Summary: When she thinks of moonlight, she thinks of how her wrists stood out in brutal shades of purple and whites of bone. And how everything about her was now ugly, except for the bone. The bone was pretty, and the bone preserved her.
Warnings: this story deals with the aftermath of rape, and the subsequent world of disordered eating and self-harm.
Nov. 31st, 2009
I've been sick. Vomiting, ulcer-sick… doctor-sick, hospital-sick. I'm doing better now, and I just want to thank everyone for their patience, esp. with regards to my (hitherto very neglected) story, Signal to Noise. Updates, for that one, shortly.
"Sometimes even to live is an act of courage."
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius
She's having nightmares again, and I feel like a git.
I know better, because I know the routine. And while it may have been a part of her life before me, I can't help but feel as if I'm a critical piece in the puzzle that is Cassie-self-destruction.
And it has gotten better – all of that shit – but it's not entirely gone, and I know it. I know even when she tries to hide it, if for no other reason than she tries to hide. Her eyes, her arms …and her body most of all. She pulls away and won't let me see, won't let me touch her, or hold her.
It should have caused me to act a long time ago, even if no one else was doing so…
I should have broached the issue, asked her what was wrong when she slept, when she dreamt. Her body so small and tense, and then sometimes she'd mumble disjointed words in her sleep, and none of them sounded good, none of them were easy to hear - and so I didn't ask at all. Not once.
I think that's why I realize now, tonight, with such staggering clarity...what a fuck-up of a boyfriend I've been.
How many times has she woke up in the night, only to turn inwards, quiet, but equally telling in her muteness? Her face buried against my side, her face concealed by my t-shirt, her frame barely moving - save for her all-too rapid breathing? And my shirt would go damp where she lay, and then after a few minutes she'd turn her back to me; I could always sense when the tears had stopped, and I'd be relieved. So I let it go.
I'm so pathetic. I've let this go on too bloody long.
Maybe I was the only one in the world that could feel her ribs sticking out like knives under that moth-pale body. Or see the pronounced lines of her hips when we'd move together as one. Or when she seemed exceptionally distant, and wouldn't lie with me like that, well, even then I could see that something was terribly wrong. Even if I couldn't touch her, check her arms, see that she hadn't made a mark lately – even then I could see the god-damned signs…
Like the way her face and forearms are becoming soft again with that…fur…
There is no other word for it than that, than fur. Not hair. Not normal hair like you'd find on any girls arm – blonde and natural. No, this is different, as I've recently learned. I might not have known what it was before, but I do now. I know exactly what it means - that awful glistening opalescence that runs up and down her back, clings to her cheeks, or to the sides of her arms.
It means she's starving herself again.
I commented on it once, a little concerned, but mostly ignorant and unaware of its significance. Cassie brushed it off with mock lightness, but I could sense the self-consciousness. And then she wouldn't let me see more, and took off to the washroom. When she returned 20 minutes later, the fur was gone – that sickly white fuzz that reminded me of a newborn bear - was just absent, which somehow (somehow!) made her face seem even more drawn, more angular.
That night was significant for several reasons, one of which I didn't fully appreciate, one that I could; it was the first time I had heard her say the words I don't doubt she often feels:
"I'm so ugly."
It was more an angry tangle of sounds than a coherent sentence, but I could make it out, and for a few moments afterwards I could only hear my pulse and nothing else.
To me, of course, Cassie is nothing if not pretty. She's whimsically, gamine-like pretty… like a pixie, or a faerie.
"How can you even think that for a second, Cass? You're beautiful!"
Her eyes were wet. "No…I'm not. I'm so ugly, Sid. You have no idea."
I didn't bother arguing with her; I knew it wouldn't be productive, and I'd end up getting frustrated. But I vowed to go to the library the next day, get what I could on her…conditions. Maybe start calling them by name, get her to say them too. Because I was starting to feel like something was building in her, like a poison, and if I didn't help her soon…well…
I was worried that something terrible would happen.
It'll start with her typical reluctance to eat.
I knew long before we started dating that Cassie was so far from okay when it came to eating that it wasn't funny. I knew that I was opening myself up to a whole whack of problems. I knew it, but I dismissed it.
Everyone has problems, and who was I to say that her quirks were something wretched? To me – in the beginning – they were just that – just quirks. And I loved her for them, in a way.
