SHORT STORY: RELEASE

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE
Release
My mother’s search for death has destroyed our house. Clothing is strewn across all available floor, each surface covered in dishes that appear to be growing life. I navigate my way to the stairs. Lady, Mum’s cat, is sprawled across the bottom step. She is thin; I wonder when she was last fed. I’m certain her survival is dependent on whatever she finds scurrying outside, and I wonder why she chooses to return. There is little for her here, without mum.
            As children, Dad would occasionally take Poppy and I (before Lu arrived) to McDonalds as a treat. Though, like all children, we craved fast food, Poppy and I also loved ‘Coin Clowns’. You remember ‘Coin Clowns’? You insert a coin, and it spins continuously, the spiral tightening toward a small hole, through which the coin proceeds to fall. Well, now I am ‘Coin Clown’, and each obsessive thought of mine is a coin. But there is no hole. The thought is inserted and spinning, but the spiral tightens infinitely. Lady might never be with my mother again.
            I stumble to the kitchen, a lump nestles in my throat. Lady follows, wailing.
            “Be quiet, Lady,” I sigh. “Please”.
I hear footsteps; Lu, my sister, is behind me. Her sleepless eyes study me, worriedly.
            “Alex,” her voice is soft. “It isn’t Lady’s fault.” She’s right. I brush past Lu and place leftover chicken on a plate. Lady’s crusted eyes follow my hand as I place it on the floor, scratching between her ears.
            “Sorry, Lady,” I whisper. She purrs in forgiveness. I turn, and Lu is gone.
            Alone in a room fit for five, I feel suffocated by space. It’s Monday, about eight. I should be making breakfast, while Poppy and Lu fight for bathroom rights; our father invested in a crossword puzzle, our mother in a novel. Instead, I make my way to an empty bread bin atop a countertop laden with knives smeared in butter and half-eaten dinners. Beside the bread bin is a calendar marked June, my mother’s handwriting drawled across a number of dates. It is now August, but, if I let my gaze linger for a moment, it can be June; summer’s arrival and not its end.
*****
            Mum is reading, nibbling small hoops extracted from a cereal box.
            “May, are you a child?” Dad mocks.
            “What?” Mum is startled, eyes shifting between Dad and her novel.        
            “Dry cereal?” Dad points to the hoop in her hand.
            “Oh,” Mum sighs. “I didn’t notice.”
            Dad cocks his head, but Mum places the book on the table, and moves to find a bowl.
            “I must be hungry,” she smiles, brushing my shoulder.
            Dad shakes his head as she pours milk into a bowl. We are both blissfully unaware.
*****
            Breakfast holds little appeal, so I navigate my way back to my room, Lady trailing behind. It  is sparse, a little reminiscent of a hospital room: vacant, white and desolate. Beside my double bed is a desk, atop of which sits my laptop, a handful of my favourite novels, and now Lady. She jumps to my feet, revealing a copy of Great Expectations underneath her. Mum’s copy. I place the bowl down, and open it, running a finger along her scribbles. Mum scrawled notes in almost every book – a habit from her days at university. Something she will likely never do again.
            With little warning, Dad opens my door.
             “Uniform,” he grunts, by way of acknowledgement. He scatters a creased uniform onto my floor.
            I look, vacantly, at the uniform on my floor, and think of its purchase, loaded with clues missed by a tormented child, and an ignorant father.
*****
            “Pick a goddamn shirt, Alex,” Dad mutters.
I’m trying.
            “Short sleeve. No, long,” I pick long sleeve. But slim fit, or skinny? Non-iron or easy to iron? I scratch an open sore on my thumb, my head pounds. I look to Mum for guidance, but she is, too, lost in thought. I pick long sleeve, skinny fit. I put it back – it might be too tight.
            “We do not have time for you to be a freaktoday,” Dad asserts. He takes the long sleeve, skinny fit, and presses it forcefully to my chest. “This will do.” I blink, hands at my sides, Dad still pressing my chest. “Take the damn shirt, Alex.”
            Once more, I look at Mum, and she turns to face me. But she does not see me, but appears to, instead, see through me. Her look is vacant, empty. I take the shirt. 
*****
            I am losing my mind, trapped by the weight of existence. Mum’s note is dust, but that sentence lingers in my blackened subconscious. I see it in that vacant stare, in the empty frown. A prison of her own making. An entrapment beyond my father, beyond her children. Trapped by the weight of existence.
