Death Is Beautiful
By: Marium Asad
I remember being here once before. Back then, the fluorescent lights were effulgent, the porcelain tiles on the floor were clean, and colorful photographs covered all the walls. If there wasn’t a framed picture on the wall, there would be a painted mural. Every room had open windows. Eyesome balloons were hung up at every pillar. Twelve years ago, this place was full of life, full of hope. Now, it’s fading, just like the paint on the walls. All the frabjous murals are faded, the floors are scratched, irreversible. Most of the photographs had fallen off the walls, the holes where the nails were, still in the walls. The balloons had all seemed to burst, not a single streamer hung up anywhere. I used to walk through the halls, giving a smile to people passing by. They would look back at me, and we would talk, even cracking jokes every once in a while. Slowly, the laughter was stolen by the long stretch of time. Soon after that, the smiles began to disappear. People began to move like ghosts, going about their own day.
Standing in front of the building, I look up to the top floor, six stories above me. The outside of the building has been changed, worn down by the weather. Red bricks now covered in dust, cracks showing in the cement. The windows had been replaced, the long oval ones replaced with rectangle window panes. Some are tinted navy blue, others black. Some windows are completely transparent, and I avoid looking in. I leave behind the noise of the streets, watching smoke combine with the clouds. My hands grab the cold handle of the metal doors. Since the sun left its post at the middle of the sky, the zephyr has been getting stronger. The sun’s rays have vanished behind the horizon, all the warmth seeping into the sea, leaving us at nights mercy. Shadows crawl all over the floor, sometimes jumping onto the walls.
I walk inside the building, where the lights drive the shadows under the unused furniture. The entrance leads to a large lobby, and in the middle are glass elevators. A large carpet is spread out over the floor. The purple carpet, contrasting the images on the wall, looks out of place. Its bold colour had dimmed. Lillith would always complain about the carpet. Every time we walked into this building, and she would start wiping her shoes on the carpet.
“The purple carpet doesn’t match the painted walls.” She said, “They should change it.”
“Nobody looks down.” I answered.
“Some people do. They’ll notice the carpet.” Lillith told me.
“The walls look good, so nobody notices the carpet. After all, it’s about first impression.” I would reply.
“Don’t people get disappointed when first impression fails?” Lillith asked.
I had laughed and replied with something that I did not remember.
I walk into the lobby, past the furniture. Potted plants line the walls. I lean over, brushing the leaves. They’re made of smooth plastic, the flower buds too bright, the petals too shiny. The dirt is real, mixed with white stones. The plants have changed. Once, they used to be real. Someone used to take care of them. I always thought the plants were real, I would touch them, and I would never be disappointed. Until I turned ten, and the flowers were replaced with fake stems. Lillith was five when the flowers changed.
“Are these flowers real?” She asked me, rubbing the leaves between her fingers. The fake leaves felt soft on the top, but slippery on the underside. The petals still felt real, but they were too stiff. Real petals would curl easily. These ones wouldn’t even bend.
“No, Lillith. These flowers are fake. The ones outside were real.” I said every time.
“Why? Why add fake flowers?” she asked me, inquisitive and innocent, not knowing the dark reality of where we were.
I had longed to answer her question, but didn’t want to destroy her optimism. The words were always there, but I could never say them. Only five words, that seemed to hold up this entire building. ‘Fake flowers for fake hope.’ There was no room for life here. Every time, I’d take her hand and we would head toward the elevators. The thick glass would often be covered in fingerprint that were barely visible unless the light hit them at a proper angle. They still are, I observe as I press the button for the fifth floor. The white ring around the number turns a neon red, as the black cables begin to move. They run up and down, spinning in a blur, but the elevator itself takes a long time to descend. I never noticed that with any elevator, until Lillith pointed it out.
“The ropes move quickly, but the elevator doesn’t.” She said.
“That’s just how it works.” I replied.
“Why? The ropes move that quickly, then the elevator should too. It’s like putting in a lot of effort to get just enough.”
“Just enough is good enough here.”
