The Beach House, Part I

The Beach House, Part I

My dad used to say that standing in the surf looking out over the ocean was the closest he ever felt to being free.  He’d tell us that we were never really free, no matter what they said.  Putting a fragile stamp on a brick didn’t turn it into glass, he was always fond of saying.  It didn’t change what it was.

We owned a beach house down in Malibu, a nice, secluded place right on the beachfront that always felt more like home to me than our real house.  It was a cozy place, spacious but elegant in its simplicity and authenticity, not all decked out in technology and modern things the way a lot of the “nicer” ones usually are.  The walls were wood, both inside and out, so coarse and rough that you might think the entire house had been built up from driftwood planks washed ashore from a shipwreck.  I used to press my face up against the walls, closing my eyes and inhaling deeply through my nose, swearing I could still smell the salt from the ocean, soaked deep into the wood.

The house was painted a beautiful azure blue, like the bottom of the ocean on a hot summer’s day, with doors and window frames and the like painted white.  If the walls were the ship’s sides then the floors were the deck, built from dark, polished hardwood, worn and smoothened by all those years’ worth of feet treading across it.

The house was as close to the beach as you could get without being subjected to the tide, and the water was literally a stone’s throw away from the front door.  Granted not for me, not at that age at least.  The porch was my favourite place in the entire house, and it was where I’d spend the majority of my time when not at the beach itself.  Sitting under the canopy, lazily swinging back and forth in that old white rocking bench, its paint peeling and cracking around me as though time itself was passing me by, the sway of the chair synching with the push and pull of the ocean’s tide.  That was how I’d spend my summer afternoons, all those years ago; looking out over the horizon to where the sea met the sky.

It was just the three of us, most of the time.  Myself, Tara, and our father. Mom didn’t come down too often; she was never particularly fond of the beach.  She was the kind of woman who was more at home in a shopping mall or a country club, not so much the outdoors.  You know the one; tight, pursed lips, prim and proper personality, with designer dresses covered in colorful flower print, large sunhats and even larger sunglasses.  She had been raised into the lifestyle, her family the proud owners of a decent fortune dating back several years after a certain investment took a turn for the best.  A downside of her personality was that she could sometimes come off a bit pretentious, but behind the cold front was a very warm interior, and she was full of love, especially for us.

Dad was always the rough-and-tough one, the big lumberjack-type who was always on the verge of enveloping those around him in a crushingly nurturing bear hug, eager to take us camping and fishing and hiking and whatnot.  He had come from close to nothing but had built his name up in his trade and passion of choice (carpentry), and when the day came had knelt before our mother with a ring of sizeable worth and a bank account reflecting it, having earned every last penny.  Naturally she hadn’t cared much one way or another about this, but he had known it was important to her family that she didn’t marry “beneath her”, and indeed with this peace offering he managed to win them over as well.  Friends would often tease that they were the oddest pair that ever lived, but whether or not their differences had any effect on their relationship, either constructive or destructive, it couldn’t be denied that they loved one another terrifically.  That much was always obvious, even after.  Especially after.

The beach house was always the favourite of all the outings our father would take us on, and whenever we got the chance (and the say-so from Mom) we’d be out packing the car sooner than you could say “vacation”.  Mom would often watch from the front doorstep as we made the final preparations, a small smile plastered on her face.  Sometimes she’d come along, just to be there with us if not to take advantage of the beach, but most of the time she’d make excuses, some of which would be legitimate.  We didn’t mind too much though; it wasn’t that she was an absent parent figure, just that the beach house wasn’t her thing.  She made up for it tenfold the rest of the time. And there was something special about her staying behind.  I know how that sounds, and I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, but there was something intimate about it just being the three of us.  Dad would slide his massive frame into the front seat, squeezing behind the steering wheel, and he’d start the car, turning his body around to face us as he pulled out of the driveway, and he’d give us this wink, like there was this big secret that only we knew about, something only we were a part of.  It was a wonderful feeling, being part of something exclusive.  It’s strange, isn’t it? That to feel included we feel the need to exclude others?  That the more select the group is, the prouder you are to be a part of it?  It’s like you’ve passed some kind of test, and immediately if not always consciously, you feel superior to those who aren’t a part of it.  I guess that’s what it’s all about.  Feeling better about yourself, if only by feeling worse about others.  But I digress; of course I considered none of this as a child.  It’s only in looking back that we see how naïve we were.  Naïve and fragile.

My dad loved the beach house as much as we did; maybe even more.  Like I said before, while my pastime of choice was sitting on the porch, his was to stand right out in the surf, usually at sunrise or sunset.  Seeing him standing out there, hands on his hips or hanging limp at his sides, the back of his head betraying none of his thoughts, you couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking.  I would often watch him from my perch, wanting to go over to him, to see the expression on his face as if to get some kind of clue as to what he was thinking about.  I’d stare at the back of his head for what seemed like eternities, imagining what might be going on inside, what might be transpiring behind that wall.  Sometimes I’ll wake up in a cold sweat, chest heaving with each panicked breath as I try my best to shut out the image of my father’s head over the eternal spread of the ocean, of my arm reaching up, of my hand grabbing him by the shoulder, turning him around, his face the last thing I see before I wake.

He’d stand out there early morning or evening, ankle-deep in the sand as the waves rushed up over his shins, coming in strong and then retreating, leaving behind the froth which would cling to the mass of coarse hair on his legs.  I remember being fascinated with his leg hair when I was young.  Whenever he would settle down to read a book or watch television he’d set me down on his lap or at his feet, and I’d gently pick at the dark entanglement, brushing it gently down with my small hands.  Sometimes I’d pull too hard and he’d cry out, making me giggle.  Then he’d smile and place his hand atop my head, the already massive palm seeming enlarged in proportion to my tiny skull.  He’d rub it gently, my head shaking around a little as he did so.  Every now and then I think back to those times, and I think about all the force and power behind those hands, the same hands that would lift massive pieces of wood and operate heavy tools and machinery, and I wonder what might have happened if he had pressed just a little harder, or squeezed just a little tighter, and I wonder just how much effort it would have taken for him to crush my skull in his hands.

Last but not least was Tara; my younger sister by three years and a bit.  She had dark black hair that seemed to flow like ink spilt from a writer’s glass jar, an effect that was (to the best of my knowledge) unintentionally doubled by the feathers she would often braid into it.  She’d wear a different one every day, only going without when the formality of the family’s destination called for it, such as church or one of the many lawn socials held by relatives on our mother’s side of the family.  They were always feathers she herself had found; never store bought or artificial.  She’d collect them in this big old vintage trunk she had found in the beach house’s attic on our first stay, an ancient thing whose ivory-green shell was littered with old postage stamps and stickers, charming in its ugliness.

Whenever she’d come across a new feather, an occurrence that happened most if not always during walks along the beach front, she’d stoop down and gently pluck it up by the stem, raising it up in line with her eyes.  She’d study it for a while, looking for breaks in the barbs or damage to the stem or caked-on dirt, her small lips parted slightly in what could only be described as childlike awe and fascination.  Then she’d brush it off, preening the barbs so that they were all perfectly aligned and smoothened out, and she’d take it and race back to the house where she’d wash it with soap, being careful not to rip off any of the barbs.  She used to leave out washing them at all, but once mom found out she insisted on it, for fear of fleas or ticks or other such things.  Which, to be fair, was a reasonable enough concern, and in her added defense not once did she even consider suggesting that Tara throw out the feathers. That was the thing about our mother; with so many quirks and peculiarities herself she knew what it was to be eccentric.

