by Sarah Brownstein
Rose stood at the corner of Old Court and Stevenson in front of the red brick synagogue. The December wind blew her long red dress up and out. The straps of her silver heels were cutting into her blistering feet. She looked down at her sterling silver watch. 10:33 pm. Her hair had begun falling out of the carefully done up style hours ago. A dark curl drooped forward, blocking her vision. She tried to ignore it, but the smell of hairspray made her eyes burn, as if she had been staring directly into the sun. Rose flipped her hair and rubbed her eyes, her visage more raccoon than human. She glanced around. Something told her this was where she needed to be. A strong force led her here, like someone had taken her by the hand and guided her to this spot.
Another gush of wind and there he stood, about 5-feet-tall, in a red Spider-Man tee-shirt and khakis. He looked about 11 years old, with dirty blonde hair, freckles, and fiercely gray eyes. The street light hit his irises in such a way that Rose could see her reflection. It hurt to look at him directly. She had a dark circle surrounding her left eye and red streaks ran down her cheeks and neck. She brought her hand up to her face. She didn’t feel like anything was wrong.
“You’re late,” The boy said, half smiling. Something about him seemed familiar, like she had met him before. He turned away and started walking towards the synagogue. A weight lifted off of her chest. She felt like she could look up and see it drift all the way to the blue and enlarged moon.
“Are you coming?” She felt the weight return. The boy walked back toward her and grabbed her hand. His grip was rough and clammy. Rose felt this sensation that said he was the one who brought her there. She let him escort her to the front entrance and paused. The doors were beautifully crafted to tell the story of creation. The wood had once been dyed a dark red, but years of weathering had made it turn a light brown color that didn’t pair well with the gold trimming. Some of the members started a petition to have the doors repaired. They were a few signatures short by the deadline. That was years ago, back when people cared more about the community than who owned the biggest house.
Rose looked over at the boy. In his place was an elderly woman with the typical light blue hair, and a crooked nose. She had the same pair of gray eyes as the boy. Rose jumped back, removing her hand from the woman’s.
“What’s the matter, dear?” the woman stared blankly. “We must keep moving.” The woman motioned for Rose to open the door. She pulled at the dull gold. It didn’t budge. “It must be-” she said as she turned back to the woman. The woman had disappeared, sugar in smoldering coffee. Rose spun around, trying to find any trace of the woman as panic shattered her senses like an icicle falling onto the frozen earth. She decided to take a lap around the perimeter of the synagogue.
When Rose reached the front doors again, she stood facing the street. She watched the road lights flicker while deciding if it was worth it to stay or try to find somewhere to go. Rose jumped when she heard the screeching of hinges. The woman peeked out from behind the cracked door.
“Well, aren’t you going to come inside?” the woman said, opening the door wider so Rose could enter. The air inside the synagogue was thin, hinted with the smell of mildew. The stained-glass windows depicted each book in the Tanach, letting in moonlight and sending a multitude of color scattering across the room. Bookshelves lined the walls, filled up with green, brown, and black books that looked like they hadn’t been dusted since the synagogue was built in 1954. Rose let her index finger drift over the bindings as she walked toward the tapestry at the
other side of the room. The tapestry had a navy-blue backing with yellow thread weaving itself into the Tree of Life. Surrounding the tree was the outlines of cows, goat, and horses. Rose felt someone tug at her hand. She looked down and saw a little girl. Her hair was fire red with tight ringlets that stretched down to her lower back. She had the same gray eyes as the others.
Rose let the girl guide her into the sanctuary. The girl directed her to sit in the sixth row on the right side of the Torah ark. The ark was about 10 feet tall, with long deep red curtains. Behind the curtains sat the Torah. She had seen it once a week for the entirety of her life. It had wooden handles with carved flowers that escaped from the velvet green casing. Without saying a word, the little girl turned and left the room. Rose sat in the darkness and waited. She didn’t know what to expect. Everything that this person, these people, had shown so far seemed to be harmless. There must be a reason for bringing her here. Curiosity overtook every ounce of fear that had been planted in Rose’s stomach.
A light escaped from somewhere behind her and highlighted the ark. Before she could get up to check it out laughter surrounded her. The walls and ceiling seemed to be closing in and every breath that Rose took got caught in the back of her throat. The laugh seemed so recognizable, yet foreign. It was awkward, high pitched, and hysterical. A large screen was being lowered from the ceiling. A video of Rose laughing before blowing out the candles on her eighth birthday started to play. After that there was the day of her birth, followed by what seemed to be every important and sentimental moment of her life. The time her father taught her how to ride a bike. Rose remembered how proud he was when she was finally comfortable with him letting go of the handle bars. When she broke her elbow after getting knocked down by a six-foot wave. Her mother had a fit when she saw Rose’s arm bent the wrong way. Her first kiss with Bill Jackson under the bleachers when she was 12. The day she received her acceptance letter to
Yale. She was going to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a lawyer. Suddenly the screen went black. The silence sounded like a million children screaming. Rose’s chest felt like cicadas had burrowed there way inside and were feasting. She couldn’t feel herself breathe. The dark screen mocked her. It knew something Rose wasn’t aware of yet. She was a fish drowning in water.