Well, it was. I wait as the elevator doors open, then step inside. Thankfully, the doors close before anyone else steps in. Instantly, I’m overcome with regret. I miss the words, the useless conversations. Lillith would fill the silence with sibylline chatter. We’d be surrounded by zenosyne, and she’d have to stop talking too soon. She’d pop up out of nowhere in a normal conversation. I remember talking to my friends on our way to school. We’d been talking simply about a party we wanted to go to, about three weeks away, Lillith had almost been forgotten.
“I want to wear purple and gold. That’s for royalty. Think it’ll work?” my friend asked me.
“Sure!” I replied.
“Then I’ll wear black and silver. Rebellion!” another of my friends said.
“My sister is going to wear a clinquant dress. That way, she’ll be a bit of both!” Lillith interjected. I still hadn’t picked a dress, and had no idea what a clinquant dress even was.
Three weeks later, I did end up wearing a clinquant dress. The deep turquoise silk was covered by a silver net, the edges lined with gold lace. I was wrapped in layers of the slippery fabric, spreading out from my waist. I had never thought that I could look this pretty, yet this illecebrous dress made every head turn at the party. I had come home exhausted, but happy. I had enjoyed every second of attention. If the dress weren’t enough, before the party, Lillith had weaved glass pendants through my hair. Jewels randomly shone from edges of my hair, the light sending rainbows scattering over the floor. Lillith made the jewels dangle at the bottom of my curls. While she was doing that, she told me why she chose a turquoise dress.
“It sets off your hair. Silky brown, especially when the light glints off of your hair, look stunning against a deep green. The problem with emerald is that it contrasts your skin a little too much. Besides, deep turquoise always looks good with brown eyes.” Lillith tugs on another strand of hair, wrapping it around a pendant.
“Always looks good?” I asked.
“Yes! Painting bronze statues with green paint always works doesn’t it?”
“If it’s painted, how do you know that it’s made of bronze?”
“Because green paint won’t have curved lines on bronze statues, and the lines in the paint are milky white, not scratched white.”
“How do you notice these things?” I asked, still entranced by the girl in the mirror. I get up, put down the mirror, ready to go.
To her it seemed normal, to the rest of us, it was talent. Even if we looked, we wouldn’t notice the things that Lillith did. Like the number of lines in a painting or the faint sound of bells. A small ping echoes, and the elevator doors open. The hallway stretches before me, empty compared to the main lobby. The walls are viridescent, the roof a warm purple. Although they may have tried, this hallway looked anything but lively. From somewhere down the hall, laughter strikes through the still air, a ghostly echo in the silence. Still, it is laughter. Something rarely brought to light. It’s strange to hear. The laughter never stopped, I just stopped listening. The only things I heard lately were my mother’s tears, and the cheers of the crowd I ran away to every night. Music crashing my eardrums, I focused only on singing the right words, and my fingers playing the right cords on my electric guitar. Still, through the deafening heavy metal music, I could hear Lillith asking me to come for her. She wanted me by her side, and I wanted to be with her. I’d always feel a random heartache in the middle of a performance. I wanted to go to Lillith, but without enough money to care for her, I had to do something. So I went around the city, singing. The hardest thing to do is smile onstage, while crying inside. I’d rush to her after every performance, running to the nearest train station. Sometimes I’d get there in fifteen minutes, other times it took an hour or two. Performing in different parts of the city had its disadvantages.
“You’re good at playing, so don’t be nervous.” Lillith gave me my electric guitar the day before my first performance.
“What if I mess up?”
“The lights will cover people from seeing your thumb move around the top of the guitar. So they won’t know that you’re nervous.”
“No, I meant… wait, how’d you know I do that when I’m nervous?”
“If you do make a big mistake in singing, the crowd will be too mesmerized by Verena headbanging on the drumset to notice.” Lillith ignores my question.
“Excuse me sweetie, what was that?” Verena chose that moment to walk into our conversation.
“She’s trying to make me confident.” I smiled.
“What? You need to show emotion! You need to walk up there, look everyone in the eye and say, ‘Hey! I’m up here, you’re not, I’m the best, y’all are peasants!’ Got it?” Verena winked at Lillith.
“That’s narcissism, not confidence.” I stated.
“Alright. Oh, and Lillith? I’ll take that as a compliment.” Verena left to check her drumset.
