Dust in the Wind
The sky was blue on that day in early August when she passed away. The surrounding beauty did little to mask the hideousness of the scene that spread itself at my feet. She lay in a coffin of unadorned wood, her cold hands folded over her chest. I never imagined a nineteen-year-old could be so small and fragile. The elegant baby blue dress sagging off her tiny body could not hide the bones that protruded from her shoulders, chest and hips. Two months ago, she had looked ethereally radiant. Seeing her lying so still in this eternal cradle brought tears to my eyes. We say men shouldn't cry; we're wrong.
There were only a handful of mourners. No one saw her for what she really was. No one wanted to. Her family - those that could take time out of their busy schedules -looked down at her with mixed expressions. Some bore the same grief as I, but the rest wore transparent masks of false sorrow which did little to hide the relief that eased into their tired faces. The facade intensified the reality I was struggling against. A part of me understood their relief; the burden of caring had been lifted. But I longed for that burden to be placed on my shoulders once again. Sometimes I think I was the only person who truly cared about her, aside from her parents. I was, after all, the person she confided in, and the only friend that had shown up. I remember asking myself how, If God exists, he could allow such a talented and wonderful person to suffer so much. Of course, that's something we all ask ourselves when standing at the grave of someone we love, isn't it?
No one could help her; perhaps some did not even fully understand why they were here today. When she was alive, they hadn't known to call her beautiful. Now, desire for physical perfection had killed her. I wished at that moment that she were naked; then perhaps, the mourners gathered here would understand the truth and feel the regret they aught to.
Her name was Lilliane Shepherd, but to most people, she was Lilly. I met her eight months before that sad day in August. She was still only eighteen, which made me feel ancient. I had just turned 21, and begun working towards an English degree. I'd seen Lilianne around, but she was just part of the vast moving tapestry of faces that made up the background of college life. I know now that was her intention. Someone who desires to remain withdrawn from the rest of the world will usually do so to the best of their abilities. Only the people they are trying to hide from ever seem to see them.
The first time I really noticed her, she was walking down the hall. She had a certain way of walking that suddenly caught my attention and made me feel sorry for her. Her head was down, and her hair formed a Curtin on either side of her face. She clung to a stack of binders like they were a rock in a churning sea. Her steps were quick and calculated, but every so often, she would quicken her pace, then stop again. I was writing a short story, but it wasn't going very well and I was hoping for a distraction. I put down my pen and said "Hello" as she walked past. She jumped as if I had slipped an ice cube down the back of her shirt. What followed was one of those scenes from every romance movie ever made. I feel corny talking about it. When she jumped, her arms opened and her armload of binders clattered to the floor. Papers skittered across the linoleum. Her mouth fell open and a shallow squeak escaped her throat.
I sat stunned for a moment, watching as she frantically tried to pick everything up. Her hands trembled and papers kept slipping out of her grasp. The scene would have been funny if not for that little squeak of surprise.
Carefully, not wanting to make things worse, I got up and walked over to her. She ignored my approach, either pretending I wasn't there or hoping I was just going to pass by. I slowly bent down to help her. The papers were scattered, but there was still a semblance of order. I scooped up each pile and handed it to her. They were probably not in perfect order, but she took them and stuffed each pile back into its binder with quick careless movements.
When I touched her hand, trying to signal for her to let me take care of it, she flinched.
"It's alright, I've got it."
What else was I supposed to say? With a stack of binders in my arms, I stood up. She stood up too, head lowered, hands laced over her stomach. "Here you are. I hope everything's in order. Sorry about that." She flinched once more, but only slightly. As I watched her for a moment, she slowly unlaced her hands and allowed me to place the binders in her arms.
"Thank you." She didn't look up. I'll never forget how shy she sounded, as if even the idea of thanking someone frightened her. As I watched her walk away, I noticed the rhythm of her steps was constant now and her head was slightly raised
I know this all sounds like a sappy beginning to a love story. I guess, in a way, it is. Some cliches can't be helped. It wasn't love at first sight, but that day, I did feel a warmth flow through me at the sight of her slightly open arms as she accepted my help.
Our first true meting happened a few weeks later. I was leaving the office of my Creative Writing professor. I had been in to see him about the same short story I'd been writing before my first encounter with Lilianne. It was around 8PM and most of the school was deserted. Other things over the years, including my time spent with Lilliane have faded a bit in my memory, but this particular event stands out.
