. he first time Emily told Chris she wanted to kill herself, Chris laughed.
The second time, he pretended he didn't hear.
The third time, he listened.
They had been driving home from a late movie, and Emily had fallen asleep. She was doing that a lot these days, Chris realized-nodding off in the middle of the evening, sleeping so late in the morning Chris had to wake her up before driving her to school, once even dozing off in class. Her head was balanced lightly on his shoulder as he drove, her body canted sideways over the stick shift between the bucket seats. Chris kept his left hand on the wheel, his right bent at a strange angle to cradle Emily's head and keep it from bobbing all over the place.
He needed both hands to get off the highway, and he let go of Emily only to have her her slip off his shoulder and settle in his lap, her ear pressed against the ring of his belt, her breasts nestled against the gear shift, her nose an inch from the steering wheel. Her head was heavy and warm, and as he drove through the silent streets of Bainbridge he rested his hand on it, brushing her hair back from her face. He turned into her driveway and cut the motor and the lights, watching her sleep.
He traced the pink of her ear, so fragile that Chris could see the slight blue veins webbing it, could imagine the traveling blood. "Hey," he said softly. "Wake up."
She did, with a start, and would have smashed her head on the steering wheel if Chris's hand wasn't there to stop her. She struggled upright, Chris's hand still on the back of her neck.
Emily stretched. There was a deep red furrow on her left cheek, a scar carved by the edge of his belt. "Why didn't you wake me up before?" she said, her voice husky.
Chris smiled at her. "You looked too cute," he said, and he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
It was nothing, a compliment like a thousand others he'd given her, and yet she burst into tears. Stunned, Chris reached across the stick shift, trying as best as he could to gather her into his arms. "Emily," he said, "tell me."
She shook her head; he felt the slight movement against his shoulder. Then she drew back, wiping her nose with the back of her sleeve. "It's you," she said. "You're what I'm going to miss."
It seemed a strange way to say it-"I miss you" would have made more sense-but Chris smiled. "We can visit," he said. "That's why colleges have long breaks, you know."
She laughed, although it might have been a sob. "I'm not talking about college. I keep trying to tell you," Emily said haltingly. "But you don't listen."
"Tell me what?"
"I don't want to be here," Emily said.
Chris reached for the ignition key. "It's early. We can go somewhere else," he said, a thrum of alarm working its way up his spine.
"No," Emily said, turning to him. "I don't want to be."
He sat in silence, his throat working, his mind replaying the other, dismissed things Emily had said that had been leading up to this. And he saw what he had been trying so hard not to see: For someone who knew Emily as well as he did, he saw that she'd been acting different. "Why?" he managed.
Emily bit her lip. "Do you believe that I would tell you everything I could?" Chris nodded. "I can't take it anymore. I just want it to be over."
"Want what to be over? What is it?"
"I can't tell you," Emily choked out. "Oh, God. We've never lied, you and me. We maybe haven't always told each other everything, but we've never lied."
"Okay," Chris said, his hands trembling. "Okay." He felt himself spinning out of his body, like the time he'd smacked his head on the edge of the high-diving board and had passed out-grasping at the most ordinary things, like the air and the view right in front of his eyes, and knowing he wasn't going to be able to keep it from dissolving. "Em," he said, swallowing, his voice just another shadow in the car. "Are you ... is this about killing yourself?" And when Emily looked away, his lungs swelled up like balloons and the bottom dropped out of his world.
"You can't," Chris said after a minute, stunned that he'd made any sound at all, with his lips so rubbery and thick. I am not talking about this, he thought. Because if I talk about it, it will really be happening. Emily wasn't sitting across from him, pale and beautiful, discussing suicide. He was having a nightmare. He was waiting for the punch line. Yet he could hear his own voice, high and freaked out, already believing. "You-you can't do this," he stammered. "You don't just go and kill yourself because you're feeling crappy one day. You don't decide something like that out of the blue."