So I started my first real relationship, certainly my first real physical relationship, with Cassie. And she seemed to be fine with it, with what we would do together, when her parents were away. She'd drink sometimes, before, but Cassie drinks more than she eats, and I really didn't see the connection until we'd been dating for several months, when I found her in the bathroom one night drinking Vodka straight from the bottle, hands shaking.
It was the first time that I felt as if Cassie was actually afraid to have sex, afraid to be with me like that. Something started to squirm within…some strange warning. Something unnamable.
"We can do it…I kn..know you want to do it, Sid. Just give me another minute, and I'll be ready, yeah? Just one more minute."
Her next sentence – "I'm not drunk yet" – unspoken, but also unnecessary. I knew exactly why she was drinking like a fish.
She looked plastered, eyes red, and I felt that same fear as before spike with her words, and flop in my belly. Every sexual urge that I had had before dissipated – and if moments before I had felt such need to be with her, inside of her, and stay that way in our rocking until the need went away – now I felt nothing but a strange sense of dread.
Her voice wasn't normal, and something in me knew it. Knew it the second she spoke - like flipping on a switch. And suddenly, she spoke, and it rang clear, true – unbalanced. My feeling of sickness increased, and I couldn't reason my fear away.
I remember…I kissed her on the lips. Gently. Chastely. My voice was barely more than a whisper, on account of her look of anxiety.
"We don't have to do that tonight, Cass. You never have to do that, unless you want to. You know that, right?"
I kissed her, and cringed against her next words, which sounded exceptionally harsh, and which still didn't answer my question.
"I thought you wanted to fuck me."
She hadn't meant it to sound accusatory, or wrong. Her voice was soft, the shakiness of earlier – gone. It wasn't a question, but a statement of acknowledgement.
Yet I could hear the relief all the same, and the prickling sense of fear attacked my insides yet again.
"No…not tonight. Can I hold you, Cassie? Just hold you – until we fall asleep?"
She let me do that, and it was then that so many of the pieces started falling into place.
She didn't have a nightmare that night. She didn't cry out in her sleep, or wake up and cling to me like a lifeline.
She just slept.
This is how it begins.
She'll get antsy, and at first it will start with typical Cassie-oddness. She'll become obsessively neat; organizing the towels by colour, making sure they are perfectly folded, making sure the food in the cupboards is turned just so - the labels front and center, the world ordered and perfect.
Then it will advance to cleaning, not just organizing, but flat out germ-phobic scouring. And the worst of the worst will be the cleansing of herself – in baths of extreme temperatures. Usually too hot, and I'll have to pick at the door lock with an old chop stick to get in – because she'll always lock it - though she doesn't seem to protest much when I hold her hands still if she's having one of her…episodes.
Sometimes I'll find her in the tub clad in ridiculously laced underwear, corsets maybe, boy shorts and socks. She'll sit like that – underwear on, in a too-hot bath, her skin reddened not just by the heat of the water but also by vigorous scrubbing with a nailbrush.
One time I found her using a steel pot scrubber, and on that occasion I freaked, my heart pounding like a jackhammer in my chest. Hairline cut marks – so narrow, like microscopic glass shards – whorled her skin, and the water had turned pink from the open wounds – the multitude of wounds – crazing her skin.
"Oh Jesus CHRIST, Cassie! What are you doing!?"
And I ran to her that day, pried the scrubber out of her hands, held her close to my body, not caring that my clothes were getting soaked, or that red was pluming into my t-shirt.
When the water's not boiling, it's frigid, and in those times she's more likely than not to be naked, her lips blue, her eyes unfocused. It's almost ritualistic: she'll wear clothing when the water's hot, and nothing when it's freezing, and I find the whole compulsiveness of her actions almost as scary as what she's doing in the first place.
"I don't know why, Sid. Please don't make me say why. I don't know why. I have to do this. Please let me finish…"
The water was pink, Sid. The water was pink and she still wanted to clean,
and you COULDN'T see the truth?
Couldn't see what it added up to?
Maybe I'm wrong.
Please let me be wrong.
"Sorrow you can hold, however desolating, if nobody speaks to you. If they speak, you break down." ~Bede Jarrett
Her arms are lined with her cries - louder than any vocalized pain - and I knew it, but I didn't know why. I heard the language, but I didn't know the language. That made all the difference. It made me hesitant to act, because I didn't know where to start.
