March 25, 2024 Short Story

How to Love a Rotting Thing

How to Love a Rotting Thing Artwork by Elinor Bonifant


I was the one they called to the morgue to identify Davis. My phone rang just as I was stepping out of lecture hall. When the officer on the line asked if I’d heard from Davis, a vicious chill shot through my body. The truth was, I hadn’t expected to hear from him, maybe ever. I’d assumed that Davis’s silence was some kind of punishment, or that he’d tucked tail and run after the sheer fucking awkwardness of our final conversation. That’s what I’d done.

The real reason I hadn’t heard from Davis–the officer later informed me–was that he’d met the business end of a Toyota Corolla only hours after I left his apartment. He had been dead for two days by then, much longer than most people took to rise. The officer explained that someone had to come down and identify the body if it couldn’t identify itself.

On the way to the morgue, I braced myself for the body. I imagined that there would be a silver table and a great, white sheet. With careful hands, the mortician would draw back the shroud. There he’d be: Davis, blue and unbreathing. The mortician would show me his face first. In my twisted daydream, his lips would be purple like he’d drowned. The mortician would then take Davis by the shoulders and hoist his limp body upright to expose his back. Nestled on his shoulder blade would be the rough cardinal tattoo a friend had poked in during high school. I would nod, prompting the mortician to remove the rest of the sheet and gesture at Davis’s legs. I would wonder how they knew I had seen him like that, naked and pale and vulnerable. But then the mortician would become more specific with their gesture, and I would slide my gaze to the thick scar on Davis’s upper thigh. The skin there was so old and rough that it looked like French bread. That would confirm it. I would nod one final time, or cry, or scream. And then I would go home.

Of course, the reality wasn’t nearly so cinematic. Instead of a frigid basement morgue, I found myself in the living room of a pleasant bungalow. The floor was swathed in green shag carpet, and the coffee table was tattooed with faded mug rings. I sat with an old woman and a young man who wouldn’t stop picking at his fingernails. The woman’s glasses chain swayed back and forth as she spoke. The effect was almost hypnotic. I struggled to focus as she explained what I would see in the photographs placed face-down on the table. Davis had been hit by a car and thrown thirty feet. His jaw had been shattered. So had his legs. And his arms. It was alright if his body frightened me.

After she confirmed that I was ready, the old woman flipped over the photographs one by one, like she was reading my tarot. The worst image came first. Davis’s jaw had been slung sideways. He looked like a broken animatronic. Road rash had eaten into his cheek, and his skin struggled to contour to the shattered foundation of his chin. The longer I looked at his raw cheek, the more certain I became that I could see bone.

The woman showed me Davis’s torso. Then the bird. And finally, the scar.

“That’s him,” I croaked. Then I wept. No one forced me to get up, so I sat on the crushed velvet sofa for what felt like hours. The old woman patted my back in the detached way of a person who spends her life delivering terrible news. The young man didn’t say a word, but he did reach around to offer a tissue from the table behind him. It was obvious what we weren’t saying. There are some deaths a body can’t come back from. Davis’s insides were scrambled like an egg in rice. He was never going to rise.

The thought crashed over me again and again. Every breath came like I was stealing gasps at the surface of an impossible ocean. I had no way of knowing that while I sat on that couch and felt myself swallowed by the certainty of his utter fucking deadness, Davis had jolted back to life two floors below.

Later, he told me how it had felt to wake up in the morgue. He’d been pulled from the void into a body that felt misaligned. His skin was bunched in strange places, loose like a dog’s when you grab it by the scruff. His complexion had turned the color of spoiled yogurt. Davis tried to sit up from the tray, but he found himself strapped down. He just managed to crane his neck enough to look down at his torso. Davis adjusted his legs, eliciting a squelch that stopped him cold. The splintered head of his femur had erupted from a gash in his knee. Davis tried to scream, but his mangled jaw produced only a wet, tortured whine.


Four weeks had passed since Davis rose from the dead. During that time, I read every scrap of text ever published about the facility up north where his parents had sent him. It was a clinic that used a mixture of plastic surgery and mortuary sciences to render the risen dead-ringers for their living selves. I stared at the before and after testimonials on the clinic’s website until they no longer made me gag. Some of these mangled bodies were worse than Davis’s. One poor woman’s face had been pulled open like a takeout container; now, save four thin scars, her appearance was totally unremarkable. I learned that somewhere, a 3D printer was producing a new jaw for Davis. Technicians were setting his fractured legs and screwing bolts into his spine. I wondered whether, for the rest of his existence, Davis would be pulled aside by the TSA.

