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14 months and 7 days ago. That’s right – I counted. A little over a year ago. That day haunts my every step, makes my every breath feel like a knife going through my lungs, into my heart.
I wake up to tears on my pillow – again. My mom’s already awake, so I take my towels and sneak to the bathroom down the hall, hoping that she isn’t doing laundry. Thankfully, she isn’t.
The hot water runs over my face and body, washing away last night’s painful, horrific dream. But the images, forever burned into the back of my mind, still linger.
There he was, lying on his bed, a razor- sharp knife in his hand. A note was by his head, balancing on a fold in the quilt. His arm was in a pool of blood, the color of it staining the beautiful quilt that his grandma had made for him before she passed. His normally tan skin was a pallid white, almost ghostly. He had traced his tattoo with the knife – the infinity sign that matched mine, then added a cut through it. He finished with a cut along the vein, making an ‘infinite cross’.
“I’ll love you forever, Ella. But everything else is too much. You’re too good for me. Just – I love you.” The note had said, my fingers trembling as I had read it, dropping it back to the bed. Before he had died, he had forced his keys into my hand. His quick, scrawling handwriting was stuck in my brain, and music lyrics often scrolled across my mind in his writing.
Suddenly, instead of hot water, cold tears are running down my face. His face, smiling, came into my mind. He had been the first person to make me laugh after my dad left. And the last.
I slip back into my room, drying off and pulling on my skinny jeans. I pull on a white long sleeve shirt, hiding my tattoo and my scars. My heeled high- tops complete the outfit, and I decide I don’t look completely horrible.
I dry my hair, pulling it into a sleek high ponytail. I swipe on eyeliner and blush, making the resident dead girl look at least a little bit alive. He would’ve been proud of me, moving on without him. If he only saw me at school, at least.
I grab my phone and earbuds. He loved music, and for our one- year anniversary, he had given me his old iPod. I can’t bear to touch it now.
I unlock my phone, a picture of his face and his name my password. Then I click on my music, going straight into the playlist marked with his name – all the songs he had ever given me, including the ones on his iPod.
I click shuffle, and You’re Dead Wrong by Mayday Parade starts to play. He gave it to me for our one- month anniversary, before he broke through my walls and made me fall in love with him.
“She’s got all my dreams / I’ve got these broken things / and they always disagree. / But if there’s one real thing you would choose to believe / just don’t lose your faith in me.” Mayday Parade’s slightly raspy vocals and crazy guitars fill my ears.
I take a Sharpie, writing a new number on the back of my hand. 14:7 – 14 months, 7 days. Then I blow out my candle, one for one year without him. My friends say I’m obsessed with how long he’s been gone. I call it grieving.
I step out of my room, letting my mom see me – for the first time in days. Yes, I’ve been out. But she hasn’t. At least not while I’ve been home. If she went out, she probably got drunk. If my friends think I’m depressed – they should see my mom.
Mom was the happiest woman I ever knew, laughing and dancing when I was little. She would bake fresh cookies twice a week – and homemade cakes for Dad’s and my birthdays.
But when Dad left, so did Mom. She lay on the couch all day, forcing me to grow up insanely fast. Thank God I had a bike. At 14, every day I woke up at 5, made Mom breakfast, showered, made her shower, got my backpack ready, got Mom lunch for her to have, and biked to school before 7:30. When I got home, I would sit Mom up and force her to eat her untouched lunch. Then I would bike to odd jobs, babysitting for a few hours or mowing a lawn to earn money.
Then I would go to the store, getting whatever I could buy with meager funds that barely came in. I would get McDonald’s or Arby’s, and then bike home sometimes around 7 pm, sometimes after dark. I would force Mom to eat something else, do homework, practice flute and guitar, and eat. I would fall asleep at about 1 am.
I grab an apple, waving at my now half- functioning mom, and head out the door. The one thing I bear to touch of his is his car – the keys he gave me before he died.
I climb into his Volkswagen Bug, the smell of his cologne slapping me in the face and drying my invisible tears.
I put the keys in the ignition, pulling the Bug out of the drive way, jamming the whole way to school on crushcrushcrush by Paramore.
Once I get to school, I grab my flute and guitar, my backpack, and walk into the building. It’s warm inside, and I have a feeling my long sleeve shirt will have me sweating by 2nd period.