*****
            I dress, and walk to school with my sisters. Poppy and I are silent, but Lu is restless in the unfamiliar quiet.
            “Will we have takeout tonight?” she asks. We don’t answer. “Or fajitas? I think we have chicken.” Still no answer, and her curious eyes follow our saddened expressions. Then, “Is mum going to die?”
            Poppy drops her bag, dust circling at her ankles, and stands firmly in front of Lu. In the rising sun, Lu’s auburn curls glisten. It reminds me of Mum. I watch as Poppy moves to her knees. The gravel causes her to grimace, but she raises her eyes to Lu, and forces a smile.
            “No.”
            “Poppy,” I warn. Poppy turns to me. Her eyes, like Lu’s hair, glisten, wet with burgeoning tears. A gaze once feisty and familiar, feels alien, distant. “You don’t know–”
            “She is not going to die.” Poppy heaves her bag onto her shoulder, folding at the weight.
            “Let me carry it,” I offer my arm.
            “Thanks,” she hands it to me, though still appears folded. Her sorrow is a weight that I cannot lift. I have my own to carry.
            Our campus is different. Or perhaps I’m different. People mingle; they howl, shriek, kiss. But I stand, momentarily motionless, feeling gripped by fear. If I embrace normalcy, will I betray my mother? If I let my guard down, if I smile, am I a terrible son?
Lu dawdles to her friends at the entrance to our on campus primary school, and Poppy turns to receive her bag.
                        “Pop,” I hold her arm gently. “She –”
                        “Alex,” though she holds my gaze, her voice wavers. “Mum is not going to die.”
I rub my temples, and when I remove my hand, Poppy has whisked away, her unkempt curls falling over her shoulder.
            I follow, moving through crowds towards my locker. I feel a hand on my shoulder.
            “Kim K, Zendaya, and… Spencer,” Max yells, over the hum of conversation. Warmth spreads through me. Max arrived in January, a child of a nomadic soldier. We were asked to compare results of an experiment in Chemistry, and he referenced Spiderman in a conversation; it was an instantaneous friendship. It became a habit of his to start our conversations this way: three names, with the expectation that from each three, I choose one to screw, one to marry, and one to kill.
            “Spencer?” I repeat. “Miss. Spencer, my Geography teacher?”
            “She’s cute, and clever. And I like dimples.”  
            My lack of dimples is a sudden frustration.
            “Ok,” I smile indulgently, opening my locker. “Screw Kim K, kill Spencer, marry Zendaya.”
            “Wrong,” Max replies.
            “It’s a game relative to my interests. I can’t be wrong.” I have, however, yet to be interested in any name mentioned thus far in our friendship.  
            I deposit my bag into my locker, and slide the relevant books into the crook of my arm. Guilt entraps me. My mother is dying, and I am, if only for an instant, warm, comforted. I am a terrible son. I shut my locker to find Max studying my movements, his smile drained of comfort, his look tense.
            “I’m sorry,” he mumbles. I shrug.
            “No, I’m sorry that I wasn’t here,” he clarifies.
            Oh. A lump gathers in my throat. His hand sits at his hip, empty, open. I want to take it, but I won’t. He starts to fidget.
            “Not your fault,” I say. His shoulders drop, and his smile returns, gentle and inviting.  
            “Class?” I motion to the door to our Chemistry class, and we walk side by side.
            I shuffle into the small room, Max trailing behind. I am unprepared for the whispers, the stares. I bow my head and sit, Max beside me. People continue to whisper, continue to stare. I feel the sweat build on my palms.
            “Is she… alright?” Ailsa, an old friend, whispers behind me.
            “Coma,” I shrug.
            “Satisfied?” Max growls.
            “Max, it’s alright,” I add, as Ailsa returns to her conversation, hurt. “She knew Mum.”
            “Sorry, I…” he stops. “Knew? Alex, she isn’t dead.”
            “She will be.” I can feel a familiar churn in my stomach; a recurring throb in my temple. I open my textbook.
            “Dude,” Max’s hand rests on my arm. “You okay?”
            A door has opened that I, nor the comfort of Max’s touch, can close. I glance at my textbook, and I cannot see equations, or graphs. What I see are words that I cannot forget; words that caused the beginning of the end.
*****
            I am in my kitchen, with her note in my hand. I sink to the floor. I am losing my mind, trapped by the weight of existence. Dad is tearing it from my hand, scanning, muttering.
