My father doesn’t acknowledge me, or the day, when I come into the kitchen, despite the headline on the front page of the paper he’s hiding behind that reads Is Today The Day?
I’ve promised the paper an exclusive on what I saw behind the gate, if I make it through the day. Part of me hopes I don’t. I keep thinking about Tommy Diaz, and how his parents would feel if I survive the gate’s curse when he didn’t.
“See ya, Dad,” I call as I open the kitchen door to the warm September morning. I don’t even bother with my backpack. There’s no way I’m going to the madhouse otherwise known as school. Today, I finish what I started.
Or die trying.
Every day for six months, I’ve tried to die.
On that very first day, the six-month anniversary of passing through the death gate, I returned to the littered bunker and sat inside. Waiting for whatever it was that was going to claim me to get it over with, and trying not to gag on the overwhelming scents of stale beer and piss – apparently, visiting the gate had become even more popular in recent months. A small crowd gathered, posting Facebook updates whenever I stood to stretch my legs or sniffled too loudly. But the sun went down and the moon came up and all the diligent followers abandoned me and the gate around midnight.
Kim stuck around. She hugged the life out of me when I stepped back through the gate. A photographer from the paper snapped a shot of the moment: Kim looking tearful and relieved, me looking still dazed and still confused.
I gave my exclusive and the paper ran the story under the title Beth Survives the Death Gate! And for a few weeks, everything was miserable. I couldn’t go two minutes without someone snapping a picture or asking for an autograph or begging me to tell them something I hadn’t told the paper. But then it stopped. People moved on. Forgot all about me and the gate when it was time to think about something more exciting like Homecoming.
I thought it was over. But every morning, I woke with the same question in my head: why six months?
What did it mean that Tommy had died six months after going through the gate? Nothing. It meant that was when he died and nothing else. There was no Death Gate Guide that said six months was what you got after entering, no way of knowing when death would come for you. Or how. Every morning, the thought broke over me like frigid sea spray, with a growl and startling violence.
I spent three days rolled up in my comforter, letting dad think I was sick, wondering if there was something lurking inside me the same way there’d been for Tommy. I spent three days letting death taunt me.
And then I got over it. I got up and started taunting death right back.
It never occurred to me that tempting fate came with such variety. I thought I’d run out of dangerous activities before a month had passed. But that was only the beginning. Once you start dreaming up all the different ways you could die on any normal day, the possibilities are endless.
I started off with the obvious – walking the edge of the crumbling sea wall, driving too fast, diving into the ocean in November – any opportunity that looked even marginally reckless was a good one.
Then I got creative. I started looking at everything with an eye for the unexpected adventure it might offer. School became much more interesting when started noticing how many windowless doors dotted the halls, and the pier was a wealth of nookish alleyways and craggy descents. Things that might have scared me before became something else entirely, challenges and possibilities.
At first, no one noticed but Kim. She’d tag along beside me making nervous jokes about back when we thought the death gate was for real and how crazy the whole town got over nothing. “Everyone’s going through it now,” she’d say, snapping her gum through her teeth. “But it’s so last year, ya know? It can’t ever be as cool as when you did it.” And then, when she realized I was really going to jump off the pier, or climb up the tallest turret of that old wall, or squeeze past the barbed wire fence on the old Seavers property, she’d add, “You don’t have anything to prove, Beth.” I didn’t know how to tell her it was about dying with integrity without sounding crazy. Instead, I smiled and said, “I know.”
My new reputation came in with the tide and sometime after Christmas there was a new Facebook fan page, Beth Defying Death!, reporting on my recent daredevil activities. The fan count has been reinvigorated by the possibility that I might still die in an exciting way. I couldn’t really care about the page one way or another, but the discussions over what crazy thing I’d do next have been useful. I never would have thought to cross Winney Lake on my own – a notoriously thin lake at its widest point, even in February.
Now, it’s the one-year anniversary of my passing through the death gate, and I’m running short on ways to die. Haven’t I done everything I can to make sure it isn’t something stupid and sneaky like a brain aneurysm that takes me? What else can I possibly do? After living with death for a solid year, our relationship is ready for the next step.
For the first and only time, I comment to the fan page, “Today, at 2pm, I’m crossing Winney lake.” Within minutes, it has more likes than people at my school alone and Kim is on the phone begging me to drop this already.
“I’ll meet you there,” I say and hang up.
There are crowds on either side of the lake when I get there. Stomping their feet in the fresh snow and talking in low voices. No one says anything directly to me. They’re all too afraid to be the last one to speak to me before I die. If I die. There’s a new theory floating around that the death gate didn’t steal my life, it made me invincible. After a year of chasing death, I’m ready to believe them.
I have to wend through tall weeds to get out onto the pond. Snow covers everything, hiding dark ice below it. I move quickly at first. My breath is loud in my ears and before long, I’ve managed to work up a sweat. When I’m a little more than halfway across the breadth of the lake, I stop to rest. The ice is so quiet and so loud all at once. It yawns and groans, pops and hisses. I wonder if this is what death sounds like. If death is a whisper and a snap.
Beneath me, the ice shudders. I have time to wonder if death isn’t a sound, but a feeling before the ground falls away and my body drops like an anchor.
I thrash, reaching for solid ground, kicking my heavy feet. My lungs contract. My mouth freezes. And water covers my head.
Death is a cold lake and a single note in my ears.
Death is my heavy feet, my numb fingers.
Death is the promise that makes everything else mean something. I kick. Of all the things I’ve done this year, I don’t regret a single one. I kick. I wouldn’t have done any of them if I hadn’t crossed that threshold. My hands press against something solid. The death gate didn’t kill me, but it did change me.
I haul my body out of the water and roll away from the hole in the world. I roll until I’m dizzy and my ears and eyes start to work again. The shore isn’t far but it’s loud and fractured with people running in all directions. Part of me can’t believe that there are so many people obsessed enough with my life to stand out here in the cold while I attempt something not all that amazing. And part of me can’t help but wonder if they’re out here because this is the closest they’ll ever get to doing something dangerous.
I climb to my feet, listing for any sounds of cracking or complaining from the ice. It’s hard to hear over the clatter of my teeth. My head will ache when I can feel it again, but the pain will be welcome.
My progress across the ice is slow, but by the time I’ve made my way back to the reeds where an ambulance with warm blankets waits, I know that my fate was sealed before I ever stepped through the death gate.
But what the rest of the town doesn’t know is, so were theirs.
Thank you for reading! Next week is an (un)Tangled week, so check in on Monday for short fiction from Valerie!
Photo by Lacey Boldyrev