From the Outside

When you get back in and close the patio door to the lightning bugs trying to Morse code their way inside, your mother’s hand on the bathroom floor will limp-grab the door, try to open it, fail, then open, palm-upwards, like it’s Sunday Mass and she’s waiting for communion, and there will be a wine cooler pool beneath her head, empty pill bottle next to it, eyes arcing an orbit from right to left, then disappearing behind lids, and you’ll sit her up the way you did last time, scoot her over to the tub and run the water and the way she’ll fight you as you touch your finger to the back of her throat, but the pills will have taken away much of her strength and the pills will come back up, half-formed, like the sickle of a moon you’d point your telescope at on nights when the light pollution cleared and you could see more than just a couple stars, while your mother moves in delirious ways now, swaying into the tub where the water’s already swirling the pills into a whirlpool, reaching for the ones she can grab hold of and trying to bring them back to her mouth like a toddler with a clump of dirt, pulling now at the shower curtain, bringing the rod down onto her, curtain in the water, splashed at and making warbled sounds, the water getting into your eyes, and when you try to clear the water from your eyes she’ll catch your ear with her palm and you’ll tumble into the tub and onto the curtain, water still running, pills still circling the drain but not able to find it for the plug that’s covering it, and her arms will become a flurry behind you, bringing you to your back so your eyes are just underwater and everything is a foggy bubble world of ever shifting things, and your mother’s hands will seem limp even as they clutch your throat, the warble of the water hitting plastic even louder here, under the water, where the bathroom’s light warps and bends like a faulty sun in a patchy sky, your feet kicking like two limp fish beached on a pier, hooks in mouths or maybe already down their throats, tugging at vital insides, and you’ll come up just long enough to hear the way your mother’s slurring her words, voicing them ceaselessly, not meaning anything but saying them anyway, her eyes two pale rocks you’d skip across a quiet lake, etched in, looking at you as you hear the way your breath sounds like it’s coming from somewhere outside of you, when you can take it, for just the second you’re out of the water, before going back down again, some of the water going in your mouth and down your throat, icing your stomach, your clothes plastered to the frame of your child’s body, socks slipping halfway down your feet and already soggy, her nails sliding around your neck like ice skates on fresh ice, falling into grooves and slipping out of them again, the pills orbiting like planets above your eyes, water rising higher so you can’t reach the surface, shower rod clanging onto the floor and sounding here underwater like a bell being tolled in a town far away from here, your mother slipping on the water that’s spilled onto tile and so sliding forward, forcing head’s back against tub’s porcelain, your eyes pulling open to let in more light, bubbles from your mouth popping at the surface, everything edged in black now, hazy and indistinct like the world in a fog on a summer’s night, and when you call out it’s a sound apart from you, a noise you’ve never heard before, and the rest of the water comes in, spilling, and the way the black looks when it comes in and wraps you up is like waking and sleeping at once, pulling yourself away from yourself so you can see, finally, what it all looks like from the outside.

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COL AND CASE

KC was seven years old when he first realized that all grownups are a little broken inside. He was seven, and scared, and in the sewage-shit-stink of his then-flooded basement, with a couple of garbage bags hauled over his legs and duct-taped for the journey as his seventeen-year-old brother Colin stood at the basement door, peering down into the muddy black and cheering him on in his own way.

“See it yet?”

KC brought his hand shakily up, aimed the faulty beam of his flashlight in front, then to both sides. Behind and back up the stairs, temporarily blinding Colin.

“It’s gross down here, Col. Can I just come back up?”

“You rather be grossed out and have a fan, or clean and die of heat stroke?”

KC aimed his beam down near his bagged feet, where he could see newly submerged wrecks scattered in the fetid water–diecast cars, cap guns, video games. In time they’d be covered in seaweed and barnacles, select destinations for the most intrepid miniature divers. But for now they were lying in wait, all of them clamoring for the chance to puncture the plastic film that separated KC’s feet from hundreds of gallons of raw sewage. He looked back up at the top of the stairs where his older brother still stood.