The way I found Lilliane made me carefully consider the concept of fate. I intended to catch a bus home and edit my story to within an inch of its life. From the class room, you go down a long hall, turn left and go down another long hall. From there it is a big rectangle, with the hall you are standing at at one end, and the door leading outside at the other. I took the right path, and got half way down the right side of the rectangle. A mental nudge prompted me to retrace my steps and take the left side instead. The left hall was lined with lockers on the left and offices on the right. Mid way down the hall there was a dark alcove amidst the lockers, leading to other offices. She was hiding in that alcove.
If the deserted hall had not intensified the sound of her quiet sobbing, I would have missed her. I'll never forget how she looked, huddled in the corner of the alcove. Her arms were wrapped tightly around a green backpack, and she was crying softly into its rough fabric. Even in the darkness, I could see the dried blood on the back of one hand. There wasn't a great deal of it, but at the time, it scared the crap out of me.
There was a light switch on the wall beside her. I debated turning it on. I wanted her to look up; I wanted to see her face. Dumb idea, I thought. Don't want to startle her. Instead, I slowly approached her as I had done before. She made no move to acknowledge my presence. When I kneeled beside her and put a hand on one of her trembling shoulders, her sobs cut off and her arms tensed around her backpack. I hated seeing her that way. I felt like an idiot. Should've just turned the light on. I thought about walking away, but I had already startled her.
I let go of her shoulder. "Are you alright?" She said nothing. I didn't know if she was in shock or embarrassed. I dropped my voice to what I hoped was a soothing whisper and tried again. "It's alright now. I'm not going to hurt you." It came out sounding scripted, at least to my ears. She still didn't look up, but I saw that she had loosened her hold on her bag a little. "Do you remember me? We met a couple weeks ago and I helped you pick up your books?" This time, when she didn't respond, I gently touched her shoulder once more. I was sure physical contact would only make things worse, but I was growing desperate. This whole situation was a new experience for me.
"Please, I'm not going to hurt you." I tried to keep the plea out of my voice. "I want to help. Won't you tell me what happened?"
She slowly looked up. My eyes had adjusted to the gloom, and before her Curtin of hair covered it, I got a good look at her face. There was more dried blood on one cheek. I sensed her gazing intently at me. I felt like a fly pegged to a board.
"Oh, it's you again. Of course I remember. Please go away. I'll be fine." Then as an afterthought, she added: "I always am."
There was a tired familiarity in her voice. I didn't think this was the first time. As if to confirm this, she suddenly said: "I'm used to it, but it always scares me."
"Used to what?" she fell silent.
Again I thought of walking away. Certainly it would be easier. But seeing her hugging herself in that dark hallway ... It did something to me, something I can't explain. I don't think I could have left no matter what. What if whoever had done this came back? I felt a responsibility. Not an obligation, but rather a worry that drove its way deep inside my heart.
I gently put my hand under her chin and lifted her head so she would look at me. She didn't struggle. I imagined that she didn't care what happened to her, but I came to learn that she cared more about herself than even she knew.
When I brushed the hair out of her face, she made a half-hearted attempt to lower her head. I studied her for a long moment. Her face was lovely, despite the blood and the swelling. Her left cheek was puffy, as if she was a squirrel gathering food for the winter. Her top lip was split open and this was undoubtedly the source of the blood. She gingerly wiped her mouth with the back of her bloody hand. Her lip had stopped bleeding, and the gash didn't appear to be deep.
I kept my voice soft and looked into her brown eyes. "What happened to you, Lilliane? Who hurt you?"
She didn't speak for a long moment. When at last she did, her words took me by surprise. "Call me Lilly."
"What?" I couldn't make sense of the words.
"Can you call me Lilly?"
I couldn't help laughing. "But Lilianne is so much prettier."
She attempted to smile, but fresh blood welled up from her cut lip. The smile died.
I let go of her chin and allowed her head to drop. "Come on, Lilly." let's go get you cleaned up."
"Please leave me alone."
I hesitated. How could someone who was obviously feeling so terrible refuse help. Sometimes it's better not to understand. If she were used to refusing help, then that was all the more reason to try. We all need someone to turn to in our times of need, even if we don't think we do. I had learned that sometimes, people can cry out for help simply by refusing it. The paradox is not constant, but more often than not, we turn away from others with the hope that they will help us. We don't want to seem dependant. We believe dependence is a weakness. We couldn't be more wrong.
