I was no more than seven, lying in the grass away from my unit and the camp counselor. I wasn’t hiding, I just didn’t want to talk to anyone.
Suddenly a silhouette cut into my view of the sky.
“Are you with them?” he asked, head inclining toward the playground below. I nodded.
“So why be up here?”
I shrugged. He sat down next to me. I should have called out or run — this was the era of ‘stranger danger,’ after all — but I didn’t. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt and he had overgrown dark hair that fell in his face. He looked kind of like kidnappers on TV, but I didn’t feel threatened by him.
“You’re different,” he said finally. It sounded more like a statement than a question, so I didn’t respond. He wasn’t looking at me anyway, he was staring far off at the trees.
“You’re too young, really. But someone should, and it might as well be me.”
Then his hand was on my face and it went dark before I could scream.
09 (It’s Always October)
I’m nine, and I’m at an amusement park near my house. It’s gotten dark and I know this ride will be the last one of the night, but there’s hardly any line for the ferris wheel and I run up. My sister is crying and tired, the timing is perfect, and I grew three inches this year, just barely scraping the You Must Be This Tall sign. I get to ride by myself.
Little colored lights dot the sides of the wheel, and I’d swear the stars are almost as bright, almost as close. We go around once, twice, three times, and I think that if I jumped out, I would fly.
I don’t jump out.
I sit there as the wheel stops, me at the pinnacle in my empty car, swinging gently in the breeze. The park below me is lit up like a fairyland and I think that if I could just find the right direction to wander off in, the right angle, I could be lost forever. I tried all day, though, and never found that angle, no matter how many times I devised excuses to slip away from my parents.
Though, speaking of excuses… when I get off the ferris wheel, my parents are nowhere to be found. I know, I know I should stay there and wait for them to turn up. I know all about stranger danger. But I also know the park doesn’t close for another hour even if they want us to leave now. And they’re not here.
So I’m gone, looking for one more ride on the Viking ship that makes me weightless at the highest point, and the spinning room that holds me against the wall with no floor, and the biggest roller coaster I can ride without an adult. I keep going deeper into the park. The crowds are getting thinner and the night is getting darker, if that’s possible. All at once I realize there’s no one else around. I should go find my parents. I’m going to be in so much trouble.
The man in the top hat is waiting outside the dark ride. He waves me in.
One more ride can’t hurt, I tell myself.
I wake up in the car, the only sparkling lights coming from the occasional oncoming traffic. It’s pouring rain and my dad is assuring my mom that we’re almost home. I could say something, but they’re both focused on the road and my sister is asleep beside me. I close my eyes again. I want to go back.
12 (How to Return Home)
I woke up in the woods, on my back at the foot of a tree. I couldn’t breathe, gasping and hacking until I managed to get enough air out of my lungs to start gasping it in again. I rolled over onto my stomach, pushed myself up by my hands, and promptly threw up. I sat back, leaning against the tree, and waited for the world to slide back into place.
It wouldn’t quite go in. There was no memory of how I’d gotten there or what had happened. Maybe I’d fallen from the tree? I had memories of climbing the tree- they weren’t quite immediate, but if I intentionally thought hard, they came up. Okay, so I’d fallen and passed out briefly. I knocked the wind out of myself, and that was jarring enough that I threw up. Fine, that made sense.
It took me a long time to come up with my name. These were the woods by my house. I liked to play in the woods. Play? Yes, play. I was twelve, and just because the kids at school liked to act so grown up didn’t mean I was too old to play.
Why did twelve sound so young to me?
I stood up, stepping carefully around the vomit, and looked around the woods. It was just trees, meaningless at first, but finally my memory offered up the path home. It wasn’t far. There was a road, just barely out of sight, and it led straight past my house if I just walked downhill. I could do that, no problem.
My chest still ached and my back hurt but I could walk. I crashed through the fern-filled undergrowth, feeling like there should be a more elegant path but not patient enough to find it. I found the road easily enough, though, and somehow I recognized the house when I came to it as well.
The evening was still warm with summer heat, even though the sun was starting to disappear behind the treeline. It was humid and it smelled like rain, but I didn’t see many clouds in the sky. I waited outside the house, studying it and the backdrop behind it. I knew it was a perfectly normal-looking house, yard, sky… but on some level I thought it felt strange, too.
