When I awoke in my own unfamiliar bed in the dark dawn of the morning, I reached out for the phone to continue the conversation that gave me nightmares. Days that were curtained out were darker than midnight and hazier than ones that had gone before, like the onset of Alzheimer’s erasing the world away.
My hand twitched and retracted back. Pushing away my waking thoughts, my eyes searched for the light from the phone where there was none. The conversation had long since ended, and my habit for charging the phone had gone with it.
“Are you still there? Hello? Did you hear me? Hunter died yesterday.”
I touched the blackout curtains next to my bed and they shifted to let light shine through my fingers into the room. I studied the downward dance of the dust. Purposeless, silent, tired.
It must have been a week since the call, but I was not sure. I had not looked at the time in days. My resolve had been moving towards resignation. There would be no surviving another bout of lockdown melancholia. My heart already felt like it was eroding into dust.
“He had HIV.”
When I pulled back the curtains enough to see, my vision settled on the graying video tape. Hunter was old fashioned like that. I used to tease him about being a hipster because he never liked to record onto a disc. He directly transferred all of his recordings to VHSs. The digital yearbook was about the only thing he allowed to be recorded on a disc. The video came in the mail labeled North Augustsson High School Digital Yearbook 2010. Even with the sunlight spreading its rays onto my torso as I looked, I felt hollow. No warmth would reach past the knotted veil of hair I mourned in. I just wanted to see Hunter again. Swaying under the pressure of cracking bones and stretching aches, my starved body managed to feed the video into the empty mouth of the machine.
“Congratulations to the graduating class of 2010!”
“Our theme this year was Carpe Diem. This year we carried this theme to the community and volunteered at local soup kitchens and youth shelters. Our very own John Owens carried this spirit all the way to the Vancouver Olympics and came home a bronze medalist…”
Numb. My mind was blank while I kept watching Hunter’s video. I still hoped I would see a glimpse of him or his shadow in the segments.
The video showed flashes of students having fun, laughing. They brightened the screen, giving light to an otherwise darkened room.
“So thank you seniors for making this the best year ever!” The video was over. I searched for the last possible place he could be. The credits rolled to the end, but his name did not make its way down the screen.
I sat a long time. The pallid shape of the students vanished into the video’s finish like an apparition. Maybe holding onto Hunter was like holding onto a dream. After a while the memories pale and eventually I will forget.
My face turned towards the blinding gap in the window. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I wasn’t ready to stop the tape and accept the symptoms of a new school year. I eased myself into my bed when the TV shifted its colors away from black.
“Ahem. Uh. Hey.”
It was his voice.
Hunter’s embarrassed face appeared on the TV. His familiar turquoise hoodie partly covered his plaid shirt. As he backed away from the camera, the familiar view of the yearbook room framed the screen. He was alone in a room that hinted at its usual chaos through pinned memos, photos, and paper covering the wall.
“So, I made this video for you. S-sorry I didn’t say goodbye. It’s just, I was hoping I would be okay–that I would get to stay with you longer. Heck, I still do.”
His words were slow, “When I was little I-I … B-but since I came to high school I… ” He sighed, “I know that I’ve…
“Damn, I’ve never done this before. If I get to throw this video away, I’d be more than happy.”
Hunter’s blue eyes disappeared underneath his bangs, “Damn it.”
Hunter scrunched his eyes closed as if he wanted to blink the world out of existence. “I never wanted to leave anything behind. The thought of a dead guy coming up in photos and videos is disgusting. I guess that explains why I didn’t want Instagram. Sorry I didn’t tell you back then. I’m so tired. I’ve known for a long time that my body was shutting down. It took a while. In middle school I just wanted to get it over with. I hated the shots, the check-ups, and all those fucking pills. I thought death would set me free. Why now? Why am I dying when I finally want to live?”
Hunter’s brows closed in on each other. His hands gripped the desk he leaned on until his knuckles were white, and the silence stretched on.
A weak laugh puffed out of his mouth, a stall tactic. “I w-was going to kill myself the day you first t-talked to me. I wasn’t taking home all those books to study. I was cleaning out my locker so my mom wouldn’t have to clean my shit after. I was sick, so sick of life it really didn’t mean anything to me when idiot Taylor threw my books down the stairs. I just wanted to get home.”
The wrinkle between his brows smoothed, his eyes still on the ground. “But it did mean something when you picked them back up.” He peeked at the screen. “Thanks for inviting me to the movie. It was you. You made me remember how much I like taking pictures and videos. Sorry I never let you take mine.”
Nostalgic humor crossed his face as he helplessly laughed. His eyes lifted to the camera and I saw that it was replaced by unconcealable sorrow. “I guess it’s different now. I know I’m being a big hypocrite. But I just…I didn’t want you to forget me.
“Sorry about yesterday. I lo… I think you’re great. If you ever need someone to talk to, my mom bakes the best raspberry cheesecake cookies ever. And she’s strong.”
Tears flushed my face. It hurt to feel, but the wound welcomed a new sensitivity, the kind of sensitivity that allowed a lifetime to pass within a small moment. Though my heart was bleeding I could feel all the places I had been touched.
Now I understand why he pushed my kiss away. Why he stiffed my hand and didn’t turn back as he walked away.
Why he couldn’t say goodbye