I head to the music room, pulling out my earbuds when I get there. Mr. T, the guitar tutor and band teacher, is helping 6th graders set up trumpets and trombones. I wave, putting away my flute. Then I head to the back room, reserved for sophomores and higher. Last year, I qualified.
When I shut the door, everything feels less crazy. It’s quiet as I tune my guitar, and I can imagine Anthony sitting next to me, picking out a song for me to play.
I pull out Wings by Birdy, the clean version for school, and start strumming the first chords. The song pulls me into it, and I get more into the music as I play the introduction.
“Sunlight comes creepin’ in / illuminates our skin / we watched the day go by / stories of all we did. / It made me think of you, / it made me think of you.” I reach over, keying the 4 notes on the piano that were a huge part of the song.
“Under a trillion stars / we danced on top of cars. / Took pictures of the stage / so far from where we are. / They made me think of you, / they made me think of you.”
“Oh lights go down / in the moment we’re lost and found / I just wanna be by your side / if these wings could fly / for the rest of our lives.” I take a break, keying out notes on the piano. I’m singing Wings for Anthony, because wherever he is – that’s where I should be too.
“I’m in a foreign state / my thoughts they slip away / my words are leaving me / they go another place / because I thought of you / just from the thought of you.”
“Oh lights go down / in the moment we’re lost and found / I just wanna be by your side / if these wings could fly / oh darn these walls / in the moment we’re 10 feet tall / and how you told me after it all / we’d remember tonight / for the rest of our lives.”
I sing the chorus again, finishing out the song. Mr. T walks in, smiling at my improved playing since he first met me at age 11.
“That was great, Ella!” he says, sitting across from me. I put my guitar in its case, closing it up for the day.
“Thanks, Mr. T. Can I do something for you?” I ask, setting my guitar case down by my feet.
“A 7th grade student who’s new is having some trouble with her flute. You keep yours so clean – and I think you could show her how to clean it correctly. Would you mind?”
“Sure, I’ll help her. I will be right out.” I say, as Mr. T leaves. I latch the guitar case shut, running a hand over a peeling sticker – E+A. I mentally note to put more tape on it when I get home.
I carry my guitar out, putting it in its cubby at the back of the room with my flute. A young girl is sitting alone, trying to play a dirty – looking flute.
“Hi there.” I say, sitting down next to her. She has a maintenance kit on her lap, but it looks untouched. “I’m Ella.”
“Are you going to help me my flute? Mr. T said someone would come help me soon.” She says shyly. Her voice is tinkling, and soft.
“Yep. What’s your name?”
“Hannah.” She tucks her hair behind her ear with a pale hand. She looks up at me and I see electric blue eyes. Her hair falls again, its chocolate tones covering her face again. She had a small nose and thin lips, with lots of freckles.
“Can I see your flute?” I take the maintenance kit, opening it. Hannah simply nods. “Here is a silver cloth.” I say, holding up a blue cloth for her to see. “And a silicon cloth.” I hold up a yellow cloth next. “A package of cleaning paper, and some cleaning gauze.” Hannah nods again.
“Were you the one singing and playing guitar back there?” her voice is soft, barely audible in the loud room.
“Yeah, I was.” I respond, showing her how to use cleaning gauze on the inside of her flute.
“You were really good.” She works as she talks, and her flute is looking a little cleaner. “What song were you playing?”
“I was playing Wings by Birdy. Thank you.” I say. She finishes using the gauze and I show her how to use cleaning paper. She sets about doing that.
“Of course. I should have recognized it.” She notices my number and stops working. “Why do you have that number on your hand?”
“It’s since my boyfriend… left.” I respond, moving her hands to the next key. She continues cleaning.
“What’s his name?” she asks, handing me back the paper. I give her the silicon cloth, showing her how to get fingerprints off.
“It was Anthony.” She seems to be getting the hang of cleaning the flute, but I show her how to clean the inside of the joints so they fit together smoothly.
“Oh. Was he nice?” she continues cleaning until most of the smudges are gone. She seems a little amazed at how easy it is to make her flute look nice.
“He was. Now here’s the silver cloth – hold your flute with the silicon cloth so you don’t get more fingerprints on it.” Hannah does, and soon her flute is sparkling.
Hannah’s smiling and starts to play again. She’s playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, a good practice song. I plug my headphones back in, smiling as I leave Hannah to her practicing.
I click on Bones by MS MR, its low tones filling my ears. I walk out of the music room, waving goodbye to Mr. T. Getting into the song, I hum along, memorizing lyrics and filing them into my brain for later.
