1. The First Death
Jack at Seventeen, 2009
Jack typically didn’t wake up to his phone going off at four in the morning, but that day he did, and he couldn’t sleep since. It was Grandma Ruth. “Oh, I was just checking in,” she’d insisted, clearly more concerned than she’d meant to let on. “Just…you still wear that bracelet, right?”
He knew what bracelet she was talking about. “Uh. Yeah,” he’d answered. It was his very first birthday gift—literally, the day he was born, she gave it to him, for protection. He didn’t always wear it, but for her sake he tried.
Thankfully the last day of summer heat had passed, so now he could hide it beneath his jacket sleeve. With it’s knotted rope band and runic wooden beads, it didn’t work with his look. He wasn’t a witch—he didn’t believe in that stuff like she did.
As touching as her concern was, he wrote it off as trivial superstition. What had kept him awake was what day it was, and what he had planned.
Backpack hanging off one shoulder as he trudged down the school’s tiled hall, Jack pulled off his black beanie and ran his fingers through his dark overgrown hair. He twisted in his locker combination and, just as he pulled the latch, his eyes were covered. Two hands, girlfriend-sized, cold.
A knowing smile tugged his lips. “Smells like fish,” he said. “You had a good morning?”
“Ohhh, wow, masturbation joke, clever.” She went nasal and overboard with the impressed sarcasm, and he liked it. She let her hands drop to his waist.
He finished opening his locker, then turned around to hug her fully. Sarah stood at about his height whenever neither wore shoes, but when they were in public as they were now, her Doc Martens put her about an inch taller than him. Her nerdy graphic tees and black denim pants were just a size bigger than his, and while she did have a stocky build, this said more about his stature than it did about hers. Jack was a lanky shit, and he accepted it.
Her darker, honey blonde hair was short with a pixie cut. Paired with her youthful blue gaze and mischievous grin, she looked like the sort of woman who would play Peter Pan on Broadway.
“Hey, woman.” He kissed her soft, freckled cheek.
“Hey, boy.” She kissed his lips. He reciprocated.
A soft beep, followed by a satisfying shutter and a flash of light. A taller, slouching boy with peach fuzz and blotchy cheeks lowered the camera from his face. “Sorry, that was perfect; had to get it.” This was a typical interaction with him.
“Sup, George?” Jack greeted.
The boy emitted a low breath. “This year’s kicking my ass, and it’s hardly even started.”
“Tell me about it,” Sarah groaned.
“And with my sister here, and now she’s joining the cheerleaders—she’s gonna befriend dudes your grade, and it’s gonna be weird because I’m probably gonna hear them doing it in the basement—”
Sarah put a firm, reassuring grip over George’s shoulder. “One thing at a time, man.”
George sighed, “Yeah. Yeah.”
“And Monica can handle herself.”
Jack withdrew his math and science books, then aggressively pushed his locker shut to ensure it closed all the way. They strode down the hall, past all the other students and to their homeroom class. Sarah stepped inside first, crossing to her seat. Jack took his seat beside her, and George followed to his seat behind him.
A substitute teacher nobody recognized stood at the front of the room. Maybe in his late twenties; receding hairline and average build. His name was written in neat, large letters across the wall-to-wall dry erase board, Mr. Giannopoulos. When the bell rang to signal the start of homeroom, he began roll call, unenthused; bored. “Sarah Becker?”
She raised her hand.
He checked off his paper. “Luke Donovan?”
The only kid in school whose build screamed steroids raised his hand. George scratched the back of his neck, looking anywhere else.
Jack’s mind wandered as the sub continued down the list. He wondered if Sarah remembered what day it was. Neither ever forgot; they always had something planned, but it was still early so it was possible her head was still stuck on everyday routines.
“Theodore Van Sloan?” called Mr. G-opoulos.
Jack raised his hand with a correction, “Jack. Just Jack.”