But Cassie gave signs. So many signs, and she did nothing else for years but send out flares – SOS's for help; bright, bloody 10-foot neon signs, for fuck's sake. She gave as many signs as she could without opening her mouth, without speaking the words. I see that now.
And tonight she is crying again, and I know it has to change, because she's starting to look gaunt once more.
I'm going to have to wake her up, even if it's easier to just stay in the dark.
I start by taking one hand and prying it apart from the bedding, as she's wringing her sheets in tortured restlessness. I manage to do so, and she stays asleep. For now.
Then I take one hand, gingerly – the wrist so thin, the arm itself so fine, like china - and unfurl her fingers, which look cramped up and sore.
Her voice is a low whimper, a low-grade whine. The sound is revolting in its pleading need for rest, for a pause from the assault on her mind.
I take the hand, and entwine her hand in mine – like she so often does when seeking comfort, or when trying to provide it to another.
"Wake up, baby. It's just a nightmare Cass."
I could never call her baby when awake. I don't know why. I suspect she wouldn't take it well, and I have nothing to go off other than intuition, though such thoughts scatter when I hear the clarity of her words this time – sharper than before, her hands pressing against mine in force, in wretched sleep.
"Please, no. Pleeease stop. No, pleeeease. PLEEEEASE!"
Oh fucking God.
I have to wake her up now.
"Wake up, Cassie!," the shrillness of my voice and the increased shaking of her body does the trick. The eyes open, unfocused, her face poised, ready to cry.
So soft, I wonder if I imagined it.
"Yeah, Cass. It's just me. You were having a nightmare again, baby."
It slipped out, but she doesn't seem to hear it, or if she does, she ignores what I've said and instead turns inwards, to me, and reaches out to hold onto my body. Her routine, so I let her hold onto my shirt, my waist, because I know it calms her down quicker than anything else.
Looking down at her now, I can only see part of her face and the wisps of blonde hair curling around her temple from the sweat of her skin.
Her sheets are actually damp with sweat.
"You were having a really bad nightmare, Cass. Do you want to talk about it?"
She shakes her head, mute – like always.
I change tactics.
"You're having so many of them Cassie. All the time. It…worries me. I think maybe it would help – to talk? Maybe to talk about them, maybe just to talk about what happens in them? Sometimes that helps – to keep them from coming back…"
Her voice, once more, sounds lost.
"I don't want to talk about them, Sid. They're not nice images. I want to think about lovely things, and everything in them is horrible."
I absently stroke her hand, her arm. Swirling strokes, to comfort her. Or maybe to comfort myself, though I am not comforted in the slightest as I can now feel the damn downy fur covering her again.
Something has to give.
For Cassie. You're doing this for her.
"You're getting too thin again, love. The…hair is back. On your arms."
"I don't want to talk about that either, Sid. I just…don't. You won't understand, and I can't make you understand."
I need her to see. I need her to see what's happening – what she's doing to herself.
"Understand what? You remember what that doctor said…about the signs? You can't relapse, Cass. Not like before…"
She cuts me off.
"Sid, no – I'm fine, I'm totally fine! Everything about me is fine. I don't sleep well, but I never have, and I haven't lost, not anymore, and how I am now - that's normal for-"
('I'm totally better now. Totally better.')
I've heard this before and don't believe it for a second.
"No, this is not normal… You know that's crap, Cass!"
"Yes, I'm alright! It's normal for me now, and maybe-"
I can't stand this anymore. And I can't stand it because I care about her. I can't beat around the bush any longer.
"When did you last have your period?"
Her objections stop immediately and she seems to recoil a little in the bed, so I reach out to stop her from getting up and outright leaving, like she so often does when she doesn't want to discuss a particular subject. I can see the flush of crimson splayed out over her cheeks, even in the darkness.
"I can't believe you asked me that," she says, her discomfort evident in the fact that she's barely whispering, and I strain to hear.
"Cassie – it's a simple question. But no one else is going to ask it, and you know that. You never go to the doctors! And you know I wouldn't ask you unless it was important. If this is normal – if nothing's wrong – then answer me that! How long since your last one?"
