“What?” Kim jumped back from the gate like my words had made it come alive. “You’re fun, Beth. I was just messing with you.”
I slid down the small hill until my nose found its way between the bars. I could smell rotting leaves, and dirt, and maybe stale beer inside.
“C’mon, Beth. Let’s go.” Kim tugged at my sleeve. I pushed on the gate and it gave way. I took a breath, filled my lungs with the stench of lilac, and stepped inside.
That was when it started, about six months ago.
Everyone started waiting for me to die.
Kim was on her phone, texting God knows who, the minute I went through the gate. If the sea wall wasn’t so far from town, and it hadn’t been so cold, I’m sure there would’ve been a crowd waiting when I came back out. As it was, it hadn’t been necessary. Kim snapped a pic of me looking dazed and confused, one hand out in front of me, pushing the door open. By the time we got back to my place, everyone in school had a copy. I got seventy-two new friend requests on facebook. I became, quite suddenly, the most popular girl in Hancock Bay.
It was the single greatest thing that ever happened to Kim. I know this because she said so almost every day. I can’t believe I’m best friends with a real-live celebrity!
A month after I went inside, my fan page, Beth Against Death! and its counterpart, the death gate’s fan page, Death For Beth! had around 2000 fans each – most of them double dippers. A ticking clock counted down the days until my impending doom – or triumph – depending on which side you were on.
By summer, the whole town knew. There wasn’t a day that went by without a tourist coming into the Ice Palace and asking for a photo with “the girl who went through the death gate.” My father was not impressed, but every one of those tourists also bought a cone, or a sundae, or a smoothie, so he mostly kept quiet about it. Business was business whether it was for Rayburn’s Hand-Churned Ice Cream or “that freaky girl who’s going to die.”
Only my grandmother got upset when she heard the news from her knitting circle. You’re just like your mother, she said. Once upon a time, that would’ve made me mad, but every day since I went through that gate, my mother has felt just a little bit closer. Like she’s a buoy out in the bay and the undertow’s pulling me toward her.
When the breeze comes in from the sea, it always brings the scent of lilacs with it. I used to hate the smell, but I find it comforting now. At night, even though our house is too far inland to hear them, I listen to the waves crash against what’s left of the sea wall and think about my mother’s stories. Red sunrises and water ghosts. Pathways to a city under the sea. And promises accidentally made, but binding nonetheless.
In my dreams I remember the darkness beyond the gate. The way it grew thicker the further I followed it. How it went on too far, seemed endless. How I turned back, feeling emptier than I had when I went in.
But no one cares about that. They want the kind of story told over a campfire. One that will make them jump and scream and clutch their friend’s hand. One where I emerge breathless and victorious, having conquered death itself. Or peed my pants. Either will do, so long as it’s entertaining and shallow.
If anyone is broken up about the idea of me dying, they haven’t shown it. Not even Kim, who was so scared for me before I went in. The betting pool leans heavily in favor of my death coming exactly six months from the day I went in. Or in other words – today.
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.
Come back Friday for the conclusion by Natalie!
Photo by Lacey Boldyrev
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