For over an hour, I distinctly heard someone talking. Only, the sounds came from inside my closet and I live alone. My whole body shook, but I got out of bed and flipped on the light. Creeping toward the foreboding, slatted doors, beads of sweat formed on my temples. White-knuckled, I gripped the knobs; but when I pulled them open, nothing was there.
“It was the right time to leave.” The specter’s eyes are a deep, calming maroon. When he speaks, his appearance evanesces intermittently, like the flickering of candlelight. He holds himself in a relaxed manner, but with the air of someone who has seen much of the world and understands it with perfect awareness. Seated in a dust laden armchair by the attic vent, he’s just finished explaining to me how it was he came to rest here as a way station after departing the house he haunted previously.
“How did you know?” I don’t know much of anything or how anyone ever figures it out. I would be content to spend all my days tucked safely in my mother’s arms. Things made sense there. Even now, I can still hear the screams of the last child she’d tormented, his small fingers gripping at his blanket tightly as she burst through the closet doors with a roar, tentacles reaching every which way.
“I just knew.” He narrows his eyes and side eyes me, one side of his mouth turned upward.
“How?” I’m nothing if not bewildered by such confidence, given that I’ve never found my own.
He erupts with a laughter that reverberates throughout our decrepit surroundings and I would swear it stirs up dust. Poltergeists can do that, I guess.
He’s still chuckling when he finally answers. “A psychic saged me out!”
“Oh.” I’m unsure whether to laugh along or to feel disappointed that he isn’t as self-assured as I first thought.
The specter’s head bobs up and down, as if he understands my indecisiveness. “You thought I would just up and leave a sweet gig like that? No, no, young monster. I’d established myself quite well in that house.” His head now moves side to side and clicks his tongue. “A change may do me good.”
“But aren’t you afraid?” I practically cut him off. My face burns and I withdraw a bit more into my hiding spot.
His eyes twinkle. “Of what?”
“Oh, um… I don’t… just-” my tongue twists mercilessly, “The unknown.”
The ancient spirit rises from his seat. “No, my young friend, I am not. We are the unknown. It’s your place to be the source of fear for children. So tell me: what are you afraid of specifically?”
Unsure how to answer him, I close my eyes, trying to remember the embrace of my mother’s arms and her voice when she would tell me to be brave, to be fearsome! I breathe in long and slow, almost able to remember her smell—unwashed socks and dirt from a long-forgotten pair of shoes. Hidden safely in the darkest corner of our closet, my mother taught me everything there was to know about scaring children, and I was captivated by her performances.
Then came the night that the blinding beam of a flashlight unveiled her form. I remember her features contorting as the child stood up from his bed and walked toward her, his voice strong and steady as he said, “I’m not afraid of you.” She began to dematerialize and quickly slid me from her arms across the darkened floor. As I glided underneath the bed, I saw her smiling at me. She mouthed that she loved me then was gone. I’d crept into the attic that night and have been hiding here ever since.
My eyelids shoot upward and I meet the specter’s gaze. “Light.”
“Ah.” The spirit’s voice is soft. “Then be terrifying.” With conviction, he continues, “Keep children shrieking underneath their covers where they belong! Reach out every now and again and grab a toe! And,” his voice turns somber, “know when it’s time to move on.”
I slither out from under the old toddler bed about halfway and nod very slowly.
“And, my young friend, one final thing.”
“Yes?” My eyes are wide.
The corners of his ancient eyes glimmer and their color morphs into a softer shade. “Don’t be afraid.”
I tilt my head and crinkle my nose. “Of light?”
“Of yourself.” He winks and vanishes, a cloud of dust swirling around the attic in his wake.
Almost before my brain has connected the joke behind his words, my lips turn upward. I open my mouth wide and laughter bubbles up from deep within my belly. After a few minutes, I shake myself and breathe in. I hold my head up high. It’s time for me to go downstairs and find an occupied bed like a proper monster should!
Thanks to Dan Tantrum for use of the featured image.
Saturday, I mentioned to a friend that Monday (today) would mark three years since my father died. This rolled off my tongue without hesitation, as it has finally begun to do. When I first lost him, always the mention of his death, even the mere mention of his name, brought tears quickly springing to my eyes, imploring me to release them from their prisons. Now, after three years, it’s become something I say without emotion, deliberately so. The problem is that people still respond to me with emotion, and it always takes me a second to realize I’m supposed to say “thank you” for their acknowledgement of the sadness, or to nod my head when they say they “can’t believe it’s been that long!”
