The animal immediately snatched her gaze and yanked it over like a thief. It laid on the grass gently, peacefully, its back turned to her as the warm morning sunshine weaved through its rolling puffs of wool, legs folded underneath its stomach and its back stiffly upright in a way that seemed strangely proper.
For a moment, the house was silent, except for the tick-tock of the kitchen’s wall clock somewhere on the wall behind her.
She stared, her eyes distant, and felt her grasp on her thoughts slip from her fingers as it dissipated, melted and warped until she couldn’t cling to anything but the lamb in her yard.
Like a marionette, her hand was limply drawn upwards as she grabbed the backdoor’s knob.
The door creaked open ahead of Roe, the summer sunlight blasting the kitchen behind her. Her eyes, wide and bleary and distant, locked onto the lamb, as still and peaceful as something from a Monet painting, barely indistinguishable from a perfect statue.
The lamb was such a blinding, dream-like shade of white that it burned to look at directly underneath the rays of the sun. Roe was squinting and wincing from the scorching creeping within her retinas, but she couldn’t pry her focus away. The sheep was completely white in its purest, most unsaturated and blinding form, glowing and radiant and beckoning Roe closer.
She took another controlled step forward.
Some distant part of her thoughts registered the high-pitched buzz of several flies beginning to swarm around her, the little black dots scurrying around the blurry edges of her peripherals, but a reaction never quite reached the surface of her mind as she walked closer, closer, closer.
And there it sat, as unmoving as a saint: the blinding white babe.
For that moment, as she was drawn closer and closer, her mind, body, and herself were all separated from one another and floating apart, leaving her a vessel piloted by an unknown force; for that moment, nothing was tangible, nothing was real except for the lamb— not even her own consciousness, her mind.
The flies’ song-and-dance became more frantic, almost erratic around her, yet seemed to act as her shepherd towards the lamb, the lamb, the lamb--
It turned around slowly, as if expecting Roe’s arrival, and watched her very intently for something that didn’t have eyes.
She was on the ground, the scorching sun leaving her head hazy and bleary, puffy wool clouds caressing the sky directly above her, her mouth gaping wide and her throat blood-raw and aching from—
Oh, God, those animal sounds, the terrified wailing and screaming, cracked and dry around the edges and panicked in the most primal way; it hit her, then, that the sound existed at all, that the strange drone from the back of reality was a cry, and then with that— no, not an animal, it was herself.
With her voice, she suddenly found her body existing as well, the weight and blood and bone of it. The numbness faded away, and with the return of feeling, she noticed her movement— thrashing, like drowning, like fighting against death, her limbs flailing desperately in an invisible fight for her life.
That was when she stopped herself; slowly, though, as it dawned on her, her arms and legs freezing in place as she wrangled them back under her control, her mouth still gaping from the abrupt end of her screams before she suddenly snapped it shut.
Then, with that, she commanded her body to relax and fall limply onto the grass beneath her, just in time for Roe to hear her mother’s pounding sprints and panicked shouts from somewhere within their home that seemed miles behind her now.
“ROE! Roe, honey, oh God—“
Her mother burst out from the kitchen and collapsed onto the ground beside Roe, wrapped her up in her desperate grasp and held her to her chest; Roe’s view jerked away from the sky to the grey fabric of her mother’s shirt as she clung to her daughter like their survival depended on it, and Roe squirmed.
“I’m fine,” she mumbled, her shaky and feeble tone highlighting the lie of that statement.
It was all coming back to her, washing over her as pitiless as a tsunami: the trance, the lamb, and then she was on the ground screaming. Everything in between the lamb turning around and when she found herself on the ground was completely nonexistent to her. It was equally frustrating and terrifying; half-smothered by her mom as she sat on the ground, she desperately tried to reach into the murky depths of her memories and pull out something she could grasp, but all she found was more void. Her rummaging was met with the build up of a dull ache that radiated out from somewhere deep in her brain, maybe her mind's attempt to beg her to stop looking for what wasn’t there. As much as she tore herself apart to find some semblance of a memory, the maddening conclusion dawned on her that something happened but it wasn’t there.
