fluctuat nec mergitur;
she is tossed by the waves, but is not sunk
The house is empty without her; emptier than it should be. A third of our family is missing, yet it feels as if all of us have died with her.
With each opening of the front door, a gust of wind surges forth and breathes into the furthest corners of the house – bringing with it the damp and the cold. It shakes the cobwebs in the high ceilings and rattles the aging bars of the banister in their slots. Time and time again, we're forced to prick crispy browned leaves from the carpets, their spindly and sharp points slicing and jabbing at the linty green material, refusing to release their hold from the floor. The windows are greasy, more streaked and clouded than usual, and it seems that every crumb that falls from our lips gathers on the kitchen floor or down the side of the furniture, smothered in between the cushions. Day by day, it becomes more and more unmanageable and, day by day, it becomes more and more clear that, without her, we are both lost.
Each picture of her lay face down, a sheet of dust settling upon the felt that lined the back of each frame. Gran had gone from room to room after the funeral, carefully rearranging the photos that lined each surface, delicately handling each one as if it were made of whispers. Images of my mother graduating, playing at the beach, pictures of her holding me as a child - all of them now kissed the shelves and tables they once sat upon, hidden from view. I had never realized before, but it was slowly becoming apparent that it was my mother that kept us all together, kept us sane. The house had always seemed magically spotless and full of joyous glee before she passed, now falling to disarray in her absence, neglected by her remaining tenants. Our home was fractured.
Gran and I rarely spoke. We had lost the link between us; the thread that laced her generation with mine was frayed and broken, and we kept to ourselves. She never left the house. She padded around upstairs between her bedroom and my mother's, wearing a path in the carpet, only venturing downstairs for breakfast or to find some clean clothes. Neither of us answered the door. We rotted together in our lonesome misery for a while, until Gran received an invitation for a reunion in Portland. Foolishly, I urged her to go. I convinced her that I was healing, that the wounds didn't hurt anymore. I pushed and encouraged her until my lies became truths, and then she too was gone.
I had thought the house couldn't possibly feel more empty, but I was wrong.
Mike had called seven times since the funeral, six of which I ignored. On the seventh buzz of my cellphone in the week following the burial, I relented and pressed the offensive green button, connecting the call. He had nothing to say once I answered, stunned that communication had finally been made, as if he had interpreted an alien signal or finally decoded some secret message; he was speechless. But he did not hang up. Nor did I. His breath came in over the line, with the faint chatter of a radio in the background, but no words passed between us. It was immediately comforting, just to hear the breathing of a living person. To know that somewhere, outside the walls of my mother's home, beyond the realm of the prison I had locked myself in, there was life. There was progress, there was movement. Past the property lines of my tomb, there were people; laughing, crying, thinking, loving. Life went on, even though I had abandoned mine completely. And so I cowered between the icy sheets in the drafty corner of my room, with the phone pressed forcefully against my ear, just listening to the sounds of life from the other end, before I drifted off to sleep.
My dreams were flooded with the thoughts I strangled in my waking moments. Every word I shoved into the back of my mind - every idea or notion I kept imprisoned behind closed lips - fought it's way to the surface and swam through my nightmares. Incomprehensible images floated behind my eyelids, barely discernible from the darkness, forgotten as soon as seen, except for the dark figures I saw crawling on the ceiling, reaching their grimy, twig-like fingers for me, snatching at my skin. Their teeth were yellow razors, hanging from their jaws like icicles from an overhang; framing the groans and snarls that ripped from their throats. Like bats, they always clustered on the ceiling; eyeless and black. In my dreams, I could feel them. Each grab at my throat was a slice through my skin, each bite of their teeth was a break of a bone, as if all the pain of Renée's death manifested in my dreams, leaving me numb during waking hours. But each morning I awoke, it was my nails that stabbed into my arms; bruises and scars dotting and streaking across my pallid skin. Blood clung underneath my fingernails, and I would wake shaking, doused in a cold sweat, clammy and more exhausted than before I had slipped into the land of my fears.
