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Then She Was Gone
"Let's go to the park!"
Looking up from the black and white, cut-and-dry realm of the the New York Times newspaper, I glanced out the window. A dense, gray layer of clouds had compressed into a flawless dome above the city, trapping the toothed skyscrapers and company buildings. Rain was inevitable. But when I looked into Lily's brown eyes, I saw a completely different world. I saw sunshine, sparkling in the way that only an eight-year-old's eyes could capture. I saw sugar and cream and honey. My gaze darted from the dull sky, back to those smiling, almond-shaped eyes, to and fro. "Okay," I finally sighed, unable to say no.
Lily bounded forward with a kind of impulsion that I knew I had eternally lost. But the way her inky black pigtails sprung with each skip she took to the outside, urban earth....the way she could barely keep still when I fumbled clumsily with the keys...it made me smile with memories of fonder times. "Let's go," I urged her gently, reaching to grasp her small, plump fingers as the two of use wove in and out of people.
The doors swayed open almost royally, and a fresh slap of spring breeze greeted us. Cars roared by, their engines revving at the gift of a green light at rush hour. The streets were alive with people, so many people, hustling and bustling. Lily absorbed the sights and sounds with a callow fascination, as if she had never seen them before. Then again, maybe she hadn't. Lily was neither my sister nor my daughter, and I, knew little about her.
The park sat dead on the curb. A comical flicker danced through Lily's eyes as she drank in the swing set, the slides, the seesaw. She loped over to the playground with sloppy, premature strides, graceful but in a fashion less obvious. I shot a worried glance up to the sky, now clogged with flat gray. A harsh, cold breeze stroked me cheek, cursing me with threats of an oncoming storm. But Lily, moseying over to the vacant swing set, paid it no heed.
She sat on one of the swings and let it sway gently for a while, contemplative. Beside her, the second swing set lay eerily deserted, writhing and clanging against the steel frame, driven by the wind. Slowly, as if approaching a wounded animal, I sank into it, and tangled my legs into a heap underneath it. It was so low and small, yet oddly soothing.
Lily smiled at me with the essence of childhood and pumped her feet, kicking higher and higher off the ground. Flying.
I grinned at her. "Do you want me to push you?" I asked, shifting to stand.
To my surprise, Lily shook her head. "No. Then you can't swing."
I settled back into the deep seat, rocking back and forth as a whirlwind of leaves rode over the rough mulch. The wind carried a scent of upcoming summer and rain and thunder, an unsullied fragrance. The trees, budding pink blossoms, threw their great arms to the desolate sky.
Then, toeing into the climax, a few drops of rain began to pelt the ground in a pizzicato fashion.
I heaved myself from the low swing and drifted behind Lily. Carefully, I propelled her forward, each push goading the swing higher and higher. The rain began to drizzle into a steady downpour, soaking us both. But I let Lily glide in the rainwater, and her laughter, loud and genuine, was my reward.
The downpour steadied, a drumbeat on the roof of my rickety apartment. Along with the sound of the preheat of the oven, a monotone hymn, it morphed into a calming melody.
My body remained flaccid, sunken into the cushioned depths of my couch. I reveled in the warmth, burrowed in the downy fleece of my sweatshirt, that when Lily tugged on the edge of my pajama bottoms, I didn't move.
"What is it?"
"Can we have dinner?"
It was only then, when my stomach emitted a rumble of agony, did I realize that I was hungry. I peeled myself off of the sofa, my back popping indignantly as I blearily scrubbed my eyes. "Sure. What do you want?"
A sort of nostalgia brushed across Lily's features. "Can we have rice and vegetables? It'll be like...home." A wave of pity rippled through me. It was so easy to forget that Lily was of Asian descent, captured and taken from her homeland. Thinking of her, saddened as she departed from a lush, green paradise, never to return...it just didn't seem to fit her sunny disposition at all.
"Sure, sure," I finally offered tiredly, springing abruptly from my musings. "Easy enough." Scuttling into the kitchen, I thrust open the freezer. It was filled to the brim with foods that I barely remembered eating, and mused that I'd never go hungry as I foraged in it for vegetables. With the greens thrown in the oven and the rice boiling on the stove top, I collapsed into one of the plastic dining room chairs, motioning for Lily to do the same.
For a while, we sat in mutual silence, not uncomfortable. Then, as I began to roll up the oversized sleeves of my sweatshirt, Lily proposed the dreaded question. "What's that?"
I froze and could do nothing but stare upon the pure innocence gleaming in those shimmering eyes. "What's what?"
"That. On your arm."
