There is that one song that draws out all the feelings we have buried deep inside us. And once those feelings start to sprout, you begin to cry uncontrollably.
From feeling too much.
You sit on the floor with your head in your hands, and your knees pushed up to your chest, and your back trembling from the breaths your body is begging you to take. We have all been there at some point in our lives. We have all been at the very edge of that metaphorical cliff deciding if we should jump or not, but feel so ashamed for feeling this way that we bury it deep within ourselves and hope we are never visited by this beast of weakness ever again.
And then, once that certain song begins to play, it calls to all the shame and guilt, and summons it awake only to force us to face it. We sit there with our palms against our cheeks in sadness and despair. And in that moment, the only question that remains is, do we jump?
I would say I’m stronger than I am, but when that instant came around, the only moment like that I had ever experienced, I jumped. I decided to destroy myself in the two minutes and fifty-six seconds that the melody was playing. A melody which now I can’t remember.
And once I felt my soul splinter, I tucked that feeling of numbness away and felt it slowly turn the rest of my soul dark and brooding. I would like to say I am stronger than I am but the truth is, I haven’t been able to climb my way back up that cliff. And frankly, I have no desire to.
I was happy once.
It was two years before the fall. My sister and I went to the market and splurged our savings on a guitar made of polished oak. It was the most beautiful guitar I had ever seen. We later settled into the sunflower fields that bordered the forest, and spent hours creating songs and new dances for each of them. We laughed so hard at each other that our stomachs cramped and tears were falling from our eyes.
The sky was so bright that day and there was a perfect warmth in the air that every so often was visited by a light breeze that wrapped itself around me and painted faint goosebumps up and down my arms. People used to be able to call this place a home. I used to be able to. It was a safe place to go; a happy place when everything else was so glib.
I wish I didn’t remember how life used to be. It would almost be easier if I had grown up knowing life didn’t used to be any different. I envy those not knowing any bit of happiness.
That guitar fell victim just like the rest of us.
Just like my sister.
Just like my soul.
I used to be able to watch my favorite film on tv and not feel anything but simple sadness for the main character when a moment like this occurred. Then, when it was my turn to feel this insufferable pain, I realized how fake death is portrayed in films. It’s nothing you can just brush off. Nothing you can ignore. It eats at you at every second of every day until you have dissolved into nothing. Nothing. Such a strange word. I once looked it up in a now non-existent dictionary.
Nothing; the absence of something; one of no interest, value, or consequence; nonexistent.
I decided that I am nothing. I am the same as everybody else on this planet. I am dissolving. Sometimes I wish I could re-live that day in the sunflower fields just to laugh with my sister one last time. That memory haunts me. I hear her voice in my sleep. I see her face in the strangers that walk by me on the street. I see her eight-year-old smile in the sunshine rising over the mountain peaks in the morning.
I feel her hand touch mine as she pulls me up from the sunlight-littered dirt to dance with her. I feel her heart take its last breath. I see the life dim in her hazel eyes as she stares up at the celling. I remember the moment I could not save her. Who knew I wouldn’t be able to save myself. That was a year and a half ago, and maybe I am pathetic for holding onto something like this for so long. But maybe I’m not.
The winter was beginning to set in, which meant life was about to get a lot more vicious. I had prepared the cottage to the greatest condition I could get it. Which wasn’t very much. I tried my best to repair the holes in the roof; I chopped trees and gathered as much firewood as I possibly could and stacked it up the crumbling gray stone wall next to the fireplace.
My gaze kept finding its way to the glimmering snowflakes floating around in circles outside the window. I tore my eyes away. No, I told myself. No distractions. I must get this done before nightfall. If I didn’t succeed… No. That wasn’t an option. I don’t know why I try so hard to survive.
Maybe one of these days I will let the frost whisk me away into the sky and swirl me in circles just like those gentle snowflakes. The thought of that peace clanged through me. But I pushed it away and turned my attention back to the dusty floor I was almost done sweeping.
“E!” Mrs. Graham called from her bedroom.
For whatever reason, ever since I’d met Mrs. Graham, she has called me E. I guess it’s faster to say than Emma, but never in my whole life has anybody called me that. Five months ago, my nights were spent in the back of businesses and strangers’ homes scrounging for any food or warmth I could get. At times, I compared myself to a rat and I think at that point I started to even look like one.
Mrs. Graham found me behind one of the town fences chewing on grass. I guess It left her unsettled, because she dragged me back to this cottage, fed me a big bowl of stew, and offered me a bed to sleep in, in exchange for housework.
I set down my broom and made my way down the short hallway back to her room, adjacent to my own. I tiptoed around the corner and stood in her doorway. Mrs. Graham was an elderly woman. Her pale wrinkled face was highlighted by the freckles peppered upon her nose.
“Yes Mrs. Graham?”
“I told you to stop calling me that and call me by my first name, Jean. Don’t you remember?”
I ignored her but spoke anyway.
“Was there something you needed?” I tried to swallow the bite in my tone.
“Come in, darling. Have a seat.”
