We’re talking and laughing and having a good time. There’s a mirror on the coffee table, an Altoid tin full of razors, and a couple of straws chopped in half. We’re still on beer, but I know what’s next, and something in me is relieved that the search and the wait are over. Money has changed hands, the drive from Emeryville to downtown and back is done, the baggie is safe in my friend’s jacket. Everything is fine. I tell myself that everything is fine.
I’m sitting cross legged on his mattress. He’s lying at the other end with his legs stretched out, telling me a story about the time he accidentally pissed into somebody’s refrigerator while blacked out. He says girl and flips his hand. He talks to me like I’m someone you could tell a secret to.
We’re laughing so hard we’re crying. We drink a lot. That’s how we met, drunk outside of a house party with a bunch of other kids. He is right there with me, glass for glass, shot for shot, until the bottle is empty. He gets it. When the bottle is most of the way down we get happy. We get loose. We can talk about anything. It’s relief with something dark in the middle of it, it’s relief that has been poisoned.
When I want to walk to the corner store for another, he says it before I do.
I’m deep in the pit, the emptiness of it.
I drink so much I meet a stranger. I don’t know that I’m not safe because I want to be wanted so badly. He turns me inside out and leaves me like that, with the pieces missing. I don’t know enough to call this assault, so I don’t call it anything. It lives in a dark spot in the middle of my chest, like a warning shadow on an X-ray. The next day, and every day after that, I startle easily and apologize a lot. I drink so much I throw up in bed and have to bleach the mattress. I’m tired and I sleep through my all my classes.
I am introduced to powders and pills. I call everyone I know in one night. I do this again, I try to stop doing this. They call me back and I let it go to voicemail because I can either explain or I can lie, and I don’t want to do either.
My twentieth birthday comes and it passes. I take breaks but they only last a couple of days.
In the mornings, I drag myself to school. I write poetry instead of taking notes, and then read the books overnight, right before the tests. It works, but I never learned how to be a good student. I’m afraid that I don’t belong, that my teeth are too bad and my mind isn’t fast enough. The girls in my house talk about their parents losing a mortgage. I nod and smile, but I don’t really know understand what a mortgage is. It’s easier to call my him than to try and be here, just go downtown and open up the little drug box that sits in his dresser.
My friend sits up and gets the baggie out from his coat pocket. I smile but I don’t know who I am, what I might look like. I feel cute, but it’s only because it’s half light, dark red, soft enough.
He chops up the lines and hands me the mirror and a straw and I lean forward, right into it, right into what I still believe will help get me through. I do the the first line, and then the one next to it, and sit back against the wall, the metal zipper of my dress pressed cold against my skin. He’s still at the other end of the mattress. We’re not laughing anymore. I pass him the mirror and he leans forward and does the other two and turns up the volume on the TV. There is no need to talk about it.
I feel the same and I wonder if it’s going to work, and then all of a sudden I’m leaving, I’m sinking down somewhere and as I go I become terrified, because I don’t know where I’m going or how far away it might be, I don’t know if I’ll be able to come back, and I have to come back, I have to come back because this is my life, I don’t know anything else.
The TV hums from the corner, dark grey lines cutting across the screen. We were watching something but now it looks cartoonish. The bodies aren’t moving right and their skin looks blue, but I can’t tell if that’s really how it is or if it’s just the effects of the drug. I sink down deeper where it doesn’t matter.
I close my eyes and dream a pair of hands splitting open my rib cage, hammering at my breastbone until everything is clear and open. I look inward, at the thick shadow bunching and constricting at my throat.
My heart is lying there too, moving steadily, tucked in deep behind the lungs.
It looks tired.
It looks a little bluish, like it’s not getting enough of something that it needs.
When the landlord evicts us he switches the locks for emphasis. Whenever he comes to the hunting cabin I want to stand between him and my mother, as if that way I could force him to look away, shamefaced, because whatever it is he sees when he looks at us, he hates. He doesn’t try to hide it. We’re dirty criminals The place is chaotic, always a mess. There are too many dogs. All of those things, any of them. I hate him back, for the way he raises his voice, for the way he looks around the room whenever he comes inside. There are five of us in two rooms and an attic, no shower, no electricity.
I understand the importance of smiling and lying. I do not step in between the landlord and my mother. I know that we are different from other people. I know that the kids at school are dangerous and it’s better to read in the library at recess. I know that if a teacher says what did you eat for lunch or how are things at home; smile, and lie.
