Alice ground the lead between the lines until it faded from gray to white.
- Ruin a pencil
- Rip out a page
- Sharpen another pencil
- Pretend she could externalize depression. Maybe plead insanity for fun. Everyone wanted her to move on. She probably could, at this point, years later. But just for spite, she wouldn’t. Ok, maybe not spite—love, that’s the reason. Spite, love, whatever. She wasn’t letting go. Sometimes, that’s just the way the world needed to work.
But she was running out of distractions. Graduation, employment, adjustment. Life was simple and simple meant complacence. Sometimes she wanted to start the cycle over, try to see how many ways she could imagine the end. Just to get out of this stillness.
Oh God, here we go again.
She ripped out another page, smiling dryly. “How’s this for a metaphor?” Her motions ceased as the ghost appeared in her periphery. Alice didn’t even jump.
Maria laid on her couch, combat boots smudging the pristine fabric. (The smudges would leave when she did, but Alice wouldn’t mind if they stayed).
Alice scrunched up her face, twirling an unsharpened pencil between her fingers. “Really not in the mood for patronizing.”
Maria sighed, languidly flipping through the same bible she always brought from that place between death and hell. “Yeah, well, I’m not in the mood for indulging your self-pity.” She smiled warmly. “How have you been, my love?” She stopped flipping pages and rested the book on her lap.
“How do you think?” Alice swiveled her chair to face her. “And don’t you start going on about what’s best for me and my happiness and all that nonsense.”
“I won’t.” Maria sat up, tossing the bible on the floor. Her eyes—finally young. Almond skin cast in an eerie glow. So beautiful. “No matter how cute you are when you’re pissed.”
Alice chuckled and took her hand, threading their fingers together. “What about you?” she said. “How have you been?”
“Eh.” Maria shrugged. “It stings less, I guess. Doesn’t really burn anymore. And sometimes I get lost between here and there. Darkness still scares the shit out of me.” She smirked. “But hey, I’m a fighter, if memory serves.”
Alice smiled and shook her head. “Can I ask you a question?”
“How different am I?” Alice briefly met her eyes. “I mean, since, you know.” It was never too late for euphemisms.
“Mmm.” Maria rubbed her thumb over the back of her hand, pursing her lips. “You haven’t changed.”
“Is, um…” Alice frowned. “Is that a good thing?”
Maria placed her elbow on her lap, resting her chin in her free palm. Even now, her gaze was piercing. Comforting, though. “You tell me.”
And here we went again. Alice rolled her eyes and laughed. “You obviously haven’t changed, Staff Sergeant.”
“Well.” Maria shrugged. “I figure you could use a little routine to make up for all that craziness.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Alice looked over her shoulder at the poor, desecrated notebook on her desk. “You’re right, I guess.”
“Damn straight.” Maria turned her head back toward her with a gentle finger. “You’re running out of paper,” she whispered.
Alice’s eyes filled. “I know.”
“And I’m running out of time.”
Maria withdrew her hand. “I’m just as scared as you are.” She shrank, hands clasped on her camouflaged lap, gaze on the floor. It hurt to see her like this, without emptiness, without peace, without any of the things death promised. “Alice,” she said in a shaking voice. “Alice.” And again. “Alice?”
Alice flinched out of her trance and fumbled to grasp her hands. “Sorry, I’m sorry. What is it, baby?”
“Can you just, hold me?” Maria tightened her grip.
Alice sat beside her, arms closing around her, and pressed their foreheads together. She tried to imagine a better end, but Maria was here, and she had no more distractions. “For as long as you’ll let me.”