Max is scared. There is darkness all around her and she can see monsters in the deep shadows, creeping up around the edges of her bed. A half-remembered nightmare chills her thoughts, sends shivers up and down her spine. There is evil in the night, and it is coming for her.
Mommy comes. Mommy opens the door and turns on the light, bright, too bright, blinding glare, Max can't see, but the shadows are running scared from the light, running scared from Mommy.
Hey sweetheart. What's wrong? What's wrong?
Mommy's hands are the most beautiful thing about her, besides her smile. They carve pictures and stories and emotions through the air, and Max thinks that these kinds of hand words that no one else can understand are magic.
The dark, she says. There are bad things in the dark.
Mommy turns off the light, but Max isn't scared, because Mommy is there and she will keep the monsters away. Mommy climbs into the bed with her and wraps her up in her arms, and everything feels warm and perfect and safe.
Close your eyes, says Mommy. Max closes her eyes, and she can feel Mommy's fingers on her hands, shaping words like they used to do when Max was little and Mommy told her about senses and hearing and the girl named Helen Keller.
Now keep your eyes closed tight. And imagine this. You're in a room. It's a small room, and it's dark. It's so dark that you can't see anything. But there is nothing to be afraid of, Max. You know what's in this room. There is nothing bad in this room. Nothing can get in. You are safe. Your daddy is there, Max, and Danny, and me. We're all there for you. The darkness is warm and safe, if you know what it hides. The darkness can't hurt you Max. We'll be here for you. It's safe in your dark room. Everything is good. Everyone is happy. Me and Daddy and Danny and you. We're all safe.
We're all safe.
Max is twenty two years old.
She lives in an average sized town in Georgia, and she teaches deaf children how to speak.
She has a small apartment on the north side of town.
She keeps a gun hidden under the bed, just in case.
She has a gold fish named Berty.
She has a boyfriend, and his name is Joe. Joe cooks at the local diner and wants to become a professional chef.
She does not want to marry Joe. Not yet, anyways.
But she just may love him.
Her brother Danny lives half an hour away. He still isn't exactly sure what he wants to do with his life. This month he's selling magazines door to door.
Her mother lives fifteen minutes away. She doesn't do much, except watch. She watches everything.
It has been sixteen years, three months, and one week since Esther killed her father and died in the pond that they played near.
No, she's not mentally scarred. No, she doesn't suffer from the stress of such a traumatic childhood experience. Really. She's perfectly fine.
Black hair. Ice skin. Blue dress. Silky velvet choker necklace. Eyes black as pitch. Tiny child, standing on the corner, watching the world go by.
Max blinks. No. There is nothing there, nothing of importance, it's just a street corner, people milling amongst each other, and there is no black haired, white skinned child in an old blue dress.
Max is not crazy. Max does not suffer from flashbacks, nor hallucinations, nor visions of any kind. Really. Ask her psychiatrist.
"I saw her again today," she tells Danny.
"Geez, sis. It's been, what, almost a year since the last time you saw her? I thought it was getting better. You've been taking your meds, right?"
"Did you tell Mom?"
Mom. She is a mix of brown and gold and red in Max's mind, warmth and safety, blood and screaming and crying, run Max run, soft smiles and the bitter ash of cigerettes, a new addiction, one to replace the liquor that clouded her mind. The woman who sees demons under every rock, who dragged her children across the country and back, trying to escape a shadow that existed only in her mind.
"Good. Just…" Danny sighs. "I worry about her. And you. I worry about you both and I hope Mom doesn't crack. And I don't know what it'll take to push her over the edge, and you, seeing things, and these nightmares that won't go away…."
There are empty beer cans on the floor. Amber liquid pooled in the bottom of a glass. This form of escape seems to run in the family.
Poor Danny. Crazy Mom, crazy sister. All he wants is to be normal.
Max leans over and hugs Danny, and she tells herself that everything is alright.
Hello, Max. Would you like to play a game?
Crazy Max eats breakfast and brushes her teeth and takes her pills.
Crazy Max goes to work and teaches her students (travel, home, danger, welcome, end) and takes her pills.
Crazy Max takes the bus home from work and takes her pills as they pull onto Beech Ave.
Crazy Max sees the girl with the black hair and the blue dress and the eyes that are so, so black.
She sees her when she gets up in the morning, watching her from across the street.
She sees her standing in the back of her classroom.
She sits beside her on the bus.
Crazy Max, Crazy Max.
Take your pills.
Joe is sweet and kind and he doesn't care that his girlfriend is a little nuts. He doesn't care that she sees a long dead ghost, watching her, even when she takes her pills. He loves her.
Max likes coming home to open arms and kisses. She likes feeling loved. She doesn't care that her boyfriend's history is colored with gang tattoos and blood. She doesn't care that sometimes he looks at her and she knows he's not there; he's in an alley in a hellish town, and he is trying not to die.