“How about have a fan and be clean?”

“Can’t have your shit-covered cake and eat it too. Sorry, kid.”

KC wheeled around the room, sent up ripples in the knee-deep water as he did.

“But maybe… maybe Mom’ll be back soon. Back with a fan.”

“Sure. And she’ll bake us cookies and tell us what wonderful little boys we are and pinky promise this is the last time she goes over to her boyfriend’s while we’re stuck here in the shit.”

“But she said she was just getting more gas for the generator.”

“And the last time she ‘got more gas for the generator’ she was gone the whole weekend.”

“But…”

“And the time before that she was ‘running a few errands’ for a week. And the time before that she was ‘taking the car for a wash’ even though it was pouring outside, and the time before that–”

“Col, can you just come down here and help? It’s hot and I can’t see nothing and your flashlight’s better.”

Colin made his own makeshift duct-taped bag boots and waded down into the water that was already gathering a film at the top and frothing up like some unspeakable mug of root beer. KC was right–Colin’s flashlight was way better.

“Never send a boy to do a man’s job, huh?”

“You’re not eighteen yet, Col. You’re still a boy too.”

“Shut up, Case.”

“Shuttin’ up now, boss.”

After their shared song and dance was over, they glided quietly through the murky pool, flashlight beams constantly adjusting and searching, each step carefully calculated. Old, hoarded newspapers floated in the spots where stacks weren’t deep enough to remain rooted to the basement floor, the soggy headlines now shouting out to no one in particular.

“Wouldn’t be as hard to find without all of Mona’s crap stacked all over down here.”

“You mean Mom?”

“Mona. Mom. Whatever. You still looking?”

KC aimed his beam blindly this way and that, hoping that he looked busy. His ruse worked for a while, until:

“Either look for real or go back upstairs. But don’t expect to get any of the fan once I find it.”

KC’s beam took on a much more natural path then, and lucky for KC Colin couldn’t quite make out the little-brother-pout he was sporting on account of low visibility.

“Col?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re not gonna be dorning, right?”

“Dorming, you mean?”

“Yeah, dorming.”

A nearly imperceptible sigh.

“No.”

A smattering of flies were gathering near the water’s filmy surface, attracted by the smell but dismayed by the lack of places to land.

“But you should dorm when you go to college. Find some school on the other side of the country. Don’t even tell Mona where. Study your ass off. Get scholarships. Trust me, kid.”

Colin made as if he was pushing aside a stack of floating family photos to check for the fan behind their now-waterlogged TV, but he was really just keeping himself busy as he waited for KC’s response.

“Col?”

“Yeah?”

“You wouldn’t ever say you were just going to get gas for the generator and then leave forever, right? You wouldn’t do that?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.”

The two of them marched on through the muck with hands held up and out of splashing range. Traversed the minefield of toys with absolute caution.

“Col?”

“Yeah?”

“Mom’s not coming back this time, is she?”

Nothing but the muffled splash of bagged feet maneuvering awkwardly. Flashlight beams criss-crossing in the dark.

“Col?”

“I don’t know, Case. All right? I don’t know. And I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, but right now we need to find this fan. We can talk about it later, and be scared later, ’cause I’m scared too, Case. I’m scared too.”

“Col?”

“Case, for God’s sake, I–”

“Col, I found the fan.”

A very audible sigh this time.

“Oh.”

“I grabbed it off the cabinet, but then you started talking about being scared and I dropped it a little in the water and it got a little wet and I’m sorry, Col. Don’t be mad at me, please.”

Colin turned his beam toward KC, who was now proffering a dinky little fan as if it were a sacred relic. Colin was careful to keep the beam at KC’s chest so as not to blind him. Looked in his eyes.

“I’m not mad, Case. It’s fine. Great. You did a great job.”

Colin waved KC on to lead the way back upstairs, which he gladly did, the fan held aloft like some putrid trophy.

“Col?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you, Col.”

“I love you too, Case.”

