Sprouts

My sunflower seeds started talking to me last month. I couldn’t believe it; I’d been lonely for such a long time. It felt good to have friends. I bet it was my mom who asked them to keep me company. I miss her terribly.

The clearest memory I have of Mom was when she told me that all the beauty in the world grows from something small. I was helping her in the garden, and we’d just planted sunflowers. My favorite. A couple days later, she showed me the tiny, burgeoning sprouts that would eventually become the towering, yellow flowers I loved so much. She repeated what she told me about beauty. I remember being amazed. I’d wake up every morning and head outside and check their progress. Each time, they were a little bit bigger. Continue reading “Sprouts”

My Constellation

December 10, 2015.
My last day on Earth.

From the moment I was capable of proper self-reflection, I knew there was too much of me. I filled more space than any person should. I would study the area around myself and imagine lines drawn between my body and the objects nearby. The lines were too short. Stout, vulgar lines barely spanning the interstices I used to prove I wasn’t sharing mass with the walls and furniture.

A plan bloomed within me and seeded the foundation of my identity. As I was shuffled from foster home to foster home, I began to restrict the amount of food I consumed. The general lack of care for my wellbeing, which I’m certain would have devastated the psyche of other adolescents, was my greatest advantage. With each refused meal, the lines separating me from the mass of the world grew longer. I bathed in the reinforcing glow of success. Continue reading “My Constellation”

The Oblivion that Masks Pain

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He said I’d feel better after a while; that my pain would fade along with his memory. His words echoed throughout the husk he’d left. My soul had been cored out and left to rot.

I tossed and turned, night after night, as I imagined him with the one who made him happy. My replacement. The thought of their sex didn’t bother me. It was the intimacy after – the quiet bliss when I was the furthest thing from his mind. Just days following the dissolution of our multi-year couplehood, the one which whom he’d spent so much of his life was on her way to being forgotten.

I was forgotten.

I sought an oblivion to mask my pain; anything to dull the omnipresent savagery of loss. Memories of our happiness felt false. I wondered how long he hated me before he finally let me know it was over. How long was I happy while he was miserable? How much of his life had I stolen, oblivious to his diminishing love? I knew it was all in my mind. And my mind screamed as cascades of neurotransmitters reinforced my feelings of profound, hideous dejection.

Then I had an idea.

Part of me felt sad about how easy it was to buy heroin.

The first pet store I visited had the rats I wanted. I brought them home and fed them a solution of sugar water and heroin. They died soon after. I knew the last moment of their lives had been their best.

While they were still warm, I removed their brains and ate them. I wanted to absorb the physical manifestation of their joy.

I know a small portion of the euphoria I experienced following my meal was from the trace amounts of heroin I’d ingested. But it lasted longer than a drug high. It lasted for days. For three full days, the thought of him didn’t send me into a self-destructive spiral. Quite the contrary; I felt like I was growing. I was getting over him.

At the end of the three days, the pain came back. Nightmares flooded the sleep that’d once been a respite. The fact remained: I was gradually being forgotten. I was being replaced. Someone was creating new memories with the person I love. I couldn’t let that happen.

More rats, more heroin. Another respite. Two days, though. Only two. It wasn’t working the way I’d hoped. The root of the problem was still there. Every passing day, I was becoming less clear in his mind. The prospect being forgotten was infinitely worse than forgetting him. The former made the latter impossible.

My moment of serendipity occurred while I was throwing the dead rats down the garbage chute.

He answered his phone when I called. To this day, I feel terrible for lying to him. He rushed over, as strong and protective as ever, to see who’d hurt me. When he was sitting down, I came behind him and injected a lethal dose of heroin into the side of his neck. He punched me, hard, before his pupils dilated. Before he stopped breathing, he smiled at me.

“Kate,” he whispered, “to think I’d almost forgotten how beautiful you are.” He exhaled a long, quiet breath. His dilated eyes never left mine as he blinked once or twice, almost as if he were wondering why he didn’t feel the need to inhale anymore. When he died, his smile remained.

I opened his head. It took longer than I’d expected. I made sure to keep cleaning off his face. His smile urged me to go on. After an hour, I stared at the mass inside his skull that was him. His essence. His everything.

I didn’t know what part did what. I just knew it was all him, so it was all important. Over the course of a few days, I consumed him as he smiled. Each morsel had the potential to be a piece that contained his memory of me. All his memories of the good times. All his memories of the beauty we experienced. The closeness.

When his skull was empty, I felt different. I wasn’t euphoric, like I’d felt after the rats. I felt better. I was at peace. This was my closure. I’d ensured that I wouldn’t be forgotten. The one I loved was with me again. Forever. And together, we could be free to make new memories.

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The Least Satisfying Explanation

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Before my husband died, our daughter, Veronica, was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. We brought her to countless specialists and nearly all of them came to the same conclusion. The condition is rare, but certainly not unheard of. We were devastated. The doctors suggested that we not start her on medication right away. They were concerned the chemicals might interfere with the development of her brain. At five years old, when proper brain development is critical, they didn’t want to chance it. Only if the hallucinations became severe would they prescribe antipsychotics.