She doesn't care that he's just a little bit scarred. He fits better this way.
They like the same movies. She reads books to him, and he closes his eyes and rests his head on her lap, and he doesn't say anything when she slips over a word. They feed Berty and watch him swim loops in his glass universe, and they wonder if they should get him a friend.
When she wakes at night shivering and terrified and seeing demons in the shadows, she closes her eyes and finds her safe, dark room, and she hides there until the sun comes up. Mom is in the room with her, because she's the one that gave her the key. Danny is there, because she loves him and she wishes that he had his own safe, dark room where he could put himself back together. Her father isn't there anymore. She can't remember him. But Joe is there now, with his scratchy, day old beard, and his strong arms, and his kind eyes, and his smile. And his words.
I love you, Max. I love you.
"Danny? What are you doing here?"
"Mom's dead, Max."
There is no blood. She had always thought that there would be blood. But there is no blood. Just a cold, white body and a tiny red mark on her mother's arm.
"Mom didn't do drugs, Danny."
Her brother tries to appear stoic and emotionless, but his eyes are red.
"Well, it certainly looks like she tried to. It only takes one overdose, and there was enough heroin in her body to kill a horse."
"But Mom didn't like drugs. She hated them. You know that. She always wanted to be clear headed. Just in case…."
"What? Just in case the dead girl came back to life? Yeah, Max, I know, but… You know she wasn't exactly…" Daniel hesitates, and shudders, shrinking in on himself as he fights off another wave of tears. Max is still numb. In an hour, she will cry, she will sob and sob and she won't be able to stop. But not now. Now, her heart is coated in a layer of ice.
"She wasn't stable. She hadn't been for years, Max, not since…. Not since Dad, and everything. You knew it was just a matter of time."
Yes. She knows. She and Danny have pulled her mother back from the edge too many times. She knew that one day, that would be it. The end. She wouldn't be there and Danny wouldn't be there, and her mother would find herself in a dark place, and she wouldn't try to get out. She would just try to die.
A white sheet covers her mother's face. The workers move to re-seal the body. Max and Danny turn away, but there is an itch in the back of Max's head. Things that she knows, and things that have happened, and things that she cannot understand.
Her mother hated drugs.
The girl with the blue black dress and the icy skin is there for the funeral.
There is crying. There is lots of crying and there is a week, two weeks, three weeks, a month of darkness that will not lift from around Max's mind. There are many nights spent wrapped up in Joe's arms, simply letting herself mourn, and there are as many nights spent in her dark room, closed away and safe, remembering soft kisses and hugs and silent laughter that seeps down into her bones and etches itself there.
Danny takes it harder than she does. He stops going to work, stops leaving his apartment, simply sits in the darkness and drinks. She visits him when she can, cleans up his beer bottles and sweeps up a little in the kitchen, then shoves her brother into the shower and turns on the water, shocking him back to awareness. They'll sit on the floor of the bathroom, both dripping wet, and talk about Mom. And sometimes they'll talk about Dad, and Danny will dredge up memories that she hadn't even remembered existed, and they'll laugh a little and maybe they'll cry. And Danny promises that he'll get his act together and go back to work, and Max will know that it's a lie, but she'll nod and smile and leave, and a few days later she'll come back and they'll do it all again, and she'll hope that this time she says the right words, and this time Danny will listen, really listen, and he'll open the curtains and let the sunlight in.
But Danny is too much like their mother. There is darkness resting in his heart and in his mind, and there is very little that Max can do about it. They tried a psychiatrist, years ago, and pills, but Danny was never the most open person, and on the pills he was either extremely happy or suicidal. So there is nothing much to do.
Max swears she will not let Danny end up like Mom, an ice cold body in a box, six feet under and lifeless. And as bad as Danny gets sometimes, Max is sure that this will not happen. At least, not yet.
Because she is there, and she makes him smile, and sometimes he laughs, and she knows him, knows him like the back of her hand, and she knows that he is not that far yet, he is not that deep down in the pitch dark hole that their mother fell into, and she will not let him fall any farther into it.
Max may be crazy. She may see dead girls and impossible things may sometimes slip into her mind and nest there, but there are things that she knows.
She knows that as long as she is here, Danny is safe from the dark.
The clouds lift.
Her mother has been buried for a month.
There is no longer such a heavy weight on Max's chest.
And so, the little girl comes back.
There is a smile hidden in her eyes.
Let's play a game.
They stop her on her way to work. Blue and white uniforms, sky colors, but they may as well wear black. One has green eyes, and the other has brown eyes, and there is something in them that makes chills run up and down her spine. Their names are Officer Morett and Officer Kelly, and they have news for her.
