That bed, that room, or even that house didn’t feel like home, though I’d been there many times before during past summers and long weekends with my parents. The thought of them left a bad taste on my tongue. I swallowed several times, but the bitter taste lingered, growing stronger. I pushed the memory away and stored it in the back of my mind, the place where I locked all of the things that I couldn’t handle and the things that I refused to remember. That was where their memory would have to stay. I couldn't keep thinking about them because then the voice would start, and with the voice would come the visions and the sickness. I sat up in bed and looked around for what seemed like the hundredth time. I knew it was late because it was pitch black outside, but I didn’t look at the clock. I hadn’t slept a full five hours in weeks, and I didn't have anywhere to be in the morning, so time seemed irrelevant. I stayed in this odd fugue state where I was aware of all that was around me, and even more aware that none of it mattered anymore. I floated through the days on autopilot, waiting for a situation where a reaction was expected from me, and remembering the “normal” way to react. Pretending was a chore that I wasn’t sure I could handle much longer. The room was so familiar. I knew it like the back of my hand. Why did it seem a million miles away? Or like a dream? Alex and I had spent plenty of time hanging out and growing up together, discovering who we were and where we wanted to go when we were grown. To us, that meant when we turned eighteen. And now that I’d “grown up,” the disappointment that was my life was more unsettling than anything. The realization of where I was versus where I should have been was a relentless headache I couldn’t remedy. Why did this room seem so cold and alone? A summer escape became a prison, and a constant reminder of a past that I could never return to.
Normally, my father would be down the hall snoring, and my mother would be in the kitchen with Mrs. Carlton giggling over vodka martinis. Alex and I would be watching old reruns of Miami Vice. The memory of my parents crept up my spine and into my heart, causing it to spasm in pain. My lungs felt as though they were filled with water. I gasped for air, trying to catch my breath, wondering if I would always feel the physical pain at the memory of my mother and father, wondering if the pain would be all I would have left of them in the years to come. In my eyes, memories equaled pain.
I stood up and bent over, putting my face into my sweatpants, and tried to take deep breaths. That had always worked when I panicked at summer camp because I was homesick, feeling out of place amongst the kids who didn’t understand why I didn't want to go swimming in the lake or horseback riding, why I wanted to go home instead. My stomach heaved. I regretted skipping dinner. Nothing was worse than dry heaving as my body tried to purge itself.
I was sure that I couldn't throw up memories. Even if I could, I didn't think it would matter; I’d still be full of them. Suddenly, I realized what was happening. I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it, but I didn't want to ride it out for fear that someone would find me passed out in the morning. The usual wave of nausea that came with my hallucinations slithered into my belly. My head felt as if it were on fire, which caused my vision to blur and darken. Everyone thought I was better, that I was cured or close to it. I ran to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face, hoping that I could shock my body into being normal—free from visions and voices. But it was no use.
“Come to me,” the voice whispered, so close to my ear that I whirled around, thinking someone was in the bathroom with me. The voice. I fought the urge to do as it commanded: follow it into the darkness. My tears threatened to explode, but I held them back. I refused to break down at the Carltons’. They weren’t going to send me back to the hospital. The voice and hallucinations weren’t my fault; I couldn’t control them.
My headache still raged, and from experience, I knew it had not yet reached its crescendo. I gripped the porcelain sink and squeezed my eyes shut, praying for the pain to subside. My mother had once said that pain was a gift. It reminded you that you were still alive, and surviving the pain would only make you stronger. Did she feel that way as she lay dying in the wreckage that night? The thought of my parents’ ordeal did not help. I knew that if I had a full on attack, I would be dragged into a hallucination and they’d find me in the morning, unconscious on the floor. That’d earn me a trip right back to Dr. Lithe and Nurse Laura, with her needles and her pills that made you feel nothing and sleep for days.
My hands began to ache from the tight grip I had on the sink. When I removed them, they felt stiff and cold. The voice hadn’t spoken again, but I could hear what sounded like someone scratching at the bathroom door. I froze. I thought to call out and ask who was there, but an intruder wouldn’t announce himself.
Would it be so bad if someone killed me? I was a whack job. I’d flipped out in school when I’d had the vision, the one of my death. They sent me to Ocean Trace to talk to a shrink, and like an idiot, I had confessed my vision to the doctor. A man’s voice demanding that I return to him. My own death. That day I became the fragile girl that everyone was afraid to be around, scared they would set off another episode. Finally, it was decided that I would go to an inpatient care facility for seventy-two hours, which turned into three weeks. That was what happened when you let people in, when you told the truth. It was my fault, and I realized then that keeping my mouth shut and keeping people at a safe distance was for the best.