The sub wrote it in his notes. “Jack,” he echoed.
With a folded piece of paper already in her hand, Sarah reached to the floor as if to pick it up. “I think you dropped this,” she muttered as she let it fall on Jack’s desk.
Unfolding the note, he found it read, Happy Anniversary, betch. He grinned. She did remember.
He wrote back, Woman.
The rest of the day crawled. It made him anxious. The classes he had without Sarah were good in the sense that he didn’t need to worry about cracking and letting her open her gift early. Lunch and gym and the times between classes, however, he got dangerously close. He would tell her, “You’ll never guess what I got you,” but then she’d start guessing and he’d have to try his best to neither confirm nor deny anything. She said, “So it’s some kinda jewelry, then.”
He closed his mouth and said nothing else until they parted ways. Nothing, save for, “You’ll find out when you open it, and you’ll open it when the moment’s right.”
Unfortunately, any moment which left him alone with his head distressed him. There was a chance she wouldn’t receive his present well.
Finally the school day ended. They’d already decided to start the evening at her place, so they began their walk through the school courtyard to where she was parked.
He stepped along the short brick wall which got higher as the sidewalk downwardly sloped.
“Is it one of those corny locket necklaces, where you keep half the pendant and I keep the other half?” she asked, walking the sidewalk below him. “Is it heart-shaped?”
He laughed with a whining moan. “Ow. No. God, you’re making this painful.”
“Look, I don’t know when you intend to do this, but I already know it’s jewelry; I’m gonna figure it out before we get there.”
She could’ve been right. Ring wasn’t a huge leap from necklace.
He paused at the wall’s edge, just before the corner down from which he’d usually jump. Bringing his hands to his hips, he surveyed the setting. The sky was partly cloudy with the sun in plain sight. The world’s shadows began their evening stretch and everything appeared slightly more yellow, glowing. The courtyard was clean, and prettily landscaped with colorful flowers—purple, white, pink and yellow. They were alone.
“Alright,” he decided. Not a second later, his heart raced and he smiled. He tried to reel back his enthusiasm and maintain some level of cool, but it took all he had to just keep from laughing.
She raised an eyebrow like she didn’t trust it. “Alright?”
“Yeah.” He dropped down from the wall, landing gracefully beside her. He paced a couple feet to work off some of the nervous energy, then back, taking a full breath. His false sense of confidence depended on how playful he made it. “Well, as you know, this is our anniversary—”
“Wait, we’re dating?” She gasped.
He laughed, “Shut up,” kissed her temple, then went back to it. “We’ve been dating for six years, since before we even knew what sex was—”
Her gasp was doubly exaggerated. “You mean it’s not just naked cuddling?!”
“Goddammit woman, I’m trying to make a moment.”
“Dude, you’re blowing my mind right now.”
“You don’t even know,” he mutedly whined.
Eyes softly squinting, she quieted. She might’ve finally figured this was gonna be big, and while she might not have guessed what it was yet, he knew she wasn’t gonna interrupt anymore.
He vaguely gestured to their situation. “This is good, right? You’re happy, I’m happy? Anything comes up, we’ll work through it?”
She nodded, face unchanged.
He pressed his lips together, hoping to remember anything he might’ve missed. “Yeah. I wanna keep this going.” He pulled the jewelry box from his pocket.
“Me too.” She didn’t understand yet.
As he slowly sank to one knee, her jaw dropped and her eyes widened. Her voice cracked a lower register, “Duuuude.”
“No pressure. The ring’s a gift no matter how you answer, I just… I wanna show you I’m serious. And I think you’re the real deal.”
“I think you’re the real deal too, but before college?!”
“Long engagement, no marriage until we both graduate.”
Verging on hyperventilating, she forced a couple calming breaths and nodded. “Okay.”
“No! I mean—keep going, let’s do this right.”
