The idea for this story actually came from a dream. I dreamed about a girl who couldn't talk and...
Show full author's note »
When I’ve slipped the knife into the bottom drawer of my desk, I pull three band aides from my desk and put them on the cuts. All night they get to heal, and in the morning I’ll rip the band aides off and stuff them underneath unused tissues in my trash. Someone knocks. I open the door, and Nicole is standing there with a worksheet in her hand. “Will you help me with my homework?” she asks. Every day. No, I tell her with my eyes, the frown on my face. I have homework, too, weeks and weeks of half-done sets of math problems and essay corrections and science questions. I need to be left alone. She stands there for another second, and I wait for her to leave. She always does. And then, “Did you hear about the family reunion?” This is said in a softer voice, almost a whisper. Almost… scared. I nod my head. “You know he’ll be there, and what if—” I push the doorknob in my clammy hand forward, let the bang of the door make her run back to her room. Get f*ing out of here, I want to scream. Don’t let me hear you bring that up again. Don’t let me ever hear that again. I sit on my bed, try not to remember what she said. I will not go there. I will not go there. I will not go there. I dig my fingernails into my left hand, make the pain the only thing in my mind, chase away the too-clear features of that face, face contorted with rage, face contorted with sickening pleasure. I feel wetness on my fingers now and know I’ve broken the skin, that it will show even if I wear a long sleeved shirt, but I don’t care. My jaw is locked and my teeth hurt from pressing together. I sit up on my bed, tense. It took me a long time to figure out how to scream without opening my mouth. Mom is angry when she discovers I have not cleaned my room. Her mouth opens and yells grimy words, mad mad mad. I nod and go back to my room. I don’t say the truth, that I’m scared to pick up my floor and look under my bed because I don’t know what I’ll find there. I’m scared to throw all the crap away and be left with nothing but memories. Sterile clean, nothing but shiny floor and empty bed, sharp edges to the square of my room. So I make my bed and push the stuff on the floor behind my bookshelf where she won’t be able to see it when she looks through my doorway. The face is in my dreams, too, makes me wake up with my jaw hurting from not screaming. No choir again, and this time Mom doesn’t say anything. My friend Stacy asks why I wasn’t in class for a half hour after lunch yesterday. I shrug. My mind panics again, same feelings buzzing underneath my fingernails, pangs in my abdomen. I leave the lunch table as soon as I can, but I can’t walk fast enough to not hear whispers. I tell myself, who cares. But the voices in my mind are swarming, attacking my weak fight. Those kids are whispering about you, they say. They think you’re a freak. I dig my nails into the cuts on my wrist and move out of the cafeteria and into the hall, empty. In math, I see Mrs. Mills staring at my left hand, red scabs in the shape of mini-crescents, vertical curve made from my hand. I pull my sweatshirt sleeve further down, and she finally looks away. Geometry isn’t so bad. The kids in my class are quiet, and there are never any discussions in math. Mrs. Mills never calls on me, either. I prop my book up on my desk and work on the homework for tonight. When the smart girl sitting next to me pokes me and says, “Why aren’t you doing the classwork?” I just shrug and keep paying attention to the homework. I don’t need the pain, I tell myself. I’m fine. Mom smiles at me when I get home. She’s happy that I’ve cleaned my room. I bite my lip and do homework at the kitchen table while she and Nicole discuss a trumpet emergency in tense voices. Stacy calls before dinner. I don’t understand why she likes me so much. I can talk on the phone (thank God), but all she wants to do is gossip about her crush Brian and Gwen’s breakup. I mhm and yeah until my mother calls for dinner. Human contact is good, I tell myself. At dinner, Nicole vents about her music teacher. “The music he picks is so easy,” she says. “I mean, it’s not that I want something really hard, I just like to be challenged, you know?” I snort. I bet the rest of the kids in her class would beat her up if they heard this conversation. There is a recital on Tuesday, and I am “absolutely expected to attend.” I nod and retreat to my bedroom, where I fall asleep at eight o’clock because there is no one to tell me not to. The nightmares wake me up screaming and scratching at my throat. I bury my head in pillows and take a sleeping pill from my mother’s medicine cabinet. In the morning, I have long red scratches on my neck. Mom wakes me up at six fifteen and insists that I go to choir. She says Mr. Forrester called the previous night and said they need me. I pull on a long-sleeved shirt and jeans and get to choir five minutes late, sipping hot water from a thermos. During rehearsal, Mr. Forrester keeps looking at me, concerned. I play louder and harder. I am dead inside. He stops me on my way out. “Wait a moment, Anna,” he says. I just keep walking, shrug his hand off forcefully and ignore the glances people are giving me. Stacy corners me on my way to science to tell me that Brian and she IMed last night for an hour. I nod and escape. The first time I cut, it was the middle of summer and I used the sharp part of a tape dispenser. I was at home wrapping Nicole’s birthday present, and it happened by accident first, but the pain was so wonderful that I dug it into my wrist for so long I got a bruise. The pain was revolutionary. I’d never felt more real and in control in my life. It shattered the images in my head and blinded me, razor-sharp lines cutting all memories in half. It felt wonderful to breathe deeply again. After that, I stole a knife from the kitchen and kept it in my room, slipped between two shirts in my closet. I didn’t even try to stop. It was the only thing keeping me from taking all of my mother’s sleeping pills, got me through the nightmares and Nicole’s whispers in my ear, scared whispers. I felt bad that I couldn’t help her, that she was as alone as I was, but younger and not used to being so lonely. I felt bad that people were getting injured every day overseas and I was causing pain to myself on purpose. But I couldn’t stop. When I get home, my mother tells me I have an appointment with a therapist tomorrow at 4:00, after school. I nod my head like I’m listening, but inside me something is dripping down my stomach and my mind isn’t moving anymore. Somehow I thought they’d forgotten. “Her name is Dr. Sandy,” my mother says, sipping iced tea and reading Newsweek. “She has an office downtown.” She flips the page. My bag is slipping off my shoulder. This is actually happening. I am seeing a therapist and I am crazy and everyone knows it. And the family reunion is inching closer every day and he is coming and I have to be there. With him. And my mother is talking about it like it is no big deal, like she’s used to sending her daughter off to a shrink. Like it’s not a huge surprise that I’m messed up. I tell myself, stop thinking that. You’re being stupid. But the knowledge of Nicole’s perfection is drilling holes in my brain. I search the living room for the old keyboard. It’s under the couch, like someone tried to hide it. I lug it to the garage when my mother is looking the other way and play for hours. I tell myself I’ll wait a week before I cut myself again. Yeah, right.