LILLIANE

By Remy Chartier

If you had asked me even six months ago "what would you do if someone you loved died?" I would never have been able to answer you. I never imagined I'd see death at such a young age, and now that I have, I have a greater understanding of the world, and no less of a desire to help those in need of a shoulder to cry on. Though I fear that the pages that follow will be full of mindless rambling – what one might call a lament of self-pity and heartache – I also feel that anyone who cares to hear me out will no doubt understand that sitting around and doing nothing is never the best way to handle situations they deem taxing on their own lives. It is true, of course, that in light of the loss I have suffered, I also carry the burden of that loss upon my weary shoulders, and by writing this, I hope to gain a sense of relief. I really can't believe I'm writing this. I only hope that my mourning can be put to good use.

As a writer, I have always glorified death. The choices my characters make, whether to kill or to sacrifice their lives for a cause they deem worthy are so easy to put on paper. Shaped by only thought and word, they lack substance; they lack the reality that makes the real world feel their true impact. The truth of the matter, however, is that the death of a loved one is ugly and cruel. It was early august when she passed from this world and out of my life. The beautiful blue sky and brilliant sunlight, usually associated with weddings rather than funerals, did little to mask the true hideousness of the scene that spread itself at my feet. In a coffin of plain, unmarred wood she lay, lifeless and cold, a burnt-out light in our world's darkness. I stood looking down at the girl whom I will treasure in my heart forever. I never imagined a nineteen-year-old could be so small and fragile. Nonetheless she lay, a seventy-five pound princess with her whole life ahead of her. Her baby blue prom dress – in the letter she had asked to be buried in it – could not hide the bones that protruded from her shoulders, chest and hips. The beautiful dress now sagged on the shell of all she had been. Even two months ago, she had looked ethereally radiant in it. The memory of how she looked in the coffin, lying so still in it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. We say men shouldn't cry; we're wrong. We say a lot of things that ignorance and pride teach us to be wrong

There were only a handful of mourners that day. That in itself is a travesty. No one saw her for what she really was. No one wanted to. Her family – those that could take time out of their busy schedules – stood around her as she lay, looking down at her with mixed expressions. Most of them bore the same grief as I, but there were also a few who wore transparent masks of false sorrow which did little to hide the relief that eased into their tired faces. The facade merely intensified the clarity of the reality I had been trying to struggle against. A part of me understood their relief; the burden of caring had been lifted. I would be lying if I told you that I didn't feel a slight relief; however, the explicit way they demonstrated that relief was inexcusable. Sometimes I think I was the only person who cared about her, outside of a few of her family members. I was, after all, the person she confided in, and the only friend that had bothered to show up. To see her lying there, so still and lifeless burned a hole deep in my heart. That hole will never mend. I remember asking myself how, if there was a god, he could allow such a talented and wonderful person to suffer so much. Of course, that's something we all ask ourselves when standing at the grave of someone we love who has been taken prematurely, isn't it? … Of course it is. And when you stand at the foot of a grave, staring down at someone who you can truly say you love, a thousand questions and feelings scatter through your brain. When I saw the pale skin which was stretched taught over the few parts of her which were not obstructed by the dress, I had many questions indeed. Even as the numerals on the scale plunged steadily, her skin had been pink and healthy. No one could help her; perhaps some did not even fully understand why they were here today. When she was alive, they had always told her how beautiful she was and now, desire for physical perfection had killed her. I wished at that moment that she were naked; then perhaps, the morners gathered here would understand the truth and feel the regret they aught to.

So, who is this girl, and what happened to her? Many of you know the answer, most people will if they stop and think. As I stood beside her, looking down at the girl who had stolen both my heart and time – of which I regret neither – I recalled our past, and my grief only intensified.

Her name was Lilliane Shepherd, but, as one might expect, to most people, she was Lilly. I was the only one she let call her Lilliane. To call her Lilliane was an honor I did not take lightly. Anyway, I met her eight months before that sad day in August. She was still only eighteen, which made me feel very old indeed. I had just turned 21 then, and was starting my college education, working towards a degree in English. We met purely by chance at the college. I want to point out that if you have illusions that college kids are any nicer to someone who is different than high school kids, you are sadly mistaken. There are always those people, especially girls it seems, who will never let the old prejudices of high school go. Of course I'd seen Lilliane around, but at first I had never noticed her in the ways that truly mattered. Isn't that always the way though? Someone who desires to remain withdrawn from the rest of the world will usually do so to the best of their abilities, and the only ones who will see them are the ones they are trying so hard to hide from.

The first time I really noticed her, she was walking down the hall. She had a certain way of walking that suddenly caught my attention and made me feel sorry for her. Her head was down, and her long, brown hair, though clean and shiny was a mess. It hid most of her face and obscured what was visible. At that time, she was terribly skinny, but not nearly as bad as she was at the end. She clung to a stack of binders like it was the only thing keeping her safe. Her steps were quick and calculated, but every so often, she would quicken her pace, then stop again. I remember I was writing part of a short story at the time, but I can't for the life of me remember which one it was. When I put down my pen and said "Hello" as she walked past, she suddenly jumped as if I had slipped an ice cube down the back of her shirt. What followed was one of those scenes from every high school romance movie ever made. I even feel a tiny bit corny talking about it. When she jumped, obviously even more startled by the lack of hostility or ridicule in my voice than she had seemed at first, her arms opened and the five or so binders she had been carrying dropped noisily to the floor. Their contents followed – apparently it hadn't been held in place very well. She gasped and her mouth fell open as she looked down at the disarray.