Paul said it might help if we could identify the hallucinations over the course of the next year so we might know what to expect before she started school. This was pretty hard for me to agree with. I’d wanted her to start kindergarten right away. She’d demonstrated she was smart enough and more than capable, but eventually I caved. I just didn’t want to admit that Veronica needed special attention. We needed to separate her hallucinations from the normal, everyday make-believe that every kid her age does.

We started to pick up on a few outliers. One was a big dog who played with her while she was supposed to be sleeping. The other was a fish who followed her around and talked to her about cartoons. Most disconcerting to both of us, though, was the dark man with no eyes, nose, or ears who said how much fun it would be if she ran out and played in the street. More than once, Paul told me he’d chased after Veronica after she opened the screen door and ran toward the busy road.

After the third time, Paul got up at dawn, called in sick, and spent the day putting up a fence. It was summertime, and as much as I wanted to keep Veronica indoors, I knew sunshine and fresh air were too important for her to miss out on. Still, whenever Veronica played outside, she would make a beeline for the fence and start crying whenever she couldn’t go beyond it. I remember sitting with her on the grass next to the fence as she sobbed and talked to the fish about how the dark man was mad at her and had told the dog to be mean when they played. Then she screamed for a long time. When I finally got her to tell me what was wrong, all she said was that the fish got hit by a car and died. I did my best to console her, but it was useless.

Paul and I had a long talk that night. We decided her condition might be bad enough to require the medication we’d desperately tried to avoid giving her. After a trip to the doctor, who listened intently to all the observations we’d made, he agreed her condition was potentially severe and prescribed the drugs. We were told to observe her very, very carefully. The medication could cause the hallucinations to get worse before they got better.

Three days into Veronica’s medication experiment, her hallucinations became violent. I’d never seen our daughter so frightened. Over the course of two terrifying days, she’d describe to us how the fish turned into a monster after he died and made her water taste rotten; how the dog would hurt her whenever she was alone; how the dark man without the nose, ears, or eyes scratched her tummy so hard she’d start bleeding. Then she lifted her shirt. There were fresh scratches all over her belly. I looked at her fingernails, and sure enough, I could see tiny scraps of skin and blood underneath. Paul and I were at a loss.

The stress of Veronica’s episodes strained the relationship between me and my husband. I could tell his depression had reemerged. Still, I cared more about my innocent daughter than my adult spouse. The doctors asked that we begin to taper off Veronica’s medication to see if things got any better. I couldn’t see any difference. Veronica was always scared and kept scratching herself when we weren’t around, usually when she was asleep.

Paul and I began trading off nights where we slept in Veronica’s room to keep an eye on her. Still, I’d find blood on her sheets and clothes and under her nails whenever I’d check. Each of her hallucinations had become violent. The fish would bite her, the dog would lie on top of her so she couldn’t breathe, and the dark man would scratch her. I seriously wondered if Veronica needed to be institutionalized.

Paul shot himself in the head on a Sunday morning while Veronica and I were in the kitchen eating breakfast. I won’t bother detailing the shock, the feeling of betrayal, and the sheer sensation of helplessness that followed. I was left alone to care for a dreadfully ill daughter.

A couple weeks after his funeral, I was cleaning the house with Veronica by my side, proudly displaying the new mittens her aunt had purchased for her in hopes that she might stop scratching. So far, they’d worked pretty well. For whatever reason, Veronica was in one of her rare good moods as we went through the house. I was boxing up small stuff that had belonged to Paul. It hurt too much to see it every day.

Veronica chattered idly about sleeping a lot better lately with no bad dreams and the dog not getting on top of her anymore and the fish being kind and funny again. I told her how nice that was and we brought the box I was carrying out back to Paul’s shed. I thought about asking her if the dark man with the scary face was still asking her to hurt herself. Before I could speak, I saw her furiously scratching her belly. I sighed. Thank goodness for the mittens.

After trying about 15 of the 30-or-so keys Paul had kept on his keyring, I finally chose the right one for the shed. I opened the door and Veronica ran inside to explore. She turned left, I turned right, looking for a place to put the box. Veronica giggled and exclaimed, “now I’m on top of you!” I turned toward her to see who she was talking to. Crumpled up in the corner, underneath Veronica, was a dog suit.

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Shadows on the Wall

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Growing up, I was convinced I’d be abducted by aliens. I lived in constant, sleep-deprived fear as every strange shadow and every reflection of light on the wall signified the beginning of what I knew would be my end. Logic told me the shadows were just piles of dirty clothes or my coat rack; that the reflections were just from passing cars on the street below. But logic fails in the face of terror. If it weren’t for my older brother, Jason, with whom I shared the bedroom, there was a very real chance I would’ve lost my mind.

I remember my 13th birthday with the same detached sense of helpless violation as a victim of sexual assault. The day itself had been fine. Pleasant, even. My parents, who were always caring and supportive, did their best to make sure my birthday was enjoyable. They knew I was stressed. They knew I was anxious. I’d never told them why, though. Only Jason knew, and he promised to keep it a secret.

