“And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.”
-Edgar Allen Poe
Two days after the dinner at my parents’ house, my brother and sister came over to my apartment. I loved every second I could spend with them, but I knew my mother had ulterior motives thrown in the mix. She wanted someone checking on me and assessing my mental condition.
Not that Aiden would ever rat on me, but Lucy didn’t know any better.
They came by twice a week to help me around the apartment. Part of the agreement when I was released from the institution was that I would let people help. I hated feeling so helpless, but I knew I needed it.
Ever since the head injury, my organizational and planning skills had gone out the window. Sometimes, I got a headache from trying to sit down and fold laundry. Tasks like doing the dishes and making the bed were impossible chores. This also made it difficult to hold down a job. I didn’t mind living in the mess, but I was desperate to keep myself in some semblance of order so I didn’t get sent back to the institution.
My sleeping habits were a shamble. It seemed stupid to waste this purgatory-like state with sleep, so I went for days without it until I collapsed from exhaustion. My skin was pulled tight across my body, leaving me with a stretched, sunken feeling. I ate when I was hungry – sometimes. Changed my clothes when they started to smell. Cleaned when I knew mother was coming to visit.
Everything seemed pointless. Why should I care when I don’t exist? I wasn’t sure how I could still be here or why. Maybe this was my punishment for losing Courtney. Or maybe I had a higher calling to fulfill before I could leave.
If I hadn’t made a purpose for myself, I would have tried to escape this hell long ago.
When Aiden and Lucy arrived, I had already started cleaning. Sorting through trash and laundry and odds and ends made my head ache, so my kind of cleaning entailed throwing everything into a basket and shoving it into the corner.
A hired driver dropped off my siblings – mother rarely graced this end of town with her presence. My brother and sister were dressed plain but neat. Lucy carried a little pink purse with a Hello Kitty symbol on the zipper. Aiden looked around my apartment with expressionless eyes, watching me toss things around in a desperate attempt to be productive.
“Bubby!” Lucy ran to give me a hug.
“Hey, String-bean!” I grinned and gathered her into my arms, tickling her.
Lucy squealed, wriggling away from me, her cheeks pink. Then she brushed an old candy wrapper off the flattened couch cushions and plopped down in front of the television.
“Good morning,” I said to Aiden.
He returned the greeting absentmindedly. Underneath his intelligent gaze, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with myself. I was an adult. I shouldn’t have needed this sort of petty help around the house. But Aiden never seemed to mind.
“Was what you told mom true?” he asked. “You have a job now?”
I nodded pathetically. “I’m working at Taco Time. Really aiming high, right?”
He chuckled. “That’s good, Jack.”
“I don’t want our parents to pay for this place anymore. I should be able to take care of myself.”
Aiden just shrugged. No doubt, he’d already made a plan of action for what needed to be done around here. “You need to start eating more,” he stated, looking concerned. “Mom is going to notice if you’re not careful.”
I couldn’t contain a scoff. “Isn’t that what she wants for all of us? To look like her little China dolls?”
“There’s thin and then there’s thin. Besides, you know she’s watching you.”
“I know.” I dug my toe into the floor, looking around. The apartment wasn’t as bad as usual. I didn’t take much when I moved out. It was mostly dishes, garbage, and laundry. There was a 10,000 piece puzzle spread out on the table, about an eighth of the way finished. I’d bought it months back, thinking it would help my mind recover. But it only brought me more frustration. The scene on the cover was peaceful landscape filled with flowers and mountains and a broad, sparkling lake. Every time I sat down to work on it, the pieces seemed to blink and blur, and I was overwhelmed before I even started. My sessions with it usually lasted a couple minutes at a time.
Aiden walked over to the puzzle, looking down at it through eyes too wise for his years. Once again, I felt the bitter twinge of shame. I was the older brother. I should have been the one taking care of him.
“You’ve gotten a lot further. How many pieces do you do per sitting?”
“Six,” I mumbled, shoving my hands into my pockets. “Ten, if I’m lucky.”
He nodded slowly, then turned back around. “I’ll start on the dishes. You go change your clothes and shower.” When a frown started to wrinkle my face, he continued gently, “You’re wearing the same clothes you had on two days ago, Jack. They’re still muddy.”
It wasn’t until I looked down at myself that his words took meaning. “Damn it... I’ll do that when you’re gone. I’m not going to let you clean this stupid place by yourself.”
Aiden snickered. “No you won’t. If you don’t do it now, you won’t remember until I remind you again. Go scrape off a layer of stench.” The last few words were spoken with a laughing tone.
I let out a faint, defeated chuckle and walked into the bathroom. Strange how things had changed. I used to be able to recite the twenty amino acids and forty digits of pi.
I was a mess.
It took me five and a half minutes to scrub myself down and change into clean clothes. I even ran a comb through my hair for good measure. The boy in the mirror was gaunt and skinny and pale with hair that needed cutting and eyes dulled by despair and depression. I frowned, then blinked a few times, trying to connect that image to my sense of self.
When I walked out of the bathroom, Aiden was scrubbing dishes, and Lucy was even folding some of my clothes, her eyes on the television. The sound of activity in my apartment brightened my spirits, and I moved to Aiden’s side.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked softly.
“Look around for trash,” he replied with a smile, “and put it in the garbage. Wrappers, old food, that sort of thing.”
That seemed easy enough, and I began my hunt. It frustrated me to have to be told what to do like a child, but I didn’t mind it so much coming from Aiden. He was the only one I trusted to truly treat me with respect. There wasn’t the slightest hint of contempt or condescension in his words. As I started to look around, I realized there was a thin glaze of dust on everything.
