The days seemed colder without her. Longer and darker and empty. Vivian had been heaven; no matter where she went, she radiated happiness and it was contagious. She was contagious. Her radiant smile, her airy laugh always able to bring you happiness when you couldn’t find it yourself. That’s what she did; she came into your life and taught you no bad situation is ever truly bad, there is always some good to be found. Maybe that’s why this was so hard. How could she help you find the good when she was the bad situation? When she was the reason you couldn’t leave your bed?
It’s been less than a week since you stood silently and watched as your best friend was lowered into the ground. Less than a week since you stood around Vivian’s grave with the small group of her friends and coworkers, not a family member in sight. You squeezed your eyes shut, letting hot tears fall across your face, soaking your pillow further. The funeral played through your memories, a nightmare that you couldn’t wake up from.
It had been beautiful out that day; warm rays blanketed your body while you stood graveside, as if the universe was taunting you. It was sticking its finger in your face and gloating about stealing the only light in your life. That day had been the only time the sun made an appearance during the last two weeks of rain. Was that a good omen or a cruel joke? A reminder that if you had just listened to her, had checked in on her, she would still be here?
You couldn’t cry at the funeral. You had stood there, listening to the quiet sobs around you, wondering why your own tears refused to fall. The pain in your chest had been so tight, so restricting, you thought it would cave in on itself. You couldn’t feel your legs as you walked forward to give the eulogy. You couldn’t feel your hands as you dropped a handful of dirt over the casket.
You stayed behind when everyone left, falling to your knees near the headstone. Cool granite scratched your fingers as you traced the words. In Loving Memory of Vivian Pacini, Your Light Will Shine Forever. You couldn’t breathe; the air had grown heavier the longer you read the words. Salty tears burned your eyes, rolling off your cheeks and falling to the loose ground beneath you. All you felt was pain constricting your heart and tears burning your eyes, punishing you for the light you let extinguish. You hung your head, folding into yourself as guttural sobs ripped through your body.
You don’t know how long you cried; the sun was setting when your tears ran dry. A crow sat in a tree a few plots down from you, cawing loud enough to echo through the cemetery. You watched it. Watched as its body tensed with each cry, as if it also felt your pain. It stopped its harsh cries and tilted its head in your direction before flying off. You stood, taking that as your sign to leave, and went home to your bed.
You’ve been here ever since, only leaving your bed to take care of your basic needs. Your phone rarely lit up the past few days. Work only called a few times, but you let it ring to voicemail each time. Vivian was the only one whose calls you wanted to answer. Whose texts you wanted to read. You sat up and grabbed your phone , looking at the time. 11:30 am, Wednesday. Wednesday. Wednesday. She died last Wednesday.
You both met every Wednesday for lunch; a ritual you had shared for years. Neither of you had missed a single Wednesday lunch since you first met. They were sacred, a pillar of your friendship. Last Wednesday had been the one and only time Vivian had asked to cancel. She wouldn't tell you why and you were mad.
Your phone had lit up, Vivian’s name flashing across the screen. You were huddled under your umbrella, trudging through the relentless downpour towards the cafe you both always met at. You stepped to the side, taking momentary shelter under an entryway, and answered.
“Hey Viv! What’s up?” you asked, yelling over the sounds of the street. You couldn’t hear much through the phone besides Vivian’s breathing.
“Hey,” Vivian greeted, an emotion you couldn’t place dominating her tone. “I was calling to ask if we could maybe take a rain check for this week's lunch?”
“A rain check? I’m already almost there,” you griped, “we’re supposed to meet in 10 minutes, Viv!”
“I know, I know. But something came up.” You interrupted her with a heavy, exaggerated sigh. She hesitated before continuing, “Look, I know it's inconvenient, but I need you to understand. It’s important.” Anger and confusion battled in you, fighting over who would get to make an appearance on the call. You took a moment before blowing out a slow breath to steady yourself. She asked you to understand. She said it’s important. But it’s Wednesday.
“We don’t cancel Wednesdays, Viv,” you stated, voice even and firm. “What’s more important than our Wednesdays?” She was silent; only static came through the phone for a long minute.
“I can’t tell you, not yet. I’m just asking you to understand,” she pleaded, her voice quick and desperate. She cleared her throat when she stopped talking and the line went silent again. Maybe she was sick? She doesn’t get sick often, but that might be why she’s canceling?
“Are you sick? I can get food to go and head to your- “
“No,” she snapped. It seems that she was the angry one now, even though she was the one canceling Wednesday lunch. “I’m not coming. You can either choose to understand or be angry. But I’m not coming and you aren’t coming here.” Your anger beat confusion in the battle and sent heat through your body, burning your cheeks and ears.
“Fine!” You snapped, “Just ruin our Wednesday, whatever. I hope you have fun doing whatever it is that’s more important than our lunch.” You knew you were being unreasonable; she had asked nicely to begin with and swore it was important. You just can’t understand why she can’t tell you. Is she spending the day with someone else? A new friend who outranked you? You yanked the phone away from your ear, ready to hang up.