The morning brought light, and with it, the continuation of life; though I cared for neither and instead found myself wishing for the night. My dreams brought the pain I couldn't feel when I was awake, and though it was insane; it was also healing. Facing the pain was more glorious than ignoring it. And as the nights passed, the number of terrors on the ceiling decreased; fizzling away. Bruises turned from purple to blue to yellow, the scars on my arms turned white, but the numb feeling prevailed.
It was as if I was incapable of mourning. Though I screamed and clawed for her in the darkness, the daylight brought with it a stoic and desensitized calm that lay like a blanket over me and divided me from the rest of the world. It was as if I had become but a river in the depths of winter; the surface frozen and rigid, seemingly peaceful, while underneath the river still raged and flowed with fervor and intent. But should a crack every appear in that flawless, falsely calm surface... I wasn't sure if I wanted everything to come flooding me all at once.
Most of the time, I wandered the house feeling drugged; like my limbs were tacked on with a simple stitch and my heart had withered into itself. My head felt heavy and full, and a static noise rang constantly in my mind, replacing the silence. I could barely discern words - like my ears were full of water - and only the long vowel sounds were coherent. I forgot dates, then days, eventually losing track of hours. I don't know when I stopped throwing up my meals, or when I stopped eating altogether. I saw food was just another obstacle prolonging the inevitable.
At least the hunger pains made me feel something.
In my head, I knew it wasn't healthy. That my whole lifestyle had become something so toxic and meaningless that it was a wonder I hadn't died yet. But somewhere in my mind that teetered on the brink of insanity, in the depths of my subconscious, I also knew that it was what I wanted. That I was too much of a coward to take my life any other way.
I was acutely aware that everyone thought I was actively trying to neglect my own basic needs, that it was all part of the greater plan of 'ultimate escapism', but it wasn't. It wasn't the will to deny myself even the basics of food and water, but the lack of will to even try to continue living.
I didn't know how to anymore. There was no sense to the world. Colors were inverted, words lost their meaning, and the most menial tasks now seemed like immense and useless efforts. Angela and Mike called less and less, apparently convinced that I was handling things in my own way, that this was all just a phase that was about to pass - as if it were as fleeting as my sudden infatuation with tribal tattoos in twelfth grade.
Death wasn't a phase. There was nothing fleeting about it.
It was the ultimate finality; the only given in life. Yet I hadn't - and haven't since - met a single person who could tell me how to deal with death and its effects on those left behind.
I had never understood survivor's guilt before. I had always thought I would be thankful, praising of whatever force had chosen to save me, but not now. I would give my life now to save hers. There would be no pause for thought, no meditation on the subject. If you should ask me now, you would have my answer before the last words fell from your lips. I knew which one of us deserved to live. I always knew.
It was Angela who found me; catatonic and coiled up into myself, my bony knees somewhere near my chin. Smothered in sheets and paralyzed in self-pity, I remember groaning in protest, and feebly trying to maneuver from her grasp. I heard her voice through the haze then as she spoke to some one. Some one who didn't answer. Me.
It was Mike's arms that lifted me from my bed, sometime later, when the light through my covered window began to glow with an amber tint. Still tangled in my blankets, he gingerly placed me into the backseat of his truck that had always smelled of shoe polish and fresh leaves. There was the dull thud of the doors slamming and then a flurry of hands wrapping me in a fluffy but threadbare blanket, before the rumbling sound of the engine purring into life. As the aging truck ground its wheels over the gravel down the driveway, I slowly opened my eyes, bracing myself for the light, to meet Mike's eyes. His hands brushed my hair from my forehead as he cradled me in his lap. It was Angela who drove, frantically trying to coax directions from some one over the phone as she made her way through midday traffic. And it was Mike's old Forks High t-shirt, the one that I had remembered buying for him, that I curled around my fist, and into the fabric that I let the first tears fall.