I stopped beside a picture of Courtney on my coffee table and picked it up, brushing the flecks of dust away with my thumb. We’d taken it ourselves with a cheap camera. She hated it, but I loved that goofy look on her gorgeous face.
My chest ached with reminiscence. If I ever found her, I planned to run away with her like I’d always wanted. We’d never felt the need to stay under our parents’ financial safety net. If anything, we had learned to despise it. We would use our savings to pay for a quiet marriage and a little apartment. Nothing fancy. We’d had enough fancy to last a lifetime. Courtney would paint, and I would take out a loan for medical school. It had always sounded like a whimsical, far-off dream to me, but now I wanted a bit of fantasy in my life.
Reality is toxic.
Reality is poison.
Her final screams echoed through my mind. If only... There were so many thoughts beginning with those words. If only, if only. I’d learned to despise the helplessness of those words. They were cowardly words, passive words. The words of someone who couldn’t change or, perhaps, didn’t really want to change. I never wanted to think them again.
I don’t know how long I stood there before Lucy’s small fingers laced in mine. Something switched on inside my brain, and I looked down at her.
She smiled up at me, ringlets framing her pink, chubby face.
That innocent and loving expression broke something inside me. I crouched in front of her tremulously and pulled the girl tight against my chest, desperate to hold something. She was warm, a few stray curls tickling my nose, and she didn’t squirm away from my grasp.
“My little String-bean,” I whispered with a hoarse, constricted voice. “I’ll never let anything happen to you. I’ll always protect you, sweetie.”
She didn’t reply, and I nestled my chin against her shoulder. The only sound around us was the clinking of dishes, the sound of running water, and the voices coming from the television. When I felt I could face myself again, I released her and went back to picking up garbage.
It took us a good two hours to scour the place, but, once we were finished, it looked as good as new. I wandered around following Aiden’s instructions, occasionally daring to take the initiative with a chore or two but stopping whenever my temples began to pound. We laughed and joked the way we always had. Lucy helped on occasion but mostly just played with the Barbies she’d brought in that Hello Kitty purse. When we were finished, Aiden and I ordered a pizza and sat around my puzzle.
Just looking at the thing threatened to overwhelm me, but I took a deep, frustrated breath and began searching for white pieces that would complete the area with the flock of geese. Aiden worked on the field in the left-hand corner. I knew puzzles didn’t interest him, but my slow progress must have been pitiful to him. We sat in silence a long time, waiting for our pizza, before one of us finally spoke.
“You should try to give mom a break,” Aiden said without looking at me, fingers drumming over a puzzle piece. “I really think she wants to make things right.”
I frowned at him. This was the one subject we usually skirted around, the one that made rage rampage inside me until I thought my head would explode. “She has a funny way of going about it,” I replied.
He glanced my way before continuing, “I don’t know if she knows how to go about it.”
“She could start by believing me.”
“Jack, come on. I know you’re frustrated with that, but what else could you expect? The doctors have a logical explanation for the way you’re thinking. Mom is just going off of what makes sense to her.”
I glared at the puzzle piece as I tried to make it fit. It wasn’t the right one. “Well that’s fine,” I growled. “She doesn’t have to believe me, but she shouldn’t have locked me up like an animal. I spent two years in that prison, and how much good did it do?”
Aiden’s voice took on a pleading tone. “She was trying to help.”
“How in the hell was that supposed to help?” I snapped. “Throwing me in with a bunch of psychos and tyrannical nurses was supposed to help? Pumping me full of sedatives and sticking electrodes to my head was helping? Being there made me feel like I was going insane!”
Lucy looked up at the sound of swearing, and Aiden squirmed. “What would you have asked mom and dad to do? You weren’t yourself, Jack. You’re still not yourself. Sending you there had a big price tag, so they must have thought it was the best option.”
I snorted. I had hated my parents after that two-year imprisonment, but my bitterness had only grown when I returned. After being away for so long, I could finally see how fake and shallow and greedy they were. They disgusted me, and I disgusted myself because I was one of them. “Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do. It’s not like we’re going to be pals anytime soon.”
“Maybe not. I wouldn’t really blame you. But you know...I think mom invited you to dinner the other day to try to talk...to see if you were ready to give her a chance.” Aiden was beginning to look upset. “She won’t apologize for it...I know that...but I think she’s trying to in her own way, and you’re not giving her a chance. Lucy and I really miss you at home, but you keep just pushing us away.”
My brow furrowed, and something cold settled in the pit of my stomach. “Aiden...”
My brother glared me into silence before pressing on. “I know that it’s not your fault...I know there’s something wrong inside that you can’t control, but I really miss my brother. You haven’t been right in so long, and...” He choked, then cleared his throat and blinked hard. “I just want you to try. I just want things to go back to the way they were. Please just try?”
My heart was twisting in knots, and I stared at my lap, suddenly ashamed of my selfishness. I couldn’t help but remember the sad, disappointed look in his eyes when I moved out. When I abandoned him.
“Okay,” I murmured. “I’ll try, okay? I’ll try and get along with her. But I can’t guarantee anything else.”
Aiden took a long breath and wiped his eyes, looking rather embarrassed.
Just then, there was a knock on the door, and I hurried to fetch the pizza. A few minutes later, we were eating pizza on the freshly-cleaned floor, watching Monty Python and laughing back and forth to one another. Perhaps Lucy wasn’t supposed to be watching it, but I couldn’t muster myself to care.
Despite Aiden’s plea for me to initiate restoration, I had no intention of becoming my mother and father.