Even though I knew Davis looked normal now, his road-chewed cheeks and flayed limbs haunted my mind as I trudged through the fresh snowfall on Washington Street. The images had been with me for days, ever since my afternoon in the cheery morgue. They were worst in the moments before I fell asleep. Last night, I’d lain awake until sunrise imagining the gnashing of Davis’s crushed jaw. I played the image over and over until it was all just shapes. Just meat.

The music in my headphones cut out, replaced by a shrill chime. I fished my phone from my pocket and checked the screen. Great.

“Hey.” I stepped into the street, making sure to check both ways before crossing.

“Talia!” Davis’s voice was deceptive over the phone. It did not carry the sudden blueness that had settled into his skin or the sharp, sterile scent that lingered beneath his deodorant. During our calls, I could almost trick myself into believing he was still alive. “How close are you to the Palace?”

“Couple minutes.” I tried to clip the annoyance from my tone, but I’m sure it carried. The building loomed a few blocks ahead of me, reduced to a brown haze by the snowstorm.

“Any chance you remembered the cable?” Davis’s voice was too loud. I imagined the phone pinched between his shoulder and his jaw as he struggled to lug the band’s equipment inside. Feedback screeched on Davis’s end of the line, and someone swore. “Aw shit.”

“I remembered,” I confirmed. “Sounds like you should go.”

“Yeah, I should probably check that out.” His voice was further away now like the phone had traveled to his hand. “But thanks, Talia. See you soon!” The line went dead.

Annoyance pricked at my temple. I didn’t know if I was more frustrated that he’d checked up on me, or that he’d been right to do so. I had planned to board the wrong train and get lost way out on the Blue Line. As I’d gotten dressed that evening, I’d rehearsed the lines, It’s getting kind of late. It probably makes more sense just to head home. Promise I’ll catch the next show! By the time I’d left my apartment, my delivery was even beginning to sound convincing. But then Davis had called asking to borrow an XLR cable, and even after everything, I couldn’t bring myself to let him down.

The Cactus Palace emerged from the snow in front of me. The dilapidated Victorian stretched far above the powerlines, crowded on both sides by impersonal brownstone apartment buildings. It may have looked regal, but I knew that inside it reeked of decades of spilled beer and stale cigarettes. The house had been passed from generation to generation of Berklee students willing to lose their security deposits. It was a passable basement venue when the right person was booking the show. There had even been this cool bunny cactus near the mics until some drunk idiot took the world’s most predictable spill into its spiny embrace. Now the hosts just kept a couple of succulents on the ticket table.

The entrance to the basement stood at the bottom of a gravel driveway littered with PBR cans and cigarette butts. The floral spark of weed wafted from below. As I stared down the slope, I kicked myself for coming alone. I could have invited someone, Georgia or Amy. They would have come. Actually, they would have dropped anything to be here with me, even though I knew they thought I shouldn’t have anything to do with Davis anymore. But that was exactly why I hadn’t invited them. I would have been able to feel it–their total fucking hatred of him. My own fraught feelings were enough to handle without having to read between the lines of their tight-lipped politeness. Even thinking about it exhausted me.

I couldn’t help wondering how I looked as I unlatched the gate to the backyard. The answer was probably “not great.” My recent nightmare-induced insomnia had buried my eyes deep within my skull. I persisted in walking and talking only by the grace of espresso.

When I did manage to sleep, I kept having this fucked up dream. I was in Davis’s bedroom, and he was fingering me beneath his big red comforter. Sweat dripped off his forehead onto my face. From the scar that split his chin, I knew this was Dead Davis, but I didn’t care. I was so close to cumming that my tongue felt thick. My legs were shaking, and I was begging into his sweaty collarbone for him to rub harder, harder. But just then, he would stop. At first, I always thought that he was teasing me. Davis used to love to make me beg. But then I would see his expression.