            “…Let me rest in open waters,” he concludes.
            “The sea,” Poppy mumbles.
            “When did she leave?” Dad cries.
            “Not long –” I start, but Dad disappears, dropping the note. I follow, the wet gravel bruising my bare feet. It is late, the promenade quiet, the only sound our breathing, and the lapping waves. When we turn this corner, if we are not too late, we will see her. I run faster, I overtake Dad and turn. Nothing.
            I stop but Dad continues, barrelling onto the small, secluded beach and into the water. He is under, and then resurfaces; under again, and sirens approach. Then he resurfaces, and he is holding something. It might be Mum, but it is grey, and wet, and large. My stomach tightens as he lays her on the beach. Paramedics rush past; I am kneeling on the ground and Dad is gripping my shoulder as they supply her with oxygen.
            “Come with us,” a Paramedic beckons to my father.
            “Go home. Take care of your sisters,” Dad calls, the ambulance door closing.
            I am kneeling on the ground, and I am alone.
*****
            I return to my classroom; return to stares and whispers. I stare vacantly at the textbook in my hand, now ripped apart. Max is still gripping my arm, concern turning to fright. He is frightened of me; I am frightened of me. The spiral is tight, my breath quick, and I need to leave. I rush out to the corridor, and leap toward the bathroom. I close the door to a stall in an empty toilet, and collapse like a wounded giraffe, my legs awkwardly contorted on the stall floor. My head falls limp in the toilet bowl, and I vomit, continuously, until I can do little but retch – the acidic bile tearing at my throat – and weep.  
            Suddenly, the stall darkens, and panic approaches. I can hear the voice of my mother; I can hear her calling me her “little darling”. I feel her hand on my shoulder, and I touch it, gingerly. I turn, and she smiles. She kneels, eyes level with my own, and I grip her hand. The temperature plummets. Spiders gather on my spine, and I shiver, pleading with my mother to help me, but she grips tighter. I pull back, but to no avail. Her eyes darken, and her smile fades. She convulses, and loses colour; water trickles from one nostril. I throw my weight into each pull. Water now pours from each nostril, her ears, and her mouth. It gathers in my hair, on my hands, on my chest. I throw my weight into one final pull, my chest tight, and my hand is released.
            The spectre disappears, but I am caked in sweat, and my chest grows tighter. She is trapped inside. I need to let her out. I unbutton my shirt and start to scratch; to pull the weight of my mother, the weight of sorrow, out. I break skin, specks of blood appearing across my chest and skin settling underneath my fingernails.
            A hand rests on my shoulder, and I shoot to the corner of the stall, blinking upwards: a frightened new-born meeting its first face. Max observes me with a worried expression – not fright, worry. The panic eases. But then I see flecks of skin underneath my fingernails, and a white shirt speckled with red. The smell of vomit pervades my nostrils, and I long for panic to numb the remnants of my attack. But I am here, now, in a bathroom stall, begging Max to help me.
            “I need to take you to the nurse, Alex.” He extends a hand to me. I remember my drowning mother’s spectral grip, and move further into the corner. “Alex, please,” he pleads, crouching to meet my gaze, “I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
            I put forward a trembling hand. Gently, he peels me from the floor. I am limp, but he holds my weight – one arm around my waist, mine around his shoulder – and we stagger to the nurse’s office.
*****
            “Alex, we’re late,” Dad calls.
            I deliberately slow my movement as I walk, and my father sighs. I should welcome therapy. Perhaps, if my mother had sought help, she may not have sought death. Yet, I feel cautious, frightened. I had a preliminary assessment last week, following my attack. I was dissected, piece by piece; asked subtle questions in reference to my “current trauma”,  or in response to what my father labelled “obsessive tendencies”. I was on trial; all of my behaviours laid out as evidence for examination. Alex, we find you guilty of madness, and sentence you to weeks of intensive therapy.
            Dad ushers me into the car, brow furrowed. Shortly before Mum’s attempted suicide, at parents’ evening, it was implied that therapy may benefit me.
            “My son is not weak. He does not need therapy,” Dad had replied.
            My mother was there, and I wonder if Dad is aware of that memory, if it saddens him, for he readily agreed to my attending therapy when it was proffered by my nurse.
            “Max is….” Dad interrupts what I hoped would be a silent car journey.
            “Yes?” I ask.