"It's not out of the blue," Emily said evenly. "And it's not one day." She smiled. "It feels good to talk about it. It isn't so bad to think about, when I say it out loud."
Chris's nostrils flared, and he yanked open his car door. "I'm going to talk to your parents."
"No!" Emily cried, so much fear in that one word that Chris immediately stopped. "Please don't," she murmured. "They won't get it."
"I don't get it," Chris said heatedly.
"But you'll listen," she said, and for the first time in five minutes, something made sense to Chris. Of course he'd listen; he'd do anything for her. And her parents. .. well, she was right. At seventeen, the smallest crises took on tremendous proportions; someone else's thoughts could take root in the loam of your own mind; having someone accept you was as vital as oxygen. Adults, light-years away from this, rolled their eyes and smirked and said, "This too shall pass"-as if adolescence was a disease like chicken pox, something everyone recalled as a mild nuisance, completely forgetting how painful it had been at the time.
There were mornings Chris woke up in a sweat, full to bursting with life, panting as if he'd run all the way up to the top of a cliff. There were days when he felt like he could not fit inside his own skin. There were nights when he was terrified of living up to the model of what he was turning out to be, needing more than anything to breathe in the drugging shampoo scent of Emily's hair, and just as unwilling to admit it. But he could not explain this to anyone, least of all his parents. And Emily, just because she was Emily, clung to him and rode out the storm until he could come up for air.
He was all at once panicked and proud that Em would take him into her confidence. It escaped him, for the moment, that she had not been able to tell him what was bothering her in the first place. Riding on the crest of her faith, he was tugged by the glory of shutting everyone else out, of being Emily's savior.
Then he thought of her cutting her wrists open and felt something crack in his chest. This was much bigger than the two of them. "There has to be someone," he said. "A psychiatrist or something."
"No," Emily said again softly. "I let you in on this because I've always told you everything. But you can't-" her voice faltered. "You can't ruin this for me. Tonight is the first night in-God, I don't know how long- that I've felt like I can handle this. It's like a really bad pain that you can take, you know, because you've already swallowed the medicine and you can see that it's going to stop hurting soon."
"What hurts?" Chris asked thickly.
"Everything," Emily said. "My head. My heart."
"Is it... is it because of me?"
"No," she said, her eyes shining again. "Not you."
He grabbed her then, oblivious of the hard knot of the stick shift between them, and crushed her against his chest. "Why would you tell me, unless you want me to help you?" he whispered.
Emily panicked. "You won't tell?"
"I don't know. Am I supposed to just sit around and pretend everything's okay until you go and do it? And then say, 'Oh, yeah . .. she did mention something about killing herself.' " He drew back, his hand over his eyes. "Christ. I cannot believe I'm even talking about this."
"Promise me," Emily said, "you won't tell anyone."
The tears that had welled in Emily's eyes spilled over. "Promise," she asked again, her hands grabbing small fistfuls of his shirt.
For years he'd been cast as Emily's future protector, as her other half- and although he never imagined himself to be any less than that, he didn't really understand how to fully grow into the role. He suddenly realized that this was his test as much as Emily's, his chance to carry Em safely away. If she trusted him, he could damn well be worthy of it... even if that meant something very different to each of them. He had time. He would get her to talk. He would find out this horrible secret and show her there was another, better way; and eventually everyone-Emily included-would praise him for it. "Okay," Chris whispered. "I promise."
Yet even with Emily pressed against him, he felt a wall come up, so that skin to skin, he could no longer really feel her. As if she sensed it, too, Emily burrowed closer. "I told you," she said quietly, "because I didn't know how not to."
Chris looked into her eyes, realizing the strength of her statement. But what difference was there between having Emily try to explain what she wanted to happen, or finding out from a knock at the door that Emily had committed suicide, when the end result was the same?
"No," he said calmly, filled with purpose. He took her arms lightly in his hands and shook her. "I am not giving you up."