“I love you.” You barely heard her say it before you clicked end. She sounded how you felt, broken and rejected. You wanted to call her back and apologize, but you couldn’t swallow your pride. It was rare for you two to fight and whenever it did happen, it was over almost immediately after it started. You typed a quick ‘I love you but I’m still mad at you’ text and sent it to her before putting your phone up and walking back to your apartment. If only you had gone to hers.
You pull yourself from the memory and stand; you weren’t going to let yourself miss another Wednesday. You might get there late, but dammit, you were going to get there. You pull on a pair of jeans from the floor and a hoodie draped over your desk chair. In the kitchen, you packed a quick lunch. With a sandwich, chips, and water packed in a bag, you walk out the door and towards the cemetery.
A crow sits perched on a tree guard in front of your apartment building. Its head tilts to the side, watching you walk down the stairs. You hesitate on the last step and stare at the crow, thinking back to the one that had been watching you at Viv’s funeral. The crow’s body shakes with a hoarse coo, pulling you from your memories. You smile at the bird and continue down the sidewalk. As you reach the end of the road and turn, you hear wings flapping behind you. The crow breezes past your head and lands on a lamppost up ahead, its eyes fixed on you once again.
It continues like this the rest of the walk to the cemetery; every time you are nearly out of the bird’s line of sight, it flies ahead and watches the next portion of your walk. Once in the cemetery, you sit next to Vivian’s headstone and watch as the crow settles onto the same branch where you first saw it. While its constant gaze on you was unusual, it filled you with an odd sense of comfort.
The ground beneath you was damp and you felt the wetness seep through the seat of your jeans. If you had been thinking, you would have brought a blanket to sit on. But you weren’t thinking. All you knew is that it was Wednesday and you were late for your weekly lunch. You pull your sandwich out and sigh shakily. All you want is to hear her voice again. To hear her bubbly laughter. To see her sitting across from you with that vibrant smile across her face. That vibrant smile that had been so fake. How long had she been faking it? Hiding how she really felt behind that screen of happiness?
Grief clenches its wicked hand over your throat as anger burns your eyes. How could you not have known? You knew her better than you had known yourself. Or so you had thought. That liquid rage burns down your cheeks, falling to the earth that blanketed your best friend. In the distance, a gravely caw sounds and pulls your attention to the tree. The crow stills when your gaze lands on it. Somehow, when you and the crow look at each other, you don’t feel quite as alone.
You look down to your sandwich and pick at the bread, tossing it in the direction of the tree. The crumbs don’t land as far from you as you want, but the crow doesn’t seem to mind. It jumps from the branch and flies down to the bread, only a few feet away from you. It watches you cautiously as it pecks at the crumbs. You eat your sandwich as the bird works at the crumbs. When the bird finishes eating, you expect it to fly away. To your surprise, it just settles down into the grass and watches you more.
Your new crow friend sits there the whole afternoon. It doesn’t move when others walk past the site. It doesn’t move when your sorrowful whispers to Vivien turn to inconsolable sobs. It only moved to fly alongside you when you began to journey home. Every following Wednesday when you went to have lunch with Vivien, the crow was outside your apartment waiting to join you.
You wake in a cold sweat one night, images of your dream still flashing through your head. Vivien throwing her head back in a loud laugh. Vivien sprawled on her living room floor. Vivien’s whispering to you, eyes full of mischief. Vivien’s empty eyes staring at you as you push through her front door. Vivien furiously scribbling a note in your seminar before folding it and passing it to you. An envelope propped up on Vivien’s living room table, your name written across it.
You ran from your bed, dropping to your knees in the bathroom and spilling the contents of your stomach out into the toilet. When you’re finally done heaving, you wipe your mouth before standing and brushing your teeth. The images continue replaying in your head, taunting you. Reminding you that you were supposed to help her. To save her. And you didn’t. The unopened envelope pushes to the forefront of your mind now. You stalk to the kitchen and grab it off the counter holding it furiously in front of you. You glare at it, wishing your gaze could set fire to the damn thing.
Why did she have to write you a letter? Why couldn’t she have just talked to you? Told you how she felt to your face? Maybe then it would have felt easier to forgive her. To forgive yourself. You didn’t want to read this alone. You wanted her here with you, comforting you through it. Before you could think, you were pulling on shoes and a jacket before rushing out the door.
The streets were empty at night. There were no sounds of passing cars or chatting friends to distract you on your walk. There was no crow joining you, guarding you, on your walk. The cemetery was dark, the lampposts that were there were scattered and didn’t cover the whole area. You don’t need light to find her grave, the path to it was engraved in your memory. You let yourself crumple when you made it to her, your knees sinking into the soft earth and head hanging forward.
“Why did you have to do this?” you sobbed. “I just want you back. I just want to be able to forgive you.” You know it's time to read her letter. You know that, yet you can’t bring yourself to tear it open. To pull it out and unfold it. Minutes pass before your shaking hands begin tearing open the envelope. You pull out the letter and almost choke when the smell of roses wafts up to you. Of course it had to smell like her. You blink away the threat of fresh tears before you start reading.