Trust me, I don't want to do this. But nothing else has worked. And while most guys would be perfectly content not having to deal with these kinds of conversations, the truth is... I know it's a sign of general health. Or lack thereof. And I'm concerned.
She curls up, away from me, her spine coming up through the thin, sweat soaked gown. I can count her vertebrae, and feel almost revolted. Not by her…but by this thing, this demon, which plagues her.
I'm just about to speak again, when I hear her voice, tentative.
"I don't know. I haven't had…it…for awhile."
At least she's talking to me.
"What's awhile? Did you have one last month?"
She sits up straight, frustration clearly displayed on her fine features.
"No, Sid! Alright? Okay? Not that it's ANY of your business, really. But I haven't had one in YEARS," and her voice breaks at that, her eyes wild, "and you know why? OF course you don't, but you HAVE to know because it's so NORMAL right? Because I should want to bleed like that – for no good reason, right? So I MADE it stop, and you're telling me that it's wrong to not want to bleed?"
I don't know why she's so angry, but if I don't find out the answer tonight, I'm never going to. I know Cassie well enough. She'll go to bed, wake up, pretend that nothing ever happened, aside from a bouquet of wildflowers left on my desk in apology. But that'll be it.
"Cass, you've MADE yourself bleed. Every time you take one of those damn baths! Or have a nightmare – don't think I don't know! I see the cuts, Cassie. I see when they are new. I see every time you do this!"
Her arm is in my hands before I can comprehend what I'm doing, and the arm, now exposed to moonlight, reflects the dozen or so fresh cuts that Cassie so diligently attends to with special concealer in the morning, but which stand out in stark relief against her all-too pale skin after her shower.
Tonight they lay horribly true, and washed free from cover-up; a testament to her attraction to knives, and to using them on her own flesh.
"You cut yourself to bleed, Cass! Why is THAT necessary?"
And I'm not mad. I'm really not. But the fear I've pushed aside in the years that I've known her feels excessively burdensome tonight, resoundingly strong.
"Because it's not the same thing! Because I do it to ME. NO ONE ELSE does it to me! I do! I control it! No one can take that away from me!"
And then that's it. Then she's done – done with her words - and is out of bed before I can stop her. Five seconds, ten seconds and she's at the toilet not thirty feet away.
Just as quickly, so am I – drawn to the sound of vomiting. To that familiar dry heaving - unforced and raw. I go to her confused, worried, absolutely terrified, and take her hair, hold it back behind her head while she retches once more.
Her fingers grasp terribly white and for a fleeting moment I feel nothing but grief.
In the end, she doesn't bring up much. Bile, a little water maybe, nothing else. Not that I'm surprised. I doubt she ate anything today. Today's been a sketchy day for her.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pushed you. I just…I can't see you go on like this anymore. It scares me."
She shivering in the moonlight – the bathroom light turned off.
"Let's get you back to bed. You're freezing."
And she is, too. Her hands feel like blocks of ice, and I usher her back gently, help her get in and then retrieve her water bottle from her backpack on the floor.
She takes the nalgene bottle gratefully, sips a bit to rinse her mouth, then places it beside her on the nightstand.
I hold her again, wrapping my arms around her shoulders, her chest, lightly – just to support her, and it works – and the trembling dies down.
"I won't pressure you anymore, Cass," I repeat, desperate for her to hear me, to hear my apology. I'm not her therapist. I should never have pushed her.
"You promise you won't if I do?"
Her face is away from mine, and I can't see her eyes.
"If you what?"
"Tell you why."
The stroking of my thumb against her hand comes to a stop.
"You can tell me anything, Cassie. You know that, right?"
I hear her swallow, it's so quiet.
"You promise…you won't make me talk about it again?"
She continues. "You won't make me talk about it after tonight, right? Then it will be over? For good?"
Her voice has taken on a pleading tone, and I don't know if I should agree to anything right now.
"I won't force you to do anything, Cass."
She stills, and doesn't speak for an impossibly long time.
"In the nightmare, I'm in a park. It's very late. Almost morning, but still pitch black. I'm mad because my mum and dad left me alone with the shadow monster. In the daytime the shadow monster goes away. He's never there when it's very light, or when it's very dark, because he goes away in the sunlight and sleeps when it's dark. But he comes out when it's very early – when shadows come out - and I'm so scared because it's almost morning. And he's coming back for me, Sid, to come into me and become my shadow."