I shook my head and rotated my shoulders, trying to pull myself from the fog the pain left behind. Acting braver than I truly felt, I decided that if the person who belonged to the voice in my skull was outside that door waiting to kill me, then so be it. I couldn’t live like that anymore. I grabbed the handle, tightened my grip, and wrenched the door open, fully expecting to see a man in a black ski mask with a knife or a gun, but was instead greeted by Max, the Carltons’ pet husky. His big eyes were lined with what seemed to be worry, or maybe just the need to pee. Since my headache was receding and my stomach was no longer rolling, I decided that some fresh, cold air would be good for my nerves.
The Carltons lived in Northern Virginia along the near-dead Elmwood forest. The mountains there were vast. In Virginia Beach, where I’d moved from, the “mountains” were no more than a few rolling hills. The mountains in Cedar Grove were beautiful, but I had no interest in exploring them as I had during summer and winter breaks in the past. Nothing was the same. Everything seemed smaller. The mountain trails and fresh water streams didn't hold the wonder that they once had. It was October and already freezing. I slipped into my coat and the new snow boots the Carltons had bought me before I arrived. I tiptoed down the stairs as quietly as I could, Max following closely. I headed out the front door, nearly tripping as Max bounded out and ran straight to the abandoned shed to the left of the house. As soon as I stepped outside the, cold Northern Virginia wind slapped me in the face, doing just what I hoped it would: waking me up completely.
I looked ahead and saw that Max had made his way to the back of the shed. I prayed he would make his business short so I didn’t freeze to death. The porch light didn't reach beyond the front of the shed, and Max had disappeared behind it. The snow covered half of my boots, and I hadn’t thought to wear gloves. I soon regretted going out with just boots and a coat. I wasn’t in Virginia Beach where we got an inch or two of snow every ten years or so. In the short time I’d been in Northern Virginia, more than four inches of snow had fallen. I waited, and when Max didn't come back, I made my way closer to the shed, calling his name as quietly as I could, but with the cold and my growing annoyance, it was getting harder to care if I woke anyone in the house. I didn’t have to worry about neighbors. The closest ones were about four miles away.
“Max!” I whispered fiercely against the icy wind. I hoped that even though he was a dog, he would hear the displeasure in my voice and comply. The wind moaned quietly, creaking the brittle frozen branches of the trees around me. My snow boots sounded as if they were crunching glass beneath them. Great, he’ll hear me before I get to him, and he’ll run. I had only wanted to get some fresh air, not relocate to the front yard. I walked faster, letting my anger quell the fear I felt creeping along my skin as I neared the shed. It was darker back there because the light from the porch didn’t reach that far. The contrast created an obscure object in front of me. My vision seemed blurred again, and the shed looked like a giant ink spot, dark and ominous. Normally, I would have turned around and gone the other way when my nerves skittered under my skin, but I didn't care anymore. As I neared the blurred ink spot, I almost wished a fox or wolf would be back there to eat me and put me out of my misery. I squashed that thought; the doctor called them “self-destructive thoughts.” I had scoffed at him when he said it, but I wondered why I’d been having so many recently. The thought of something dangerous back there sent a shiver down my spine, and I trembled. I kept walking. It felt right, as if I were meant to be there. I was being pulled closer and closer to something familiar, a feeling that I couldn’t understand.
I heard Max growling before I rounded the corner, but not even that stopped me from moving forward. I understood that something wasn’t right, maybe even dangerous, but my legs wouldn’t comply with fear’s plea to turn and leave. My stomach did a few nervous flips, and my heart raced, leaving me lightheaded and dizzy, but I kept walking. I placed a hand on the side of the shed for balance. I felt as if I were being swallowed by the murky darkness, never to find my way out again. My hands and legs were numbing and stiffening from the freezing cold, but I ignored the pain and continued. It seemed as though I would never reach my destination until, rounding the corner, I heard what sounded like my name being called behind me. My brain wanted to comply and turn around to see who it was; however, my feet had other plans. Max growled again. My heart threatened to beat up into my throat and out of my body. I held onto the shed with frozen fingers, trying not to collapse into the snow. My legs and feet had gone numb, and my head was a balloon slowly floating above me. I heard my name again, but closer. Max finally came around from behind the shed and headed to the voice behind me. As I slowly slid to the frozen ground, I saw he had a red smudge on his gray-black muzzle. Max blurred, and my vision flickered, then went black. I didn’t even feel the snow as I fell face first into it.