Dream Dead Davis would pull his hand from under the covers, but I would still feel him inside of me. He would hold up his palm, revealing the void where his middle and forefingers had once been. They had rotted through at the knuckles and pulled free. The absent fingers squirmed inside me as I stared in horror at the stumps they’d left behind. And then, and this was the really fucked up part, Davis would ask, Do you want me to keep going? At that point, I always woke up horny and sweating. I would lay there tangled in my sheets feeling like a disgusting monster.

Davis—the real one—was waiting for me outside the basement door. He stood so just the cherry of his cigarette was visible beyond his cheek. It burned bright as he took a long drag. I half expected to see that slack, distorted jaw from the morgue photos when he turned. I imagined him trying to say hello, and all those loose teeth and bone fragments rolling around in his skin like bolts in a bag. The most rotten parts of me almost wished he still looked that way. It would be so much easier to stop loving him if he were monstrous. Probably.

Of course, when he did turn, he was just Davis. His hair was the color of peat. It fell across his eyebrows, just a touch longer than he liked it. His skin was clear, and his eyes gleamed with the ember of his cigarette. I was struck again by the realization that Davis would look like this forever. Assuming he kept up a strict regimen of formaldehyde and topical steroids, he would remain young and hot, even when his organs began to putrefy. I tried to swallow the sudden bitter taste in my mouth.

“Talia!” He waved. His cigarette was pinched between the fingers he was always missing in my dream.

As I got closer, I noticed that even though his jaw was intact, something about Davis’s face did feel off. It took only a moment to figure out what it was. Davis was wearing a thick layer of foundation. The makeup was a shade too light for him, and he clearly didn’t know that he was supposed to blend into his neck. Rough application aside, the concealer served its function. No trace of blue was left in his complexion. The spider veins that had crept across his nose and cheeks had vanished. Anyone who didn’t know Davis would think that he was, if a little bad at makeup, alive.

“Hey.” I was already digging around in my tote for the cable. The sooner I performed my function, the sooner I could deploy an excuse to bail.

Davis swung his arm around me in greeting. He pulled me in for a side hug and pecked the top of my head. The pecking was a devastating new habit of his. I knew this was one of those things around which my therapist was always telling me to set boundaries. But the dirty truth was that I liked Davis’s forehead kisses. I liked that someone might see us and assume that Davis was my boyfriend.

Davis released me and took a drag, blowing a cloud of smoke into the crisp night air.

“Those things will kill you, you know,” I said.

“Hah.” Davis snorted. The last of the smoke escaped in whisps through his nostrils. “That joke was a calculated risk.”

“I’m testing the waters of death humor.” I accepted the cigarette when he passed it, even though cigarettes had never done much for me beyond ruin my breath. “How am I doing?”

“At least you’re not avoiding all words related to D-E-A-T-H.” Davis retrieved the cigarette from my waiting hand. “Yeah,” he sighed, “I’m really excited for when this all gets funny.”

Blue smoke curled from Davis’s lips. I knew I should comfort him, but I was too distracted by his scent to think clearly. The shirts I had borrowed from him always smelled just like this. I remembered taking the T home from his apartment and being enveloped by a cloud of tobacco and Old Spice. I would hold off from taking a shower, hoping his scent would cling to me for just a little bit longer.

“This is for you.” I produced the cord from my tote bag, eager to change the channel in my brain.

“Oh, dude, you rock!” Davis accepted the cord and flicked his cigarette to the ground. He nodded toward the basement. “Let’s get this set up.”

He disappeared inside without waiting for an answer. I crushed the glowing cigarette underfoot and followed him into the sweaty darkness below.


Before he was dead and before we were sleeping together, Davis and I were friends. It was hard to say how exactly we’d met. During freshman year, I began photographing basement shows, flitting gnat-like from house to house. If I had known to look for him, I would have seen Davis lurking in the same corners beneath his mop of freshman hair. He’d been observing, puzzling out just how it all worked before he cobbled together his first band that spring. Our meeting at some unremarkable hole-in-the-wall in Allston was inevitable.