When they had been sufficiently cleaned the feathers would be left on a windowsill to dry, often anchored beneath a small rock lest a sudden gust whisk away her cherished find.  Sometimes she’d forget to collect them, and as their numbers grew you’d see dozens of them littered all about the beach house.  They’d flutter across the floor with drafts, settle lightly on armrests and stairs, decorate the counters of the kitchen.  There was something magical about them, like the forgotten effects of fairies who’d been passing through the house.  Eventually they’d all be collected again, and carefully placed in that old trunk with the others, to be chosen as a hair accessory at a later date through a process understood only by Tara herself.

So there we’d be, the three of us: my sister on the beachfront, my father in the wake, and myself settled safely beneath the shade of the porch roof.  The rest of the time we’d spend our days playing in the sand, swimming, chasing one another in and out of the tide, our shrieks of joy and amusement echoing far across the beach.  We’d take walks along the beachfront together, going as far as the lighthouse peak where the sand turned to rock beneath our feet.  When the sun had dipped low beneath the horizon we’d retreat indoors for dinner and a board game, sometimes a movie.  They were good days, and the memories forged there have remained with me unblemished by the blur of time even to today.  Not a single one lies out of reach should I have the notion to recall it.

God help me, not a single one.

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The Beach House, Part II

The Beach House, Part II

After it all came out I think what surprised us most (the obvious aside) was the informality of it all.  Just a curt process server with a letter from Tara that we read in the living room, a letter that my mother couldn’t finish through her tears, that made my father as quiet and somber as I’d ever seen him, that made me shake my head in disbelief, unable to stop repeating the phrase “I don’t understand”, like a mantra designed to protect from all things out of my comprehension.

It had been my first visit home since accepting the journalism position at New York Times, and the family had been planning on a reunion-of-sorts, part congratulatory for my new job, and part time to play catch up with Tara, whom no one had seen or heard from for some time.  I remember the last real conversation I’d had with her before the letter: she’d mentioned having trouble sleeping and was seeing a therapist.

“A therapist?” I remember asking her, only half listening as I leafed through a report for work.  “For sleep problems?  Don’t you think that’s a bit drastic?”

“It’s not just the sleep.  There’s… other things, too.  Besides, Kimmy says everyone should see a therapist anyways.  It’s good for you.”

“Yeah, sure.  Okay well, listen, I gotta go, but let me know how that works out.”

“Will do.  Bye.”

“Bye.  Love ya.”

Fast forward three weeks, and we were crowded around the letter in the living room of my childhood home, a room that would never be the same again.  My father was the first to try and take control of the situation.

“I think…” he cleared his throat, voice shaky and eyes misty, and started over.  “It would mean a lot to me, Jesse, if you spent the night.”

I nodded, head bobbing up and down one too many times, like a buoy caught in rough waters.  “Jesus, dad, of course.  I’m here.  I’m here.”

He nodded, managing a tight-lipped smile as he clasped my shoulder, for whose support I still don’t know.  My mother was still on the verge of hysteria, so I sat down and did my best to comfort her.

“Why would she do this?” my mother was saying between sobs.  “How could she do this?  How could she say such… such terrible things?”

“I don’t know, Mom.  I don’t know.”  But as I held her close, her tears soaking into my shirt collar, I realized I did know.  Her therapist, Kimmy.  That bitch had filled her mind with bullshit, planted seeds of darkness where before there’d been nothing but good memories, memories of a pure and innocent childhood.  I didn’t say anything then, for fear of upsetting my parents anymore than they already were, but it was in that moment that my mind was made up.

Not even once did I consider the possibility.

I went to see her the very next day.  I didn’t talk this through with my parents, and if they knew they made no effort to ask me about it – not even after.  Mom was still borderline hysterical, sobbing throughout the night, but dad had an air of defeat, of numb resignation that somehow struck me as even more depressing.  I remember thinking how terrible it was, that the claim alone could completely shatter them, shatter us.  Technically nothing had changed – not yet, not officially – but even so nothing would ever be the same.  The lives we’d lived up to that point, the relationships we’d forged with one another, had been shattered beyond repair by nothing more than a few words printed on a letter.  How fragile we are.

I drove down to her flat in the city, just over two hours from mom and dad’s, and hammered on her door until she answered.  Her eyes were red and puffy, cheeks stained with mascara and tears, and I remember being struck speechless by just how much she’d looked like our mother the night before.  For a moment I forgot that Tara was the one who’d inflicted this pain upon us, and my heart ached with the nonsensical thought that we were in this together, that I had to comfort her just as I’d comforted our mother the night before.  Then her face crumpled in on itself and she fell into me, locking me in a hug as her body shook, and I remembered with something like disgust that it was her fault all this was happening.

I pushed her away, suddenly overcome with a terrible rage.  “Tara, what the fuck?”

She wore an expression of puzzlement, still too confused to be hurt.

“How could you do this?” I continued, stepping forward aggressively.  “Why would you do this?  Do you have any idea what you’ve done to us?  To mom?  To dad?”

At this a flicker of understanding flashed across her face, and she took an instinctive step back into her apartment.  “Jesse…”  But this seemed to be all she could manage, and like a hunter closing in for the kill I took full advantage of her hesitation.

“How could you?  How could you let this… this bitch fill your mind with these lies?  How could you be so fucking weak?”  She flinched at my words as if each stung with the force of a whip, eyes downcast as she closed in on herself.  In my rage I took this for a sign of guilt, and feeling I’d made my point, felt my blood start to cool.

“You… you don’t believe me.”  She spoke so softly that at first I thought I’d misheard her.  “I thought… I thought of all people, you’d stand by me.”  Her eyes stayed down, refusing to meet my own.  “I guess I should have known better.”

There isn’t much more to tell.  The case never made it to trial, coming to a close on the district attorney’s desk – lack of evidence, too much time had passed, etc.  In the end it boiled down to he-said/she-said, and there was no way to prove anything.  I don’t remember feeling happiness though; in fact I don’t think any of us were happy, really.  Relieved, maybe, but with everything that had happened it was hard to imagine us ever being happy again.  It was like coming home to find your house had been broken into: there was a lingering sense of violation, like your sanctuary, the one place you were supposed to be safe, would never be the same again.  Something was stolen from us, something that could never be returned.

I didn’t see Tara after the encounter at her loft, and to the best of my knowledge our parents never saw her either.  There were times I thought about going over to talk but they never came to fruition – I was always stopped by the thought of what I would say, what I could say.  Part of me wanted to apologize, to let her know that it wasn’t her fault, that she’d only served as the patsy in a sadistic attempt by her therapist to con a rich family out of some cash.  Part of me was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to look at her without feeling my gut clench and my throat clam up, and so long as I put it off I would never have to admit to myself that some things could never be forgiven.

Eventually I drifted away from my parents as well, a process that began with my inevitable move back to New York but which continued as my calls grew more and more infrequent.  I could have blamed it on my work, on the time-difference, even on the simple fact that life moves on, but the truth was it became too much to talk to them, to see them.  Our phone calls and video chats felt strained, almost forced, and no matter what we did the inescapable shadow of all that had happened hung over us like a dark cloud.  I think it was the same for them, because pretty soon they stopped calling too.

It’s hard to say exactly when I realized it.  Like most things in life it crept up on me, advancing upon its prey in the form of nagging thoughts, vague feelings at the back of my mind.  Part of me thinks it was always there, tucked away in a dark corner of my mind that I’d simply refused to acknowledge, just as Tara had refused to acknowledge it up until the moment her therapist dragged it out into the light.  Sometimes I’ll wish it wasn’t so, and I’ll try to convince myself that I didn’t know, that there was no way I could have known, but deep down I know this is just my guilty conscience trying to relieve itself of the burden.