I remember sitting at the table for a moment, watching as she frantically tried to pick everything up off the floor. Her face had gone slightly red and I could see her hands shaking. It was not surprising, therefore, when papers kept slipping from them. Carefully, not wanting to move too quickly as to alarm her, I got up and walked over to her. She ignored my approach, either pretending I wasn't there or hoping I was just going to pass by. Just as cautiously, I bent down to help her. The papers had come out of her binder, but were still almost in perfect order. It was pretty easy for me to organize everything, though to this day I doubt I got everything completely right. When I touched her hand, trying to signal for her to let me take care of it, she flinched as if my skin were made of burning coals. Nonetheless, she seemed to get the hint.

"It's alright," I said. "I've got it." What else was I supposed to say?

With a stack of binders in my arms, I stood up. She stood up too, head lowered, hands laced over her stomach. When I said: "here you are, I think everything's in order," she flinched once more, but only slightly. As I watched her for a moment, she slowly unlaced her hands and allowed me to place the binders in her arms.

"Thank you," she said, not looking up. I'll never forget how shy she sounded, as if even the idea of thanking someone frightened her. As I watched her walk away, I noticed that the rhythm of her steps was constant now and that her head was raised, ever so slightly.

I know this all sounds like a sappy beginning to a love story. I guess, in a way, it is. It's strange how some clechets can simply not be helped. I did love her, though of course, not then. I won't give you the illusions that I felt love at first sight; however, that day, I did feel a warmth flow through me at the sight of her slightly open arms as she accepted the binders from me.

I didn't see Lilliane for a couple weeks after that. I often ponder what happened the next time I saw her, and wonder why she responded so quickly to me, when it was clear that she was used to being invisible

When next I saw her, I had just come from the office of one of my English instructors. Mr. Branton was his name I think. I only remember that we all – all meaning our little class of twenty people – called him "The Hawk", on account of his long, pointed nose and sharp, beaty eyes. He was an excellent professor though. Anyway, I had been in to see him about a short story I had been writing. It was the one I had been writing the day I'd helped Lilliane with her books. Come to think of it, the story was called "Sabrina's choice", and it was the first short story I ever published. Because I had stayed late with "The Hawk", most of the school was deserted. I remember what happened as vividly as if it had happened yesterday – yet one more of those clichés. Other things over the years, including my time spent with Lilliane have faded a bit in my memory, but this particular event stands out.

The way I found Lilliane was weird, I admit, and has seriously made me question the existence of destiny, even now, forty years later. I had intended to catch a bus home and make the corrections "The Hawk" had suggested to my story. From the class room, you go down a long hall, turn left and go down another long hall. From there it is a big rectangle, with the hall you are standing at at one end, and the door leading to the bus stop at the other. I took the right path, and got half way down the right side of the rectangle, when something made me retrace my steps and take the left side instead. As you walk, there are lockers, and there are hallways to your left, and a row of stores and offices to your right. Mid way down that hall there was an alcove amidst the lockers. It was about four feet wide and six feet deep and led to a couple offices. It was here that I saw her again. She had hidden herself in that alcove, which was dark by then since the occupants of those offices had long since gone home. Remember that at this time – around five or so this must have been – barely anyone was around, since night classes didn't start until seven and anyone who was, usually spent time in the library which was upstairs.

I know I too would have missed Lilliane, had I not heard her quiet sobs. The silence in those vacant halls made every minute sound seem as clear as the tolling of a church bell. I'll never forget how she looked, huddled in the corner of the alcove. Her arms were wrapped tightly around a green backpack, and she was crying softly into it. Even in the darkness, I could see the dried blood on the back of one hand. There wasn't a great deal of it, but at the time, it scared the crap out of me. I didn't know what had happened.

On the wall beside her, there was a light switch for the single dim bulb in the alcove. I remember debating whether or not to turn it on. I wanted her to look up; I wanted to see the face she kept so well-hidden. In the end, I didn't, for I was pretty sure sudden light, and the ability for one to see her face in that light would startle her. Instead, I did something that may actually have been even worse, but at the time was the only thing I could think to do. I slowly approached her as I had done before. Again, she made no move to acknowledge my presence. When I kneeled beside her and put a hand on one of her trembling shoulders, she suddenly went silent and hugged her backpack even closer to her. I hated seeing her that way even then. I don't think I could have left her alone in that condition no matter what was going on around me.

I let go of her shoulder and said: "are you alright?" I got no response from her. She wasn't in shock or anything as I would learn later, and which a part of me already knew, but she was clearly terrified. I dropped my voice to a soothing whisper – or rather, what I hoped would be a soothing whisper – and tried again. "It's alright now. I'm not going to hurt you." It came out sounding scripted, at least to my ears. She still didn't look up, but I saw that she had loosened her hold on her bag a little. "Do you remember me?" I asked. "We met a couple weeks ago and I helped you pick up your books?" This time, when she didn't respond, I gently touched her shoulder once more. Deep down, I was pretty sure physical contact wasn't going to work, and would probably make the situation worse, but by this time my mind was racing a mile a minute. I have always tried to be nice to people, and help whenever I can, but I had never encountered this kind of situation before, and didn't know how to handle it.

I remember telling her in a voice that wasn't quite pleading, but getting there: "Please, I'm not going to hurt you. I want to help. Won't you tell me what happened?"

At this, she slowly looked up, and I got a glimpse of her face for a split second. It wasn't long before the hair covered most of it, but by then my eyes were well-adjusted to the dark and I saw more dried blood on one cheek. Through the hair, I sensed her gazing intently at me. It felt as though she were looking through me, into the core of my being. This turned out to be false, of course, but it must have been enough for the moment because she said: "Oh, it's you again. Of course I remember. But please, go away now okay? I'll be fine." Then, as if it were an afterthought, she added: "I always am."

I couldn't tell by her voice if she was relieved to see me, or could care less. Either way, I read more in her words then she perhaps meant. Though I didn't know precisely what had happened to her, I had a feeling it had happened more than once before. As if that brief gaze had done more than give her access to my nature, as if she was reading me like the books she must constantly read, she said: "I'm used to it, but it always scares me."

