The ear piercing shrill of the clock radio alarm tore through my subconscious; crudely announcing that it was time to get up again and face another day. It was just one day, nothing more; this was how I had to approach my life. The pain I faced was too great to ever imagine years, months, weeks, or even days ahead. Each morning was tainted with the fear that I would fall to my knees and break as soon as my feet landed onto the cold wood floors that surrounded my bed, this morning was no different.
My frizzy, auburn hair surrounded my face and partially covered my eyes. The sunlight passing through the strands lit them up and reminded me of flames. For a moment, I wondered what it would feel like if they had suddenly ignited and engulfed me. Sure it would be painful, but how would it compare to the pain that was already there? I flicked the hair away with one hand, and blew away the strands that stuck to my lips.
I stared at the ceiling above my bed, and focused on the patterns created in by the cracks in the crème colored paint. Every morning was the same; I woke up to this harsh reminder of what my life was now. One unfortunate scratch on the painting that was my existence had extended out of control growing further and branching out into a million tiny cuts; each going in their own direction birthing more fissures until I could barely recognize what I was looking at. The image became so distorted that it pained me to think of it.
The condition of the ceiling also reminded me of how poorly I had been taking care of my home. The house needed a lot of work; nothing too major, just some touch ups here and there and definitely a new coat of paint, everywhere. I couldn’t say that I was completely sure I would make the changes if I could, or if I even wanted to. Someone could have been brought in, paid to make the improvements for me but this house and its chipped paint, cracked walls and rusted hinges was my only comfort. All I had left to remind me of a time without pain, a time before everything went wrong. I am not saying there was logic in my thinking, but there was a sense of comfort.
I used to live here with my mother and father. I was an only child and I was happy and surrounded by love and complete understanding. They let me be me and never questioned me for it. Even when I doubted myself, they were supportive and welcomed any changes with open arms. I cringed as the memory of their smiling faces fixated in front of my eyes for a moment before they transformed into two cold boxes. It was time to get up.
I took a deep breath silently preparing myself and building up the courage to face the day. I gripped the edge of the covers and tossed them aside, my legs swung over the edge of the bed and my feet landed on the cool hardwood floor. I purposely left them uncovered with my slippers on the other side of the room. The shock of the chill was good for me; it sent an icy wave through my legs waking up the rest of my reluctant body. My limbs shivered as I quickly tiptoed across the floor to my waiting slippers. They were my favorite pair; big puppy dog faces that felt like clouds hugging my feet.
After putting on my slippers, I headed downstairs to begin my usual morning routine. To stop myself from thinking of all the repairs that needed to be done, I tried to focus more on how beautiful the house really was (beneath its current coat of neglect). I stopped on the steps, gripping the railing that reminded me so much of my father, he had put his entire heart into every crevice of the house. Unlike my mother, he was a stickler for details, something I had always considered to be backwards. I closed my eyes as his smile flashed in my head and held it there for as long as I could.
He chose this house for us, small and quaint, nothing too flashy, though he could afford more. He felt it was necessary for me to live a normal life. That would never be possible if I resided in a world where everything came too easily. He wanted us to build a home, and shape it into what we wanted it to be. The very mentioning of hiring a professional hand to touch the place always had him recoiling at the idea of someone tainting our home. We moved here when I was five years old. I attempted to help with every decision, though I honestly had no real input. I just picked the prettiest colors, which is why my room looked like a disfigured rainbow until I was 15.
My fingers dug into the grooves along the railing. My father was a talented craftsman. It took him nearly two months to finish it. I remembered him vividly; every night after dinner, carving away at the mahogany banister and creating the intricate design, while my mother and I sat at the top of the stairs and watched as closely as we could without disturbing him. He took so much pleasure in it, humming ‘Whistle While You Work’ under his breath. The tune rang in my ears as if he was still there, humming it in his own offbeat melody. He enjoyed it so much that, over time, the carvings appeared in every room of our house. For years I would find him intently working on the designs and mumbling about having to make them perfect.
The wall that the stairs traced was cluttered with picture frames. My mother’s responsibility, something she took pride in, and I now thanked her for. She was the definition of camera happy, snapping pictures at every event, no matter how unimportant they were. I stopped and stared at a picture of her and my father laughing. Her head lay on his shoulder and her arms were wrapped tightly around him. Hanging in a faded gold frame, it was the first picture put on the wall and still my favorite. They were much younger and they were illuminated with a brilliant light that I could only imagine to be produced by an untainted source of happiness.
I found myself lost in a concentration, matching her features to my own, picking apart her face as I always did when I stopped at this picture. Her eyes were my eyes; light brown, almost hazel, and when the sun touched them it highlighted the subtle hints of green. We shared the same honey brown skin, though hers was clear and even, while mine now was blotchy and dry; a side effect of the medication I had to take. If she were still here she would freak out to see how poorly I was doing at taking care of myself. I continued to go over my features in my head, matching their faces to mine. I had my father’s thin nose and lips, though with my mother’s pout and a mixture of both of their smiles. (You could see it when I had a reason to smile, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.)
As I made it to the kitchen, I was greeted by the red light blinking on the answering machine. I knew who the message was from, because it was the same person every day. She left the same message asking me to call her. My last living relative (the joys of being the only child to two only children), my grandmother, who believed she had a way to heal me that no doctor would ever dream of, because it would put him, “right out of business.” She was old and wise and stubborn in her ways, and held on tightly to what my mother considered to be dark magic. Whenever my mother referred to her practices as this, my grandmother simply waved her off. She never wanted to force my mother into accepting magic, she said if a person didn’t truly believe in the power it would chew them up and spit them out. She was, however, livid with my mother for forcing her views onto me. She wanted me to make up my own opinion just as she had given my mother the freedom to do.