"I'm not going to just leave you here like this. What if they come back?"
"They won't." I barely heard her.
"They might. Maybe this won't be enough for them." She tensed. "What if you don't hear them come? You're in a corner; you'll have nowhere to run."
"Stop!" Her head snapped up and she glared at me.
Do you think my method cruel? Do you ask if I felt any remorse for using fear to get her attention? If so then yes, I did. It was not right of me to get what I wanted by frightening her. Even then I knew that. But sometimes fear motivates when kindness fails.
I probably should have waited outside and let her clean herself up. Instead, I guided her into the bathroom and brought her to the sink. I want to make a note here that, though I might be making her sound helpless, she really wasn't. She would have been more than capable of doing it herself. Perhaps relief or indifference prompted her to let me lead her, but if I had not come along, she would have gotten up on her own, cleaned herself up, and gone home as if nothing had happened. That's what people like her do, they hide the truth from others, but in doing so, they eventually hide it from themselves.
At the sink, I raised her head once more. The blood washed from her skin easily, leaving her face clear and beautiful. Washing the matted blood out of her hair proved to be a task that tap water and soap could only scratch. When I was done, I let go of her chin and expected to see her head lower once again. To my surprise, she looked embarrassed, but kept her eyes level with mine.
"Thank you," she said "now could you..." She trailed off, pointing towards the door, then at one of the stalls. I smiled sheepishly.
It took her only five minutes to come back out, but that was long enough for me to retrieve the backpacks we had left in the alcove. When she emerged, I saw a girl who had transformed from a cowering soul into a vibrant beauty. When I say "beauty", I do not mean super Model material. Girls like that have a certain artificial loveliness formed by hours of preparation and the right products. When I say "beauty" I am referring to so much more. Lilliane's skin was deeply tanned, what some would call "beach brown". Her silky hair flowed to the small of her back and was a glossy caramel colour that accentuated her skin. Her eyes were hazel and shown with intelligence and awareness. There was nothing artificial about either her looks or her personality. Girls like Lilliane have the kind of charm that will draw anyone who takes the time to get to know them. They can never explain it, nor can anyone who falls under their spell. It is often never intentional, and like them, never artificial. That is how she was beautiful. She was who she was, and not something created. From the moment I saw her huddled in the corner, I felt drawn to her. It was partially the desire to help someone who clearly had more to their being then what common people saw, and the rest ... to this day I can not explain the rest.
"Do you feel any better?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
I offered her bag. "You should go home. You look exhausted."
"I can't go home yet," she replied after a short silence.
I thought quickly. "Tell you what. There's a Tim Horton's a couple blocks away. Are you up for something to drink?"
So began our time together. I wish I'd gotten a chance to ask why she responded to me so quickly, but in the end I suppose it doesn't matter.
We learned much about one another that first night. Sitting at a corner table in Tim Horton's all evening, sipping on hot chocolate and talking without pause. I told her about myself, how I was an aspiring writer and how I wanted to one day be like Stephen King. King wrote for the pure joy of it, rather than the money, and while some money would be nice, that is what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to take my readers to another place and capture their interests - that's what most writers hope for I guess. I let her read the short story I had been working on the day I'd helped her with her books: Sabrina's Choice.
She read the whole thing, and when she looked up at me after she was done, she was smiling. The memory of that first real smile has stayed with me ever since.
She handed the pages back to me. "Wow! you're a great writer."
I laughed as I put the pages back into my bag. "It's not that great."
She put down her drink and looked solemnly at me. "Yes it is. The part where you described Sabrina running away from home was wonderful. I can really relate to it. You're going to make a great writer; everyone will love you."
I couldn't bring myself to ask how she could relate. She was talking to me, there were no tears and her head was raised. That was enough for me.
Most of the conversation that night was lost in time, but I'll never forget the important parts. She told me about her family. She told me about how they expected so much from her, and never seemed to be satisfied. They were furious that she was going to a college rather than a prestigious university. I told her that going to college was nothing to be ashamed of, as it prepares you for university, and that her parents only wanted the best for her, which turned out to be true.
Her parents put her in choir at a young age. She said she loved to sing. I asked her to sing for me that first night, but she wouldn't.
