Chapter 10 - Alex
I woke to warm sunshine glowing against my eyelids. I didn’t wake with a start, or drenched in sweat. I drifted, languid and smiling, into wakefulness with the smell of Nate in my nose and the memory of his body curled around mine. I lingered for a moment, half-awake and smiling, blinking blearily at the ceiling as I breathed deep of the thick peace that wrapped around my head, making me giddy.
Then it all came back.
It was like a fragment of ice lodged in my chest and every ounce of blood in my body suddenly, painfully crystallized around it. Abruptly, I was cold and stiff. I could barely breathe. Memories floated in my vision and I squeezed my eyes shut against them, only to find them seared into my eyelids in sharp relief.
“Momma,” I moaned, curling up on my side and pulling a pillow to my chest.
I cried for ten minutes. I guess eating and sleeping had replenished my tears because I soaked my pillow. I sobbed so hard I gave myself the hiccups and black spots floated in my tear-blurred vision. I begged the stars to give my mother back because that morning-- waking up happy and rested-- was the first time I really felt she was gone.
She wasn’t in my parents’ room sleeping. She wasn’t downstairs in the kitchen. She wasn’t out running errands. She wasn’t even some paralyzed dead thing lying on a slab in a morgue, waiting to be buried.
She was just gone.
As suddenly as it had started, my crying jag ended. Awash in eerie calm, I sat up, wiping away my tears, and drew three deep, calming breaths, listening to my heart ease its frantic rhythm.
Then I got out of bed.
I went to the closet and picked out a set of work clothes.
I showered. I dressed. I put on a light layer of makeup to disguise my puffy eyes and tear-burned face. I plucked my star earrings out of my jewelry box and stuck them in my ears. Then I stood, head canted sideways as I stared at my reflection in the mirror. I was wearing my gold cross. Momma and Daddy had gotten it for me when I turned 10. Even though I didn’t necessarily believe, I’d always worn it because I didn’t want to hurt them with my doubts.
Grinding my teeth, I wrapped my fist around the little gold cross and jerked my hand, snapping the chain. Fresh tears rose in my eyes as I tossed the broken necklace into the small trash can by the toilet.
No more pretending. I vowed not to punish my father, nor to curse my mother’s memory, but I was done conforming to their view of the world and their plans for my future. There comes a moment in every child’s life when he or she finally realizes that adults aren’t omniscient and omnipotent. Then, much later, there comes a moment when he or she realizes that adults aren’t just flawed. They’re broken and weak, and none of them are in a position to blaze another’s trails or protect another’s interests. Not even parents.
It was time to grow up.
* * *
My father must have still been in bed when I left for work, because his car was in the drive but the house was silent.
It was just past eight when I closed and locked the door behind me. The sun was still working its way into the sky so, although the air was sticky and damp, it wasn’t yet obscenely hot. The sunlight was clear and cheerful, flickering through the trees that lined the sidewalk and dancing on the emerald-green grass. Birds sang, playful and free, in the branches over my head.
Gemma’s face went white when I knocked on the glass door of the ice cream shop. Eyes wide, she scrambled around the counter and hurried to unlock the door, pulling me into her arms as soon as I stepped over the threshold.
“Aly I’m so sorry,” she said into my shoulder, squeezing me so hard I could barely breathe. “Are you okay? Oh my god, that’s a stupid question. Of course you’re not okay. What are you doing here? We covered all your shifts. Bob says you’ve got your job when you feel okay to come back but you don’t have to anytime soon. Why are you here? Oh my God, Aly, I’m so so sorry.”
Tears hovered in her eyes when she pulled back, holding onto my shoulders with her hands as she peered into my face as if to assess my physical and emotional welfare.
“I’m fine,” I said, pulling out of her grip and fixing my best fake smile on my face.
Gemma frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. “You can’t be, Aly. You really don’t have to be here, you know.”
“I’m tired of lying in my bed,” I said truthfully, leaving her by the door and skirting the counter, pulling my apron off its hook and slipping it over my head. “I just want to pretend like things are normal for a few hours, okay?”
My friend frowned, and I could tell she wanted to argue but I won by virtue of pity.
* * *
My father was at the kitchen table when I returned home, and for once there was no Bible or theological text in site. Instead, the maroon tablecloth was littered with papers. Bills, I imagined. Death ought to be cheap. It ought to be free. Nobody should have to pay for the agony of bidding a loved one farewell.
It’s not cheap, though. It’s damned expensive. You know a decent casket runs for around $1000? Did you know the average burial plot costs $2-5,000? Ambulance rides are expensive too, regardless of whether the patient is alive on arrival. Then there’s the fee to have the body all dressed up and beautified. Hearse services charge by the hour.