Her spindly fingers stroked the worn blue blanket resting beside her small figure that was now sitting upright in the bed.
The mattress groaned against me as I took a seat. She patted my hand, her blue eyes gleaming, then twisted to grab a medium-sized box from behind her pillow.
The box was about the same size as a book. And my heart leapt into my throat at the possibility of it. A book? Where did she find it? How did she sneak it past anyone? I craved the feel of the pages against my fingertips. The smell of ideas and plot and words as you opened the front cover. It had been too long since I had read anything.
But now that books were outlawed, and the majority of them burned at the stake, I doubted I would be granted the gift of a new story any time soon.
She handed me the black leather-bound box and gave me a gentle smile as I tore the lid off. Two gray and brown woven gloves resting on a velvet pillow stared up at me. Mrs. Graham had a lot of nice things like that. I want to believe that before the fall she lived a wealthy life with her late husband, Frank. I think they were happy together by the way she talked about him.
But she would never admit to having lots of money, or living in a mansion, because every time I brought it up and questioned her, she dismissed it and quickly changed the subject. I guess even she had secrets she wasn’t willing to share.
“Happy 19th birthday.” Her white curls bounced as she turned to me, her face sparkling with joy.
My chest tightened. I had completely forgotten. My ears even stung from the words. The two words I hadn’t heard in over two years.
“H—how did you know?”
“I didn’t until about a month ago when you told me.”
My eyebrows crinkled in objection. I did no such thing.
She noted my protest and tilted her head to the side.
“Well, let’s just say after you have a couple glasses of wine, you open up about yourself.” A smirk appeared on her sunken face and my blood froze.
What else had I told her? What else did she know that I didn’t?
I glanced back at the box in my lap and grazed my fingertips along the gloves. They felt as if they were made of silk instead of wool. So soft against my callused fingers.
“Why?” I blurted.
And her grin faltered. Her hand cupped my cheek and pulled my gaze to meet her eyes.
“Everyone deserves a present on their birthday E. Even you. “
Silence fell between us for a few seconds too long, so I gave her a small smile and placed my hand atop hers.
It was a scream that woke me. No. Not yet. It’s too early for them to come. They never come until the third week of winter, the day of the yearly blizzard. Another scream. And another. My feet protested against the chilled wood-paneled floor as I tumbled out of bed and slammed open the door parallel to mine.
“Mrs. Graham, they are here! You need to wake up.”
I pivoted on my toes and ran to the kitchen, grabbing the hidden nine-inch blade kept in the top cabinet. I stopped and closed my eyes, listening and focusing closely to the motion just outside the front door. I listened for where they might strike next.
Suddenly another scream. Another clatter of bricks, but closer than before. Too close. My eyes shot open and I raced to the end of the hall to find a serpentine standing in the middle of her room, a giant hole in the wall behind it, stabbing Mrs. Graham through her frail chest.
I screamed, anger striking through my core as I lunged toward the beast with the small dagger in my hand. I had only ever seen one serpentine before. It was just before last spring when I was hunting in the woods and came across a pack of them. I couldn’t see any of them since they stayed hidden, but I knew by their skittering legs and piercing gurgles and groans that they were indeed serpentines.
There are no creatures that sounded like that. I climbed the nearest tree and hid in the top for what had to have been hours. Waiting. Watching. Doing everything in my power to find their weakness so that when they came to hunt us on that blizzarding day, we would be prepared.
I was about to jump out of the branch I was stooped on when one walked right beneath me. It was twice the size of a horse, with black shining scales covering its entire ant-like body. It had silver gangly claws that poked out of its chest and a long poison-coated antenna that rested right between its yellow glowing eyes. I remember the one I saw was limping. One of its six legs were broken, and it left a trail of black blood along the mossy forest ground.
“Emma, no--” Mrs. Graham rasped.
But I didn’t care. I didn’t listen as I leapt as high as I could, and in one swift movement my dagger sliced through the serpentine’s left claw. Its silver pincers twitching and black blood spraying as it hit the ground. The beast wailed that hideous gurgling sound and I lunged again. But it backed up and crashed through the hole it had come from and skittered off into the night, bricks and rubble of the wall tumbling onto the floor.
I froze. I couldn’t break my stare of the claw, still twitching and rolling across the floor. I couldn’t break my stare until I heard Mrs. Graham gasping for air. She was lying on her side, slumped over her bed in a massive pool of blood that was draining from her wound.
“E—m” She choked.
I raced over to her and held her in my lap, hugging her close to my body. Her white hair was starch against my honey golden locks. I searched her face, her mouth now dribbling with blood. I didn’t realize I was crying until she reached up and brushed one tear away, leaving a smear of red across my cheek.
“Emm—I have to tell you ----” She coughed, her body now trembling.
“No, save your breath. Save your strength.” I wiped the tears out of my eyes with my forearm.
“Shh.” She placed her trembling finger across my lips.
“Emma, you need to know—“ She coughed once more then wheezed as she spoke her final words. “Sometimes you--- you have to accept what you cannot--- change.” She swallowed and continued, now panting with each word.