            “He is… nice.” Max had arrived at my doorstep the evening following my attack. He did not comment on our chaotic household. He simply sat beside me on my bed, and watched all of Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman films, and then left. An acceptable end, to a terrible day. Dad, however, seemed odd, constantly entering my room unannounced with a range of excuses, and frowning in a manner that I believe he considered vague, but was obvious.
            “He is nice,” I repeat, with the certainty my father lacked.
            “He’s very… sensitive.”
            I frown. “What?”
            “You both are. It’s…”
            “Dad, stop hesitating. What are you trying to say?”
            “I just think that, you know, it wouldn’t hurt to watch a little football every now and then. Surely you’ve watched a little too much Spiderman by now.”
            “Dad, you know I hate football.” Even as a kid, much to my father’s dismay, I have hated both playing and watching football.
            “You’re a lad, Alex. You can’t hate football.” Here we go. “You have to like it a little bit?”
            “I…” it is my turn to hesitate. I feel exposed, and we haven’t even reached the clinic. My masculinity is my father’s subject of examination, and I can’t take it. Not now. Not when I know I am approaching an hour of talking to a stranger about my “obsessive tendencies.”
            “Stop the car,” I say.
            “Alex, I only have to turn –”
            “Please.”
            Dad is a little confused, but he stops the car, and I get out, slamming the door in the middle of his goodbye.
*****
            “How are you today, Alex?” I sit, cross legged, in a small, bright room. A woman is talking to me. Her hair is a vibrant shade of purple, and her voice is quiet. She suggested we sit on the floor, and I hate it. I feel like a child; a very overexposed child. A pen is poised over a notebook, ready to scribble what I reply.
            “My name is Eloise.” She does not look like an Eloise. I tell her this. “What do I look like?” she inquires. I shrug. She glances at her notebook. “Did you visit your mother today?” she asks.
            “We visit every day.”
            “Any news?” She appears sincere.
            “No.”
            Tubes feed into my mother. When we visit, Lu and Poppy run combs through her hair and read sections of her favourite novels aloud. I sit in silence. Lu might sit on my knee, rest her head on my shoulder, but Poppy is distant. I think she is frightened by my hopelessness.
            “How are your siblings coping?” Eloise asks. I question, inwardly, whether I voiced my previous thought aloud. “Has your relationship been altered?” I roll my eyes. “Alex, this won’t work if you don’t talk to me.”
            I sigh, admitting defeat. “My mum is going to die,” I murmur. “And yet my family are convinced otherwise. It’s… exhausting.”
            Eloise does not react. “Maybe your mother will recover.”
            “A woman that has not taken a solitary breath without assistance in two months?” I raise my eyebrows.
            “Hope isn’t a crime, Alex.”
            “No, but hope raises expectations. I want to be ready for collapse.”
            “But collapse isn’t certain,” Eloise asserts.
            “Yes, it is,” I reply. “Are you listening to me? Not one breath unassisted. Not one.”
            “Alex, I –”
            “Stop it,” I cut in.
            “But, Alex –”
            “No,” I stand. I am not a child. “Mum is dead. That thing in that hospital, weak pulse and pale skin – that is not my mother.”
            I can’t be in here; I can’t be deceived by hope. I find my way to the door, and stumble, my feet catching her knee. She winces, and I know I should apologise, but I don’t. She repeats my name in a calm manner, even as I exit the room. She stands and follows me down the corridor. It is only when I leave the building and start to run that she stops.
            I am running at a ridiculous speed, sweat gathering in my hair. I find myself in a part of town vaguely familiar, though I cannot figure out why. I stop running, and search for my phone, patting my pockets. Shit. It isn’t there; it must have slipped out of my pocket in Eloise’s office. I can’t return; can’t face another moment on trial.
            I assess my surroundings once more, and realise I am standing directly adjacent to Max’s front door. I wasn’t aware that this was my direction of choice, but now that I am here I feel oddly comfortable. I think about finding my way home, or turning back to the clinic, but I am propelled forward by that comfort.
            I hesitate before knocking. He’s very… sensitive… You both are. I momentarily consider another timeline. A timeline unaltered by my mother; a timeline that features my ability to tell Max (and my father) how I feel. This timeline has little room for all of that. I knock, lightly, and it’s silent. I should knock once more. No, I should leave. But I soon hear a shuffling, and the lock is unfastened. Max’s arched figure appears in the doorway, a hand on his temple to shade his eyes. I’m certain it’s early afternoon, but I think I may have disturbed his sleep: his hair is ruffled, and his jogging bottoms are back to front. He looks recently thrown together.
