WARNING! IF YOU HAVEN’T READ DISCERNMENT, THIS TEXT MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS! Also, this text has not yet been completely edited and may contain one or two mistakes. This novel will be available for sale shortly and links will be provided. This is the first look at the new book by L. Sereduk.
Twenty-six years ago
Laughing and grinning with my friends, two sisters that lived down the street, we were standing with our mothers in their living room. While I knew that I was supposed to be a model child, seen and unheard, I couldn’t help but engage in the conspiratorial giggling as we were about to begin our very first sleepover. My mother and Ms. Blockwell were discussing the rules and the various information necessary for me to stay over. Ms. Blockwell nodded her head after each item was listed by my mother. No caffeine, limited sugar, no Kool-Aid, not sweets after 7pm, no chocolate, no unsupervised swimming in the backyard pool, no movies over a PG rating, no PG movies with scary or disturbing elements, no sharing of beds or blankets, and I must be kept at least three feet from each of the girls at bedtime.
I could sense that Ms. Blockwell was tired already, wasn’t enthused at the idea of having another kid to take care (being a single parent and all), and that she thought this list of rules and regulations were a little overboard. Nina, the younger of the girls, gave me a goofy face and then stuck her tongue out at me as she hid behind her mother’s back. I laughed a little too loudly at this playful, five year old and was immediately reprimanded by the downward slanted gaze of both mothers, chatting above me.
The parley ended with my mother giving Ms. Blockwell a piece of paper with her name, phone number, and address as well as a reminder that, should anything occur, she will be right there to pick me up. I was grateful to my mother for not mentioning that I had bad dreams sometimes. I didn’t want Ms. Blockwell to end our party before it even started. The older of the two, Jessie, knew and sort of understood about my bad dreams because she was seven and could understand those things. Nina said she understood but I knew she didn’t because she told me once that her mom locked her dad outside and that he died on the front porch because he couldn’t come in and eat. A seven year old would know that adults can go get food in town so that was just attention-talk.
Ms. Blockwell gave us a dinner of cut-up hot dogs with macaroni and cheese and a side of green beans. She had winked at me when she refilled my cup of Kool-Aid and everything was wonderful. After dinner, she shooed us outside to swim for a little bit before it got too dark. Jessie said it was because she was in the middle of learning about witch’s black magic and she had a room full of books and she was learning how to raise the dead to bring back their dad. We played for a long time in the pool until Nina got mad that we wouldn’t play her mermaid game and she started to cry. Ms. Blockwell yelled at us to come inside and watch a movie before bed so we had to get out and dry off.
As we settled in, on the living room floor, to watch The Labrynth, she brought us ice cream in bowls made out of pure chocolate. I was pretty sure this was going to be the best day of my entire life as I snuggled into my blankets and watched the troll man, in the movie, take the lady across the flatulating swamp.
A gaunt-looking, old man, in military dress, was staring at a gravestone and singing. The words of his music seemed like they were supposed to be happy but there was sorrow in his cracking voice and I could tell he was crying. As I sat in the grass to his left, I played with the ends of the green blades in need of a mow. I wanted to look at him and see his face so that maybe I could find out why he was crying but I was too embarrassed. I just sat, gazing at the flowers on the grave in front of me and began to pick the little white flowers that grew out of the clover weeds and listened to his voice, broken with sobs.
“And we’re standin’ right together now,
In everything we do. And if my world should come apart,
I’ll still be lovin’ you. ‘Cause you mean everything to me
And I’d do anything to have you stay forever.
I’m an ordinary man, but I feel like I could do anything in the world
When I look at you girl…”
At that, something inside of the old man seemed to break and he collapsed to his knees in front of the grave stone. His voice tried to come out and continue his song but it was strangled in his throat. I was so shaken at his sudden movement that I looked inquiringly at the side of his face. Unheeding me, he raised his face toward heaven and released a painful sob. Even though I didn’t know this old man, I could feel the tears start to sting my eyes and my chest began to hiccough with my own bubbling sobs.
As if my sympathetic state made him aware of me, he slowly lowered his head back toward the grave stone and began to turn it toward me. At first, I wanted to reach out and let him know that it was going to be okay and that he didn’t have to cry but, the more his face turned to me, the faster my sympathy began to turn to panic. Immediately, I could see that there was something very wrong here. His left eye was missing from its socket and his wrinkled mouth had blood seeping over the bottom lip and smeared slightly across the pale skin around it.
My own eyes widened and my breath stopped in my chest. I didn’t know if I should run or if I should stay still. I knew that you’re not supposed to stare at people that are different than you but my gaze was locked on the blood beginning to drip and spill down his chin. His wrinkled and bony hand raised up from his side and began to point, menacingly, at my face. This action made me think that I had perhaps done something wrong and I wanted to assert my innocence to the poor man with whatever I could muster in my face because my mouth wouldn’t form words. I looked up from his outstretched arm and back up into his face, traversing the bloodied chin with my eyes and seeing that, now, his nose had begun to release a pattering of red droplets. My eyes grew wider at this proximity to blood. I’d seen it before but only from scrapes and cuts and a bloody nose a kid had at school, once. I recognized the fear that was beginning to grip me and every vein in my body shouted orders to move, to get out of there, but my muscles wouldn’t respond.
Rigidly paralyzed, in my spot on the grass, I raised my eyes further until I came to where his eyes should be. Two empty holes seemed to engulf me with their nothingness and everything in my mind was replaced by a single, high pitched scream. His hand rose to within inches of my face and the screaming got louder and louder. The bony finger with its soft and worn skin gently touched my cheek and a feeling of being hit really hard exploded through my head.