The world twisted and spun with fury. A flash of heat burned through Roe’s cheeks, her vision doubling and darkening, a numbness tingling within her lips while her pulse thudded and echoed in the back of her head.
She pushed away from her mother, forced her dead-weight head to turn, and vomited.
Roe knew why her mother became so frantic and she sympathized with her for that. The hypochondria that plagued Roe after their tragedy had resulted in far too many panic attacks over nothing being wrong, too many nightmares where she saw her brother waiting for her before she woke up gasping and choking. In a way, her mother fed both into and from Roe’s anxiety, and the two managed to trap themselves in a cycle of worrying to death about death.
Therapy had soothed them both greatly, but Roe barely managed to hold onto those coping skills as she sat in the passenger's seat, her head limply laying against the window, her mother’s erratic driving to the E.R. making her stomach churn even more.
The side mirror dangling from the passenger’s side caught Roe’s gaze like a hook; her black hair was tangled and disheveled, her brown eyes tired with that ugly purple caressing their sockets, the color and flush drained from her face. Immediately, though, with a slap of repulsion, she noticed the shape of her eyes— big, wide, practically cartoon-y to her. Toad, they called her in elementary school.
Most of all, with another deep pang of stomach-churning nausea, she saw her brother in the cut of her jaw, the curvature of her lips, the angle of her nose.
Her attention quickly flicked away from herself in a moment of heartbroken retaliation, landing instead on her frantic mother, driving like a bat out of Hell with her lips pursed and hands quivering. Her eyes, the same as Roe’s, were as wide as saucers, her gaze darting around like a fly.
“Mom,” she mumbled, sickly and shaky. Every time she opened her mouth, she braced for more bile to come spewing up from her stomach and clog her throat.
“What, hon? You doing good?”
Roe closed her eyes, her stomach flipping.
“Mom, I’m fine. I don’t have to go.” There was an attempt at being firm with her tone, but it fell weak and just became swallowed up in her mumbling.
Sweat dotted across her forehead and ran down her pallid face, and with her eyes closed, her mind wandered back to the eyeless lamb; its skin was smooth and without any marks at all, flesh gently laid over where the eye sockets should have been.
The image made Roe’s eyes pop back open.
“You’re not fine, Roe, you just had—“
Her mother’s voice seemed as distant as the rumbling of the car engine, a drone that faded and molded into the rest of the background.
“I don’t think anything’s wrong,” Roe suggested— weakly, though, in a ‘I’m not going to argue with you because I’m too tired’ sort of tone. She didn’t believe it, she just wanted her mom to maybe feel better. And, besides that, she really didn’t want to go to the E.R., even though something actually was wrong.
Deep down, Roe had no fucking idea what happened. And that made her panic begin to boil over uncontrollably, that tell-tale knot tightening in her chest and making her feel like she was trying to force air through a plastic bag. The terror of being out of control of her own self made her want to vomit all over again; her mother’s insisting that no, she wasn’t fine shoved through all attempts to calm herself down like a knife plunging into her chest— she wasn’t fine, she wasn’t fine, oh, fuck, oh God something’s fucking WRONG—
It’ll be okay.
For a moment, it seemed to help, even if it was only the faintest bit of soothing. That illusion of peace was scattered in the wind, though, whenever her mother’s voice popped the serene bubble that Roe had made around herself—
“We’re here,” she announced, the car slowing to a stop before she clicked off the engine. “Don’t forget your insurance card.”
Oh, yeah, there was the bitter reminder of where she was: the fucking emergency room.
As Roe unbuckled and swung open the car door, she dwelled on lambs with no eyes and whatever the hell was wrong with her.
“Alright, Roe, can you explain to me what exactly happened?”
Doctor Johnson’s presence was soothing, like his soul was meant for this job— to be kind to people in their most terrified moments. He made Roe feel like she might actually be okay, that she was in good hands. He was younger, thin and almost scraggly, but with kind brown eyes that reminded her of honey. He simultaneously seemed like he was right where he belonged but weirdly out of place, like he shouldn’t have been in an environment so stressful and pitiless, yet he was still needed there.
