The following is a deleted scene from The Dead Girl in 2A. I took it out after the first draft because, frankly, it just didn’t fit in with the rest of the story. I hated removing it, though, because it has a good creep factor. Those are always the toughest types of scenes to delete. Ah, well, kill your darlings. -Carter
It was a Sunday in June, a foul and sweltering Boston day. Much hotter than normal, and the heavy air matched my mood. I had been thinking about my parents, my real parents, who had died so long ago. These were reflections I seldom had anymore, mostly because I had little memory of them at all. In a rare while I’d recall flashes of them, like movie vignettes.
On that day, I was recalling swimming lessons with my father at a rec center pool. I must have been around six. The cold water assaulted my skin, made all the more harsh because I refused to fully submerge. Dozens of other kids splashed around nearby, but we had our own little corner in the shallow end, and my father supported me by my belly as I kicked and flailed my arms, and every now and then he’d lower me enough into the water to see if my uncoordinated efforts could keep me afloat, and each time when it was apparent they couldn’t, he’d lift me up.
“I got you, sweetie. I always got you.” And he smiled in the way only a father to a daughter could, and all my fear would melt away, at least until I had to rely on myself once more. That pattern repeated, until finally, at some point, I was swimming on my own.
Some time after that, my father was killed, and he never kept me afloat again.
On that day in Boston, in a protest against the heat, I imagined my body in the water of that years-ago swimming pool, smelled the chlorine, heard the chaos of screaming kids echoing in the indoor pool. And there, close in my ear, my father’s soft and reassuring voice. I got you, sweetie. How I yearned to be back there again. Even for five minutes. What a joy that would be.
It was four in the afternoon and I was walking home from the school where I taught, navigating a downtown alley I often used as a shortcut. The alley serviced the back of a handful of restaurants and retail shops, and most times when I walked through I’d see either a delivery vehicle dropping off food at the restaurants, or a garbage truck stuffing itself with all the resulting waste. This day there was neither, but there were two men just outside the back door of a Vietnamese restaurant, and one of them was screaming at the other. Not yelling. Screaming.
It’s a powerful thing to come upon a scene of imminent violence. It hardly ever happens, and in that moment my body felt overcharged with electricity, crackling, ready to burst. All senses keyed into the man screaming in a foreign language, and the quiet recipient of his abuse. Hateful, rage-filled words that needed no translation. Both men were Asian. The one screaming was older—maybe in his fifties—and wore an apron that was once likely pristine white but was now splattered with grease and, from the looks of it, blood. He hurled curt, sharp, stabbing words into the face of the other man. This man was barely more than a kid, mid-twenties at most, with beefy, muscled arms bulging from the cuffs of a black t-shirt. Shaved head. Earrings. I remember how perfect his posture was, standing in the face of the verbal abuse, his back perfectly straight, rocky shoulders rolled back, gaze leveled directly at the aggressor. Calm, like a solider, I thought. A soldier getting dressed down by a drill sergeant.
The older man had to be his boss at the restaurant, I thought. Or an elder family member. I couldn’t think of any other reason the younger, clearly more powerful man would stand there so calmly and accept this torrent. It was the young man’s reaction that made me think perhaps everything would be okay. The old man probably did this all the time, and the young man just knew how to let it wash over him.
They didn’t look over as I approached, and for a moment I considered turning around and going back around the long way. But for some reason I decided to keep moving forward. I had this sudden sense that, if he noticed me walking by in the alley, the old man might suddenly be embarrassed by his behavior and calm down. That I would be the reason a bad situation was averted. What a foolish, selfish thought. Yet it was the one I had in that second, and seconds like those are all it takes to change the course of one’s life.
I was just about to pass when I saw the knife. It was in the older man’s left hand, and previously it was blocked from my view by the younger man’s body. But now it was in plain sight. Chef’s knife, blade dark and stained. He held it like a conductor’s baton, waving it in circles at chest height as he made whatever point he was aiming to make. He didn’t seem to be threatening the younger man with the knife, but nor did he take care to exercise caution with it. A pang of nausea roiled within me, the same sensation after looking too closely at freshly spilled guts from roadkill. It was the moment I should have turned and walked the other way. Or run.
But I didn’t. I kept moving forward, though my steps became decidedly heavy.
The screaming man’s face glistened with rage-sweat. I was close enough to at least imagine the spittle flying from his lips, and yet the other man remained so still, so calm. Not the slightest indication any of this was bothering him in the least. Perhaps, I thought, this was a daily occurrence.
