A Short Story by Merry Shannon
I stared so hard at the white lacquered coffin that my eyes burned. There was only one thought running through my head, over and over again like a mantra or something… and it had been playing over and over since the night that it happened. It should have been me. It should have been me. I couldn’t feel. I couldn’t cry. I could barely breathe, and I couldn’t comprehend how my heart could go on beating when hers had stopped. It should have been me.
I was the dangerous one. I was the one who always got us into trouble. I was the devil on her shoulder; she was the angel on mine. She was my conscience, because evidently God had forgotten to build one into me when he put me together. How was I going to live without my conscience? How was I going to be able to make decisions without her little voice in my ear, gently manipulating my will away from my crazy emotions? I hated that box, that narrow, shiny death-box that was taking her away from me. They wouldn’t let me see her, after it happened. They said that she’d want me to remember her the way she was in life. What they meant was that she was so beat up that I wouldn’t have recognized her, and they were trying to spare me that. But I didn’t deserve to be spared. Every wave of pain, every broken bone, every drop of blood that left her body belonged to me. It should have been me.
The day I met her, I knew that she would change my life. She was ten years old, tiny and fragile and pale and utterly beautiful. It was summer, and me and a bunch of friends were hanging out at the pool when up walked this pixie-girl. I can still remember her swimsuit, a white halter-tank that made her pale skin look a little darker than it really was. Insecure twelve-year-old tomboy that I was, I instantly sensed that anything that tiny and pretty spelled trouble. I watched her for a long time that day, I remember. She swam like a fish, like she was a creature of the water herself. A mermaid or something. I was in a particularly bitchy mood, and so when she walked past me, wringing her hair out and dripping water on my towel in the process, I snapped, “Hey, watch it!”
She looked down at me with those incredible blue eyes, and for a second I remember feeling like I was drowning. And then she handed me her own towel… one of those really nice big soft ones. It was so white that I knew it had to be brand new. She gave it to me and said, “I’m sorry. Here…let’s trade.” And she picked up my old nubby black one, still stained from mopping up my dad’s beer spill the night before, and she sat down right next to me. She started to dry her hair with my dirty old towel.
“I’m Melody,” she said to me. I ignored her and laid back on the grass, leaving her perfect little terry-cloth towel in a heap in front of me. I did my best not to look over at her, because there was something hypnotic about the way she moved. I felt like one of those hapless princesses in the fairy tales…the ones who are so enchanted by some magical fairy that they can be coerced into doing the dumbest things. So I concentrated on the way the heat of the sun fell on my body like waves, making my skin tingle. But Pixie-girl didn’t seem to notice that I didn’t feel like talking.
“We just moved here in June,” she said conversationally. “I’m going into sixth grade over at Camden Middle School.” That was where I went. As a matter of fact, I was also going into the sixth grade. I was repeating it because my teachers didn’t think I ‘showed enough progress’ the first time around. That was a polite way of saying that I was dumb. I snuck a peek in her direction from behind my sunglasses. That was one of the things I liked about wearing my super reflective glasses. The lenses were like mirrors and they wrapped around the sides of my face so that no one could tell where or who I was looking at. Pixie-girl was spreading my towel out on the ground now, and from the looks of things she was preparing to settle down right next to me.
“I don’t remember asking you to sit here,” I said to her, kind of mean because I was annoyed at how fascinating she was. That was a mistake, because she gave me that look again, and I forgot how to breathe for a minute as those bright blue eyes pinned me down. But she didn’t get mad, and didn’t storm off.
“What’s your name?” she asked me.
I was so lost in those eyes that I answered before I remembered that I was trying to ignore her. “Randy.”
“Nice to meet you.” She rose to her feet, and picked up my old black towel. She folded it, in half and then in thirds, and set it down next to me. “Maybe we’ll talk again later,” she said, and started to walk off.
I gazed numbly after her for a minute, and then remembered to call out “Hey, what about your towel?” She turned back, only slightly, and smiled.
“Keep it,” she said, and then she left. I picked up the towel. It smelled like baby powder.