Honestly, the week of his death has become something I’ve managed to put into a box somewhere and only allow it to plague me when I specifically get the memory out in order to observe it’s fragility. That’s why saying it’s been three years didn’t much faze me, but it did my friend. (She knew my dad in life.) Her tone was one of astonishment. “Three years? Already?” she practically exclaimed.
“Yeah.” I answered her quietly. I could feel the box threatening to open itself.
At first, it made me “angry-sad” that she, and no one else, is marking his death the way I do, that they aren’t remembering him like me. But I realized that I react that same way when we talk of her sexual assault. “It’s been blank amount of time? Already?” and I recognized in myself, the quiet, too calm response I usually receive from her.
The truth is that we’re all too wrapped up in our own lives to notice anyone else’s for more than a few moments. Yes, my dad died. Yes, most everyone I know now knows that. (Though I still marvel when I run into someone I haven’t seen in some time and they ask me how my dad is, or my family in general. I want to scream at them, “How do you not know of this monumental, horrible, awful event in my life?” but I answer softly instead, “My dad died a few years ago.” They look appropriately apologetic for asking and sad for the loss. The conversation usually stops there, awkwardly, and they excuse themselves. Because, for them, the loss is news and they haven’t yet processed it, nor do they understand that I have and that it’s truly okay to continue chatting about the new season of Stranger Things. It’s fine.)
But here, on the anniversary of his death, I get out the box, blowing a thicker than I thought it’d be layer of dust off the top and, with trembling hands, I open it. The week of his death is still there. And it still hurts so very deeply. I close one flap and take a deep breath. How do we honor the dead properly without making it all about us? After all, isn’t that why I’m “angry-sad?” Yes. Yes, it is.
I protest my own understanding of my selfishness: “It’s only because I want a little sympathy! No, wait, I mean, I don’t. I do. Maybe. But not for me. No, I just want you to remember him… No, really, you don’t have to tell me you’re sorry. No, it’s okay. Wait, don’t stop talking about him. Or do. I don’t know. Just… it’s…. I mean…”
I do suppose it really is all about us, but the departed aren’t here to protest how we respond in these situations, nor how we handle memorializing them.
And so, alas, whatever the validity of my feelings, here they are on this day that, three years previously, was so dark for me.
I found a poem recently, which I think articulates the way my loss feels with some elegance and poise. The kind I can’t come up with right now. I’d like everyone to read it because, I don’t know, either for my sake or my dad’s, I want to share this grief today. Three years on. So thank you if you do. Truly, for both of us, thank you.
I still love you dearly, Daddy, as I always will. I love you and I miss you always. ❤
PS Thank you to Wiki Commons for use of the image and to Kevin Young for writing this piece. You can find out more about him and his phenomenal work here: Kevin Young Poetry
I miss being a teenager. It’s not a sentence you’re going to hear often, I imagine, but I personally utter it frequently. Why, though? Why miss awkward body changes, confusing social situations, decisions about The Future, and trying to make sense of those “weird crushes” before finally understanding your sexuality? For me, I think the reason is because, as a teenager, I felt truly invincible. I felt like I had All the Time in the World to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had years to spare, I had time to kill. So much time. I didn’t think I did, but looking back on it, wow, did I ever! I miss long weekend nights talking on AOL Instant Messenger with my Best Friends Forever. I miss writing fan-fiction for teen dramas we all watched. I miss being happy and carefree and nonchalant about everything simply because we didn’t know any better. I miss the early days of social media platforms. There was something so pure in that stupid, innocent giddiness you felt updating your Myspace profile song and hoping your friends or crush might figure out its Secret Meaning. I miss the feeling of exclusiveness that came with being part of the Student Center community, as well as the amazing friends I met on there. That ridiculously proud feeling you got when posting angsty, arguably totally shitty poetry and people would comment that they Related. I miss those days of silly innocence, believing that our whole worlds revolved around who was going to play at the American Music Awards that year. I miss the code words we’d urgently type that let us know one of our parents was reading over our shoulder on AIM.
