coughing fit shakes your thin shoulders. Too thin. I look at you in alarm, but you wave me off.

"It's nothing. But could you do me a favor?"

"Of course. Anything." You look at me, eyes swimming with a dozen emotions and my heart aches.

"Could you get me a Snickers bar? There's a vending machine down the hall, and I haven't had one in so long." That vending machine has been out of order for months. You're smiling, as always, but your voice sounds so, so sad. I try to speak, but I choke on my words. My heartbeat is stuttering and a nameless fear surges through me. I feel the prickle of tears in my eyes, but I still can't say a word.

"Hey. Hey, it's okay. Don't look so upset, okay?" I finally realize what you are asking of me, and my tears threaten to spill over. But I blink them away as best as I can and take a deep breath. I think of how thankful I am to you, what a wonderful person you are, and I smile at you.

"Sure. I'll be right back." You nod, and smile back. This time it's a genuine one. I walk away from the bed and out the door. I close it gently behind me and sink to the floor, my body convulsing with sobs.

Five minutes later, the nurses are rushing down the hall. Your aunt follows along, looking harried and dismayed. She acknowledges me with a slight nod. They push into the room behind me and I stand wearily to join them. I feel hollow as I look at the flat green line on the monitor.

*

I'm sorry, but I can't believe anymore. I tried, but nothing worked out. Parker, Brooke, they tried, I know, to help me. And really, if I were maybe a little stronger, if my life weren't so screwed up, they would have been enough. But they were too late, I think, and I'm too set in my ways. As it is, this existence is just a broken imitation of life. I miss you, I miss you so much, Claire. I don't want to say anything too cheesy, like you brought me out of my darkness, but I can't deny that you gave me something brighter. You showed me how to really live, but without your guiding hand, I don't know how.

Your last smile was forever imprinted in my mind, and I call up the memory now. I focus on the image and reach for the pills. I tip them all in my mouth and wash them down with water. It takes several swallows. Then I relax onto my bed. I close my eyes, and all I can see are yours, warm and kind.

It's the second Tuesday in March, but I won't be going to see my mother today.

"Darcy? Darcy! Oh my god…" Brooke's voice is alarmed and loud next to my ear, but I pay her no heed. I feel her hands grip my shoulders and shake.

"What the hell are you doing? Don't pull this shit on me. Come on, Darcy, please!" Her frenzied shaking forces me to open my eyes. I regard her with practiced contempt.

"What do you think you're doing?" Brooke's mouth falls open.

"What am I…what do you mean, what am I doing? I am saving your fucking life, damn it!" I blink at the vehemence in her voice. She glares at me for a moment more before whirling around and whipping out her cell phone. She thumbs three numbers angrily before raising the phone to her right ear.

"Hi. Yes. I'm reporting a suicide—an attempted suicide…" I tune out the rest of her conversation, irritated. What right does Brooke have to do this? It's my own damn life, and I can do what I want with it. She has no right. I close my eyes again, reaching for your smile once more. Like this, I can just fade away, and I'll never—

A sharp stinging sensation on my left cheek. I gaze up at Brooke in shock.

"You slapped me." Brooke's mouth is pressed in a tight line and her eyes are glittering with…tears?

"For someone so smart, you sure are an idiot. I can't even—I don't know what goes on in that head of yours, but I never thought you'd be stupid enough to actually—"

"What the hell do you know? You have no idea what I've gone through, what I—"

"You're not the only one who's ever lost someone, Darcy! If you'd pull your head out of your ass for two seconds, you'd see that there are other people around, people who understand, people who care…I care, Darcy, even if you don't. We've been roommates for two years, so I do know a bit about you. And I'm sorry, I'm really, truly sorry that Claire died. And I know that you're sad, of course you're sad and angry and depressed, or whatever! But you can't—you can't do this! I…" Tears are tracking steadily down her cheeks, and I can only watch, stunned as Brooke rants at me, her face splotchy and her voice cracking. The truth of her words hits me and I…I can only gaze at her stupidly as my life ticks away. I can almost hear the countdown to these last seconds, and it terrifies me.

Brooke seems to read something in my eyes and she steps forward to put her arms around me.

"It'll be okay. I called them, and they're on their way, they'll probably be here any second now. It's gonna be alright." I let her soothe me, forcibly reminded of another pair of arms, another whispering voice. She's not Claire, and my eyes are dry, but...

After you died, it hurt too much to look at someone and see. It was scary. It still is scary, because it can all be taken away.

You were so much braver than I was. You lost a lot, too, but you were strong enough to reach out again. You were able to look to a brighter future. One without loneliness. I've been fooling myself, trying to struggle along alone. Because that's not the strength you had.

The paramedics come in, swift and professional in their movements. They surround us, and Brooke is forced to let go. Blue-clad arms lift me and take my pulse, calm but crisp voices speak to me. Brooke looks at me. Her eyes are red and puffy but she tries for a smile. I feel humbled by her grace. And I realize it all now—my faults, her patience with them, the unfairness of it all. I open my mouth to apologize, for everything, but all that comes out is a quiet "Thank you."

She nods, furiously, and her eyes well up with tears.

It's a different face that I'm seeing, but the eyes hold a familiar warmth.

*

I'm not naïve enough to think that the pain will go away. It defines me now. And that's the thing; I've endured too much to back out at this point. So no more running away, because you taught me not to be afraid.

So here I am, Claire.