Somewhere down the hall, she heard a baby wailing.
“It was just..I saw this lamb,” she said, forcing it out before she could stop herself because it sounded so ridiculous. “In my yard, I mean. And I guess I was in this..uh, almost like a trance, kind of like dissociation.”
Her statements were punctuated by soft mm-hm’s from Dr. Johnson as he typed rapidly on his laptop.
“And then I went outside, and this lamb turned around and it didn’t have eyes, and then I just blacked out. And I woke up flailing and screaming on the ground, and then threw up.”
He looked up at her over the top of his laptop screen— worried, she noticed, a slight furrow to his brow as he gave her another sympathetic nod.
“Did you experience any strange tastes or smells?”
More typing, more baby screaming.
“What about deja vu? Or any sudden unexplainable emotions?”
“Okay,” he murmured with one small nod of his head, followed by more typing and a few quick clicks of his mouse.
They both fell wordless, Roe’s gaze fixated on the painting mounted on the wall opposite of her— a picturesque sunny day, a brick country house surrounded by a lush and sprawling forest, a doe grazing in the yard. She couldn’t rationalize why it left a bad taste in her mouth.
The baby’s shrieking reached its shrill peak.
“It says in your records here, Roe, that you’ve been seeking psychiatric care ever since a traumatic event, is that still correct?”
She liked the silence between them more than she liked whatever this was; that question made a knot harden in the pit of her gut, like a poisonous peach stone. She shuffled, stared blankly at the doe frozen on the wall.
With each question, he would glance up from his computer and look at her expectantly. It made her skin crawl, like he was trying to dig around in her mind to spill its contents.
“I’m still in therapy, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Any medications you’re currently taking?”
“One-hundred milligrams of Zoloft.”
“And how has that been helping you?”
The rapid-fire questions were the verbal equivalent of holding her head underwater; her lungs suddenly seemed a lot weaker, nausea squirming in her stomach.
She knew, of course, that this was part of his job, and it was better that he knew these things rather than didn’t. Still, though, addressing the aftermath of all that happened and forcing her to look at her mess made her want to break down. Looking her trauma in the eye— hell, even just acknowledging that it was there at all — made her head spin. It made it all real, not just a figment of something dark and strange festering in her mind, but real enough to breathe and be.
She let out a deep breath that she didn’t realize she was holding in.
“Good, I think.”
“Only ‘you think?’”
Roe was feeling a lot less like she was in the E.R. and a lot more like she was being interrogated in a little white room, except her interrogator was the warmest man in the world who made her feel a lot of strange different ways all at once. His questions came as quickly as bullets and she tried to swallow them down like bile.
“Um, I mean— I haven’t been in it for long. But yeah, I think it’s all working good for me.”
“Glad to hear,” he said in that same kind, understanding tone.
Roe could have sworn she saw the doe in the painting move the slightest bit, or maybe her eyes were just blurring. The day still had time to get weirder, so she honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if she did catch the oil-made deer twitch.
“Well, Roe, were there any strange visual stimuli before you saw that lamb? Or during the ‘trance’—“ he raised his hands to bend his fingers in air quotes— “when you started walking towards it?”
She couldn’t tell if Dr. Johnson made her feel safe or scared, or a combination of both at the same time. One second she swore he was an angel, and then when the next second ticked, he made her squirm with his relentless gaze and questions, and the two feelings rapidly bounced back and forth with the frenzy of a flickering lightbulb.
“No, not that I know of,” she answered.
Maybe the discomfort didn’t come from Dr. Johnson himself, but the questions he asked and how they pried and pulled her apart. She didn’t want anyone, not even this kind doctor, to see those ugly parts of herself. Speaking them felt like vomiting. She would carry what happened and let it rot in her mind, and when her body eventually caught up with it and began to rot six feet below the Earth, maybe that part of her brain would become some soil for a flower— maybe something meaningful could come from this bullshit, something beyond pain and guilt and flashbacks.
Part of her, she realized, felt like she couldn’t talk about what happened because everyone around her was too good to go through that. It was her own poison, not Dr. Johnson’s, not Mom’s or Dad’s or anyone else’s. And she was going to drink every last drop of it on her own.