His smile widened. Now he knew her answer. “Alright, Sarah Becker.” He opened the box. Her eyebrows rose in the middle, and he reveled in it. “Will you marry me?”
The white gold band took the shape of delicate, interwoven leaves. A brilliant cubic zirconia sat raised in the center, because fuck blood diamonds.
“Oh my God,” she gasped, “how did you pay for this?”
It took all his birthday money, and five months of only contributing half the bill money his dad demanded of him.
“I mean, yes!” she blurted, “Yes!”
“Shit yeah.” He took the ring from the box and stood, sliding the band to her finger. “Do you recognize it yet?”
Her eyes excitedly widened, and now she stared intently. A few seconds in, and he knew she was stumped.
“Was it used in a movie?” she asked.
“The only movie-versions I could find looked like they all came out a twenty-five cent vending machine, but yeah.”
That was all she needed. She laughed, free hand over her mouth. “Fucking nerd, it’s Nenya, isn’t it?”
Galadriel’s ring of power from Lord of the Rings. He nodded and laughed, “Takes one to know one. Nerd.”
She laughed too, or wailed, “All I got you was a pizza with the pepperoni on top in the shape of a heart and the living room to ourselves and a list of animes on Netflix we haven’t seen yet and popcornnn!”
“That’s it? Damn, woman, never mind. Engagement off.”
She gave him a mean look, and although she still grinned he knew this didn’t mean she wasn’t plotting some sort of cute vengeance.
But in all seriousness, “That sounds dope, you kidding?” he said.
“Yeah!” He kissed her. She kissed back. Both knew neither intended to stop anytime soon. He held her closer. She let her backpack drop.
“Hey! No PDA!” called a distant voice he didn’t care to recognize.
At first glance it looked like Sarah flipped him off, but it was her newly bedazzled ring finger. Still, they didn’t stop kissing.
“Never mind,” replied the passerby, who continued on his way.
Jack couldn’t say how much longer they remained like this, or if anyone else saw. He didn’t want to let her go. If he let her go, it meant the moment ended. It would’ve been too soon.
There weren’t any cars in the driveway when he and Sarah pulled up to the garage at her place, which was strange. Her parents were usually home by now, to pick up the younger siblings from the bus stop.
All was explained once they got inside and found a note on the fridge. It read:
You get the living room until Chuck E. Cheeses’ closes. Nothing can be promised after that (you know the little ones).
Behave, be safe, and happy anniversary!
Ma Becker-Hall and Mr. Dad
It was clear who wrote what.
Jack set up the Netflix while Sarah called in the pizza and fetched the blankets. “What are we watching first?” he asked when he figured she was off the phone.
Her voice, however muffled, projected clearly through the wall, “Howl’s Moving Castle! I’ve read it but haven’t seen it yet!”
He trusted Miyazaki, so he contentedly brought it up in the search bar. He hit play, and paused at the exact moment the movie began. Rather than sit on the couch, he took the recliner, extending the legs and leaning as far back as the seat would allow. When Sarah came back, he motioned for her to sit with him. This was their usual spot. It allowed them both to lay back and see the TV, and it lent itself the position for optimal cuddles.
She grinned, the blanket like a cape over her shoulders. Rather than sit with her back to his chest, she straddled his lap and tugged his collar. Taking the hint, he sat up, and so she pulled him into a kiss. “Fiancé,” she growled.
He wrapped his arms fully around her middle, wishing it was possible to hold her closer. “Woman fiancé,” he teased back. They kissed again. And again.
It was all mostly innocent, though thirty minutes passed and they still hadn’t started the movie.
There came a knock at the door.
“Yes,” Sarah moaned. Jack wasn’t touching her at this moment, which meant this was solely a response to the pizza.
“I’ll get it,” she said, “And no peeking.”
She delivered a quick kiss to his cheek before she stood, adjusted her shirt, and strode around the wall and to the room behind him. The front door opened, and “Hey,” she greeted. He couldn’t hear much after that. He assumed there was still a surprise she didn’t tell him about—maybe a note she had wanted to add inside the box. If she and the pizza guy were still talking, they were whispering.