“Candy bar creep show / my highs hit a new low / marinate in misery / like a girl of only 17 / man made madness / and the romance of sadness / a beautiful dance / that happened by chance / happened by chance / happened by chance.” The lead vocal sings, synthesized tones behind her in the bridge of the song.
The bell rings, but the only way I know is the crowd slowly moving down the hall. Thousands of kids move slowly down the hall, dreading classes.
Brick by Boring Brick by Paramore starts playing, and my heavy heart lifts just a bit. Ghost hands grab mine, Anthony’s ghost fingers tugging me down the hall. I turn, and there he is, with his brown hair falling into his stormy grey eyes.
But he flashes away, floating off like steam. My beautiful Anthony, his ghost gone with a simple sigh. A tear threatens to slip out of my, but I decide not to cry today. I decide to at least look happy during school.
“So one day he found her crying / coiled up on the dirty ground. / Her prince finally came and found her / and the rest you can figure out. / But it was a trick / and the clock struck twelve…”
I get to my locker, pulling out my binder. They song ends, and for a moment I hear the noise of the hall and people surrounding me, their voices bouncing off the tiled walls and into my ears through my earbuds. Someone taps me on the shoulder. I pull out one of my earbuds just as Attention by We Are The In Crowd starts.
“Hey.” My best friend, Matt, says. He was Anthony’s best friend, too. We were the three outcasts of our giant school, the kids that never quite fit in anywhere but with each other. Now there were two of us left, and we had grown closer since Anthony’s death.
“Hi.” I respond, closing my locker and leaning against it, my body needing something to hold it up. Matt leans on the locker next to mine, which thankfully is empty.
“You OK?” he asks, turning to lean sideways against the locker. A few weeks ago it was occupied by a quiet girl who moved away. I turn to face him, hugging my binder.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Thank God I’m a good liar and Matt is gullible. I’ve been saying that I’m fine for 13 months now, and Matt hasn’t questioned me once.
“Good. Just double checking. You didn’t text me back last night.”
“I know. I was practicing. Then I had to do homework. And after that…”
“Writing? Or you needed more icy?” Matt was always using slang from the Uglies series. ‘Icy’ meant calm and sharply focused. In the book, it involved cutting.
“Both.” I say, pulling up my sleeve. Hidden among my thin, white scars was an angry red line. Matt looks like he wants to slap me as I pull my sleeve back down, but he doesn’t.
“Stop, Ella. You have so much here. Why would you?” Matt doesn’t understand things about me that Anthony did. He doesn’t realize why I need to stay ‘icy’. The death hit me harder than him.
“If you lost your one rock, the one thing that made you happy, wouldn’t you do anything to see them again? Or even to get close to them?”
“I guess. But Ella – it’s been over a year.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” I say, showing him my numbered hand.
“14 months, 7 days.” I say, walking to my class. Matt follows. “Or in calendar terms - 1 year, 2 months, and a week.”
“Oh. You’re a strange one, Ella Smith.” Matt says, setting his things down next to mine in Math.
“And you aren’t?” I remark, turning off my music and sitting next to him in what I call Review Math. Matt and I are both really good at math – and we’re taking a semester of review before we started college classes in our senior year next year.
“Good point.” He pulls out the homework from last night, ready to turn it in. I do the same.
The class passes horribly slow, and so does the rest of the day. By the time I get home, my mom is out of the house.
I work on homework, finishing it quickly. I put on music, mixing up some Ramen Noodles as I sing along.
“You’re not a judge / but if you’re gonna judge me / well, sentence me to another life.” Paramore sings, Ignorance at full volume.
I eat my Ramen in silence, but Mom doesn’t come home. It starts to get dark, but I’m too caught in the music to worry. After a while, the phone starts to ring.
“Hello?” I ask, shutting off the music.
“Ella?” It’s Mom. I really want to say ‘Who else would it be?’, but I hold my tounge. She sounds drunk. Her words sound slurred, and I can hear coughing in the background – like she’s in a bar.
“Will you come get me?” She’s drunk. Her words are slurring so bad that I have a feeling she has no idea what she’s saying.
“Where are you?”
“The usual place downtown.”
“OK. I’m on my way. Don’t leave, and try not to throw up.” One thing I know about my mom is that she can’t hold her alcohol. I hear her retch. Too late, I suppose.
