This is one of the February Writing Challenge entries that was chosen to be a featured story.
She’s standing under the streetlamp, kicking forgotten cigarette butts off the sidewalk. Her fingers curl and uncurl to the beat of the minutes dripping away. She’s like everyone else — always living ten hours ahead of their self, always leaving the right time behind. She has no idea that she doesn’t have much time left, but I do.
She’s the type of girl who usually gets unnoticed, but tonight, under the burning light, she is at her most beautiful. With her make-up long since washed out, only the shadows pain their tricks on her skin. They reach for her so she’s bathing in only half-light, making her appear invincible against the brittleness of the night. Her hair falls down on her shoulder, a lick of golden flame aglow, burning out at the tips. There is a red scarf around her neck, worn at the edges. She rocks on her tiptoes now and then, and like that, she is a pastiche of a child watching her innocence wisp into nostalgia.
The people passing by don’t know her name, but I know who she is. In fact, I’ve met her grandmother, her mother, her great uncle, and everyone else down the line.
I’ve met every single soul that has been, and I will meet every single soul that will be. I will meet you, too, someday. But tonight, I bore my eyes on this girl.
A breeze sweeps from under her feet, makes her stumble back on the pavement, towards the time she was seventeen and the only boy she’d love had left nothing but stardust in her wake.
There is this misconception that before a person leaves this world for good, his entire life flashes before his eyes — all the happy memories, the heartaches, the firsts and lasts. Let me be the one to clarify this for you: It does not happen that way. When Death—that is, when I knock on your door, I am not a film of every second of your life in fast forward. I am simply the person you’ve shared your heart with.
To a mother, I am her daughter. To a soldier, I am his best friend. To a doctor, I am the first person he has saved. And to the boy this woman had loved, I am her in my prom dress, leaning into his ear to tell him that I love him—that she loves him.
Now, she tucks her hair behind her ear as I watch her with intent. I can see through her actions, through every layer of her, the person she is aching to see, the person she has offered her heart to all these years.
I see scraped knees and dusty slides, winter trails and the same red scarf around her neck, wrinkled shirts and worn shoes, stolen kisses and wishful promises, hospital walls and the shackles of a broken heart.
She puts a foot forward, and then another, and another.
The light comes from her left, followed by a long, rumbling horn. Tires screech against the drying asphalt. She barely dodges back to the sidewalk just in time for the car to skid back on its tracks, toward her and the sidewalk and the streetlamp. It swivels twice, thrice, and she’s thrown back, the world spinning underneath her. She struggles for breath.
And then she sees me — a boy in his teens, the way she remembers him. Radiant and alive.
Emotions dance across her face: first, confusion. And then disbelief. And then recognition. And then, one which would have broken my heart had I one: love.
She reaches out just as I do, but our fingers do not meet. Instead, I reach further to touch the scarf and pull a stray thread off. I smile. I know what to say — what he would’ve said. “You kept it.”
“I did.” She wheezes. She does not have much strength to speak, but I hear her thoughts, what she ought to say. God, I don’t know why I did. It’s hideous.
I laugh because he would’ve laughed at that. I duck my head, slowly, until I am only a breath away from her lips. She closes her eyes, inhales.
And our lips touch.
And just like that, she, too, turns into stardust.