smoke from the cigarettes curl tightly around the cramped room, filling the space with the suffocating smell. it's taken a couple years of smoke and sweat from this basement to keep from doubling over into hacking fits, but i've read enough health class adverts to know that i'm not exactly doing my lungs any good favors. i shift my head away from parth's smoke rings only to bump against matt's bony elbow. four people in this tiny room is just as much of a health hazard.
parth and matt talk about the service in voices too loud and mostly ignore me. i stare up at the ceiling fan which moves too slowly to generate any wind, folded small with my back up against the couch, and pretend i don't see them sending me sideways glances. the tension leaking out of every one of us drenches the air in something sour. my fingers tap pärt against my knees and i have to bite down a smirk when i notice matt's growing anxiety at every sound that i create.
and of course he is the first one to break.
"jesus, caleb, why the fuck is it so rank in here?" matt coughs and flaps his hand wildly in front of his perpetually pinched face. he looks like a ridiculous tourist, or the ridiculous rich kid that he is. this must be the first time he's ever had to sit on a floor.
caleb doesn't reply. though i haven't talked to him since the night it happened, i felt his every movement at the funeral even though i didn't want to, and now, we are so close that if i lean back, my head would touch his knees. in a brief moment where i nearly forget any of this happened, i turn to say something stupid about matt's stupidity. i don't think caleb even notices that i'm looking at him.
he's a couple hundred years away, legs tucked to his chest and chin on his knees and eyes vividly blue behind his round glasses in this dim lighting. like a little boy. it's weird. he's always been strange; mature, is what adults would always call him, mature and studious and even wise. but these past couple days have taken away the few decades he's always had on us, and then some. before, lillia and i would roll our eyes when the praise for her brother would rain down on him like a never-ending confidence booster. but now, looking at him, i can't help but feel something tighten like a cherry stem double-knotting in my stomach.
matt yanks at his too-tight tie but his jittery fingers can't quite loosen the knot enough. he opens his mouth and all that comes out are complaints and complaints. i stare, wide-eyed, at his dramatics until he glares. when his dark eyes slant around the corners, i grin back. all teeth. his scowl deepens, and i know what he's thinking, what everyone in this town must be thinking: why do the calthus' want anything to do with this bitch?
i hate him so much. but as much as i despise the very air he breathes, i love tormenting him just a little bit more. with a good-natured roll of my eyes, i crawl over to him and, after he recovers from his instinctual recoil when i come near, he lets me quickly undo his tie. "you know, matty," i say, just to be cruel, "you're never gonna make it to law school if you can't undo your own tie." the unspoken: you're never gonna make it to law school if you're in jail, instead, hangs like smoke signals in the atmosphere.
of course, this sends him into hysterics. i crawl back to my spot and grin, but i don't feel any better.
across from me, parth shifts and sweats awkwardly. i feel for him - he didn't ask to be dragged, kicking and screaming and grasping at loose corners, into this explosive mess. i try to look at him and offer some kind of made-up reassurance, but he won't meet me in the eye. it's my fault, of course. what isn't these days? every person i know is so willing to have me carry their guilt.
but i don't blame him like i do some others. from the way he sits (straight-backed, hands unsteady, eyes darting), i know that he's unused to grief and guilt like this. grief so fresh and horrible that it cuts through the hanging stench of smoke - deep and raw and haunted, like the blankness in caleb's eyes or every ragged exhale. and the guilt that keeps his eyes pinned to the floor, as if there's some atonement to be found in the carpet. there isn't. god knows i've looked.
without even turning my head, i feel the stutters in caleb's breathing behind me. out of instinct, or habit, or some innate love that is equally as primal, my hand snakes upwards and brushes his ankle. i need it to say so much that i can't, because my mouth refuses to form the words that need to be heard and even if they could, i don't know if he would be able to listen.
but it must be something. because he freezes. and then, for the first time since this whole thing started, our eyes catch. so much passes between us but not enough, never enough. i have never apologized for anything, but i think this is the moment that i need to start. before i can get the words out, caleb straightens. everyone shuts up, even matt. when caleb says something, people listen. i guess this hasn't changed.
he clears his throat and it might just be the glint of light against his glasses but i think he might be crying. when he speaks, his voice is shattered glass. "i have to say sorry. to all of you. lillia-" and here he gasps, as if her name tears his throat open, "my sister... it had to be done. it - it was the only way."
parth shudders. i close my eyes so hard i see stars.
as if a broken, desperate prayer: "it was the only way."
there must be a planet caught in my throat, trying to revolve faraway to the sun. for the first time since it happened, i realize what we have done, and it hits me, natural disaster to the face. the permanence of death. the loss, like an entire half of me that i chose to remove with rusty garden shears, knowing what it would do. this sepsis i gave to myself is what is killing me. something salty drips into my mouth, and i think i might be crying as well.
i look down. but there's nothing in the carpet to absolve me of this guilt.