Regardless of how long it had lingered in the back of my mind, the realization struck me in its full one night just over a month after.  That same night I went to the airport and caught the first flight back on an impulse.  No, not an impulse; it was something I had to do, something I’d been meaning to do for a long time, even without realizing it.  There was none of the excitement or passion that came with an impulsive move – it was a numbing calm which settled over me as I paid for the ticket, which remained even as I slept through the flight, landing in California sometime around four in the morning.

I paid for a rental at the airport and drove straight there, like a puppet on a string, filled with the sort of resolute purpose one can only find in a creature without a choice.  Because there was no choice – not for me, at least.  There was no question of what I had to do, only that I had to do it.

I made one stop along the way, at a gas station, where I bought and filled a canister before carrying on my way.

The beach house was just as I’d remembered it.  Even in the quiet stillness of the night it stood defiant against the dark, a landmark of my childhood.  We’d sold it some years back, and this was my first time seeing it in over two decades, but it could have been yesterday.

I stood with my back to the shore, the quiet roar of the tide like a great and powerful beast just behind me, like the edge of the universe itself nipping at my heels, a dark oblivion into which I could fall back and cast all my memories to the void.  I closed my eyes, felt the wind brush over my skin, allowed the waves to rush over my mind, enveloping my thoughts and washing clear all I’d ever known.

“It really is a beautiful place.”

I turned, knowing who I’d find but wanting to see her face all the same.  “Is it?”

She smiled, eyes never leaving the house.  “Of course.”

“Oh.”  For a moment I felt confused, embarrassed even.  “I’m sorry.”

She laughed, and a vision hit me then, a vision of feathers blowing in the wind, more vivid than anything I’d ever seen with my own eyes.  “Don’t be.  What it is and what it represents are two different things, and even if destroying the latter also requires destroying the former, it was still a very nice gesture.”

I considered this for a moment, turning back to the house.  “I did love it.”

“Me too,” she agreed softly.  Through the windows a faint orange glow had begun to light up the dark.  “Not much longer now,” she remarked, almost to herself.

“I’m sorry.”

“I already told you; you don’t have to be.”

“No- I mean, about everything else.”  My voice cracked and before I knew it my face was streaked with tears.  “God, Tara, I’m so sorry.  I should have been there for you.  Even if I hadn’t known, I should have been there.  And instead I called you a liar-”

“Jesse.”  She took me by the shoulders, looking at me for the first time.  “It’s not your fault.  It was never your fault.”

“But I should have been there for you!”

Her expression softened.  “Yeah.  Yeah, maybe you should have.  But you’re here now, and that’s all that matters.”  She pulled me into an embrace, holding me tight as I cried, holding me as I should have held her that day.  “Shh, it’s alright.  It’s alright, Jesse.  It’s alright.”  We rocked steadily together in the light of the orange glow, two broken people holding onto one another for support.  Fragile, but not alone.

When the police finally came the house was gone, reduced to a smoldering black pile of ashes and ruins.  I knew it had to be done, but looking at it my heart ached all the same – as much for what it had become as for what it had been.  I made no move to resist as they pulled me gently to my feet from where I’d collapsed in the sand, slapping a pair of handcuffs on and leading me back to the main road.

She was standing out in the surf when I looked back, the water lapping over her ankles.  The sun had started to rise, seeming to emerge from the waters as it made its way up into the sky.  At first I thought she might leave me with that sight, my last vision of her forever incomplete, but at the last second she turned, a smile on her face.

│

The face of a blank white page stares back at me.  I am thankful at least for the small mercy that the screen is not black, lest it be my own blank face which fills my vision.  Nowadays it is no small matter to look myself in the eyes.  Only when I must make myself presentable before a run to the store for provisions and the occasional accidental passing glance do I find myself observing my reflection, and even then I never, ever make eye contact with that other.

The text cursor winks back at me, taunting my stagnation.  Like a metaphor for my motivation it flashes on and off, on and off, caught in a never-ending routine that gets old fast.  It stands out, black and bold and strong against the plain white background, but is swallowed up once more before anything of significance can happen.  Oh, and the best part: when I start to type the line disappears completely, only flickering back into its routine when I’ve run out of things to say.

They tell you the first step in overcoming writer’s block is simply to write.  Just write something.  It doesn’t matter what, it doesn’t matter if it’s any good or not, it just doesn’t matter.  As long as you’re writing.  I call bullshit.  Clearly whoever said that never actually had to struggle through sentence after sentence of unrelenting and unforgiving shit writing.  It’s painful to read, far less to write.  No matter what you do the words just don’t seem to want to work together, the sentences sound bland or repetitive, the whole thing feels forced and fake.  It’s like a sweater that fits too tight, or a piece of food lodged in your throat.  You want to take it off and feel the relief of your constraints being lifted, you want to spit it out and sing, but you can’t.  You’re stuck with it.

The house is empty.  It has been for a while now.  I’ve stopped keeping track of the days as they lazily float by, tiny white boxes on a checkered paper, seven-by-five, month after month, year after year.  It’s all just time, and it no longer has any bearing on my life.  It’s curious how quickly the things that once seemed so important, the fundamentals that made up the basis of your life, the structural guidelines society not only built itself around but thrives upon, fall apart and crumble the second you turn your back on them.  It really gives you a sense of how fragile everything is.

The lights are off, have been off since she left.  The blinds are drawn, haven’t been open for just as long.  As a result the house is always dark.  It makes it easier for me to avoid accidental run-ins with that other, and to turn a blind eye to the mess I’ve been living in.  I’ve been sitting in front of this damned white screen, like a moth to a flame, for as long as I can remember.  It’s the last bit of light left in my world.

I want to smother it out with darkness.

I want to coat it in the oil slick of my black words, to fill it with the dark whispers in my head, to corrupt it and corrode it and beat it senseless simply for being light in a dark world.  I love it.  I envy it.  I hate it.

I know that if I don’t do this, it will leave me too.

“I can’t stand to see you like this,” she told me that day, tears in her eyes.  “You can’t ask me to stand by and do nothing.  I won’t do it.”  I said nothing as she packed her things, standing in the bedroom doorway and watching her work, her body shaking.  I did nothing when she kissed me on the cheek, a gentle caress that felt like goodbye because it was, her lips softly brushing against my skin, her tears wiping off onto my face.  I made no move to stop her as she walked out of the apartment, her suitcase trailing behind, head hanging low.  I didn’t wave as she looked back one last time, just before pushing open the front door and vanishing from my life, her scarf blowing in the wind.

When she was gone I proceeded to trash the place, sweeping ornaments off of tables and counters, whipping dishes against the wall and taking feral satisfaction in watching them break apart, shattering against the wall and falling back to earth in pieces.  I kicked the furniture over, punched holes in the walls, drank myself into a state of inebriation so severe that I was unconscious before my rampage could go any further.

She doesn’t get it, you see.  No one gets it.  They all want another bestselling novel, another critically acclaimed masterpiece, but none of them want to wade through the grime and shit to get to it.  They all want the diamond at the end, but none of them want to press that filthy grit into shape, to have to suffer through the suffocating pressure of it all.

What they don’t understand is that what makes it great is that it’s real.  You don’t just make that shit up.  It comes from an ugly hole inside of you, a festering pit of putrid, rotten filth, like a gaping mouth demanding nourishment.  It is my God, my unforgiving, cruel, merciless God, and it demands sacrifice.

Without warning the laptop dies, and I’m left staring into the eyes of the other.

“No, no, no, no.”  I scramble for the cord, but I lean too far in my chair and it falls, taking me with it.  My head hits the table corner on the way down, and I’m out like a light.

When I come to I’m lying on my side, and directly across from my face is the laptop.

“You know what you did,” the other whispers.  I shake my head, tears welling up in my eyes.

“No.  No, I didn’t know.”

“How could you not have known?”

“I didn’t know!”

“Yes you did.”

