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In My Last Scorching Breath; Part I

PART ONE: WHERE THE BURNS BEGIN

 

“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host.

But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”

—Maya Angelou

 

 

            He still bore scars, livid at his fingertips, from how he had fumbled while lighting his first cigarette.

 

            It had been an accident, his first burn. The chilled air of that morning had scraped his lungs until his voice was raw, and his hands had been shaking—so violently that his fingers stumbled over each other, letting flames sear his skin.

 

            It had hurt, of course, but it had been a good sort of pain. It had blocked the memories of the night before and it had burned out all remaining feeling. It was what Will had needed then, and it was what he needed now.

 

            The thought of what he’d seen just that morning made his heart slam around in his throat. His stomach lurched and twisted and writhed inside of him, an untamed, beastly thing born of his own weakness and disease.

 

            While Will’s hands struggled with the keys to his house, his mind fought to raise walls high enough to keep ragged memories from drowning him.

 

            The accident he had seen on his way to work had been far too familiar. Twisted, misshapen wreckage and contorted figures smothered in their own blood, and the blood of other victims, dragged grimy fingertips through his memory. The images his eyes had absorbed earlier that day had brought snapshots of his accident back within his grasp, and his need for the sweet sickness of the fire had overcome him, smashing him around like a ragdoll for the remainder of the day.

 

            Will wrenched his door open, his hands falling limp to his sides as his bags plummeted to the floor.

            The memories were dark, and they consumed him, killing anything and everything else he was capable of feeling. It wouldn’t be long before he sank so far into them that he would forever be lost within their despair. He had never been able to drive them away—only the fire could do that.

 

            Only the fire—and as the flames dragged over his skin and left marks of untempered anger, Will momentarily found refuge from his monster.

 

 

            He’d been drunk—but far more intoxicated than he was now. In the present moment, things were a little bit blurred and a little bit bright, amplifying and bringing into focus the self-resentment that made his insides churn and his teeth clench. Amid the depths of that night, he had been too drunk to understand any of his own thoughts, too drunk to rationalize, too drunk to know that driving was asking—begging—for a life to be stolen.

 

            When he had woken up in the hospital, he had not known what had happened—not at first. But sluggishly, as the morphine had drained from his damaged body and his consciousness had become cloudless and lucid, he had begun to remember.

 

            A nurse had come in to give him more medication, skirting around the edge of his bed like a cat, and he had asked her, “What happened?”

 

            “You were drunk,” she’d said tersely. He could still recall the unadulterated, toxic disgust in her face. “You got into a car accident.”

 

            He remembered thinking that she would not be looking at him with such an unpolluted hatred unless someone had died.

 

            “How many?” he had croaked. His voice had sounded cracked and worn, like parchment. “Was it my fault?”

 

            The nurse had stared at him, the anger in her face creating lines and frown marks and crevices in her face. She seemed to age several decades in that moment. “Three,” she said, “And yes, it was your fault.”

 

            In the present moment, he lay sprawled on his couch, lazily flicking the lighter on and off and watching the warm glow of the flames as they licked his fingertips. It was a soothing warmth that blistered at his fingers, soft and rather bearable compared to the jarring, knife-like pain that seared through him whenever he cut.

 

            Even now, lying on the couch, he could still hear the peaked sounds of his family rushing into the hospital room he had lain in. They had known it was his fault, and they had not blamed him. He still hated them for that. Uninformed, irrationally, they had leaned over his bedside and told him it’d be okay and that they’d take care of everything, and he wouldn’t have to do any jail time.

 

            These memories weren’t as harsh as the memories of the crash, but they were no less unpleasant. They still fogged his mind, and they still turned the fire inside into a raging inferno, hell-bent on tearing him to jagged little pieces.

            And he would let him.

 

            He was determined to be destroyed by his treacherous fiend.

 

 

           “Pass me a cigarette, would you?” Her voice was astute and had a lilting sound to it, not unlike the rolling of wind off the waves. He didn’t have to pretend to like it. Her face was sharp, her eyes seemed to be dark caverns cut into her face by knife edges. She had an interesting face—not traditionally beautiful, but one that was fascinating to look at, and to explore.

 

           Wordlessly, Will handed over the second last cigarette in his pack to her. “You run out, Keahi?” he asked, drawing in a long breath of smoke.

 

            “I had my last one this morning,” she told him, lighting the cigarette with long, tanned fingers. “I won’t be able to afford any more smokes until I get paid, so I better enjoy this one.” She blinked lazily, like a cat basking in the sun, as she breathed in the smoke, and exhaled.