It’s funny, but even though that was like, seven years ago, I still have that powder-scented white towel in my closet at home. Standing there in the front pew, I couldn’t smell her powder-scent. How was I supposed to believe that Melly was really in that coffin, if I couldn’t smell her? There was never a time that I could remember that she wasn’t wearing that baby powder of hers. I asked her about it once. We were in seventh grade, I think it was, and I asked her why it was that she always smelled like that. I can still hear that tinkling little giggle of hers as she replied.
“Silly. Why do you always smell like cigarettes?”
“I smoke a pack a day, that’s why.”
“Well.” That was all she said. Well. As if that explained it. Melly never gave me a straight answer about anything. It’s kind of weird, now that I think about it, that I always understood her anyway.
They started playing ‘Amazing Grace’ as Melly’s parents entered the sanctuary. Mrs. Spencer didn’t even look at me when she sat down across the aisle… but then, I didn’t expect her to. I watched her for a minute as she patted the pins in her perfect hair to make sure that her veil wasn’t loose, and then straightened her black French lace dress. I knew it was French lace because I heard my Ma talking about it this morning. (“You know that Spencer woman whose kid just died? She had a French lace mourning gown imported from Europe just for the funeral!”) I wasn’t surprised. Mrs. Spencer has more clothes than anyone I’ve ever met. I think she buys a new outfit every day, sometimes several if it’s a special occasion. I guess in her mind, Melly’s funeral was a special occasion.
Mr. Spencer sat down next to her. He did look over at me, with that same disgusted glare he always wears whenever I’m around. Normally I just give him one of my own glowering I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-you-think looks right back. But not today. Today I deserved it. I looked again at that sleek white coffin, focusing on the ornately twisted little silver handles. Silver and white… Melly’s two favorite colors. She’d like that. The heavy stone in my stomach grew even heavier, and I felt like it might just yank me to my knees. It should have been me.
“What’s your dream?”
“My dream?” It was summer again, and I was fifteen. Melly and I were hanging out in the park, preferring the heat outside to the much more unpleasant heat at home. She was laying on the top of the picnic table, entirely unconcerned by the splinters in the wood, and her hair was spread out all around her head like a big silver halo. She propped herself on one elbow and smiled at me.
“Yes, your dream. What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Alive.” I absent-mindedly pulled a cigarette from the pack in my jeans pocket, then remembered that Melly was allergic to the smoke and settled for rolling it in my fingers instead. I looked up to see her watching me expectantly, and had to grin. Sometimes I could have sworn that the two of us had some kind of psychic connection. I knew she had something to say, but wanted me to ask her first. “How about you?”
She closed her eyes and sighed, with this little melancholic, sweet smile that’s difficult to describe, but if you’d known Melly you’d never be able to picture her without it. “My dream is to be real. A real person.” Not a prized possession. She didn’t have to say that last part, I knew what she meant. Her folks treated her like a showhorse or something, dressing her up in these fancy clothes and parading her around at their big parties and stuff, and pretty much ignoring her the rest of the time. I felt sorry for her. It’s not like things were all hunky-dory at my place or anything, but at least in my family I was an annoyance. My presence counted, even if it was just because I was inconvenient. Where Melly’s family was concerned, she might as well be a gemstone in a display case for all they cared. She didn’t even have the satisfaction of being a burden on her parents.
“Well, you’re real to me,” I said to her, and then I poured my ice-cold soda down the back of her shirt. She squealed really loud and I laughed at her. “See? That felt real, didn’t it?”
She started to giggle too, and I leaned over to wipe some of the sticky Coke out of her shimmering hair. Some jerk from school chose that moment to screech past us in his flashy Porche 911, one of those fire engine red jobs with the streaking white spoilers. I would have admired the car if the guy in it hadn’t hollered out the window at me. “Freakin’ dyke!” Funny thing was, before I even got the chance to deliver one of my smart-ass replies, reserved for moments such as this, his expression suddenly got real surprised and then he floored the gas and took off down the street. I turned to look at Melly, and realized why the kid had been so shocked; perfect, prim little Melody Spencer was holding her hand towards the receding car, the sun glinting off the perfect polish of her middle finger. She winked at me, and my stomach flip-flopped. I will carry the image of Melly flipping that boy off with me to my grave.