Looking down, I tried to appear blind to something that was so blatantly there, as if it had disappeared. But I knew the truth. Ignoring those puffy pink scars, latticed with visible, palpable stitches, would not make them disappear. They were still physical. They always would be. I sighed, twisted my forearm to hide them from myself. These scars would last forever, but self-loathing had propelled me. I became a menace against myself.
"Oh. I, um...fell," I elaborated hesitantly, the lie sounding foreign and doubtful on my own lips. But Lily, ever so young and gullible, believed it.
"Really? That must've hurt! Did the doctor sew you up shut?"
I squeezed my eyes shut against the turbulent current of memories that sabotaged me, a cruel siege. I saw myself, pasty as the wan light of the moon, screaming as the doctor told me he would heal me. Each breath I took rasped, wheezy with exhaustion, as the sedative jabbed in my arm, lapsed sluggishly into my blood. Brutal attempts at stopping me from harming myself.
In that overly sterile hospital room, I lost myself.
"Yeah," I replied quietly. "Yeah, he fixed me."
But solid and real, the scars still lingered.
The next day, the sun hung above like a gleaming golden pendant, nipping the rain's straggling clouds away from the edges of the sky. Underneath its angelic smile, the city jolted to life again. Cars knifed through the palpable morning silence, then faded. Energetic salesmen barked into their cell phones, their voices harsh and loud and strafing through the city. Lined with gray, the monotony made every person look the same.
Lily seemed determined to break through the gray.
Today she bore a pink sweater, complete with a yellow pin; a yellow skirt that set on her knees; and yellow bows that tied back her inky black hair. And, unlike anyone else waiting, she had a goofy grin plastered on her face.
I squeezed her hands as the walk sigh set free a crowd that poured on to the streets. "Busy bees," Lily murmured onto the streets, and I couldn't agree more. All workers moved with purpose, all having a place to go and a place to return home. All had something I didn't. Then again, China was Lily's home, and she was never to return...
I shook my head. Now was not the time.
I turned to my companion. "How would you like something to eat?" she nodded, a sort of fascination devouring her when I spoke to her. I chuckled at her jovial childishness.
We scampered down the busy road.
The ugly tables bore pockmarked wood, but above them magnificent umbrellas flapped in the spring breeze. Their white and red stripes soared, popped magnificently against the clear blue of the sky. My spirits positively sang with a sort of joy that I thought I'd never feel again.
A waitress appeared next to our table. Her white blouse ruffled in the wind, and her graying perm swished to and fro. "What can I get you today?" she inquired, her voice stiff and flat.
"Two root beer floats, please," I ordered and Lily commenced to bounce up and down at the thought of a treat at last.
The waitress began to scribble the order down in a sort of busied shorthand. "Two? Well, all right. Hang on just a moment." She scampered out of sight.
A little smirk tugged on my lips, and I swiveled to face Lily. As if by magic, she had conjured up a little piece of paper and a set of fresh crayons. I knelt beside her. "What are you drawing?"
Her brow was wrinkled in an overbearing concentration, and she pressed the yellow crayon hard on the clean paper. "I'm drawing this day," she answered seriously.
"Because," she told me in a wise tone, beyond her years, "now is perfect."
I tipped back on my chair, contemplative. The waitress returned, just barely balancing the two floats on her tray, and I stifled a chuckle as I pressed the dollar bills into her hand. She ripped them from me and fluttered away.
All of Lily's diligence evaporated the second that the red straw touched her lips. She gulped the float down, her hunger overtaking her. "This is so good!" she gushed to me.
"It is," I said, calmly sipping my own float. "Don't drink it all too fast. You might get a brain freeze."
She threw her head back and cackled as if my words were the funniest she had ever heard.
It was late at night when I decided to call my brother. I was sprawled across my cot, Lily asleep in my lap, curled up like a kitten. Sometimes, it truly amazed me how the kid could be so trusting, so open. So naïve to the pain of being left all alone.
The digital voice clouded through many miles, but it still had that deep, rich tone that belonged to him.
"Jim? It's me." My voice was soft as to not wake the child I held.
"You? Well, hey, you," he teased, and I rolled my eyes. Jim was always the same, always playful and silly, to a fault. "How are things, huh? You feeling all right?"
My heart sang out with barely suppressed joy. "I...I've never been better, Jim!" I burst out, my throat tightening dangerously.
"You know what? You do sound really good," Jim laughed. "Who are you and what have you done with my little sister?"
"Love you, too," I snorted dryly, kicking back in my cot. "What about you, wise guy? How are things back at home?"