"I don't feel comfortable singing for people I don't know, no offence."
"How do you sing in front of people during a performance?"
"That's different. In choir, you're singing for yourself, and alongside other people who sing with you."
I pondered this, but couldn't understand it.
I don't know how late it was when we finally left Tim Horton's. I walked her home. I guess I was still worried about her. I suppose a part of me wanted to see where she lived. Most of me, however, was compelled to stay with her as long as possible. I enjoyed her company, and the ease with which she spoke to me. I did not understand why she spoke with me so freely, but I recognized that she did, and was certain she didn't do it with many people. On the way, I asked her again what had happened to her earlier. This time, she told me.
"There were two of them. One was a girl who was auditioning with me for a solo part in the next choir performance. Personally I think she was better than me, but our judge was an idiot. He picked me for some stupid reason, and she got jealous. She and some other girl cornered me in the stairwell. One of them punched me." She caressed her swollen cheek with one hand. "I ran, but one of them tripped me and I hit my chin on a step. I thought they were going to do more, but they just laughed and swore at me. Then they left."
I Couldn't believe it. "How can people be so petty?"
"It's alright, I'm fine." Then, after a few seconds she added: "It was worth it."
"How could it be worth it?"
"If it hadn't happened I never would have met you."
Her words filled me with warmth that relieved my freezing limbs. I didn't know how to reply. Instead, I smiled. She stopped and smiled at me in return.
"Thank you for everything. I had a wonderful evening. It was a nice change ... But for your own sake, please leave me alone after this." Then, quickly and quietly, she kissed my cheek and fled into the night. The touch of her lips on my skin warmed my heart and chilled my blood when I realized she was gone. The night was empty and cold as I stood in the middle of the sidewalk gazing after her.
I couldn't leave her alone. We went to the same college, so it was easy for me to find her. She didn't really want me to leave her alone. I could see it in her eyes the next time I saw her. She had only been trying to protect me before I got too close. It was already too late. I was enthralled by her. I would have gone through anything to see her happy.
Over the next two months our friendship blossomed. I don't remember much about that time, but I think anyone who has ever met and gotten close to a stranger will understand. Then, something happened that changed things between us.
It was a cold evening in February. My parents - yes, I still lived with them, deal with it - had gone out for the evening. I had invited Lilliane over for a while. She had needed help on an English assignment - the only subject I felt half confident with.
It wasn't a good day for her. I don't recall why. She was getting frustrated with my examples of dangling modifiers. When she suddenly stood and went into the bathroom I had thought nothing of it. I'd gotten up and gone into the kitchen to pore us some more drinks. The bathroom was on the way. As I was coming back from the kitchen, I heard her. The sound was quiet, but the house was quieter.
I put down the glasses and crossed to the bathroom. I heard the toilet flush before I got half way there, and then the tap running. I stood in the middle of the hallway for a moment, then the door opened. She emerged into the hall, and I knew. Many times I have tried to figure out how I knew. I concluded that sometimes we just know things. I've been that sort of person for as long as I can remember. It isn't magic nor any sort of psychic ability - though I'm sure abilities like that exist - it is just knowing.
"Are you alright?"
Of course she lied. "Yeah, I'm okay. I'm just feeling a little sick."
I led her to the living room and set down the glasses I'd retrieved; I was no longer thirsty. I looked into her eyes. In them, I saw the truth. She held my gaze. "How long?"
She sighed dejectedly. "Three years."
"It's not so bad."
"It's not natural."
She laughed. "What is?" I couldn't respond. "It keeps me in check."
"It will kill you one day."
She sipped her drink. "Everything will. At least I'll leave a skinny corpse." She put her glass down and turned away.
"You're already too skinny," I pointed out. It was true, and I cursed myself for not seeing it sooner. In the two months since I'd known her, her body had shrunk considerably. Her sweater sagged on her.
She looked down at herself. Disgust crossed her face. "I'm fat," she said. Her voice was full of resentment.
"You're beautiful," I countered. Somehow I had to make her see that. I was in way over my head and the water was foreign. Perhaps I had no business trying to refute her lifestyle when I knew nothing about it. What I did know was that here was a lovely girl sitting before me, now sitting bolt upright and gazing at me, wide eyed. Her extreme skinniness was a mockery of the vision she truly was. How I longed to make her realize this. Perhaps, at the end, I partially succeeded.