We miss rent and he switches the locks. We have no references or bad references so it takes a long time to land somewhere again. When we do, Dad doesn’t go with us. He says he’s getting his own place. My little brother and sister and I pretend that it’s fine, easy even. We think that there will be less screaming now, but it doesn’t happen that way. Our parents can’t help it; they look at each other and their words stop being words and start being sounds tearing down the middle.
When we go, we leave the pack of dogs behind. My mother’s reasoning was – if we took them to a shelter they’d just be euthanized, so it was more humane to give them a chance out there. We leave the sick horse behind too.
His legs swell up like tree stumps and his eyes turn milky white and unseeing. A couple months into the winter we drive back up to find the body lying there, dead in the middle of the road. Half the head missing, chewed away, flies swarming all over the exposed eye.
In dreams sometimes I’m walking in the mud and crying. Everything is in a scale I can barely remember, where I’m tiny and the world is huge. My hands are red and feel dry and brittle enough to break apart. Pine branches extend over us, all around us, from the edges of the road. I can hear the truck engine idling somewhere behind me, though in real life I never got out of the passenger seat. I put my palm to his side, to the deep rust color of his coat. I say sorry for what we did. His head swings around fast towards me and the horror of it is so great that I wake up instantly.
Before the eviction, Odis died and my little brother and I found him cold and stiff, laid out like he was sleeping in the shade beneath the barn. He was Mom’s favorite, the only dog that had been with her since before we were born. I reached out and touched his hind leg gently with one finger, astonished that living flesh could become like this, like the leg of a chair, as void of life as a piece of plastic. Quinn went and got his tiny kid’s shovel, saying he was going to help dig the hole for the body.
I went inside and found my mom in the darkness of the pantry, crying like her heart was missing, like something fundamental had been ripped away and was now irretrievable. I was taken aback and scared to see her cry like that. My mother and my brother went out to the yard and started digging the grave, right next to the garden with the sage and the rosemary and the grape vines. I sat and looked out the window and waited, feeling like the ground had begun splitting, like something solid had shown itself to be an illusion.
When the dusk gathered and deepened, pouring down over the trees, soaking in through the windows, I began lighting the candles we would need to go on, to go about the night as we always did. They came back inside and mom started to boil water for rice on the woodstove. She smiled at me like it hurt her mouth to do it, and we looked over at my brother. He was eight, that little shovel in his hand, crumbs of dirt scattered around his feet. He stared back, expressionless. She said gravediggers need food.
My friend hands me a box of crackers but I can’t eat anything and I try to to shake my head to tell him this. I sink down again, as far away as I can ever remember going, down into the bottom of a hole in the dirt my brother carved out for me, threaded with shadows and the roots of the trees. Clarity alternates with distortion here. There are stars so small they look like insects swarming around the room. The ceiling hums with white noise. I think there are words in it, but I can’t make out what they are.
The man who turned me inside out comes in and sits on the mattress next to me and we have a conversation. He’s smaller than me now, younger, so young he’s just a little boy. I take his hand and promise to keep him safe so that he can grow up knowing how it is to be free. I show him what a woman is, and how to touch someone else’s body. I show him what I look like with my rib cage cracked open and he understands all of it. Neither of us need anything, we’ve died and gone on and the sums of our lives have exceeded their parts. We’ve been forgiven every transgression and become pure spirit, imbued with meaning and grace.
The TV cuts to a Domino’s commercial and he evaporates, leaving my empty hand behind. My dad comes inside. He’s holding a crayon drawing that my sister made when she was little. It’s two stick figures, one big and one small. They’re holding hands and the words at the top read I love you daddy in big shaky capital letters. In real life he begins to weep when he finds this drawing in an old box. We both do and we turn away from each other, unable to speak.
She’s beautiful at fifteen, everybody agrees. Two little old ladies come up to my sister in a Mexican restaurant to tell her. Men put their hands on her thighs until she stops taking the bus all together. There’s something I want to tell her but I’m afraid she already knows. She smokes weed every day and sleeps all the time. She misses three periods. Her boyfriend texts her fuck fuck fuck. There’s something wrong and they stop the heartbeat. She walks around for a week with something dead floating inside of her.
Mom drives her all the way to New Mexico so she can deliver it, blue and stillborn.
When they get back mom says there were dead dogs all over the side of the highway out there.
She says don’t tell your dad okay?