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PAST THE HURT

He almost had a heart attack after his first post-hurt run, or at least that’s what it had felt very clearly like. He hadn’t had a heart attack before for comparison, but he’d heard about the symptoms and they all matched up.

I say post-hurt because that’s what he called it, as in after the hurt. We all have a hurt inside, nothing special about it really, but his particular hurt had to do with not reconciling with his emotionally abusive mother before she died. He can talk about it frankly now, because he’s in the post-hurt. But it wasn’t always that way.

No, for years it was terrible. Even for an optimist like him, terrible was the most apt way of describing it. She gave him a deep hurt every day, in the form of insults both spoken and yelled. She gave him the hurt because she hadn’t dealt with her own hurt inside. It’s funny how it works that way.

He ate. Constantly. Consumed fast food like it was his job, to the point where drive-thru workers knew him by name and smell. Took his once in-shape, football-playing body and expanded it, let it grow and grow until the hurt seemed like it would burst him from the inside.

When he wasn’t eating he was on the computer. She could still send the hurt his way then, as always, but he had his own world inside that laptop screen. A world where his body was the same as it always had been, and the hurt didn’t take up so much of his mental real estate.

He stopped weighing himself after a couple months. Reading the number the scale told him just added to the hurt. So he remembered the number it used to tell him before the hurt and pretended that that’s where it would stay.

Her mind went after the house did. Great piles of trash and personal effects lined the hallways, a veritable mountain range of detritus. He lost a few pounds just in trying to clean it alone, but she’d give him more hurt when he tried, so he left it alone.

Soon the doctor’s visits were real, and not just hypochondriac outbursts. There were weird words that added to the hurt then, words like glioblastoma and terminal.

He couldn’t say a word to her the last time they saw each other. He’d wanted to, but the hurt stopped him. So he just looked at her face as she looked at his.

There passed silent months then, months of frustrated quiet and unbearable solitude.

But then he met her. It was just one of those things, you know. She saw his hurt right away and didn’t run from it. She’d seen it before in myriad ways, countless times and people and places.

So he ran. And his heart threatened to attack, and he took it easy for a while. But he ran. And as he did, the hurt took a breath. It left him to it.

So he ran again. And again. Ran through his chest’s tightness, kept going even when he was sure his legs would collapse under the weight. The sheets of sweat were liquid hurt, left there momentarily on his skin to be carried away by the wind.

He went a week without fast food. Then two. Then a month. Started craving apples over Big Macs, started reading again like he used to, too. The hurt was still there, but it was tiny. Shriveling more and more by the day.

Soon he could jump rope again. Soon he could sleep the whole night, without apnea to wake him. Soon she could almost touch fingertips together when she wrapped her arms around him.

He set a deadline for the hurt’s final destruction: his first half marathon. The hurt whispered persistently in his ear and planted its doubt, but he weeded his garden regularly with runs.

There came a day when he wanted to hear what the scale had to say again. And when he listened, he hardly believed what he heard. It told him the number in his mind, the one he held onto for all that time.

The hurt destroyer came. Weeds sprung up everywhere in his garden as he ran and ran and ran, prickly, thorny weeds that refused to be plucked from the dirt so easily. He didn’t know where the strength came from, but I do. It came from the hurt. Because if you hold onto that much hurt for that long, it’ll either end up killing you or saving you.

A mile passed, then another. Lactic acid soaked his muscles, weeds strangled his brain. But he put one foot down, then the other. One foot down, then the other.

In the end, the hurt didn’t have a chance. It was outrun. It just couldn’t keep up. He saw it there at the finish, at the line that had marked the beginning not too long ago.

It was faded and torn, catching on the wind in spots. And when a stiff breeze finally came, it was blown away with ease.

So he doesn’t shy from talking about it now. Why should he? It’s just a memory, just a dream of an old life lived long ago. A time before he’d gotten past the hurt.

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SANCTUARY

It was my tenth summer, July 22, and outside my window the rain was taking sides as the lightning had a turf battle with the willows. But the fight was one-sided and the trees wept as their name suggested, even as I tried my best not to join them. Dad’s shoes were still in my hand then–I didn’t know what to do with them. I knew he had other shoes and all, but something told me he wouldn’t leave again if I just held onto those ones.