I reached over and laid my hand against hers. I looked into her eyes. How I hoped at that moment that her fingers would clench mine, but her hand remained motionless. I repeated myself in a whisper. "You're beautiful."
She shook her head, but her hand never moved from mine. "I'm not, I'm a cow."
I squeezed her hand. "What makes you say that?"
"Nothing. It's just how I feel. It's like a drug. Bones are beautiful. Skinniness is just so ... perfect."
"No Lilianne, it's terrible. It's a sign of being unhealthy ... of dying. You have no reason to be either. You're beautiful, and not just physically. Even when I first saw you when you came out of that bathroom, I thought you were beautiful."
"I worked the magic," she stated, raising two fingers. The gesture appalled me, but it also strengthened my desire to help her.
"That magic is killing you, Lilianne. You have a wonderful heart and a very pretty form. If you do this to yourself, you'll become very sick."
"I was, but I got better."
I took her hand and laced my fingers through hers. Her grip tightened slightly and I wondered, in spite of the grim situation, whether she'd just been scared to take my hand, or was doing it to humour me.
"I don't want you to be sick, Lilliane," I said. "You're too wonderful to be put through that for no good reason."
"I'm a big girl. I can handle it if it happens. But I'm ok. I hardly even do it anymore."
"Please don't lie to me alright? I know you're not okay. You're getting smaller every day. There's hardly any of you left now."
Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I'm sorry. I told you, you should have left me alone."
I let go of her hand and put my arms around her. She stiffened for a moment, then began to tremble just a little.
"But I'm stubborn. And you know what?"
"I don't regret it a bit."
She put her arms around me loosely. "I'm scared. I tried to stop, but I've been like this for so long. I don't think I can ever change. I don't think I'll ever be okay with the way I look. Every morning I get on the scale, and if the number isn't lower then it was the day before, I feel dirty."
I wanted to reply. I wanted to tell her she wasn't dirty. But she had begun talking, and so I just held her and let her words wash over me.
"When I purge, I feel better, at least for a time. I can look at myself and not think I'm ugly. But it never lasts. I'm always left feeling the same. The pounds keep sliding away, and I still think I'm fat. I've been in the hospital; I know what it's like, and every day, I promise myself I'll never go back. I tell myself that I can get through this."
She tightened her grip, pulling herself closer. I felt her trembling body against mine. Her bones stuck out, and I could feel each individual rib, even through our clothes. "I can't go back. They don't care about me. Once, they kept me in this dark little room for two hours while I screamed and cried. They just put you out of sight until you calm down. I can't go through that again." She drew in a shuddering breath. "I'll get over this. I'll manage somehow."
I stroked her hair, so soft under my fingers. "All you have to do is stop throwing up. But before you can do that, Lilliane, you have to feel good about yourself."
If I knew the right answer to such a question, I'd have been a psychologist. I said what I believed.
"You have to realize that no matter how many people tell you things that make you feel bad, there will always be others that think you're wonderful. There will be times where you hate the world, and everyone in it because no one seems to care, or that they insult you, or think you're not good enough. And in times like those, you need to remember that there are always people who think you're wonderful, and who value you."
"There aren't many people like that. If I died, I don't think any of my friends would come to my funeral."
As innocent as this statement was, it turned out to be true. But had people gotten to know Lilliane as I did, they would have learned that she was much more than she seemed. But humanity is cowardly, and shuns anything they don't understand. Many people will not bother seeing past the first impression. When you walk around with your head down and carrying a big backpack, people will either not give you a second look, or criticize you for it.
You're not going to die any time soon, so don't you even worry about that."
"Look at you, you're shaking. What's wrong?"
"I don't know. I think I should go now though. It's getting late."
I walked her home to keep her company and safe. I thought I had made some progress with her, and there was no way I'd allow some walking penis to shatter any chances she had of pulling through.
When I met up with Lilianne a few days later, it felt like she'd forgotten our conversation. She hadn't, but she couldn't flip a switch and stop either. Over the next few months, we had many similar conversations. Gradually, she began to accept my compliments with a smile. I worked hard to keep her from throwing up while I was with her, but I was rarely successful. There were two or three instances where she overcame the urge during the hours we were together. Each time I felt a step closer to making her better. She told me of days where she woke up feeling wonderful and did not even look at the scale. Days like that were beautiful for her. But always there was that insistent little voice, and she'd find the scale glaring up at her, as if enraged at having been forgotten. When that happened, she would purge and revel in the afterglow.