 

            Will was quick to notice the red, irate marks on the insides of her forearms. Nobody at work had ever dared mention them to her, but Will understood. Her weapon of choice was different than his, but the reality was that they were the same: something had gone horribly wrong, and they were to blame. 

 

            Keahi caught him looking. “What’re you staring at?” she asked, her voice sounding incensed beneath the casual tone that only just barely masked it.

 

            Will shrugged. “Your scars,” he said bluntly, and drew in another breath of smoke. “They look a little bit like mine.”

 

            Keahi arched one eyebrow. “Yours?” she inquired, her melodic voice rising and falling rhythmically in pitch.

 

            Will shrugged. “I stopped cutting a while ago. I have different methods, now.”

 

            Keahi glanced at him, and brushed a strand of dark hair from her face. She did not look at him, and it was at this moment that Will realized he had made a mistake.

 

            She had not come to terms with her own destruction, he realized. She had not accepted that she would be the beast to tear her out her own heart. She had not realized that it was she who would be her own demise. In this, she was not like him.

 

            Will knew he was going to die, someday, and likely by his own hand.

 

            It was just a matter of being ready to walk into the fires of hell and embrace the devil’s demons with open arms.

 

 

            When he arrived home, he lit some more candles and lay on the couch for a while. As the sky grew dark the candles glowed brighter, so did the clarity of his own memory. He always remembered everything at night. It seemed that darkness brought with it a hoard of new details, new sights and smells for him to agonize over, new details to remember from that night.

 

            In the dimness of his home, Will took the last cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He breathed the smoke in and out, wondering absentmindedly if dragons would feel the same burning sensation in their lungs when they reduced their victims to ashes.

 

            Slowly, he became aware of his eyes beginning to drift shut, but not aware enough of the cigarette falling from his fingers and to the carpet. 

 

---

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[title undecided]

Frenetic fireflies glinted behind her eyes that summer. I didn't know what had changed her, but she swung her arms freely, wore loose hemp bracelets with colored beads, drew wild birds with marker in the crooks of her elbows: I never knew till then she was ambidextrous. Electricity crackled and sparked between us like lightning kissing telephone wires in a midsummer storm. I kept hoping her straw-colored hair was wild and dry enough to light a fire in, but all summer long we smiled and laughed and smiled; she thirsted too much to drive her closed eyelids into the rain, so I indulged it all, glad, at least, for her presence.

Once, at school, I snuck up behind her during lunchtime as she stared intently into her white computer screen at an empty table beside the wall. As I reached out to poke her in the ribs my eyes glanced across text and the blinking cursor: Pond water festers in my veins and my heart has stopped trying to turn it into blood. I have been trying to forget myself before anyone else remembers me. I backtracked, stepped quietly away, but sometimes when she looks me in the eyes and asks me where the thunder's gone I wonder whether she heard me breathing behind her, then.

She vowed, one spring night under the stars, after hours clinging so hard to a boy's stomach as his motorbike screamed down a deserted Minnesota highway that the imprint of her clenched fists took three days to fade from his skin, to exist. This I learned after her death, after that summer, when the boy came up to the funeral podium holding a battered piece of paper that held only aimless sketches of her eyes and crumpled against it. After he left her, the only way she knew how to hold onto him was by expanding in her promise to live, and so she did wildly, desperately, swallowing soil and sunshine into her open throat to grow wildflowers out of each of her orifices. After that summer was over, they told her she had to let go. So she let autumn dry the auburn leaves and pressed her wildflowers between the pages of her journal, and as one by one the foliage fell, she let go.

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My scars are real even if you can't see them.

The day my pants were ripped from my body

as my classmates laughed at my exposed skin

was the first time I wanted to die. I walked out

on my education to hold a knife to my wrist

ready to remove my blood. I could see my body

on the kitchen floor a sea of red under the refrigerator.

I could see my mom finding my body wide-eyed

limp, cold and lifeless. I could feel her silent

scream in my bones. Her imagined devastation

forced the knife back where it came from.

 

The second time I was just legal to drive

the world just beyond the windshield.

But the loneliness; the pain I cannot name

was growing inside me, a plant I kept watering.

I grabbed a mechanical pencil repeatedly

stabbing my wrist hoping I would penetrate skin

tearing tendons and veins. My brothers ran downstairs

to play video games stopping and staring at me.

I ran away to place I could be alone.

 

I just turned twenty-one the third time.

Everything I had ever felt was held inside,

like a Pepsi can rolling down a rocky hill.

exploding in my lungs, fizzing up my throat

until I was choking on bubbles

and leaving was easier than staying.