They were lighting candles now. The lady next to me leaned over to light the one in my hand, and the pastor or whoever was making some speech about how Melly’s memory would be an eternal light through the darkness of our sorrow or something like that. I stared at the flame, and out of habit I coated a finger in the hot wax, welcoming the familiar burn that faded to numbness as the white stuff cooled into a shell over my skin. Melly and I had played with candles for hours… she was as fascinated by fire as I was, though she was also a lot more squeamish. She’d watch me drop the wax onto my hands in all sorts of shapes, leaving little red patterned burns that sometimes lasted a week if I did it right. Of course she wouldn’t touch the wax herself. She said her mother would be furious if she came home with marks on her skin… and she was probably right, but I knew that it wasn’t fear of her mother that kept her from joining in, it was her fear of pain.
Melly hated pain. It terrified her so much that she had a phobia of bees, red ants, spiders… she pretty much ran screaming in the opposite direction whenever we came across anything that looked like it might bite. Me? I was the complete opposite. I enjoy pain. Call me masochistic or whatever, but there’s something really empowering about feeling the cold, bitter shock in your nerves as it travels up through your body and finally into your head, screaming at you that you’re alive and it hurts! Melly used to be entranced by the way I would inflict tiny pains on myself for amusement. The time her mother decided she should learn embroidery, I took her needle and sewed patterns onto my fingertips. Since there’s two layers of skin there, you just push the needle through the top layer and draw the thread through. I wanted to embroider a nice four-letter word onto the pads of my fingers in four different colors, to see what reaction I’d get from the teachers the next time I raised my hand in class. But Melly wouldn’t stand for that.
“My needle, my thread,” she’d said to me decisively. So I settled for stitching her name, all in black: M-E-L-L-Y . Five fingers, five letters. It lasted nicely for a couple of days until the skin dried and the thread tore through. And then there was the time that I filched a pocket knife from the gas station, and used it to scratch a happy face into my forearm. Melly watched me do it, but she was not impressed, and made me take the knife back. She used to get this funny little expression on her face when I was doing stuff like that; all scrunched up and wide-eyed at the same time, as though she was feeling the pain I was inflicting on myself. I thought about her, the way she must have felt trapped under that car for hours before she died, broken arm and crushed lungs and all, and I felt like I was going to be sick. Melly was never built for pain. It should have been me. That was my realm of expertise.
I kept on staring at the candle in my hand. The room was really quiet now, because the pastor guy had asked that we observe ten minutes of silence for Melly’s memory. I dipped my other three fingers and my thumb into the wax now, and thought that Melly was probably going nuts in all this quiet. Everything around her was always… well, like her name. A melody. She never went anywhere without her little Walkman. I used to tease her and say that one day they were going to have to surgically remove it from her ears, she wore it so much. Melly had music with her everywhere she went, and if ever there was a moment of awkward silence where no one was speaking, you could always rest assured that Melly would start singing at the top of her lungs. I realized that none of the people in that room had ever really known her. Melly would have despised all this somber, melodramatic reverence. I could picture her, all dressed in white with big wings, a see-through ghost hovering near the ceiling of the sanctuary, looking down on all the silent, stuffy people. She’d be strumming her golden harp and trilling out some goofy cheesy pop song for all she was worth, probably with a host of heavenly angels for backup vocals. Somehow the image made me feel better.
Finally the pastor got up again. He started off talking about what a good daughter Melly had been, and what a good student, and how much she would be missed by her family and friends. Yeah, sure, like her family was going to miss her at all. I peered across the aisle, where Mrs. Spencer had pulled a little tiny mirror from her purse to check her makeup, and Mr. Spencer was inspecting his perfectly manicured fingernails. He’s, like, one of the only men I know who gets regular manicures. Melly told me that since her father was a doctor, his patients expected him to have nice-looking hands. All I know is, if my doctor was wearing fingernail polish (clear or otherwise), it would seem more fruity to me than anything else.