I began to flail my arms, to try to hit it away, only to find more fingers, more hands, gripping me around the shoulders, grabbing my feet in strong clenches. I closed my eyes as tightly as I could, wishing it would all go away, desperately trying to remember what Dorothy had done to get her back home safely but I couldn’t move the memory out of its hiding place. I heard voices calling my name and a little girl crying asking someone to make it stop. A mixture of confusion and relief gave me enough courage to open my eyes again but the man was gone and so was the graveyard. A strange room and strange people met my eyes and I had to wipe the water out of them in order to see more clearly.
After a brief moment, I recognized the faces of Jessie and the crying Nina. The stern and exhausted face of the woman, whose iron grip bound my wrists in one hand and my feet in the other, finally found its place in my memory of faces and I knew that I was looking at their mother. My relief was so strong that I wanted to jump up and hug this woman for saving me from the scary old man but, still bound by her hands, I could only open my mouth and utter incoherent words.
“Are you okay, now?” Ms. Blockwell asked.
“Um, yeah; yeah I think so.” I replied.
“Then get up, I’m taking you home. Don’t worry about your things, I’ll bring them tomorrow. Grab your pillow.”
Confused, I did as I was told. On the way out to the car, I wondered what I had done to deserve this midnight banishment, what error in judgment I may have made that would warrant a ride home in the dark instead of a simple phone call to my mother in the morning. Ms. Blockwell didn’t say anything on the short ride around the block to my house and I was too afraid to ask. I couldn’t even get up the courage to ask why we were driving instead of just walking the few houses down that it would take.
Ms. Blockwell ushered me out of the back of the vehicle, in front of my own house, and led the way up to the front door. She rang the doorbell and gave three quick raps on the wood before crossing her arms in front of her. More afraid of what my mother would do once she learned of my apparent transgression than the obvious irritation of Ms. Blockwell, I tried to hide my small frame behind her as I held my pillow with both arms like a shield in front of me.
My mother opened the door but didn’t look like she had been sleeping. She looked from Ms. Blockwell’s angry face and down to mine. With a slight sigh, she stepped to the side and held the door open a little wider. She motioned for me to come forward and said, “Go on to bed. We’ll talk in the morning.” I did as I was told and moved quicker than usual because I didn’t want to have to see my mother’s face when Ms. Blockwell explained whatever it was that I had done. My embarrassment and sadness made the trip to sleep quick and the wetness of my pillow seemed soothing as I cried.
“Okay,” I say, to Dr. Marie, as I settle myself onto the more comfortable couch in her office. “Here’s what I have so far.” I flip open my little, green notebook to the first ‘diary’ entry that had been assigned as my homework after my last visit. Dr. Marie’s expectant gaze peered across her book-covered desk with easy attention.
“When I was a child,” I hesitate as I felt a warm heat fill my cheeks.
“It’s okay, Johanna, take your time. I’m not here to judge you and, remember, the point of this exercise is to try and help you get to the root of your fears. If we can do that, perhaps we can take some of their power away.” Dr. Marie’s smile is comforting and congenial so I think Why not? We’ve come this far, might as well just do it.
I start again:
“When I was a child, between the hazy and over-lapping ages of four and six, my mother had woken me from a screaming night terror. Sitting on my bed, she offered calmness and allowed a little compassion to be seen through her eyes. “Can you tell me what it was about, Johanna?”
Shaking and startled, at the sudden change of my surroundings and the feeling of being slapped into the light of reality from the darkness of that other world, I couldn’t quite yet form the words. I could sense her exasperation growing, waiting for an answer, as she watched the tears begin to well in my eyes and the heaving of my bosom, trying to regain a steadiness to my breath. I knew that I must offer something or she would leave me again. Her hand would be pulled from my shoulder and the connection to empathy and the compassion of another human would be lost.
“I…” it was all I could offer as I desperately searched every corner of my memory to give detail to what had terrified me so badly. The only image left in my brain, the only image my psyche would allow me to associate with that horrific experience was this: row upon row of rainbow-colored, spiraled, candy suckers filled my vision at so close of range that there were only, maybe, five rows in total. Complete blackness sat beyond them and a circular sticker sat in the middle of each one, showing the face of a clown. It was, and would forever be, the guilty and embarrassed realization that the explanation of this image could not, in any way, relate just what I had found so terrifying about the dream. It would also be the complete and conclusive reason that I would never explain to anyone, in my entire life, just why I found myself so terrified of clowns. Like Proust with his cookies linked to feelings of home, I had clowns forever linked with the fight for my soul. But I knew that I couldn’t tell her any of this.
My mother removed her hand from my shoulder, expression slightly glowering, with the understanding that no more information would come. And with that, the connection to the warmth of the world outside of myself was gone. Self-pity now rose up to overlap the ebbing fear and I cried. Not because I was afraid of the dark, but because I realized, at such a tender age, that I was more afraid of being alone and that that was exactly what was about to occur, because I had failed to provide some way for her to understand. I failed to form an inlet, to give some way of connecting, I failed so I must accept the consequences.
I watched my mother, tears flowing down my cheeks, as I sat shaking on my bed, while she crossed the room toward the door. With one last look of tired resignation, as she gazed back, I could see she looked older than she really was. Her years had passed faster than everyone else’s and her vitality of youth had been wilting with each passing day. “Just change the channel.” She said with an almost deference in her voice.
She turned the bedroom light off to leave me in the triangle of light from the bathroom door and then she went away.”
I exhale a full sigh and realize I hadn’t been breathing properly during my narrative. My ears have that tingling sensation that comes when you know you’re close to passing out so I try to steady my breath before I speak. “That’s all I have so far.”
“I think that’s great, Jo. That’s a very good start. I know that might have been difficult for you but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. When you think of your next entry, I want you to stay on this same track and try to remember the first times that you were afraid and what you felt afraid of, no matter how silly your adult mind tells you that they may be.”
Ha! I think, No matter how old my adult mind gets, they’ll all be silly and terrifying which is probably why I don’t remember many of them. “Sure, okay.” I say instead.
“Okay, I want you to keep everything that you write down in your notebook. Even if you don’t read it here or even if you don’t think there was enough detail, just leave it there. It may help you later. Do you still feel comfortable with once a month for meeting?”
