In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face--the face of one long dead--
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.--Longfellow
Hi sis, remember me? Sometimes I wonder if you still have any memories from the short side of eternity--or if it has all become irrelevant.
This is where it happened. This is where it all started.
The nearest interstate was miles behind me as I turned right at the flashing yellow light and slowly cruised down Main Street. There's the corner where the Gulf station was--it's a vacant lot now. The old newspaper--it's a flower shop. The grocery store--an insurance company. The Western Auto--a cafe. Everything is different, but my eyes still see it the way it was, all changeless, changeless since the day she died.
I know it's been a long time, Shan. But you are always in my thoughts. Your blue eyes, your brown hair that always seemed tangled and impossible to comb. The gap between your teeth--you were supposed to get braces that summer, remember that? And I know you aren't really here anyway. This earth holds nothing--when it was all over there was nothing left to bury here. Just a stone. Only a granite memory that will stand long after we are all gone--all of of us who knew you. A monument that strangers will someday see and wonder who you were, and why you died so young.
And there it is. Between the old Post Office and an auto parts shop, the old theater. The torn and broken screen inside hasn't seen a movie in half a century, but still it stands. This is why I'm here.
A small wrecking crane had just backed down from a big flatbed trailer and was manuvering into position. Today the old theater was coming down. It should have been torn down decades before. If it had been, she might still be alive. She might have children, children with blue eyes and tangled brown hair and gaps in their teeth. Even I might have children. My parents may have never divorced. We all might still live in this same small town, changeless.
They tore down the old theater today. I know that must not be any consolation. Have you forgiven me? Is there anything to forgive? Does it even matter anymore?
Two kids, one night. Double dares. The theater was haunted, they said. Let's go see. The back door was broken, it was easy to get inside. Rows of empty seats, filled with the emptiness of a place that was once filled with people. Saturday matinees, 3-D glasses, popcorn and Coca-Cola. Happy, happy ghosts.
There were no real ghosts, only the ghosts of our imagination. But there was something else. Something not a ghost. Something much worse, hiding and hungry in the empty darkness.
The guy working the wrecking crane knew what he was doing. Twisting the tracks a little to the left, a pause, then a little more. The ball smacked into a corner and a shower of bricks rattled down. I took out the pipe with which I was sometimes wont to amuse myself and stood, leaning against my car on the opposite side of the street. The ball swung. Bricks tumbled and fractured. I went inside the café and bought a large iced tea in a "to go" cup, came back outside, placed it on the roof of the car and resumed my position, pipe in hand, smoke swirling away and vanishing in the breeze, my eyes on the demolition across the street. I half-expected a maniacal, blood-encrusted shape to rise from the rubble, screaming in terror and pain at the mid-morning sun, collapsing into ash among the bricks and mortar, the mildewed seats and the rotted stage.
But nothing happened. In less than 90 minutes there was nothing but a pile of dirty, broken bricks and dusty, shattered memories.
I have to tell you one thing, Shan. I think he's still out there. I would say you couldn't imagine what my life is like now, but who am I to say what you can imagine, now that you are part of the infinite? Are you even part of this earth anymore? Do you watch sometimes, and weep for what I have chosen and must do?
I've learned a lot, Shan. He wasn't like most of them. He had...human foresight. He wasn't just a hungry animal like most of them. I'm still trying to find him.
I don't know why I survived and you didn't. I think about this day after day and I just don't know why. But I'm sorry. Sometimes I wish it had been me and not you. But if it had been me, would you have had the will to do what I do? I can't imagine it. I can't bring myself to imagine your beautiful smile forever erased by night after night of blood, madness and death. It's selfish of me, I know. But I want to remember you forever the way you were: your tangled hair and your flashing eyes and your crooked teeth and the way you shrieked when we had tickle-fights. Changeless.
I almost died, Shan. I wanted to. I really did. It took me a long time to recover. I had to start fifth grade all over again, but not here. By then we had moved away. Mom and Dad couldn't live here anymore. It wasn't long before they couldn't live with each other. But it wasn't your fault, Shan. It was all mine. All mine. I was the one who lived.
I and a few squirrels were the only living things in the cemetery. Halfway up the hill amidst a scattering of bluebonnets was the small stone with her name, birth and death dates. Into this peaceful silence came a strange sound, a sound a of grief and horror, and I realized that wracking sobs were tearing from me and there was nothing I could do to stop them. I wept for a little girl who never grew up, I wept for the children that were never born, I wept for a husband and wife whose sorrow drove them apart.
But I didn't weep for myself. I was the one who had lived, and for that I could never atone.