Not that I have a problem with fruity, of course, but Mr. Spencer sure did. I mean, that’s why he never liked me much anyway, right? I came out real early, like in eighth grade, because I’d always pretty much known that I liked girls. Up to that point the Spencers had only barely tolerated me. In their minds, I was never good enough to associate with their daughter. My ma’s a mechanic, and Dad, who makes pretense of being a photographer, has been unemployed and perpetually drunk for years. So you could say that my family is kind of like the cement sidewalk beneath the social ladder. But when word got out that I was gay, I think Mr. Spencer thought I was gonna try something with Melly. As soon as he found out he did everything he could to keep her away from me. He tried reasoning with her, pleading with her, threatening her, grounding her… but we were best friends. And I think Melly knew I probably wouldn’t be able to survive without her. She used to sneak out of her huge expensive house and hoity-toity neighborhood to hang out with me on my trashy front porch, and she’d tell me all the stuff her dad had to say about me and my ‘abominable choices.’ We’d both had a really good laugh about it.
Mr. Spencer even tried to bribe me to stay away from Melly once! It’s true, he offered me five hundred bucks if I would leave Melly alone. I told him, in no uncertain terms, where he could stick his money. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have a deep appreciation for cash and all, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t consider it for a second or two. But the fact is, I need Melly more than anything else. I need her smile, her laugh. I need to feel her little hand on my shoulder when I’m lonely. I need her mysterious, wise advice and her sweet powder-scent tickling my nose. I need Melly…and she’s gone.
I stared at the coffin again, and tried to feel angry. Maybe, if I was mad at her, the pain would go away. Maybe, if I was furious enough, I could feel something other than this big aching vacant space in my chest. So I tried, for a minute or two, to blame all of it on her. I mean, it wasn’t such a ridiculous idea. She was the one who was speeding, right? Sure, she was late for the basketball game, and yes, I did yell at her the last time she missed seeing me play, but hey, no one asked her to go eighty miles an hour. She did that on her own. She should have left the house earlier… except that, well, okay, so she was trying to finish editing that paper I’d written for Western Philosophy. I’d procrastinated, as usual, and she was trying to get it back to me so that I could turn it in on time. So I’m a bad student. She didn’t have to offer to help me, did she?
But the more I tried to feel angry, the more I knew it wasn’t going to work. I had to grin a little at the long flower-draped box. See? Even when you’ve left me, Melly, I can’t get angry with you. It had always been that way. How could I get angry with someone who knew what I was thinking and feeling even before I did? Melly deserved better. She deserved a decent death…more than that, she deserved a longer life. I was the one who didn’t deserve to go on living, especially not when someone like Melly had died. It wasn’t right. You messed up, God. You took the wrong one. It should have been me. After everything I’d done, it really should have been me…
“What on earth were you thinking?” Melly said to me, her voice full of reproach. I couldn’t answer because I was too busy retching into the toilet. Melly shook her head, pushed the flusher, then helped me lean up against the wall. “Remind me never to come to a party with you again,” she said teasingly. “I told you not to drink that stuff. Bet you feel pretty stupid, huh?”
I gasped for breath, feeling the drool and sweat rolling from my face, adding new stains to my already well-spotted T-shirt. “Actually, I feel pretty sick,” I said. “Stupid comes in as a close second, though.” Melly giggled at me. Man, I loved to hear her laugh…even if I was drunk and hungover, somehow hearing that laugh made everything feel all right. Some guy opened the bathroom door. He took one look at me, said “Whoa, dude. Wicked party,” and left again, shutting the door. Melly looked at me again with those enormous eyes.
“Well, Randy-doll, I hope you’re going to learn your lesson.” I did my best to glare at her, though it wasn’t easy with the jackhammer going off between my ears.
“I told you not to call me—” I was cut off by my own nauseated choking, and Melly giggled again as she helped me back over the toilet. When my insides were finished extricating themselves from my body, I leaned back again and sighed, running the back of my hand over my mouth to wipe away the excess. “I’m no doll.”