But the knife.
The old man now used the point to tap the younger man’s chest, and this is when time slowed to a crawl.
tap tap tap
I began to move past them, and neither seemed to notice me. I was maybe fifteen feet away. I tried to keep staring straight ahead, but it was impossible. I continued watching, and I was certain the tip of that blade was going to do far worse damage than a light tap on a chest. I was certain it was going to suddenly plunge deep into the young man’s chest. And, I think, the young man had the same thought at the very same moment, because his face finally broke into expression. His gaze shot down to the knife, and he took the slightest step backwards.
This seemed to enrage the old man even more. The tapping became faster.
tap tap tap tap
The young man finally moved, swatting the old man’s arm expertly, not hard enough to cause damage but enough to send a clear message. Get that knife away from me.
The old man went silent. Ropy arms tensed. Eyes bulged in disbelief.
I was only distantly aware I had stopped walking. I stood there and just stared. We were the only three people in the alley. This was a moment of perilous intimacy.
Seconds passed. Perhaps years. The men locked into each other, neither moving. Finally, for the first time, the younger man spoke. Perfect English.
“No more. Back away.”
And for a moment I thought the old man was going to do just that. He seemed to soften his stance, and the hand holding the knife lowered just a few inches.
Then the old man screamed some short, one-syllable scream, and in my mind it was every scream from every war movie when a crazed soldier charged bayonet-first into a sea of enemy bodies.
The knife came up and was directed straight into the belly of the young man. I was going to see this person disemboweled, right in this malodorous Boston alley behind a Vietnamese restaurant.
But the young man moved with wizard speed, his hand faster than my brain could process. It took me a second to realize he’d grabbed the old man’s arm just as the knife was inches from finding flesh, twisted his hand until there was a nauseating crack of wrist-bone, then thrust upward. The blade plunged up through the old man’s chin until the only part of the knife not inside his head was the hilt.
It happened in less than a second, yet it was so horribly clear.
The young man released his grip, and his victim collapsed lifeless to the ground. The head of the old man bounced off the asphalt and came to a rest facing me. Clouded, dead eyes, still full of the greatest surprise.
The young man turned to me, seeming to notice my presence for the first time. His arms tensed by his side, fingers stretched wide, the stance of a man ready to resume his attack.
“I can’t go back,” he said.
It didn’t matter to where he couldn’t go back. I was a witness, and he was now going to kill me. I had never been so certain of anything in my life.
He lunged. I stood there, unable to make the slightest effort to defend myself. This was a dream. It had to be. Only in a nightmare is one so ineffective against imminent death as I was in the moment.
He spun me around and wrapped his bulky arms around me. I looked down and saw blue, ropy veins bulge against the surface of his skin. Hot words in my ear.
“I can’t go back. It was self-defense, but it won’t matter. If I go back, I’ll die in there.”
“It…it was self-defense,” I managed to say. My body was both hot and cold, hypothermia battling heat stroke. “I saw the whole thing. I’ll tell the police that.”
Near my feet, the blood of a dead man snaked its way ever closer. This is when I noticed the book for the first time. On the ground, half hidden behind the Dumpster, with only the title showing. The Responsibility of Death. In my memory of a memory, I didn’t know if that specific recollection was real. Perhaps it was just a leftover imprint from current life, as happens in dreams.
“It doesn’t matter.” His voice cracked. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t go back.” He gave me a python squeeze and I was certain all my bones would snap in thousands of splintery shards. Then one arm released, reached back, and when it reappeared in front of me there was something metal in his hand. A gleaming chrome stick with holes bored down the side of it. A flick of the wrist and the metal stick flew open, seemed to flap around at the speed of hummingbird wings, and when it was once again still there was a gleaming silver blade at the end of it.
Butterfly knife. I’d confiscated one in school before.
oh god oh god
“I won’t tell. Please, I swear I won’t tell.”
“I can’t go back.”
“I won’t tell.”
“I’m a Christian,” he said. I could hear the panic and the tears, desperation and sorrow. “I’ve done bad things, but I’ve been forgiven. But suicide is unforgivable.”
“I’d rather die in this alley than back in there. And that’s what will happen. I’ll die if I go back.” A shifting of weight, tensing of arms. His body steamed against me. “I’d rather die with the sun on my face.”
