|Jan/Feb 2009 Fiction|
In the film she dies of a heart attack. One minute she's standing there with her friends, and the next she's on the floor jerking and twitching as they try to hold her down, breathe air into her foaming throat. The camera shakes, jostled, as they crowd around holding her hand, calling for her to come back, survive, wake up, please. Sound fades out. Faces stretch. Em convulses weakly on the floorboards.
But that's not how it happened.
Em died alone in the night. Nobody was there to watch as she choked on her own tongue. Nobody tried to save her.
She was at a party, passed out on pills and vodka, and her friends left her lying on her back while they went outside to drink around the bonfire. She looked all right. It wasn't their fault. They were children, and they did not know better, and they did not care. They left her there alone. On her back.
Nobody noticed until the next morning, by which time Em was blue and her friends were sober again. They were making scrambled eggs and wanted to know if she was hungry, but she wouldn't wake up. They stood in the doorway, the three of them. "Em?" they said. "Em, wake up. You hungry? Em..."
In the film her friends ride with her to the hospital. That never happened. They ride with her in the ambulance, and one of them holds her hand. Silence. From the time just after she collapses to the time in the hospital where a doctor pronounces her dead, the film is silent, as if noise has evaporated, retracted like an indrawn breath at this most holy of moments.
And then, exhale, the doctor rolls off his gloves. "I'm sorry. She's gone."
But that's a lie as well.
Nobody ever apologized
Loud and crass and childish and pretty. When she wrote her full name, she would dot the "I" with a smiling face. She took photographs of herself in a mirror. She smoked because smoking was cool. She drank because drinking was cool. She told dead baby jokes, and she lost her virginity in an alley behind a Safeway. She made people call her Em. She liked to be liked.
What's blue and yellow and lies at the bottom of a pool?
A baby with slashed armbands.
What's red and yellow and floats on top of a pool?
Armbands with a slashed baby.
Hysterical, girlish laughter.
She was white. She was female. She was young. She was pretty.
The line, scarf-like, loops back around the school for more than half a mile. It bristles with signs, most bearing a semblance of Em's face snatched from the BBC website. This morning Em's full name drew fourteen million results on Google. More by now. Her face is on the front of every newspaper, on the envelopes of blimps, staring down at the mourning crowd from the sides of buildings.
They are lining up at the school to sign her book of condolences. On the football field the collected flowers form a raft, rotting at the center where the first few wreaths were lain. At night it rains and the floodlights radiate whitely off wet cellophane. Em's face, the thousand copies of it, begin to warp and run.
Pictures of Em:
She is smiling here, eyes narrowed and crossed inwards, the beginnings of a laugh hovering around her mouth. Here she is grinning lewdly in the arms of her friends, skin sheer and milk-white with the flash. Here she is sitting on the beach, shoulders naked, watching the sea.
In her last ever school photograph she is caught the very second before a sneeze. The moment the flash had gone she stifled it into her hand with a noise like a cat. It made the photographer laugh, and she laughed politely in response.
You cannot know these things. Nobody can.
It is Em's funeral. It is her brother's turn to speak. As he edges out of his aisle (the TV cameras follow his every awkward move) he feels a firm touch on the back of his shoulder. He turns to look. It is a man he has never seen before in his life. The man is offering him a t-shirt printed with Em's face, and a marker pen.
That is how the fight starts. Em's brother hits the man. The man hits back. There is noise and screaming and ugliness as the two men are separated. Then Em's brother uses a trick he saw once in school; he goes limp and hides his face and starts to yell, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Hands release him. He darts forward and swings and feels the t-shirt man's nose break under his fist.
In the film Em doesn't have a brother. This is why.
It is three AM and Martin cannot sleep. He has made a video slideshow using pictures of Em pulled from Google image search. Yesterday it was viewed 31000 times on YouTube. Today, only 2000. Martin cannot understand it. Up until a while ago he was the top result for a YouTube search of Em's full name. Now he is in the fifth slot down. They have rejected him.
Martin goes through the top four YouTube results for a search of Em's full name. The first is admittedly quite good, but the others are poorly cut together, or overuse the star wipe, or only have the pictures in low resolution. Result number three is not synced up with the music at all. And there's a logo over everything.
His video is better. He knows it. So why only 2000 views?
Martin takes a couple of caffeine pills from the box on his desk, and drinks them with Lucozade from his mini-fridge. He shakes his head. The monitor in front of him dims into its screensaver, and he finds himself face to face with his reflection.
Yesterday, when he saw how many views he had gotten, he felt good. Better than good. Better than he had felt in a long time. He felt chosen, filled up with this calm, bright, exciting force. And now that is leaving him. He can almost feel it leaking away.
He moves the mouse. The machine lights up. He opens his account on YouTube and starts to add more tags to his video. The tags he adds are: dead, dead girl, girl, pretty girl, hot girl, sexy, hot, sad, tragic, accident, famous and tragedy.
He clicks onto the videos that now outrank him and rates them as one-star. The video in the top search slot he reports as spam.
He goes to the homepage and opens all the featured videos for that day in separate tabs. He opens up notepad and writes a few sentences, then starts copy-pasting these words into the comments section of all the featured videos.
This is what he has written:
Pretty good. This reminds me of a really sad story I saw on the news about a really pretty girl who died by accident at a party and now everyone is Coming Together to remember her. You can see the full story and a special tribute video I made for her--just click on my profile.