“Mm-hm, I think it’s been working pretty well, so far. The medicine seems to be working and I haven’t had many episodes and my sleep schedule seems to be getting more on track.” Yeah, whatever, my brain interrupts, If by more on track you mean a steady bedtime of after midnight or just laying there and listening (or wishing you could listen) to Clark breathe, sure, it’s on track.
“Good! That’s very good. And have you tried the melatonin before bedtime, yet?” Dr. Marie can’t seem to hide a little pride in her belief that I’m getting better.
“No, not yet. I’ll admit that I just haven’t remembered whenever I’m at the store but I’ll try to do it this week so that I can report on it next month.” Even mid-way through my sentence I know that saying I’ll ‘admit’ something is just stupid to do. She’s going to think there might be stuff that I won’t admit.
“Okay, no problem. Small steps, hon. Do you have anything that you want to ask me? Any questions on anything or any feelings you wanna share?”
Ask her about the book! My inner-voice says.
It’s too early to ask her about that. Besides, she’ll probably bring it up when she thinks it’s the right time. I reply.
Yeah, that or she’s got it sitting there to torment you and see if you know what it is and how long it will take you to ask any questions about it.
I mutely determine that it is not the right time yet and brush the voices back to their respective corners so that I can reply to Dr. Marie, “Not quite yet. I’ve been reading some things and working out some thoughts and ideas. When I have a more formulated idea of what I might want to know, I’ll let you know.”
Dr. Marie just stares at me and I start to wonder if I messed up my words as they were coming out of my mouth. I’m not the most eloquent speaker in stressful situations. I do a quick replay of the audio, in my head, and determine that it all came out fine. So I add, “Thank you, though. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on a few things when I’m ready. Plus, I have been reading the material on meditation that you gave me and I think that’s helping a little to clear my mind before I go to sleep- when I can go to sleep.” Was that good enough? One of my inner voices adds.
“Okay, no problem. Let’s plan on just checking in on those ideas when we meet again next month. As always, feel free to call the office if you ever need to see me or someone sooner or just have any questions. We’re here for you, honey.”
With that, Marie rose to show that it was time for me to leave. I don’t really mind anyway because I’m running out of time to buy Clark a Christmas present and daylight’s burning. I don’t even really know where to start to buy him a ‘first Christmas together’ present but I do know that I have a few other errands tonight before I can get to the mall; and, hopefully, before they close. I’ve got an interview tomorrow and then dinner with Clark to exchange gifts. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson about scheduling dinner after a potentially important work-related event but I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a different appointment time with the hiring manager or ask Clark if we could pick a different day. Besides, I ask myself, what would I tell him? I’m superstitious about ruining our relationship because a job opportunity needs to be scheduled that day? Right. I’m weird enough as it is. I don’t need to go adding fuel to that fire.
As I rise from my chair, I take one more, quick glance at the book on Dr. Marie’s desk while her back is turned and she’s opening the door. It’s still not time, we’ll ask next time. Now, keys, phone, money, check! With my mantra recited, I turn toward the door and head out to greet the falling snow in the parking lot.
“Okay, Miles, I’m out of the office. You busy?” I ask my nearest and dearest friend, as of late.
“Well, I was just about to call the President on the Bat-phone and explain how he could end famine but, for you, nah, I’m not busy.”
“Great!” I say, letting his snarky comment slide. “I need your help.”
“They’re not locking you up, again, are they?”
“No, Miles, I need help picking something out for Clark for Christmas. I’ve thought of a hundred things and they all suck.”
“Well, I’d bet he’d like any one of those hundred things.” Miles replies.
It takes me a second to comprehend just what Miles was implying as I falter near the coffee shop kiosk at the entrance of the mall. “Miles, you’re gross. Seriously, I need help. I’ve thought of a bunch of stuff but just don’t know what to do. I need a man’s perspective. Scratch that! I need a GENTLEman’s perspective.”
“Well, what good would I be if I couldn’t help the great Jo-Jo save Christmas?” Even through the phone, I can hear the facetious smile that spreads across Miles’ face.
“Well,” I say, mimicking him, “Then get on the Bat-phone and ask the President because you’re, well, the only friend I have that, well, knows anything about my relationship and you’re also a dude.”
“Okay, okay, okay! I get it. What are your options and where are you at. I’ll see what I can do to help.”
“Well, I’m at the mall… Sorry, that was an unintended well…”
“Addicting, isn’t it.”
I can’t help but laugh a little at how quick Miles can be. “Yeah. So, anyway, I’m at the mall and there are tons of options. Nothing really seems like him, I’m pretty broke, and I wouldn’t even know where to shop for a guy like Clark.”
“What’s the budget, Jo-Jo?”
“Okay, one: stop calling me Jo-Jo; that’s a potato stick around these parts. And, two: let’s say twenty dollars.”
“What the hell’s a potato stick? Is that supposed to be a potato on a stick? Or is it more like a potato cut into the shape of a stick? Do you eat it or do you fight with it? Are you feeling okay, Jo-Jo? Do we need to call the doc?”
“It’s like a big French fry. Happy now?” My exasperation is starting to take over because the mall is going to close soon and I haven’t even left the little coffee kiosk area yet. I can see the black-haired teenager, behind the counter, wrinkling her pierced nose and smiling at me as she, no doubt, laughs silently at my end of the conversation. I give her a half smile and roll my eyes a little as Miles continues on the phone.
“Okay, I’m happy now. But I do want to see one of these potato things you speak of.”
“Sounds good. I’ll mail you some and that should cover your Christmas.”
“Well, I don’t know about that but you could deliver them. That would be cool. Wait, do you eat them cold or warm? Is there, like, a special dip for them or are they meant to be eaten plain? I like dips, myself—“
“Miles! As entertaining as the dip to no dip conversation may be, we can continue it at another time when the mall is not about to close for the night. I now have 45 minutes to figure out what to buy, get home, wrap it, get out my interview clothes, and try to get to sleep for that interview tomorrow. I won’t have a lot of time after my interview before I’m supposed to meet Clark for dinner and exchange our gifts.”