Emily looked at him, and for just a moment he could read her thoughts. Melanie used to say they were like twins, with their own secret, silent language. In that instant, Chris felt her fear and her resignation, and the knotty pain of coming up against a brick wall again and again. She glanced away, and he could breathe again. "The thing is, Chris," Emily said, "it's not your choice."
Chris LUNGED THROUGH THE WATER, warming up at swim practice with four laps of freestyle. Swimming had always been good for his mind-there was not much to do in fifty meters but think. He'd memorized the periodic table while swimming his laps, and SAT vocabulary, and he'd even rehearsed the things he'd say to Emily to get her to sleep with him. Most of the time he could keep a lazy rhythm without breaking stride. But thinking about dying--and Emily-made his arms wheel faster and his legs strike the water punishingly, as if he could outrace his thoughts.
Finishing, he hoisted himself out of the pool, his heart thundering. He stripped off his goggles and swim cap and scrubbed his towel over his hair, then went to sit on one of the benches that lined the pool. His coach walked up to him, a smirk on his face. "We try to save the record-breaking times for competitions, Harte," he said. "It's just practice. Don't kill yourself."
Don't kill yourself.
He couldn't let Emily do it; it was that simple. And maybe it was for purely selfish reasons, but surely one day she'd thank him for saving her life.
Whatever it was that was bothering her-and what the hell could it be that she wasn't able to tell him?-could surely be resolved. Especially if he was there to help her.
His eyes widened. That was it. Em wanted his understanding, and his silence. If he played along, he'd have a chance to talk her out of doing it. Even up to the last minute. He'd pretend that this crazy idea of killing herself was acceptable, and then, like a white knight, he'd sweep down and save Emily from herself. No one else would ever have to know what had almost happened. And he wouldn't have to break his promise to her about keeping the whole horrible plan to himself. The ends justified the means.
It did not occur to Chris that he might not succeed.
Feeling much better, he stood up at the sound of his coach's whistle and sleeked into the pool again for another drill.
Emily was waiting for him after practice. She stayed late at school, too, usually taking up residence at her easel in the art room, and finishing in time to meet Chris after swimming so that he could drive her home. She was waiting for him on a chair beside the water fountain outside the boys' locker room, her hands smelling faintly of turpentine and her coat bunched in a heap at her feet, like a lapdog. "Hi," Chris said, his duffel bag slung over his shoulder as he crossed to her.
He bent down to kiss her cheek, and she breathed him in, that wonderful mixture of Safeguard and chlorine and laundry detergent. His sideburns were still dripping water from his shower; he was close enough that she could put out her tongue and catch a drop. Emily closed her eyes, sketching the picture into her mind so that she would be able to take it with her.
She fell into step beside him on the way to the students' parking lot. "I've been thinking," Chris began. "About what you said Saturday night."
Emily nodded, but kept her eyes trained on her shoes.
"And I want you to know, for the record, that this is like the last thing in the world I want to happen," Chris said. "I'm going to do everything I can to change your mind." He took a deep breath and squeezed her hand. "But if it... comes to that," he said, "I would like to be there with you."
Emily realized as he said the words that apparently she had not lost all hope, not when she'd subconsciously been wishing so hard for this. "I'd like that," she said.
CHRIS began a SUBTLE, undeterrable campaign to show Emily what she would be missing. He took her out to restaurants where dinner cost a hundred dollars; he drove her to watch the sun set over the jetties that glided into the Atlantic. He dug out old notes they'd passed back and forth on a tin-can pulley system that worked exactly three times before tangling irreparably in the pines between the houses. He made her look through his stacks of college application materials, as if her input was imperative to his decisions. And he made love to her, offering his body in both tenderness and anger, unsure which was the best way to pass her bits of his soul so that she could patch her own with it.
And Emily suffered it. That was the best way Chris could describe it, really; she endured whatever he set in her path but from a distance, as if she were watching from on high and had long ago set her mind.
