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I'm Only Going Over

There are a million of them, flicking between worlds faster than grasshoppers, the whine of their wings cicada summers, white scythes sighing.
I caught one, once. Or it caught me.
We are at a party. Teen drama of stupid petty fights that happen under electric light, in sterilized bathrooms and modern kitchens, stealing vodka from a liquor cabinet, topping up the bottles with water. Cheap crackling wine bought from under the counter at the local corner shop. She's watching us and talking to no one. Lonely, maybe. I thought she was just some friend of a friend of a friend's. No one gatecrashes lame parties like this. Louise had thrown it--telling her mom she's inviting a few friends 'round, and she's so big-eyed and neat and she'd never be like that, oh no, and of course her parents believe her.
So here we all are, half drunk on watered-down spirits and being seventeen. Some best of Pandora station is playing and it is bland as shit. I've been watching the girl from the other room, kinda falling in not-love but hey, I wanna know your name and chase your smile through the dark.
She reminds me of my childhood, when the nothings would come sit with me when I hid in the little alleyway on the side of the apartment, and tell me that it would get better. It had for them, they said. I just had to wait until the time was right. And then I grew up, and I stopped inventing imaginary saviors. Now I look for the other people who don't fit in, and we have a five-minute connection. Or a one minute, or whatever. At least they're real, and we both know no one's ever going to save us.
She's one of us, dragged here to a stranger's house by someone who has already deserted her. We could be soul mates.
Russell is well on his way to falling-down drunk, making out with some girl he'll mock in the morning. Tracy, looks like. He hates Tracy. He's just doing this to make Janine jealous. It's all so bloody pathetic. I look away from the bodies on the couches, from the middle-class floor lamps with their middle-class fringes, back to the girl on her own. I walk over, proud that I don't stumble or trip. I am completely cool.
The friend of a friend of a friend is sitting on the kitchen counter, black hair falling over her face, head bowed, feet swinging. She's wearing a long scarlet coat in some fluttery material that drapes and flows as she moves. She's got a cigarette thin as a matchstick in one hand, but I never see her smoke it. It doesn't smell right. Not like weed either, too dry and clean. The smoke veils her hand, twisting about itself, dragons chasing their own tails.
"Hey," I say, because I am suave as fuck. I am drunk on lethe water and running away. I have bruises across my ribs and a black mark on my heart. This gives me courage. The friend of a friend of a friend could say anything and it wouldn't hurt. "You know Louise?"
She looks up, unsmiling, confused. "Louise--oh, right." She glances over to where our merry hostess is trying to clean up the mess as it's made, panic starting to eat into her eyes. "Not her, no. I'm not here for her."
"Oh?" I settle, leaning back against the kitchen island so that I'm almost facing her. "Someone else, then?"
"Yes." She digs in the pocket of her red coat, and I hear a skittery rustling like insects crawling over each other in the dark. She pulls out a folded piece of paper, thick and torn at the edges. "Janine."
Odd thing to do. "Yeah, I know her--"
"Russell," she continues, "Tracy, Benjamin." She folds the paper up again, sets it back in her pocket. "I'm a little early," she says with a shrug. "It happens. The department isn't exactly run by geniuses."
I take another sip from my coke. It's rum-sweet, and it's the only way this conversation will make sense. "Ben," I tell her. "No one calls me Benjamin."
The girl's face changes. Where before she looked bored, a little out of place, now she looks completely other. It passes in a millisecond, just a flash where for a moment she wasn't sulky and young, but ageless, her skin like drying fish scales, hair made of knotted darkness. "Dammit," she says. "I thought you were--never mind. That shouldn't happen. Not today. You can't be on two lists, though it explains why you can see me."
"Can't I?" I finish my coke. The room is swimmy and strange, and I have to focus, to keep her at the center of my world. Of course I can see her, it's the only way the universe stays in place. "What's your name?"
"Jordan," she says. "Like the river."
"Yeah? Your parents all crazy religious?" Mine are, so I know how that story goes. I need another drink, but I don't want to leave Jordan, half-convinced that if I turn my back on her she'll slip away. I scan the counters--someone's left a half-finished beer and I take it, checking first that they haven't used it as an ashtray.
"I forget," Jordan says. She finally takes a drag of her cigarette, and when she does, it's like she becomes more real. More there. "Maybe."
Now there's an opening to a conversation if ever I saw one, but I'm not stupid enough to take it. You gotta be careful with those kind of statements. I make them myself. I open the door wide enough to see who will walk forward before I slam it in their face. "So what two lists am I on?"
"Dead and Deader," she says, and sticks out her tongue. "Forget it. You can only be on one."
"You're crazy," I tell her, like she hasn't noticed. "It's a good crazy. Manic pixie dream girl goes Goth"
"Deader," she says. "I'm putting you on deader. That's for insulting me."
"I was trying to chat you up, not insult you." The beer tastes awful, like something died in it. I grimace and push myself away from her so I can go pour the rest down the drain. I need to sober up, anyway. Gotta get home. Russell's lifting me and if I get back to the house smelling like alcohol, and obviously drunk, I'll be asking for it. "Where do you think they keep the coffee?"
"There." Jordan points to a corner cupboard with the remains of her cigarette. It's almost out. "And the mugs are in that one." She points to another cupboard. "Milk is in the fridge." Flicks the stompie vaguely in the direction of the bin. I don't see it land.
"Milk I could have worked out for myself." But I'm grinning. I like her. I select two cups--one black and one white, both with cartoon red hearts on them. Tacky shit. "How do you take yours?"
"I don't--" She glances up at the clock that looks like a giant Marie biscuit stuck to the wall. "Oh, what the hells, it's not like I'm in a hurry. Lots of milk, three sugars."
We drink our opposite-world coffees, looking at each other and saying nothing. She doesn't smile, and I like that. I like how she looks unfriendly and spiky and full of hate all while drinking something sweeter than melted ice cream and milkier than baby porridge. I like how the kitchen lights make her look like she's crowned in stars, and the shadows splay around her like vulture feathers. I like how she reminds me of falling.
"Don't get in the car," she says, and puts down her empty cup. "I'll give you time to say goodbye."
She comes back for me. After the crash.
"Deader, remember?" Jordan takes my hand and she's not cold, or warm, or anything. It's like holding smoke. "We always need replacements. Deaths get lost all the time. It's a long stretch between here and there, and some of us go missing in the dark."
"You saw me." She's serious, brow pinched. "No one sees the Deaths, unless they've been put on the shortlist. Or, you know, just after." She looks away, and her hands are strong as claws, there's no escaping her. "It won't be so bad. It's not like dying."
"Really." It's all I can say. My throat is tight, it feels like it does after I've been choked. This is not how things were meant to go. I was going to leave home, put myself through university, get a decent job. "How's that?" When I move, my skin sounds like the sawing of cicadas, the shriek of a million locusts.
"Oh, dying always ends," she says. "It's Death that takes forever."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 11th, 2015
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