“It was an accident!” I scream, slamming the laptop closed with such force that the screen breaks, scattering bits of the broken glass across the floor.  There is a moment of silence, in which my heave breathing seems doubled, and then I see him again in the largest of the broken pieces, staring up at me.

“She was only trying to help, and look what you did.”

“Please, stop.”  I’m sobbing now, tears and snot running down my face.

“LOOK AT WHAT YOU DID!” he screams, and I look.  God help me, I look.  In the dark I can just make out the contours of her figure, lying where I left her.

“It was an accident,” I say again, but now the words sound weak even to me.

“You knew what you were doing.”

“I didn’t, I swear I didn’t.”

“You were stuck in a rut, and you took your frustrations out on her.  She was just trying to help, and look at what you did.”

“I only wanted her to stay.  I didn’t want her to leave.”

“I bet now you’re wishing she had left though, aren’t you?  That’s why you tried to convince yourself she had.  Because you couldn’t face what you’d done.”

“I JUST WANTED HER TO STAY!  God, Jesus Christ, I just wanted her to stay.”

“Well she’s certainly not going anywhere now, is she?”

“LEAVE ME ALONE!”  I grab the piece of glass and bury it in my neck, desperate to stop the voice.  And it does stop, at least for a moment.  Then it comes back, one final taunt barely intelligible from the blood welling up in my throat.

“I’m sorry, can I just cut in here for a second?”

“Hm?  Yeah, sure, go ahead.”

“Well, it’s just that… look, I’m not going to sugar coat it, Bill.”

I laugh.  “That’s what you’re here for, Mike.”

“Right, well- the psychotic writer plagued by his own demons, it’s been done before.  A lot.  Honestly by this point is a well-exhausted cliché.  And the story has no flow.  One minute it’s a monologue on writer’s block, the next it’s straight dialogue between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?  I mean, come on.”  He grins, realizes he’s being a dick, and tries again.  “Look, we know- I know, that from someone like you, this is fodder.  Compared to your old stuff?  This is amateur hour, Bill.  It’s good, but…”

“But not from someone of my caliber,” I finish.  He raises his palm in my direction, as if displaying what I’d just said.

“Exactly.  Not from someone of your caliber.  Truth is, you can do better.  I know it, you know it, everyone knows it.”

“So, scrap it?”

“Well… maybe not scrap it, but definitely back shelf it for now.  I’m sure we can work it into a short story anthology or something later on the line.  We’ll see what comes up.  Alright?”

“Alright.  Hey, thanks Mike.  I can always count on you to be honest with me.  Brutally so,” I add, and we laugh.  We talk a little longer, finishing our coffees and discussing other things, and then we say our farewells.

“Oh, Bill?” he asks, just as I’m turning to leave.

“Yeah?”

“What’s with the scarf, man?  It’s like, thirty degrees out there.”

I grin, making a bow.  “Dramatic effect,” I tell him, still bowing as I back out of his office, passing just beneath the mirror on his wall.

Memoir into Madness / Ashes

Memoir into Madness / Ashes

She’s the girl you see in lecture hall, the one at the far end of the room with whom you make brief eye contact once and whose eyes haunt you night after night as you lie awake in bed staring up into the darkness. She’s the girl you pass by as you make your way down the airplane’s rows, looking for your seat, and who occupies your thoughts the entire flight though you never see her again. She’s the girl you pass in a crowd, whose face seems to draw your gaze like a moth to a flame just before it is blown out by the wind, as much gone from sight as it isn’t from mind.

You pass her and you find yourself thinking, I could love you. I could be there for you, I could know you, I could hold you in the night and stand by you in the day. You imagine a life together, you construct a personality for her and a situation in which you happen to start up a conversation, and your eyes meet and you fall in love. The flame is gone, but the fire’s only just started.

It hits you one day, but you only recognize it later if at all, like the delayed development of a bruise from a punch inflicted during a drunken bar fight several nights before. The faces have piled up, the stories lie atop one another like slides on a projector, each word and letter blurred and unidentifiable from the next, until all that is projected is a mess, a shapeless blob of dark figures faceless in the crowd. You forget where fiction ends and reality begins, and some days you can’t distinguish memories from imaginations, fantasies from realities. But the faces keep coming, the stories keep rolling out. I could love you. You fall for face after face, and some of the old ones make reappearances, surely a sign that they are significant, a sign that you are meant to be. Coincidence is a foreign concept, fate is all you know, blind to the irony of your own ignorance, the tragic flaw in your beliefs ever evasive beneath your nose.

You’re convinced in the existence of true love, of destiny, and yet the impossibility of this is reflected in each face you fall for. But you ignore it, so preoccupied with falling in love that you don’t realize that you’re not. And the fire rages on.

You no longer sleep at night, spending the time vainly sorting through the stories, trying  to organize and sort them in order of likelihood and appeal. Your days are no better, and you lose your grip on life as you trade it for something that doesn’t exist. You feel alienated from the world, which inexplicably remains stagnantly contradictory to the fantasies you entertain, as though it has betrayed you.

You stop making eye contact with the people you pass by, afraid you’ll feel that all-too familiar click again, that brief cry which echoes on inside your skull for an eternity afterwards, adding to the already deafening screams of those who have already contributed. I could love you. You fear your head will split open at the seams if you fall another time, and whether through your own imaginings developing a placebo effect or simply a symptom of the sleep deprivation, you suffer raging migraines on a regular basis. Your appearance acts as a reflection of your descent: your eyes are permanently shadowed, the sockets hollowed; your skin pale and at times clammy; and your hands shake so violently that you have developed a habit of firmly gripping onto whatever is in reach to still them, lest they betray your weakness.

The fire consumes you. Soon you stop going out in public altogether, only making runs for food and other necessities before scurrying back to your room like a rat fearing capture. You imagine you can feel them staring at you, their eyes boring holes into the back of your skull, cracking open the bone and exposing the stories hidden beneath, pouring through the holes and flowing out into the air like black ink in water. Your secrets, exposed. Vulnerable. You start imagining that you can hear their thoughts, their cruel whispers behind your back as you pass, hissing their contempt for you. They can see it, they know you are pathetic, you are unlovable, you are unfaithful. They see you for what you are and they laugh and sneer.

You sit on the edge of your bed and pick through your stories, broken and incomplete, feebly lifting them like dead things, half expecting them to come to life in your hands. But when you loosen your grip they drift downwards like fragile, crumpled ashes, as lifeless as they were from the start. They litter the ground, empty husks and hollow duplicates of something living and beautiful. They offer you no consolation. You stare down at the fragments of lives you have never lived and will never live, and you whisper five words, your voice hoarse and broken, scarcely more than an exhale, the sound of a dying flame, the final snuff of a fire as it is forever extinguished.

I could have loved you.

Cheshire

Cheshire

My brother used to have a mug; one of the ones with a picture on the side that changes when it heats up.  The picture on this particular mug was of Cheshire Cat (the original, mind you; not the Disney one), sitting up on a branch, staring down at a young and rather startled Alice.  In one corner of the mug there was the quote “Well, I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat!  It’s the most curious thing!”  And, of course, in accordance with the words of Alice, when the cup was filled with the hot beverage of choice (in Alphie’s case it was always straight dark roast) dear old Cheshire would disappear, leaving only his grin, floating in the air.

Looking back now, I see with equal amounts of surprise and understanding that I had never really questioned its presence, or more specifically its origin.  Understandable under normal circumstances, I suppose; after all, it was a mug.  As far as I know people don’t usually keep track of their sibling’s dishes.  But in this case it was more than that.  It had been a constant in my life, something that was always there, always in the background.  For as long as I could remember he had had it, even as far back as when we were kids.  With every memory I recall the mug makes another appearance, and I can’t help but think how blind I had been, not to have noticed it for so long.  And yet I know why I’d never acknowledged it, or more accurately never allowed myself to acknowledge it.  Hence the equal amounts of surprise and understanding.  To make use of an old cliché, it all makes sense now.  The mug had always been there, lurking in the background, but like a lot of things in my life, I’d simply never brought it up.  At least, not until about a month ago.