Dr. Johnson’s questioning continued, and Roe answered each one honestly. She stared at the painting and the looming country house, wondered if it was a real house somewhere out there, wondered if anyone had ever died there if it was.
“What’d they say, hon?” Roe’s mother asked the very second Roe threw open the passenger’s side door. Her stomach and her head felt less like it was an angry wasp’s nest by the time she got out of the E.R., but that anxiety still buzzed and lingered, darting away too quickly when she tried to swat it. Mostly, though, Roe was exhausted, the kind of exhausted that left a slow-burn throbbing ache behind her eyes and left her muscles too heavy to move.
“Just more mental shit.”
Dr. Johnson ultimately said that what happened was a hallucination and a dissociative episode, triggered by stress and anxiety, and he strongly advised bringing it up to her therapist or primary care provider so they could see if any other medications would be suitable for her.
She couldn’t tell if it made her more or less anxious to know the answer; she was numb and dull and tired more than anything else. She had never hallucinated before, not to her knowledge, and this was just going to be yet another issue to try and dissect during her next therapy appointment.
Her mom was silent, gripping the steering wheel and staring straight ahead through the windshield like she was contemplating saying something. No words escaped through her tensed, pursed lips.
Roe, desperate for a sound or a movement or something, slammed the car door shut.
It apparently prompted her mother, but, “Like what?” was all she said. Her voice was shrill and squeaky, mouse-like and timid. She asked in a tone that sounded as if the roles were reversed, as if she were the scared child confiding in her mother.
It was Roe’s turn, then, to wordlessly stare straight ahead through the windshield. A car pulled into the E.R. parking lot. The wind gently rustled some tree branches. Real entertaining shit.
“He said it was a hallucination and a dissociative episode ‘cause of stress,” she explained, “and that I need to talk to my therapist about it.”
“When’s your next appointment?”
“Two or three days.”
Silence again, the kind that hung heavily like the way the air held its breath right before a storm. The car was starting to bake them with how stuffy it was getting, directly under the sun’s noon rays and without the air conditioning. Roe wiped away the sweat on her brow with the back of her hand.
“Can we get goin’?” Roe asked, “It’s hotter than Hell in here.”
Her mother clicked the car to life, the engine roaring and the cool air blasting Roe in the face as soon as she did so.
“Is therapy working alright for you?” Her mother asked as she pulled out of their parking space.
Roe held back a sigh at the thought of explaining her mental state to Doctor V.2: Mom Edition, but her brief flash of annoyance was cooled by remembering that her mother was just worried. Maybe a little too worried, but that wasn’t Roe’s responsibility.
At least, that was something that she learned in therapy. She wasn’t sure if she completely believed it yet, but it did help to remind herself of those things.
“Yeah,” Roe droned. “Haven’t been in it for long, but I think it’ll be good for me.”
It seemed easier to speak to each other then, with the white noise of the car and the movement of the world outside of it.
“That’s good,” Mom said, “just…let me know if you need anything."
"You know I’m always here for you, don’t you?”
Her last sentence was strained with doubt, choked and creaking out of her throat. Roe had grown to know that tone over the last nineteen years of her life, the way her mother’s voice quivered before she finally broke and the tears started flowing.
Whenever her mother cried, it was hard for Roe to hold back too; she turned her gaze away from her and stared blankly out the window, not actually taking in anything that flew by. It was the town she had lived in her entire life, there wasn’t anything she hadn't already seen anyways.
She knew, deep down, why Mom was getting choked up. She was afraid of Roe going off the deep end and ending her own life, she was afraid of waking up to her other baby’s dead body. To let that agony seep into her soul all over again, to rip open that wound and pour salt and lemon juice directly in it, would probably kill her mom in the process.
Roe felt like shit, but she wasn’t suicidal. She didn’t know if her mom believed that, though, or if her mother's own trauma was making her see death around every corner.
“I know, Mom,” She said, as gently as she could. “I’m okay.”
