I’m not running.
I’m not running…at least, not anymore.
I can still hear her laugh, like the tinkling of crystal bells. Her song still dances through my mind untainted, and her voice is as clear and pure as it was on the day I lost her. Every child I see on the street is her; every giggle makes me turn my head, ready to call out her name. The little boy next door’s smile stirs buried demons within me; it awakens monsters that tear through the crust that has over time come to encase my heart, and with searing claws they rake at my already battered spirit. They moan of dead beasts, long trapped away in the recesses of my mind, and cry out in a bitter agony.
I would sit in my room and stare out the window, watching as children scurried across the pavement. Their happiness churned up discarded memories, and unable to handle the asperity that the sight of them brought upon me, I’d draw the curtains and crank up the volume on the television. I ran. I always ran.
But not anymore.
I sit on the porch and watch as they play. I allow the demons to devour me, and I don’t struggle when a pearly vision bleeds into my mind. A lone swing creaks in the sweet-smelling wind. Little blue shoes with the buckles undone rest in the dirt by the tree. A distant call, a mother’s song, brushes the warm air. Then I hear a string of laughter, her laughter. I smile and push aside the branches of a bush. She’s there, where I knew she’d be, her hair snagged with crumbling, brown leaves. “Found you!” I say.
She sticks out her tongue, stained green by the popsicle she just ate, and leaps from the brambles. “You’ll never catch me alive!”
A laugh escapes from between my teeth as I watch her bolt for the house, and I see my mother standing in the back doorway, her hands planted on her hips. She yells at me for playing in the dirt, and scorns my unkempt hair. “Get in for dinner!” she says.
I pick up the blue shoes left behind in the shade and dump out the wood chips. I hear her voice again, coming from the house. She reminds me that I still haven’t caught her, and that she won’t let me rest until I do. A smile peaks on my lips as I start after her. In this moment, everything is perfect.
Nothing ever stays perfect.
The fingers of my memory creep across the scene, and now I’m in a church. She sits beside me in the pew, her black-stockinged legs kicking at the kneeler in front of us. Her gray, cotton dress is ruffled up to her hip, and her braid has fallen apart in ribbons of frizzy hair. She looks at me with solemn eyes, and asks, “Why’re they putting Mommy in that box?”
Tears tug at the corners of my eyes, and a lump nestles in my throat. I want to stay strong for her; I want to show her that I’m brave, but I feel limp. I look away, my eyes losing their focus as I stare ahead at the droning priest at the altar. I tell her the same thing I told her ten times before. “Mommy’s dead.”
The air is stale and thick with incense, and the smoke from the candles burns my eyes. I don’t look at her reaction. I don’t offer her a comforting arm. I’m a cold statue, stony in body and mind.
“She’s not dead,” she says to me, grabbing my sleeve. “She wants to get out, she doesn’t like it in there. It’s too dark.”
My eyes well up with tears, but my cheeks remain dry. “No,” I say. “She’s dead.”
Her voice turns sour. “No! Can’t you hear her? She wants to get out!”
I pull my arm away and grab her wrist. “She’s dead, and she’s not coming back!”
My voice rings through the church, and the pensive faces of chromatic saints look down on me with judging, glass eyes. The mourners pause in their sniffling to look at me in pity, and I know what they’re thinking. Those poor children, scarred forever. Forced to live with a mother who didn’t care, a mother who didn’t bat an eyelash before she tightened the rope.
Now she’s crying, and I can’t bare to look at her anymore. I leave her in the pew, and whisk up the middle of the aisle. Her cry reverberates in my ears, but I don’t look back. I run.
They said we’d be happy with the old couple across the country. They said we were distantly related, and that they were eager to have us. And that might’ve been so, we might’ve truly been happy there…but we never got the chance to find out.
