Her eyes were open the entire time. Pale and green and blind. She saw more than most people. She could see their beauty and their flaws. She saw their heart.
I watched, immobile, as she ran toward her sister’s screams, and her sister ran for her. They tried to shield each other.
The guns went off, they both went down.
I was frozen and so were they. I watched her gasp for air as the life poured out of her, as her blood soaked the ground beneath her. Her mouth open and wheezing, eyes open. But she didn’t look scared.
Then her muscles relaxed. Her chest stopped shuddering. Her mouth slowly closed and curved up into a smile. I am not a liar. She smiled.
Her eyes never closed. Glassy and focused. They stared at her little sister: the one she had tried so desperately to save.
On the ground they laid, arms outstretched for each other, fingers just barely touching.
A boy ran in then. He was younger than me and the front of his shirt was splattered with blood, old and fresh. Brown and red.
He looked at me. I looked at the ground. He did too.
I think his heart broke just then. He ran and fell on his knees next to her sister. He held his hands above her body, as id he were afraid to touch her. As if she was asleep and he didn’t want to wake her.
He touched her cheek. Then her hair, ran his fingers up and down her arms. He was trying to keep her warm. Everyone knows that cold means dead.
He choked on a sob. Tears flooded down his cheeks. He folded himself over her, staining his shirt with her blood. “Oh, God, no, oh, God,” he cried.
I looked at him. I looked at the dead girl he mourned for, and then I looked at her. Smiling.
Back then, I didn’t know why. I couldn’t begin to understand how she could lie there and smile as a teenage kid went crazy with grief for her little sister. Wasn’t that wrong? That she should find joy in someone else’s pain?
What was wrong was that I couldn’t even go to her. I wanted so desperately to kneel beside her and hold her like I used to, and cry into her hair, and stain my shirt with her blood too. I wanted to be like the boy with sandy blonde hair, hiccupping back sobs and screaming at the sky.
No I didn’t.
I didn’t want to be like him, but I wanted to feel something, something besides the horrible emptiness I felt spreading across my chest, making me numb. Like someone had dug a hole in my heart that could never be filled again, not with anything.
I couldn’t go to her, so I watched the blood drain from the holes in her body. Dark crimson red.
Her arms spread out on either side of her, like wings, one arm reaching, the other bent back. Her head was violently turned to the side, but there wasn’t a single strand of hair in her face. No, it flowed behind her like a glossy brown curtain, in waves and tendrils. One leg was bent beneath her. Her shoes were missing and the bottoms of her feet were caked with dry blood and dirt. Her dress, the one she had always tugged at and complained about, twisted around her hips and had almost turned a solid red.
Her sister’s blood and hers.
The boy looked over his shoulder at me. There was blood on his face. “It is okay, it is okay,” he said. “She told me—she said she’d never leave me, so it’s okay. She promised, a long time ago. She’s just pretending, don’t worry.”
He was broken. Without meaning to, the little sister had broken him. His heart cracked. Shattered like Humpty Dumpty. And nothing could mend the pieces together again.
That’s what happens when people leave you. Your heart begins to flake away, bit by bit, like cheap paint, until it’s all gone. Or it happens so suddenly you don’t have a chance to catch the fragile pieces. And then they’re gone. Simply gone.
The boy stood up, suddenly. He started talking to the soldiers behind us, the ones who had killed her.
He held out his bloody hands. “Hey, its okay, she’s just sleeping. You have to be quiet so she doesn’t wake up. Lila hates to be woken up early. Do you have a blanket?” He kneeled back down and felt the girl’s cheek with the back of his hand. When he looked up, his eyes were frantic. “She’s cold. No no no no no, you have to help me keep her warm. She hates the cold. Cold means…”
One of the soldiers set his gun on his shoulder and took aim. The other shuffled his boots out of the spreading pool of blood. It was making its way across the floor. I don’t know who the soldier was aiming for. Me or the boy who was babbling about blankets and that Lila was cold, cold, cold.
I remember closing my eyes and thinking about her, how I would see her very soon, and that we would sit together in God’s lap for eternity.
“Cease fire! Stop! Don’t shoot!”
I opened my eyes to look at the man who had just burst in the front doors of the church; we were in the main lobby. He was dressed in the Air Force uniform, clutching a dirty hat in his hand and breathing hard like he had been running.
“Don’t shoot,” he repeated slowly, holding his hands up so the soldiers, now pointing their guns at him, would see that he wasn’t armed.
“What is it, Sergeant?” a soldier asked, lowering his weapon slightly.
“I, uh…” The man looked behind us; saw the two cold, intertwined bodies and the hysterical, bloody kid next to them. “It—it’s over. It’s all over.”
“What do you mean?”
“Europe threatened to send troops in to sort this mess out and fight for the Christians, because they’re predominately Catholic. They threatened World War III, so the President revoked the law. It’s all over. They’re going to start rebuilding the churches next week, after the body counts and funerals. But it’s over.”
We stood for a moment, stunned. Then we all simply became human again. The soldiers dropped their weapons with a loud clatter and walked away without looking back. The military man left to go spread the news to everyone else in the building, city, state, country.
Five minutes too late.
Five. Minutes. Late.
She didn’t have to die. She shouldn’t have died. They were five minutes too late.
Numbed and silent, I carefully looked back at her thinking I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I was too late, too late.
The boy grinned back at me, cradling Lila’s bloody head in his lap. “It’s over? Is it over?” I nodded and he smiled softly at the girl as he stroked her hair. “Hey, Lila, punkin, it’s all right. It’s over now. You can open your eyes. It’s over.”
