Soldiering On

Clark froze when he spotted her. A young woman with short, vibrant purple hair crossed his path several feet ahead. She didn’t see him, her eyes were focused on the path in front of her as she passed by. But even without seeing them, Clark knew her eyes were dark brown. Her profile was just as he remembered; he’d recognize that button nose anywhere. She continued by him with her floral dress flowing in the wind. Even if the scent of lemonade lipgloss didn’t brush his nose, the white roses on a pink dress were somehow uniquely her. Clark closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.

“It’s not real. It’s not real…,” he reminded himself. The last time his guilt haunted him, he was a freshman in high school. And she was still the little girl that impaled herself in the forest. A purple-haired 8-year-old girl with a blood-stained flower print dress. At the time, he took his therapist’s advice and said goodbye to her. It seemed to work for almost 4 years, but there she was. Although, it seemed odd to Clark that she appeared older now. Not only that, but she didn’t even seem to notice him. The little girl’s apparition always stared at him with a disappointed, disgusted sneer.

Clark opened his eyes but she was still within view, though farther away. He was shocked when he realized she was talking to someone. His imagined ghost never talked to anyone, not even him. She didn’t say a word when Clark apologized and said his goodbyes; she only faded away

“It can’t be…,” he said to himself. After several steps, he realized he was moving closer to the conversation. He stopped walking long enough to debate his actions, then continued anyway.

She was talking to another student in the walkway between buildings. Clark snuck close, but hid behind a brick pillar to stay out of sight.

“See you later, Mary,” one of the two women said. Clark relaxed. The voice didn’t sound like he thought it would. He couldn’t see who talked, but it had to be the woman he was chasing; her name was Celina.

“I told you it wasn’t real,” Clark mumbled to himself. “But one hell of a lookalike,” he said with a sad chuckle. He turned to go around the pillar to continue to class, but something stopped him. He banged his chin against a purple-haired, fair-skinned forehead and clacked his teeth shut.

“Owwww,” they both said at the same time; each rubbed their injured spot.

“Sorry, didn’t see you,” she apologized in a soft, familiar voice as she looked up. Clark couldn’t believe his ears. He let go of his chin and looked down at her.

“Celi-,” he started to say her name. He was interrupted by a dainty hand clamping over his mouth.

“Shhhh!” she said. Clark narrowed his eyes at her in confusion, but he remained quiet. Her head swiveled back and forth as she checked their surroundings, then after a moment, she moved her hand from his mouth.

“Oh god,” she said. In an instant, her arms were wrapped around him. “I thought I’d never see you again.”

“Why did you shush me?” Clark asked without returning the hug. Dozens of questions filled his mind, but he started with the most immediate one and planned to work his way backward.

“New identity,” she whispered while still resting against his chest. She sighed, stepped back, then stuck her hand out.

“Hi, I’m Mary,” she said somewhat loudly. “What’s your name, friendly stranger? You like a Clark, I’ll bet it’s Clark.”

“I’m Clark,” he said and shook her hand.

“I knew it!” she said. “I feel like we’re old friends already. Let’s skip class!” she grabbed his hand and led him across campus. They walked hand in hand to the parking lot, then across it and off campus. The walk took almost half an hour, but she refused to talk to him until they reached a nearby park. They sat at a picnic table then Mary finally opened up.

“I don’t know what you’ve been through, I don’t know what you’re thinking. But, I don’t blame you at all for what happened,” she said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get in touch with you.”

“Thanks,” Clark said. He stopped blaming himself for her death when he said goodbye, but it was still nice to know she never blamed him.

“How are you alive? Why do you have a new identity?” Clark asked. “After I got help, your parents wouldn’t talk to me. And I went to your funeral!” he said as if only just remembering. “You were there! NOT BREATHING!” he said. 9-year-old Clark was convinced his best friend would wake up at any moment. He watched her chest throughout the whole ordeal hoping for movement. Mary nodded and reached across the table for his hand.

“I’m sorry… that was a difficult time for my family,” she said. “Don’t be mad at my parents, they always loved you and they’re going to be thrilled to know we ran into each other again.”

“Difficult? How? You obviously didn’t die even though you took a tree branch through the heart. How difficult could it have been?” he asked. He felt anger crawling up his spine and into his words; he did his best to try and stay calm. She gave a soft chuckle.

“Funnily enough, it’s because I didn’t die,” she said. She suddenly locked eyes with him. “What’s your favorite number?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, how is that important right now? What happened!?” he asked; a tiny bit louder than he meant to. Mary sighed and reached into her purse.

“I had an oak branch as thick as a baseball bat go through me…,” she said while she dug around in the small black leather bag. “…and I didn’t die. What kind of attention do you think that got me?” she asked as she pulled a folded pocket knife out of the purse.

“Oh,…,” Clark said. Visions of black-suited agents chasing an 8-year-old girl filled his head.

“Luckily, I met the right people while trying to avoid the wrong people. I learned a lot about myself,” she said as she opened the knife. “Like the fact that thiiiiss…,” she dragged the word out while she pulled the blade down her skin. It happened too fast for Clark to try and stop her; by the time he convinced his hand to reach across the table she was done. She dropped the knife and pointed at the long cut on her arm. Clark watched it heal before his eyes. “… is possible because my favorite number is 34.” In less than a minute the gash was gone.

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