I broke down in my dorm rocking

like a broken fetus. My roommate

held my wrists from my mouth,

so I wouldn’t chew them like a dog with shoes.

The next day, the first psychiatrist told me,

I had the lows to be considered bi-polar

but not the highs. For the next year and a half

I ingested a mix of drugs to keep my canines at bay.

 

The last time I wanted to die

It had been two years since I swallowed a pill

My life had no direction. I wasn’t writing.

I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t laughing.

I was stuck. Another sleepless night.

Staring at the ceiling, praying for sleep

I saw the bed soaking the life from me

my wrist dangling over the edge.

I saw myself as dead because at that point

I might as well have been. I rolled off my pillow

slept on the hardwood floor found another

psychiatrist who brewed a different potion

I have been drinking ever since.

 

There are no scars where knifes wanted to cut.

I do not wear my attempts to die like a medal

of honor on my wrist. This doesn’t make it

any less real. I know what it feels like to free-fall.

To fantasize about jumping the guard rails

driving engine first into a redwood.

I have felt the cold hand of depression

hold my cheek. I have let the monsters

hold my heart in their mouth. I watched

as the pulse slowed, slobber ran down my arteries.

I have tattoos where scars should be.

Speak – for strength. Write – for sharing my stories.

Even the one’s I have not boxed up.

The ones that are still barking at my door.

Because there is no running away

from holding a knife to your wrist

from stabbing yourself with a mechanical pencil

from chewing your own veins

or seeing yourself as dead.

 

Today I wrote a list of all my reasons to live.

To marry my someday best friend.

To laugh so hard I fall to the ground.

To see my childs smile.

To finally have abs.

To watch wrinkles of my past iron into my skin.

To scream ‘I am enough’ at the sunset.

To carry the weak across this black tar world.

To run a marathon.

To carve my story on my bones.

To absorb this world in the pours of my lungs.

To motivate a new generation to keep moving forward.

To beam with the moon on the darkest nights.

To blossom like a rose.

To chance everything’s going to work out fine.

To love.

To laugh.

To evolve.

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Bullet

Laughter rang out across the grassy acres of the youth church. Teenagers, huddled in groups, giggled into the clear sapphire of the night, journeying their way across the playground to the bonfire. They came together, circling the roaring rage of the red, yellow, and orange beast. The youth leaders gathered the kids, ushering them through the crisp night, herding the strays together. The stars laid out like pin pricks of diamonds above them, the full moon a crown in the sky.

 

A cluster of kids sat on the picnic table. Two guys sat clowning around, trying to push the other off the table. A girl sat on the table, french braiding another girl's golden satin hair, as she sat on the bench. Several other kids sat on the swings, pumping their feet into the air, trying to see who could go higher. Instead they only rocked the swing set, causing someone to yell over to them to stop. Laughing hard, they bend over at the waist, one even slipping off the swing onto the ground.

 

Next to the swing set, was a group of lawn chairs. The youth leaders claimed these lawn chairs. Trying to settle the rowdy crowd, they shushed the teenagers up. Finally one of them sat up with his guitar and starting strumming gently, singing softly, "When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come… Longing just to bring, something that's of worth, that will bless your heart…" and slowly the others joined in with him. A soft chorus of voices grew strong and steady, lifting up into the air. A breeze danced past them, carrying their voices to the other side of yard, out into the alley way.

 

While the youth group sang, a young boy was traveling in the shadows of the night, carrying a heavy package in his heart and his pocket. Deep in his thoughts and troubles, he trudged along, determined to finish this journey soon. His aching body stepped silently, one foot after another, until a soft breeze caressed his soft brown hair, bringing the sweet melody across his ears. " I'll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what you have required. You search much deeper within, through the way things appear, You're looking into my heart… "

 

Without noticing, he stopped and listened. The breeze tickled his cheeks, and flirted with the branches above. He watched as they swayed back and forth, inviting him to come closer. He took a step closer, still set within the shadows, wandering towards the soft melody of voices. How nice must it be to be so joyful, he thought enviously. What would I give to trade my pain to be happy like them. Still stepping closer, they transitioned to another song. Entranced in the way the breezed danced with the melody of the songs, beckoning him towards the rise of voices.