In his most responsible, grown-up voice, Miles says, “Right. Sorry. I forgot about that. Down to business. How about a tie?”
“Oh for the love of Pete! You’re no help at all!”
“Kidding, I was kidding. Calm down, Jo-Jo, before you blow a gasket.” He pauses, for what I can only imagine would be, to create his next joke at my expense. “How about a handy-dandy tool set for his truck?”
“Nope, he’s got one.”
“Well, okay… I’m thinking automotive here. Seat covers?”
“As awful of an idea as that is, got ‘em.”
“Are you being serious right now?”
“I’m doing the best I can. Not like you gave me a lot of warning on this one.”
I had to admit– There it is again, what are you hiding?… Okay, brain, how about this, I had to RECOGNIZE that Miles was right. I hadn’t given him any warning and I procrastinated until the last possible minute. Drumming up a little humility to my voice, I reply, “You’re right. I didn’t give you any warning and I’m sorry. I really thought I could come up with something but I’m a little out of practice.” Try a LOT out of practice, my brain adds.
“Well, okay, I’m just gonna throw some stuff at ya and you let me know if anything sticks. Steering wheel cover?” I roll my eyes but let him continue. “Tow hitch? CDs? Autographed guitar by We Are The Hillbillies? Um, massage gift certificate?”
I say nothing but begin tapping my foot impatiently. I turn to the woman at the kiosk, hand her my debit card and point at the cheapest, biggest, regular coffee from the laminated menu and smile apologetically. The voice of Miles still drones on in my ear and I’m pretty sure that he’s had more than his daily serving of Mountain Dew in the last hour alone, easy.
“New propane tank for a barbeque grill? Scented candles? A belly rub? A knitted, Christmas sweater? Socks? I don’t care what anyone says, socks are great for Christmas. Um, chrome polish? Leather polish? A new hood ornament? Flood lights—“
Excited, I yell, “Miles, that’s it!” The teenager behind the counter jumps and spills hot coffee on her hand. “I’m so sorry!” I say to her.
Confused, Miles asks, “Why are you sorry?”
“No, not you, the girl making the coffee…” Turning to the young lady, I say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you’re a girl, I was just, um…” Thankfully, the girl didn’t just toss the coffee in my face. She just laughs and wipes the pink marks from the hot coffee off of her hand.
The voice of Miles continues in my ear, “Well, you should be sorry because I’m not a girl.”
“No, not you, Miles. I know you’re not a girl and you’re brilliant. A Christmas ornament would be the perfect gift. Something nice but not too clingy/needy/we’ll-be-together-forever-ish and there’s a Christmas store just up around the corner from where I’m at. It’s perfect. A perfect idea.”
“Well, glad to be of service, Jo-Jo. Now, if your crisis has been averted, I’d like to get back to my book.”
With a smile that I know he’ll hear, I say, “Please stop calling me that.” I hang up and head to the Christmas shop to find something just ruggedly Clark-ish but cute enough to be endearing.
Returning home to my own, quiet little street, I survey the townhouses around me in the light of the lampposts. I rarely see any of my neighbors and tonight proves no different than usual. With only three days until Christmas and snow all over the lawns, I’m not surprised that no one wants to be out in the cold. The packed snow on the road is slick and icy so I ease the car slowly into my driveway and park.
Turning off the engine, I can see that there’s an envelope taped to my front door before I shut off the headlights. It takes me a moment but I realize that it’s probably a letter from my landlord, letting me know that I’m running out of time to come up with my rent. Not that there’s anyone around to see it but I quickly turn off my headlights and let the darkness cover up the evidence of my ineptitude. Just three more days or so and I should get the deposit for the temp job I did last week. That coupled with whatever I can find to sell (which isn’t much) will buy me another month and, hopefully, enough time to get a first paycheck if I’m offered a job tomorrow.
I open the car door and gather my belongings, pausing for a moment to watch my breath crystallize in the frigid air. My nose starts to tingle from the cold so I know it’s time to go. Reaching over the center console, I grab the new bag that holds the nicest but cheapest pair of dress pants I could find and grab the bag from the Christmas shop. I make a mental note to try and remember to eat something before I go to bed since I’ve lost a few pounds in the last couple of months. Once the small, brown paper bag, containing Clark’s present, is safely in my lap and the clothing bag is tucked under my arm, I do a double check before locking the car and heading inside, Keys, phone, money, gift, new pants. Got it. I shut the car door behind me and the clank seems almost too loud on the quiet street. Careful not to fall, I pick my way through the ankle deep snow up to my front door and nonchalantly remove the envelope, as if I knew it would be there, like I had been waiting for it.
My house is a little chilly since I turned the heat down to save money. So long as the pipes don’t freeze, I can use extra blankets, since it’s just me. The first thing on my to-do list is start a pot of coffee. Once that’s going, I’ll brave the spare bedroom that is supposed to be my office and see if I can’t find some wrapping paper. The power must have gone off at some time today because the coffee pot is telling me that it’s midnight. A quick check of my phone, as I set it on the kitchen counter, tells me that it’s really only just after ten.
I reset the clock, accordingly, started a pot of coffee, and then head to the bedroom to set my alarm clock. Tomorrow is a big day and I don’t want to be late for it, even though it’s not scheduled until noon. As I flip on the light, I catch the outline of a woman in the corner but she disappears before my eyes can lock on her. Short black hair, African descent, dark skin, maybe a black hat, black clothes. Oh great! Not tonight. Please don’t let this happen tonight!