“Sure you are. You’re my doll.” She smiled at me again and brushed my shaggy dark hair out of my eyes. “Don’t worry about it. I’m looking out for you.”
Not anymore, I thought to myself as the pastor droned on. I could hear sniffling behind me, and the lady next to me was blowing her nose. Mrs. Spencer was letting her pristine mascara streak her cheeks, and her husband had one arm around her, looking somewhat misty-eyed himself. I turned to look around behind me, and it seemed like everyone in the sanctuary had tears running down their faces. I experienced a flash of guilt. I was certain that none of the other people here had cared about Melly the way I did. It was impossible for any of them to understand what she meant to me. But they were all crying, and my eyes were totally dry. I couldn’t cry. I was floating in this big dark bubble, listening to everyone and everything from a great distance away. It was surreal, and I guess, that deep inside, I was still hoping I was going to wake up and have all of this turn out to be a nightmare. That I’d get out of bed, look out my window and see Melly waiting for me outside the front gate like always, and I’d throw on some jeans and a T-shirt and run out there, and as we walked to school we’d both have a good laugh about my dumb old dream.
But it wasn’t going to happen. I looked around me at all the sniffling, tear streaked faces and knew that I was alone. I’d never needed a friend other than Melly. And now, I didn’t have anyone. She’d gone away and left me all alone, and when I got home this afternoon she wasn’t going to be there for me to explain all this to and then cheer me up by offering to take both of us out for ice cream. Melly was never going to be there again. She was gone. Her voice was gone. Her face was gone. Those little hands, that little head that only came to my chest, that sweet, musical giggle… it was all gone. And I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to say the things I’d wanted to say but never had the guts to. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t given me the opportunity, either.
“Randy-doll.” Melly cocked her head as she gazed at me. Her delicate features were shadowed in the dim light, making them seem almost ethereal. It was, like, two in the morning and we were over at my house. I’d asked Melly to spend the night, which her father had absolutely forbidden her to do, but she came anyway.
“Hmm?” I was picking at the carpet in front of me, creating a little collection of popcorn seeds, stray beer nuts and other leftover junk in the palm of one hand. My Ma never vacuums. Melly was quiet for a minute, and I realized that she was waiting for me to look up at her. That meant that she was going to say something serious. So I looked up.
“Randy, how come you never tried to kiss me?”
I forgot all about the little stuff in my hand, and gaped at her. “What?” I mean, Melly knew I was gay. She was actually the first person I’d come out to, and the only one who hadn’t made a huge fuss over it. The kids at school had freaked out, and my parents had decided that it was some phase I was going to eventually grow out of, and Melly’s father… well, I’ve already been through that. Nobody took me seriously or understood it, except for Melly. But no matter what her father thought, the idea of coming on to her was almost absurd to me. “What on earth are you talking about?”
She started fidgeting with one of her long silvery braids. Melly always braided her hair before she went to sleep. “Well, I’m just wondering… I mean, you like girls and all. So how come you’re not interested in me? Am I not pretty enough or something?”
I think it took me about a full minute to process this. I tried to think of a decent answer, but all the words that flitted through my head were the wrong ones. If I told her that she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life, it would sound like a come-on. If I asked her if she wanted me to kiss her, it would sound like a come-on. If I told her that kissing her would be like sacrilege, it would sound just plain ridiculous. I found myself wondering, briefly, if Melly could possibly be interested in me… and dismissed that thought almost immediately. I mean, Melly as a lesbian would be like my dad getting elected president of AA. “No, it’s not anything like that,” I said to her, trying to make my voice sound as casual as possible. “It’s just that you’re not…” I blushed a little. “And I’m…” I could feel my face getting even warmer and I was grateful for the darkness of the living room. It soon became clear that the casual stuff wasn’t going to work. I ran a hand through my choppy, black-dyed hair in a gesture of frustration.