 

"Well, I know this life is filled with sorrow. And there are days when the pain just lasts and lasts." The melody carried to his heart, speaking to him, drawing him closer to the crowd. Coming past a curve, through the shadows he spotted the source of the songs. Surprised, he saw a group of kids around a bonfire, some with their hands raised, others with their heads lifted towards the sky. What the hell are they doing? Caught off guard from his original set of thoughts, he curiously snuck his way to a old, wise maple tree that sat further back from the crowd. Under this elderly tree hung a tire swing, in which the young boy sat into. Watching the group of kids and several adults, he sat baffled and puzzled. Observing the youth singing passionately, he wondered what this was all about. A powwow, he thought bitterly.

 

His heart so heavily burdened, it ached like a set of bricks sagging inside his chest. He leaned forward resting his arms on the top of the tire swing, exhausted yet in wonder.

 

"Love has come for us all," they sang.

 

He tilted his head and closed his eyes, thinking of his long journey. Such deep troubles he carried with him. Weary of the abuse, alcoholism, and threats. Tired of the disappointments, drugs, and cold nights on the streets. Exhausted from it all, he ached to reach the end of it all. To his home where the solution awaited for him. Once again he thought, what I would give to trade my sorrows. Not contemplating on it any further, he got up, ready to set on home and achieve some rest.

 

Just than, the guitarist started strumming a different chord. Along with him strong set of voices arose.

 

"I'm trading my sorrows, I'm trading my shame. I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord." Widening his eyes in surprise, he tilted his head and sat back down. Resting his head once again, he just listened. "I'm trading my sickness, I'm trading my pain. I'm laying them down for the joy of the Lord."

 

Remaining still and silent in his movement and his thoughts, he just listened to them. They sang several more bouts of the song. Falling into the ease of the music, he closed his eyes, relaxed and at peace. In belief that it was because time was closing, he didn't question it.

 

Finally after some more minutes of singing, the youth leader set down the guitar and stood up speaking.

 

"That was a great song. How many of you think so? Give me a show of hands if you agree." Several hands meekly went up. "Aww, come on now. That is an amazing thing, and this is all of you that agree? You can trade your sorrows! You can trade your pain! You can take all of your burden and place them in the Lord hands. Is this not truly an amazing thing? Is this song not the truth that we sing? Now give me a raise of hands. Who thinks that that was a great song?"

 

Raising his hand in an upward motion, he encouraged a show of hands. This time, everyone raised their hands. Smiling in satisfaction, he grabbed his bible.

 

"Let's open to Psalm 55:22. 'Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fail.' " He glanced up and looked around.

 

Meanwhile, the boy sat under the shadows, listening intently, forgetting where he was destined to go.

 

"Who knows what sustain means? Anyone? It means support, to bear, to hold up… So he will carry you on, he will support you, he will hold you up… He will sustain you… Hold you up. He will not let you fail."

 

"Now to Matthew 11: 28. 'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.' He will give you rest from all of your pain. Rest from your troubles. Please turn to 1 Peter 5:7. 'Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.' " Looking around the crowd, the youth leader reread each scripture, emphasizing each word. He will give rest and ease. He will sustain you and not let you fail. He will hold you up when you are weak. This is the magnificence of the Lord. "

 

"Today we are going to do something different. Today we are going to give up our burdens onto the Lord. The youth leaders will be passing out sheets of paper and a pens. On this piece of paper you will write what it is that you want to lay into the Lord's palms. What is it that you want to give onto Him."

 

Giving them a moment of silence while passing out strips of paper and pens onto each teen, he prayed softly with them.

 

"Dear Lord Jesus, Today we are here in your name, ready to move on with you. But first we must be rid of what weighs us down, before we can travel with you. Lord, we give up our troubles and our burdens. We hand our pains onto you, no longer wanting to be burdened of them. Lord, lift the weight from us, and give us peace. In Jesus name we pray, Amen."

 

Lifting his head, he and the other youth leaders walked around with woven baskets, collecting the strips of paper.

 

The young man under the wise old maple tree, sat in surprise as the youth leader headed his way. Suddenly knowing what it was that he wanted to give up, he reached into his pocket and grabbed a small thing of cold metal. The youth leader arriving to the tree, handed him a piece of paper and a pen. The boy took it and scribbled two words onto there. Wrapping the small thing of cold metal secretly and delicately in the shadows in the strip of paper, he placed it into the basket. He then got up and shook the youth leader's hand, walking away towards the back alley.

 

Feeling at ease, he walked home with peace. He wasn't going to home to rest now. In fact he was at rest. Walking in the bright moonlight, he whistled with the breeze, which gently tousled his hair, speaking soothing promises to him.

 

The youth leader watched the boy walk away. Curious to see what the boy had placed into the basket that had such weight, he picked up the tiny wrapped bundle. Unraveling the paper, he stood in shock as a bullet fell out into his hand… than he read what was written on the paper. "My life."