I wake up to her screams from the bed beside mine. She flails under the thin sheets, writhing back and forth frantically. I switch on the lamp by my bed and rush to her side, peeling away the sheets tangled in her legs. She looks up at me with red eyes and a nose slick with tears. I grab her shaking arms gently, and say, “Shh, shh…it’s all right. The nightmare’s over.”
She shakes her head, and her forehead creases. “It’s not.” Her voice is clear and mature, and I’m taken aback by her forwardness. “I am so sorry,” she whispers. “It’s not your fault. I know you think it is, but it’s not. I love you.”
I don’t know what to say, and I pull away from her. I realize now that my fingers are trembling, and I tuck them under my arms. “What are you saying?” I ask.
She remains lying, but props her head up on the pillow. “I’m sorry,” she says again, and her voice quavers. “You two don’t deserve this. But I’m scared. It’s so cold.”
I’m terrified now, and I jump to my feet. The aged floorboards of the house groan as I step back on them. “I don’t understand,” I say. “What-”
“Good night.” Then she rolls over, facing her back to me, and pulls the sheets up and over her head.
My last memory of her is her laugh.
She trails after me on the way to school, stepping on the curb one foot at a time like a gymnast on a balance beam. She doesn’t seem to remember the night before, and she jabbers on about her crabby teacher like nothing had ever happened.
I begin to cross the bridge that hangs over the river, but I stop when I see that she’s not following. “Hurry up,” I say.
Her face goes ashen, paler than the moon. She whispers to herself. “No, don’t make me.”
“We’re going to be late,” I say. “I don’t have time for this.”
Her expression switches, and her feet jerk towards the bridge. “Yes, free me! I can’t stand it any longer!” She starts to run towards me, but halts a few feet before me. “No, I don’t wanna! I’m scared!”
Annoyed, I grab her wrist. “Let’s go. School is just around the corner.”
But she jerks away from me, and grabs the bridge railing. “I tried!” she cries, her eyes brimming with tears. “I tried, but I just can’t! I’m hurting!”
“Where are you hurting?” I ask, but she shies away from my hand.
Her eyes go wide like disks, and her eyebrows arch up. “I know,” she breathes. “That does hurt…”
I’m scared now, and I look around wildly, trying to see if she’s talking to anyone. But we’re alone on a rickety bridge, with nothing but the surging creek below us and the golden leaved trees framing the sky.
I look back at her, and my heart leaps into my mouth. She’s under the railing, and hanging off the bridge. I see her blue shoes slip on the ridge, and I lunge forward to grab her. “No!”
She looks at me with shining eyes, and the tears are gone. “Don’t you see? She’s hurting. It’s dark and cold there, and she wants to be free.”
“Who?” My voice is shrill, and I grab at her arm. “Who is she?”
She flutters her eyelids, and laughs blithely. “Mommy.”
Then she jumps.
And my grip slips.
And she’s gone.
I open my eyes, and the little boy from next door is standing on my porch. He grins at me, his freckles stretching across his cheeks, and says, “I’ve never seen you before!”
His eyes are an eggshell blue, just like hers. A stabbing ache roots itself in my stomach, but I ignore it. I’m not sure what to say.
“My mom says you’re a grouchy, old i…intro…introvert!” He struggles over the last word, but seems very pleased with himself when he gets it out.
I can feel the demons shrinking away, and my heart lightens. For so long I have shut away my memories; for so long I have ignored the guilt suspended in my mind. I would drown out her ghostly laugh with pointless tasks, and I wasted away my life without giving each passing day a second thought. And now…I am free. I remember, and my memories are raw and cruel, and they gnaw at my spirit like a voracious beast…but at least I have come to terms with them. At least now I can breathe.
I am seventy-five years old. I have seen hell. And I have survived.
I smile at the boy, and the more I look at him the more his elated grin reminds me of hers.
And it makes me happy.
I excavated this story from the disorderly abyss that is my documents folder. It was a for-fun-thing I did last year, and boy, was it unedited… I was almost afraid to touch it for fear of it shattering beneath my cursor, but I think it came out ok in the end.