If You’re Not First, You’re Last

Fiction by Brendan Gillen

Looking back, the ending was obvious. The cicadas sang, a sigh of deceit. It was summer, depression heavy in the air, heavy in our apartment, in her heavy slurps of hazelnut coffee. I hated the smell. Made my gut lurch, made my ears burn. We did not yet believe that death could come so suddenly. Not to us. Not to people like us. We went to the gym at least twice a week. We held hands at the farmer’s market. People would look at us the way they do a neighbor’s brand-new sedan. That’s the way I imagined it. You couldn’t tell me anything. I believed in registries. A light-flooded loft, crisp white brick, ample plants, faux-vintage rug on which we would fuck, because who could stop us. The kind of space that, with the right hashtag, could sear your retina.

When quarterbacks give an interview after winning the big one, they talk about God, family, the offensive line. Give thanks to all those who purchased merchandise way before they modernized the team logo. This is how I felt. Pre-ordained. It was written on her face. We were the inevitable union of hard facts, indisputable, case-closed against any sort of appeal from the wings. All it took was a trip out of town and a smooth haircut from her past. What begins as a vibration, letters aglow on a cracked screen, ends in a quiet locker room, shaking the other team’s confetti from your hair. It wasn’t about feelings, she said. It wasn’t about anything other than inertia. And I believed her. I believed her because she had no experience in subterfuge. I saw her phone light up one afternoon when she got up to get the cookies from the oven. His name might have been from ancient Greece, but I refuse to glorify the villain. She came back chewing a ginger snap, held out the other half, dropped it on the love-stained rug when she saw my face. There weren’t tears because when you lose at the death, a trick play, a Hail Mary, there’s no time to point fingers. You’re on the dimmest bus ride home before the gunpowder settles on your tongue. What more can I tell you? The history books never remember second place, even if they gave us one hell of a ride, pushed the champ to the limit. It was over before I finished reading his missive, a combination of words so obvious they made me laugh until I began to wheeze and choke. You’re scaring me, she said, and that’s when I knew I’d really loved her, despite the bloodshed. There can be no epilogue when you tear the final pages apart. Because death is never a surprise ending, even when you had promised that if either of you died first, the other would mourn, and then find someone else to love, whenever the timing felt right.

Brendan Gillen

Brendan Gillen is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the recipient of the 2023 Wigleaf/Mythic Picnic Prize in Fiction and his work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His stories appear in Wigleaf, Maudlin House, Taco Bell Quarterly, New Delta Review, X-R-A-Y and elsewhere. His first novel, STATIC, is forthcoming from Vine Leaves Press (July ’24). You can find him online at bgillen.com and on Twitter/IG @beegillen.