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Heartless

Adults used to terrify me.
Something had been stolen from most of them.
I could see it in their lack of expression, their impassivity.
Their faces moved for other people to see in conversations
and then fell static in between, as though their hearts were gone.

I had made a game of trying on other people's faces
to find out how it was to be them.
I would turn inward
and feel their features and hair settle in against my face
until my face had become their face,
and then I would open my eyes to see the world with their eyes.
It was usually other children I tried on, though,
or people who weren't quite grown-ups,
the ones who still moved their faces.
They were the ones I knew how to feel.

The few times I tried on the faces of grown-ups,
when their skin became my skin,
when I felt their hair graze their forehead on my forehead,
I felt all the love being sucked out of me.
Some force like a vacuum hollowed my insides with a cataclysmic force.
I grasped at my sheets
and wished my own skin back faster, faster
oh god I couldn't breathe
I couldn't breathe
I couldn't breathe

Something had stolen them,
and I knew something might steal me.
I could feel it lurking around the corner, waiting,
so I started reading books about meditation.
I wanted to find the map, the key, the trick,
the intersection that would take me the way they had not gone,
because their faces on my face felt like animated death masks,
and if I could feel that, then it could happen to anyone,
and I couldn't breathe when I thought about it.
I couldn't breathe knowing I might be dead before I was dead,
that I might walk around dead like that.
I couldn't breathe.

I did this transcendental meditation thing for a while
until I almost floated out of the top of my head one afternoon,
and then my mother said that stuff would let the devil in,
so I wrote a play about a girl who lost her voice.
I read Revelations and lost sleep for weeks,
wondering if the apocalypse happened without or within.
I tried controlling my dreams, thinking I could live there
if I built a house and make a world complex enough to believe in.
I taped my vagina shut and prayed that if I could just keep my face,
the one that settled in warm around my bones,
the one that moved when I felt moved inside,
I would love God forever, real or not.
I would never lose myself.
I was running against time to save the world.

I told no one about all the dead grown-ups walking around.
I thought maybe everyone knew about them
and just didn't say anything,
or maybe I was the only one who knew,
which made the whole thing even more sad,
because then I would have to grow up watching everyone around me die
all alone.

The summer I turned thirteen,
I stopped putting on people's faces over my own face,
because even kids' faces reminded me of how terrifying the adults were
with their impassive expressions that moved only at the appropriate moments
when people were watching,
and I knew that my time might come soon,
and that I might forget what came before I died before my body died,
so I wrote down all the big thoughts I wanted to remember later
when the me I knew was leaving me,
and I burned them in the ashes of a dead bird I'd found on the lawn
as some kind of experimental magic spell against death,
so that maybe my desperate intent could be the key to bring me back,
because I just couldn't breathe knowing
that I might die before I was dead.
I just couldn't breathe.
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