Another video began to play. Rose saw herself in the same outfit that she had on now, but crisper somehow. She smiled, getting ready to leave for prom. She got in her yellow 1999 Honda CR-V and pulled out onto the busy road. She sang along to the Spin Doctors’ 1991 hit, Two Princes. She remembered all of this happening, but something didn’t feel right. A black Toyota Camry, going 20 miles over the speed limit, came shooting toward her. The Toyota did not slow down or merge into the right lane as his light turned yellow. Rose happily waited for her light to turn green so she could turn the corner. She closed her eyes, trying to remember what happened after she made the turn. Her eyes shot open when she heard the bang. Rose’s car was flipped over on the side of the road, smoking furiously. The other driver shot off, not even checking to see if she was okay. The paramedics arrived. The police. They pulled her body out of the car. She looked distorted and wrong. Her facial features pushed in.
Rose felt her face heat up, water boiling in a kettle. She was going to throw up. This couldn’t be right. She placed her fingers over each of her pressure points, trying to find a pulse. Nothing. She stood up and turned to leave. The girl was standing in her way. “Who are you?” Rose yelled. The girl stared up at her blankly. “What do you want from me?” The girl took a step closer and Rose felt chills roll down her spine. “I wanted you to understand. It will all be okay as long as you stay with me,” the girl whispered. Her voice was deeper than Rose had expected.
Rose pushed past the girl and hurried to the front doors. She heard the girl’s footsteps behind her, slow and leisurely. Outside, the air felt coarse and was filled with the harsh smell of gasoline. The street was blocked off and filled with emergency vehicles. She stood at the end of the synagogue’s driveway and watched in disbelief as a stretcher was brought over to where her body laid on the grass. The paramedics lifted her corpse carefully, leaving behind a pool of blood. They strapped her in and covered her body with a black blanket. She felt the heft of the blanket hit her, as if she was really on the stretcher. Rose followed the paramedics into the ambulance. No one stopped her.
“Does she have any form of ID?” one of the paramedics asked. She was middle aged, with dirty blonde hair and a fresh manicure. “Rose Peterson, age 17. She has a license and a cell phone. Her parents have been contacted and will be waiting for us at the hospital.” This paramedic looked to be in his late twenties. He had dark brown curls, light green eyes, and his nose looked like it had been broken more than once. “Poor girl,” the woman said. Rose’s hand stuck out of the blanket. Her silver nail polish blended into her gray palm. She reached out to tuck it under. Cold to the touch.
When the ambulance reached the hospital, the paramedics rolled Rose to a private room. There was no TV, no bathroom attached, no window. It smelled like someone had coated each wall with a thick layer of bleach. This is where they left her. What will my mother do? My sisters? My father? Will my dog notice that I’m not around? She walked over to her body and pulled the blanket down. There was blood covering her face, her nose was disfigured, her jaw broken. This can’t be me. She heard her father’s booming footsteps approaching. Quickly, she covered the face and stepped away. Her family pushed into the room, a flood breaking a dam.
“I don’t care what the doctor said,” her father declared. He pulled down the blanket and closed his eyes. Rose walked forward and opened her mouth, but no words came out. She reached out to him. He didn’t know she was there. Nothing. She turned to her sisters and mother. They couldn’t see her either. She walked past them into the hall, pausing only for a second. She didn’t turn around.
Rose made her way outside and found a cobblestone bench. It was the same bench she sat on after she broke her elbow and again when her grandfather passed away. It was positioned on the perimeter of the hospital’s garden and looked unnatural on the barren earth. There was usually an overhang made from the greenery, but now there were just vacant branches.
Rose closed her eyes and waited for Death to appear. She heard footsteps come toward her. When she opened her eyes a tall, heavy set man was standing in front of her. He wore a black suit with a bright red tie. “Are you ready?” the man asked. Rose thought about her family, her goals, her life. She thought about all the happiness that she already encountered. She didn’t want to leave, but she wasn’t sure she had a choice.
“What if I’m not?” Rose asked, not really expecting an answer. The man shrugged and sat down next to her. “There is only so much I can equip you with. You can spend your time on earth, but it will not be fulfilling. You’ll watch those you love carry on and learn what life is without you. I wouldn’t recommend it. However, it is your choice,” the man said. Rose looked at her feet. “I won’t get to experience everything I wanted.”
“What happens if I go with you?”
The man stood and held out his hand – thin, pared, gray. She reached out, expecting to be received by a frigid grip. Instead it was warm and welcoming. Rose stood up and looked into his gray eyes. There was a glint of life behind them. He smiled as dark smoke started coiling around their feet, making its way upwards until she couldn’t see past the bench. Rose tightened her grip. “Okay, I’m ready.”