As if the woman’s sole purpose was to remind me to take my pill, I set the clock, grab the pill bottle, and pop one in my mouth without even finding a drink. I gag a little on the dry pill but it seemed prudent to take it right away so all I can do is screw my face up into a sour look and head to the other room in search of paper. I keep the door of the ‘office’ closed since I don’t need to heat it and I hesitate a little before turning the handle. Without stepping forward, I let the door swing wide and bang against the crap stored against the wall and slightly behind it. Nothing jumps out, up, or otherwise so I flip the light on and survey the boxes piled everywhere. Good, no ghosties. On to the task at hand, someone in my head says.
About halfway of the moving out process from my old place, it dawned on me that I should label my boxes so half of what’s in this room has titles but the other half is just guess work. Starting on my left, I look over each of the four boxes piled on my desk. None of them want to tell me their names so I take one down and open it. It’s full of paperwork and old textbooks that I liked or couldn’t sell from college. Not it.
The next box is the home of stuffed animals, snow globes wrapped in the comics from an old newspaper, and other various childhood things that I just don’t really need any more. I take out my favorite bear and toss the box in the hall. I’ll take it to donation tomorrow or the next day. A quick glance in the other two boxes shows writing supplies, notebooks, tape, everything that actually belongs with the desk. At least I was thinking when I put it there.
Moving to the wall, across from the door, I open the first boxes under the window. Nothing too promising so I move them aside. Under one of them, a box looks up at me and says his name is HOLIDAY, in Sharpie,and so is the one next to him. Perfect! Why I didn’t think to write it on the side of the box is beyond me but I’ll take it. Looking inside, I find no wrapping paper—not even birthday paper.
I hear the coffee pot beep at me from down the hall so I close up the two Holiday brothers and head to get a cup. The clock on the display says that it is now 10:23. I have to get my clothes out for tomorrow, take the tags off of the new pants, find my nice shoes (which are probably under the bed), relocate the folder with my resume copies from the bookshelf to the table, and go to sleep… hopefully.
Once everything is taken care of, I snuggle into my extra blankets and close my eyes against the shine of the bathroom light. Dr. Marie had given me pamphlets on Beginner’s Medition so I push everything from my brain and focus on only my breathing. Crap, you forgot the Melatonin! I open my eyes and give a little grunt at this realization that I forgot again but force myself to close them. There’s nothing to do about it now, I reply to the thought, So everybody just be quiet and let’s breathe.
Sitting across from a very quiet older woman with wrinkles around her pursed lips and a decently good-looking and (obviously Irish) red-headed 50-something man, I smile politely as he says, “You certainly have some impressive skill sets here, Johanna. We’re definitely looking for someone with your experience here at E&M. I see you’ve been doing some temp projects on the side and that’s very cool. I do have a question, though. Now, can you tell me why you left your previous employer?”
Even though I’d practiced this answer a few times, the jumble and uncomfortable fidgeting in my head makes it difficult to concentrate and answer so I clear my throat a little to make sure I have control of how my voice is going to come out. “Erm– Yes. I was informed by their HR department that one of the employees above me had mismanaged some financials and corporate made the decision to release everyone in an attempt to mitigate further damage. Their investigation has been wrapped up and I have a copy of an email that states that their investigation cleared me of any wrong-doing. I’m also awaiting a certified copy but I do have the print out if you would like to see it.” I open my folder to pull out the copies I had made but am stopped by the quiet, older woman.
Her lips open as she speaks but the wrinkles don’t move, not even a little bit, “That’s quite alright, Ms. Parks. We’re well aware of the whole debacle that occurred. My sister’s nephew works in their Dallas office and, once he could speak of it, of course, told me all about it. I made some calls and your references assured us of your character.”
“Oh, that’s great,” I can’t help but give myself a little mental face-palm, Stupid girl, it’s not great, it’s just and precisely as it should be. I tuck the papers back into my folder and force myself to make eye contact with the woman. “I mean, that’s great that you were able to get ahold of them and I appreciate that. I work very hard to maintain my character and that was a bit of a surprise when they let me in on what was going on.”
“I’m sure it was,” says Irish. “I think we’ve got all of our questions answered for the time being. Do you have anything that you’d like to ask us? About the position, the company, anything at all?”
“Actually, I do; just two questions.” ‘Are you single?’ My brain offers up a potential candidate for question number one and I have to lower my eyes to my binder in front of me, hoping to all that is holy in the universe that I don’t blush. Recovering as fast as I can, I continue: “I was looking through the company’s newsletter for this month and saw that there may be plans to open new locations in some of the surrounding cities. Would relocation to a new store be a potential for this position? I mean, as a requirement?”
Wrinkles leaned slightly back in her chair and met my eyes, “Potentially but not as a requirement. It could be requested that, the person filling this position, spend some time at a new store to train, set up, that kind of thing, but on a temporary basis. Opportunity to request permanent transfer will also be available but will depend on the company’s current need, at that time.”
“Okay, great. Now, the other question I had is really a two-part question. Do you know when you are hoping to have someone start and when you may have your final candidates chosen?”
Irish clears his throat loudly and closes his notebook in front of him as he says, “We’re hoping to have our final decision made and an offer extended by the first of the new year. Should the candidate accept, the position would start with a one week training in Colorado, on the 10th and then in store starting the 18th. Does that work for you?”
“Yes, absolutely. The time frame sounds great and I could do that. Should I be selected, of course.” I try to hide my excitement and remind myself that he was just asking for posterity. They both smile back at me and Wrinkles says she’ll be in touch. Taking that as my queue to leave, I gather my things, shake their hands, and mentally kick myself for not being able to remember their names.