"Is it Joe?" she asks. "What's going on, what's happened to him?"
They shake their heads, no, no, no, and somewhere in her heart, in their grave, pitying eyes, she knows. She knows what's happened, and she can't hear it, she can't let them say it, can't let them tell her, it's not real, never real, she needs to get away, to escape, to find a quiet place and run to her dark, safe, room, and lock all the doors, keep all the words out, keep all the painful, lying words out, because there are things that she knows, and this is not right not right, never, never, right.
Officer Morett is talking and Officer Kelley is watching, and their eyes, their eyes, the pity in them is cutting her to shreds, and the words are blows falling on her shoulders, and no, no, no, she can't get away, can't escape, can't run, she's frozen, trapped in a corner, and the world is caving in.
The men in their sky uniforms, they are not fast enough to catch her when her legs give out.
Danny, she says, a whisper with her voice, a shrilling cry throughout her body, a scream in her heart.
Later, when she thinks back, among the sky uniforms and the blurring of tears and the ripping in her chest, she will remember something.
Something at the corner of her eye. Something that she had tried to ignore, had tried to pretend was not there.
And a corner of blue velvet.
She hides herself away in her bedroom, she buries herself under blankets until she thinks she's going to suffocate but it almost, almost reaches the chill in her heart.
She opens the door to her dark room, and she flings herself inside, and throws up walls, huge, thick forbidding walls with barbs all along the sides and top. A thousand locks, to keep the world away, to keep the lies out.
Because there are things she knows. Hidden away here in her dark room, this is where she keeps the truth.
They are locked in her dark room with her.
Mom, gold and brown and red, strength and weakness, the scent of alcohol and smoke, kisses and hugs, strong arms around her, the one who gave her the key to her dark room, the one who no matter what, no matter the darkness in her own mind, always, always, protected them. Max wraps herself up in the memories of her, the memories of her warmth, of her scent, of all her smiles and her beautiful hands, shaping worlds for Max to dream of at night.
Lies. A red mark on her arm. Heroin overdose.
Truth. Mom hated drugs.
This Max holds in careful hands, a treasure, and she carves it into her heart.
Danny. The thought of him nearly makes her scream. Different from Mom, but the same. Yellows and deep greens and lines of black. Darkness, kindness, fragility, hopefulness. An earnest heart. Despair. Teaching her how to ride a bike. Shoving her away when she tried to hold his hand as they crossed a street, but when the demons entered her mother's eyes and they had to leave again, another town, another life, he let her curl up against him in the back seat of their old car, hidden in the night, always keeping the darkness out of her own mind even as it crept into his. Poor, poor, Danny.
Lies. The red brand of a rope around his neck. Gentle swaying, a chair kicked to the ground.
This Max shoves away, crushes, buries, burns, destroys without the tiniest mercy.
Truth. As long as Max is there for him, Danny is safe from the dark.
Truth. Always, and forever. This is something she knows. Truth.
Locked away in her safe, dark, room, Max pulls the truth to her, and she brings her family to her, and the red mark disappears from her mother's arm, and the rope burn vanishes from Danny's neck, and Max whispers to herself, over and over again.
It's safe in my dark room. Everything is good. Everyone is happy. Me and Mom and Danny. We're all safe.
We're all safe.
Outside, looking up at the walls, and the barbs, and the fire, the little dead girl waits patiently.
After two days, Joe breaks down the door to her apartment. He calls her name through the halls, and he makes his way to her bedroom. He peels the blankets off of her, and he cradles her in his arms like a child.
"Max," he says, over and over again. "Max, it's alright. It's me, Max, it's Joe. It's alright. We'll get through this, but you have to wake up." His hands are still a little clumsy, will probably always be clumsy, but she feels the words on her skin, feels the warmth of his hands holding her close, and she pulls herself out of her dark room.
She unlocks the doors, unbolts the gate, and bids her family farewell, for the moment. She climbs back up, towards sunlight, towards comfort, towards the feeling of Joe's hands, saying again and again, I love you, I love you, I love you.
She leaves her dark room, and she opens her eyes.
She opens her eyes to reality.
She opens her eyes to pain.
Max cries for a long time. And Joe holds her.
Crazy Max has lost her mother. Crazy Max has lost her brother.
And standing across the street, staring up at her window, Crazy Max sees a little dead girl.
Crazy Max, well, her heart is hurting too much for her to care. But she takes her pills.
Joe doesn't leave her side, not the first day, not the second, not the seventh. He takes time off from work and he makes her soup and hot chocolate and his special caramel candies, and it is while they eat the caramel and Joe takes too much and his teeth are stuck together for a solid minute that Max first smiles again.