"You know. Lonely. No one to make fun of anymore," he sighed in a mock-lonely tone.
There was a weighted silence. Despite the fact that Jim was joking as always, there was some flimsy truth behind his façade. Jim was the only one living back in town, and I knew that he really was alone. I hoped that he understood my critical need to flee, to escape. I had to.
"Listen, Jim. Ever since I came here, I haven't..." Looking around suspiciously, I lowered my voice to a murmur. "I haven't even considered touching a blade since mom and dad…disappeared.
There was a slightly painful silence on the other end of the line, as if old, healed lesions were on the verge of tearing wide open. But with strength and courage, they didn't. "I...I'm so proud of you," Jim whispered. "You sound like you're doing so well."
I smiled at the rare show of genuine emotion from my brother. "Thank you."
Jim sighed as a doorbell chimed on his end of the line. "Sorry, I've got to go already. You better call back tomorrow." He paused again. "Will you visit soon?"
I glanced at Lily's finished portrait, tacked on the wall. On it was me, holding hands with her, our faces in matching, splitting grins. A rainbow arched gracefully over our heads. Glancing at it for the millionth time, I noticed that I was drawn with short sleeves. I wasn't afraid to show my healing scars.
"Yeah," I vowed, "I'll visit soon."
The psychiatrist's office was down the long, sterile labyrinth that reeked of antiseptics and a sort of weight: the weight of lives, hanging amongst the sterile air. My footsteps seemed to echo through the stagnant atmosphere, hollow and lonesome, but the solitary gravity didn't bother me a bit. For this, I was proud; months ago I would have been chilled to the core.
The cot in the middle of the room was covered in unnaturally stiff paper, and the walls were plastered with poster of the symptoms of anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. Seeing this office made me want to laugh out loud! Thanks to Lily, the burden of my sins had vanished, and I was a free, unbridled spirit.
The door burst open, ricocheted off of its hinges, as Dr. Holtz made one of his usual grand entrances. As always, his jacket was tidy, his skin unblemished, and his hair combed back and slight.
He was a little too perfect. His dazzling smile almost bowled me over.
"Well, now," he said, his brows knitted together. "You do look a lot healthier."
My cheeks flushed a shade of scarlet. "Thank you."
He nodded and slowly gripped one of my forearms, examining the pink scars, fat and traveling up and down my wrists.
Dr. Holtz bobbed his head to himself as he inspected each one, his thumb pressing against them, brushing against the sutures. At long last, he swiveled his stool back to the orderly desk and began to scribble in his methodical handwriting, reserved for prescriptions. "Pretty decent healing," he murmured, as if only revamping the information to himself. "We've still got a ways to go, but looking okay for now..."
At his nonchalant words, my heart seemed to plummet from my chest onto the unforgiving ground.
As a pastime perfectionist, my hopes rocketed that he would stare at my arms in frenzied amazement, as if I had made a breakthrough in healing. But hearing that I was just getting by...it slammed me into a harsh reality that my road to recovery was a lifetime work in progress, never complete.
I shivered at the thought of the word "never." It was so cold and final, crushing my hopes.
Dr. Holtz shot me an astute look that meant he was observing me, studying me. I felt violated, but let him keep staring at me through those intense eyes of smoky blue. Maybe cooperating with him could help me sever ties with my past, float me from the heartless black.
"So how are you feeling?" he doctor asked, choosing to shatter the stifling, awkward silence.
Memories of Lily and I and better times overtook me. "Better than I've ever felt," I told him, my voice sounding clear and sincere to my own ears.
His expression clouded with confusion. "Really? Why is that?"
"Lily." The name sounded so beautiful and pure on my lips. It seemed to capture the loveliness of the flower, and the wonderful honesty of the girl herself.
"Lily?' Holtz looked utterly lost. "Who on earth is that?"
"I..." I thought about it, thought hard, but no real answer unveiled itself to me. "I..." How would I explain the bond we shared?
"...a friend of mine."
And I closed my eyes and waited for the barrage of questions to consume me.
Reality was too muffled and muted as I nudged open the door to the waiting room. The quiet was inescapable; it was thick as fog and hung gloomily around me like a shroud. It pulled me down, and it took every fiber of my being not to crash to the floor in weakening disappointment.
On the posh, wooden chair, Lily fidgeted, waiting faithfully for me. Her chocolate eyes glittered upon my arrival, and my spirits both rose with her contagious optimism, and fell with exasperation as my drive and purpose loomed in from of me tauntingly.
Lily's beam faded as she sensed my disheartened ambience. "What happened?"
