Amy’s cheeks redden when she laughs, her head tipping back, long trails of blonde dropping to her shoulders and down her back. Her eyes crinkle and her teeth flash in a brilliant arc of white, and she has to reach for something, a wall or a nearby shoulder, to keep herself upright while she tries not to double over. It’s a personal victory when you can get her to laugh like that, even if it’s by mistake, because it’s worlds more than a vaguely amused huff of sound, the uneven, one-sided curl of lips that form a smirk.
You didn’t even realize you’d forgotten to get rid of the camera until she finds it, hidden away in a closet beneath a ziggurat of unpacked boxes. You should have listened to your gut then, Alex Kralie, because as you’d held the thing that was almost the instrument in your destruction in your hands, running fingertips along the contours of the sleek gray and black, you could have pushed all of it aside and set the thing aflame. Purged its memory beforehand, just to be safe. If only the same could be done for you.
It would have been easier, in the end, if she’d never linked an arm through yours and laughed in just the right way, head tipping back, pulling a smile from your lips with an effortlessness that was almost enviable. It would have been easier, because you’d packed her away, all the little fragments and pieces of her, the sound of her voice on the phone, and burned it all. You should have gotten rid of the rest. You should have contained it all from the beginning, before things went so wrong.
In the passenger seat, Amy laughs. It’s an uneasy creature, a hitching, nervous thing, because you’ve not said a word since you told her you had to show her something and there was the press and click of a seatbelt and off you’d gone. She’d screamed as she scrambled down from the two-story window. You’d never screamed for a moment.
It looked at you, Alex Kralie, with such an unnerving bend and arch to its invisible gaze that even you could not hold its look. Even you could not stare at it for so long before the pain cracked your skull open like a geode and your legs buckled and your back arched and you had to go. You twisted your ankle when you landed.
Amy laughs, and her cheeks haven’t glowed in rosy contentment, because she’s not sure where it is they’re going. Why are you driving and where are you taking her, Alex Kralie?
You lock yourself in a holding pattern, Alex Kralie. You speak in a monotone that she’ll interpret as a theatrical deadpan when you say, confidential, It’s a secret.
She’s not satisfied with that, but you know, you know that it will keep her quiet for the rest of the trip. And it tightens your grip against the wheel, twitches a muscle in your jaw - the fact that you know.
She would never stop asking what it was that she saw, sticklike black shadows imprinted against yellow kitchen lights, the blaze of something unspeakable displaced into the domestic, the juxtaposition so absurd that you almost managed to convince her that it was nothing more than a break-in, something acceptably mundane.
But she looks behind her, sometimes, darting glances over her shoulder with a flare of hair and her gaze flickers, like she can’t quite focus on your face when you speak to her.
You’re a hollow son of a bitch, Alex Kralie, and you know precisely what it is you’ll have to do. You weren’t thorough about it before. You were committed to your own story, to your own denial. Letting memories waste away into nothing wasn’t enough; not for Brian, not for Tim, and certainly not for Jay. They all fought to retain something, or Jay may have simply awakened what was already there, long dormant: a stirring in their heads, shadows cast by shadows. It would have been enough if you’d only not listened to your pride, and burned the stupid tapes yourself.
It was a back door, for years. You knew it was, Alex Kralie, because it meant you could escape it any time you wanted. You were the last one left with the shrapnel left over from that impact still scoring your memory into black lines of tape, chunks of it still carved away like strikethroughs on the page, like redacted lines on a formal document. You still dreamed, Alex Kralie, and you still closed your eyes and saw the little spot of white amidst the sea of dark. How were you supposed to tell her, or anyone, that you still dreamed of the thing that unfastened you at the seams and split you into two?
It’s not your fault that you don’t want to die, Alex Kralie. You tried your hardest. You tried so very hard to press through the mantle of that inconsolable dark. You gritted your teeth and lowered your head and let each one of them wither and die so that you could live, because it is the most selfish and the most human thing to want to live. Because Amy’s hair catches the sunlight, and her laugh and her smile are the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen, so beautiful that not even the poetic language of film could capture them in their entirety. Because her fingertips had stroked at the back of one hand, the nails lacquered with something that glinted beneath the lights, and because she could listen to you talk about something for hours, laughing, finding a joy and a delight in just hearing you talk. Because she would talk, and fill the air with sound and her words, and you would grin in that slightly dopey way you knew Brian would have mocked you for. Because you could write in the same room as her and not feel scrutinized, or judged, or even worried. Because Amy was and still is the only person who can get away with tugging your laptop off from your lap, fingers catching onto yours as she pulls you away from the couch and says, in a tone of matter-of-fact no-arguments, that you’re taking a break from it all.