I stood there until a woman opened the front door and looked out. “You’re just in time for dinner,” she told me, holding the door open in invitation. After a moment the pieces slid into place and I recognized her as my mother. I followed the call, hurrying to get inside as she stepped past me and yelled for someone else. Sister, came the connection to the name. And the man ahead of me, sitting on the couch, that was my father.
There was a sense of deja vu in the front hallway as I walked in. I swallowed hard. Memories rushed forward, of sliding down the bannister, of leaving a trail of snow on the linoleum, of rollerskates and dolls and backpacks. Christmasses. Halloweens. Family picnics. None of them felt like me, but I embraced them as much as I could.
It was a pretty good life, all things considered. Stable family. Decent school. Good grades. Heat and food and hand-me-downs that weren’t too old. I felt like I should be taking it for granted, but I didn’t quite want to. Not yet, even if I was trying to be the daughter.
And I needed to be that right then, because the woman, the mother, was back and she was smiling at me.
“If your sister’s not back in five minutes she can have leftovers,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “I’m about to order Chinese. You want your usual?”
“Yeah, Mom,” I agreed, not trusting myself to say more than I have to. ‘Mom’ felt strange on my tongue, and I wondered that I have one at all. This was almost easy. I could do this.
To get to the stairs I had to get through the large living room, past the overstuffed couch and the television, and the father sitting there watching. He wasn’t watching the TV, though – he was watching me. He nodded and made a gruff noise, one I wasn’t sure how to interpret.
“I thought you were someone else for a minute,” he said, not quite making eye contact with me.
“Sorry,” I answered, because it was the only word I could find that made even the remotest sense. He tilted his head, more curious, and I decided to worry about him later. I hurried upstairs instead, wanting to catch my breath. This was suddenly worse than gasping on the forest floor. There was just too much.
There was a door I knew was my door, and a room I knew too. The walls were pale blue, the furniture old but not beaten too badly. It’s not quite anything I would have recognized as mine but I still knew it is. This room was safety.
I sat down on the bed and wondered how the hell I was going to do this. It seemed so easy when I first stood up. Everything just slipped quietly into place. But suddenly there were so many memories, crashing one after another against me, and I felt myself being pulled down by the riptide. I wondered if I could ever believe they were my own, that this was my family. And if I did come to believe it, what then?
The memory that I should be somewhere else, should be someone else, slipped away like quicksilver. I grabbed at it, panicking. I didn’t want to lose that, and it seemed vitally important. There was more to that memory, something that I have to tease out. What I was.
I knew there was a journal in the desk drawer. I pulled it out, flipping to the last filled pages. I scribbled down what little I remembered, and then waking up under the tree. I finished it with a note to myself.
You are not yourself. Remember that.
“Dinner’s here!” my sister yelled up the stairs. “Hurry up.” I looked up and it was like finally settling to the bottom of the ocean. The awareness of myself flowed out and was gone.
I closed the book and went downstairs to have dinner with my family.
15 (Kicked Out)
“What? Who’re you?” Confused as I was, I didn’t even remember that I’d locked the bathroom door. There was no way the person staring at me could have gotten in.
“You may call me Sariel.”
“Why are you here? What are you doing? Get out of my bathroom! Don’t try to stop me!” I pulled myself up on the edge of the bathtub, my arms shaking.
“Oh, don’t bother.” Sariel’s voice spat at me. I tried to stand up to the stranger but found I couldn’t move my legs properly.
Sariel stood over me, looking down with disgust. “You’re lucky to be getting some personal attention. I’m an angel of death, you know. Something between an angel and a demon, depending on your point of view. Right soon I suppose you’ll be cursing me for a demon.” Sariel must have noticed my lolling head and known I wasn’t listening anyway. She began to haul me out of the bathtub and onto the floor.
“Usually I see to the destruction of worlds,” Sariel continued, sounding more annoyed than hopeful that any of it might sink in. She turned me around on the steel-grey tiled floor. “Help them to go quietly into that good night, as it were. Sometimes it’s just people.” I smiled at that, thinking it must be the end. I guess Sariel realized what I was thinking; she dropped me unceremoniously over the toilet.