They had one of their “we’re just being silly” fights. Mom threw bottles at his head and accusations of infidelity along with them. I’d seen it all from the doorway, watched as the bottles shattered one by one and left little beer explosions on the wall that trailed down and soaked the carpet, added brown residue lines to the wheels of my old Fisher Price walker, as if the world’s tiniest man was marking his height against them.

But they saw me standing there and just stopped. Mom still held a bottle in her hand. She was shaking.

“We’re just playing. Just being silly. See?”

She gave a smile that was all teeth and crinkled eyes. That mask salesman from Ocarina of Time came to mind. It was all a routine we had to carry out. Dad acted bewildered, mom gave the too-wide smile, and I snuck back to my room with the pair of shoes.

But dad was stomping up the stairs as I looked into the soles of those faded old white New Balance, as a mildewy sort of sweat wafted up and attacked my nose. And before the stomps drew any closer, I bolted. I bounded over the top step and touched down on the third, knocked straight into my dad’s paunch and rebounded against the wall, half tumbled down the rest of the stairs and ran right out the front door. I didn’t even close it behind me.

My mother sent out her banshee screams but they were quickly lost in the driving rain, and so was I. Jagged blacktop bit at my bare feet, more holes than street in this unincorporated part of town. I ran straight down the middle of Good Avenue and passed by McMansions on my left as I went, the lake behind them usually placid but now being rent and torn by the storm. My feet were streaking bloody little tracks behind them but I refused to put on the shoes. I stopped and examined my feet, cried as I picked out the tiny pebbles and let the rain wash away the blood. I threw my dad’s shoes into the lake before my body had the chance to betray my brain.

Meadow Lane had a little storm drain that some teenager had pried the bolts off of long ago, a storm drain that fed into a forking, snaking, town-wide tunnel system. He used it to covertly get high and I used it as a sanctuary. I didn’t tell his mom and he didn’t tell mine, so we coexisted well enough.

I hauled up the drain cover and didn’t even bother to replace it as I scurried down into the darkness, as the sweetly stubborn scent of pot that clung to everything down there returned to me. I knew that tunnel better than I knew myself. I didn’t need a flashlight.

I found my “room”: a little three-by-three hollowed-out cube of concrete, lit dimly by the jars of lightning bugs I kept down there. My pens and notebooks were right where I left them, and I started writing by buglight before the real searing pain in my feet could set in.

It was a story about molemen and aliens and underground worlds filled with monsters. The usual. I was so into it I didn’t even notice the flash flood at first. I figured the icy chill at my feet was just part of the pain. I was about halfway through the story when I saw one of the lightning bug jars float and bob away from me out of the corner of my eye.

I could hear the water as it slapped against the ladder’s rungs and fell away, as it spread out into a rushing pool and clapped itself against each of the concrete walls in staggered steps. And as I listened to it come for me and felt it rise to the height of my ankles, I almost wanted it to take me away. To flush me down some abyssal cavern, to the center of the earth and away from everything and everyone. I sat there, perfectly still, as the water tickled my calves and threatened to claim my knees.

And then I heard him. He was calling out my name in pain, as if each syllable was covered in barbed wire. He called for me and I heard myself, older but no less vulnerable.

I needed to go.

I tried to save the notebooks and jars, but it was too late. I watched each of the bugs’ pinpricks of light rush away into the distance and darkness both, like little subterranean stars being born. The water challenged my grip on the rungs as I climbed up, but my dad’s face at the drain’s top kept me going. He hauled me up when I got close enough and tried not to cry when he knew I was alright, but couldn’t. He was barefoot and crying just like me, with the rain all around to shelter us from ourselves.

We didn’t say one word to each other as we headed back home, and we’ve never spoken about it since. We just walked back quietly against the driving rain, with my little bloody footprints and his bigger ones to guide us home.

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