I often overheard conversations discussing my future, and how important it was that I knew where I came from. My grandmother constantly referred to me as a natural and my mother hissed ugly curses at her every time she did. This was always followed by my grandmother kissing me on the forehead and floating out the door wearing a carefree smile; while my mother stormed up the stairs to her bedroom, slamming the door as if she was a school girl who had just been punished for breaking curfew. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy their confrontations, I mean what girl wouldn’t enjoy seeing their mom basically being sent to her room? It was pure entertainment!
I wished I could believe in my grandmothers ‘dark magic’, and from time to time I let myself drift into the fantasies that this could be real. I would be able to go back to living my life. The life I loved. The life now lost. I pictured the friends I had alienated in hopes of never dulling their lives with my pain. I thought of the sports and activities that once filled my life and how strong I was, but, now, to even try to perform one tenth of the physical actions that I once took such great pleasure in, would probably cause me to shatter.
I heard my mother’s voice clear, “That woman and her superstitious ways. You will not take part in any of that. It is not natural!” My mother would never approve of my grandmothers alternative healing methods. She tried her hardest to keep us apart in fear that I would somehow fall for her words and into her way of thinking. I never understood why this would be so horrible. Was the problem that I would be closer to my grandmother? What was the big deal? What harm could that possibly cause?
After years of these questions going unanswered, I stopped asking. Any effort to try and sneak behind my mother’s back to visit my grandmother was useless. No matter how duplicitous I could be, as easy as it was to trick my father, my mother always knew. Maybe, she was using a little black magic of her own. She would never admit it if she were.
After a while I stopped sneaking to see my grandmother. Partially because of my mother’s judgmental tone, somewhat because my schedule had become so jammed with social events after entering my junior year in high school; but mostly, because, I started to feel strange whenever I was near her. It was like there was something buried inside of me, inside of my soul and I could it feel whenever I was near her. Whatever it was, had been stirring, waking, and sometimes felt as if it was clawing to get out, and with each visit the feeling on got more intense. Though she never said anything about it and I never asked, she was aware of what was happening within me. I forced myself to ignore it. Stifled, it went away and I never considered it again.
I put off the message and headed to the counter where a total of eight pills waited in their section of my seven day pill box. I frowned at the idea of forcing them down my throat, because I had never acquired a tolerance for them. One pill always led to another. Every one of them fixing one issue, and yet causing another. I argued with my mother that I would be better off without any of them, and she told me I had no idea what I was talking about. I longed for my mother’s warm arms around me and her soft voice whispering in my ear, that it would be okay. It felt like only days ago she had been here with me, helping me through it. I shook the thought from my mind, got a glass of water, and swallowed them down as quickly as I could. I ignored the pain as each one punctured a new hole in my throat, leaving its signature on the way down.
It had been two years now I spent in this morning routine, and one year I spent doing it alone. It was something I felt I could count on; as everything was always where I expected it to be. I made sure to keep it that way; one of the few things my mother was very intent on. Her kitchen had to be in top condition. Everything was assigned a designated place and position. ‘Labels forward Alexa, always forward!’ I remember when I would dread the thought of coming anywhere near this room. Not wanting to hear her scrutiny when I didn’t put a cup back in its rightful cabinet, or if I put I fork in the spoon section of the utensil drawer. Sometimes, just for fun, I would move things around purposely so that I could time her to see how long it would take until she had them all back in order. Once the place I avoided against all odds, this was where I spent most of my time. It was where I felt the safest, the closest to her.
Something about the room made my mom feel more at ease, this was her sanctuary. Every morning she made sure there was a hot breakfast for me and my father, never forgetting to remind us that cold cereal was no way to start the day. I stopped at the refrigerator door, remembering the smell of her pancakes. The secret ingredient she never got to tell me about. She promised to give it to me, along with all her other special recipes, on my 21st birthday. It would have been the start of a new tradition, something for me to pass on to my daughters. My heart ached as I realized I would never be able to taste them again. I tried to remember it. Tried to focus on the flavor in my mouth, the smell was strong, but, the taste was spoiled by the pills I’d just swallowed. I gave up and continued my routine.
I grabbed the bowl of fruit I’d cut up before going to bed last night and a bottle of orange juice; grabbed a fork from the drawer and started to eat. I stood there at the counter. I couldn’t sit at the table; I never did. It flooded my head with memories of all the meals I had with them. The laughter that sprung out of me as dad told me embarrassing details about mom when they were younger. I remembered trying to hide the blood that rushed to my cheeks as they attempted to have the drug talk and even worse when they brought up the boy talk. I hadn’t built up enough courage to sit there, but, could never get rid of it. So, I stared at it from a distance, making sure to never have contact with it. Even after a year, the resistance to it had not faltered.
The round, mahogany table, with its four matching chairs, taunted me in what became a childish voice in my head. The designs carved into their legs and on the center of the table were similar to the ones in the banister. The dust that settled on its top was thick enough to be mistaken for a table cloth. I could barely make out the color of the wood underneath the gray film. I hadn’t touched it at all since that night. My grandmother’s worried eyes, I could see them again. She was there with me, I’m not sure how she knew, but, she was there before the police had shown up. I was grateful for her presence, for her arms wrapped around me and her shoulder to cry on.
I treaded heavily over to the phone and watched the blinking light on the answering machine. It would be her. No one else ever called me anymore. At first it felt like they wanted to give me space, the distance I had asked for, but eventually like most thing that go unseen, I had been forgotten, all except her. She called every day and her voice too had become a part of that daily routine for me.
As I pressed the playback button I popped a chunk of cantaloupe in my mouth and damn near choked when I heard the voice.