“Mrs. Graham, stop. Save your strength.”
But she interrupted me.
“No matter how difficult it may be--- sometimes all you can do is hope that everything will be okay--- despite it all.” Her grip on my cheeks loosened and her breath wavered.
Her eyes blinked and saltwater spilled from them. “You--- Emma--- you are going to be okay.”
She pulled back her quivering lips to give me a smile. A smile of red syrup. Her hand dropped into my lap and her eyes rolled back and stared up toward the celling. I buried my head in the crook of her neck and sobbed until my eyes were raw.
I used to be obsessed with films. From Breakfast at Tiffany’s to any zombie slasher. I’d seen them all. But I guess none of that mattered now. The fall, or that’s what it came to be called, the time when the world officially ended, happened suddenly. The reason? Not a soul knows.
Months before things got bad, unusual creatures started popping up all over the country. War broke out and humanity fell, leaving the monsters victorious. It seemed the more monsters that appeared, the level of viciousness increased within each one. It was the scuffles, the worst of all the creatures, and the sole murderer of my baby sister and family, that pushed humanity over the edge.
The giant spider-like creatures with mouths of crocodiles shot acid out of their tongues and burned holes in the chests of the remaining humans on the western side of the country.
That’s where we used to live, my family and I. My parents were the first to die. The scuffles had trapped and bound them in their webs and left them to rot. Then it was Sophie, my sister, whose heart melted inside her own chest from the saliva they shot at her. I don’t know why they picked them to kill instead of me. It should’ve been me. I left and moved as far east as I could until I found Mrs. Graham.
It was the serpentines that hunted only in the winter. Only on the day of the blizzard. So as soon as winter rolled in, it was imperative that everybody began to board and chain up their homes for protection. Even though it practically did nothing against the serpentines’ supernatural strength, I think we all just did it to calm the roaring helplessness we all felt.
Sometimes I felt like I was stuck in my own unique film. It would be a good one wouldn’t it? A movie where humans became the prey of the mysterious creatures that had taken over the world. I think if this were a movie I would have taken my sister to the theater to go see it. And I think she would have enjoyed it.
I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I didn’t even realize I had any tears left inside me to spill. Finally, when the sun began to rise and the night sky started to fade I opened my eyes. I was lying on Mrs. Graham’s bed. My eyebrows furrowed as I lifted my head.
Rubbed and scratched at my eyes because Mrs. Graham, she was gone. The blood, was gone. I jumped off the bed and circled the room with my green eyes. The hole in the wall…
The world blurred.
I ripped my stare away from the wall and glared toward the hallway which was turning pale in color. My hands started to shake and my legs felt like they were tied to the ground with weights.
And as I made my way to the door, step by step, the room around me began to transform into white. White walls, a white celling, a white and glossy floor. The door slammed shut from the outside and I raced over to the small glass window that now appeared in the middle of it. It was the knock on the door that had me stumbling backwards.
Falling onto the floor, I instantly realized all the furniture in Mrs. Graham’s room had disappeared, everything except the blue worn blanket and the bed it rested upon. Another knock.
A face suddenly appeared behind the glass and I vomited all over the floor.
It was Sophie who stared at me.
My dead sister.
I squinted against the fluorescent tube now hanging and humming above my head.
“E? You have a visitor.” Mrs. Graham opened the door wearing a white uniform with a red cross embroidered on the small hat tilted atop her head. She held a tin tray in her hand with a small clear container and a light blue pill resting inside of it. Her smile instantly vanished as she saw me trembling on the floor and the remnants of my stomach splayed out beside me.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. My head started to spin around and around until everything faded to black and my head hit the floor with a thud.
I awoke in my bed with Sophie sitting at my feet. I jumped up and the air wiped from my chest as I gasped.
“Shhh. Hey, it’s okay. You’re okay.” Her smooth youthful voice filled my ears.
I thrashed against her grip. Her fingers wrapped around my cheeks and I shook my head over and over.
“What’s going on?” I rasped.
“Shhhh. Look at me. Emma, look into my eyes. Remember. Emma. Remember.”
Her small fingers touched my cheeks again and I gazed into those hazel eyes that haunted me. The memories flooded in. Reality floated to the surface.
One by one I remembered the visions my mind had created. The doctors’ offices. The tests. The memory of the time I tried to escape because my medicine had worn off and Mrs. Graham found me behind the fence of the building chewing on grass. The memory of my parents locking me away and leaving me to rot in this place.
The memory of all the screams that woke me every night caused by my fellow cellmates. The word schizophrenia repeated in my mind over and over again.
I remembered all the books they wouldn’t let me read. I remembered Mrs. Graham turning on music to calm me down, only it made me cry even harder. I remembered Mrs. Graham giving me gloves for my 19th birthday, two years ago. I remembered everything.
And in an instant, my mind cleared and all the monsters in my head that I had created disappeared into nothing.
I looked up into my baby sister’s eyes, tears now brimming mine and whispered so softly.
“I’m in a mental Institution.” A question and an answer.