I had spent the night, a drunken mess afraid to go home to a girlfriend who had warned of the last straw.  It wasn’t the first time either; Alphie and I had reached a sort of unspoken agreement that I could always count on him to cover my ass, especially my drunken ass, and that his door was always open to me, no matter the time of day (which more often than not was sometime around two in the morning.

Immediately after waking, sprawled out over the couch in his living room, I was overcome by that incomparable sensation of a right powerful hangover, the kind that washes away all other thoughts as though wiping the slate clean of the night before.  It was just a feeling, so intense and foreign (yet uncomfortably familiar) that my mind could not cope.  If I had to compare it to anything, I would say it was probably how a computer might feel when being reset.  For the briefest of moments nothing else existed, not even a concept of pain.  Everything else was gone.  There was no sense of who I was, where I was, what I was feeling.  It was like my mind was so overwhelmed that it couldn’t even decide what it was feeling, and was so preoccupied with sorting through the sudden rush of incoming data that it couldn’t be bothered with even the most basic of functions.  I was nothing but a series of reddish blurs in the darkness, an indescribable sensation in a series of nerves.  I was nothing.

It was a release.

Then it was over , just as soon as it had begun, and like a druggie coming down from a high the real world rushed back in with painful vengeance.  Suddenly the feelings were being processed, categorised, and the overall consensus was discomfort.  Intense discomfort.  The sensations were so powerful I felt as though my body would be incapable of containing them all, that I would expand or explode.  Unfortunately neither of these things happened, and instead my mind adjusted accordingly to match the almost global proportions of my sensation overload.

I was the Earth.  My mouth had become the desert, my head a volcano on the verge of eruption, and my bladder home to all the ocean.  I shifted onto my side with a groan of pain, bringing my wrist up in line with my eyes, and squinting through the tears and blurriness to read the time on my watch.  7:00 am.  Fuck.  Thirty-four years, and it still happened every morning.  No matter what time I went to bed, no matter how tired I still was, no matter how much I had had to drink the night before.  Always 7:00.  My arm went limp, swinging back down to my side, and my vision settled on a bottle of Advil and a glass of water set on the coffee table in front of me.  Despite the pain, I managed a grin.  The old bastard never let me down.

I sat up and the volcano erupted, and the searing white burst of pain was almost enough to knock me back down, but I held fast, gritting my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut, one hand pressed to my forehead and the other reaching blindly for the Advil.  I took three, washing them down with the water, and then took three more after a brief reconsideration.  I sat there for a while, completely still with my eyes closed, waiting for the drugs to do their thing, taking the time to think about what I would say to my girlfriend.  I stayed like that for what felt like an hour, just sitting there thinking, waiting, until eventually the bladder urgency outweighed the pain of moving and I was forced to go to the washroom.

The ocean successfully drained, I spent some time at the sink, washing my face in cold water and combing my fingers through my hair in a rather futile attempt to make myself more presentable.  It really didn’t matter, after all Al had seen me a hundred times worse, and it wasn’t like I cared.  But I did it anyways, and I knew Alphie would approve, even if he didn’t really care.  It didn’t make sense, but it was what it was. We were a strange pair, my brother and I.  Such dedication to appearances. It’s strange that I only see these things now.

He was out on the back porch when I came out of the bathroom; I could see him through the window wall in the kitchen that overlooked the entire backyard.  He was sitting at the table with his back to me, facing the sunrise over the forest at the edge of his property line.  I stood there for a moment, watching him, wondering what he was thinking as I so often did.  The coffee maker’s click startled me back into the real world, and I noticed he had set out a plate for me for breakfast, with scrambled eggs and bacon.  I grabbed cutlery from the drawer and a mug from the cupboard, and in accordance with one of our many unspoken agreements, grabbed the coffee pot and brought it out with me.

“About time,” he said, without turning his head from the sunrise.  “I’d been beginning to think you may have finally cracked it.  Come on then; I’ve been dying for that coffee.”

I smiled, making my way over.  “Good morning to you too brother, it’s always so good to see you.”

“Oh, dispense with the socially compulsory pleasantries, why don’t we.  Why do we always have to say things that other people already know?  I think conversations should be about saying things that the other person doesn’t already know, and about avoiding the sharing of mutually known information as best we can.  Now, bring over that coffee.”  I obeyed, revelling in his presence.  It may have been childish of me, but even then I had looked up to my brother, had practically worshipped the ground he walked upon.  Not to say that there was an imbalance in our relationship as adults, but sometimes I would just find myself marvelling him.

“Thanks for breakfast.”

“Again, with the mutually known information.  I know you appreciate the breakfast, and you know you appreciate the breakfast, so why say it out loud?”

“Because it’s only right to show other people your appreciation.  Don’t you feel good when I thank you?  Doesn’t it make you feel good?”

He shifted in his chair.  “How I feel is inconsequential.”

“Ah. You’re in a mood.”

“Shut up and eat your breakfast.”  We were both grinning now, and again I obeyed, shovelling the scrambled eggs into my mouth and thinking that nothing had ever tasted so good.  He poured the coffee, first in my mug, and then his own.  “Sleep well?” he asked, filling the mug to the brim before levelling out the flow.  I opened my mouth to answer him, my eyes briefly catching on the picture on his mug, and suddenly the words dried up in my gaping mouth.  Cheshire had begun to fade away in front of my eyes and Alice’s, and soon only his grin was left, hovering in the air between a suspiciously cat-shaped space in the tree’s leaves.  “Hello?”

“Huh?”

“You okay?”

“What?”

“Are you okay?  You just… zoned out for a minute there.”

I blinked, still staring at the mug.  “…Yeah.  Yeah, no, I’m good.  Listen; where did you get that mug?”

“What?”

“That mug,”  I said, pointing.  “The one with Cheshire.”

He frowned, clearly perplexed by my question, but after a moment he just shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I can’t remember; I’ve had it so long.  Why are you freaking out?  I mean, it’s not like this is the first time you’ve seen it.  Not that freaking out would be an acceptable reaction upon seeing it the first time either.  I mean, it’s not exactly a ground-breaking advancement; it’s a mug that changes colour with temperature change.  Whoop-de-doo.”

“I’m not freaking out.  And yes, I know I’ve seen it before, but that’s just it.  It’s only just occurred to me that I have no idea where it came from.”

“So?  It’s my mug, and I’ve had it for a long time, and even I don’t know where it came from, so it’d be weird if you did and I didn’t.  I assume I bought it one day, just like every other piece of dishware I own, as is hopefully the case with you and everyone else.  I mean, do you know anyone who keeps a detailed account of every dish they buy?  Do you have any idea where that mug came from?”  He gestured to my own mug, a rather plain if not bright orange one in comparison.  “And before you respond, I have to say, it’d be rather strange if you did.”

No, I don’t know where this mug came from, but it’s different.  For as far back as I can remember, you’ve had that mug, and yet neither of us can remember where it came from.  I don’t know, it just struck me as odd for some reason.  Forget it.”  I took a sip of coffee, ignoring his gaze as he studied my face, presumably looking for a glowing neon sign that said ‘losing my mind’.

“You okay?”  he asked eventually, as I had known he would.  “Is everything… okay with Cheryl?”

I sighed, resting the mug back down on the tabletop.  “If by okay you mean same as usual…”

“Don’t I always,” he quipped.