After that performance, people offered to help us advertise. We began going all over the city, singing for people. I got used to tapping the microphone, and the countdown before we began to sing. At one, everyone fixes their mics. At two, you check your instrument. At three, someone slams the first beat and we begin. After our first venue, we moved from bar performances to stages, earning money for singing. I had saved mine to help with Lillith’s treatment, and the other girls used the money to tune up our instruments, get microphones and promote our band. Until a few hours ago, we finished our newest song. The crowd had been ecstatic, while my magoa was gone unnoticed. I lived through the day as an eccedentesiast, longing for ataraxia. It wasn’t until the sun had started slipping from the sky that Verena and the other girls tried to ask what was wrong. It was right after we had finished packing up, the crowd had dispersed, and the four of us went into the empty parking lot.
“Well, that’s that. I’ve got a beer bash down by the river, and I think Verena has an early curfew after the last ‘accident’, do you not?” asked Esther, who played the keyboard.
“The ‘accident’ as you called it, was not a result of being drunk.” Verena replied.
“Oh really?” challenged Amarantha, who often took care of strange and random instruments, which changed according to the song. (Which once included a chainsaw and spoons.)
“Okay, okay! Still, I wasn’t that drunk!” Verena tried to defend herself.
“You were throwing clothespins across the room, yelling that they were fish that knew how to fly. Then you said you wanted to fly just like them and ran upstairs.” Esther giggled.
“Isn’t that a good thing? I left everybody alone and endangered no one?” Verena said.
“You jumped out of the upstairs window and broke your leg.” Amarantha laid off casually.
“Oh.” Verena was, for once, speechless.
“Well then, early curfew beckons. Let’s go.” Esther flipped her keys in the air, and caught them.
Our concerts usually lasted late into the night, but every once in a while, we’d do one in the morning. That meant we’d skip our first class of the day, find other people doing the same thing, and start singing. I know that I shouldn’t ditch classes in my last year of high school, but sometimes, catching up was really easy. Esther and Verena went to the high school in the north, while Amarantha would join me. It works well for us, considering Amarantha failed her driving test. I take her to school now. The first time me and Amarantha talked was when she needed a ride.
“Hello, your name is Enya, right?”
“Yes, and you’re…?”
“My name is Amarantha, from math class remember?”
No, I didn't remember because of Lillith’s recent diagnosis. Still, I didn’t want her to think I was self-centered, so I replied, “Oh yeah, I remember you. How’s it going?”
“I was wondering if you could give me a ride. I failed my test and have a concert across the city. I was originally going to take a bus, but I-” her cheeks flush pink, “I missed that too.”
“No worries! I can take you. Get in.” I opened the passenger door and walked around to the driver’s seat. Amarantha sat down and smiled. I followed her directions, and we made it in time. When we got there, I found that Amarantha was part of a band, who wanted someone who could play electric guitar. I volunteered, and we continued to sing.
On the way back from these concerts, we’d split up, sometimes alone or sometimes in pairs. I was never a fast runner, and if I had walked to the concert, I ran back home with one of the other girls. Lillith didn’t run either. One time, she did enter a race when one of her friends wanted to go to an event together. The race didn’t end well, and that itself is an understatement.
“Good luck, to both of you!” I said.
“Thank you!” Replied Lillith’s friend.
“I’m not good at running.” Lillith mumbled.
“It doesn’t matter! We’re here to have fun!” I reminded her.
“Come on, let’s go!” Both girls began walking towards the starting line. I waited at the edge of the track, and heard the announcer countdown. Three. Everyone began to look forward. I notice the rocks in the wide track, slightly sharp but mostly round. Two. Tension. One. The crowd lost it as all the runners began the race. Lillith was doing alright, especially for someone who didn’t run as much as the other players. A minute passes by, and things begin to go downhill. Lillith stops running in the middle of the track, and everyone slams into her. Most of the players get up, and continue. I look for Lillith… and she’s still on the ground.
“Lillith!” I run over to the track, and other officials join me.
“Lillith!” I should not scream, because I’ll lose my voice even before the concert, but I really didn’t care at the moment. Lillith looked at me, slightly dizzy and then bent over, shivering. She retched twice and coughed. I don’t think it’s anything serious until I notice the rocks are covered in spots of blood.