A few months before her real suffering began I managed to get her to come with me to my parents' cabin. It was May. The snow had long since been chased away by the sleepy sun. Lilianne must have come up with one hell of a story for her parents. My parents knew her well by then; they loved her. They were the ones that brought the idea up. I knew it would be good for her.
We stayed for two days, and they were the last happy days we had together. We both loved every minute, and if she purged she kept it well-hidden from my watchful eyes. She once told me that during times when she was truly happy, she very nearly forgot about it.
We had a good talk that first night. It was similar to the many we had always had, but something about this one made it seem more important. Perhaps it was because Lilianne loved the outdoors. She told me she felt at home at the cabin. In the short time I'd known her I had never seen her more lively. When I told her she was beautiful, she blushed. She was optimistic in a way that gave me hope.
That night I told her about a trail we had discovered many years ago that led to a plateau overlooking a small waterfall. Her face lit up in a way I had never seen before. In that moment, beauty was not a strong enough word. I promised to take her there the next day.
We got an early start in the morning. We walked slow, taking in the scenery. I have always loved walking this trail. Many times I have gone up to the plateau to write. I sit here now as I write this, and the memory is making it hard to concentrate.
We had to stop and rest several times. I hadn't known her body was so week.
When we reached the plateau, Lilianne let out a joyful cry and her face became angelic. She sped ahead of me and stood at the edge of the plateau, gazing below us at the rushing waters. I joined her and took her hand. She kept looking around and her angel's face sent little shocks through me.
The clearing is completely flat and covered with grass. There is a river far below, the water is always white with spray. The waterfall was no Niagara but still a sight to behold. It falls straight down the rocky wall to your right if you are standing at the edge. As we stood there, the wind blew spray in our faces. The little drops of water reflected off her skin.
"It's so beautiful here."
"I'm glad you like it."
We stood silently for a long time, holding hands and watching the scenery before us. As beautiful as it remains to me, its true splendor is locked in the perfection of that day. I can gaze at the place where we stood, and remember everything in an instant. This is our place. When I remember how happy she was here, even for one day, a warmth flows through me. Sappy? Perhaps.
After a while, we sat down on the grass and had a picnic. She ate well that day, smiling the entire time.
Afterwards, we sat in the kind of comfortable silence where words seem like an intrusion. The only sound was that of the natural world, and the peace in the air was almost tangible.
"Thank you," Lilianne said after a while.
Lost in the tranquility, I barely heard her. "For what?
"For bringing me here. For showing me this wonderful place ... for caring about me. You mean so much to me now, I owe you so much."
I drew her closer and ran my fingers through her hair. A clump of fine strands clung to my fingers. I managed not to gasp. I preyed she couldn't feel my heart. "Sweetheart, you don't owe me a thing."
"I told you I was complicated, I told you it would be better if you go. Why didn't you?"
"Because I love you," I blurted out.
Her head, which had been lying on my shoulder, suddenly snapped up. She gazed at me in surprise, her mouth half-way open. "You what?"
"I love you. You've done so much for me too, and you don't even know it."
"I-I -" She tried again. "I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say a word."
My affection for her had grown daily, and that day, I came to realize that it was love I felt. Some might say it was premature, this foolish devotion, but love doesn't depend on time, rather it is determined by the course of lives that intertwine. True love is a rarity. Infatuation is what confuses people into saying they love someone. There was no doubt in my mind that what I said was true, and I had no misgivings as to my reasoning.
Lilliane didn't speak for a long time. I would have been foolish to expect the same blunt confession of love, and thus I was not disappointed when I did not receive one. Instead I changed the subject. "Will you do something for me?"
She had returned to her previous position, her head upon my shoulder and her arms about me. When I asked the question, she looked up, this time slowly. "What is it?"
"Will you sing for me?"
She hesitated a long time before replying, and I remember holding my breath. "I don't know ... I'm scared to. I'm not very good."
"Let me be the judge of that, okay? Please?"
She sighed. "I don't want to disappoint you though."
I kissed her cheek gently. "You never could."
"Alright ... for you."
