This piece was the winning entry in the 2017 Feminartsy Fiction Prize.
‘Thirty is the top of the mountain.’ Alana had said. ‘That’s when I’ll kill myself.’
Afterwards, she bit into her sandwich, apparently done with the topic. None of us really believed her. After a pause, Sam tried to make a joke of it.
‘Why wait until thirty?’ she asked. ‘Do it now and you’ll never have to sit exams.’
We all laughed.
At the end of the school year she invited us all around to stay the night. I arrived first, and dumped my stuff in her room. Like always, it was tidy, and more adult than you’d expect. There were no posters on her wall, just lists of books and movies, with some of them crossed out. She had another, more important list, though I didn’t know if she ever actually wrote it down. If she did, I suppose it would be titled something like Life Experiences. That night her plan was to tick off drinking.
Michelle made us play ‘Never Have I Ever’ until we were drunk enough to not know when we should be lying, and we finished everything except the tequila and the beers. The others giggled themselves to sleep on the inflatable mattresses we had set up earlier, while Alana and I shared the bed. I slid closer to the edge than I would have liked, scared we might accidentally touch in our sleep.
We all assumed we’d keep hanging out just as much when university started, but we only managed to sustain it for a few months. Gemma dropped off first, preferring the company of her textbooks and Computer Science friends. Michelle and Sam disappeared more slowly, swept up by relationships, first-time academic failures, and the freedom of adulthood. Alana and I didn’t drift though; we were connected for the next few years by our medical degrees. Despite my higher score, she was accepted first round and I spent two weeks hoping that someone would drop out of the course in preference of an interstate offer.
She took to the course more easily than me. I struggled through tutorials, wondering why the intelligence that made school almost effortless had seemingly evaporated. In anatomy classes, we looked at dissected portions of long-dead humans, pins placed in the parts we were expected to remember. Exams looming, I moved through the stations alone, the panic building up in my chest as the weight of knowledge that I didn’t have crashed down on me.
‘Do you want me to talk you through this one?’ Alana asked.
I found myself standing opposite her, separated by a tray of human intestines. She didn’t wait for me to answer.
‘Jejunum. Ileum. Duodenum’ she said, pointing to the green, yellow, and red pins.
She lifted the sample up with her gloved hand, revealing a black pin stuck in the edge of a small, green-stained hole. ‘Sphincter of Oddi.’
She smiled slightly, balled up her gloves, and wrote down a sentence in her notebook.
While I spent my first year of university desperately poring over textbooks, keeping myself from failure through sheer panic and sleep deprivation, Alana continued to check things off her life experiences list. She had decided that she would stop being a virgin at age eighteen, and so found a high class escort she liked the look of. Mid-twenties, dark hair, guaranteed no sexually transmitted diseases.
It was Alana’s thirtieth birthday a week ago, which is when they found her dead. She’d arranged for a timed email to be sent to her local police station alerting them to the fact. They assumed it would be some kind of prank, but found her body exactly where she said it would be, neatly dressed, eyes closed, no decomposition. She had only been dead for a day.
‘Why are you even in med school if you’re planning to kill yourself in ten years anyway?’ I slurred at her.
We had just finished our second year exams, and were at a classmate’s party to celebrate. Convinced that I had failed, I’d spent the hours since leaving the exam hall knocking back vodka. ‘Well?’
She looked at me blankly, and in that moment I was sure she had forgotten what I was talking about, that her planned death had been a fleeting thought. None of us had mentioned it after that day, though it stuck in my mind, flashing up every time I saw her. We stared at each other.
‘Because it’s what I want to do. That doesn’t mean I have to do it until I’m seventy.’
She sat down next to me, and took the drink out of my hand. The fact that she still planned to go ahead with it took me by surprise, but I was too drunk to process any new information. Alana swirled the contents around a few times, then drained the glass. She turned to look at me, and before I could ask any more questions, her lips were on mine, one hand tilting my face up, the other decisively on my waist. Taken aback, I parted my lips, allowing our tongues to touch and her hand to explore. We moved closer together. I don’t know if it lasted for thirty seconds or ten minutes, but I could feel her mentally checking yet another thing off her list.
I had been right. I did fail my exams in second year, and so decided to cut my losses and move sideways into law. There I flourished. Where my brain couldn’t process synapses and chemical reactions it thrived on memorising facts, reading case after case, and converting ‘right and wrong’ into ‘legal and illegal’. My sleep deficit slowly began to be repaid and I thought about Alana less and less.
Word of Alana’s long-planned suicide spread like a virus in the days following her death. It hadn’t been a secret. Some had heard her mention it before, but pushed it to the back of their minds to join all the other information that they couldn’t make sense of. Others mulled over it, drinking in theories like coffee. One small subset however started to whisper that it was just an excuse, that really she had killed herself before her life imploded.
A month ago Alana had texted me saying she needed legal advice, but it was delicate and she needed someone who would understand ‘the whole story.’ I asked to meet in her house because I didn’t want her to see that I had a small cubicle and not an office. The sheen of studying law had worn off, and in its place were long hours and a company-wide phone app that shows whether employees are at their desks or not via a flashing green dot.
Sitting in the chair the police would eventually find her body in, she told me about John, a patient who’d died. John was severely depressed and had tried medication, counselling, and even electroshock therapy. In a half hour consultation, she shared with him her philosophy, and her plan to die within the year. He had sat quietly, absorbing her words. At the end of it, he thanked her, went home, wrote three letters, and then hanged himself. His family blamed Alana.
She left the room to make us both some tea. When she returned five minutes later, I started to outline her legal options. I had barely gotten a sentence out before she stopped me.
‘I didn’t ask you here to help with my court case’. She explained that her thirtieth birthday was coming up.
‘I’ll be dead’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘It doesn’t matter if they stop me from practicing, or plan to take me to court.’
However, she did feel bad that the family were upset, even though in her opinion, John was better off. ‘I’d like to leave them some money.’
She pulled out her journal where she’d jotted down some notes. We spent the rest of the afternoon hashing out the details and writing out a draft. I tucked the papers in my bag and got ready to leave.
‘Stay for a drink?’ she asked. We got through two bottles as she told me about the past few years.
‘So you’re really going to do it.’ I said. She just stared at me.
As she opened the door for me to leave, I turned and said that I’d like to see her before she went. She nodded and agreed, but I knew she’d already mentally checked off ‘say goodbye.’
Alana looked surprised to find me on her doorstep the day before her birthday, but still let me in. I watched as she slowly slipped out of consciousness. Afterwards, before her fingers became too stiff, I held them against the syringe then sat, staring at her body until the clock ticked over on to what should have been her last day.
My phone buzzed, telling me that two of my colleagues were still at their desks in the office.
Image: Veronika Balasyuk
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer, the editor of Writers Bloc and a past editor of Voiceworks and On Dit. Her work has been widely published and includes essays on film, pop culture and identity as well as interviews and feature articles. She is a 2017 recipient of a Wheeler Centre hot desk fellowship.