Melly giggled then, that light, tinkling little sound that never failed to make me smile. She reached out and took my hand. “You always do that messing-up-your-hair thing when you’re nervous, Randy-doll,” she said with another giggle. “I wasn’t trying to fluster you, you know. I’m just curious.” She ran her own fingers through my hair then, straightening out the rumples I’d made. “I guess I already know the answer, really. I mean, I know you wouldn’t try anything with me when you know I’m not into that sort of thing.” She tapped my nose with her index finger, and I blinked. “I love you. Not that way, you know, but I love you. You know that, right?” I looked into those blue eyes, drowning again, and nodded numbly. I knew there was something she wanted to hear… and this was the first time, in all the years I’d known her, that I couldn’t say that something to her. It was just too close to home. Melly looked at me for a second, and then nodded slowly. Her lips curved into a little smile, and she gave me a little peck on the cheek. “It’s all right, Randy-doll. I know.”
The emptiness inside me was throbbing again as those words echoed through my head. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time to wonder at their significance; but now as I looked back I found myself wondering exactly what she’d meant. What had she known? That her sentiments were returned? Or that mine ran deeper than I was willing to say? I couldn’t have told her how I felt, even if I’d wanted to, because the truth is, I wasn’t certain myself of what my own feelings were. Melly wasn’t just another girl to me. I couldn’t look at her that way, it would be like defiling a goddess. She was my world. My foundation. My angel. And she was those things to a lot of people, not just me.
Again I was struck with the unfairness of the whole thing. If I’d been the one to die, at least Melly wouldn’t have been alone like this. Melly always had lots of friends. There was just something magnetic about her, and everyone at school loved her, despite the fact that she was always hanging out with me. If I was the one lying there in that box, Melly would be standing right where I was now, surrounded by other kids from school who would be comforting her. She would never be left alone, although I was pretty sure she would have missed me. It should have been me. I tried to picture it, what it would have been like if it had been me in that accident. Melly would probably wear white to the funeral. She always did stuff like that. She’d be standing right where I was now, holding her little white candle and looking like a glorious silver angel amidst a sea of black. And she wouldn’t be crying either. I wondered for a second why I was so sure, and that was when I remembered.
I found Melly sitting on my front porch. She hadn’t even knocked or anything, and who knew how long she’d been sitting there, but she was just sort of hunched over on the steps, leaning against the rickety rails. I knew something was wrong right away, because my folks were still at home and Melly never came over while they were there. She knew how uncomfortable it was for me to have them around her. You never knew what my parents were going to do, and I was always worried that I might have to protect her from one or the other if they happened to be in just the wrong mood. But here Melly was, sitting on my porch all alone. This couldn’t be good. I sat down next to her.
“What’s up, Melly?” She didn’t look at me… she was staring up into the sky as if at any moment she was going to transform herself into a bird and just fly away. I knew that look, and in about three seconds I understood what had happened and my blood started to boil. I stood up. “That asshole!” I said, my fingers tightening into fists. I was picturing what his face would look like when I finished mauling it. “When I get my hands on him…”
“Sit down, Randy-doll.” Her voice, that soft, musical, sad little voice made me turn to look at her. Her eyes met mine, swallowing me up and drawing me inside until I had forgotten to be angry. “It’s not Trevor’s fault. You can’t control who you fall in love with, Randy, and Trevor just isn’t in love with me.”
I shook my head, but did as she asked and sat back down. “He should have told you before, then,” I said angrily.
“He wasn’t sure of it before. I think he wanted to love me but he just can’t. Sometimes that’s the way life is.” Melly returned her gaze to the cloudless skies. “I’m sixteen years old, Randy. It’s not like I can’t find someone else.” But I could hear the uncertainty in her voice, and I still felt really ticked off with the guy. She’d been seeing him for, like, six months, and even though it got annoying to hear her constantly chattering about Trevor this, Trevor that, I was happy that she was so happy. I knew that her heart was broken, and I felt frustrated because I didn’t know what to do about it. I could always go find Trevor and deck him a few times. That would make me feel better, but I had the sneaking suspicion that it wouldn’t help Melly very much.
“You loved him,” I said. “It’s not right.” Melly didn’t answer, just laid her little head on my shoulder. Her soft, shimmery hair tickled my face, and she hugged me. She was so tiny. Even when we were standing up her head barely came to my chest. Feeling rather protective at the moment, I put my arms around her fragile, trembling form. “You can cry,” I said generously. “It’s all right.”