In any case, he couldn’t focus. He was engaged, and it dawned on him again and again. If life was a rollercoaster, he found his screaming buddy. They would scream through college, backpack through Europe, start a small business, run an orphanage—who the hell knew; the possibilities were endless. He couldn’t think of a better person to explore them with.
He didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until he woke up. He couldn’t have been out for more than fifteen minutes; the paused frame was still on screen, and Sarah hadn’t returned with the pizza yet.
Still groggy, he waited. He couldn’t hear anyone talking, or moving. The pizza guy had to have been gone by now, which meant Sarah was up to something else.
“Woman?” he called.
She said no peeking, so he checked the bathroom first. The door was open, lights off. No one inside. He looked into her room from where he stood in the hallway, and she wasn’t there either.
Louder this time, he called, “Sarah?”
He grimaced. “I’m gonna peek!” he warned, striding back toward the front of the house.
He hoped for a frantic You wouldn’t dare, you heathen! but still, there was nothing.
He found the pizza on the counter and felt the bottom of the box. Still hot. He couldn’t have been asleep for more than a minute.
Maybe she went to grab something from her car. The front door was still unlocked.
He stepped out into the brisk cold night, and a wave of dread hit him. He couldn’t place why. “Sarah?” he called again. There was still no answer, but if she was in the middle of doing something, she could’ve just been distracted.
He strode around to the side of the house. There sat her car in the driveway. No one there.
He muttered, “Where the hell…” She could’ve been in her parents room, for whatever reason. Maybe looking for candles.
Perturbedly gnawing his bottom lip, he turned and headed back down the stone path which led to the door, approaching the lone oak tree which obscured most of the front yard.
He froze. Something was different.
A weight, gently swinging, several feet off the ground. A long narrow shape, dark through the dying leaves. Wind whistled through the branches, followed by the higher, wheezing groan of wood.
Jack jumped and the shape fell, taking several dead limbs with it. He didn’t know what possessed him to run closer, but he did, fumbling to pull out his phone and turn on the flashlight. Its weak ray illuminated rope wound tightly around denim-clad ankles.
Her chest was raised, back draped over a tree root, neck awkwardly bent.
Shirt, chin, neck, blotched with blood.
Wide eyes. Mouth agape.
“Wh…What?” he croaked, dropping to his knees. “Sarah…what…”
He couldn’t breathe whole breaths. His eyes danced and he couldn’t focus or fully register what he saw.
He needed to do something.
He pulled her up from the tree root, resting her head on his lap so he could shine the light on her face. Her eyes were open. Bloody cheeks.
He needed to do something.
Fingers numb and hands shaking, he dialed 911.
His face was wet. Cold.
“Yeah,” he managed after a silence, “She… She was hanging by the ankles.”
“Your location, sir,” the lady on the phone repeated.
Location. “I… Eleven Maple Lane.”
“Okay, what happened?”
“She… answered the door for pizza, and… I don’t…” How could he have slept through this?
“I don’t know!” he cried, louder than intended. His throat found relief in not holding back, but he had to keep it together. “She’s not—responding.” He took her hand.
It was drenched. Dark. Her finger was gone. The ring finger.
Her throat was open, slit.
Everything went slow and far away.
The dispatcher spoke.
What if Sarah could still hear him?
He still had the phone to his ear, but no one was saying anything. His other hand covered her open throat.
“Hey. Hey, uh.” He had to reassure her. He couldn’t sound scared. He put the phone on the wet grass and held her. “You’ll be alright, okay? You’ll be alright.”
Sirens. Flashing lights. Blue and red.
Maybe he fooled himself into thinking she wasn’t long gone before he ever made it outside. Maybe this was easier to bear than her having passed alone and scared while he peacefully slept.