We slowed down on the physical exercise. We stayed at home, turning on the heat as high as it’d go. Me and Mother would be sweating sometimes, and Lillith would be huddled under four blankets. She always felt cold. Our Father was at work all day, so Mother would watch Lillith. It’s still like that, even though we’re barely at home now. People sent us cards all the time, I no longer had any trouble opening an envelope. It was second nature to just flip it open, rather than struggling with the flap.
“Wait.” Verena turned around and grabbed an envelope from her pocket, “Enya, take this.” She holds it out towards me. She was wearing a shoulderless white top, and black jeans, a gold chain dripping from her pocket. Verena’s black hair was in one long braid, ties with another shimmering gold scrunchie.
“What is it?” I asked, mindlessly fingering the flap.
“Tell Lillith to keep strong, and that she’ll be our costume designer as soon as she’s out of the hospital.” Esther stopped playing with the car keys, the streetlight flickering on her tan skin, and black sequined shirt.
“Because cystic fibrosis costs a lot. Isn’t the only cure meds and a transplant? Besides, chances of survival just happen to be greater than chances of dying. I think the risk is worth it.” Verena said.
“Also, it’s her birthday today isn’t it? Give this to her, and tell her happy birthday.” Amarantha hands me a purple envelope, the same colour as her minidress. I flipped it open. Inside, there was a small card, along with a QR code and a link.
“What is it?” I was more than afraid of the possible answers.
“It’s an ID card for that french company. They have classes for fashion design and Lillith absolutely adores that place. We got her a membership! So she can pop in any thirty classes of her choice! Brilliant, right?” Esther winked.
“It’s eight o'clock, so you better get their before midnight. Otherwise, you’ll miss her birthday. Run!” Amarantha pushed me into my car and pressed the keys into my hand, before I could reply, while helping to force Verena into Esther’s car. Which was not easy, considering how Verena attempted to convince everyone that she was sober enough to drive.
It was more than brilliant. More than what I could’ve given anyways. Fumbling with the keys, I finally got the car started. I didn’t run any lights, but got here at around eleven, just as the sun was setting. I suddenly stopped the car, and felt the ground sink, just for a second. It was small, and I was probably just dizzy. Right now, the ground beneath me doesn’t sink; it falls at least a foot, and I lose my balance. My hands get scratched when I crash to floor. The world tips, before finally coming into focus.
“Are you alright?” Someone grabs my hand and pulls me up. Leaning against the wall, I regain my balance.
“I’m fine, thanks.” I look up. I’m still standing in the elevator, and a girl, probably older than me, is staring at me. She had blonde hair, along with hazel eyes, and was wearing a pink sundress.
“No, really, I’m fine. I was just daydreaming.” I assure her.
The girls finally steps back. “About what?”
“I was… remembering something my friends did for me.”
Another mechanical bell sounds, and the elevator doors open. Instead of the fifth floor hallway, we’re two floors lower, on the third. This hallway didn’t need a paint job to look lively. It was already crowded with plants and streamers. Balloons were hanging from the roof, glitter spread all over the floor. One of the balloons catch my attention. It’s a black balloon, but turns purple where the light hits through it. The black and purple match the wrapping I put around the gifts for Lillith.
“I like black.” Lillith told me.
“I thought you said purple was your favourite colour.” I asked her.
“It was. Now I’m going to die, and black is for death. Purple is for royalty, and now that I’m sick, you sure as hell treat me like a monarch you can’t lose.”
“We always treated you like that.”
“You can live. It’s not impossible.”
“But I don’t want to.”
“Because life is torture, and death is mercy.”
I never questioned her logic, even though it made no sense to me. “Where are we?” I ask the girl.
“Third floor. Where patients who’ve been here a long time go right before getting released.” she answers. This was somewhere Lilith was convinced she’d never go. I smile to the girl as she walks out of the elevator and press the button for the second floor. Lillith had been in this elevator when she told me that she’d never be happy on the third floor.
“I’m never going to get there in the first place.” she said.
“And why not?”
“I know what’s wrong with me. And all you adults hide it from me.”
“You shouldn’t stress over nothing. We’ll fix the problems.”
“But I’m the problem. And you can’t fix me. Especially if I don’t want to be fixed.”
“Why? You can survive, Lillith. Don’t say things like that.”
“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
“What’s the difference?”
