The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2022 Winners Anthology, Tales from the Deep Beyond here.
“A Study of Grief” by Jumi Koh, Monroe Middle School
First Place, Middle School Level, 2022
A Study of Grief
By Jumi Koh
Monroe Middle School
Editors’ Note: This story includes portrayal of depression, thoughts of and actual self-harm.
“3, 2, 1, clear!”
“Tatum, please. Please, please.”
Londyn watches numbly as they pump her mirror image full of epinephrine and shock her body over and over again. The beeping of an unsteady heart stopped three minutes ago. Londyn’s mother is muttering prayers under her breath. Her father is begging Tatum to come back to them. Londyn’s insides feel frozen. Her heart seems to stop, too. Her knees buckle, and she’s on the ground. Her mouth is watering and her stomach heaves. Mucus fills her mouth as her brain tries to process the fact that Tatum is lost to the world. Nobody tries to drag her back to her feet. Tatum would have.
Londyn’s hearing is impaired. She can’t process anything at the moment. There’s wet coming out of her nose and mouth and eyes. It drips down onto her shirt and pants and the ground. She doesn’t know how the world will work now that Tatum won’t be there with her.
Londyn ignores everything and shuts herself in her room. None of her friends come over. They seem to know she won’t see them. Londyn doesn’t speak or eat. Her mother has to force her to drink water and eat a bowl of applesauce that she always throws back up later. Everything seems like a dream.
Her father tells her that the funeral is being held in a week. Londyn just says, “Okay.” She doesn’t feel capable of doing anything but keep on with her days, doing normal things in a sort of removed state.
She knows that no one else in the world knows what it’s like to feel this way, and to know that if she had been in Tatum’s place, she might have pulled through.
Sometimes Londyn sees Tatum in the streets. Londyn knows that Tatum isn’t gone, she’s just hiding, playing a game of hide and seek. When she tells her parents this, they share a knowing look but don’t remark. When Londyn sees Tatum in the street, she runs after her, but when she rounds the corner, Tatum has disappeared into thin mist.
The first time Londyn is almost happy, it’s when she’s with Coralynn. Coralynn comes to visit every so often, to bring the parents white orchids and roses. They’re always white. Tatum would know why. Coralynn comes upstairs this time, which is as close to Londyn as any of her friends have been since Tatum.
“Hey,” she whispers to Londyn. “I brought you homework. The teachers say take your time to come back.”
Londyn is staring at a rusty old nail on the windowsill. The soft worriedness of Coralynn’s voice breaks her even more than she already is. Her pent up emotions that she’s stored in her chest burst out.
She sobs. Huge, heart wrenching sobs that fill the room. Her eyes are dripping tears onto her pillow. She says, “I—I can’t! Coralynn—Please. . . . Please.” Coralynn pulls her into a tight, compassionate embrace.
“It’s okay,” whispers Coralynn into Londyn’s hair. Not, “it’ll be okay” or “you’ll get through this.” She whispers, “It’s okay.” She’s telling Londyn that it’s okay to feel this way, that it’s okay to grieve. Londyn pulls away from Coralynn’s tight hug and stands up. Without warning, she hits her head against the wall. Coralynn cries out. “Londyn, stop!”
Coralynn grabs Londyn’s hand and she freezes. Londyn slowly sinks to the ground, unaware of the trail of blood she left on the wall after giving herself a bloody nose. Londyn’s mourning sobs and tears and blood are all mixed together now. “Coralynn . . . I can’t anymore,” she hiccoughs. The tears trailing down her face and blood on her lips are going to stain her shirt. “I’m just so sad. I—I want it to stop!” Londyn looks up at Coralynn with a pleading look in her eyes. “Does it ever stop?”
Coralynn has wet cheeks too, Londyn realizes. “I don’t know.” And she cries. Londyn feels a sudden outburst of anger. Coralynn doesn’t get to cry. She doesn’t get to feel the way Londyn feels. Coralynn has no idea what it’s like to lose a best friend, half of herself. Coralynn doesn’t understand what it feels like to live her life now that she’s lost her other half, to have that empty feeling in her heart that never goes away. Londyn yells at Coralynn. She yells about how she has no idea how it feels to lose a twin. To be left behind.
Londyn almost feels remorse for yelling. Almost.
Londyn is mad. Mad at the world for making her suffer like this. Mad at her parents for pretending that everything’s normal. Mad at herself for surviving. She finally goes back to school and lands herself in the principal’s office three times. She learns that “family situation” is her least favorite phrase. The only person who bothers to talk to her is Channing, Coralynn’s older brother. Londyn’s mad at him, too, for being so nice to her.