Cass's voice sounds terribly young – and terribly frightened, and I try to slow the racing of my heart because I know that can't be all there is to it. That's too simple. That can't be it.
"How old are you? In the nightmare?" I shouldn't have to qualify, but I do anyway, whispering. I sense that Cassie will find it easier to speak if I don't look directly at her, if I don't study her.
She starts again with a shutter.
"I was…I was 12. I had just turned 12, and I was angry that my mum and dad made me stay with the shadow monster because I was too old to be watched. And I knew he would want to...want to...oh christ, Sid. He'll eat me because I'm older, and I know…"
Something's wrong here. Something's terribly wrong.
"Do you go home? Does he find you?"
She's shaking, and I do my best to comfort her – brushing my thumb up and down over her hand again, my arms wrapped around her torso, her back to my front, pulled in.
"Y-yes. He finds me in the park. He's waiting for me over on the bridge, down by the pond, so I don't see him. It's too dark. But then I do, by the lantern, and he sees me too. And I know I can't scream, because he'll eat me if I scream. He is on me right away, and becomes my shadow so fast…"
I hear her push down a weird mewling sound, like a kitten crying for its mother, and I realize she's trying hard not to burst into tears.
"He has black arms that wrap around my mouth and no one can hear me…and he goes inside me to become my shadow, to take mine out and eat it."
My mouth feels dry. She's rambling.
"Cassie. What did he do?"
I know this is not just a nightmare.
We both know it.
"He eats me. In the dark, and no one is there, and he eats and eats and he has a lot of food because I was so fat, Sid! I was so fat when I was little, so he keeps eating all my flesh and I'm…starting to bleed…because I'm 12, and I can…bleed now. And he doesn't care that I'm bleeding. I didn't even know, Sid. It was my first time bleeding, I didn't know until then how much it would scare me. There is blood all over my legs, and I know I can't scream because the shadow monster will kill me…"
Her voice breaks from its fervent pitch to uncontrolled sobbing, which numbs me, because it confirms my suspicions.
"Cassie, oh god, I'm so sorry, Cass." I can barely speak. I don't trust myself not to cry, and I can't shake the coldness that is coursing through my veins.
"See?," her eyes briefly meet mine, imploring me to understand her skewed views. "I told you I was ugly!"
I feel like someone has ripped out my heart. My chest hurts. It burns, and she turns away just as quickly, as if my silence is confirmation that her words speak truth.
"You were just a little girl, Cass. Someone did something horrific to you, and that doesn't make you any less beautiful. It makes them ugly. Not you."
Cassie turns to face me, her eyes swollen, and I almost wish she hadn't – because her face crumples when she makes eye contact.
"He broke my wrist, Sid! See?," and I can FEEL the hardened nub of bone – malformed and strangely raised under her delicate skin - her fragile, wasting exterior.
She closes her eyes, her voice dropping several octaves.
"I tried to get away, Sid. I really tried. That's why I broke my wrist. I was trying to get away. I didn't…didn't want it."
"I know, Cassie."
"He…needed to finish, and I wouldn't stay still so…he held my arms back and I fell, and my wrist went back."
My chest feels constricted. I never knew I could feel this much pain for someone else.
"The bone came out. It hurt but the pain helped me...it did. I think it helped to preserve me. Do you see? It came out and it was the only thing left that I had… the only thing left that was me. That pain. That bone. It was the only pretty thing left! It was the only thing that made him stop!"
Her voice fades to almost uncontrolled shaking gibberish, fear mounting in her eyes.
"Y-you can't tell. Promise me, Sid. Not to anyone. No one. PROMISE me."
Her small fists, bundled under damp sheets, come to lightly pound my chest.
"NO one else can know. Ever. Promise."
I gulp down my horror, need permeating my next question.
"Who did it, Cassie? Who raped you?"
I've never seen Cassie outright sob, but I do then, as she erupts into the most pained weeping I've ever heard, hands over her ears as if to block out the words I've just uttered.
Hers is the weeping of a little girl, betrayed.
All I can do is hold her.
A/N: Reviews are love, and WIP's are possible. A second chapter is in the works. This stuff is hard to write, but Cassie's situation feels totally unresolved, which I don't like at all.