Davis came around just after the predictable disintegration of my freshman year friend group. He stayed around through the summer, showing up to smoke cigarettes on my porch and complain about his summer job. We scouted out house show venues for his band, and he kept me company while I processed film in the darkroom. By the fall, it was more or less assumed that I’d crash on his couch at least one night a week.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about sleeping with Davis before it happened. He was handsome and we got along—of course I’d thought about it. But he wasn’t interested, at least he never seemed to be. So, over the next two years, I had allowed all impure thoughts about Davis to wane. We were perfectly platonic until one night in his room after a midnight showing of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers at Coolidge Corner.

Davis lounged on his bed in a pair of bright yellow socks. I noticed them as I pawed through his dresser for a fresh pajama shirt to borrow. The yellow socks were so sharp against his red bedspread that the scene looked like it had been staged. I snagged my camera from the top of the dresser to take a shot without thinking much of it. The camera was new, a cheap little point-and-shoot I’d picked up to practice developing color film. I’d been shooting Davis all night, and I figured he must be sick of it. But when I found him in the viewfinder, he flashed me a smile that was difficult to parse. I took the shot, but Davis didn’t move. I frowned. Davis had come to accept my candids, but he never encouraged them. Confused, I took another photo.

Holding my gaze, Davis reached for the lip of his shirt. My stomach flipped. He curled his fingers underneath the hem, pulling the fabric up his stomach and over his face. He tossed the shirt at the hamper. It fell short, landing in a heap on the floor. Neither of us spoke. The gooseflesh on Davis’s chest rose and fell, but his gaze remained steady. He raised an eyebrow as if to ask what I would do–as if surprised I hadn’t already done it.

I raised my camera and took his picture.

Davis grinned. He brought his sturdy hands to the button of his jeans. Then he flicked his gaze up to meet mine. I nodded without removing my eye from the viewfinder. I was afraid to surface, to break the spell of whatever the hell had begun to happen. I watched as Davis wriggled his jeans down his thighs. He was not built like I had imagined. He carried himself in the way of someone who has never cried in a Macy’s changing room, but seeing the slight bulge of his stomach, I felt safer somehow.

There was silence after Davis tossed his jeans at the hamper. I knew it was my turn. I grasped the hem of my sweater, but I couldn’t bring myself to lift it. I wasn’t afraid of how he’d react to my body. I had more trouble looking at myself than I did letting others look at me. No, the problem was that I knew with absolute certainty what would happen if I took off my sweater. I knew it was a thing I could not take back.

A heavy beat passed. Then I bit my cheek and shrugged out of the sweater.

I woke in the morning with tangled hair and hickies running down my chest, unsure of what it meant—or if it had meant anything at all.


Heat pulsed through the Cactus Palace. My shirt was soaked through well before the opener, some punk outfit from Gloucester, finished their set. Every movement felt like treading water in a sea of sweltering bodies. Davis surfaced from the crowd. He’d left his jacket somewhere and now stood sweating through his t-shirt. His bangs were slick against his forehead. As he pressed in close to speak, the scent of hot beer mingled with tobacco on his breath. I wanted to be repulsed by the smell, but the truth was I would have worn it as perfume.

“We’re on next!” Davis shouted into my ear. I flashed him a thumbs up and pretended to be very occupied by my camera.

“Get any good shots?” he asked. His hot breath tickled my ear in a way that I tried very hard to find unpleasant.

“A couple. Sorry, just give me a sec. I’ve got to fix this,” I said. I clicked the aperture setting back and forth. I didn’t have to try hard to fool Davis. He could barely shoot a picture with his phone.

Davis inched closer to me. I kept my camera to my face like a blinder. But if Davis couldn’t be seen or heard, he would insist on being felt. His hip brushed against mine. I froze, trying and failing to decode his movement. I snapped a photo of nothing to justify my stillness. Davis slung his arm around my shoulders and pulled me in to dance with him.

“Just make sure to save a few frames for me.” Davis winked, his face almost close enough for his eyelashes to brush my cheek. He waggled his fingers and dropped his voice like the host of an eighties Halloween special. “Gotta commemorate my first show back from the grave.”

“Sure. I will.” My tongue clung to the dry walls of my mouth. Davis swung us to and fro. The movement was awkward, worse even than a middle school slow dance. His fingers were cold against my skin, but my arm was alive with heat. This may have been the Christian Side Hug of dancing, but it was still dancing. It was still touching.


