The Virgin’s Guide to Death
content warning: references to self-harm, substance abuse, and sexual assault by an immediate family member
Marissa tells me her idea while we’re doing woodwork in art therapy. The wood is flimsy, just like everything else at this place. It’s Monday. I’ve already cried twice today. “Sneak into my room after lights out on Friday,” Marissa says, whittling a figurine. “I’ll de-virginize you if you want. Show you some stuff.” Her tone is casual, like she’s gonna teach me a card game. I want to say worshipful things. Instead, I tell her it sounds like a plan. Marissa has syrupy black hair and smirking, dark-glossed lips. Her arms are pale and covered in small, puffy, crisscrossing scars. Marissa is the most dangerous girl I’ve ever met. I’ve told her all my darkest, wimpiest secrets. She always listens intently, though she says that girl secrets are way worse than guy secrets.
In group therapy, the slobby therapist asks me how I’m coping without alcohol. I say fine. Then he says I’m in denial about my addiction and the pain I’m causing my mom. I resist the urge to argue. What’s the fucking point? He never listens. Suddenly two red centipedes skitter across the carpet. I blink. All the other patients yelp except for Marissa, who snorts. The centipedes, freaky and gleaming and fast as fuck, disappear under a corner couch. “Good times,” Marissa says.
Wednesday. At lunch, Marissa shows me her new cutter, but calmly, like it’s a cool bracelet. It’s a whittle knife from art therapy. She’s covered the handle with stickers of black hearts. When I grab it away from her, she attacks me. A staffer yells, “Hey! Freakshow and crybaby! Stop it.” His face is gaunt and furious. This place is a shame factory. I feel twice as worthless as I used to.
Marissa hisses at the staffer, then smiles at me. Her attention is like soothing aloe. But I want to smack the staffer for not noticing her cutter. I give it back to Marissa, then return to my smelly fish sticks. Marissa looks like a sinister choir girl. Her prim white dress has a scathingly black waist bow. Her lips are slick with purple gloss, her syrupy black hair is piled swirlingly on her head, with a long, sleek, adorable strand curling up at her cheek. Marissa nibbles a fish stick and says that, instead of sex on Friday, maybe we should just off ourselves with her cutter. I tell her that sounds less fun. “My eyes want to close forever,” she says. Marissa’s stepdad touches her. Her mom refuses to believe it. I have excellent detailed fantasies about killing them both. My mom has never abused me, unless you count her dumping me here—the cheapest, meanest, shoddiest rehab around—for occasionally drinking her beer. Which, personally, I do count.
Group therapy again. The slobby therapist, his shirt wrinkled and stained and half untucked, is cataloging my faults. Selfish, dumb, defective. It feels like jabbing fists. “They’ve bred,” Marissa whispers. I look down. Centipedes, dozens of them, are racing all over the floor. I leap up and roar murderously. The therapist shrinks in his seat. I stomp the wiggly motherfuckers. The other patients laugh and clap and whoop. The carpet, grimy to begin with, is soon covered in splotchy green guts and tiny twitching legs. I sit back down and clean off my shoes and start sobbing.
Friday arrives. Big day. I’m gonna lose my virginity or my life. At breakfast, the scrawny, gaunt-faced staffer randomly mutters, “I’m so sick of you stupid turds!” My mom wouldn’t last a day here. She despises filth, she hates being hollered at. Plus, she can’t go a day without smoking or drinking. The day is long, long, long. After dinner, I hang out with the other patients. We play cards and drink flat soda. Overhead, a ceiling tile creaks ominously, then falls to the floor in a loud, musty smack. “This place is trying to kill us,” Marissa says, laying down a card. The scrawny staffer rushes in, accusing us of knocking down the tile. I lose it. I scream in his face that he’s dead wrong, and that he’s a nasty person, and that he should just fuck off for a while. He backs away, face seething, then leaves the room. Marissa gives me a strange look. I shrug. There’ll be hell to pay tomorrow, but so fucking what? I might not even be alive tomorrow.
Bedtime comes, finally. I sneak into Marissa’s room. She’s lying on her back in the bed, wearing a pink, ruffly, heart-patterned nightgown. The room is dim but not dark. Marissa holds her black cutter lovingly against her chest, like a comforting cross. I lie down next to her. Her neck is lusciously perfumed, her arms have fresh blood trails. Quiveringly, she tells me about her stepdad, who’s stenchingly grubby, and who drools into her hair when he traps her on his lap and gropes her. “I’m so foul,” she murmurs, still clutching the cutter. “I want to have sex with you, so bad, but in a different life and a different body.” She turns to me, eyes pleading. “What should we do?” I shiver and take a rickety breath. This place has rehabilitated all my dark feelings. If we could keep seeing each other after our release, then we’d have a glorious reason to stay alive, but when I think it through, factoring in our separate towns and lack of licenses, I know it’s fucking hopeless. Our parents, selfish and scapegoating, have all the power. Or do they? Reaching for her trembling hand, I tell Marissa that I’d die for her, if it comes to that, but only after we try killing.
Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. He has previously published in Columbia Journal, Hobart, Menacing Hedge, Rue Morgue, and Tor.com. His publications include short stories, author interviews, and book and movie reviews. You can read more of his writing at markbenedict.net.