After the festivities, I went up to my room to play video games. I had two hours to play before lights-out. Jason sat on his immaculately-made bed, which was in stark contrast to my messy one, and watched, offering pointers as I died over and over.

Two hours went by quickly, and Dad came in to say it was time to go to sleep. He sat next to Jason on the bed and let me know he was proud of me; how I’d been brave despite having a hard time and that things would get better. He wished me a happy birthday and kissed me goodnight, switching off the light on his way out of the room.

For a little while, I felt pretty good. Like I said, I never told my parents exactly what had been bothering me. They’d ask every so often, but they wouldn’t pry. They could tell I was struggling. I heard them cleaning up downstairs, comforted by the fact they were still awake and alert. With a sense of security I hadn’t felt in a long time, I drifted off to sleep.

After a couple hours, I woke up and glanced at the clock. 11:26. I closed my eyes again. Before I could drift off to sleep, though, I noticed something. The room smelled bad. It wasn’t a scent I could identify in the slightest – it was heavy and medicinal, but organic, too. Strange. Alien.

My eyelids lifted to the sight something shuffling toward my bed. I tried to shout and bolt away, but nothing worked. No movement, no sound. Only my eyes could receive my commands, and they stared, bulging out of my skull, as thing stood over my supine body.

I knew it’d finally come to me; this was the day I’d anticipated and dreaded for years. I tried to make out the features on its face. All I could pick up on was hideousness. Deformity. A head with its upper-left quadrant missing. A mouth with no lower mandible and a shriveled tongue lolling down to its skinny neck.

“Robbie,” it gurgled.

It knew my name. It had been studying me and it knew my name.

“No more me, Robbie. No more me. Time to grow up.”

Its head came down and touched my forehead with the remains of its upper lip. As it tilted, maggots tumbled out of the cratered skull and landed on my face. They squirmed and tumbled onto my pillow. I felt them writhing against my ears and the sides of my neck.

“I’ll miss you.”

It turned and walked toward Jason’s bed. I tried over and over to scream as panic suffused the entirety of my being; the dark world around me blurred and I knew I was going to pass out. I knew I was going to fail my brother and not be able to warn him before the creature reached him. Before I lost consciousness – before I passed into a dreamless morass of black – I hated myself for being so useless. For being so weak.

My mother’s shrill, panicked shriek catapulted me back into reality. The room was bright. It was morning. Mom stood over Jason’s bed wailing and sobbing and I heard Dad thundering across the hall from their bedroom. He burst into the room and immediately saw what Mom did. I watched his knees tremble, as if he were about to fall.

I didn’t move. Everything from the night was coming back and I knew – I was certain – Jason was dead. My big brother was gone. The certainty was overwhelming and searing tears of leaked down my cheeks onto the pillow. Something wriggled against my neck. I gasped and leapt to my feet.

Everything went slowly for the next few minutes.

I turned and saw the ring of maggots around my head print on the pillow. Dad was crossing the room to take me in his arms when he saw the bugs on my pillow and in my hair and whispered, “oh my God.” He picked me up. He hadn’t done that in years.

I rode out of the room in his strong arms. “Don’t look at your brother’s bed,” he ordered. I couldn’t help myself. I looked as we exited. One glance was all I needed.

Jason’s body was on the bed. He was wearing a stained and dirt-encrusted blue suit. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, as I took in his injuries: the torn lower mandible. The caved-in skull. The desiccated, green-gray skin that was mostly gone.

Mom’s wracking sobs had escalated to hysterical screaming. As Dad and I rounded the corner and headed downstairs, we heard her shouting, “how did you come back? Why are you here? Who did this?”

Dad whispered in my ear as we walked. “It’s okay sweetheart. It’s okay. We don’t know who did it, but it’s going to be all right. It’s not your brother anymore. It’s just the body he doesn’t need. He’s still in heaven, okay? He’s still in heaven.”

I started to shake and Dad’s voice cracked with emotion as he spoke those last words. “He’s in heaven.” It sounded horribly, horribly familiar. I closed my eyes and saw a coffin. I saw my parents standing next to it, sobbing. I saw a large, framed picture of Jason and a room full of friends and family.

But I also saw the toys I was playing with. And I saw Jason sitting next to me. We played while everyone else cried. He grinned and said, “Don’t be upset, Robbie. I’ll be here to help while you grow up. You don’t have to feel sad.”

My aunt, Lindsay, came up to me and stood in the exact same spot where Jason was sitting. I remember thinking it was strange she could do that, and then she knelt down and said, “he’s in heaven” before walking back to my cousins and uncle. Jason winked at my confused face, then we kept playing with our toys.

“Jason died,” I whispered to Dad.

He nodded and I watched as he eyed the muddy footprints from the back door which led up the down the hall and up the stairs to my room.

“You were probably too young to remember, but he loved you so, so much.”

I thought back to all the fun we’d had in our room over the years, all leading up to the video games on my 13th birthday the night before.

“You’re the same age he was now,” Dad said, and tears freely flowed down into his beard. “You’re all grown up.”

Something from the previous night buzzed in my ear. “No more me, Robbie. No more me. Time to grow up.”

And then it clicked. And my screams joined those of my mother in a terrible, dissonant chorus.

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