Chapter 1:

Somebody's Ashtray

Somebody's Ashtray

All humans have a drive for death called Thanatos. It’s human nature for us to be driven towards things that kill us. Everyone is slowly walking a path towards their self-destruction. It’s why no one says anything as the nights here get darker. It’s why it shouldn’t have surprised me when she said she hoped to self-immolate after graduating.

It was too normal to note.

Mornings here were, put simply, evenings. The sun hid behind clouds. Days were lethargic, and they often let night fall early as if hurrying to sleep.

Nights were dark. There were never stars or streetlamps. Homes kept their lights off. Cars never left their driveways.

They were also quiet. Had I not known better, I’d have thought I lived in a ghost town. But I knew there were people that I walked by on the way or that watched and waited for me to. If not for them, I could’ve hugged the walls of buildings and felt my way home. But I was afraid of touching something dreadful. Afraid of the eyes in the dark.

That was normal, I learned.

No worries, any woman would cry about it, my coworker said. Walking out of a long shift into pitch black. He said when you get home, just let it out and thank God nothing happened. So I did. He said if I did that enough, I’d be able to see in the dark someday and be okay. It comes through necessity and with age—or no, experience, he said.

Night after night, I walked and saw nothing until I found the window of my dimly lit apartment.
It was long until I noticed something interrupt the dark on those walks home.

A flame.
A lighter and a cigarette.
A flicker of light exposed what looked like a school uniform.

“It’s dangerous for young girls to be out at this hour.”

“What about you?”

Had I sounded young to her?

I saw her often after that.
I sat with her and watched as she lit a smoke. Every night, a flash of light showed her to me clearly. I first noticed cute freckles dotted across her cheeks in an arch peaking at the bridge of her nose. Then I saw bigger spots on her neck and arms. Not having time to regard both, I ignored the spots and watched only her freckles.

Darkness. A flicker. Her freckles. Then darkness again.
To me, that moment was a beacon.
Freckles that guided me through the night, like stars arranged in a constellation I saw often long ago. Freckles bright and childlike that betrayed her expression.
I came to see them every night under the light she’d shone.

Her routine was to sit at the riverbank after school, have a smoke, and stare at the dark. When I first sat by her, she said nothing. Then, sometimes, only a few words until she soon became comfortable saying more. I told her I liked her freckles. She often said she wished she had bad eyes like mine to wear glasses and look smart with.

“They just make you look older,” I said.

I thought she might’ve been a strange girl, but when she spoke, it was always about normal things. She spoke ill of school and her teachers and classmates. She spoke ill of life and the town and God and the dark. She spoke ill of smokes and freckles. She spoke a lot about fires and her coming graduation.

It felt like a lifetime since I’d been her age but not long since I’d graduated.
I told her to enjoy school while she could.

“I wish it’d burn.”

Nothing a girl her age wouldn’t say, I thought. Things I said myself back then. Things my coworker may have said once as well.

“Mornings here are so dark. They’re not supposed to be, right?”

I told her whether they’re supposed to be isn’t the point if that’s just how it is.

“Waking up here feels kinda scary. I think it’d be nice if I could not have to wake up anymore. You don’t think so?”

She probably had no one else to ask.

“Everyone thinks so.”

“Is that true?”

I told her what I’d learned about Thanatos—everyone’s desire for death.

She always said nothing when I brought it up.
Her smoke would go out, and I couldn’t tell she was there.
She made me sit alone in the dark. To reflect?
I prayed the eyes in the dark couldn’t see my tears.

“It’s normal.”
I always persisted.

Then I felt her head on my shoulder and her arms around mine.
Had the tears shown in my voice?
They disappeared in her arms.

I often felt those spots rub against me—swollen and dry like scars. Her skin was cold and smelled of ash. I held her tight and did my best to warm her, praying I was enough.
I noticed her voice had a husky timbre to it. Had to have been the smokes. I heard it sometimes when I touched her.
It made her sound old.
When she hit an unpleasant note, I muted it with my lips. When we kissed, I held her jaw as my fingers sprawled over her cheeks. Gently tapping her freckles or hungrily digging into them. I felt my way through the dark for them. She said it was strange, but I thought it was normal for someone to touch the parts they liked.

One night, she asked what I think happens when people die.

“I can't believe in heaven,” she said. “When people die, there’s gotta be nothing after. So, everyone's lives get stuck at their final memory. Dying before realizing they’re dead. Like how you don’t realize you fell asleep until you wake up? Just thinking it’s like that and imagining I never wake up and realize it, it’s not scary anymore, right?”

Had she read that somewhere? Had my coworker thought something similar?
I told her that made Thanatos and Eros the same. Putting it like that, it made more sense.
She said she didn’t understand.

“Who wrote all that? About Thanatos.”

I’d only read about it online somewhere.

“Freud,” I guessed. She seemed doubtful, and I hoped the name would sound assuring.

“I’m dumb,” she said. “I’m dumb, so I don’t get Freud or what everyone at home or school is talking about. But I don’t think they want to die. It’s probably just us.”

“That’s not true.”

“I don’t think it looks dark here to them,” she said. “Probably just to us.”

She left me to sit in the dark again.
That time longer than other nights.
Eyes in the dark, looking for tears.

“Because they can see in it. It’s just too common to mention. I can see, too, a bit.” I said. My glasses fell out of place. “You can too, someday. Your eyes will adjust eventually.”

I told her about my walks home, and my coworker, and letting it out, and thanking God, and how I found her freckles. How seeing happens through necessity and with age—or no, experience, I meant.

“Can you really see in the dark? Aren’t you just seeing it? Just getting used to seeing it?”

“That’s not a useful distinction to make.”


“Not for adults to make, no.”

“Well, I never could be an adult.”

“How long can you pretend you aren’t?”

It hurt to say.
I couldn’t see her freckles.
I wondered if she felt my eyes, always looking for them in the dark.
I worried they’d made her cry.

“Maybe, ‘til I graduate.”

I reached out to touch her.
Then, our usual comforts. Our nightly affections.

I never asked when she was graduating, so to me, it happened suddenly.

I walked out of a long shift one night to a bright light.

I saw the street and the river.
In the light of a large flame.
I saw them.

I ran towards where we met and found her kneeling on the grass, locked in the fire’s embrace.

She screamed.
Words that betrayed her death drive.
She screamed Eros’s name.
But didn’t dare throw herself in the river behind her.

I saw the town in her light.
People surrounded us.
People walked in and out of buildings on the street behind me.
Or loitered outside them. Or sat on benches.
Sirens. Cars. Music.
The sound of a busy street.
Somehow louder than her screams.
Somehow, suddenly there. But would disappear soon with the fire.
And become quiet again. Become eyes in the dark again.
For some reason.
To make me cry. Forever.

My knees buckled, and I fell.
I crawled towards the flame. I didn’t want it to disappear.

I longed for her freckles. I reached out to them.
I couldn’t tell where they were anymore.
Everything—swollen and dry like those spots.

My final memory was of a kiss in her warm embrace.
Forever under the light she’d shone and never waking to realize otherwise.

Somebody's Ashtray