(listen to the music while you read)
I blinked awake, sitting bolt upright and looking around. For a moment I was disoriented, confused as to why I was surrounded by stacks of wood beds and straw and the smell of death. But soon my memory returned to me, and I glanced over at Benjamin. His hand was still in mine, his eyes were closed and his mouth was turned into a small smile. I laughed to myself; how could my awful singing make anyone smile?
“Sorry for nodding off, Ben. So how was it—dreadful as I thought it was? …Benji?”
He didn’t respond.
I squeezed his hand. “Benjamin?”
Nothing: his face was still.
“Benjamin, wake up! …This isn’t funny, Benji! Wake up!”
His chest wasn’t moving.
I struggled to a sitting position and took his shoulders, shaking them, gripping his shirt with both hands. It was still warm.
I shook him again. “Don’t you dare die on me! Goddamnit, Benjamin, don’t you dare die!”
He wouldn’t wake up.
Why? Why wouldn’t he wake up?
I slapped his cheek once, twice; harder—he had to wake up. There was a sob rising in my chest as I took his hand again, feeling his wrist for a pulse, for anything, but there were only my tears, only Benjamin lying in my arms. “Crucified Christ, Benjamin, wake up! I need to tell you! I need to tell you I love you!” I cried out. “Why won’t you answer me? I never got to tell you! Oh God, I’m so sorry, I’ve killed you… I’m so sorry…”
People say when a person you love dies before your eyes, you see something. You feel a gentle breeze on your cheek or hear a soft whisper in your ear. I have seen death. So much of it. To those who haven’t, I can tell you now that they are all lies:
Nothing happens. Nothing at all. Nothing but gone. Nothing but dead. Nothing except your heart being ripped into thousands of pieces—repeatedly smashed, glued back together, and broken again. And each time a heart mends, there will always be a few pieces missing. That’s true with anything. If you break a vase, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to get each piece back in the way it was. And even if you did, it wouldn’t be the same.
It wouldn’t be the same.
I buried my head in his shoulder, waiting for him to rest his chin upon the crown of my head and return my embrace, telling me that it was going to be all right.
“Benjamin! It’s okay, you can wake up now! Wake up! I need you! Goddamnit, Benji, you promised me! You bastard, you promised!”
The murmurs of the other prisoners as they acknowledged that another one had died were wafting up through the ceiling like fog. They didn’t care, though.
Nothing cared in concentration camps.
I cried. Quietly, but I cried as hard as I ever have. So hard that my ribs felt as if they were shattering, my lungs puncturing, deflating, their will to keep breathing leaving me alone with his corpse.
I remember Daniel trying to tear me away from him. I remember screaming, “Don’t! You’ll wake him up!”
He was holding me, crying quietly, too, telling me to hush through his sobs, telling me that the soldiers would hurt me if I kept shouting, that Benjamin wasn’t going to wake up.
I didn’t care. Not anymore. My paper star had blown away.
…We were liberated the following morning.