With the loss of her omnipresent smile, I tried to strain one of my own.
My eyes averted to the window. The wind tore at the jagged limbs of the trees with a vivacious anger. The sky had hardened back into dark gray, cold and foreboding. Beneath the picturesque little window, the swing set swayed frantically in the frigid clutches of the northern gale.
Trodden with the magnitude of the hopelessness, I took Lily's hand and speeded through the nameless, faceless hallways. They went by in a smear of blank white. Lily's small feet skidded on the ground as she jogged and struggled to keep up with me. I had to look at her bewilderment and hear her ragged breathing to convince myself to slow.
I sighed again. "Would you like to go play on the swing set?"
It gleamed seductively in the thin, pallid shadows.
My breath hitched in the back of my throat, and my heart fluttered like a caged bird, desperate to be set free. But, in this metaphysical reality, there was but one thing I knew to be utter truth. And that grain of truth was simple: the only path to freedom lurked in that cold object of my fantasies.
I shivered, and desperately, I clawed, writhed over to that thing. Inch by painful inch, my body shook violently in urgent physical need. Inch by painful inch, I reminisced of that nagging guilt that gnawed on my insides and forced me to think twice before I succumbed to myself.
Inch by painful inch, I realized that the sickening guilt was not even a factor.
When at last I had reached my precious beauty, glinting coldly, my thoughts spiraled to an abyss. I didn't care.
The cold, jagged edge of the blade touched my skin, and I shivered in macabre pleasure. This was a moment of gruesome fascination, of self-indulgence. Mom had her fancy chocolates, Dad had his camping trips in the open wilderness, Jim had his buffered car that he loved with a passion...and then there was me.
Not once did I flinch as their faces ghosted across my mind.
My thoughts danced in a whirlwind of color and sound. There was a growing whir in my ears, dull and melodious. And soon, consciousness seized me in its tight grip and threw me to earth.
I screamed in pure terror as the knife clattered harmlessly to the ground.
And the next thing I knew, I was in bed, wreathed in my sheets and drenched in a cold sheen of sweat. I moaned as the full weight of the situation hit me. There was no blade, no empty rooms, not temptation. It was all but a nightmare. It was my past haunting me in my sleep. It was my own personal torture.
I cradled my head in my hands, trying to see through the heavy veil of twilight. Beside me, Lily shifted on her own futon, sighing peacefully. Envy washed over me; how I wished I could steal her youthful bliss. No more bouts of depression, no more plagues of nightmares...
But it seemed so real!
Fear had finally gripped me, and in that moment, I snatched the phone and smashed the send button twice with degrading strength.
The ring was so hollow and deadpan, it made me whimper in terror. But I held on, balancing the phone between collarbone and fleshy cheek.
The sleepy voice on the other end answered, and I nearly melted with relief.
"Jim," I breathed. "Jim, Jim..."
"Hey." The voice perked up a bit, less groggy. "It's three in the morning. What do you want?"
My cheeks flamed. God, I must have sounded so stupid, so much like a little kid. Young. Foolish. "I, uh, I had a...nightmare."
"...oh." A pause. "About what?"
I glanced worriedly in the direction of the smaller cot in the room. "I, I don't want Lily to hear."
There was a heavy-weight silence that loomed among us. Finally, Jim probed it, daring to speak. "Lily? Who's Lily?"
"You don't know?" I contemplated this for a beat. "I...she...she's a little girl, living with me."
A gasp wracked the other end of the phone's line, one that embodied horror, a revolting understanding. "So...so the doc was right?!"
"Jim?!" I squeezed the phone until my knuckles turned white, throbbing with a dull ache.
He exhaled, his breath quivering alarmingly. "You don't live with a Lily. You don't even know a Lily. Lily doesn't exist."
The phone fell onto the cot.
"Hello? Hello?! Come back, talk to me! Hey!"
I began to fumble for the light switch, hyperventilating as my fingers tightened on the chain switch.
"No, stop! I'm sorry!"
Click. The room flooded with yellow light, right and warm and homely.
And when I looked on the cot, there was no child in it. It lay abandoned, made neatly. No one slept there.
The world stopped turning.
"NO! Damn it, I thought, I thought..."
My cuts, once scars, split open and bled. Crimson oozed from them, the deepest red possible. It was so black and rich, shimmering and glistening as it ran from its base on to the white sheets. I caved. I wasn't strong enough to hold myself over.
"I'll get help, okay? Hang in there!"
I didn't answer. I stared, fixated, at the second cot, neatly made and empty.
And that was when I knew that my own innocence was forever lost.