“…then yes.  Everything is more or less the same.  But the same gets exhausting, doesn’t it?  After a while, you start hoping for some change.  Any change.  Good, bad, ugly, anything.”

“Then why didn’t you go home last night?”

I scoffed.  “Because man was made a coward, and because I don’t intend on facing change of any kind when I’m drunk.”

He laughed, raising his strange, omnipresent mug in my direction.  “I’ll drink to that.”

“I think that saying only applies to alcoholic drinks.”

“Says who?  The act of drinking is the same regardless of what you’re drinking.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, I just think that’s the way it is.”

“Fuck the way it is.”  We chuckled together, under the light of the morning sun in the brisk chill of the morning air.  That was the last good memory I had of us together, just the two of us, happy.

He killed himself two weeks later.

His neighbour found him, quite by chance, when he went over to return some household appliance of one kind or another.  I don’t remember what it was.  A lawnmower, maybe. Al’s car had been parked in the driveway, so after a few minutes of waiting, the neighbour started to get worried.  Later on he claimed he had ‘had a bad feeling from the start’ otherwise he wouldn’t have thought that much of it.  In other words he would have just assumed my brother had been on the shitter, rather than lying in a bathtub filled to the brim with a mixture of water and the blood that had flowed from his own slit wrists.

He ended up calling Al a few times, both on his cell and on the house phone, and when that didn’t work he called the cops.  The knock on my door came about four hours later.  My girlfriend held me in the doorway where I collapsed, held me as I cried like a child, cried with no regard, no thought for the two policemen awkwardly standing before us.

At the funeral, I kept hearing the same phrases muttered under heavy breaths over and over again, numb and disbelieving.

“…he was such a happy man…”

“…how could this have happened…”

“…always had a smile on his face…”

“…didn’t see it coming…”

The realisation hit me halfway through my eulogy, and it hit me hard.  My speech cut off, and I began to choke up, staggering backwards as though hit by a physical blow.  I imagine the crowd’s reactions would have been interesting, but I can’t remember any of it.  Suddenly all I could see was that mug, that damned mug being filled with darkness, Cheshire fading away, his smile fixed in place with nothing to support it.  Other visions began to flash through my mind, visions of an approaching shadow outside a bedroom door left ajar, visions of thin, pale hands buttoning the top buttons of white collared dress shirts, visions of two young boys standing side by side in a church pew, hair combed neatly to one side, visions of red lips pursed tight in a grim, ominous smile.  And then they were gone, and I was back in my childhood, to a memory I hadn’t even known was there.

We were at the zoo, the three of us walking side by side.  I was young, somewhere around six, my brother no older than ten.  Our mother, a prim and proper character who seemed to tower over our world, could have had the entirety of her essence summed up in one word: stick.  Her figure was as thin as one, her patience just as quick to snap, her lashes just as severe, and she lived like she had one lodged firmly up her ass.  The Stick. Had we been more creative (or rather more daring) as children we might have called her that behind her back, in hushed tones and giggles beneath bedsheets at night, the security of our small world illuminated by a tiny flashlight.  But we had been raised better than that.

The zoo was one of many regular family outings we would partake in throughout the week, none of which were for the benefit of the family itself, ironically enough.  We all knew what they were really about, even at that young age.  We knew, but never spoke of it.  That was one of the great rules of our family: certain things were never spoken of.

Despite the rather unfortunate underlying intent of our outings my brother and I still managed to enjoy ourselves, or at the very least as best we could.  After all, we were young boys, and such matters held little sway over our perceptions of the world.  And the zoo had always been one of our favourites.  Even then, I like to think that we had felt more than just the usual fascination for the creatures, that somewhere in our subconscious minds there was an awareness of a kindred relation between us and those poor creatures, both locked away behind bars which everyone saw yet no one acknowledged.

We were in the felidae section of the zoo that evening, walking between the cages of magnificent beasts, docile and submissive behind their bars.  We did not stop to watch each one in turn, did not pause a moment to read the signs hung over the cage doors containing little tidbits on the creature hidden in the shadows before us.  We walked forwards, my mother possessive of a purposeful stride poorly disguised as a leisurely stroll.  We had learnt long before that straying behind (or ‘lollygagging’ as our mother called it) was unacceptable to the highest degree, and as such out of the question.  So we kept pace, our eyes quickly darting from side to side in an attempt to gain their fill of each creature we passed before they were gone again, passed by with no chance of returning for a second look. That was how things were with us.  We passed things by and never looked back.

You see, we didn’t go to the zoo to see the beasts.  We went to the zoo so the beasts could see us.

It was on that particular day that a wrinkle arose in our mother’s plans, the plans she so meticulously ironed.  My brother tripped and fell on a crag in the concrete walkway.  I saw it happen, because I happened to be looking in his direction to the creatures there.  His body fell forwards, and his bare knees scraped against the ground, his hands opening up before him, the skin on his palms grating.  He shot up almost as fast as he had fallen, looking startled and rather dazed, as though unsure of what had just transpired.  I watched him, my mouth agape, and then simultaneously, like trained dogs, we both looked to my mother for an indication of what would happen next.  She was staring at him, and while I couldn’t see her face from where I stood I knew she was pursing her lips.

“I- I’m sorry, mother-” poor Alphie began, stuttering as he so often did when talking to our mother.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he fought to come up with an adequate apology, stammering through unrecognisable words and phrases.  I realised he was going to cry, and a feeling of dread formed in the pit of my stomach.  Suddenly she crouched over, grabbing him by the shoulders.  Passersby would have seen nothing more than a mother comforting her son, making sure he was okay.  Only I could see the indents in my brother’s shirt sleeves where the fingers dug in hard and deep.  Only the three of us heard my mother’s tone, her voice low and dark, like a cat crouching in the shadows of the undergrowth as it crept up upon its prey, the eerie and ominous calm before the explosion.

“Don’t you dare cry,” she had said that day, looking right into my brother’s eyes.  “I don’t care how much it hurts.  Don’t you dare cry.  I want you to smile.”  She spoke through gritted teeth, bared in a menacingly fake smile.  “I want you to smile, even if it hurts.  Especially if it hurts.  I want you to smile and I want you to never stop smiling.  Even when there’s nothing behind it, I want you to smile until the day you die.  Do you understand me?”  Alphie looked up to her, the tears drying in his eyes, and he nodded.  And then he smiled.

Later that day we found ourselves in the zoo’s gift shop, and my mother bought Alphie a gift, “for being such a brave little man.”  It was a mug, the kind with a picture on the side that changes when it heats up.

They put me in the mental-health clinic almost immediately after the funeral, under suicide watch.  I’ve been here since, wasting away in a bed that can move up or down whenever I want.  It’s been a month now, 31 days since my brother killed himself, 45 days since I noticed the mug and brought it up.  I spend my days going over that moment again and again, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering if I could have stopped him, wondering if it was my fault somehow, for noticing the mug and bringing it up.  I know the answer, but it’s easier to pretend I don’t and to keep dwelling on it than it would be to accept the truth.  I’m not ready for that.  I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.

People come and go, visiting me for a little while every few days just to make sure I’m still alive, just to say that they made the effort.  It’s all about appearances, darling.  There are no repeat guests; once is enough, and they never stay longer than is required to realize they’re not getting anywhere.  My girlfriend is the only one who comes more than once, and even she has stopped coming as often, the days between visits growing exponentially since the first time.

“They’re thinking of letting you go,” she said earlier today, sitting on the bedside, idly picking at her fingernails to avoid having to make eye contact.  “They say you’ve been okay, but they want to make sure it’s okay with you.  They just need some sign that you’re going to be alright.”  I didn’t respond.  I was staring directly ahead, at the wall, at something that wasn’t there.  She started to cry, sniffling quietly.  “You’re breaking my heart, Chester.”  She turned to me, eyes red, looking for a reaction, a sign that I cared, a sign that I was still alive.  At least we had that much in common: looking for things that weren’t there.