“And sometimes I have to keep people out.” Sariel hunched over me and pressed fingers into my mouth and down my throat. I gagged a few times, then felt the rising sensation in my throat.
Once I was safely vomiting, Sariel unlocked the door and vanished in a flutter of black feathers.
It’s Sunday night and I’m sixteen. I’m walking home in the warm autumn, enjoying the delicate balance of stars and chilly breezes. It’s late, late enough that I should feel bad on a school night, late enough that I’m walking because the public transport isn’t running, late enough that someone’s got to be waiting up at home to unlock the door and give me a dirty look.
I’m walking past a bench and I’m singing, because I like singing, because I’m just a little bit drunk, and the girl sitting there smiles at me. She’s older than me, probably in college. There’s a college right down the block.
She says hello.
I smile back because she’s hot and after a minute I realize I know her from… somewhere. I’m pretty sure I should know where. I guess I’m too drunk to remember, which is far more drunk than I thought I was. She shakes her head.
“It’s been a while.”
“It has,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say. She stands up. She’s very tall, and the sensation of looking up at her is familiar. Very familiar.
“Moth.” It’s an old nickname. An old nickname from an old friend.
And I just stared at her stupidly, because what do you say to an imaginary friend who’s turned up out of the blue years on down the line?
“Well?” she says finally. It must have gotten colder out here in the last five minutes, because I realize I’m shivering.
“I… don’t know what to say, Thena. You’re… I mean… I must be really drunk.” She looked hurt.
“I told you I’d come back.” Her voice wasn’t much more than a whisper. “I promised.”
The memories were vague and dusty, but yes, they were there. “You promised. You promised and you left me.”
“I had to.”
“It’s been seven years.”
“Moth, please, don’t be mad. I wish there’d been another way.”
I look at the ground because the stars in her eyes are going out and it hurts to look at. “I don’t believe in you anymore, Thena.”
There’s a choked sound, like a sob, and I wait for her to argue with me, but the words don’t come. When I look up, the street is empty. The night is freezing cold suddenly, and the sky is clouded over. There are no more stars.
I hurry home.
18 (Into that Good Night)
“Don’t get old,” I remember my grandma telling me when I was in high school. I promised her I wouldn’t. She was having knee trouble again, or maybe back trouble, or something else — they all blurred together and I just nodded and made sympathetic noises when she tells me. I was actually lucky enough to have all four grandparents when I was growing up, and when I was young they were all healthy. Now it feels like an odd mark of adulthood to watch them slowly fall apart.
It’s a week before Christmas and I’m home from college with nothing better to do than go Christmas shopping with my mom. On the ride home, she asks if I want to go to the home with her on Christmas Eve. I’m waffling because I really don’t want to — the place smells like desperation, loneliness, and steamed carrots, and I always want to throw up when I’m there. grandma, my mother’s mother, hasn’t recognized me since I was in high school anyway. But my dad and my sister never go, so I probably will in the end.
That evening, as I’m in my room reading, I can hear my mom on the phone in the kitchen. She’s talking to someone at the nursing home, asking what time would be most convenient for a visit, whether the nurses would like chocolates. I don’t hear the answers, but I can hear the strain in her voice. She’s been driving up there almost every weekend for over a year now, and I know it gets worse every time. We used to be able to take her out for lunch or a little shopping, but not anymore.
I can’t get over how tired my mom sounds.
I wish I could do something, and my mom always tells me that when you don’t think you can do anything, you should pray. So I turn out the lights and shove half the stuff off my desk and light a candle, carefully, since my dad put in smoke detectors after the fire. I murmur my way through an Our Father and bite my lip and look up at the crucifix that’s been hanging in my room as long as I can remember.
“Please, God? Don’t make her suffer anymore?”
But there’s nothing, no feeling at all, and really there hasn’t been in years, but I was raised Catholic and I still feel the need to give Jesus first dibs on helping me. You know, if He wanted to. Which He clearly doesn’t.