She let go of me and stood up. She waved me back down when I moved to join her. "Please, sit down. I'll feel better if you're sitting. You won't seem like a judge."
So I sat down, and waited. She cleared her throat, and I waited. She took a deep breath ... and I waited. Then, nothing came, and there was silence.
I smiled. "Please? You'll be wonderful, just as you are at everything else."
She took another deep breath and began to sing. Her voice carried, and it seemed as though the river itself settled down to hear her.
"I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone. All my dreams pass before my eyes in curiosity."
Her voice was magnificent. The little shocks returned, flooding my body with what I can only describe as euphoria. Now I had a voice to match with her angel's face.
"It slips away, and all your money won't another minute bye -"
With each note, her confidence grew. Her voice escalated until she was projecting with all her might. In that moment, she was perfection. Her face glowed, and sparkles of spray glittered like liquid jewels on her cheeks. I understood how the girl who had auditioned with her that day so long ago must have felt, for her voice was divine, and the song she sang became so much more to me then it had before.
"All we are is dust in the wind."
And how true that is. Sometimes the wind is simply too strong, and we are swept away. She sang our song once more before the end came, and I recorded it on a CD. Sometimes, when I am depressed or struggling with my writing, I put it on, and her voice never ceases to have the same effect on me. That CD and her letter are the only links I have with her now. I listen to it at this moment, to give me the courage to tell the end of this story.
When she finished, I stood up slowly. "That was wonderful. Thank you so much."
I drew her too me and held her tightly. "I loved it."
"I'm glad." Then we kissed. With the echoes of "dust in the wind" still wafting through the air, we kissed long and sweet. It was not the mad entanglement of lips, heavy breathing and pawing that one expects out of most romantic movies, rather, the kiss was simply long, slow and sensual. I have never had one quite like it before, and never will again. This kiss belonged to us. Our embrace was tight, and the kiss lasted an eternity before our lips separated. I think we were both blushing a deep red after that, but she was smiling like I'd never seen her smile before, and would never see again.
How I wish we could have stayed in that paradise forever. I believe that was exactly what Lilliane needed; the happiness to last just a little longer. But it was already too late. A week later, she told me she had been throwing up blood for quite a long time, a clear indication that something had gone horribly wrong inside her. At my pleading request, she went to the doctor. It was the beginning of the end. He put her on medication; some type of pill that prevented her from throwing up. I was overjoyed at this news, but in my heart I knew the truth. The pills would only work if Lilliane made them work. She took them sometimes, but it was never enough. Inevitably she was put in the hospital, the one place she feared above all others.
I visited often, bringing along flowers and prayers. The sight of her hooked up to machines, the IVs in her arm ... it always overwhelmed me. This was not supposed to happen to her, I kept insisting. There had to be a way to save her. The doctors tried, bless them they did. She fought alongside them. She wanted so desperately to live at the end. But her desire came too late. She always had a smile for me when I visited, and that hurt me most of all. To see her dying, to watch the machines pumping chemicals into her ... and having her smile at me. The smile that, even in these dire circumstances never failed to melt my heart made it break as well.
Her parents came to see her often. Eventually I met them. I learned that, despite what Lilliane had told me, her parents weren't as harsh as they seemed. When a life is at stake, petty differences tend to either be enflamed or dropped. How lucky I am that theirs were dropped. I told them nearly everything I have chronicled here, and in the end, there were few harsh words. We all waited and prayed, hoping for some sort of miracle.
But In the end, the condition took her. She had waited too long before telling someone about the blood. I wish she could have lived her last days away from the hospital. The machines were the only things keeping her alive after a while, but is it worth keeping someone alive if you are just torturing them?
On August fifth, Lilliane Shepherd passed away. She died as she had lived; quietly. By then she lacked the strength to speak more than a few minutes at a time. She was sleeping at the end. I held her hand as she died and prayed I didn't hear the beeps of the respirator quicken, even as I called for the doctor. He came in a split second, accompanied by a trio of nurses. I was ushered forcefully out of the room, despite my protests.
When the news reached me out in the waiting room, I went berserk, struck by a grief I have never experienced again. There had been no finality, no final farewell; just the quickening beeps of the machine that governed her right to live. I cursed the doctors for not being able to save her, cursed them with every word I knew. I was restrained, and eventually calmed down.