Feeling pretty good after my job interview, I texted Miles to let him know how it went. Having few friends, Miles had become my go-to person for sharing life information. We had ‘met’ online when I replied to a post he had made on a forum for night terrors. I’ve had friends in my life, sure, but never knew anyone that could really understand me the way that he could. I think I may have been outgoing, as a kid, but I’m not sure. Living a life like mine tends to force people to be introverts. It’s difficult to make friends because you have a hard time explaining why you slept through your lunch date, why you were messaging them at 3am, or why you didn’t want to date their cousin. Making new friends is just as hard because, you know, at some point in time, a question will be asked or a particularly difficult night will happen and you’ll have to tell them about it. Or not tell them and have them think you’re hiding something. Other than the fact that Miles lived in another state, he’d been the best ‘friend’ to come along in a very long time. Macy, my college friend, knew about my disorder, first hand. She accepted it and let me feel normal. I tend to just expect people to drift away after a while; when the intrigue wanes. I’m pretty sure that Miles will stick around because he has the same problem making friends that I do.
Miles texted me back when I had reached my house and let me know that I was a shoe-in for the job and that they’d be crazy to pass me up. Even though neither one of us likes the word crazy, we tend to use it fairly freely in our conversations with one another. It’s really nice to have someone that you know won’t, and can’t rightly, judge you for what you do or say. I sent him another message to let him know when I might know the result and then I texted Clark to ensure our plans were still in effect for dinner tonight. He responded right away, which was slightly unusual given his busy schedule, and said that he was planning on it. We were meeting at my favorite Italian restaurant at seven.
Even though I had slept long and hard the previous night, I felt exhausted and wanted a nap. I had stopped at a dollar store, on the way home from the interview, and picked up a small pack of wrapping paper, in the Christmas genre, so that I could wrap Clark’s present. I decided on a game plan: 1. Call the landlord and let him that Iknow that I could make a partial payment now and to let him know when I would hear back about my interview to ease his tension over whether or not I could pay rent, 2. Take a short nap of maybe an hour or hour and a half, 3. Wrap Clark’s little ornament, and then, 4. Get dressed and head out for dinner.
My texted conversation with Jerry, the landlord, went pleasant enough and he seemed to be understanding. I set the alarm on my phone and the second alarm on my clock to wake me up in one hour’s time. I set my items on the counter, next to the coffee pot, and couldn’t help the OCD in my head that said, ‘Keys, phone, money, wrapping paper’.
At 5:18pm, I decided to turn the alarms off and just get out of bed. I was hoping to get to nap until 5:30 so that I could show up to dinner, looking and feeling refreshed, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Since I had the extra time, I decided to try the synthetic method of looking refreshed via coffee and makeup. I turned the pot back on, to reheat the coffee that was left over from this morning, and headed to the bathroom to find some make-up. I don’t generally wear make-up but figured, with the extra time, and since I couldn’t sleep, I’d just do it and put some on. I applied a little complexion stabilizer (that I’d bought on my cousin, Cassie’s, recommendation) and it seemed to help a lot. I gained more of a ‘fresh off the farm’ rather than a ‘fresh out of the slaughter house’ look.
Once I had completed the traditional painting-of-the-face that is so common in our current society, I donned a black dress that, I hoped, was attractive but not too fancy. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was expecting anything over the top and it’s not like this Italian restaurant was particularly fancy anyway. I set my shoes by the front door and kept my slippers on. The sound of heels clacking in an otherwise empty house just makes me feel weird and pretentious. Besides, I didn’t need the extra height that the shoes would add just to wrap up an ornament.
I found the tape and scissors in the box on top of my desk and brought them out into the dining room. I had left the bag from the dollar store on the table so I pulled out the wrapping paper and opened its package. Cute little Santa’s elves stared up at me, holding candy canes, as I unfolded the paper onto the table. Great! Only one sheet in the package. Better not screw it up, I thought to myself. I grabbed my coffee cup, filled it up maybe a little too full, and picked up the brown paper sack from the counter.
Once seated, I took the little box out of the sack and set in on the table, just off to the right so that I had room to work with. I flipped the wrapping paper over, so that the design would show and not be inside out, and decided on a drink of coffee before my crafting would begin.
Now, my coffee pot is not expensive, it’s not fancy, and it clearly doesn’t have a brain. It heated the coffee to, what seemed, a near boiling point because it didn’t realize that half a pot only requires half the heating. When I put that scalding substance to my lips and attempted to swallow the lava, my immediate and subconscious reaction was to get any and all liquid as far from my lips as possible before blisters set it. Not only did I spray coffee from my mouth all over the paper on the table, I also managed to jump a little as I did it and spill this cruel liquid all over my lap.
With thighs afire and paper ruined, I set the coffee cup down with both hands to prevent further damage. So much for a little black dress at dinner and holiday oriented wrapping paper. I cleaned up my mess, changed into a skirt and top, and went in search of the newspaper I had seen in the spare room. Once located, I saw that it was actually the comics section of a Sunday paper and I breathed a small sigh of relief. Fate might bully me from time to time but at least it wasn’t a complete asshole. Had it been the stock exchange section, I might have felt compelled to go door to door in search of something better.
As soon as I had Clark’s present wrapped and ready to go, I set it inside the brown paper bag and placed it near my shoes. Safely out of harm’s way in case any more flying lava decided to spray around my dining room. I picked up my coffee cup and tentatively raised it to my lips in hopes of a quick drink, before I had to go brush my teeth and leave, only to find that it had become room temperature. A few quick gulps, a toothbrush in my mouth, an application of lip gloss, and I was out the door.
One slippered foot in the snow and I was right back in again. Keys, phone, money, SHOES, gift. Now I’m ready.
Pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant, I spot Clark’s truck and see that he’s still inside of it. I momentarily panic and wonder if I’m late but a check of the clock on the dash tells me that I’m not. He either must have just arrived or decided to wait for me. Or he’s leaving, the cynical voice in my head adds. I turn off the car and try not to look in his direction as I gather my things and open the door. As if he sensed that I had arrived, he turned off his own vehicle and opened the door, smiling.
“Hey beautiful, you look great!”
Blushing and hoping he can’t tell in the darkness of the winter evening, I return his smile and say, “You look good, too. Have you been waiting long?”
