When I open my eyes, Death is waiting for me. Right where I left him.
He lies on his side, facing me, one hand cradling my cheek. His pale face is fringed by raven hair, peeking out from his soft hood. His nose is long and straight, his mouth, concerned, and his eyes are the colour of rain.
He slides off my mattress, waiting for me to uncurl and stand. He lingers in the shadow cast by my bookcase as I rise.
I reach for today’s outfit; he turns his back. With fumbling fingers, I unbutton my nightgown, and pull on a white shirt and grey skirt.
Facing the world is never easy. He leans against my door when I try to tug it open – until I finally wrench it free and stagger, bleary and weary and half-blind with sleep, down the hallway. As I reach the kitchen, I hear the rustle of his cloak; the padding of his feet behind me.
Don’t worry, he is saying. I am coming.
He is my silent companion at breakfast. Watching as I spill milk on the table, and then soak it up with a tea-towel. I pour cereal into my bowl; it hits the ceramic with an empty clatter. Then I pour the carton of milk again, and try to get it in the bowl. He stares as I force myself to chew and swallow. The cereal tastes like clotting bile.
I get ready for school. Cross another day off my seniors’ diary. We will leave the house empty. Mum tells me to do something with my hair, so I drag a brush through it. My thin form looks lonely in the bathroom mirror, but he stands beside me. When my hair tangles, he lays a hand over mine – as though wishing to unthread the knot. His expression is one of quiet, enduring pain.
His hood falls from his head as we walk to the bus stop. I take a moment to examine his hair: black snow. While we wait, I adjust the bag on my shoulder. He reaches to take my load, and then lets his arm fall.
He takes the seat next to me on the bus. Others shout, throw things, laugh, tease and bully, but we ride through three blocks in shared silence. Then the bus slows, and new passengers clamber aboard.
‘Can I sit here?’
The girl is pink-faced, breathless. Her bag looks like it was designed to grind her into the ground. The zip is broken.
I shake my head, but he’s already slipped from the seat to offer it to her. She doesn’t so much as glance at him, but slumps into it immediately. Her ideas tumble over each other in a hurry to be expressed, and then her one-sided conversation wanders into the sort of mindless drone that I hear anywhere, at anytime.
He listens to her with mild curiosity, but it’s me he watches. When our eyes meet, his mouth tweaks into a sad smile.
He is patient in the line to exit the bus. Sombre during assembly. When the desk next to me is free, he takes it. When it isn’t, he stands in the aisle, and moves aside when others edge past.
When it is time to go home, we cross the field together, back to the bus stop. A woman wearing a polo shirt and shorts runs by in the opposite direction, colliding with his shoulder. Stumbling, the woman loses her stride – but then gathers her balance and runs on.
He rubs his shoulder.
‘Did it hurt?’
His gaze is unwavering, but he doesn’t answer me.
At night, he leans in the bathroom doorway as I choke down two small, chalky spheres. I massage my throat, tip some more water down, and hope I can sleep. My mattress is soft, my quilt, warm, but everything in me feels jagged.
Lying down in bed, he nestles in close to me.
‘I still hurt.’
His eyes search mine; he bows his head.
Tears build in my windpipe. Leaning in, I sneak a kiss onto his forehead. He sighs.
‘Will you be here when I wake up?’
Pressing my hand to his heart, he nods.
Emily Larkin is an Australian author who is undertaking a Doctor of Creative Arts, and has published fiction in international journals including The Zodiac Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Meniscus, and Seizure. In her free time, Emily enjoys spending time with her family and friends, reading, and having long conversations with her characters. Her picture book The Whirlpool features illustrations by award-winning artist Helene Magisson, and was published by Wombat Books in May, 2017. To read Emily’s blog and fiction, visit www.ehlarkin.com.
–Background Art by Milton G. (Paradise Found)
–Foreground Art by Xavier (abstrkt.ch)