Melly tightened her grip around my waist, and her voice was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. “Sometimes, Randy-doll, it just hurts too much to cry.”
Hurts too much to cry, that’s what she said. I thought I understood what she meant, but I didn’t. Not until today. As I stared for the billionth time at that despicable shiny white coffin, I felt the heaviness in my chest expanding, getting bigger and bigger until I was sure that I was going to explode from the inside out with the pressure of it. I hoped that I would explode. If Melly wasn’t here, then I didn’t want to be here either. I thought about how I could do it, if the exploding didn’t work. I had to rule out my preferred method, the razor blades and the bathtub, because I’d promised Melly the last time that I wouldn’t do that again. I looked down at my wrist, and with my other hand I traced the lacy white scars there. I had wanted to die so bad, I remember. My folks were fighting again and my dad was drunk, as usual, and throwing furniture and stuff at Ma, and she was brandishing her iron at him… and I just wanted to die. But Melly got to me before I could do both wrists, and she took me to the hospital and they stitched me up and then put me in this stupid counseling program for disturbed children. I quit going after the first week because they started trying to convince me that it was my ‘confusion about sexuality’ that had brought the suicide attempt on. Melly let me quit when I told her that, but she made me swear I’d never do that again. I think that was the only time she ever got really mad at me. She said I was being selfish if I thought that dying was going to solve anything, and that if I ever tried it again, she’d have to kill me herself. I’m not sure she was kidding.
So no razor blades, then. A good strong rope and the bar in my closet would work, except that I was never very good at tying knots. I could always drive my car off the Maritime Pass or just run into the highway during rush hour, but dying by car would be too much like what happened to Melly and I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. There was that bottle of sleeping pills my ma keeps in the medicine cabinet. And of course there was Dad’s revolver, in his nightstand drawer. But no, if I did it that way both of them would blame themselves and each other and probably end up killing one another over it. Melly told me once that there are like, fifteen hundred different ways to kill yourself with ordinary household items. So I’m sure I could find one that would work for me…but without Melly’s advice, how would I be able to decide which one? I could feel the despair creeping up around the edges of my emptiness now. I was helpless without her, really. Without her, I couldn’t even commit suicide decently.
The pastor had finished giving his little eulogy, and the choir was singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” That was what I needed. A heavenly chariot that would just suddenly appear in the sky and whisk me away. But knowing Melly, she’d probably just send me back. “It’s not your turn, Randy-doll,” she’d say to me. “You’re supposed to be real first. Go be real.” But Melly, it was supposed to be me. I didn’t care anymore what anybody else thought. The choir kept on singing, and I stood up and walked over to the coffin I’d been staring at for the past hour. I set my hand on it, trying to see if somehow I could sense Melly underneath… so I could be certain, once and for all, that this was not a dream. But she wasn’t there. I couldn’t feel her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mr. Spencer rise to his feet. I think he was going to come over and stop me, but Mrs. Spencer wouldn’t let him cause a scene. I ran my hand along the smooth, polished lacquer. It seemed like a foreign object, cold and slick and empty. Melly wasn’t in there.
And that was when I smelled the baby powder. Not coming from the coffin, or from the black-clad mourners, or even from the flowers piled all over the altar. No, it wasn’t coming from anywhere. It was just there. It was everywhere, all around me. The whole world suddenly became powder-scented, and I could hear Melly’s voice again. My dream is to be real. A real person. Of course she wasn’t in the blank coffin in front of me. Because she’d finally gotten her dream. She wasn’t the perfect little display item anymore, no one had bragging rights to her now. Melly was real, because she was in me. Because of all the people in that room, I was the one who loved her the most.
And the pain disappeared. It melted away, like ice in the sun, and formed warm, salty drops that cascaded down my cheeks, splashing onto the unblemished whiteness of the coffin. I stood there, in the front of that sanctuary, and cried, and I knew then that Melly was still looking out for me, wherever she was now. She’d always be the angel on my shoulder… and everything was going to be all right.