“Nope, just a couple months, do I look older? But seriously, no, just enjoying the heater. Are you ready to go in?”
“Um, yeah but you should probably close your door first or it will be pretty cold in there when you leave.”
He looks at me a little confused and then realizes that he’d left his truck door open while he absorbed the heat from the cab into his back. “Oh, right. Yeah, I don’t want to be a popsicle on the way home.” He turns and reaches behind the front seat and pulls out a large paper bag, much larger than my little brown sack in my hand. Instantly, I can feel my very soul crumbling with dread that his gift will be bigger and nicer than mine.
He closes the door, comes around to my side of my car, and offers me his arm. “Shall we?”
I loop my arm in his, giddy like an idiot, and we head inside the restaurant. Clark tells the host that we have a reservation under Dixon and we’re lead to our table. Soft, Christmas music plays without words and the restaurant is decked out with boughs and wreaths, giving a comfortable but not overdone atmosphere. Little candles in colored glass holders are on every table and we’re seated in front of the big windows, facing the patio.
We ordered drinks and an appetizer to share and I tried not to eye the large bag that he set covertly to his side, on the floor. The waiter left with our order and, Clark, with an almost bursting enthusiasm, gave me his best smile and lifted the bag off of the floor.
“So, I can’t wait. I wanted to wait until later to give you your present but it’s driving me crazy and I want to know if you like it.”
“I’m sure I will,” I say, a little surprised at his excitement. “Do you want yours, now, too? I’ll just say, up front, I’m sorry if you don’t like it. I wasn’t sure what to get you but thought this would be good.” I lift my own little brown bag from the floor and hold it in my lap.
“Sure, but I wanna go first.” He says. Clark reaches inside the large bag and takes out a small, unwrapped ring box.
Woah, way too soon, buddy! My inner-voice says at it simultaneously recoils and smiles at the thought.
“Okay, so, I actually have two presents for you but this is the first one.” He hands me the large bag, careful not to pass it over the candle in the middle of the table.
Clumsily, I take it and bring it down by my side so that I can see what was so heavy inside of it. A large, potted, cactus-looking thing makes my brow furrow until recognition registers and I realize it’s an Aloe Vera plant. Surprised happiness replaces the confusion on my face and I give a little gasp as I take it out of the bag. “It’s wonderful! Thank you so much! I love it!”
“Well, I noticed that you didn’t have any plants in your house and, you kinda seem to get hurt a lot so, I thought it would be a good present for you.” By the look on his face, I can tell that he’s doing a little happy dance in his head over the success of his gift.
“Thank you, I really do love it. And, as awkward as it is to admit, I really could use one of these. I kind of burn myself a lot.” I can’t help but look at the pink skin on my hand from where the coffee slid over the brim of my cup during my earlier adventures. “Well, are you ready for yours?” I ask. I feel a little better now about giving him an ornament since he had just given me a plant.
“Well, I’ve got one more thing for you, real quick. Now, I don’t want you to get too excited, it’s not that great, but I think things have been going pretty well and I know that stuff for you has been kinda hard since we first started seeing each other. What I mean is, I had already been thinking about it and it just sort of seemed like a good time.”
A little confused at just what he was getting at and wondering what was in the box or if the box was even for me, I slowly start to smile at him as he flounders in his explanations.
“Here, I’ll just give it to you.” Clark hands me the little box and I open it to find a regular house key inside. Even more confused, I look up into his face and he says, “So, what I was thinking was, you and your new plant could come and stay with me, if you wanted to. Well, and all your other stuff, too, I mean.”
Speechless, I look from his face and back down at the key, then further down to the little brown paper bag in my lap that holds the little ferris wheel ornament with the year written on the bottom. I can feel the slight embarrassment and concern start to emanate from his side of the table and I know that I need to say something, to let him know it’s all okay. I look back up into his sparkling blue eyes but all I can muster is to ask, “Are you serious?”
His amazing smile returns and he tilts his head just slightly forward as he knows that I want to say yes. He gives me a wink and replies, “As a heart attack.”
Even though I know that my relationship with Clark has reached the point where I won’t seem ‘easy’ if we spend the night together, I just couldn’t bring myself to accept his invitation to stay over tonight. We had discussed the details of how moving in together would work, while we were at dinner, and everything seemed like a great idea. The timing couldn’t have been better for the offer but I felt like I would be taking advantage of him all the same. I told him that I’d think it over and let him know soon. I also explained that I wanted to know how my job situation was going to be so that, if I did accept, he would know where I was financially and whether or not I’d be able to help pay the bill. With Christmas being Monday, I wouldn’t likely hear about the job until mid-next week, at the earliest. Hopefully it wouldn’t take too long.
With lots of kissing and holding hands in the freezing night air, we parted ways, outside the restaurant. I took my plant and key and he took his ornament. He didn’t have a Christmas tree to hang it on (since it was just himself) but he said he was going to go out and buy a tree as soon as he could. With only days until Christmas, I didn’t think he had much hope of accomplishing the task. He was planning on spending Christmas afternoon with his dad but we talked about meeting that night for a home cooked dinner. My place or his hadn’t been decided.
When I got home, I felt a sort of sadness upon entering my cold and empty house. A quick glance around assured me that Clark was right. I didn’t have any plants except the dead one in the kitchen windowsill. No matter how much I watered it, it wasn’t going to come back to life so I decided it was time for it to go. I set my things in their usual place on the counter and took my new plant out of its bag. Testing the soil with my finger, I added a little water and vowed that I would take better care of the Aloe Vera, now to be known as George. I set him up on the coffee table so that he would have some light from the front window.