Londyn wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. She’s seen Tatum in a dream. She looks across the room. Tatum’s bed is still there, bare and grey under the moonlit window. She’s scared, but she won’t admit it. She’s scared of living her life without Tatum. She’s scared of being alone. She’s scared of moving on. She doesn’t want to move on. Tatum and Londyn used to be inseparable, and now they’re separated in life and death.
Londyn finally stops getting herself into trouble. She’s moved on from anger. Now what engulfs her is a desperate need for answers. Answers to why Tatum had to die. Their room is a mess of Tatum’s old things and Londyn’s new ones. Londyn searches through the pictures. There’s a picture of both Tatum and Londyn with their heads shaved after Tatum had started chemo. There’s a picture with Tatum holding her discharge papers and Londyn photobombing behind her. They’re both laughing in that picture. Londyn drops it with a thump on the carpet. She sniffs loudly. The next picture is from the funeral. Londyn’s smiling, but she’s far from happy in that picture.
She screams and lobs the picture at her wall. It shatters. Londyn likes the feel of being in control again. She throws ornament after ornament at the wall and relishes in the smashing sounds. She’s about to throw the last one in the box when someone plucks it out of her hand. She doesn’t have the strength or conviction to take it back.
Londyn loses track.
She spends her days moping around school. Her organization levels drop to an all time low. She quits soccer because she’s no use to them if she can’t even keep track of her own schedule. She eats even less. When she looks in the mirror, she can see all her ribs, but Londyn doesn’t really care.
Channing seems to be worried about her. Coralynn is avoiding her. She hasn’t spoken to Londyn since the yelling incident. Kira Long has started sitting at Londyn’s table. If Londyn had been thinking straight, she would remember that Kira lost her fraternal twin brother a few years back, and that she might be the only one who understands the pain Londyn is going through.
Falling out of her bed is a regular occurrence in the life of Londyn Walsh. She used to have nightmares and wake up falling to the ground. She hasn’t had an episode like that since Tatum died, though. She wakes up on the ground, unsure of how she got there and with a pain in her back. She tangles herself in her blankets in a blind panic. She crawls over to Tatum’s bed and grabs her hand. But . . . Tatum isn’t there. Londyn starts to sob hysterically. Where is she? Where is she?
At school, Londyn has another attack. She freezes up when Coralynn calls her “L” because suddenly she’s holding Tatum’s hand while the life saving poison flows through her twin sister and she starts to pant. “L,” Tatum had said. “L.”
Coralynn freaks out and Aislin has to carry Londyn to the nurse.
Londyn gets sent to professional therapy to help with her panic attacks. Every time she leaves the session, she feels an intense weight on her shoulders, because here she is, seeing a professional to get over Tatum. She doesn’t confide in anyone, because she hates therapy and she’s scared of letting go of Tatum anymore than she already has.
Everyone’s been avoiding her after she had a meltdown during lunch, even Channing. Londyn hasn’t felt more alone. She can feel everyone watching her as she walks down the hallway, determined not to make eye contact. But even a solid exterior can’t cover the hole in her heart that’s been caused by being lonely.
No one wants to see her, so she won’t see them. She doesn’t talk in school or at home. She doesn’t do any extracurricular activities. She sits at home and tries to decipher Tatum’s version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. She cuts herself off from society, doesn’t answer any questions about her day or the answer to a complex math problem.
She stops trying.
Stops wanting to breathe, wanting to live, because what’s the point anymore?
Her other half, a part of her is . . . dead.
Her throat hurts when she talks, she cries every night.
I’m dead, she thinks, when she wakes up in the middle of the night. I’m dead.
I wish I were dead.
She comes out of her daze in a white room, smelling of saline, in a hospital gown.
. . . What?
Her parents talk to the doctor, the doctor talks to her.
They say she’s depressed.
She remembers depression, from middle school health.
And she remembers Sheldon Lee, a kid from school who was depressed, who, after two weeks of walking around, walking dead, never came back.
He never dug himself out of the hole that his depression created.
There’s pills. A lot of them.
But she comes back.
And she tries.
She really does.
People romanticize depression, but when it actually comes around to haunt them, they never look it in the eye.
She goes to school as normal, but says hi to her friends. They say hi back gratefully. She participates more. She becomes painfully cheerful, but on the inside, she wonders if she’s doing the right thing.
One night, she comes out of the bathroom with bright red streaked hair. When her mother questions her, she says, “I kept seeing her in the mirror.”
She becomes friends with Tatum’s best friend, Willy. They both join Model UN. She gets closer to her old friends and eventually rejoins the soccer team. She and Channing join a theater club and make a whole new branch of relationships.
