For What Comes Next – Short Story

I lean my head back, feeling the top of the wooden chair press into the base of my skull. It wasn’t as stifling as it had been during the day, but stickiness clung to me, leftover from a day of sweating in the heat. The cicadas don’t seem to mind the muggy evening air; encompassing me, their cacophony of buzzing, four walls of interwoven sound. Above me, the sky slowly shifts from a deep orange to a lilac. Or maybe the color was something equally ambiguous, like periwinkle.

Wisps of my hair drift by on the twilight breeze; some of them stick to where new sweat has begun beading in the crook of my arm. It was the kind of sweat that’s partly mine, but partly dew condensed by the cooling air. My boyfriend stands behind me with clippers, slowly running them through my hair.

I have always wanted to shave my head. Or, really, I wanted to do anything that made me feel invincible. And having less hair makes me feel just that. Like I have nothing left to hide, so there was nothing left to hurt.

If this were happening a year earlier, I wouldn’t be shaving it all off. I’d be leaving a strip down the middle. In fact, if I had ever gone to college, I probably would have gotten a Mohawk then. But I never went to college, so I never had the experience of letting loose and having nonsense hair. That’s what my mom would call it, ‘That kind of hair is for nonsense people, people without jobs.’ My hair started falling out a month ago, so it all had to go.

The sun above me fell beneath the clouds, igniting them in fire. The clouds of dark gray lit from above evolved to the iridescent orange of clouds lit from below. I close my eyes to the infant night, letting the cicada’s symphony and the mockingbirds’ song wash over me.

I can feel his hands running over my head, checking to make sure no stray strands evaded the cheap stamped-metal blades of the clippers. He does it gently, but I can tell he’s curious. Hell, I’m curious. How will I feel now, walking around without hair? How will I look? Ill? Pathetic? Desperately crying out for attention? Powerful, I hope. The idea of having less to become stronger feels strange to me. A good strange. Like floating upside down in a pool. Something is wrong, but maybe it’s just my perspective changing.

When the mockingbirds cease their singing, I open my eyes, and find the bats have taken flight. I watch them swooping through the air, trying to match their prey’s arcs and dips. The low humming of the clippers doesn’t seem to bother them, at least, any more than a car would have.

The soft sound of paper wings beating makes me look up. Above me, and quickly dropping, comes a thing. A winged thing. As it lands on my bare knee, I realize it’s a moth: dusty white wings dipped in brown.

I once read a novel that described death as a butterfly, flitting from place to place. Sucking away the nectar of life. Fragile, yet unceasing. Maybe the author was wrong. Maybe death wasn’t a butterfly at all, but a moth. A moth drawn to the dying of the light.

I sit. And I wait. I close my eyes as I wait. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. Maybe I’m here waiting for my eyes to close with finality. For all this weight to drop away. I wait for the pain to stop. That’s mostly it. It was amazing how a brain, or a body, gets used to a new normal. Like having a cold, and not being able to breathe through your nose. You can spend days like that, and one day, you find you can breathe through your nose again; it’s like a miracle. Because in that time without breathing through your nose, you almost forgot your nose was ever made for breathing. It’s easy to forget the body wasn’t born in pain; wasn’t meant to endure in pain.

The moth flutters its wings gently. I can’t see it, but I can feel it. I can feel the wind from its wings ever so gently cascade down my leg.

“It looks like paper,” my boyfriend whispers, turning off the clippers, careful not to scare it away.

If I could hold my breath, I would. But that had become harder and harder to do.

I don’t know what I’m waiting for. A sign, maybe. I was told many people, people like me, began to see signs. Signs it was ending. Or signs to keep fighting.

But I’m done. Twenty-nine and already done. Albert Camus once said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Committing suicide is admitting life is too much.’ I wonder what he would say to me if I told him I was done fighting. Probably something in French I wouldn’t understand. But I would understand meaning.