I tattooed her name on my arm. I wore t-shirts in the dead of winter just so everyone would see her name inked on my skin. I was so proud.
The girl who did it asked me whose name it was, my girlfriend’s? My wife’s?
“We should have been married in a few years,” I told her.
“She break your heart?”
“No. She stole it. But I didn’t mind.”
“No, I mean, did she leave you?”
“She died a few days ago. She was trying to save her little sister.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. She…she was more than happy to do it. Actually, I’m on my way to their funeral right now. Are you almost done?”
They played a lot of songs at her funeral. Only a few people spoke. Nathan Parker, our youth pastor, talked from his seat. He had lost both his legs and was in a wheelchair in the front row, next to Adam White.
Nathan told a story. He told us about a time when he was younger and stupider. He was a punk, had a lot of tattoos and drove a motorcycle just to irritate people. He hated his parents and he hated God. Then a little family took him in. There was a wonderful, beautiful lady who was the cooking queen, her strong son, her brilliant blind daughter and a funny little girl who always beat him up. They took him to church. Four years later, he graduated from college and went straight into the church as a youth pastor.
He told us about how much he loved that little family. They saved him—he corrected himself—God used them to bring him to Christ. He’d never forget them.
Her brother Adam couldn’t speak. The funeral was for his mom and two younger sisters, and they were to be buried next to his father. No one blamed him for shutting down. Lost his whole family before he was twenty-five. They wouldn’t have been surprised if he never said another word.
Kyle couldn’t speak. They wouldn’t let him. Nothing he said made any sense. He mumbled about Lila looking like beautiful in her coffin, and then he began shrieking once he saw that her dress was sleeveless. They took him home before she was in the ground. I was grateful they let him come at all.
I could have said something though. Nothing was standing in the way.
I could have told them about the first time I saw her. She had been standing in the middle of the hallway, frozen, head cocked as she listened to my footsteps. She was so brave and beautiful.
I could have told them about how she cried in my arms and apologized for getting snot all over my shirt. Actually, that happened many times.
I could have told them about the time she shook her fist in a man’s face to defend me. How she told everyone that she trusted me and that I would never in a million years hurt her.
I could have told them what she told me. That she loved her family more than anything and she loved God more than that and she dreamed of singing his praises her whole life long.
I could have told them about what it was like when she died. How she ran, arms outstretched for her sister. How she wasn’t blind then. How she fell, eyes open. How she died: smiling.
I could have told them that. Maybe everyone would have left feeling inspired, eyes filled with tears for the brave blind girl who thought nothing of herself and only of others.
But I didn’t. In my own way, I couldn’t. I know that her brother and Nathan would have loved to hear all that, but I couldn’t bring myself to say any of it. I sat in the back row. When everyone stood to sing, I stayed seating. Not out of disrespect, but because my chest ached too badly. I felt I might collapse. I could only think of her.
When everyone went to say goodbye I forced myself to stand in line for the caskets. I knew I would regret it later otherwise.
Kyle was right. They looked beautiful.
Mrs. White was younger than I would have imagined. Like a middle-aged Lila. And Lila looked like a princess. They had decorated her with lilacs, her namesake.
They told me that saying her name would help, but it only makes it hurt worse so far.
Rosie looked gorgeous. Little pink and red rosebuds adorned her hair. Her hands were clasped delicately over her stomach, with a long rose twined between her fingers.
I reached and touched her cheek. Cold. I don’t know why I had expected anything different.
At the tattoo parlor, the girl had become intrigued by my story, with my Rosie. She started asking questions.
“So you loved her?”
“Of course. I will always love her.”
“How do you feel? I mean, it’s been, like, what—a week since she died? What does it feel like to lose someone you love?”
“It doesn’t. You don’t feel. Not at first. You’re hollow and empty. You want to die too. But you have to remember who you lost and how they lived. She—she died with a smile on her face. She died happy. How can I be sad about that?”
“How was she happy? She died! And didn’t the sister die too?”
“Yes. But they were both happy. Neither one of them will ever have to know what it would have been like to lose the other. They won’t have to live life without their sister. They won’t be alone. They just wanted to be together, and they were—are. They’re together.”
“Sounds morbid to me.”
“Death isn’t scary. Not when you know where you’re going.”
“Yeah, whatever. You said you want a rose at the end, right? Want any thorns on the stem?”
Adam threw a rose on top of her casket, a lilac on Lila’s, and a daisy on his mother’s.
When the first shower of dirt hit the wood, he turned away. He wheeled Nathan out of the graveyard before his family was completely buried.
I stayed. Even after they set the stones in the soft earth, picked up their gear and left, I stayed.
But eventually I had to leave. Because what else can you do but move on? Either go crazy like poor Kyle or live in silent misery like Adam.
I’m moving on. She would want me to. They all would. We among the living must keep on living while there is still breath in our lungs and a steady beat in our hearts, living in memory of those who went before. We’re living for them, a little.
But living doesn’t mean forgetting. It doesn’t mean we forget. We won’t. I won’t.
She will live on forever, in my memory and in my heart and in the black ink of her name on my skin. She will not die. She’s not even sleeping. She’s living.
She died for what she believed in, who she believe in. She wasn’t scared because she knew she would be safe and that she wouldn’t be alone. She was killed for daring the believe on someone so much bigger than herself.
She was a Martyr.
Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I love, you also will live.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”