Well, fine, if He wants to be that way… I’ve been wandering in a pagan-ish direction for years now, and I’m not above asking a favor from some other god. I’d just finished a class in middle eastern myth. My copy of Descent of Inanna is still on my desk, the original journey into the afterlife to see the goddess of death. I’d known the story for years, but never really studied it before.
“Ereshkigal?” I whisper, staring at the candle. “Lady Death?” And there’s that certain feeling, the one I don’t get anymore at St Joseph’s. The one where it feels like someone is actually listening to me.
“My grandmother is really sick. I mean, really sick, she can’t really walk much and she doesn’t remember anybody and all of that. She’s been like this for a while. She’s not going to get better. And I just don’t want her to suffer anymore, you know? So could you… I mean, if she’s done everything she needs to, if she’s finished, because I really think she is… could you… release her?” I put the candle out with my fingers, trying not to flinch away from the flame. I don’t know why, it just feels right. Extinguishing. Ereshkigal’s the sort of goddess who’s all smoke and dust in the story, and even the greatest goddess goes before her naked and cold.
I hear something like whispers, and the shadows in my room are long. The only light now is the harsh winter sunset through my window. I’m still sitting on the floor like that when the phone rings.
I hear my mom answer, and I hear her voice get cold. “Tonight. Yes. I’ll be there soon.”
She comes into my room a few minutes later, knocking but not waiting. “That was the nursing home. Your grandmother just took a turn for the worse, they don’t expect her to make it through the night. Do you want to come?”
I stare at her.
I don’t have words.
“You don’t have to,” she says, but whatever I felt when I was praying is still here, and I do have to. I try not to hear the relief in my mom’s voice when she tells me to be ready to go in twenty minutes. I also try not to feel guilty. After all, people don’t really take “turns for the worst” that quickly, right?
There’s a feeling of bristling in the back of my head.
Okay, yeah, I guess it’s rude to ask for a miracle and then try to explain it away. I apologize under my breath as I pull on my jacket.
The drive is over an hour and the car never quite warms up. My mom stops twice for coffee, once to pick up the chocolates and a tin of popcorn for the nurses.
The nursing home is dark and quiet and still smells like strained carrots when we get there. I do my best not to retch. I’ve never been here at night before, and it’s almost eerie, the sound of so many people sleeping in unison. When we get to her room, my grandmother is plugged in to several things. The nurse says something about morphine and breathing and making her comfortable, and my mom thanks her and gives her the chocolate and the tin.
Mom sits next to her, and I find a stool at the foot of the bed before the nurse can offer to bring me a chair. The nurse steps out, saying we should call if we need her. grandma’s eyes are blinking weakly, I guess we made too much noise, and she mumbles something to my mom.
I don’t think Mom heard her either, but she takes her hand and whispers to her. I swallow hard and force myself not to cry.
We sit like that for an hour before my mom has to go to the bathroom, for a walk, something to stretch her legs. She says she’ll be back in a minute.
I move over to her chair. My grandmother seems to have fallen back asleep and I touch her hand lightly. She looks so frail I almost think I could tear the skin if I was too rough. I feel like I need to say something. I think about the quilts she made me, and the stories Mom told me about how she used to golf and bowl and hunt rattlesnakes, and the stories grandma herself told me about the depression and the war, about Christmas Eve dinners at her house with my mother’s family. She used to sit with me and we’d go through old family pictures and she’d tell me who all the people were.
I say thank you, and I love you.
And then, not sure why, I say, “You’re finished now. It’s okay.”
Mom comes back then, and I move away. I don’t hold her hand when she dies, or anything that dramatic. I’m actually glad for that. During the long, cold ride home, my mom doesn’t say much. She settles on the only radio station not playing carols, a country station, but during the first chorus about “saying goodbye” she flips it without looking. Even the millionth chorus of the Chipmunks singing about their hula-hoop is better than that, apparently.
When we get home, she thanks me for coming, and hugs me a little longer than usual, and goes upstairs to bed. I’m left wondering if I should feel guilty, or relieved, or thankful, and end up feeling nothing at all. But I leave the TV on all night, letting reruns on Nick at Night keep me company until dawn. When I finally turn it off, there’s enough sunlight in my room that I can see clearly the candle on my desk.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
Finally, I fall asleep.