He holds her whenever he gets the chance, wraps his big arms around her and kisses her curly hair, plays with her fingers and hums tunes, deep in his throat, the sound vibrating through his chest and into her, like a cat purring. Sometimes he tells her stories, of the gang that used to be his family, and the battles they had, but without the cruelty, infused with hints of magic, and when Max thinks of his stories they feel like fairy tales.
He smiles and laughs and talks to her about whatever she wants to talk about, and they watch Berty swim around his fish bowl and decide to visit the store soon to get him a friend. He teaches her how to make apple dumplings and throws flour in her hair, and they end up having a spectacular food fight, eggs and sugar spattering their clothes, apple peels on the ceilings, and Max forgets about the pain for a few minutes and lets herself laugh.
On the bad nights he builds words for her in the air, not her mother's graceful, pretty words, but these are better, Max thinks, much better, with his big, beautiful, clumsy fingers calling her darling, sweetheart, angel, telling her it's all right, saying over and over I love you.
And finally, she whispers back to him, I love you too.
And his huge, gorgeous smile, it finally warms that chilly place inside her heart.
And the little dead girl, with the ice skin and the black eyes and the blue velvet dress.
She finally goes away.
Three months later, Max wakes, kisses her husband, and gets ready for work.
She drinks a coffee to wake herself up, take her pills, (it's more a habit now, she hasn't seen the girl in so long, she isn't sure she even needs them anymore) and heads off to the school.
Her hands move, following her lips, and the children, young and bright and eager, they watch her as if she's performing magic, following with their own tiny hands, learning, peace, friendship, harmony, home.
She thinks about children, and she smiles, and considers how to bring up the subject with Joe.
She takes the bus home.
And she see the little dead girl, standing on her corner.
Hi, Max. Did you forget about our game?
The house is empty and dark and cold.
Joe is late from work.
She walks down to the restaurant, but, "No, sorry Max, he left hours ago."
She walks back home.
She washes the dishes and sorts the laundry.
It's when she walks over to the fish bowl, intending to feed Berty, that she realizes the little goldfish is missing.
Crazy Max. She keeps loosing all the people that love her.
The police visit her a week later. It's not Officer Morett and Kelly this time. It's a man and a woman, and they tell her such lies.
Car crash, they say.
Half way across the country, they say.
Some men just leave, they say.
We're sorry, they say.
And then they leave.
There are things that Max knows.
Things that are burned into her heart and carved into her bones.
Things that are true.
Truth. Mom hated drugs.
Truth. When she was there, Danny was safe from the dark.
Truth. Joe loved her, and he would never, never, leave her.
Truth. Max is crazy.
The little dead girl is standing there, across the street, watching her.
Max keeps a gun hidden under her bed, just in case.
Just in case of what?
Just in case she isn't crazy.
Disappearing girl, reappearing girl.
You're crazy Max.
The drugs should help.
The drugs don't work.
Mom didn't like drugs.
Danny was safe.
Joe loved her.
You're crazy, Max.
Max leaves her house. She crosses the street. The little dead girl waits for her.
They stand, watching each other.
"Hello, Max," says the little dead girl.
She holds out the little dead body of a fish.
Max is calm. Max is peaceful.
And Max is finally, actually, crazy.
She pulls out the gun.
Shots in the middle of a street.
Real, red blood, hot and sticky, sprayed across the street.
Max's twenty second birthday had been her favorite. It had been nothing special, really. There had been balloons, and a cake.
But Mom had been there, without alcohol on her breath, and she had been smiling and laughing and there had been no demons in her eyes.
And Danny had just got a new job at a book store, and he'd met a nice girl, a teacher, and she had offered to teach him how to paint, and he had been less broken than she'd ever seen him.
It had been almost a year since she had met Joe, big, burly Joe, with his tattoos and his cooking and his huge, warm heart.
They had all went shopping together for her presents.
And they had bought her a goldfish.
"…..right in public….."
"….innocent little girl."
They take her away.
They try to make her talk.
Why did you do it, they ask.
Why did you kill her?
She doesn't answer them.
You all told me I was crazy. You told me she was dead. You said she wasn't real.
They but her in a white jacket, in a clean, padded room.
That's probably for the best, Max thinks. I am really am crazy now.
But it doesn't matter.
Max is in her dark room. Mom is there, and Danny, and Joe, and a very faint warmth that she calls Dad.
They are all together, warm and safe, and there are no lies. Never, ever, never any lies.
There is nothing to be afraid of, Max.
There is nothing bad in this room.
Nothing can get in.
You are safe.
Mom is here, and Danny and Joe.
They're all here for you.
The darkness can't hurt you Max.
They'll be here for you.
It's safe in your dark room.
Everything is good.
Everyone is happy.
Mom and Danny and Joe.
We're all safe.
We're all safe.