It looked a bit like Lila, but it wasn’t Lila. I don’t know why people say that when someone dies they look like they’re sleeping. Her skin was dull grey and colder than ice. Her long body lay limp and heavy on the stainless steel table. Her clothes were dirty and rumpled. I was glad she was facing up so I didn’t have to see the fatal wound in her back, but looking at that would be better than looking at her eyes. They were too blue, horribly bright and staring, and seemed to be made of glass. Doll’s eyes. Dead and still, they did not in any way resemble the sparkling, expressive eyes of the Lila I knew. Had she looked as if she were sleeping, I might not have accepted that she was no longer alive. It was the eyes that convinced me.
I was in shock as I stood there, immobile, staring at Lila’s shell. A voice in my head screamed a thousand questions, whispered countless what-ifs. There are no words to describe the pain that overwhelmed me. I couldn’t tell you how long I stood in front of her body; perhaps it was seconds, maybe it was hours. Time itself seemed to vanish. Lila was dead. Because someone had killed her...
The rest of the week was a blur. I received all of Lila’s possessions; they arrived on Thursday afternoon in a moving truck. I helped the deliveryman carry them to my attic, I didn’t look at anything. Policemen and reporters were forever knocking on my door, at all hours of the day and night until I was certain I would go mad.
“Could you answer a few questions? Do you suspect anyone of murder?” they asked.
“Are you sure it wasn’t suicide?”
“What will happen to Ms. Anderson’s world famous art?”
The list went on and on. They didn’t know Lila the way I did, and still most of these questions were out of my reach. The only person who could answer them was no longer in this world.
The things that followed the murder were so trivial; I couldn’t connect them to the death of Lila. Every morning as I woke up, I wondered how the paper boy could go on his route like nothing was wrong; how the sun could rise and shine like everything was just fine. Then there were days that I woke up and thought it was just a bad dream, only to trudge into the kitchen and find several messages on the machine, talking about the funeral. Eventually, I stopped responding. They could find someone else to burden with these technicalities.
Red roses or white? Cremated or buried? I didn’t know. Lila never talked about death.
One thing that kept me from suicide was the thought of Lila’s killer. Was he the man at the restaurant? The older lady walking a dog in the park? My wonderings became obsession. Where was the killer now? What was he doing? Does he feel remorse for his crime? Had he hated Lila, or even known her? Does he think about her at all?
I found it hard to see Lila’s killer as normal or even real, but deep down I knew he was. Still, I swore revenge and promised myself I would bring Lila’s killer to justice.
Weeks spun into months. Months drifted into years. I still didn’t look at Lila’s boxes. I spent my free time looking into possible suspects, reading and rereading Lila’s autopsy report. Even dead, Lila dominated my life. But it was an empty obsession. No matter what I did, she would always be gone, floating around in a void in some alternate dimension. Maybe she was in heaven. But Lila hadn’t believed in heaven or hell. I wondered if I would find her when I died. I hoped I would. I’d search for all eternity until I found her, and we could be together again.
I quit my position as manager of the electronics store and studied to become a police officer. Eventually, I got the job. I worked constantly, and the other officers admired my commitment to my job. But there was something else different about me, too. I didn’t go home to my wife, or help my kids get ready for school in the morning. I didn’t even have a cat for company; I was alone in the world.
It was like when Lila died, my future did too. There was no light in my eyes. It seemed as if I was already dead, but still inhabiting my body on an Earth full of madmen and murderers.
I watched my life pass before my eyes; cold, unfeeling, robotic. Because of the field of work I was in, I was frequently around bodies and hospitals. Even when I was off duty I often visited doctors. They prescribed medicine and counseling ; one therapist said that I had never gotten over the grief of losing Lila. I listened numbly, nodding in reply, wanting to be out of the doctor’s office. The stench of sickness and death, mingled and barely covered by the smell of disinfectant and air fresheners, lingered in my nose for hours after I left.
One night after visiting Lila’s grave, I dreamed of her. She stood in front of me, painting. She was most herself when she was painting. Sometimes, she used vibrant colors in a vivid depiction of something in nature, up close and personal. One time she used drab shades to paint a city, while people with blurred faces walked down a busy street.
Occasionally, she just painted a small square of color on a blank canvas. A part of me knew it was a dream, and I drank in her image. It was clearer in my mind now than I had ever recalled it.
In my dream, Lila spoke to me.
“I painted emotions,” she said in an echoing dream voice. “Remember? I always wanted people to feel what I was feeling. I got a rush knowing that my art made them feel that way. I didn’t waste time trying to make things pretty, I just put down what I saw, how they were.”
She looked at me. Here eyes were alive.
“I painted life.”
I awoke with a start, covered in sweat, was I just imagining the smell of lilac and paint in the air? I climbed up to the attic and stared at the dusty piles of crap around me. Lila’s boxes. I had never gone through them. With the same detachment with which I went about my life, I knelt and opened the nearest one. It held clothes. They smelled of mothballs and dust, but there was still a hint of lilac perfume underlying all the old, musky scents. Tears pricked my eyes. How long had it been since I cried, laughed, or even genuinely smiled? I thought of Lila. When did she not cry, laugh, or smile? How would she feel about my life now? I remembered all the times we had discussed our futures. She had dreams as big as the sky. I just wanted to be with her. Why couldn’t I have been killed, instead of Lila? She was life personified. Killing her was a crime, I realized, that had no punishment. No matter if, against all odds, I found her killer, what would I do? If he was given the death penalty, I would be sinking to his level to be bringing about such a horrendous thing. Someone probably loved Lila’s killer. Someone thought about him before she fell asleep. Someone has kissed him, hugged him, and missed him. How could I take that away? I thought of how much I would want to have a new start with Lila. I couldn’t have that, but I could give the murderer a second chance. That’s what Lila would have done, I’m sure of it. Yes, he had committed an atrocious crime. But “bringing him to justice” would cause only more misery, and God knows the world has enough of that.
I stood up, and continued to sort through Lila’s things. I smiled through my tears when I came across an old photo album and saw her beaming face, forever frozen in time. I could almost hear her infectious laugh. By the time I put the last box away, it was almost morning. The only thing left to look at was her art. I took a deep breath as I stood up and stretched my sore legs, then pulled the cover off the nearest canvas. Looking at the back first, I saw that it was one she had done right before she died; the date on the back was some two days before her murder. The painting was addressed to me. Puzzled, I turned it over. There was no doubt about the emotion she was trying to convey. And in that moment, Lila was with me. I made a silent promise to her to live the way I should have been living all this time. The red on the canvas quickened my heart and for the first moment in years, I relished the feeling of being alive.