She cried for a bit longer, her stifled sobs echoing through the dead room, but eventually she stood up to go.

“Oh, I’d almost forgotten.”  She reached into her purse, looking for something.  “They found this at your brother’s house.  There was a note beside it.  He said- it said it was yours now.  I thought, you know, you might like to have it here.  To remind you of him.”  She finally retrieved the item, holding it up to show me.  I didn’t look, didn’t have to look, didn’t want to look, because I already knew what it was.  My eyes started tearing up, but I blinked them away, refusing to avert my gaze from the wall.  She held it up a moment longer before giving up, placing it on the windowsill with a sigh.  Then she left.

I could feel his eyes on me, boring into my soul, could feel his smile, the teeth grinning back at me from the darkness, waiting for me there.  I resisted for as long as I could, but he was strong.  I sat up, pushing the bed sheets aside and turning to my side, my legs sliding off the side of the bed.  For a moment I stayed like that, hesitating one last time, then I stood, walking over to the window, to the mug.  His eyes followed me as I approached, his smile never wavering.  There was no kettle in the room, but there was the knife I had kept hidden beneath my mattress after sneaking it back from dinner several nights before.  I dragged the edge clean across my wrist, watching as the hot blood flowed down my arm, pouring into the mug’s gaping, thirsty mouth.  I watched as the mug was filled to the brim, watched as the surface of the dark liquid caught the reflection of the moon and seemed to glow in the moonlight.  I watched, and I waited.  And, in accordance with the words of Alice, dear old Cheshire disappeared, leaving only his grin, floating in the air.

The Arboretum

The Arboretum

“I can’t stop thinking about her. I mean, we hardly know each other, but… it’s like I’ve known her all my life. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true. I just… I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you just ask her out then?” His eyes flick up to meet the therapist’s, intense and irritated.

“You’re joking, right?”

“You never know-”

“Oh, don’t give me that ‘you never know until you try’ bullshit. I mean, shit, I already know you’re a therapist; you don’t have to keep throwing out cliché’s like that, especially stupid ones. You and I both know why I can’t ‘just ask her out’. You of all people know that best.”

“If that’s what you think. Personally I disagree, but…” he shrugs. “I just think you shouldn’t give up so easily. Who knows? She might surprise you.”

“Even if… look, even if by some miracle she did feel the same way, I’m not… ready for a relationship. I can’t… I wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of emotional stress.” His speech is littered with sighs and huffs, like the breaks in an old record that just keeps playing the same song over and over, desperate to be turned.

“Fair enough. So what do you plan on doing then?”

“I don’t know, doc,” he says, glaring. “That’s kind of why I’m talking to you, isn’t it? So you can tell me what to do?”

“Actually, no. I’m just here to listen, and to offer up suggestions where I see fit. But I already gave you my suggestion for this particular problem.”

“Alright, well give me another, why don’t you?”

“You’re certain you don’t want to be in a relationship with her?”

“Of course I want to be in a relationship with her, but I also want to commit suicide, remember? Sometimes what we want isn’t what we need. Or don’t need, in this case. I just… I want to stop having feelings for her. For anyone, really. I can’t take it anymore, alright? At this point I’d rather feel nothing than feel anything at all.”

“That’s certainly a bold statement to make. Are you sure that’s how you feel?”

“No!” he shouts, pounding his fist on the desk and making the therapist’s pens shake in their mug. The therapist, having seen it all before and worse, does not so much as blink. The boy takes in a shaky breath, slumping back in his seat once more with an air of defeat. “No,” he says again, this time whispering the word. The expression on his face is indicative of hopelessness and exhaustion, as though the outburst has drained him. “Don’t you get it? I’m not sure how I feel. I’m not sure of anything. That’s why I don’t want to feel anything; then I would know. Then I wouldn’t have to be sure.” The therapist is silent for a moment.

“Have you been to The Arboretum yet?” he says eventually, picking up one of his pens and idly, casually fondling it.

“The what?”

“The Arboretum. It’s a lovely park east of campus. Beautiful this time of year. Late enough into autumn that the trees are all colourful, but early enough that they haven’t fallen yet. Not to mention it’s still fairly warm out. It’s a wonderful place to spend some time alone, to reflect on things and whatnot. I’d highly recommend it.”

That was how he found himself standing at the entrance, looking down the path to the other end. Almost as if the therapist’s words had been prophetic, it had turned out to be a beautiful day: the air was still, the sun was out, and there was only the faintest hint of a chill in the air, the promise of the coming winter. He looked out over what he could see of the park, and decided, somewhat begrudgingly, that the trees did indeed look beautiful.

It was the fifth week of university, and things had started off surprisingly well. His old therapist had warned of the dangers of a change in surroundings, of experiences, of his life as a whole, but he had also mentioned that the change might do him some good. The problem was that with such a drastic adjustment things would either go one way or the other, and for people suffering from depression things hardly ever went in the up direction.

“Call me whenever you need to talk,” his therapist had told him on the day of their last session. “You still have my number, right?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Good.” He had clasped the boy by his shoulders, giving him a quick once-over, trying to hide the worry in his eyes. “You’ll do good. You hear me? You’ll do good. You’re a good student, as long as you apply yourself, and the change in scenery might very well do you some good. Just keep your head up, and remember to call me the moment you feel it creeping in. Don’t try to be brave; you’re already brave as it is and you don’t need to prove it to anyone. The second you feel it creeping in you call me. Do not wait it out. Okay?”

“Okay,” he had said, fighting back the sob waiting in his throat, eager to be heard.

“Good boy. You’ll do fine.” He had hugged him then, which might have been a little unprofessional, but as his therapist of all of four years he doubted anyone could have blamed him. And now the tears did come, and he gave a little sniffle, his face buried in the shoulder of his therapist’s coat. He had felt safe, protected. And then they had separated, and he saw that the therapist’s eyes were misty too. He gave him an apologetic smile, and they shared one last laugh. “Be good to your new therapist, you hear? We went to university together; he’s really quite a good guy. Give him some time. Let him in. Don’t make him go through the entire painstaking process of prying you open that I had to go through. You hear me?”

“Yes,” he had said, his head nodding. “Yes.”

Yes. But he’d been unable to keep his word. His new therapist had turned out to be nothing like his old one. He wasn’t funny, or sympathetic, or amiable. He was detached, distant, cold, calculating. And even if he had been better, the boy didn’t think he would have been able to see past the feelings of resentment he harboured for him, simply for not being his old therapist.

But even after the bad first impression with the therapist, things had still been good. Better than they had been in years, in fact. He had made new friends, settled in to his residence comfortably, enjoyed his classes. Most of the time he was so busy that he would completely forget that he suffered from depression, that he had a mental disorder, that he was different. For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged.

Then he had met her. They were in the same residence, and had several classes together. He had seen her around several times before, and something about her had made an impression on him. It was inevitable, really. Eventually, quite by chance, they struck up a conversation. It was on the way back to their residence after a class that they found themselves walking beside one another. And before he even realized what had happened, he was in love. The revelation came to him two days later, lying in bed at night and staring up at the ceiling, which one of the previous residents of his room had covered in dozens of those sticky glow-in-the-dark stars you could buy at the dollar store.

It was when he realized that he was in love that the real trouble began. Suddenly he couldn’t stop thinking about her, couldn’t think about anything else. When he was with her things were great, better than great, but like a lantern in the night when she was gone the darkness would descend upon him and swallow him up, making him feel more alone and lost than ever before. It was as though he had finally gotten used to living in the dark, and then suddenly she had come into his life and changed all of that, reintroduced him to happiness, to the light. And when she was gone he was all the more aware of the darkness, once more susceptible to its effects, the effects he had just gotten used to, had begun to learn to cope with.