It’s not your fault that you don’t want to die, Alex Kralie.
It’s your fault that you tried so hard to live despite that. You knew what would happen and this, this is your price, the consequences of your actions here and now, highlighted beneath the bars of sunlight as you drive, turning a corner and slowing the vehicle. Keys clatter as you pull them from the slot, jerking the door open with a deft tug of the wrist. Amy follows because she trusts you, Alex Kralie, and you know that full well.
She starts to get nervous as you descend the steps of the old building, the basement that’s been eaten away by water damage, pipes worn away by the browned cling of rust. You remember this place, Alex Kralie, and don’t you dare deny that you’ve ever forgotten. You remember the whites in Seth’s eyes as he scrabbled away from the thing that would destroy him. You remember the desperate flail to his limbs, how badly and truly he did not want to die. None of them wanted to die. Adrenaline and that hateful human survivalist instinct pressed them onward, long past the point when they should have expired. They made things harder, that way.
It’s the most human thing in the world, the will to live. It’s inescapable. There are still splashes of red on the walls, on the pillars and the pipes, and the soft crackle of Amy’s footsteps halt.
Why did you bring me down here?
You smile at her, Alex Kralie. Now is the time to be consoling, to put a hand to her shoulder and squeeze it gently and say that it will be all right. It will be just fine. Just trust me, Amy, okay?
There’s an uncertainty in the darkness of her eyes, in the shadow of her frown, but she searches your gaze and you commit every moment of this to memory, Alex Kralie. You hold everything from the untidy way her hair falls, strands clinging to her lashes, the lack of understanding in the parting of her lips, the way her shoulders quake when she utters a weary sigh. The way she has to question it, for a moment, but ultimately trusts the warmth to your look, incapable of perceiving the specter of strain pinned behind the reassurances because you have gotten so very good at making it sound like it has simply always been there. Perhaps, beneath it all, it has. You let fingertips trail down the edge of one slim, slightly sunburned shoulder as your hand drops back to your side.
Just a little further. I promise.
Commit this to your memory, Alex Kralie. Burn it into your sockets if you have to. Everything from the smell of her perfume to the inquisitive tilt to her head, to the way she turns around with a half-smile frozen on her features, waiting for the joke’s punchline.
No monster will ever strip this from your mind, Alex Kralie. It will take every life of the night, excise every memory of her laugh and her smile and her hands beneath your shoulder blades, pulling you closer, the way the top of her head could nestle just underneath your chin, the sweat and stick and the tip of a fingernail tracing the line of your jaw. It will take everything, everything else of her, everything from her name to the particular details of her face, the spots of freckles cresting the tips of her cheeks, and you drink her in, hungrily, as she looks to and fro for what you’ve said is down here, waiting for her.
You will remember this moment for the rest of your life, Alex Kralie. You will remember it when Tim hurls it at you, voice torn and hoarse with coughing, with grief, and the lines in your cheeks will soften and his fist will swing in a wildly uncoordinated arc and puncture you with a bright sting of silver. You will remember this moment when you fold the lines of that glassy smile into your pocket, unfolding them so often that worn white marks eat across the shine of the photograph, dimming her features a fraction, day by day.
It will take everything of her, every scrap, hungrily guiding her laugh and her smile and her face and her memory into the hollow void of whatever passes for its soul. It will feed on it, maybe forever.
You will not let it take this, Alex Kralie; the moment fingers close around her throat and squeeze and constrict her windpipe. You will not let it steal the widening of her eyes, the horror, the desperation, the betrayal that Seth never had a chance to realize was there. It will not take the hurt, the fragility of her as she stops breathing, the unyielding strength of fingernails clawing down the backs of your hands and leaving reddened streaks in their wake. It will not take the scratch of skin, and it will not take the glazed stillness of eyes frozen in the despaired, muted realization that she is about to die.
It will not take the smell of gasoline, the hiss of the match struck against the box. It will not take the stench of burning hair and skin, because you will impress every inch of this memory into yourself, re-open the torn skin on the backs of your hands every time you look down, never let the chitinous cling of scabs claim the marks of her last and reduce them to the same blank canvas.
But the tear tracks clouding the lenses of your glasses, Alex Kralie; it takes those.