It’s a racket. I figured when I died I'd just go into the woods and crawl into a hole so nobody would have to pay for my passing.
“Aly,” my father greeted hoarsely as I entered the room and set my bag down, pulling out a kitchen chair and sinking into it. “I saw your note. You know you don’t have to go to work, sweetheart. I called the shop.”
“I know,” I said woodenly. “I wanted to go.”
He nodded as if he understood, and for a moment there passed between us a flicker of comradery.
I sat in my chair and picked at the ruffled edge of the tablecloth. My father sat in his and stared absently at a piece of paper, tapping his pen against the tabletop. I wished he would try to apologize again. I wanted to forgive him. My outburst was weighing heavily on my soul and I needed absolution. He was a preacher. He should have understood that.
“I haven’t told Tom, yet,” he said, instead.
“He comes home on Friday.” Tension crawled up my spine as I felt us settle into our new roles. My father sank into guilt and silent contrition and I into new responsibility. He would wallow in remorse and I would hold the remains of our family together.
“I know,” my father said. “He needs us there. He can’t find out over the phone or from a stranger. He needs to hear it in a controlled environment.”
“We’ll tell him on Friday,” I said numbly, standing up. “I’m going to go to bed.”
* * *
According to my morbid research, my mother probably took about 30 minutes to die. I have to assume she botched the job a little like most such suicides do. She probably didn’t slice clean through the veins, so it would have taken a little while for her blood loss to become critical.
She’d have laid there for a while in the tub as the warm water grew colder and darker with swirls of crimson. She’d have had time to think of us. If her life had really flashed before her eyes, surely ours did too. Surely she remembered the days Tom and I were born. Our first steps. Our first words. Surely she closed her eyes and remembered happy Christmas mornings and chasing us with the hose during long, hot summer afternoons. She’d have remembered reading to us at bedtime, our heads tucked against her chest as her voice soothed us into sleep.
It took my mother thirty minutes to die, but me? I died over the course of months.
I died at an agonizing pace, moment by moment, as my mother’s decision grew smaller in my rearview and the festering wound it left behind grew larger and more necrotic.
I died a little bit when we picked up Tom from camp and drove him home. He chatted away in the back seat and my father and I sat in tense silent up front. I tried to engage, but my soul wasn’t in it. When we got home, we sat him down on the couch. My dad said that mom was in heaven, but Tom looked at me with watery eyes and I couldn’t hide the truth from him fast enough. He saw the scorn on my face before I could wipe it away, and he knew what I thought I knew-- that heaven was a lie and our mother was gone.
I died a little bit when we buried her. My father preached the service, and the crowd was standing-room-only. Nobody had ever cared much for my mother in life, but my father was revered.
Tom and I sat in the front pew and I hugged my brother as he wept noisily into my chest. Everyone had something to say to me, afterwards. Old ladies offered unwanted hugs and cried for my motherless soul, as if their tears might somehow help me. Young women frowned and cooed and patted my shoulder. Men, young and old, offered empty condolences and gripped my shoulder to convey their manly strength and wisdom into me by touch.
I tried-- really tried-- to cry. I dug deep, calling upon grotesque images and fleeting memories of fear from the day I found her, but my soul had retreated behind a wall of bulletproof glass. I saw the world around me, but it couldn’t touch me. I was isolated, both from comfort and from pain. I was dying a slow, cold death and I didn’t care.
Summer wore into fall. Momma’s body decomposed beneath the earth in a cemetery called “Hope’s Fall Memorial Garden” a few blocks from home. Her headstone was a gray-black marble monstrosity and read “Marissa Winger / August 17, 1964 - July 25, 2003 / Beloved Mother and Wife.” Once a week, Tom and I took fresh roses to her grave and sat for a while in the shade of a towering oak, visiting with her absence. Tom cried into his knees and begged her to come back. I patted his back and stared, dry-eyed, at the inscription on the headstone. It was odd that my holy, poetic father couldn’t come up with something less generic to commemorate the mother of his children.
Every evening, I snuck out of the house and visited the spot. I didn’t use the window, anymore. I saw no reason to hide my actions because my father’s opinions of right and wrong no longer held any sway with me. I knew that I didn’t care what he thought, and I knew if he caught me sneaking out or in, I’d have only to level a stare at him and he would let me do as I pleased. Daddy’s guilt was like a noose around his neck. All I had to do was kick the chair out from beneath him and he was loath to give me opportunity to do so.
