Prologue: Wait

"You know if I leave you now
It doesn't mean that I love you any less
It's just the state I'm in
I can't be good to anyone else like this,"
-Wait, Sarah McLachlan

Have you ever been on a secluded beach just as the sun has set and the world has almost succumbed to darkness? Have you stared out at the ocean, listening to the waves until they've crashed upon the beach and pulled your soul away from your body, out, out into the infinite expanse of water? There are no thoughts there, just the gentle, lapping water, the warm ocean air and the sense that all time has suspended.

This is where your mind goes when it's been injured, like a dog limping away to lick its wounds. It's like sleeping, but instead of hours that feel like minutes, you feel every moment of time, every tick of the clock, without being fully aware of your surroundings. Without a soul the body is useless: an empty vessel that cannot be filled for it is full of holes, and yet, cataclysmic events notwithstanding, it will not sink. With a live body, the soul cannot be fully separated like our dead family and friends ascending to heaven. Instead, it seems to sit on that beach, its physical strife suspended but itself unprotected without the body's shield. As night digs deeper, a fog begins to creep across the coast like long fingers reaching out and grabbing up everything it can see. At first, it's just tendrils, like steam rising from a cup of hot coffee. It curls and moves, dances and drifts, but then begins to thicken.

And then you wake up.

Talking in third person is an unconscious effort to distance yourself from painful subjects. At least, I have it on good authority.

I did wake up, suddenly, in the middle of history class. The world, previously blurred, came into stunning focus like someone had adjusted a camera lens, or more accurately, slapped me in the face from a deep sleep. The previously muffled voices and sounds of life became crystal clear, like going from a 10 year old, copied VHS tape to a high definition Blu-Ray.

I want to make clear from the beginning that I don't know if this has a happy ending. If you're expecting a happily ever after story, I suggest you look under fairy tales in the children's section. This isn't going to leave you feeling good and warm inside.

I am not a hero. I'm not made of goodness, light and morals. I'm not even an upstanding citizen. I litter. All the time. And I never put any money in the pot for the bell ringing Santas at Christmastime. Heroes triumph against all foes, themselves included, and I can't promise you that's what's going to happen. This is the bittersweet taste of real life, and sometimes the bad guys do win. What you'll find in me is a vague protagonist, a ghost of a human being. Maybe something more, but more than likely, something less. So if you're looking to forget real life, I'm not going to do it for you.

Or hell, maybe I will. Maybe your life is so horrible my life is a fairytale in comparison. I'm not so self-centered or self-pitying that I think mine is the saddest story out there. I know for a fact that it isn't; far from it. But it's a two way street and you could be going the other way. One look at my life and you'll say, "You know what, I don't have it so bad. Life is cake. Peachy. A bowl full of cherries." Maybe, after this, you'll forgive your mother for all her minor imperfections. Maybe you'll appreciate the little things. Maybe.

But I doubt it.

What I can promise you is that this journey will delve into darkness. Any day has its ray of sunshine, but this is not pure, conventional, good, clean fun for all. Show me a pure soul and I'll know what God looks like. It just doesn't exist in humans, no matter what the politicians and bible-belters are preaching.

Then again, look at all the shit that God's done.

No one can convince me that killing an entire planet by drowning its citizens isn't dark and more than a little twisted. Drowning is a horrible way to go. Your lungs burning for a breath they can't take. Your only salvation is a bloated body full of water. Tell me that isn't sick.

One more time, Harry Potter and his hero-saves-the-day tales are located in the children's section. Not a bad piece of literature, if you ask me. All those boarding the real life train, please present your tickets and prepare for departure. Who knows, maybe the good guy - that would be me for the purposes of this story - does win. And the Pope might win People's Bachelor of the Year.

You just never know.

In any event, enough with the babbling.

"It's one thing when you hurt yourself, Isabella but this time other people were depending on you."

My history teacher was looking at me with sad eyes, a frown evident on her face. She was disappointed in me, but then again, I was used to disappointing people. I had failed to complete yet another assignment in her class. This wasn't an unheard of phenomenon for me, but this was a group assignment.

Hurting has always been such a physical word, or if there was ever any acknowledgment on its other dimensions it was reserved for lovers and their frequently broken hearts. I wasn't consciously aware that I'd been hurting myself, how could I have hurt others?

To say I was confused would be like calling a tornado a wind tunnel. For the past few years I had only existed because I had no other choice. I existed like a wild animal might, doing the things that kept me alive only because they were instinctive, or, like putting on clothes everyday, ingrained into me since birth. My memories of the past three years were cloudy at best. For the most part, I just couldn't remember. I knew I was in a world history class, but I couldn't tell you if we were studying the War of the Roses or the French Revolution.

When you finally emerge from the fog, you find that time has not stopped, the world has carried on and you are utterly lost. I found myself back in my body in the middle of a fog so thick, I could see nothing through the dense, consuming, confusing gray.

Like age or weight, the change in me was so gradual I don't think I could have seen it coming. In retrospect, it started when I was 10 - a distant cloud on the horizon, an ominous clap of thunder - until I was 19. It takes that long to warp a mind, to bend a soul into thinking it's dead. I wasn't suicidal, not really. I just lived as if I had no future. I lived like I expected to fall asleep and disappear.

On most days I couldn't get out of bed. I was just so overwhelmingly tired. And weak. The blankets were so hard to lift every morning they may as well have been two ton boulders. But for all their heavy weight they were so comforting, warm, and the rest of the world was so cold. I was always cold. Why would I want to leave the last source of warmth in a frozen world?