And then suddenly things weren’t so good anymore.

The wind picked up, scattering several yellow and red leaves across his path. He shivered, an unconscious reaction that had nothing to do with the temperature, and stirred from his thoughts. Okay, he told himself, don’t think about any of that. You’re here to distract yourself from your problems, not rub them in. He started to walk without knowing where he was going, simply allowing his feet to take him down what appeared to be the main path. The road broke off into smaller trails in front of him, but he kept on going forward, deciding he would make it to the end first and then see about exploring the smaller ones later.

He passed by people walking their dogs, couples walking hand in hand or arm in arm, with eyes for nothing but one another, old people bundled up tight in weathered coats and jackets that you could tell had seen them through many winters, their faces obscured by oversized sunglasses, joggers whose hot and heavy breaths stained the air like miniature clouds that dissipated into the world they were born into only seconds after their creation. Some of the people he passed would give him a smile, and before long he was returning those smiles, sincerely if not consciously.

He stopped for a moment to watch the antics of three squirrels, chasing one another up and down trees, back and forth in the grass. He knew chances were they were probably fighting over food or territory or something, but he told himself that they were just playing.

Eventually he came to a pond in a small sectioned-off area of the park, hosting several signs that warned of the dangers of stepping on the stones, which were allegedly unstable. He made his way over to the bench in the middle of the area, sitting down and closing his eyes. He sat like that for a moment, each deep breath of cold air like a cleansing wave that swept over his mind, erasing all his thoughts until his head was clear. When it felt right he opened his eyes, looking around as though expecting some sort of visible change to the world, but finding nothing. He stayed a moment longer before standing, the joints in his legs complaining from the cold.

Further along he found a fountain, hidden behind a wall of hedges that ran alongside its border. The pumps were still running, but he decided they would probably shut them off once the temperatures dropped low enough for the water to freeze. There were four statues standing at each corner of the fountain, and it seemed to him that they were watching over it, cold sentinels indifferent to the water’s antics. He looked at each of them in turn, and then took his place among them at the head of the fountain. He watched as the water shot upwards into the air, breaking off into individual droplets but still a part of something greater, never wholly separated from the water as a whole, always readily accepted back into the masses once their flight ended, cascading back down through the air and getting lost in the sea of thousands of droplets just like them, inescapable from the masses.

He walked down the smaller paths, among hedges and flowerbeds and modern art and benches dedicated to people long gone. He wondered what they thought of that, that their legacy was summed up in a plaque on a bench in a park, a name that might be ignored by those who sat there or read by others but almost always forgotten, always lost in a sea of names, all indistinguishable from one another without a face, a hand, an identity to nail it too, and he wondered if they thought anything of that at all, or if there was nothing to think.

He walked under the trees, under the beautiful canopy of colours, the light filtering through and colouring the world around him in a sea of hues, all warm colours despite the chill in the air, in his bones. He wondered about the irony of that, and decided that if he had been a writer he could have found a good metaphor in there somewhere, but as it was decided not to look too deep into it, and left it for some other poor sap to find, to ponder.

He marvelled at the beauty around him, of the tiny snapshots of life, and suddenly it occurred to him that he wanted to share it with someone. And of course he thought of all the couples he had seen pass by, and he thought of her. He reached into his pocket for his phone, what he would say already taking shape in his head.

And then he stopped.

And then his grip loosened, then released entirely, and he let the phone slip from his hand back into his pocket.

And he continued to explore the park, alone.

Six days later he found himself sitting in his therapist’s office, staring at a painting hung on the wall directly above and behind the psychologist’s head. The painting is abstract, but sometimes we don’t need to understand something to know what it means.

They’ve been sitting in silence since he came in, the boy staring absently at the painting and the therapist staring intently at the boy.

“You knew,” the boy says eventually, his voice soft.

“Yes.”

“You knew it would… change me.”

“Yes.”

“…How?” The therapist shifts in his chair, and the resulting sound of leather rubbing against leather is reminiscent of an awkward childhood that no one will ever talk about, that no one will ever acknowledge, will ever make eye contact with. Sometimes it’s just too late for a wound to be bandaged. Sometimes when it heals it becomes a callus, and nothing more ever comes of it.

“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know what I wanted,” the boy says, his voice quiet and submissive and indifferent. “I didn’t know.”

Eventually, maybe in another week or two or even three, The Arboretum will grow cold, and people will stop coming, and it will be empty. And even when spring rolls around again, something will have changed, something that the returning warmth will never be able to thaw.

The Cashier

The Cashier

The cashier sits behind the desk and watches the world go by. Every now and then someone buys a Twinkie or comes in to pay for gas or asks for the keys to the washroom, and the cashier will smile and nod and say yes of course and thank you very much and the transaction completed the person leaves, and the semblance of life behind that dead-eyed glaze fades away. It wouldn’t take much to see past the mask; just a second of eye contact and it would be clear to anyone who cared to notice that the cashier is dead inside, has been dead inside for longer than they can remember. And yet somehow, due to the miracle of life, the cashier keeps on living, keeps on breathing, keeps on walking. Every day the cashier wakes up at 9:00AM, takes a shower, has cereal for breakfast, goes to work for 10:30AM, has a lunch break at 12:30PM and gets back to work at 1:00PM, completes the shift at 6:00PM and heads home, sticks a frozen dinner package in the microwave for the appropriate time, stirs it in a counter-clockwise motion with the fork when it’s done, sits in front of the television eating, then goes to bed. Like a body set to rest in a coffin one size too small, the cashier’s existence has been forced into a day-by-day routine which, while extremely uncomfortable, would take nothing short of a miracle to be freed from.

The cashier is not broken-hearted, has not recently lost a loved one, has never been diagnosed with depression or any other major medical disorder. There is no real reason for the cashier’s state, nothing the coroners or the newspapers will be able to point to and say “there: there it is, that’s why.” The closest anyone will ever come to the reason is when one of the cashier’s co-workers shrugs and says “life” in response to the rhetorical “how could this have happened” posed by another co-worker.

Life. Life is what has happened to the cashier. Things simply never fell into place for them. They never found something that interested them to the point of wanting to do it for the rest of their life, they never found someone they loved, or someone who loved them back. They never had a serious hobby, they never found that one thing that makes them feel alive. Things just didn’t fall into place. They fell apart.

There was never anything to distract the cashier from life, from the everyday toil of living. There was never any real reason not to enjoy life, except for the fact that life itself is not enjoyable. It is only when we find things to enjoy that we are content; everything else is just convincing yourself not to think about the unthinkable until you move on to the next distraction.

The cashier sits behind the desk and thinks about what they have decided to do once they get home. It’s the first real major decision they’ve committed to in a long time. The decision has no overall effect on the cashier’s behaviour or attitudes; it’s always been there, lurking just beyond the darkness in the cashier’s mind, waiting patiently for the day when the light would come on and reveal it, accept it. It’s always been there. It’s there in all of us. The cashier still smiles when customers come in, still makes the same lighthearted remarks when customers purchase something out of the ordinary worth acknowledging, still wishes people a good day and a good afternoon and a good night as they leave. The only difference is that now there is a sense of relief, of finality, of closure. Everything is on the table now. There’s nothing to hide, nothing to deny. The light is on, and what was once in the shadows, ignored and denied, is now welcomed inside and greeted like an old friend.

The cashier goes home, and sticks a frozen dinner package in the microwave for the appropriate time, stirs it in a counter-clockwise motion with the fork when it’s done, sits in front of the television eating, then goes to bed. There is a bottle of pills on the bedside table. It is empty.