I did not understand what she meant. I fought with her for ages, but Lillith was intransigent. The elevator doors open again, and I step out. Just as I remembered, there is a directory. I look at the map, figuring out where Lillith should be. Serious treatment was the sixth floor. I messed up and had pressed fifth. I take a look at the elevators, but head towards the stairs instead. Pushing open the door, I climb the first set easily. Three floors left to go. The unused stairway walls are covered in millefleur. My legs slightly hurt from all the climbing, a dull ache passing through my thighs every time I lift up my leg. My jeans have iron patches on them, looking like a rose with too many thorns. The walls around me are covered in flowers, but not thorny flowers. Nice, flowers, that I’m pretty sure won’t hurt you to if you touch them.The flowers drawn are blue and white, trying once again to brighten up a dark place.
“Wooden basement stairs always have round edges.”
“The stairs. Look down, Enya.” I did as Lillith said and looked down. Sure enough, the basement stairs did not have sharp corners.
“Why are you always looking down?”
“The dead are always buried below the floor.”
“Okay, so what does that have to do with us?”
“My name means death in hebrew. So it wouldn’t hurt to look at my origins.”
“But you’re beautiful! So is your name!”
“Then that means death is beautiful.”
Whatever Lillith saw in death, the rest of us did not. We saw hope in life, and Lillith ignored us. I always wonder what keeps Lillith from seeing the world as we do. The stairs make another turn, and I look at the sign. Fourth floor, two left to go. My watch says 11:43. Thankfully, I’ll get there on time. I rush up another set of stairs, my hand lightly grazing the banister. The stairs turn again. One floor left to go. A door appears when I turn the corner, and I pull it. It doesn’t move.
“You’re supposed to push the door, Enya!” Lillith told me.
“Oh don’t worry, my next option was to use a sledgehammer.” I rolled my eyes.
“Enya! It’s easy to tell the difference.”
I look from the door I’m standing at, to the door a few feet away that someone just walked out of. That door is pull. This one is push. Both doors are amaranthine, with grey and silver around the edges.The handles are also the exact same, a large lever that pushes down. The bottom of the doors are smeared with dirt, and the metal looks the same.
“There’s no difference.” I point to the other door.
“You can’t see them?” Lillith squints at the other door.
“All doors have hinges, Lillith. Unless they’re garage doors that you pull up.”
“No! The hinges on a door that you pull will be facing outwards, towards you and the hinges on a door that you push are probably not going to be visible to you, as they’re on the other side.”
The hinges on this door are invisible, to me anyways. I try pushing the door, and it works. When I close the door behind me, I realise that the hinges, from this side of the door, are facing out. How Lillith noticed the door hinges will always be a mystery to me. I look down this hallway. It’s more subfuscous than the stairwell. The hallway is lined with benches, and I walk towards the end. Everything in this hallway is white. The walls, the roof, and even the floor. The night is visible from the window at the end, the stars sparkling with hope. I look at my watch again. 11:45.
No problem, I think, fifteen minutes of celebrating Lillith’s thirteenth birthday. The balloons downstairs would’ve made it more blithesome. I think of going back. Nevermind, it’ll take too long. We’ll do without them. Near the end of the hallway, I find my mother standing outside a white door.
“She wants you to pick.” My mother hands me a clipboard before I can say anything. I scan the paper. My mother has already signed the blank line at the bottom, and she’s still holding the black pen. The blank might have been signed, but two squares are empty. My mother hands me the black pen, “Pick one.”
“I want to talk to Lillith first.”
My mother moves out of the doorway.
“Lillith?” I call.
No reply. I walk into the room. Lillith is lying down, probably asleep. I walk to the table. It’s right next to her bed. Gently, I lay the cards on the table. Face down. I move quietly, not wanting to wake Lillith. Reflections are blurred in the window. The night sky is visible, so is the parking lot below. The white curtains are drawn back, and I sit into a blue leather chair beside the bed. The clock above the bed reads 11:50. In the window, the metal bed rails are silver. I look outside, noticing the night getting darker. In the slightly blurry reflection, I see Lillith, a thick blanket covering her shoulders, and her dark brown eyes are staring right back at me.
“Lillith!” I jump, “Don’t scare people!”
“You’re scared? Shouldn’t I be the one who’s scared?” she whispers.