To his astonishment, Emily didn't give an inch. He tried to figure out what her problem was with all the fortitude and strategic delicacy of a general mounting a land invasion. In the wake of her silence, he dreamed of the worst things he could imagine: She was a drug addict; she was a lesbian; she had cheated on the SATs-all things that would not make him stop loving her.
He tried teasing her secret out of her; he tried Twenty Questions; he tried bullying. It only made Emily tighten her mouth and curl away, so that Chris panicked about losing her sooner rather than later. He could only press to a certain point, because if she started to think he wouldn't truly help her kill herself, his charade-and his valiant chance to save her- would be blown.
"I can't talk about it," she'd say.
"You won't," Chris corrected.
Frustrated, Emily would say that by bringing it up, Chris was only making it hurt more. If he really loved her, he'd stop asking.
And Chris, just as wearied by the stalemate, would shake his head. "I can't," he'd tell her.
"Won't," Em parroted, shaming him into dropping the subject once again.
THEY LAY ON THEIR BELLIES in the living room of the Gold house, their math textbooks open in front of them, derivatives and differential equations curled like a foreign tongue over the pages. "No," she said, pointing out a spot where Chris had made an error. "It's 2xy-x," she corrected. Then she rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling. "Why is it so important to me to get an A," she mused, "when I'm not even going to be here to get a report card?"
She sounded so matter-of-fact about it that Chris felt nauseated. "Maybe it's because you don't really want to kill yourself," he pointed out.
"Thanks, Dr. Freud," Emily said.
"I mean it," Chris said, coming up on an elbow. "What if we said you'd wait six months, and see how you felt."
Emily's face froze. "No," she said.
"That's it? Just no?"
She nodded. "No."
"Oh, well, that's great," Chris said, slamming the textbook. "That's just wonderful, Em."
Emily narrowed her eyes. "I thought you were going to help me."
"Sure," Chris said angrily. "What would you like me to do? Push you off the chair when the rope's around your neck? Pull the trigger?"
Emily face flushed red. "Do you think it's easy for me to talk about it?" she asked tightly. "Because it isn't."
"It's easier for you than it is for me," Chris exploded. "You don't even get where I'm coming from. I look at you and I see this amazing, beautiful thing. All these books and songs are written about people looking for the love of their life and never finding it, and we've got it and it isn't worth a damn to you."
"It is worth a damn to me," Emily said, covering Chris's hand with her own. "It's the only thing worth a damn. All I'm trying to do is to keep it that way, forever."
"Hell of a way to do it," Chris said bitterly.
"Really?" Emily asked. "Would you rather spend the rest of your life thinking about us, and remembering it as something totally perfect, or would it be better to let it get all screwed up and have that as your memory?"
"Who said we'd ever get all screwed up?"
"We would," Emily said. "It happens."
"Don't you see?" Chris said, trying to keep the tears out of his voice. "Don't you understand what you'd be doing to me?"
"I'm not doing it to you," Emily answered softly. "I'm doing it for me."
Chris stared at her. "What," he said, "is the difference?"
To HIS SURPRISE, the more Emily brought up the subject of suicide, the less shocking it became. Chris stopped arguing with her about it, because that only made her more set in her ways, and took up a new tack: exploring her options thoroughly, so that she might see how completely ludicrous the idea was.
He turned to her one night in the middle of a TV-movie and asked her how she was going to do it.
"What?" It was the first time Emily had ever heard Chris bring it up; usually she was one to broach the topic.
"You heard me. I figure you must have been thinking it over."
Emily shrugged, gave a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure her parents were still upstairs. "I have," she said. "Not pills."
"Because it's too easy to do it wrong," she said. "You wind up with your stomach pumped, in a psychiatric ward."
He rather liked that idea, actually. "So what's your alternative?"
"There's carbon monoxide poisoning," she said, and then smiled. "But I'd probably have to use your Jeep. And slashing wrists seems ... deliberate."