I had a lot to think over, regarding Clark’s proposal, so I decided that tonight would be a rare beer night. I pulled out a Guinness, grabbed a notebook from the office box, and sat down on the couch to make some pro/con lists.
|I don’t like living alone||I’m nuts|
|We could be in love||I’m dangerous (to him and me)|
|I don’t have a lot of options||I see a shrink|
|He could keep me safe||I have no money|
|He’s really sweet||Everybody leaves eventually|
|His family wouldn’t accept me|
|I have nothing to offer|
|He doesn’t know about the Spirit Walkers|
|What if I get worse?|
|What if he can’t handle it?|
Three beers later, I realized that I forgot to take my pill and that it was getting very late. Buzzed and now exhausted, I closed up the notebook, pushed it to the side, and headed into the bedroom, deciding to skip the pill. The inner debate would have to wait until tomorrow.
Smiling and laughing, the brown haired woman placed one hand on the counter of the brightly lit kitchen. “See, I told you that I could do whatever I wanted and you didn’t believe me. Do you believe me now? Do you? Do you believe me now?” She spins around and levels her hazel eyes at my face, just a few feet from me. She lifts her hand and points the black, enameled butt of a chef’s knife in my direction. “I told you and I told you. If I told you once… Ah-hah-hah-hah-ha!”
Even though I was leaning forward, with one hand placed on the kitchen’s island counter, I could tell that we were about the same height and build. I knew that, in a fair fight, I might have a shot. Fear and panic fills my very pale face as I realize that this is not a fair fight. You’re automatically at a loss when fighting with someone that has relieved themselves of all social considerations. Tears start to fall from my eyes and I raise my free hand and gently touch my cheek with my fingertips, never moving my eyes from her face.
In my silence, she continues her rant, “You thought I wouldn’t do it, didn’t you? Ah, come on- ha-ha-ha-ha! You thought I really wouldn’t do it. I told you I would. But you weren’t listening. You were just enjoying the river, watching the water, and you didn’t give one shit about the bear behind you. Well, you know now don’t you? Don’t you!” Her maniacal laughter turned so swiftly to anger and rage that her eyes light up and she lunges toward me. So fast that I don’t even have a chance to move out of her way.
The only movement I can make is to lower my hand from my cheek and place my palm out in a pointless attempt to stop her as she plunges the carving knife into my stomach. A burning pain explodes inside me and I can feel the skin tearing apart while my organs knot and churn. My eyes go wide and I feel myself hitting my knees on the tiled floor with a loud crack.
Opening my eyes, I see the woman sitting on the counter opposite me, still talking and laughing, gesticulating with yet another knife. As if she didn’t even realize I had fainted, she continues her tirade, occasionally tapping the butt of the blade on the counter for emphasis. I’m woozy but coherent so I look down to survey the damage. My shirt and skirt are covered in blood and there is a small pool starting to form between my outstretched legs. I attempt to move and sit up but a strange, gyrating, almost grinding feeling from my insides unnerves me. Panic begins to set in as every move causes the grinding feeling to increase and sharp waves of pain emanate from my pelvis.
I look into the woman’s face, hoping for answers, but I can’t speak. She catches my movement and stops mid-sentence, “—Oh, you’re awake now, good. It wasn’t all that fun to talk without you. You’re so witty, you have so much to add. What’s that? You want to know something? Ha! You’re having fun, aren’t you! I know you are, you little devil.” She squeals with laughter and jumps off of the countertop. Holding the enameled butt of the clean knife, she twists her finger tip over the edge until a small bead of bright red blood starts to form.
“I—“ I try to speak but no real words will form and I don’t really know what to say anyway. I want to scream for help but I feel so weak, I don’t even think I could scream. I can feel my heart beating in my chest but it seems slower than it should be. The small pool of blood between my legs is growing into a puddle. Blood has started to seep across my skirt and has almost soaked it entirely. I look back at the woman as she begins to pace and realize, again, that there is no blood on the knife in her hand. The magnetic strip, behind her, that holds the other kitchen knives, shows that there is more than one empty space. More confused now than scared, I look back into her familiar eyes.
“See, little girl, the problem is that you don’t think. You never- You don’t think. You just go through life singing la-di-da-di-da-di and you don’t think. But you’re thinking now aren’t you! Ha-ha! You are now, huh. I knew it! You’re thinking, ‘where’s the other knife’. Am I right? I know I’m right. I’m always right. Come on, little girl, you know where the other knife is. You didn’t think I’d just spend all that time while you were away sitting here, doing nothing, did ya?”
Thoughts fly through my mind at a speed so fast that I can’t catch hold of any one in particular. Without examining the snippets, I realize that I’m dying. I try one more time to sit up, to gain some control of my body, and the wrenching feeling in my pelvis makes me gasp in pain and fresh blood comes out in a wave. Suddenly, I know. I know where the other knife went. Carefully and watching my attacker the entire time, I reach into my skirt and slowly feel along my wet, hot thigh. One centimeter at a time, I continue up, not wanting to find what I know that I will find, until the tip of my index finger feels something hard that does not belong there. Gathering what little strength I have, I gently slide my fingers around the knife’s handle and pull.
A pain I’ve never felt before, spreads like wildfire up my spine and down my legs. Blood gushes out of the new wound and my heart beat slows even more. Gripping the blade but too weak to even lift it, I feel a complete exhaustion creeping over me. My breathing is difficult and my eyes don’t want to stay open. As the woman laughs and laughs to the point of tears, I know that I’m dying. I feel one last beat before my eyes close my ears stop working and it’s over.
Opening my eyes, I know that this must be the life after death. This is what happens to your soul when your body has died. I peer into the semi-darkness around me and try to discern just where I might be or what will happen next. After moments that seemed like minutes, I recognize my own living room. I’m sitting on the floor, in a crumpled heap, legs splayed out in front of me, hands resting on the hardwood floor.
More alert now, I lurch myself up into a sitting position and look more completely at my surroundings. Oh thank god I’m not dead! My inner-voice screams. I’m not dead, I’m not dead, she didn’t kill me! With new life infused into my arms and hands, I grab my stomach and look down at where the first knife wound should be. My eyes open in horror and I begin to scream hysterically at the sight of all the blood.