The coroner’s report for my sister’s death has only one word under cause: VOLCANO. A lot of people believe she fell into the volcano. Or at least they want to. Like my parents. They would prefer to believe she simply tripped and went right in. A freak accident. There are even a few who think the volcano had nothing whatsoever to do with it. They think maybe she just happened to be walking near the volcano when she had a heart attack or a stroke or an aneurysm and died suddenly. That’s what her husband tells everyone. Another one of his theories is that there was some anomalous drug interaction: she’d been on an antibiotic and was also taking something for some joint pain. On that particular day, she’d also taken an over-the-counter 24-hour allergy pill as well as some Excedrin. You can’t rule that out. These doctors are all in the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies. They could have easily killed her by prescribing that antibiotic. I might sue them one day. You just watch. I’ll sue. I was there. I wasn’t very close, but I watched it happen. And if you want to know what I saw, I’ll tell you. She didn’t just keel over and die right there on the rim of the volcano and then fall in. She didn’t clutch her chest like someone struck with a massive coronary, or gasp desperately for breath like a person drowning on land, or go suddenly stiff like someone whose brain has been shocked or short circuited. There was none of that. She simply walked slowly and steadily into the volcano. At first, I thought she was just trying to get a closer look. She’d always loved volcanoes. Ever since she was in high school, and I was in middle school. It was never enough for her to make model volcanoes for school projects, or to hold her hand over the stove with the gas cranked as high it would go. She was always after the real thing. We were close back then. Plus, she didn’t like doing things on her own. So she’d take me with her. We’d sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, get on our bikes and go ride out to all the local volcanoes, crawling under, climbing over, or even in some cases cutting through chain-link fences to get closer to them. But back then, my sister was as frightened as she was fascinated by them, so we never got too close. I’ll admit, it was fun to see the neon orange lava burble and bubble and leap into the night sky. And, yes, it was exciting to feel the searing heat of a volcano. But as much as I enjoyed them, it didn’t compare to my sister. She loved them. And when she wasn’t visiting a volcano, she was talking about volcanos, trying to get her friends to go to volcanoes, trying to find boyfriends who would spend all day hiking along rivers of molten rock. When she went off to college, she didn’t major in geology or anything like that, but she nearly failed out because, sure enough, instead of going to classes, she spent most of her time wandering off into the wilderness, looking for lava flows and camping out at every little volcano she could find. I remember visiting her at college, thinking she’d take me around campus, show me the quad, teach me some of the stuff she learned from her professors. But mostly she just dragged me to all the volcanoes in the area. And the one time we went to a football game, she spent the entire time passing me igneous rocks that she’d snuck into the stadium in the deep pockets of her oversize coat. Look at this one. Rub this. Look at the iron in there. Feel how light this one is. Feel how heavy this one is. Smell this. Go on, just put it in your hands and smell it...I swear, I couldn’t even tell you who won that game. All I can remember is my sister going on about magma and iron and pumice. To some degree, I get it. I think most of us do. Volcanoes are fun. Like most people, I spent plenty of time at volcanoes when I was in college. And after college, when I moved to the city and took a job as a research analyst, me and the other junior-level people in the office would hit one of the uptown volcanoes straight after work every Friday. I’m in my forties now. So I’ve slowed way down. But, every couple months, my wife and I will get a babysitter, and the two of us will head out to some cute little volcano. Our skin is red the next day, and we always wake up covered in ash; but it’s worth it, considering how hard we work and how seldom we get any time for ourselves to just go have some fun. My sister, she never slowed down. It was the opposite, really. She just got more and more intense, more obsessed. I blame her husband, partly. She managed to find someone who likes volcanoes as much as she does. If anything, he likes volcanoes even more than she did. He said he grew up around volcanoes, and that both of his parents basically retired just so they could spend all their time at volcanoes. Look at them, he’d say. Happiest people in the world. They’re not worried about their IRA or 401K. All they need is some lava, and they’re happy. He convinced her that the ash and gases that volcanic eruptions produce aren’t nearly as dangerous as the doctors say they are. That’s just what they want you to believe. All these doctors are in the pockets of companies who want you to spend all your money on things that are supposed to keep you healthy when, really, volcanoes are less likely to kill you than a taxi is to run you over in the middle of a New York City crosswalk, he’d tell her. Despite his ever-red eyes, his unsightly burns, his charred clothing, my brother-in-law managed to hold down a lucrative, executive-level job. He made a lot of money, too—enough that my sister never had to work. She basically spent all her time planning trips to exclusive volcanoes in Mexico and the