Just as he is finishing this, a migraine announces itself at the back of his skull. The pain is so intense that for a moment Martin forgets what he is doing, lets go of the mouse, and grinds both his palms into his eyeballs.
He is in pain.
And then the headache passes.
It is 4 AM.
Martin continues to post his comments on popular videos. He forgets about the headache. He checks his video and finds another 400 hits have been recorded in the past hour.
The sun comes up and Martin starts to feel good again.
After the Fight:
After the fight at the funeral Em's brother goes home. A thin line of blood is slashed across the front of his shirt. It is not his own. He takes off the shirt and puts it in the laundry, then washes his face in the bathroom sink and lies on his bed.
His insides are cold and shriveled. The whole incident is so obscene that it makes him feel feverish. He had not meant to hurt the man. Well . . . that is untrue. He had meant to hurt him, though not to injure.
Mum and Dad arrive home. When Mum comes up to check on him he pretends to be asleep. He realizes that when she does the laundry she will find his bloody shirt.
Em's brother misses Em.
He remembers a fight they had once. He was seven and she was ten. She had taken his toy fire engine, just because she could. She had put it on top of the counter, and was laughing at his attempts to get it back. Em's brother was angry in a blind, eternal, childish way.
He pushed her. She fell. Her head bounced comically off the floor.
After a good deal of commotion, Em ended up in hospital, a line of eight stitches sewn into her scalp. The crown of her head had to be shaved to accommodate them. She looked strange that way, as though suffering from some wasting illness. Em's brother never apologized, because an apology would be an admission, and when Dad asked her what had happened she had said that she tripped.
They fill the stadium and the field and the car park outside. Big screens display the crowd, the million candles, the wreaths and posters. Those who cry do not do so alone, but in big, weeping huddles, surrounded by strangers. At one end of the pitch an altar has been erected: an enlarged likeness of Em's face, at the foot of which flowers and teddy bears have been piled.
At midnight there is a ten-minute silence. The big screen pans across a sea of lowered heads and candles and clasped hands, and there is a connection there, a communion. A moment in which their lives are no longer trivial. Someone coughs, clothing shuffs, a woman sobs once, then catches herself.
Em is dead.
She will be dead forever.
At the end of the silence, people start to move and sob and wail again, but they do so slowly. Many of them feel changed. Many of them will remember this for the rest of their lives.
An Unnamed Girl:
. . . has just read about Em on the BBC news website. She is sitting in front of her personal computer, crying.
She has decided that if only Em and her had known each other, if only they had lived in the same city, they would almost certainly have been friends. She can tell this just by looking at Em's poor, beautiful face.
The unnamed girl wants to tell all her real friends about this discovery. She wants their confirmation and their support.
The unnamed girl opens up MSN, and finds that all her friends are offline or busy.
She checks her watch.
She sits and waits, poised, tears drying on her cheeks.
Em's Brother Again:
Em's brother continues to live. He attends university and studies linguistics, finishing with a first. After that he gets a job working in an advertising agency. He lives in a flat in a part of town that the milkmen won't deliver to. At night people yell in the street outside. He keeps his door locked and bolted. He is promoted, then promoted again, and must supervise young apprentices. He turns twenty-six. He meets a Polish travel agent, and they get married and have kids. Her Polish father does not approve of him. He does not mind. They move into a terraced house in a less violent part of town. He is promoted again. His Polish wife becomes pregnant.
And so on.
He is aware of the film, but does not watch it until he is thirty-two, and sees a copy on Amazon for one penny, plus postage and packing. When it arrives he hides it until he has the opportunity to watch it in the house, alone.
The box carries Em's full name, followed by the promise of a "Heartrending true story of a young life cut tragically short." Empire Magazine has awarded it "*****!!"
Em's brother puts the DVD into the machine and presses play.
He watches the girl who plays Em jolt and shudder on the floor, and feels nothing. The girl looks entirely unlike like his sister. Instead, she is blonde and petite and clear-skinned. He watches her playing dead on a mortuary slab, and feels nothing.
In the film Em doesn't have a brother, and she dies by accident, and the people who grieve for her are beautiful and dignified and righteous.
Em's brother watches it all the way through, and feels nothing. When it is over he ejects the DVD, returns it to its case and slots it onto the shelf with all his other films.
For a few moments he is very, very aware of how much older than her he has become.
Last night Ama dreamed she was back in the stadium right after Em's funeral. It has been a long time since then, and the distance of it has made the memory more precious. Ama recalls the candles, being hugged by a stranger, seeing herself on the big screen, seeing Em's pretty pictures, buying an Em baseball cap (which she has since lost) and camping out in the car park with a thousand other mourners.
She remembers also the ten-minute silence. The peculiar way that each minute she stood there and thought felt a hundred times more significant than any given minute from her life so far.
Ama now lives on the twenty-first floor. She buys her food online and dates through a website. She works from home, on her own timetable. She has an iPhone and a webcam and everything she needs. A treadmill for exercise and a goldfish for company.
At nights she sleeps alone and dreams of the stadium, of the closeness, the sense of family and grief and importance there. Being loved and accepted unconditionally by people who did not know her name.
Each morning she scans the news, waiting for Em to return.