"Used to what?" I asked without thinking, but she had fallen silent once more.

It was so strange to be faced with this kind of situation. Like I mentioned earlier, I had never had to deal with this sort of thing before. For a moment I felt it would be best if I left her and walked away. Certainly it would have been easier? But seeing her hugging herself in that dark hallway … It did something to me, something I can't explain. I mentioned before also that I don't think I could have left no matter what. I know this to be true, because what would happen if I left her? Who says that the next person to find her wouldn't be the person or people who had hurt her? That reason alone was enough to make me stay. I felt a responsibility. I don't mean I felt obligated; rather it was a worry that drove its way deep inside my heart.

When I gently put my hand under her chin and lifted her head so she would look at me, she didn't struggle. At the time, I imagined that she didn't care what happened to her. Was I right? No, I wasn't. I came to learn that she cared more about herself than even she knew.

When I brushed the hair out of her face, she tried to lower her head, but without much effort. I studied her for a long moment. Her face was lovely then, even despite the blood and the swelling. Her left cheek was puffy, as if she was a squirrel gathering food for the winter. Her top lip was split open and this was undoubtedly the source of the blood. It was no longer bleeding heavily but it was clear that it had been earlier. She had wiped it away with the back of her hand. I know this now, but at the time I was unsure what had happened.

I looked into her brown eyes and asked quietly: "What happened to you, Lilliane? Who hurt you?"

She didn't speak for a long moment, and I was sure she was ignoring me, or trying to. When at last she spoke, her words took me by surprise. "Call me Lilly," she said.

"What?" I had been completely taken aback by her request. I had heard her plainly enough, but never registered the meaning of her words.

"Can you call me Lilly?" It was a question this time rather than a statement.

I had to laugh a little at that, I just couldn't help it. "But Lilliane is so much prettier," I replied, smiling.

She attempted to smile as well, but when she did, her lip expanded and fresh blood began to trickle. She never noticed, or if she did, she didn't seem to care. Nevertheless, her smile vanished.

I let go of her chin and allowed her head to drop again. "Come on, Lilly," I said, "let's go get you cleaned up."

"Please leave me alone," she pleaded. I never understood how someone who was obviously feeling so terrible could refuse help. I did not understand much about Lilliane back then. Sometimes it's better not to understand. Had I, I might have left her. I don't think I would have though, for if she were used to refusing help, then that was all the more reason to try. We all need someone to turn to in our times of need, even if we don't think we do. I quickly learned that sometimes, people can cry out for help simply by refusing it. The paradox is not constant, but more often than not, we turn away from others with the hope that they will help us. We don't want to seem dependant, for we believe dependence is a weakness. We couldn't be more wrong. Dependence is sometimes a strength, and more often a luxury. If someone cares about us enough to lend strength, then we should be greatful.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings. When she told me to leave, I hesitated for a second, and then said: 'I'm not going to just leave you here like this. What if they come back?"

"They won't," she stated plainly.

"They might," I persisted. "Maybe this won't be enough for them."

At that, she tensed. I continued: "What if you don't hear them come? You're in a corner; you'll have nowhere to run."

"Stop!" Her head snapped up and she glared at me.

Do you think my method cruel? Do you ask if I felt any remorse for using fear to get her attention? If so then yes, I did. It was not right of me to get what I wanted by frightening her. Even back then, I knew that, for in that instant, I had become what I despised. Sometimes, however, you have to resort to such methods to make someone like Lilliane listen to you. As I guided her to the girls' bathroom, notions of what had happened ran through my head. In the end, it was quite simple. A few girls had wanted revenge, that was all. I was not to learn the reason until later, however, and when I did, I was shocked anew at how petty people could be.

I probably should have waited outside and let her clean herself up. Instead, I guided her into the bathroom and brought her to the sink. I want to make a note here that, though I might be making her sound helpless, she really wasn't. She would have been more than capable of doing it herself. Sometimes we'll allow ourselves to be guided, and that is less a sign of weakness then it is indifference. At that time, Lilliane was becoming more coherent, but still withdrawn. If I had not come along, she would have gotten up on her own, cleaned herself up, and gone home as if nothing had happened. That's what people like her do, they hide the truth from others, but in doing so, they eventually hide it from themselves.

At the sink, I raised her head once more. The blood washed from her skin easily, leaving her face clear and beautiful. Washing the matted blood out of her hair proved to be a task that tap water and soap could only scratch. When I was done, I let go of her chin and expected to see her head lower once again. To my surprise, she looked embarrassed, but kept her eyes level with mine.

"Thank you," she said "now could you…" She trailed off, pointing towards the door, then at one of the stalls. I got the message and smiled. Had I known her true intentions, I might not have left. But I was naive then. I would learn more about her bulimia in time, however.

It took her only five minutes to come back out, but that was long enough for me to retrieve the backpacks we had left in the alcove. When She emerged, I saw a girl who had transformed from a cowering soul into a vibrant beauty. When I say "beauty", I do not mean super Model material by any means. Girls like that have a certain artificial loveliness, formed by hours of preparation and the right products. No, when I say "beauty" I am referring to so much more. Lilliane's skin was deeply tanned, what some would call "beach brown". She did love the outdoors, as I was to also learn later. Her silky hair flowed to the small of her back and was likewise dark brown. Her eyes were hazel and shown with intelligence and awareness. There was nothing artificial about her looks, nor her personality. Girls like Lilliane have the kind of charm to them that will draw anyone in who stops to really get to know them. They can never explain it, nor can anyone who falls under their spell. It is often never intentional, and like them themselves, never artificial. That is how she was beautiful. She was who she was, and not something created. From the moment I saw her huddled in the corner, I felt drawn to her. It was partially the desire to help someone who clearly had more to their being then what common people saw, and the rest … to this day; I can not explain the rest.