When Davis had first stopped touching me, it had been difficult to understand. Since that night in his bedroom, it had become easier and easier to find excuses to be alone together. We were stealing into bathrooms and kissing in empty subway cars. In the mornings, I would nestle against his headboard and watch him dress for class. The sun would dapple his cardinal tattoo as he fished around in his hamper for his least ripe shirt. I would kiss him goodbye and make myself coffee in his kitchen before catching the train home.

For a while, as it was happening, I tried to feel nothing at all. I refused to recontextualize Davis in my head. He was just a friend, a friend I enjoyed fucking, but a friend. Allowing him to become anything more to me meant allowing for the possibility that one day he would become nothing to me. It was best—it was safest—not to get attached at all. So, I slept with Davis but waited until he left for the bathroom to get dressed. I allowed him to touch me in public, but I never touched him. I borrowed his shirts for the train ride home, but always returned them.

And then one night, he kissed me in front of our friends. I didn’t manage to register what was happening in time to kiss him back, but it didn’t matter. Without warning, our touching had been thrust into the public eye.

Davis and I had never had a real conversation about what it meant for us to sleep together. We never spoke about the arrangement and neither did our friends. In all that silence, it had been easy to make optimistic assumptions. My visitations to dating apps had all but stopped, and my weak flirtations with strangers had languished in the sudden publicness of me and Davis.

But then, just as it had begun, the arrangement ended without explanation.

We went to a show one night, and afterward, Davis invited me back to his apartment. We crawled into bed together. I kicked free of my pants and threw my shirt to the floor (neither of us had managed to land the hamper in the month we’d been doing this). But when I leaned in to kiss Davis, my hand finding his chest beneath the covers, he turned away. I traced a finger down his spine, but when he didn’t react, I let my hand drop to the mattress. I thought maybe he was too drunk for sex. I could practically taste the gin on his breath from across the bed. So I pecked his shoulder, rolled over, and fell asleep.

After that, I found myself rejected in a hundred silent ways—a fruitless search for Davis’s hand as we walked home, a nudge under the table unreturned. The strangeness of it ached in every part of me. Davis and I still texted constantly, but something had changed in the way we spoke. It was as if we were magnets trying to connect our like poles; our closeness had become the thing that forced us apart.

I’d felt the gnawing of pre-loss for a week before I mustered up the courage to ask him what was happening. At first, Davis pretended not to understand. I could have spit at him. Here I was wearing nothing but his t-shirt, sitting on the edge of his bed, offering him an out. I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t do me the courtesy of taking it.

Between us, I clarified.

Davis sighed. He wouldn’t look at me, which didn’t feel like a great sign.

I really like you, he told the floor, but I don’t know if I—you know—like you like that.

You don’t know? I bunched the fabric of his comforter between my fingers to keep them from trembling.

No. Davis shook his head. No, I do know. I’m sorry.

Oh. Okay. I fumbled for anything to say that wouldn’t make me sound like I was thirteen again. How long have you known?

Talia, do you really want to know that? I nodded. The answer suddenly mattered a whole awful lot to me. A little over a week.

A little over… My voice fell away. I ran a quick calculation in my head. This meant that I had slept in Davis’s bed three times since he realized he didn’t want me. We hadn’t had sex, I hadn’t pushed him, but my stomach turned anyway. This was the first of many times in the coming weeks that I would feel like a disgusting, horny monster.

Then why—if you knew you didn’t like me, why did you ask me to sleep here?

It felt like a good compromise, he admitted.

I hadn’t known what to say to that.

I should call an Uber. I stood to fish my jeans from the floor.

Please don’t leave. Davis locked his gaze on me like he was making up for all that time tonight he’d spent looking elsewhere.

Why not?

Davis didn’t hesitate.

Because, if you leave now, this will feel like a fight. I blinked. Was it a fight? Did I want it to be? Davis continued, I can’t—I mean, I don’t have anyone else like you in my life. You’re my best friend, and I know how badly I fucked everything up between us, but—I really don’t want to lose you.

And so I slept beside him, and I did not cry. In the morning, I pretended to sleep while Davis dressed for work. After I heard the door slam downstairs, I rose and made the bed. I folded my borrowed shirt, a brilliant orange number which read “JIMMY’S BIG BIRTHDAY BASH,” and laid it on the bedspread. Then I left. And that afternoon, Davis died in the road while jaywalking to pick up Chinese food.

