THIS ISN’T BETTER

Rebecca Birch is not only a published science fiction writer, but a classically-trained soprano and the possessor of a deputy black belt in Taekwondo.

 

****

I thought that if I picked a journal that was cool enough, maybe I’d be able to convince myself to use it. Blue-dyed leather, an embossed tree of life ringed with faux-gilded Celtic knots. Hand stitched, handmade paper, and a thin strip of matching leather to tie it shut, like a book of magic. Impossible to ignore.

Stupid, boring pencil, though. Seems right for a stupid, boring person like me.

****

They’re shouting again. Someone drank the last of the milk. The mac and cheese won’t be anything but boiled noodles and watery orange slurry.

“I told you to pick up more.”

“You should pay closer attention.”

“Caleb must’ve drank it.”

“You know he doesn’t go in the kitchen, Jason.”

“How do I know anything? He’s your son.”

It wasn’t me. But even if it was, I’m not going out that door. They’re too angry at each other to come after me now. Boiling over like the pot of naked noodles hissing and spitting on the stove. Sometimes it’s good to be invisible.

****

When did it become normal to spend my days with my shoulders up to my ears, terrified to set one foot wrong? When did I stop hoping things were going to get better? I’ve tried to tell myself that things could be worse.

They could hit each other.

They could hit me.

Maybe that would make it better. If there were bruises on my body, they’d be real. Not the throbbing purple-green patches of pain that bloom in my gut, or the raw cuts that slash across my heart. Nobody can see them or feel them but me. How could I make anyone believe? How could I make them understand?

****

It’s easy now to undo the blue leather strip and flip open the journal. It doesn’t talk back to me. Doesn’t ask questions. Sometimes it feels like these words are the only things that still have meaning. The graphite slides over the textured pages, catching in the fiber, little crystals glinting when they catch the light just so.

I imagine those lines are a part of me, not pencils marks, but blood that seeps from my fingertips each time the shouting starts again.

My half-sister’s crying on the other side of the wall. She’s too young for this to be her world. Shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of their battles. I’ve tried to shield her, but what power do I really have? None, that’s how much.

None at all.

****

My hands have always been pale, but today the blue-threaded veins run beneath skin the color of snow turned apricot by the morning sun. If I squint, maybe I could see straight through to the page beneath, those scribbled words more substantial than I’ve ever been.

Maybe it would’ve been better if I’d never existed. If I was never there, hanging over them like an unwanted anchor, would things’ve gotten this bad? Would Ashby have a better life?

****

I think I’m dissolving. I don’t feel the bruises in my gut anymore. Don’t feel my wounded heart. Don’t feel much of anything really. The words bound into this journal hold all that pain. I can tie it up with a safe square knot—all of me that’s worth knowing held in a compact, beautiful bundle.

My body isn’t real. Not anymore.

I hardly know if my heart is beating until something breaks downstairs and the hard words start and I’m shaking like a frightened bird again.

I don’t want to be a bird.

I don’t want to feel.

****

Today the bruise is real. It spreads across my cheek, red and stinging.

This isn’t better.

****

They say a good way to release anger or hurt is to write down the things that you want to get rid of and then burn the page. I tried that today. Tore a page from the back of the journal. Wrote one word across it—MOM.

The votive candle I stole from the bathroom licked at the thick paper, flames catching then racing up toward my fingers. Lilac scent. Curling smoke.

Screams from the kitchen, like nothing I’ve ever heard.

I dropped the page and smothered the flames with my quilt, then pressed the heels of my hands to my ears, rocking like a blind pendulum.

I don’t remember anything else until the sirens and paramedics and Ashby in my room, her head buried in my chest.

****

Mom’s going to live, but the burns are bad. There’ll be surgeries, pain, and the one thing she could never accept in herself—dependence.

And I did it. I must’ve done it. I burned the page and I don’t believe in coincidence.

****

Jason doesn’t know it was me. Doesn’t accuse me like he’s done about so many other things. It doesn’t keep me from feeling like he blames me somehow. For still being here.

Today I burned a new word. GUILT.

****

Guilt should’ve been safe to burn—should’ve made life bearable again—but now everything’s just…wrong. I visited Mom in the hospital. I should’ve felt something. Anything.

I’d thought invisible was bad.

Now I’m a monster.

****

Ashby knocked on my door around eight tonight, saying she was hungry. Meals have been sporadic with Mom in the hospital. I’m not supposed to go in the kitchen, but I figure I can put together a PB&J and get out in a hurry. I tiptoed down the stairs and was halfway through the kitchen door when I heard snuffling.

Jason was leaning up against the counter, staring at a pot full of noodles burned to the pan, his face all blotchy, and tears sliding down his cheeks.

I started to back out again, but he saw me first.

“I can’t do this, Caleb,” he said. “I thought I could, but I don’t know how.”

He’s cooked macaroni before, so I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean boiling noodles.

I didn’t say a word, just emptied the ruined noodles into the trash, pulled out plates and bread, and slathered the bread with peanut butter and jelly. He watched my every move, wiping his eyes on the back of his sleeve.

I handed him a plate.

“Thanks,” he said.

“I’ll go call Ashby.”

****

Mom’ll be back from the hospital soon. Things’ve been strained here at home, but since the PB&J, Jason’s been letting me do little things here and there. Things he wouldn’t have allowed before. I make breakfast for me and Ashby, so he can get to work early and leave time to stop by the hospital in the evenings. I walk to the store to buy groceries. I’ve even got my own key.

Without Mom around, there’s been hardly any yelling, but it’ll probably come back when she does. I don’t understand why she and Jason bring out the hardest parts of each other. I wish it could be different.

I’ve thought about burning a new word before she gets back. A word that will make things better. The empty page is beside the journal, waiting to be marked. But which word? Anger? Whose anger would it take? Theirs? Mine? I’m not even sure if I’m angry anymore. I’m just tired of it all.

Exhaustion? Maybe if I wasn’t so worn out from all the tension that seems to seep in through my skin I’d be able to cope. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so helpless.

Helplessness. There’s the key.

The candle waits on the counter, its lilac scent curling through my senses. The flame dances, orange and gold gyrating as one, ready to claim the waiting page, but I hesitate. Am I really helpless still?

I blow out the candle and place the torn page back in the journal.

I’m going to go get Ashby and teach her how to make PB&J.

We’re going to be okay.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Rebecca Birch

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