"I think killing yourself in general is pretty deliberate," Chris said.
"It might hurt," Emily said meekly. "I just want it to be over right away."
Chris looked at her. Before you can change your mind, he thought, or I can change it for you.
"I was thinking of a gun," she said.
"You hate guns."
"Well, what does that have to do with it?"
"Where are you going to get a gun?" Chris said.
Emily looked up at him. "Maybe from you," she suggested.
His eyebrows raised. "Oh, no. Absolutely not."
"Please, Chris," she said. "You could just give me the key to the cabinet. Tell me where to find the bullets."
"You're not going to shoot yourself with a hunting rifle," Chris muttered.
"I was thinking of the little one. The Colt."
She saw him put up a wall, and her chest spasmed. Chris had seen that look before-wide and resigned, backed into a corner-like a doe, the moment before he took it down. And he realized that this was Emily now, that the only time she seemed happy was when she was planning the way she would die.
Tears were running down her face, thickening his own throat and making Chris cry the same way her orgasm sometimes triggered his. "You used to say you'd do anything for me," Emily pleaded.
Chris looked down at their hands, linked over the textbooks, and accepted for the first time that-for whatever reason-he might fail, that this might really happen. "I would," he said, his heart breaking beneath the weight of the truth.
THEY SAT IN THE DARK of the movie theater, holding hands. Whatever they'd gone to see-Chris couldn't even remember the title-was long finished. The credits had rolled, the other patrons had left. Around them one or two ushers swept empty popcorn containers out of the aisles, moving in a hushed rhythm and doing their best to ignore the couple still curled in the back of the theater.
Sometimes he was certain that he'd come away a hero, and one day he and Emily would find this all very funny. And other times he believed that he would be only what he'd promised Emily: someone there to witness her, as she went.
"I don't know what I'd do without you," Chris whispered.
He could see Emily turn to him, her eyes shine in the dark. "You could do it with me," she said, and swallowed, the suggestion still bitter in her throat.
Chris did not respond, purposely letting her feel sick to her stomach at the thought. He wondered silently, What makes you so sure we would still be together, after? How do you know it works like that?
"Because," Emily said, as clearly as if she'd heard him. "I can't picture it any other way."
One NIGHT HE WENT into the basement and took the key from his father's workbench. The gun cabinet was locked, as always, to keep out children. Not teenagers like Chris, who knew better.
He opened the cabinet and took out the Colt, because he knew Emily well enough to be certain that the first thing she'd ask was to see the pistol. If he didn't bring it, she'd realize something was up, and stop trusting him before he had a chance to keep her from going through with it.
He sat there, the weight of the gun cradled in his hands, remembering the acrid smell of Hoppe's Solvent #9 and the way his father's hands, gifted and precise, had rubbed the shaft and the barrel with a silicone cloth. Like Aladdin's lamp, Chris had once thought, expecting magic.
He remembered the stories his father had told about the piece, about Eliot Ness and Al Capone, about speakeasies and secret raids and sloe gin fizzes. He told Chris that this gun had driven home justice.
Then he remembered his first deer hunt, which had not been a clean kill. Chris and his father had tracked the animal into the woods, where it lay on its side taking great, heaving breaths. What do I do? Chris had asked, and his father had lifted his rifle and fired. Put it out of its misery, he said.
Chris reached into the bottom of the gun cabinet and drew out the bullets for the .45. Emily was no fool; she'd ask to see these too. He closed his eyes and made himself imagine her lifting the tarnished silver barrel to her forehead; made himself picture his own hand coming up and drawing the gun away from her head, if it came down to that.
It was selfish, but it was simple: He could not let Emily kill herself. When you'd been with someone your whole life, you could not imagine living in a world that did not have her in it.
He would stop her. He would.
And he did not let himself wonder why he'd slipped two bullets into his pocket, instead of just the one.