Caribbean, and buying herself polished obsidian jewelry—jet black, gleaming, garish, gaudy, but unabashedly beautiful. But it couldn’t hide the toll the volcanoes took on her. Her skin was sapped of its moisture, her hair was like straw, her voice had become raspy. Like us, they had children. Two of them. A boy and a girl. But theirs were always sullen. They looked undernourished, and it seemed like they never got enough sleep. Instead of piano lessons or ballet lessons or soccer practices, the kids spent most of their time being shuttled from one volcano to the next by my sister. She even got herself arrested by a Forest Ranger when she led her kids too close to the edge of one particularly angry volcano, which belched scalding gobs of molten rock from its cratered peak. Following the guidance of a lawyer my brother-in-law spent twenty grand on, she pleaded guilty and made an apologetic statement to the judge. Consequently, she only got slapped with a small fine and had to take volcano-safety classes, but privately she told everyone who would listen how the kids were never in danger and that the judges were all in the pockets of the anti-volcano lobby. Once her husband made enough money, they had a house built in walking distance to the largest, most active volcano in the entire state. So when I say that I saw her walking down into the volcano, I want to be clear that I was alarmed, but I was not surprised. Every time I would go see her these last ten or so years, all she would ever do is take me to either this volcano or that, urge me to get closer and closer to the lava, to breathe in the ash and sulfur dioxide. I felt uncomfortable with it, and I’d long ago felt she was endangering herself. This is why I visited her less and less over the years and stopped bringing my kids. On the day of her death, she seemed unable to concentrate on anything but lava. That morning, I’d set a mug of coffee down in front of her at the breakfast table and warned her it was hot. “Like lava,” she mumbled. “Not quite,” I said. “Too bad,” she muttered. And then, of course, we headed over to the volcano immediately after a breakfast of nothing but burnt toast. After warming her hands over small streams of lava, she seemed to cheer up a bit, as if she’d been half asleep. She even cracked a joke, though I couldn’t discern the punchline and it made me feel as if she was talking more to herself than to me. Then she hurried up to the rim. “Take it easy! What’s the rush?” I called after her. She turned around and glared at me. Then she kept going. “I’m serious!” I yelled. “Can we please do something else? Just for a little bit?” Once again, she turned and gave me a dark stare. “You always were a chicken,” she spat, her voice dripping with bitterness and defensiveness. “I just don’t want to get burned,” I said, trying to sound good humored but reasonable. “You just wait down there where you can be safe.” And then she added, “Safe to think you’re better than everyone else.” Her voice was full of hatred. She stalked off to the top. I watched her, disgusted and angry. I counted the days and then the hours and then the minutes until I was scheduled to go back home. I thought to myself, no matter how much my wife and I might like the occasional stroll around a volcano, taking in an eruption, I’d be just as fine if I never saw one again. And then I saw her start to disappear over the edge. “Billie!” I yelled after her. But I heard no response, and so I ran up the side of the mountain until she came back into view. And when I saw her again, she was walking slowly through the ash and into the interior, toward the cauldron of thick orange and yellow and white magma. “Billie, what are you doing?!” I screamed at her. “Go back, Patrick,” she said back to me, though I could barely hear her. “Well come with me, and I will!” I called back. “No,” she said. And then she said this, and I will never forget it: “You’re dead to me.” I was standing far too close to the volcano than I liked to be, but her words wounded me so deeply, I felt no heat, only hurt. “Don’t say that, Billie,” I said, my voice weak. “Godspeed,” she said and continued trudging through the cinders. A blast of heat forced me to take a step back, but I clambered up to see if I could catch another glimpse. She was still going, desceneding. I was about to yell after her once more, but then I heard her say, not to me, but to the inferno beneath her, “I’m coming. I’ll be there soon.” And that was the end. That was the last I saw my sister or heard her voice. I know it’s unthinkable that she willingly walked herself into a volcano. No one knew volcanos better than her, so no one knew the consequences of entering an active volcano as well as she did. So I get why it’s easier to think she just tripped or that she had an aneurysm or something like that. But I know that’s not what happened. I believe that what she lost her grip on wasn't the ground, but her own senses. But I think she was right about one thing: I was dead to her. We all were. Even herself.
--David Obuchowski is an established writer of longform essays and fiction. His non-fiction has appeared in Longreads, Salon, Jalopnik, The Awl, Fangoria and others. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The West Trade Review, Miracle Monocle, Border Crossing, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Garfield Lake Review, and many others. David is the creator, host, producer, and sole writer of the popular and acclaimed documentary series, Tempest, which was recently developed into a television series. His first children’s book is a collaboration with his wife, Sarah Pedry, and will be published in 2023 by Minedition (Astra Publishing House).