I didn’t expect to hear from Davis when he returned to Boston from the facility up north, but he called on his first night back in his apartment. The feeling had not yet returned to his body and wouldn’t for at least a few days. He explained that when it was just him in a room, he had trouble feeling real. There was no line between where his body ended and where the room began. His teeth chattered on the other end of the line, just as they had those frigid January nights as we’d waited together for the train. So, I pulled a pair of sweatpants over my PJ bottoms and caught the final train to Davis’s house in Jamacia Plain. The route was so familiar by then that I did not have to listen to the intercom to know that my stop was approaching. This was the wrong thing to do. I knew that, even as I pushed the buzzer for Davis’s apartment. But if I didn’t come over, who would? Anyway, wasn’t this just what I’d wanted? Wasn’t this what staying friends looked like?

Inside the apartment, Davis pulled his sheet back and invited me into his bed. I tried not to stare at his spoilt milk skin or watch for the rise and fall of his chest. Instead, I obediently curled into the red comforter and faced the wall, careful not to touch Davis. Within seconds, he had fallen asleep. His breath tickled the back of my neck. Davis may not have been able to feel anything, but I could. For a dead thing, he was awfully warm.

Davis twitched in his sleep. I felt his fingers brush my arm as he muscled through some nightmare. Electricity tingled across my skin but was grounded by stiff guilt. I scooted away from Davis and pulled my arms up across my chest, hugging tight. Someday, my dead body will look just like this, I thought. I tried to stiffen my legs and imagined my toes brushing the lid of my coffin, my arms folded into respectful origami. It felt good to steep in the image, to externalize the rotting feeling inside of me.

When that got too morbid, I rose and padded to the bathroom. The floorboards creaked beneath me, but Davis didn’t stir. In the bathroom, I sat on the porcelain lip of the tub. The frigid surface pressed into my bare thighs. The cold was so intense that it stung, so I curled my fingers around the lip and squeezed hard enough to leave a dent in my skin. I wanted to make myself cry, to drain all of the sadness out of my body like squeezing pus from a cyst. I thought of Davis and wondered how I would survive a night inches from him. My brain no longer had a firm grasp of what was meant to happen in that room in that bed with that boy.

I had never been a silent crier or much of a crier at all. My tears only came when I was trying to explain my sadness to someone else—as if it only existed through their seeing it. So alone in Davis’s bathroom, I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t do much more than shiver. Because whom could I explain my sadness to here? Certainly not Davis. So now it just lived inside of me, rotting like a whale on a beach, terrible, but too big to move.


The most recent incarnation of Davis’s band was called Mudskipper. I watched as he and the other boys lugged their instruments onstage. As they tuned up, errant attendees wandered in from outside, bringing a much-needed blast of cold air and the stench of cigarettes with them. By the time Davis took the mic, the crowd around me had grown once again into a writhing mass. They hooted and shoved one another as the music began. People clattered into me, but I didn’t move. Something glared at me from under the blue stage light.

Despite all his efforts with the foundation, Davis had failed to notice that the neck of his shirt dipped just low enough to expose the thick, white scar across his collarbones. This was the head of a precise “T” that stretched from shoulder to shoulder. Below it, another scar bisected Davis’s stomach and hooked a left around his belly button. My heart twinged remembering the little freckle that used to sit in the middle of his belly. It had been such a cute one, but it had been swallowed by the tectonic shift of his scar. The first time I’d seen the autopsy incision, I’d had this perverse urge to run my finger down the puckered skin like a seam ripper.

As I watched Davis sway onstage, I grew queasy. A quiet, resolute chorus had begun in the back of my head. Dead. Dead. Dead. Davis smiled and sang just as he always had, but all I could see was that grotesque, distended jaw. I saw his bruised, sunken eyes, the shattered remains of his legs. Dead. Dead. Dead. Blackness crawled at the edges of my vision. I stumbled backward, my heartbeat threatening to deafen me. All I wanted, all I could think of, was escape.

I stumbled outside into the snow, already tasting the vomit rising in my throat. I scanned the yard for a place to puke in private. Few people remained out here. A couple of girls passed a bottle of wine back and forth against the wall, and constellations of cigarette tips bobbed by the back fence. No one noticed me.