When I started having trouble walking and breathing, when parts of my body started to shut down decades before they were supposed to, everyone suddenly had a story for me. Their way of connecting, I suppose. They wanted to tell me about their parents, or their grandparents. Some of them want to tell me about their kids. The hours and hours spent bedside, waiting for the moth to come. Those are the stories I hate the most. It felt like those parents wanted me to find their kids, wherever I end up, and send a message back. It felt selfish. Almost like they were coming to me in hopes of salvation. Expecting me to reach out and forgive them for their trespasses on those who were no longer here.

I take a deep breath, releasing the anger that built up. The honesty behind my feelings pours through, and I find I don’t mind their words. I like to say I do. I like to complain, and I like to make myself angry about it, but only because I’m hiding. Their stories and their pleading make me forget my own. It makes me forget the kind of story my boyfriend or my mom will be telling. The kind of salvation they’ll be asking for. “Shaving your head? You used to be so beautiful. Why would you do that?”

The moth bats its wings again. This is it. I can feel it coming. I can feel all my attachment falling away. The wind seems to agree, and starts picking up; the breeze cold across my sweaty skin.

My body, and my mind, feels light. Lighter than it has felt in months. The pain and stress that kept my shoulders and chest perpetually tight starts to dissipate. It’s not entirely gone, I can still feel it, but it’s going.

If I keep breathing, I won’t be scared. It’ll be over, as long as I focus on breathing.

One might think there’s no fear about dying when you’ve been given the expiration date pretty much down to the day. One would be wrong.

I chalk it up to hope. Oh, sure, I know death will come one day. But maybe not. One day, I’ll do it. I’ll actually die. But maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe it was all a mistake. The doctor confused two patient’s charts. That happens, doesn’t it?

I take another deep breath and wait for the wave of fear that had become so familiar in these past few months. Every moment of lightheadedness, every time my heartbeat stuttered, every feeling of pins and needles in my hands and feet, I would feel a wave of fear crash into me and my legs would lose any ability to hold me upright.

That overwhelmingly large wave that I have come to expect doesn’t arrive; it doesn’t crash upon my shores. Instead, I feel… happy. Was it happiness?

Months ago, when my boyfriend caught me as I lost the energy the climb up the stairs, when this got unavoidably real, I shoved my fear of dying deep into the darkest corners of my mind. I focused on the day at hand, and the day that would be sure to follow. I focused on the doctor’s orders, my new life-on-earth-without-sugar-is-hell diet, and breathing. Always breathing. The breathing would keep those corners locked away.

 But now it was time to go looking for that fear. I need to make sure it was still there and I wasn’t imagining this weightlessness.

I start digging. I dig deep. I go into the place of my mind that I never let myself into, the part that gets overly active as I drift off into sleep. The part of my brain that harbors my anxiety about my crushing medical debt, the anger at a life unfinished, and the broken pieces of hope that maybe I would be okay. I can’t find them. I dig and I dig, trying to call up those feelings by force. I imagine myself dying, and the debt passing on. I imagine it ending now, and how angry I will be at not even having finished this haircut. Nothing. My fears aren’t there; they aren’t where I left them.

All of my attachments, the ones I decided were mine and not the ones someone else decided should be mine, were gone. Cast away.

I open my eyes.

The lilac had finished its pilgrimage across the sky, floating fully away in the time my eyes were closed. The bats are out in full force, still enjoying the warm air of the ripening night.

With a few mighty beats, the moth takes off, leaving behind a dust of pollen and my soul, still very much intact and still very much inside a body in pain.

“You okay?” my boyfriend asks.

“Yeah. I think so.”

“You sure?” he asks, coming around to look at me.

“Yeah, why?” I ask.

“I finished the haircut ten minutes ago.” He holds up the clippers. “You’ve just been sitting here with your eyes closed.”

“Oh,” I say, standing up with his help. I take another look at the sky, barely lit in the furthest corners of the horizon. “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m ready.”

“For what?” he asks, leading me back towards the house. “For what comes next.”

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