When she came out, I asked: "do you feel any better?"

She nodded. "Yeah, I guess so."

"You should go home," I suggested, handing her bag to her, "you look exhausted.

Once again I was surprised by what followed; Lilliane surprised me many times in the following months.

"I can't go home yet," she replied after a short silence.

"Tell you what," I replied, thinking quickly. "There's a Tim Horton's a couple blocks away. Are you up for something to drink?"

So began our time together. Looking back on that first meeting, I reflect upon how easily she went along with me. The fact that she came with me that evening still baffles me. Surely she didn't trust me that quickly? I wish I got a chance to ask her. If I could ask her one more thing, it would be that. But alas, I will never know and, in all honesty, it doesn't really matter.

We learned much about one another that first night. Sitting at a corner table in Tim Horton's and sipping on hot chocolate and tea – you remember it was the middle of December – we talked until late evening. I told her about myself, how I was an aspiring writer and how I wanted to one day be like Stephen King, a writer I admired greatly. King wrote for the pure joy of it, rather than the money, and while some money would be nice, that is what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to take my readers to another place and capture their interests – that's what most writers hope for I guess. I let her read the short story I had been working on the day I'd helped her with her books: Sabrina's Choice. I'm still extremely proud of that story, though at the time I was surprised that "The Hawk" had given it the A- he did.

She read it; the whole thing, and when she looked up at me after she was done, she was smiling. The memory of that first real smile has stayed with me ever since. "Wow!" she exclaimed, handing the pages back to me, "you're a great writer."

I remember laughing as I put the pages back into my bag. "It's not that great," I insisted.

She put down her tea and looked solemnly at me. "Yes it is. The part where you described Sabrina running away from home was wonderful. I can really relate to it. You're going to make a great writer; everyone will love you."

I remember asking myself how she could relate to running away. I couldn't bring myself to ask her. She was talking to me, there were no tears and her head was raised … that was enough for me. She had smiled at me, and that was more then I felt I deserved.

Most of the conversation that night was lost in time, but I'll never forget the important parts. I know she told me a little about her family that night. She told me about how they expected so much from her, and never seemed to be satisfied. They were furious that she was going to a college rather than a prestigious university. I told her that going to college was nothing to be ashamed of, as it prepares you for university, and that her parents only wanted the best for her, which turned out to be true.

I also learned that they had put her in choir at a young age and that she had developed a love for singing. I asked her to sing for me that first night, but she wouldn't. It wasn't until much later that I heard her sing for me, and it remains one of the highlights of our time with one another. She told me she didn't feel comfortable singing for people she didn't know, no offense. When I asked her how it was she could sing in front of hundreds of people in her choir, she replied: "That's different. In choir, you're singing for yourself, and alongside other people who sing with you."

I pondered this, but couldn't understand it at the time. How I longed to hear her sing, even then. How we long for what we can not have.

I don't know how late it was when we finally left the restaurant. I remember walking her home. I think it was because I was still worried about her. I suppose a part of me wanted to see where she lived. Most of me, however, was compelled to stay with her as long as possible. I enjoyed her company, and the ease with which she spoke to me. I did not understand why she spoke with me so freely, but I recognized that she did, and was certain she didn't do it with many people. On the way, I asked her again what had happened to her earlier. This time, she told me.

"There were two of them," she said. "They auditioned with me for a solo part in the next choir performance. Personally, I think both of them are better than me, but our judge was an idiot. He picked me for some stupid reason, and those two got jealous."

I didn't need to hear the rest to understand what had transpired. The girls had found Lilliane in the hall while no one was around and had exacted their revenge. That was all there was to it. I remembered voicing my extreme distaste at this, but she shook her head.

"It's alright, I'm fine." Then, after a few seconds she added: "It was worth it."

"Worth it?" I asked her. I admit I was more than a little incredulous

Yes, she replied. "If they didn't do it, I wouldn't have met you."

Her words filled me with a warmth that relieved my freezing limbs despite the cold. I didn't know how to reply. Instead, I smiled. She stopped and smiled at me in return.

"Thank you for everything," she said. "I had a wonderful evening. It was a nice change … But for your own sake, please leave me alone after this." Then, quickly and quietly, she kissed my cheek, then fled into the night. The touch of her lips on my skin warmed my heart one moment and chilled my blood the next when I realized she was gone. In a split second, the night seemed empty and cold as I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, gazing in the direction she had gone.

Of course, I never left her alone as she had asked. We went to the same college, so it was easy for me to find her. I knew she hadn't really wanted me to leave her alone. I could see it in her eyes the next time I saw her. What she had been doing was trying to warn me away before I got too close. She told me that many weeks later, but of course, by then, it was already too late. I was enthralled by her, captivated. I would have gone through anything to see her happy. I guess, in a way, I have.

We spent more time together over the next two months, and, during that time, we became better friends. I don't really remember much about that time, but I think anyone who has ever met and gotten close to a stranger will understand. Then, something happened that changed things between us. I remember it was a cold evening in February. My parents – yes, I still lived with them, deal with it – had gone out for the evening. I had invited Lilliane over for a while. She had needed help on an English assignment – the only subject I felt half confident in helping her with. You might be thinking that something either romantic or sexual happened next. Home alone, no parents, guy … girl equals fun fun fun, right? Wrong. That's not what happened.

She had had a particularly bad day that evening. I don't recall what had happened. IT wasn't anything serious; otherwise I'm sure I'd have remembered it. . I found out that night, that her way of dealing with the unpleasant things in life was by throwing up. I had noticed how skinny she was, but until then, I, like everyone else had never recognized it for what it really was. When she had gotten a bit frustrated and had gone to the bathroom after I tried explaining something to her, I had thought nothing of it. I'd gotten up and gone into the kitchen to pore us some more drinks. To get to the Kitchen, you need to pass the hall that leads to the bathroom. As I was coming back from the kitchen, I heard her. Bulimics develop a skill of being quiet, I would learn, but on that particular night, the house was silent, and sound, no matter how faint, carried.