I hooked a left and scooted along the wall into the triangle of dark space beneath the staircase to the porch. I crumpled in half and retched onto the ground. My meager dinner of cold bowtie pasta and limp broccoli splashed out in front of me. I heaved, summoning more stringy bile from my stomach. The cold air burned my acid-scorched throat.

“Fuck,” I panted. “Fuck.” The vomit melted through the snow below.

I gripped the wooden stairs and pulled myself upright. I kicked some snow over the pink sludge and emerged from the inlet. The stairs were a mess of brown muck and frozen boot prints, but I didn’t have many options. I sat on the bottom step and buried my face in my hands. My breath stank of vomit.

The most awful part of me wished that Davis had stayed dead. That way, my grief would have been an untainted thing. I could mourn him, and I could mourn our final few weeks of whatever it was without the threat of the future. But this half-life, this prolonged rotting had eaten into those memories. I couldn’t be sure what had happened, or when, or why.

Worse than that, I wasn’t sure I could take Davis’s claim not to like me like that at face value anymore. Because this dead thing could touch me, and he could seem to like it. And that was far too confusing.

Thoughts of squirming fingers inside of me trembled behind my eyelids until I bit my tongue hard enough to taste metal. I knew I could end this. It would only take a few words. But then, who would stay with Davis until the feeling returned to his fingers? Who would listen to how it felt to wake broken and twisted in a strange room? Davis did not have other friends like me. I couldn’t abandon him like this. He had died. He had died and all I cared about was the fact that we were no longer fucking. I was a selfish, stupid thing. In five months, would I care that we had slept together? In five years? Surely I could survive this torment until it ceased to matter.

That was what really loving Davis meant, right?

A hacking cough rang out across the backyard. It was one of the girls with the wine. She was doubled over, spitting fat, wine-stained gobs into the snow. Her friend rubbed her back, waiting as she heaved. The friend mumbled words of encouragement too soft for me to hear. Between her pink trousers and her messy space buns, she looked like a toy you’d get in a gashapon machine.

As I watched, the retching girl stood, pressing a hand to her forehead. Gashapon girl reached into her bag, withdrawing a sticker-clad water bottle. She passed the bottle to her friend, who gulped down the water so fast that twin rivulets trailed from the corners of her mouth.

“Are you okay?” asked Gashapon.

The question sliced through my tenuous composure. During the first few days after Davis died, everyone in my life knew I was as far from okay as it was possible to be. So instead of asking whether I was okay, they asked things like: “Doing any better than yesterday?” or “is there anything I can do?” I never had the right answers, but I appreciated that at least they’d tried.

But then, Davis came back. And by all appearances, he was fine, we were fine. The sympathy ebbed as the people around me realized that I hadn’t lost anyone, not really. What they didn’t understand was that I needed to curl into a ball and tell the whole story minus the deadness. I needed to pretend that I was just a girl whose heart had been broken by a boy. That way, things could be simple. My sadness wouldn’t have to be set against the unforgiving backdrop of mortality.

Frigid awareness washed through me. For so long, my feelings had seemed so small. There was no question that what Davis was going through was bigger, the stakes were higher. It had seemed only fair to focus on him. But I realized that I had never, not once, put my problems ahead of his. I had never even tried to. And Davis accepted that. He had never even asked whether I was okay. And why would he? I had become a thing to him, a multitool that could photograph, console, love, fuck, want, and care for him when he needed. By being everything and anything he wanted, I had ceased to exist.

I stood, my body conscious of my decision before my brain. Mudskipper’s closing song thrummed below as I unlatched the gate and left the backyard. The set would finish soon, and afterward, Davis and the band would congregate at the dive bar down the road. I could see its neon sign blinking up ahead when I exited the driveway. Davis expected me to meet him there, a post-show ritual. He would call when I didn’t show. I didn’t know if I would answer.

Davis’s words from the night before he died echoed in my mind. Please don’t leave. They were almost enough to stop me, but I pushed forward, past the bar’s neon sign. I knew leaving would hurt Davis, but I could no longer base my decisions on what would and wouldn’t cause him harm. This wasn’t revenge, just a choice I had been forced to make for the both of us. If I stopped, I knew the enormous sadness that lived inside of me would rise again and again. Leaving was the only way to kill it for good.