Grief is a strange thing. It has many faces, many forms. Sometimes it incapacitates you, sometimes it drives you to do something more. I remember when I lost my mother to tuberculosis. In that time, my grief came in the obvious form of sadness. When I lost my sister, Launna, to alcohol addiction, I felt stifling anger at her and at the world in general. When I lost my brother Caleb to the lights and chance of Vegas, I felt betrayed. But when I lost my father to the denial of false love, I barely felt anything. It was still grief.
Yes, I know grief.
I know that there is nothing anyone on the outside world can do about it. It’s something you have to deal with yourself. But you don’t have to do it alone. I knew what it was like to lose something you truly cared about.
My empathy toward Peyton was above the comfort of acquaintance. I didn’t know her, but I knew what she was going through as we watched her house burn to the ground. It was something a kind word couldn’t fix. So I didn’t say anything.
It was mid-afternoon when the flames finally sputtered out. I looked at Peyton. She was staring straight ahead, not seeming to see anything. Her gaunt face looked sallow. Wordlessly, she stood and walked toward the ashes of her home.
She was Ghost Girl again as she glided over the soot, kicking piles of unrecognizable ash. Every so often she would kneel and pick up a piece of pottery or china or anything else that had not burned. I stayed in the same spot, watching her, wishing I could help, knowing she would talk when she was ready. If she talked. I was a stranger, after all.
Chaku was nowhere in sight. I almost wondered where he was, but I had better things to worry about and anyway, he was a big boy now.
Had anyone seen the flames or smelled the smoke? The estate was practically secluded. Had her family gotten out? I had a sick feeling that I knew the answer.
Peyton let out a long, shrill scream.
I sprang to my feet. “What’s wrong?” I shouted. She didn’t seem to hear me. She stared at a pile of dust in front of her, a look of pure, indescribable horror on her face. I raced to her side and looked. I felt bile rise in my throat. I almost gagged.
There, staring out of the ash with dead eyes was a burnt, bloody face.
Peyton screamed again. The sound was half strangled by a sob. I stared at the sightless eyes for one second more. Then I grabbed Peyton around the waist and hauled her out of there. She kicked and screamed all the way. I didn’t stop until I couldn’t smell the death and smoke any more. It was long time.
I propped Peyton against a tree. She had gone limp in my arms along the way. Her head lolled back onto the trunk. She moaned.
Poor, poor Peyton. Anorexia, falling off a cliff, watching her house burn, seeing the charred face of whom I was guessing had been a family member. The sadness and pain I felt for the stranger woman was indescribable. Given her current state of anorexia—the word made me want to spit in anger—she should have been in a state of comatose. But she was stronger than I had given her credit for.
She opened her eyes. They searched around wildly for a few minutes before finding my face. She opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out was a high-pitched keening. It broke my heart. She needed food. Or did she? Was it bad to give anorexic people food? I mean, had she gone without eating so long that eating something now would disrupt her system? I didn’t know. But I’m sure giving her water would be okay. And then I could try a little bit of food. Maybe I could even get her to a doctor. She would not die on my watch.
I knew exactly where we were. I picked Peyton up as gently as I could. Sure enough, ten minutes later, we reached Lake Comatista. I lowered her limp form into the cold water, feet first. Suddenly she jerked and screamed in surprise.
“Ach, that is COLD!” she cries. Trying to get away. I keep her in until I see her eyes lose their glazed, lost look. Then I pulled her out. She thrashed like a wet cat.
“What was that for?” she demanded, crossing her arms. I set her on her feet. She sways slightly.
“Are you okay now?” I ask, stepping back as she shakes herself off. She glares at me.
“If by sopping wet and begging for pneumonia, than yeah, I am right as rain.” sarcasm drips from her voice like the water from her nightgown. I wondered if she was always this feisty. I chose to go with yes.
I was feeling immense relief. I was actually able to laugh. “You’ll be fine. Now drink.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Yes you are,” I insisted. “Drink, or else.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Or else what?”
I took a suggestive step toward her. “Or else…I’ll throw you in the lake.”
She manages a small smile. The sadness has returned to her brown eyes. “On it,” she says, forcefully. I sigh.
Peyton was very thirsty. I could tell she was planning to only take a couple sips and then be difficult, but as soon as the sweet water of Lake Comatista hit her lips, she couldn’t say no. I watched her inhale the water with satisfaction.
I turned toward the middle of the lake. Right on cue, Chaku came into view. He had a huge Sturgeon by the tail. He dropped it into my hands and sat on his haunches, looking up at me expectantly. I ripped off the tail and give it to him. He trots away.
Peyton is sitting cross legged on the shore, the edge of her nightgown trailing in the water. Her lips are beginning to have a bit of colour to them. Her hair dripped down her bony back. I sighed. Supper time.
Chaku had already piled sticks and twigs on the shore. I take out my lighter and hold it there until the kindling catches. Peyton comes and stands beside me. Her shoulders sag. One look at her and I know that the effects of lake-water baths can only last so long.
I stand. “Hey.” I hold my arms out to her. She hesitates, so I close the distance between us and wrap my arms around her. Strangers or not, I could tell she was in need of comfort. Like on the estate, she leans into me.
For once I don’t mind touching her. Her bones even more prominent now then they were last night, but it doesn’t bother me so much any more. I was reminded, though, that she was quite literally starving. But I don’t want to end the moment.
“You know what the funny thing is?”