I put down the glasses and crossed to the bathroom. I heard the toilet flush before I got half way there, and then the tap running. I stood in the middle of the hallway for a moment, then the door opened. She emerged into the hall, and I knew. I don't know how, but I knew what she'd been doing. Many times I have tried to figure out how I knew. I concluded that sometimes we just know things. I've been that sort of person for as long as I can remember. It's not magic and nor is it any sort of psychic ability – though I'm sure abilities like that exist – it is just knowing.

When I confronted her about it, she did what any normal person would do; she lied. "I'm feeling a bit sick," she said.

I led her to the living room and set down the glasses I'd retrieved; I was no longer thirsty. I looked into her eyes. In them, I saw the truth. She held my gaze and I asked: "How long?"

She sighed dejectedly and replied: "Three years."

"That's terrible."

"It's not so bad."

"It's not natural."

At this she laughed. 'What is anymore?" I couldn't respond. She went on. "It keeps me in check."

"It will kill you one day."

She nodded, taking a tiny sip from her drink. "Everything will. At least I'll leave a skinny corpse." She put her glass down and turned away. Was she thinking about what she'd just said?

"You're already too skinny," I pointed out. It was true, and I cursed myself for not seeing it sooner. In the two months since I'd known her, her body had shrunk considerably. She was wearing a sweater, but even that was not enough to hide that fact. Even baggy clothes are form-fitting to a point. This sweater was sagging on her, far too big for the tiny frame it shielded.

She looked down at herself, and I saw disgust cross her face. "I'm fat," she said. Her voice was full of resentment.

"You're beautiful," I countered. She was, and somehow I wanted to make her see that. I was getting in way over my head and the water was foreign. Perhaps I had no business trying to refute her lifestyle when I knew nothing about it. What I did know was that here was a lovely girl sitting before me, now sitting bolt upright and gazing at me, wide eyed. Her extreme skinniness was a mockery of the vision she truly was. How I longed to make her realize this. Perhaps, at the end, I partially succeeded. Her last and only letter to me speaks for itself and, at the end, she really did want to get better.

I remember reaching over and laying my hand against hers. Our hands together, I looked into her eyes once more. How I hoped at that moment that her fingers would clench mine, but her hand remained motionless. I repeated myself in a whisper. "You're beautiful."

She shook her head, but her hand never moved from mine, she did not try to pull away. "I'm not, I'm a cow."

At this, I squeezed her hand a little. I thought I felt her squeeze back, but it was probably my imagination. "What makes you say that?"

"Nothing," She replied flatly. "It's just how I feel. Skinniness is just so … perfect."

"No, Lilliane," I replied, "it is terrible. It's a sign of being unhealthy … of dying. You have no reason to be either. You're beautiful, and beauty isn't only your looks. Even when I first saw you when you came out of that bathroom, I thought you were beautiful."

"I worked the magic," she stated, raising two fingers. I won't deny that part of that gesture appalled me; however it also strengthened my desire to help her. Someone so wonderful should not be in the grip of such a fowl disease.

"That magic is killing you, Lilliane, and you don't need to look like an Ethiopian to be beautiful. You have a wonderful heart and a very pretty form. If you do this to yourself, you'll become very sick."

"I already was," she muttered. "But I got better."

I took her hand then, lacing my fingers through hers. Her grip tightened slightly and I wondered, in spite of the grim situation, whether she'd just been scared to take my hand, or was doing it to humour me.

"I don't want you to be sick, Lilliane," I said. "You're too wonderful to be put through that for no good reason."

"I'm a big girl," she replied. "I can handle it if it happens. But I'm ok. I hardly even do it anymore."

"Please," I pleaded softly, "don't lie to me okay? I know you're not okay. You're getting smaller every day. There's hardly any of you left now."

I'm sorry," she whispered. "I told you, you should have left me alone."

I let go of her hand and put my arms around her. She stiffened for a moment, then began to tremble just a little.

"I know you told me to leave you alone," I whispered, "But I'm stubborn. And you know what?"

"What?"

"I don't regret it a bit."

"I'm scared," she confessed, putting her arms around me loosely.

"Don't be scared," I consoled. Me and my forever corny lines, I know.

"I don't think I can ever change. I don't think I'll ever be okay with the way I look.. Every morning I get on the scale, and if the number isn't lower then it was the day before, at least a little, I feel dirty."

I wanted to reply. I wanted to tell her she wasn't dirty, because she certainly wasn't. But she had begun talking, and I didn't want to interrupt her. She needed to talk, she needed to tell someone. I learned afterwards that the reason she trembled, and the reason she was scared to tell me this was because other than her parents, no one knew. I don't know why she told me so willingly that night, and neither did she. Sometimes, two people just click, and things are set in motion. That's the conclusion I was drawing even as my attention rested on the shivering girl in my arms.

"When I purge, I feel better, at least for a time. I can look at myself and not think I'm ugly. But it never lasts. I'm always left feeling the same. The pounds keep sliding away, and I still think I'm fat. I've been in the hospital; I know what it's like, and every day, I promise myself I'll never go back. I tell myself that I can get through this."

If you keep this up," I interrupted gently, "you'll end up going back whether you want to or not."

She tightened her grip, pulling herself closer. She had begun trembling even harder, and I could feel her body against mine. Her bones stuck out, and I could feel each individual rib, even through our clothes. "I can't go back," she insisted. "I'll get over this. I'll manage somehow."

"All you have to do is stop throwing up. But before you can do that, Lilliane, you have to feel good about yourself."

"But how?"