Beside her, she heard her mother’s sniffling. Roe flinched and put in her earbuds, pulled her phone out of her pocket, and turned the volume all the way up.
Home was lonely, horrifyingly so.
There was a guest bedroom across the hall from Roe’s; she passed it every day, always kept her head turned like she was avoiding looking at a wound, but she caught herself looking after rushing up the stairs as soon as she got home from the hospital.
The door was shut tight. She preferred it that way. When she couldn’t see the inside, she could pretend that her brother Warren was home, probably drawing or playing video games, or maybe taking a nap since the room was so quiet. He normally blared music when he was awake, any and all genres, and Roe could always tell how he felt based on the music genre and how loud his music was. The worse he felt, the louder the volume.
They could read each other like books. Mom always said it was a twin thing, but Roe just chalked it up to the fact that they grew up side-by-side, more than anything. Roe always joked that the creepy twin sixth sense communication cliché only applied to identical twins, but since her and Warren were fraternal, they just weren’t alike enough to have those supernatural inclinations.
The door was shut, Warren was asleep, and he was gonna be up in time for a late lunch. She would hear his alarm through the wall in an hour or two, and then the music would start. He would play heavy metal today, since it had been such a shitty morning, and the fast, heavy and ruthless punches from the speakers would be cathartic for him. “That boy’s gonna get tinnitus,” Mom would grumble.
Denial tasted bitter, but acceptance tasted worse.
Of course, Roe knew that she would throw open that door and actually see a guest bedroom for the guests they never had over. There was a queen-sized bed with plain maroon sheets, the walls were painted off-white with matching slightly-more-white carpet, there was a scenic painting of deer in a clearing hanging directly above the headboard, all shit that her mom probably got from the home decor section of Walmart. The room was pristine and lifeless. She loathed that room and the uselessness of it, but she mostly loathed what it represented to her: the absence of Warren. What would have been his bedroom was a room for nothing and no one, a waste of money so her family could try and pretend everything was normal and that they could invite friends to visit and stay. It felt like spitting on his grave and renting out what should have been his.
So, she kept the door shut. She had to see it more than anyone else in the house, anyways. Sometimes, they’d come upstairs and open the door (God knew what they were doing in there, or if they just wanted to leave the door open for some stupid reason), but she’d always slam it shut in response, loud enough so she knew they heard it.
If she brought it up to Dad, the main force behind this decision-making, he’d probably say something along the lines of— “Well, what the hell do you want me to do with it then?” And she’d mentally have a fake argument back, a new one every day:
“Put his shit in it like a memorial. Leave it empty and make it a storage room. Make it a computer room. At least let people fucking stay in it if you’re gonna try to make it a guest bedroom, for fuck’s sake. Or pretend Warren actually existed to you. Or we could just move back to the old fucking house and forget about the stupid mistake that was coming here at all. Why did you even want to move? Why do we need a fresh start? I’m never getting a fucking fresh start. How can you even say it's a fresh start whenever we live in the same exact town, just a more rural part of it? Further away from the cemetery. Further away from where we grew up. You don't want a fresh start, you want to run away. My heart has a gaping hole in it, and you’re trying to fill it up with new and shiny shit. Like it’ll fill the void in the absence of my brother. Well, fuck you. I hate that fucking room. I hate this fucking house. I hate that you have all of his shit tucked away in the attic where we don’t have to see it but you wasted money on a guest bedroom that we don’t even fucking use. You could’ve even hung his artwork up in there, bare fucking minimum, but you just had to go and get some cheap mass-produced shit from Walmart.”
Every day, it burned within her more and more. The sparks lingered in her hands, settling as a shake that zapped up from her wrists to the tips of her fingers. Her jaw clenched, chewing on the words she ached to let explode out of her, the force and the build-up growing heavier and heavier until they collapsed under the strain deep in her chest.
She flung open the door to her room, slammed it shut behind her, collapsed onto her bed, and screamed into her pillow. She raised a trembling fist and brought it into her pillow, over and over and over, each punch and scream snuffing out bits of that wildfire within her, little-by-little. It, at least, put out the flames around the edges, but the center of it still raged and smoldered.