            “Alex?” he mutters.
            “Hi,” I mumble. I am pathetic. “I was… in the neighbourhood.”
            “Right.” He shuffles. “Do you, uh, want to come in?” I nod, and step into a dim hallway. I turn to find an ornate mirror, my startled expression staring back. I look terrible: auburn curls slick with sweat, eyes swollen, lips cracked.
An awkward silence ensues.
            “Iwasattherapy,” I confess, in order to break the silence.  
            “What?” 
            “I was at therapy,” I repeat.
            Max nods. “Did you like it?”
            “I, uh, left mid-conversation,” I stammer. “So, no.”
            His interest piques. “Oh. I see. And did you run a marathon afterwards?” he teases, as he scans my sweat stained shirt.
            “Did I wake you?” I ask, to divert attention from my ragged state.
            “No,” he blushes. “Well… yes. I have trouble falling asleep, and trouble waking up. I can’t seem to switch off when it’s convenient, and on when it’s required.”
            “I understand,” I nod vehemently.
            “Tea?” he asks, and I nod again, a hand moving to my neck to stop what feels like an anxious tick. “Why don’t you head into the sitting room? We can have a Marvel marathon. Mum and Dad are with my sister in Edinburgh this weekend, so no interruptions.”
            I grin, but it fades as it arrives. I think of my mother, minutes from death, while I spend my evening in peace, laughing, warm.
            Max pauses, “Alex, stop it.”
            I step back. “Stop what?”
            “Checking your happiness. You’re allowed to smile. It doesn’t make you a terrible son.”
            “But she’s –”
            “Yes, Alex, she’s dying. But you’re alive, and you can’t feel guilty for that.”
He watches as I digest this. “Not letting yourself feel can come back to bite you on the ass.”
I digest this too, and feel certain that there is so much of Max that I have yet to know. I also think of my father, veiled and quiet; unable to express himself.  
*****
            I am seven and tumbling down my favourite slide. I start to bawl; to panic. Dad presses a finger to my chest, and tells me it’s unbecoming of a young boy to display such violent emotion. Later that day, Poppy, only a year younger, falls.. She wails, and reaches for my dad. He picks her up and holds her tightly, soothing her, kissing his thumb and placing it on her wounded knee. I throb with jealousy. That evening, I shatter her favourite snow globe.
*****
            I place and hand on my chest, and recall panic clawing its way out. I smile, and let the warmth settle.
            “Ok, you, sitting room,” he points to one of many adjacent doors. “Me, tea,” he heads for another.
            “Wait,” I call, and he turns. “Could I borrow your phone to call Pop?”
            “Sure,” he takes his phone from his pocket, “You don’t have yours?”
            “It’s at the clinic, I think,” I reply, though, in this moment, I seem not to care. He chuckles, and shakes his head, before heading into the kitchen.
            I dial Poppy’s number, and it is answered on the first ring. I hear heavy breathing, and a distant, terrifying sob.
            “Max?” Poppy sniffs.
            “Pop, it’s Alex. What is it?”
            “Alex?” she hesitates. “Where the hell have you been?”
            “Left the clinic, and my phone – Pop, what is it?” Something isn’t right.
            “It’s Mum,” a dreaded reply. My stomach churns, my head throbs. “It’s time, Alex.”
            My heart shudders. “Pop?”
            “Just,” her voice is hushed, broken. “Just come. Now.”
            Once more, I am running impossibly fast, to a taxi, bus or train that will take me to my dying mother. As I run, I question if this is the release that my mother pictured as she dipped beneath the water; if her spiral is unwinding, and her coin is falling through. My spiral continues to tighten, infinitely, and now, heart pounding, legs aching, I understand the weight of her words. I am trapped by the weight of existence.

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2 Comments

  1. June 28, 2018 / 11:27 pm

    I am glad that I came across this post. I plan to share this with a friend, who also enjoys writing short stories, but has struggled to find a community to share her work (and was unsure if the blog world was the right place for her).

  2. July 1, 2018 / 3:13 pm

    Thank you! That's such a lovely comment. I have had a really good response after posting this, so I hope that she chooses the blog route. It's a wonderful place to post short stories.

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