How indeed? If I knew the real answer to such a question, I'd have been a psychiatrist rather than a writer. What I said was the best I could do, and was what I believed.

"You have to realize that no matter how many people tell you things that make you feel bad, there will always be others that think you're wonderful. There will be times where you hate the world, and everyone in it because no one seems to care, or that they insult you, or think you're not good enough. And in times like those, you need to remember that there are always people who think you're wonderful, and that are proud of you." That was the best I could do. It occurred to me that I was a far better writer than I was a speaker.

"There aren't many people like that. If I died, I don't think any of my friends would come to my funeral."

As innocent as this statement was, it turned out to be true. I was the only friend there, and the only one who came to see her at the hospital at the end, other than her family. Had people gotten to know Lilliane as I did, they would have learned that she was much more than she seemed. But humanity is cowardly, and shuns anything they don't understand. Many people will not bother seeing past the first impression. When you walk around with your head down and carrying a big backpack, people will either not give you a second look, or criticize you for it.

"That's a terrible way to think," was my answer to that statement.

"It's true though."

"I would come, you can guarantee that. But you're not going to die any time soon, so don't you even worry about that."

"Thank you," she said."

"Look at you, you're shaking. What's wrong?"

"I don't know. I think I should go now though. It's getting late."

I walked her home then, both to keep her company and to keep her safe. A girl walking the streets at night alone was an invitation to all sorts of unpleasant people. I thought I had made some progress with her, and there was no way I'd allow some idiot with a stiff boner to shatter any chances she had of pulling through. My naivety was a comfort then. Had I only known what was to come, I would have tried harder. In the end, however, would the result have been the same? I am not here to reflect on what I should have done differently; I am here to tell a story of my past, and so I shall continue.

I did not see Lilliane for a few days after that night. When I did, she seemed to have forgotten our conversation. In the end I learned that she had not forgotten; it was simply hard for her to change. Over the next few months, we had many more conversations like the one on that night at my place. Gradually, she began to accept my compliments with a smile, as if she could finally believe them. I worked hard to keep her from throwing up while I was with her, but as one might expect, I was rarely successful. There were two or three instances where I remember getting her to abandon the idea temporarily, and each time I felt a step closer to making her better. She told me of days where she woke up feeling wonderful and did not even look at the scale. Days like that, she said, were beautiful. But always, the shadow of her old self would haunt her, and she'd find the scale glaring up at her, as if enraged at having been forgotten. When that happened, she would purge once again, and revel in the after effects for a short time. To Lilliane, bolemia had become a drug, one worse than cocaine or heroin.

A few months before her death, before her real suffering began, I managed to get her to come with me to my parents' cabin. This would have been in May when it was warm enough to survive out there without freezing. She had a hard time with her parents about it, but eventually, she must have come up with one hell of a story, because she did come. My parents had met her more than once by then, and thought quite highly of her as well. They were the ones that brought the idea up, and upon a short reflection, I decided to do it.

The time we spent at the cabin will forever remain etched in my memory. It was the last truly happy time we had together. We were there for two days, and we both loved every minute of it. I can't help wondering if she purged during her stay, but if she did, she kept it very well hidden. I honestly don't think she did, however. She once told me that times where she was truly happy, she very nearly forgot about it.

The first night was nothing too special. We had spent the day helping my parents fix up the cabin a little bit – we hadn't been there since Christmas. We had a good talk that first night. It was similar to the many we had always had, but something about this one made it seem more important. Perhaps it was because Lilliane was in her element this time. She loved the outdoors, as I mentioned earlier, and it showed. In the short time I'd known her, I had never seen her more alive, and seemingly happy. That night, I told her about a trail we had discovered many years ago that led to a plateau overlooking a small waterfall. She became instantly excited about it, and I promised to take her there the next day.

We went to bed early that night and got an early start in the morning. We went slow, taking in the scenery. I have always loved walking this trail, even alone. Many times I have gone up to the plateau to write. It is, in fact, where I am writing this now, and the memory of that day is making it hard to continue. But I must, I know that.

It became apparent just how week Lilliane was that day. We had to stop and rest several times because her body didn't have the strength to travel such a distance.

At about one o'clock, we arrived at the plateau. The sight is beautiful. The clearing is completely flat and covered with grass. There is a river far below, the water is always white with spray. The aforementioned waterfall is only a small one, but still a sight to behold. It falls straight down the rocky wall to your right if you are standing at the edge. On some days, if there is a good wind, the spray will carry and will caress your face. Even now, forty years later, time has remained constant here. Every writer has a place of sanctuary, where his or her best ideas manifest. This place is my sanctuary, and on that day, it was OUR sanctuary.

When we arrived, Lilliane let out a joyful cry and broke into a delighted grin, then she sped ahead of me and stood at the edge of the plateau, gazing below us at the rushing waters.

"It's so beautiful here," she mused.

"I'm glad you like it," I replied.

I joined her, and we stood silently for a long time, holding hands and watching the scenery before us. Even now when I look at this place, its splendor is locked in the perfection of that day. I gaze at the place where we stood, and remember everything in an instant. This will always be our special place, and when I remember how happy she was here, even for one day, a warmth flows through me. Sappy? Perhaps, but old farts like me thrive on sappiness.

After a while, we sat down on the grass and had a picnic. She ate well that day, and did not throw up once the entire time. Of that, I am certain.

When we finished, we sat together and did not speak for a while. It was a comfortable silence, the kind of silence where nothing needs to be said. Words would be useless to convey the feelings in the air, and the only sounds or those of nature's harmony.

After a while, Lilliane broke the silence by saying: "Thank you."

Lost in the tranquility of my surroundings, I barely heard her. "Thank you?" I asked softly, turning to face her. "For what?"

"For bringing me here. For showing me this wonderful place … for caring about me. You mean so much to me now, I owe you so much."