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Exit Strategy

People with IBS or stress incontinence always have a plan. This much, I have in common with them. I can sympathize with the woman with the queasy stomach who only books her seat on the Amtrak train after researching the locations of available bathrooms and calculating ease of access based on aisle width and a number of other factors. Lady, I know how you feel. You go to the zoo with your kid, and you have to plot out all the bathrooms on the tour map. Mark the range of exhibits you can access that are within two minutes’ walking distance of a restroom. Skip the orangutans because they are too far away from this public convenience. Same thing everywhere you go. Research bathrooms ahead of time, mark them out on your map, figure out where you can go where you will always be safe, never more than two minutes from a toilet.

I’m the same way with train tracks. Any exit strategy, really, but trains are a good one because they’re everywhere in Longmont. The town is criss-crossed with train tracks, their whistles echoing behind the soundtrack of every casual interaction. Far-away whistles sound mournful; up-close they are insistent screeches.

Really, any exit strategy will do; it’s just the trains are usually the most conveniently-located. I never go any where without an exit strategy. Like the man with the swollen prostate pressing into his bladder or with bowels constantly complaining of diarrhea, I enter a building or situation and immediately list all of my possible choices for immediate suicide. Unlike my incontinent kin, I never need to act on the opportunity. It just needs to be there, my safety net, my just-in-case bathroom. If I’m near Third Street on Main, I know that I’m not more than a block away from the train tracks. I can go lie down whenever I want, and it will only be a few minutes before a train passes. If I’m stuck in traffic at Ken Pratt Boulevard and Boston Avenue, I can always swerve onto the track.

Some people would carry a gun, but I have more dignity than those who wear Depends to the baseball game. You can call me crazy, but I call it prepared.

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Tick Snip

She creeps out of bed naked

in a coat of hours; the time it took for mourning

to meet morning. Curtains drawn and scissors in hand-

tick. Then snip.

 

Hair falls to the carpet while the mirror pleads

at her shut eyes: please open I crave for your iris to be mine. But no only-

tick. Then snip.

 

Strand atop strand until scissors cut through empty air;

her hair is gone. Lungs clamp tight, peeling eyes, then cold metal to toes-

tick. Then snip.

 

Red runs from open holes. Squirming at the failed attempts to breathe

she is dying she is smiling she is ending she is submerging into the lullaby-

tick. Then tick.

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The Edge

 

I sat on the edge

alone, in the not so dark morning--

hunched over,

head in hands.

Death spoke:

"You are not wanted."

"You are not needed."

 

These words,

simple statements, 

smoldering in

my mind,

burst into flames for me

to read and remember.

 

Death held out a hand

beckoning, waiting 

as I sat on the edge.

I heard no rustle of Angel's wings.

I saw no divine light.

I sat, still and silent

as the words glowed 

and the dark hand waited.

 

The embers shifted and 

new words formed,

like a Phoenix from the ashes.

As I sat, mind on fire,

I answered Death,

"Not Today."

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Mapped Skin

He felt lost 
so he carved these wounds
in his chest, his arms, his thighs
to draw a map, 
to search, to find.

With rusty nails
and razor blades,
he scarred his skin
with roads and signs.

Ever he wandered,
further he strayed;
until one day, an exit appeared.
“Finally”, he told himself;
he pulled the trigger
and found his piece.

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Five Days Early

On Monday I counted my blessings
And I would have held
My friends tight
And told them I loved
Them if I didn't think
They'd think I was crazy.
So I prayed instead.

On Tuesday the pit 

In my stomach
Began to shrink but I 
Opend my eeys wide
For the world and held 
Each touch for 
As long as I could.

On Wednesday it seemed 

Only a peculiar sensation
Passing though my
System like swallowed gum.

On Thursday I was clueless.


On Friday the walls were 

Lined with post-its and
The sinks ran with mascara.
I was sucker punched
In the heart while
My stomach fell to the floor.
Oh how I wished I was wrong.
I had never seen so much black
Nor felt so much an outsider
In this world of grief
Somehow responsible
For my inkling of suspicion.

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they were strangers (V)

fire spreads through the
forest in his skin
a chemical intoxication;
left so high and dry
he drowned the things
he could never say
in needles and late nights

he loved Her so much
and the She who wasn’t yet
but Her! she loved the game;
the up, the down, the no-in-between
passion held by taut wire:
when he fell, she rose
and that was how she liked it


roll the dice

he is down

gun kissed temple

smile hidden in Her frown,

“Pull it.”


so the She who wasn’t yet
came to be alone