He hands me the drawing and I set it down carefully beside me. I want to tell him that it’s alright and not to be sad anymore and to do as well as he can with the time he has left. All of it is a gift. I know this to be true even in my sickness. I want to tell him what I’ve learned but I can’t open my mouth. His flesh becomes ghostly, he is leaving his body but I can’t go with him yet. I’m stuck here in mine.
I close my eyes and dream the way the light used to shine over the hills in the morning before school, pale frost seared across the ground. Deer with their eyes of black stone high stepping through the snow, Bud Light cans crushed into the dirt beneath my feet. My brother and I collecting shards of bone in the woods we grew up in, the ground matted with pine needles the color of rusted metal. We fight over nothing and I push him down a ravine. We sit in the backseat and eat ice cream, trading the carton back and forth. He sends me two hundred dollars by Moneygram with no note. He hugs me goodbye goodbye goodbye. He’s falling down drunk, tall and towering and screaming. He’s in the house with the yellow Christmas lights, the one by the ocean, with the rats in the walls. He comes crashing drunk through the gate and the lights start to stretch and bend, swell too bright and too hard as if they’re going to break the glass they’re contained in.
I step from room to room, from dream to dream, from field to forest to new grass to gravel. I’ve started to grind my teeth but I don’t know it yet. I’m deep in the pit of it.
My father is sitting at the edge of the bed he still shares with my mom. He’s waiting for my sister to wake up. She’s a baby and when she opens her eyes and sees him, she smiles, and he picks her up and they start their day together. My mom lights a candle in a different house, an older one, the one with the blue roof and the potato patch and the outhouse. She climbs naked on top of the twin mattress where my brother sleeps and takes him into her arms to rest. He’s only three but already he dreams dark.
I look away from them and dissolve, forming again in another time, alone in the woods. I’m following a game trail along the creek bed in the dry heat of summer in Redwood Valley. You can see the bones in my arms because I’m not eating enough this year. I’m wearing a purple shirt and blue jeans, hands hanging loose, walking without sound the way I learned to. Long blonde hair trailing, forearms freckled with sun. I know what’s above and what’s behind me. Nobody has ever died and gone away for ever. I’m still easy in my body. My mind is a place I know. The sky cracks open and the rain begins falling and I run for home, crashing through the brush until the blackberry bushes whip my arms and scratch up blood and I am as wild and happy and free as I ever will be.
The TV hums from the corner, some episode of the Simpsons we’ve all seen before. The room has gone crowded with ghosts. I can feel them jostling each other, crowding around, peering over my shoulder. I’m holding my sister’s stillborn baby in my hand. There are ghosts here that still have a couple of years among the living. Time short circuits. My brother’s friend from high school bleeds from a hole in his chest. He smiles at me and says it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. There are others but I can’t quite make out their faces. They shush me when I try to ask questions. Grey lines are still moving across the screen but no one seems to care that the picture has gone bad. Homer is strangling Bart again and we all laugh. Everybody in the room is watching, even the dogs. Odis looks peaceful, like he’s stretched out in some soft shade. I’m not in my body anymore, I’m floating away, looking down. Tethered only to the stars, adrift.
I wake up and brush cracker crumbs off of my lap. I don’t remember eating, but my throat has gone dry. My ghosts talk amongst themselves and leave like angels, burning brighter until they’re gone again.
I’ve started to come down, back into my body. I’m alone on the mattress, still with my back against the wall, my knees bent sideways in front of me. The TV is off. My friend must have turned it off and walked out when he realized that I was paralyzed and unresponsive. Part of me is grateful for this, that nobody saw me be like that. Part of me wonders if I could have died.
Another part is certain that this moment is as true as anything can be, and that if there is a hell I am in it, it’s here, it’s in this life.
Blueish light seeps in between the slats of the blinds. I get up and find my coat and shoes on the couch. I pull them on and walk alone through the darkened house and out through the front door, shutting it carefully behind me. Above my body the sun is rising, translucent and cold, drifting up through the power lines. I tell myself that I am a child of the universe, as much as the trees and stars, and that nothing like this will happen ever again, but it does, of course, many times. I’ll dream about it for years, maybe forever.The street lamps are pooling yellow, getting brighter. I count and recount the coins in my pocket. The bus will bring me home to my own bed. I tell myself that everything is fine.
Ashlee Beals is a California based musician and writer, currently working on a collection of personal essays. Her work has previously appeared in The Rumpus and the Berkeley Fiction Review.