I drew her closer and ran my fingers through her hair. "Sweetheart, you owe me nothing. You were worth all of it."

"I told you I was complicated, I told you it would be better if you go. Why didn't you?"

"Because I love you," I blurted out.

Her head, which had been lying on my shoulder, suddenly snapped up. She gazed at me in surprise, her mouth half-way open. "You what?"

"I love you," I repeated. "You've done so much for me too, and you don't even know it."

"I-I –" She stuttered, then began again. "I don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say a word," I replied.

I had told her I loved her, and it was true. My affection for her had been growing daily, and that day, I came to realize that it was love I felt. Some might say it was premature, this foolish devotion, but you couldn't be more wrong. Love doesn't depend on time, rather it is determined by the course of lives that intertwine. True love is a rarity. Infatuation is what confuses people into saying they love someone. There was no doubt in my mind that what I said was true, and I had no misgivings as to my reasoning.

Lilliane didn't speak for a long time. I would have been foolish to expect the same blunt confession of love, and thus I was not disappointed when I did not receive one. Instead I changed the subject. "Will you do something for me?"

She had returned to her previous position, her head upon my shoulder and her arms about me. When I asked the question, she looked up, this time slowly. "What is it?"

"Will you sing for me?"

She hesitated a long time before replying, and I remember holding my breath. Eventually she replied: "I don't know … I'm scared to. I'm not very good."

"Please?" I pleaded. "Let me be the judge of that, okay?"

She sighed deeply. "I don't want to disappoint you though."

I kissed her cheek gently and replied: "You won't, don't worry."

"Alright … for you."

She let go of me and stood up. I stood up as well, and she beckoned me to sit. "Please, sit down," she said. "I'll feel better if you're sitting. You won't seem like a judge if you are sitting."

So I sat down, and waited. She cleared her throat, and I waited. She took a deep breath … and I waited. Then, nothing came, and there was silence.

"Please?" I asked, looking up at her hopefully. "You'll be wonderful, just as you are at everything else."

"Okay," she said quietly.

She took another deep breath and began to sing. Her voice carried , and it seemed as though the river itself settled down to hear her.

"I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone. All my dreams, pass before my eyes in curiosity."

Her voice was magnificent; clear and sweet as though she had suddenly sprouted wings and was flying above me.

"It slips away, and all your money won't another minute bye –"

I felt warm all over again as she sang the words, growing more confident with every line, never growing too confident. I understood then how the two girls who had auditioned with her that day so long ago must have felt, for her voice was divine, and the song she sang became so much more to me then it had before. She sang it to me once more before the end came, and I recorded it on a cd. Sometimes, when I am depressed, or even struggling with my writing, I put it on, and her voice never ceases to have the same effect on me. That cd, and her letter are the only links I have with her now. I listen to it at this moment, to give me the courage to keep going; to tell the end of this story.

"All we are is dust in the wind," She finished quietly. And how true that is. Sometimes the wind is simply too strong, and we are blown away.

When she finished, I stood up slowly. "That was wonderful," I told her, and meant it. "Thank you so much."

"You like?" she asked hopefully.

I drew her too me and held her tightly. "I loved it."

"I'm glad." Then we kissed. With the echoes of "dust in the wind" still wafting through the air, we kissed long and sweet. It was not the mad entanglement of lips, heavy breathing and stripping that one expects out of most romantic movies, rather, the kiss was simply long, slow and sensual. I have never had one quite like it before, and never will again. It was our kiss, and ours alone. Our embrace was tight, and the kiss lasted an eternity before our lips separated. I think we were both blushing a deep red after that, but she was smiling again, smiling like I'd never seen her smile before, and would never see again.

How I wish we could have stayed in that paradise forever. I believe that was exactly what Lilliane needed; the happiness to last just a little longer. But maybe that is just a hopeless fantasy. It was already too late by then, regardless of how long I'd kept her there. We left the cabin, and a week later, she told me she had been throwing up blood for quite a long time, a clear indication that something had gone horribly wrong inside her. At my pleading request, she went to the doctor. He examined her and that was the beginning of the end. He put her on medication; some type of pill that prevented her from throwing up. I was overjoyed at this news, but in my heart I knew the truth. The pills would only work if Lilliane made them work. She took them sometimes, but it was never enough. Inevitably the time came where they put her in the hospital. When I found out, I began fearing for her. The hospital was the one place she feared above all others. She never told me why, and I didn't need to know. When someone you love becomes sick, everything suddenly becomes unimportant.

I went to see her many times over the next two months. The sight of her, hooked up to machines, the IVs in her arm … it always overwhelmed me. This was not supposed to happen to her, I kept insisting. There had to be a way to save her. The doctors tried, bless them, they did. Even she fought for a long time. I knew she wanted to live, and I did everything I could for her. I wish there had been more I could have done. It's hard to feel so helpless, and in the final days, that's how I felt.

Her parents came to see her often as well. Eventually I met them. I learned that, despite what Lilliane had told me, her parents weren't as harsh as they seemed. When a life is at stake, petty differences tend to either be enflamed or dropped. How lucky I am that theirs were dropped. I told them nearly everything I have chronicled here, and in the end, there were few harsh words. We all waited and prayed, hoping for some sort of miracle. But FATE can have a cruel sense of humour sometimes.

In the end, the condition took her. I don't know what the blood signified, but because she had waited so long before telling anyone, it was too late to do anything about it. I sometimes think that she would have been happier living out her last months away from the hospital, but I know the machines were the only things keeping her alive after a while. Is it worth keeping someone alive if you are just torturing them though?