Before I left the hospital, one of the nurses handed me a sealed envelope. "Lilliane wanted you to have this." The envelope contained a small picture of her, and a weakly written letter. Thus, I had my final farewell, not with spoken words, but on paper.
The letter expressed all of the feelings Lilliane could not speak. In her weakened state, it would have taken a long time to write. All those long nights, after everyone had gone had been spent writing. I still have the letter, and have since framed it. It sits in my private office, where I spend most of my writing life away from the old cabin. I think it best to enclose a copy here now, lest my story go unfinished. The following is everything she wrote ...
To my darling,
Last night you came to me in a dream. You told me you loved me like you did on that day at your cabin. I was so scared and alone before I finally slept, but when I woke up, I was happier. I know I'm going to die soon. These machines are keeping me alive, but eventually even they won't be able to help me. I wish the doctors would unplug them. I fought it, I really did, but as you said, the longer you wait, the less likely you'll be able to survive. In the end, I'm too far gone to fight any longer.
I wanted to let you know that the last eight months have been very special to me, and you've helped me to realize that I'm not what I thought. I wish I had realized it sooner, then maybe we could have been together. You were my strength, and I thank you for everything you've done. I remember that wonderful day at your cabin, on that plateau over the water. That meant more to me then you will ever know. When you told me you loved me, I didn't know what to say to you. No one other than my parents has ever told me that before. I guess I didn't believe it. I still can't believe I sang to you, but I don't regret it. If it made you happy, it was worth feeling foolish. Thank you for that day, you made me so happy. I wish I didn't have to die, I've got so much more I'd like to do, but it's my fault I lie here now. You tried to help me, and even though I'll be gone, I want you to know that you did. You made the last eight months of my life worth living.
The doctor came today and told me they were going to up the doses of some of the medications. I told him not too. If I'm going to die, I want it to be soon. I can barely talk, but I always know you're there beside me. Your hand is a blessing. I'm sorry I'm wasting your time. If I had the strength, I'd tell you to go. The truth is your presence is everything to me right now. I don't think I'll last much longer, but I want you to know that I've accepted death. I'm going to be with you, in spirit at least, and see you through your life. Don't mourn me okay? Go on with your life and be that famous writer I know you'll become. I didn't have the courage to say it in person, so I'll say it now. I love you. I wish I could have told you in person, but I was scared to. I'm sorry. When you told me you loved me, I wanted to tell you the same. That is my only regret, but I'm glad I could at least tell you this way. Thank you for staying with me all this time. I'll be with you somehow, and I'll watch over you.
And she has watched over me. When I stand on the plateau, looking out over the water, I sense her spirit near at hand. It's true that I couldn't save Lilliane, but I was able to be with her until the end. I can take solace in that. Knowing I made her happy pleases me. I don't regret our time together. And we were certainly together, and have remained so up to this present day. I have tried dating other girls, knowing I couldn't stay single forever, but in the end, I can't bare to be with anyone else. I will never love anyone the same way I love her, and if I can't give someone my all, then it is not fair to anyone to try.
When it was time for us all to say goodbye, her father handed me a shovel. "Do the honor." I did. I bent down and kissed her forehead one final time. Her flesh was cold, but I sensed she was still nearby. I stood, shovel in hand.
The lid was closed, and the coffin lowered into the grave. I dug the shovel into the earth that had been exhumed and came up with a pile of dirt. I held it poised above the hole, looking into the darkness. "I love you, Lilliane," I whispered. Then, resolving to keep her memory with me for all time, I turned the shovel and watched as the dirt cascaded down ... down ... down into darkness.
Thus ends my story, my sappy romance, my lament of innocence. With "Dust in the Wind" still echoing on the CD player, and in my memory, I conclude. I will never truly Bury Lilliane. She will remain, and I will see her again one day when my own end comes. I am in no hurry. There is still much life I have to live. I will carry her picture with me always, and will cry whenever I stand on the plateau, but I will go on. If there is one message I have for you, dear reader, it is this: Don't wait until it is too late to do the right thing, and don't give up on people. You may find yourself playing the part of Lilliane one day, or myself even. Be kind to others, because you never know when you might need them. Life is about choice; free will is ours to command. Choose to live, to love and to help others. Farewell, and live life.
(In memory of Lillian Shepherd, 1984-2003 "All we are is Dust in the wind.")