Autumn leaves littered the ground, scattering as I ran through the woods. Tears stung my eyes, drying tight on my cheeks as if I’d been standing in front of a fire too long. Branches whipped at my face and arms, leaving angry red welts on my skin, and I welcomed the needling pain. My shoulder ached and I knew the wound had opened again. I didn’t care. I ran hard, punishing my lungs, wanting them to feel as strained and constricted as my heart.

Wordless anguish raged inside my head. I came to a clearing, stumbled over a root, and fell to my knees. The grief I’d been running from caught me, wrapped itself around me like a vice and squeezed until I couldn’t breathe. I laid sobbing under the skeletal trees, their bare arms black against the gray sky. I curled my knees into my chest, and let the pain come, embracing the weight of my loss. I waited for it to crush me, to sweep me away from this world of barely living. I touched the bandage on my shoulder, and stared at the blood on my fingers, remembering.

Let her go.

The cold metal of the gun was pressed into my temple, the icy kiss of death on my skin. It had happened so fast, this leap from normal life into nightmare. Danishes, I’d craved cherry danishes for breakfast from the bakery down the street. He loved Saturdays, perfect for lazy strolls, for matinees, for love in the afternoon, for pastries in the mornings. We walked hand in hand, happy, too happy for the world. Past the dry cleaners, past the newspaper stand at the corner, each step closer to that moment. A woman handing out flyers, a man walking a yapping dog, two boys on skateboards, and then pandemonium. Popping, like fireworks and confusion and a scream…my scream? I was jerked up by the arm, and pulled away from Dustin. I fought, but the click of a gun stopped me cold.

“Let her go,” Dustin yelled at the man.

Those were it, the last words. The gun tilted, and exploded beside my ear, and the world stopped. I stared at a still photograph of the horror, saw the surprise on his face, the red blossoming on his chest, saw the realization in his eyes. Reality crashed back in, and what was frozen became chaos again. Dustin fell. I wrenched away from the man, running forward, when I felt a sudden burning in my shoulder. I never heard the crack of the gun, my ears still ringing with the first shot, but I knew. I didn’t even care, all I could think of was getting to Dustin. Then I was holding him, his blood spilling out with mine. I screamed for help, cradling his face in my hands, willing him to stay, demanding that he not leave me.

But I saw it coming, Death crept up. I fought him, pushed him away with everything I had. But Dustin’s gaze grew unfocused, and Death snatched the light from his eyes. I clutched him to me, in a pool of blood and grief and senseless tragedy.

The lonely call of a bird broke my reverie, brought me back from the horror of that day, and into the present agony. I lay in this desolate place, far from the sympathy, the condolences that I couldn’t bear to hear. Another gun, this one mine, heavy in my hand, and the click of the hammer caused my heart to lurch. I sobbed, holding the barrel against my temple, and begged Death to walk this way again, to release me from this world of guilt and emptiness. I could see him, that familiar blackness, see that Death crept in once more and all I had to do was squeeze to bring him closer. So easy, so much better than remembering oceans of soft sheets, or riding in the car with the windows down, or the way Dustin’s hair felt threaded through my fingers. I closed my eyes, my hand shaking.

But my fingers wouldn’t. I cried, I wanted them to, but they wouldn’t.

Let her go. Dustin’s voice chased Death away. I dropped the gun, gasping for air, quaking at his words echoing in my ear. I won’t, Dustin. I’m sorry, I won’t, I promise.

I layed there, alone but learning the feel of it, learning that alone still meant alive. I left the gun, under dead leaves and a gray sky. I left to find my way out of the woods, out of my loss, all on my own.