When I could find the will to get out of bed, I wasn't a very functional person. Those little things, everyday things that should be automatic, I didn't always remember to do. It wasn't that I didn't care for my cleanliness and well-being. The simple act of brushing my teeth or washing my hair took so much of my energy, for that one task I may as well have run a 40-mile marathon.

I went from a straight A and B student to failing and I couldn't find the strength in me to care.

Given the gradual way it all snuck up on me, it seemed unfair that I should be dumped back into consciousness so suddenly, but I was. Try throwing a person in deep sleep into a tub filled with ice-cold water and you might begin to know how I felt. I'd had to repeat most of my junior classes, and I was about to become a second year senior.

I didn't have time to recover from the shock. I had two semesters and the summer to save my high school career. I did, somehow. Just barely. The bare minimum got me a high school diploma and admission into a local college with low expectations.

So, late that August, I stood on the edge of the campus, looking at the milling students, and I realized I had no idea what the hell I was doing there. I was completely lost. At that point, the truth hit me like the final strip of fog blown away by the wind.

I might have saved my life, but I had lost myself in the process.

I'd lost bits and pieces of the last nine years, the crucial years that I should have spent building my personality, my tastes. My teen years when I was supposed to be making unconscious decisions that would effect my adult self, I'd been, for all intents and purposes, simply unconscious. And now I'd been spit out the other end of some wormhole, one year and 11.5 months into adulthood. I was almost twenty on the first day of the rest of my life.

I hadn't thought about college since I was in fourth grade with Harvard and Yale at the top of my list. The girls in the movies had made it seem easy and it made my mother smile. This wasn't Harvard or Yale. This wasn't even what my ten year old self wanted.

Slowly, I reached behind me, my hands gliding along the cool surface of my car, searching for the door handle. I backed away, step by step, finally opening the door and sealing myself inside, my heart pounding. I must have stayed there for a good ten minutes, my hands gripped tightly around the steering wheel, watching people walk by.

This must be what amnesia victims felt like. I'd been placed in a foreign life and told, "these people are your friends, this is your family, and this school is your future. This is where you're supposed to be." It felt wrong, but then again I couldn't remember what right was supposed to be like. Last week my mother had served a dinner of pork chops, sautéed mushrooms and rice pudding for desert. "All your favorites," she said, and while the meal had been delicious, I wondered if they really were my favorite dishes.

And my friends. I did have friends. People who'd hugged me during graduation, screaming and crying, "I can't believe we made it!" These people were supposed to like me for who I was. These were the people whom I was supposed to have the most in common with.

I had been placed in a life that for its window dressing seemed to be fine. Slightly skewed perhaps…a bit shaky on it's feet, but I should be okay.

Except I didn't know me. From the large, important aspects of my life to the incredibly mundane details, I didn't know a damned thing about myself. If I didn't know who I was, how could my friends know? If I couldn't remember the taste, the experience of any meal in the past few years, how could I know if I loved pork chops the best? Did I even want to go to college? Was I even cut out for it? And if so, for what? What was I working toward?

I gripped the steering wheel impossibly tighter.

The people in my life were confusing me. Not too long ago my friends and I sat around a table in the library writing our college admission letters. I'd stared at the question, what part of yourself do you like the most, for almost half an hour before I turned to them and asked what they thought. They told me I was sweet, a good listener, very practical. Nice words, but everything felt wrong. If I stayed, would they warp me into this mental image they had of me? I wasn't so sure I could stay and play a role that I knew nothing about.

I placed a shaking hand on the key and started the ignition. I backed out of the space, and then drove out of the parking lot, and finally out of sight of the university all-together. When I got to the nearest freeway, I got on it and went forward without stopping until I ran out of gas. At that town, I paid for a hotel room, purchased five postcards and mailed them with the same generic message to my mother and four friends.

I told them not to look for me. I told them I would be back.

For a week after that I drove aimlessly from town to town, state to state. I got to the Atlantic and turned around. I felt like Forrest Gump. But he ran for the sake of running. Me, I was chasing someone. I was looking for a place to find her.

A week later I was driving through Texas on one of its endlessly long stretches of highway.

I didn't know what it was at first. I glimpsed in the rearview mirror and thought I saw a face. It was like seeing something out of the corner of my eye, but right in front of me, and only for a split second. The scene was straight out of a horror flick. There I was, the girl on a deserted highway in the dead of night, Texas flatlands stretched as far as the eye can see. The music would build as I looked into the presumably empty back-seat of my car and…

In my case, nothing happened. No chain saws or ax murderers, just an empty back seat and an overactive imagination.

I shrugged off the irrational fear and turned the music up high.

There wasn't anything about Texas that I liked. It was flat, boring, obscenely hot and produced very dim politicians. It was also far too big to find any one person, let alone myself, and so I moved on.

A/N: Thank you to jadedandboring and barburella for holding my hand. Just so we're clear up front, this story will deal with the aftermath of various kinds of abuse. It will not always be pretty. Sometimes it will be very ugly. For any of you that read We Don't Break, We Bend, this is kind of the opposite of that story. The kids in We Don't Break were eventually rescued from their abuser, and they had a great support system to recover. That's not always the way it happens. In fact, it's not often the way it happens. So, this is that story.

Check out the two wonderful banners this story has from HeatherDawn and Barburella. They're so pretty.

I will start updating this regularly once Parenthetical Love is marked complete. Until then your initial thoughts are, as always, appreciated.