I don’t reply, although the answer is pretty obvious.
“Happy birthday Lillith.” I pass both cards to her.
“Who gave the cards?”
“Verena, Esther, and Amarantha.”
“Tell them thank you. Now, it’s your turn.”
“What… what do you want?” I ask.
“Sign the form.” Lillith sits up, leaning against the pillows.
“You… really want to give this up? Why?”
“Yes, I’m giving it up! I’m giving up a life of spams, a life of breathing problems, a lifetime of restrictions, a lifetime of trouble for you and Mother! Of course I’m going to give it up!”
I open my mouth to reply to her, but find that I have nothing to say. Lillith has been saying the same things for so long now, but my brain can’t grasp the fact why I understand it now. It reminds me of the first time she began to struggle, at nine years old, and we all had dismissed it as something harmless.
Our last day at home, with everyone there. Mother had made us all a feast, and our Father played board games with Lillith and me for two hours. The heat was on normal, because we had no idea about Lillith and didn’t even know that cystic fibrosis existed. At about eight o’clock we went outside. The sun was just setting, me and Lillith set to collecting flowers. We had about a basket that our Mother promised to press when Lillith started shivering. Father brought her an extra sweater and we kept on going. Lillith coughed and fell onto me, and we both dropped the flowers. Lillith was coughing, and every time it sounded dry, but mucus came up. It was sticky and her chest started heaving, like she couldn’t breathe.
Lillith coughs again, another round of the clear, viscous substance comes up. If a normal, healthy life, for someone with cystic fibrosis was like that day collecting flowers, then Lillith would be miserable. Lillith looks at me one more time, almost begging. I get it. Walking back to my mother, I grab the pen and check the box.
“Can we do it now please?” Lillith calls, and falls straight into another fit of coughing.
My mother looks at me and says, “Do it now.” Someone shifts beside me and walks into Lillith’s room. I find myself trailing the nurse. Still, I’m unsure of the decision, and look at Lillith. She notices me, and while the nurse fills the needle with potassium chloride. I find myself entranced by the way the liquid fills up the clear tube, slowly.
“Enya?” Lillith asks.
I tear my eyes away from the needle, just as tears begin threatening to fall.
“Did you know that it’s symmetrical to die on your birthday?” Lillith smiles. The last thing I wanted to hear from Lillith wasn’t one of her bizarre, random facts or observations. Lillith pushes her wavy hair behind her, and lies down. The clock ticks one more time. It’s 11:58. Two minutes, and Lillith wants to die before they are up. Three, the nurse wipes the tip of the needle. Two, she scrubs alcohol on Lillith’s arm. Then the clock ticks again, and the countdown finishes. One. The nurse moves around me, and I look at the needle sink into Lillith’s arm. The silver metal shone with light from the moon, entering her dry skin, white scratches outlined in her fair skin. Lillith intakes sharply, and then relaxes, sinking into the thin mattress. Finally, my tears begin to burn my cheeks. I shake, crying without control. I feel my mother staring from the doorway, and I ignore the world around me. I blame myself for not seeing the world the way Lillith did, because if I had, we would’ve had time to prepare. Now, Lillith’s hand feels cold against my skin, and I hear her voice from somewhere far away.
“You’re not cold. The air or whatever you’re touching is just taking the warmth away from your skin. What you feel has been defined by humans as cold.” She told me, when I offered her a blanket on her first day here.
I don’t move. Lillith looks alive, her skin is still vibrant, her eyes gently closed as if she’s sleeping. Her brown hair is spilling over the pillow, and I brush through it. It feels live, it looks alive, but is running out of life. My own skin crawls looking at it, my tears speeding up. The nurse is replaced with Mother and she says nothing, our loss filling the silence. I look once again at this beautiful girl, who noticed things people didn’t, who managed to make others look beautiful. I hear a soft melody play, somewhat similar to a lullaby, and look around for the source. Three, the first chord plays. Two, major A and B play. Three, minor F plays. The clock ticks one more time, then releases a louder version of the song, announcing midnight. Three, Lillith’s breath begins to slow down. Two, the soft melody of the clock dies away. One, a long beep fills my ears until they begin to bleed. Death is beautiful, but I couldn’t even grant it’s final wish.