(They all walk on tiptoes around her.)
There’s a new girl in school.
Her name is Dara. Londyn befriends her, and learns they’ve both lost their whole worlds.
Well, Dara’s lost more.
Londyn has trouble getting through to her first; she’s a foster child, she’s never stayed in one place for more than two, three months. She’s closed off, young and old.
And then, slowly, Londyn realizes why she’s so hard to meet in the middle.
They’re the same.
And they can help each other.
Londyn is more understanding now that she knows what it’s like to be grieving. She makes sure that Tatum is always in the back of her mind, tucked away, out of sight. She signs up for the student counselor program and helps lots of struggling peers. She becomes an understudy in the school play, but doesn’t really care. All that matters is that she got a part.
She and Dara go to her uncle’s bakery on Thursdays and sample cakes after school.
Dara’s bright, maybe excessively so, sarcastic and terribly funny when she wants to be.
Londyn sees her as the ocean, beautiful and serene and unyielding and strong.
Londyn repaints her room. It’s a deep navy blue now. Londyn hangs long strings of fairy lights on the walls and clips pictures to them. She puts all the books in a tall bookcase and pushes a dresser full of Tatum’s things across the room from her bed. She gets in the habit of checking the drawers just in case some of Tatum’s things are gone. But she moves on. Channing and she become even closer. She starts to take risks on the soccer field. Small differences pepper her life without Tatum. She tries to be more like Dara, strong and slightly numb to what other people think.
“You’re different then when I met you,” Dara tells her when they’re making experimental coffee flavored icing in the back of the bakery.
“Is that a compliment?”
Dara’s lips tug at a soft smile. “Take it however you want.”
She sticks her finger in her mouth and wrinkles her nose in disgust.
Londyn almost dies laughing when they realize they added fancy powdered salt to the icing instead of sugar.
These are the small things, but if she’s learned one thing, it’s that the small things make the biggest change.
Channing asks her to prom. Londyn says yes and Coralynn squeals so loudly that Londyn thinks her ears have gone deaf permanently. She screams something about texting the whole school in Londyn’s ear. Londyn laughs. It’s the first genuine laugh she’s had since Tatum died, and the first time she’s thought about the future and not the now.
It’s been half a year since Tatum died.
Londyn can think that now.
She visits Tatum’s grave with her parents.
“We’re going to give you some space,” her mom whispers into Londyn’s hair. Her dad pats her shoulder.
Londyn expects the tears to fall, but they don’t. The pink rose she brought to put on the grave falls to the ground and Londyn sits, staring at it.
“There’s a girl, her name’s Dara. She . . . she’s lost everything and she’s still so strong. And sometimes, now I’ve only lost you, I feel so weak.”
Londyn stares at the name on the stone.
“Do you remember Channing?” she asks softly. “He pulled your hair when you went with Coralynn and I to the park, remember? I do. You . . . you told me you hated him, but you were smiling.He asked me to prom, you know. I don’t think he’s in the habit of pulling hair anymore.”
The gravestone stays quiet, but the wind blows Londyn’s hair, whistling through the graves.
And she feels Tatum.
Londyn becomes a grief counselor. She helps people work through their losses, but never get over them. She shows them the grief dynamic, and how it’s perfectly normal to go through depression and tells them about the stages of her grief accordingly.
She meets many families who have lost children or spouses. She even meets a few single twins. She tells them they’re making perfect sense, but never tells them that she knows exactly how they feel, because she remembers how she thought no one else in the world knew how she felt.
She doesn’t tell them that despite her new life, she still misses Tatum.
A warm September night, before the leaves start to fall and the air smells of fresh rain and thunderstorms, a knock sounds on Londyn’s door.
She gets up from her armchair.
She’s stayed in tonight, a silence falls in her house, empty now that her late husband’s things have been boxed off and put in the storage unit.
Londyn’s thin grey hair and wrinkled eyes mirror in the screen door and she smiles.
On the other side, she sees her mirror image of when she was young, long brown hair and cornflower blue eyes, soft features and a sprinkling of freckles.
And she knows, this isn’t her at all.
On the other side of the door is Tatum.
“Londyn, it’s time to go.”
So she does go.
Her aching bones and thin hair turn back into the timeless beauty of youth as she steps through the doorway to the other side.
She hugs Tatum.
Her sister laughs, a sweet, quiet sound that Londyn thought she’d never hear again.
“I missed you too, L.” Tataum’s eyes are sparkling.
Londyn meets her eyes.
“You wouldn’t even know.”
Then, hand in hand, the two of them cross into the unknown.