On August fifth, Lilliane Shepherd passed away quietly in her hospital bed. At the end, she barely talked anymore; she had very little strength left. Her parents were not there that day, only I was by her side. I sat with her for many hours during the last few months. Sometimes she was coherent, sometimes not. She always smiled for me, and that almost hurt me more than anything else. To see her dying, to watch the machines pumping chemicals into her … and having her smile at me. The smile that, even in these dire circumstances never failed to melt my heart, now made it break as well. When the end came, Lilliane was sleeping. I held her hand as she died and prayed I didn't hear the beeps of the respirator quicken, even as I called for the doctor. He came in a split second, accompanied by a trio of nurses. I was ushered forcefully out of the room, despite my protests.

When the news of her death reached me out in the waiting room, I went berserk, struck by a grief I have never experienced again. There had been no finality, no final farewell, just the quickening beeps of the machine that helped govern her right to exist. I cursed the doctors for not being able to save her, cursed them with every word I knew. I was restrained, and eventually calmed down.

Before I left the hospital that day, one of the nurses approached me, handing me a sealed envelope. "Lilliane wanted you to have this," she told me quietly. The envelope contained a small picture of her, and a weakly written letter. Thus, I had my final farewell, not with spoken words, but on paper. A second pang of grief hit me as I took the envelope, but this one, I managed to suppress.

The letter expressed all of the feelings Lilliane could not speak. In her weakened state, it would have taken a long time to write. All those long nights, after everyone had gone had been spent writing. I still have the letter, and have since framed it. It sits in my private office, where I spend most of my writing life away from the old cabin. I think it best to enclose a copy here now, lest my story go unfinished. The following is everything she wrote, spell checked and completely legible…

To my darling,

Last night you came to me in a dream; you told me you loved me like you did on that day at your cabin. I was so scared and alone before I finally slept, but when I woke up, I was happier. I know I'm going to die soon. These machines are keeping me alive, but eventually even they won't be able to help me. I wish the doctors would unplug them, but I guess they're making more money off of me this way. Either way, I'm not going to last much longer. I fought it, I really did, but as you said, the longer you wait, the less likely you'll be able to survive. In the end, I'm too far gone to fight any longer. I'm barely even able to hold the pen anymore.

I wanted to let you know that the last eight months have been very special to me, and you've helped me to realize that I'm not what I thought. I wish I had realized it sooner, then maybe we could have been together. You were my strength for so long, and I thank you for everything you've done. I remember that wonderful day at your cabin, on that plateau over the water. That meant more to me then you will ever know. When you told me you loved me, I didn't know what to say to you. No one, other than my parents has ever told me that before. I guess I didn't believe it. I still can't believe I sang to you, but I don't regret it. If it made you happy, it was worth feeling foolish. Thank you for that day, you made me so happy. I wish I didn't have to die, I've got so much more I'd like to do, but it's my fault I lie here now. You tried to help me, and even though I'll be gone, I want you to know that you did. You made the last eight months of my life worth living.

The doctor came today and told me they were going to up the doses of some of the medications. I told him not too. If I'm going to die, I don't want to prolong my existence. I can barely even talk, but I always know you're there beside me. Your hand is a blessing to me. I'm sorry I'm wasting your time. If I had the strength, I'd tell you to go. The truth is, your presence is everything to me right now. I don't think I'll last much longer, but I want you to know that I've accepted death. I'm going to be with you, in spirit at least, and see you through your life. Don't mourn me okay? Go on with your life and be that famous writer I know you'll become. I didn't have the courage to say it in person, so I'll say it now. I love you. I wish I could have told you in person, but I was scared to. I'm sorry. When you told me you loved me, I wanted to tell you the same. That is my only regret, but I'm glad I could at least tell you this way. Thank you for staying with me all this time. I'll be with you somehow, and I'll watch over you.

Love eternally,

Lilliane

And she has watched over me. When I stand on the plateau, looking out over the water, I sense her spirit near at hand. I know that too sounds sappy, but like I said, old farts like me find solace in sappiness. It's true that I couldn't save Lilliane, but I was able to be with her until the end. That is something isn't it? Knowing I made her happy pleases me, and though I suffer, I don't regret meeting her, nor the time we spent together. Were we together you ask? Yes, we were certainly together, and have remained so up to this present day. I have tried dating other girls, knowing I couldn't stay single forever, but in the end, I can't bare to be with anyone else. I will never love anyone the same way I love her, and if I can't give someone my all, then it is not fair to anyone to try.

Thus I remain, rooted to this cabin after retiring. Not that I'll really retire. I am married to my writing, and, in a way, to Lilliane's spirit. I'm trapped in time, and this is where I will stay. I don't regret my old age. I've lived well and done much.

In the end, I stood before Lilliane's body while her family stood all around me.

"Do the honor," her father told me, handing me a shovel. I did. I bent down and kissed her forehead one final time. Her flesh was cold, but I sensed she was still nearby. Then I stood, shovel in hand.

"I'm ready," I choked. But I would never be ready to say goodbye, and I never have. Nonetheless, the lid was closed, and the coffin lowered into the grave. I dug the shovel into the earth that had been exhumed and came up with a pile of dirt. I held it poised above the hole, looking into the darkness. "I love you, Lilliane," I whispered. Then, resolving to keep her memory with me for all time, I turned the shovel and watched as the dirt cascaded down … down … down into darkness.

Thus ends my story, my sappy romance, my lament of innocence. With "Dust in the Wind" still echoing on the CD player, and in my memory, I conclude. I will never truly Bury Lilliane. She will remain, and I will see her again one day when my own end comes. I am in no hurry. There is still much life I have to live. I will carry her picture with me always, and will cry whenever I stand on the plateau, but I will go on. If there is one message I have for you, dear reader, it is this: Don't wait until it is too late to do the right thing, and don't give up on people. You may find yourself playing the part of Lilliane one day, or myself even. Be kind to others, because you never know when you might need them. Life is about choice; free will is ours to command. Choose to live, to love and to help others. Farewell, and live life.

(In memory of Lillian Shepherd, 1984-2003 "All we are is Dust in the wind.")