To my best friend-
I’m so very sorry. Please know that what I’ve done had nothing to do with you. I’ve always felt so empty. So cold. I can’t take it anymore. I hope you know how much I love you. Please forgive me.
Tears dripped from your cheeks, staining the page smudging the ink. She had written so little, yet it was enough to crack your heart. To shatter it into a thousand little pieces. How had you never known? How had you not been able to see behind her facade? Your body trembled, silent sobs ripping through you. A familiar cooing wasn’t enough to stop the sobs, but had you looking up to find where your friend sat.
The crow dove from the tree, gliding towards you. It’s wings began to extend, smoking out from its body. Curling through the air around it. The jet black smoke continued coiling, spreading out until all you saw was an opaque, inky cloud in front of you. Without thinking, you extend your hand to touch it. It was too far away but you need to touch it. To know you weren’t losing your mind. You lean forward, extending your fingers as far as you can. A pale gray hand reaches out towards your own, it’s cool fingers grazing against your skin. You instantly recoil, clutching your hand to your chest while trying to steady your breathing.
“Please don’t be afraid,” a gravelly voice murmured from the dark cloud. The smoke began to retreat into itself, forming into a crouched figure. Before you knelt a man. Or what appeared to be a man. His pale, gray skin was contrasted by his dark, ornate clothes and a cloak that blanketed around him. Long arms were pulled tightly into his figure, one still reaching forward to you. His face was sharp, all angles, framed by black hair that fell to his shoulders. You have to remind yourself to breathe when you look into his eyes. Pitch black eyes stared back at you. Eyes that you had been staring at for months.
“That’s impossible,” you choke out, frozen in place as he slowly moves to you.
“Maybe so,” he whispered. “I suppose it is not common for your world.” Your world? What does he mean your world?
“Who are you? What are you?” you manage to ask, watching was his hands settle onto his lap. He was less than a foot away from you now, close enough for you to reach out and touch.
“My name is Cephin.”
“Why are you here, Cephin,” you demand, anger and impatience building up in your chest. A soft smile settles on his as he watches you.
“I am a guide. A caretaker.”
“What does that mean? How does that explain why you’re here?” His short answers were wearing your patience thin. How dare he interrupt you now? When you were so close to understanding why Vivien was gone?
“I take care of those who are broken. Those who are lost. Those who are ready to leave your world and step into mine. I was here to guide your dear friend. I had finished and was ready to take my leave but I saw that you needed guidance just as much as your friend.”
“I don’t want to die,” you rushed you, falling backwards and scooting away from him.
Your hands slipped on the dewy ground and fell out from under you; the ground connecting with your back knocked the air from your lungs. Cephin moved forwards to lean over you, a look of understanding set on his face.
“I know this, my dear. But you want to understand. I can help you.” His smile was so warm, so welcoming. He reached out, offering you a hand. You grabbed it, noting how cool his skin was against yours. When you were sitting, he pulled his hand from your grasp.
“How?” you asked, defeated. “Can you bring her back? Can you send me back in time so I can stop her?”
“No.” He shook his head, his eyes never leaving yours. “But I can explain to you how everything works. I can show you that you have done nothing wrong. I can show you her. Show you that she is okay. Death is inevitable, my dear, and nothing you could have done would have prevented this outcome.” You believed him. You don’t know how, but you knew he was telling you the truth.
“Show me then.” He gave a curt nod before moving closer to cup your face in his hands. The moment his palms connected with your face, everything went cold, as if life itself drained from your body. Behind him, the world fell away and was replaced by darkness. You never broke your gaze, his dark eyes being the only thing reminding you this was real. That you are real. And then you heard it. An excited, breathy voice followed by bubbly laughter that made your heart wrench.
“Look,” Cephin whispered, turning your face with his hands. You saw Vivien, sitting with a man made of sunshine. He resembled Cephin in build, but was his opposite in all other aspects. Dark, honey skin complimented by flowy white robes and long russet hair fell down his spine. Glowing white eyes stared at Vivien, who held his hand in her own. Cephin turned your face back to his too soon. You tried to look back to Viv, but he held your face firmly. The world he showed you slipped away and you were back in the quiet cemetery.
“Was that real?” you whispered, grabbing his hands with your own.
“It was,” he assured. His hands adjusted around yours, lacing your fingers together.
“That is my world. You see, there are some people who were not made for this world. They never feel as if they fit in with this life. So then we come and we guide them to the world they belong in. “
“But what about me? Life hurts without her; it is so cold and lonely. My heart is broken, Cephin.”
“Then we fix it.” He brought your joined hands to his mouth, placing a gentle kiss on your knuckles.
“How do you fix something you can’t touch?” He stopped, pressing kisses to your hand, and looked up to you, a sad smile on his lips.
“I am not sure, but we will find a way."