Even Nate and the spot failed to stall my slow slide into living death. It wasn’t Nate’s fault. He tried. He coaxed me into games that used to make me laugh. He talked for hours into the warm, dark air trying to lure me into conversation. He held me close and endured my silence. I felt like I was watching his efforts through a television screen. All of my emotional responses were lukewarm and tangential. I experienced remorse that I was so unresponsive, and gratitude for the fact that he cared enough to try. Beyond that, though… nothing. No real, gut response.
Nate couldn’t fix me. Nobody could. I was cold and dead, and I liked it that way. Cold and dead were far safer and more comfortable than the harsh, blinding sensations of life. Maybe there was a lesson about Momma in that, but at the time I was too numb to see it.
When school started, things got worse. My grades were fine. I poured myself into classwork with the monotonous discipline of the walking dead. With no pleasure, or desire therefore, in my life, it wasn’t hard to devote my time and energy to work.
My classmates largely avoided me, and I knew they were whispering behind my back. The gossip machine is bad enough for the average joe. It’s twice as vicious when your father is the preacher at a prominent church, your brother is mentally handicapped, and your mother took her own life.
Of all my friends, only Gemma stuck by my side, but even she began to drift away when her best efforts at friendship were met with apathy on good days and sharp rebuke on bad ones.
That just left Nate and, gradually, that relationship turned sour as well. He was just too steady. Too patient. Too understanding. I didn’t understand what compelled him to stand by my side. The question started as a nagging itch in the back of my mind, growing over time into a suppurating sore. Every nice thing he did made me sick with anger and confusion.
“Just stop!” I yelled one night at the spot, when he reached out to pull me to him. “Can’t you leave me alone for five goddamn minutes?” I knew as I said it that I was wrong. I wanted him to call me a bitch and leave. Instead, he just scooted a few feet away, tucking his hands beneath his legs.
“If you don’t want me to touch you I won’t,” he said quietly. “But I’m not leaving. If you really wanted to be alone you wouldn’t have come here.”
That was damned sound logic and I hated him for it.
“Fuck you,” I snapped, and hopped off the rock, stalking into the woods. He didn’t follow me.
A week later, he cornered me in the hallway at school.
“What the hell are you doing?” I hissed, looking both ways down the empty hallway to make sure nobody could see us. I don’t know why I still cared. Instinct more than anything, I suppose. Or maybe I was just trying to hurt him enough to drive him away.
“You haven’t been to the spot in six days,” Nate whispered, bracing his hands on the wall beside my head and leaning in close. “Where the hell have you been?”
“What, so you can disappear for days on end but I can’t?” I challenged him, placing my hands against his chest and pushing him away. I tried to leave, but he pulled me up short with a hand on my arm.
“No, you can’t,” he growled. “You never have before. Can you please just talk to me, Alex? Tell me what’s wrong.”
“You are what’s wrong,” I snarled at him, ripping my arm out of his grip. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”
With that, I stalked off down the hallway. My cold, dead heart pulsed once as I walked away, sending a spear of regret through my chest. It was gone as suddenly as it appeared, but it was enough to force me to look over my shoulder before I turned the corner.
Nate stood in the center of the hallway, watching me leave. His face and body were a mess of conflicting emotions. His shoulders were slumped in defeat, his hands clenched in anger, his brow furrowed with concern, and his mouth turned down in a thoughtful frown.
It was his eyes, though, which told the true story. They were fixed on my retreating form, shining with blatant need. A few months prior, I’d have called that look love. Sweet, hopeful Alex would have succumbed to the draw of his affection, sucked in by her own reciprocal adoration.
I wasn’t that Alex anymore. I was cynical Alex with a cold, still heart and the taste of death on the back of my tongue and I didn’t see love in Nate’s eyes. I saw lust. Everyone I cared about was pulling away, driven back by my gnashing teeth and cruel tongue. Only Nate stuck around, and in that moment I realized why--
He wanted me. More specifically, he wanted my body. I turned the corner, striding down the hallway with a refreshing energy. I had a mission. My chest burned warm with excitement and I felt almost dizzy as plans turned over in my head.
All Nate wanted was sex. Once he’d had it, he would leave. I would be alone with the gray-toned peace of my apathy. No more guilt. No more shadows of love or echoes of hope and the fierce pain that always accompanied them. Just safe, frigid nothing.
Pre-Calc was my last class of the day. Nate was in there with me. Our seats were assigned based on last name, so I sat in the back row and he sat two rows ahead and one column to the left of me. I stared at the back of his head for the entire, 50-minute stretch of class, hatching my plan.
It was a simple plan, built on a foundation of truths I thought to be immutable: that Nate was a teenage boy and wanted nothing more than sex, and that I was a dead-inside girl who wanted nothing more than solitude.
We all know what happens to plans that are built on faulty foundations. Sooner or later, the whole thing crumbles. Sooner or later, I’d fall.