I get in the Bug, driving to Mom’s usual downtown bar. I have more Mayday Parade on, but the radio’s nearing the end of the song.
“And now it’s time / let me see you smile / let me see it.” I smile, for Anthony.
“She’s got broken things / where her heart should be / and I keep rolling it over in my head. / If your heart is true / then I’ll be with you / ‘cause it’s you that I adore / and we both know I loved you more.” The vocals end.
“I love you, Anthony.” I say to his car, and suddenly I’m with him, in the passenger seat, going to get my mom on a night like tonight. Some song had come on, Last Song by The Secret Handshake, and Anthony had sung every word, trying to dance and drive at the same time. I was laughing at him, trying not to sing along to the catchy song.
When the song ended, Anthony pulled over. He turned to me, looking me straight in the eye with his beautiful stormy grey ones. He turned the radio off, never a good sign with him.
“I need to tell you something, Ella.” He had said, and I thought the worst. I almost started crying, but somehow I had held it together. I had lived through this word before – goodbye.
“I love you.”
I was stunned. We had been dating only a month – way too short to be saying The Three Words, at least for me. But as he said them, I felt a little fire in my heart, something that had made me blurt the truth.
“I love you, too.”
And now, faintly, I can hear him repeat the words. His smooth, deep voice echoing through the Bug, making me feel safe inside my favorite place.
I pull up the Bug, opening the door and crawling out. Sitting on the curb is Mom, drunk and out of it. She isn’t even wearing a coat, something not smart to do in mid- November.
“Mom!” I help her up, and she almost falls back down. I get her into the car, booking the Bug home so she doesn’t throw up in it. Once in bed, she passes out. She’ll have a killer migraine in the morning, but for now she’s OK.
I fall asleep in my own bed, warm under 4 blankets, when I hear her. I check the clock as I get up, and it’s almost 1 am.
“Ella?” I walk to her room, finding her leaning over the bed, dry heaving.
“Mom?” I turn the light on, and she groans, laying back on her bed.
“I’m sick.” She says, acting like a child. A young child, with no manners.
“No, you’re drunk. Go back to sleep.”
“I guess you’re right, Ella.” Her words are still slurred. “Good night.”
“Good night, Mom.” I go back to my room, but I can’t sleep. I make my bed, sitting criss- cross on top of the covers, facing the closed door.
“Ella. What’s wrong?” My beautiful Anthony appears in front of me, sitting like I am. He’s wearing grey sweats, a few shades lighter than his eyes.
“My mom got drunk again, Anthony.” Yeah, I was talking to a ghost. “What do I do? I’m only 17.”
“You deal. Better than I did, of course.” He shows me his arms, covered in white scars, just like mine.
“I could only deal when I had you.”
“Find a new way to deal. Your mom needs you.”
“I always told her I would call and check her in. Why don’t I?”
“Because you love her.”
“It’s 1 am, Ella! They won’t answer.”
“Of course they will! The rehab center is 24/7! I’m calling.”
“Fine. Call the rehab center. But at least do it at a decent hour in the morning.”
“Fine. I’m so lost without you, Anthony. Why did you leave me?”
“It’s just temporary.”
“Yes, but it’ll be years before I see you again. Decades.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“I’m not like you. I don’t want to die.” I roll up my sleeves.
“Why cut if you don’t want to die?”
“It keeps me focused.”
“Like coffee used to? Or soda?”
“Even more focused than that.”
“Ella. You have to understand something – it wasn’t your fault.”
“We could’ve fixed it. Whatever it was, we could’ve made it better.”
“Fixed what? Me? Ella – no one could have done that. It was just my time.” Anthony flickers, and I feel a sudden urge to be with him. My razor blade is on my bedside table, and I reach for it. The metal feels cold against my warm fingers, welcome in the now steaming room.
“Well, Anthony. I think it’s my time now.” My tattoo, an infinity sign inside my wrist, turns dark red as I trace it with the blade. Just like Anthony, I cut through it, a red line going through our sign of true love.
“Ella! No!” Anthony fades as I complete my cut, just like he did. No time to write a note – I lay down, feeling dizzy. Red covers my vision, and the infinite cross swims across my mind.
“I love you, Anthony.” My lips move, but I don’t hear myself talking. Just a whisper, drifting away on invisible wind, soft as a sigh. Like butterfly wings, the sound is almost non- existent, but it is there, flying away softly on sparkling tones and invisible winds.
The world turns black.