He released and spun me around, somehow managing not to slice into either of us. Grabbed my wrist with his free hand and yanked me behind a Dumpster. Out of view of the body on the ground. I started to scream but he raised the knife to my throat.
“Don’t,” he said. His pupils darted left and right, seemingly unable to focus. “It’s you or me, right now. I want it to be me, but it doesn’t have to be.”
Somewhere away in freedom, the bark of a dog.
I barely managed to get my words out. “What do you want?”
He answered with his knife. Another flick of the wrist and the tip of the blade now rested against his heaving chest. Right over his heart. He grabbed my hand with his free one and pulled it up to the handle of the knife.
“Do it. Like I said, it’s you or me.” A bead of sweat dripped from his chin and slid down the back of my hand.
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do. Now please hold the knife. Please help me.”
He leaned in close enough to bite. We were both shaking. His eyes bulged with adrenaline.
I grabbed the handle of the knife as he released it. It was hot and slick from his sweaty hand, but it was also reassuring.
“Don’t hesitate. Just do it. Stick it in my heart.”
“Do it. I might change my mind, and if I do, you’ll be the dead one.”
I began to lower the blade. “There has to be another—”
He grabbed my hand with both of his and brought the blade tip back to his chest. His words became a hiss.
“There is no other way. I made a promise I’d never go back, don’t you understand? I promised I’d die first, and I wasn’t planning on that happening today, but here we are. And I’m not doing it myself, so you have to do it. You have to do it.”
Then there was this sense. I have occupied no other bodies, never been another person, so I can’t say whether or not everyone feels things as I do. But my senses are strong, and always have been. When I get a sense, I tend to follow its direction, and it usually leads me to a place I’m certain I was supposed to be.
And then, in that moment with the chrome knife firmly in my grasp, I had a powerful sense. Not one of fear, for as fearful as the situation was, I didn’t feel in true danger. It was not him or me. If I refused to help him, I could have just walked away, unharmed. I’m certain of it.
No, the sense I had in that moment was to help him. To give him what he wanted. To free him. One’s life becomes irrevocably altered the moment you see the inherent good in helping someone die.
“What do I do?” I asked. It sounded like someone else talking.
“I’m going to let go,” he said. “I can’t be holding the knife. Then…then just plunge as hard as you can.” He tapped twice on his chest, just above his heart. “Right here. You have to commit. It’s harder than you think.”
He released my hands and I brought the knife to the spot he indicated. I used both hands to hold the blade dagger-like, and the sharp tip snagged the tiniest bit in the cotton of his t-shirt.
I remember my focus. In my life, I had never had a focus as intense as I had in those seconds.
My hands were no longer shaking. “Tell me you’re certain.”
“Yes, please. Please.”
“Tell me you forgive me.”
His hand was touching my shoulder. His eyes closed.
“I forgive you. God forgives you.”
I lifted the knife above my head. The sun was shining brightly on his face. Just what he wanted.
I asked one last question.
“How old are you?”
He seemed surprised by the question, blinked, then began to answer.
I stabbed downward, one smooth, fast stroke, driving the blade fully into his chest. It wasn’t hard at all—not like he said. It was almost too easy, hard hot metal through tender meat. His eyes shot open, wide, frantic, pupils constricting as I watched, pain, confusion, then fatigue, relief. They stayed open as he grabbed my arms, clutched in only the weakest of ways, then slid to the ground, rolling onto his back. Writhing, a dying snake, his lower torso thrusting feebly, then stilled. Everything motionless, with only the faintest trickle of blood spilling from the wound.
I released my grip, leaving the knife inside him.
I knelt next to the man I killed, so sure in my decision I felt no remorse. His eyes remained open, but he was gone. I must have punctured his heart, immediate death. I had freed him, and, in the strangest, most disturbing of ways, I think I had set myself up to understand the beauty of death.
And, in those brief seconds as I remained next to him, a familiar scent came to me. Flowers, sweet, wild on a grassy hill. And a hint of a citronella candle, the kind used to ward off bugs. The smell was so familiar it jolted me out of my focus, bringing me to a place I knew but couldn’t name, a memory familiar but distant. So strange since this was another memory within a memory, and yet so powerful and present. Then the smell was gone as quickly as it arrived, and I was left with two bodies in alley behind a Vietnamese restaurant. We were alone, and all was still.
I lifted the bottom of the man’s shirt to his chest and wiped the handle of the blade as best I could. It moved little in his chest.
It was all I could think to do.