Were there scary days and decisions? Scary moments of existential awareness? Sure. Somehow, though, we all came through those okay and the next weekend we were back to thinking the worst problems in our lives were having overbearing parents or our favorite celebrity couple breaking it off.
Being in your twenties bears with it some of the strangest and most conflicting feelings. You’re old enough to drive and drink (not simultaneously!) and go wherever you want without a curfew. Alas, what good does that do when you’re flailing around broke and helpless amid student loans and crazy work schedules? What good is being able to see “whoever you want” when you’re all too busy to see each other at all? And with the extreme popularity and integration of social apps such as Instagram and Snapchat into our everyday lives, it’s easier than ever to “keep up” (read: constantly see) with every new trend out there. Trends, you will quickly realize, that are being made and kept up with by people who are constantly aging downward as you approach 30. And as you do approach 30, oh, so much faster than you ever thought possible, that fact starts to create a very odd disconnect within you. You can’t worry about Kylie Jenner changing her lips! That’s ridiculous… Yet there you are, wishing you were young enough that you could get wrapped up in something so trivial. But you’re not. You’re 27 and a third of your friends from school are married with children, a third in Grad School, and the other third still floating around aimlessly like you. Some of them aren’t even with you anymore. How did so many of us end up dead before 25? Fuck. We were supposed to be invincible.
I often say that I would give my right arm to have my father alive for even one more day. And I think the reason for that is because I am so incredibly lost that it’s genuinely frightening. I think a lot of us are. In the perfect scenario, our parents are our greatest guiding lights and, as we lose those guides, most of us grasp at straws for something to guide us beyond that point.
I think that’s why the chance to be a teenager again seems to me such a welcome relief from the horror that is Adulthood. I can’t be the only one who misses their friends. Or having the time to even have friends. We were invincible as teenagers and I think we need that more than ever now that we’re not. Of course, invincibility is all well and good until you realize that the only reason you felt that you were bulletproof was because you didn’t need to be.
I like to grow plants. Plants don’t always like to grow for me, but it never stops me from sinking an unreasonable portion of my wages into seedlings and soil every spring. As the growing season winds down for the year, I have a life lesson to share.
Thanks to an extremely rainy season followed by a heatwave that can only be described as Hell’s Furnace, most of my plants were a miserable failure this year. However, I took comfort in the fact that my coleus plants were thriving and looking lovely on my patio! I even managed to get my hands on a rare sub-species. One with ribbed leaf edges and a beautiful tri-colored surface.
Now, if you’ve ever grown coleus, you know that it must be pruned in order for it to flare out and look its best. You also know that you mustn’t allow it to flower if you want the leaves to be vibrant and healthy. Pruning coleus early and often is a tried and true method, and one that I myself employ every year with great success.
The thing is, this rarer variety is a bit difficult to keep alive. It grows far more slowly than its cousins and is particularly susceptible to leaf diseases, so the idea of pruning it scared me. I was so happy just to have this variety at all that I dared not push the shears through its delicate stems. Each time I pruned the others, I would say to myself, “Hmm, I’ll just give that one a little more time to establish itself.” Of course, with coleus, that’s not the way to do things.
After a time, I noticed that it had begun to flower and realized I’d waited far too long to cut it back. It was now or never! Reluctantly, I cut off the entire top portion of my precious plant. Doing this sends growth hormone downward and produces new leaves on lower branches. Of course, it looks a bit odd for a week or so, but the science works. That didn’t help me feel much better, but alas… Snip!
Oh, it hurt! I felt as though I’d chopped off my own finger. Wasting no time, I immediately stripped the cutting of its bottom leaves and placed it in water. Coleus will propagate quite easily so I was hopeful. Fast forward two weeks and roots had begun to shoot off of the cutting. Yes! I planted it in a starter pot with great care and waited.
Slowly, the little thing took root in the soil and perked up. Checking my plants one morning, I beamed with pride. It had begun to grow a gorgeous set of tender new leaves! Now I had two of the coveted but difficult variety!
At this point, I must backtrack for a moment. Along with seedlings, soil and new gardening gloves, I also added a new animal to my ever-growing “zoo” this spring. A little orange tabby that I would’ve named Tigress but that seemed too obvious, so I named her Euphrates instead. Get it? Heh.
Letting her play on the patio with me in the afternoon is a fun activity. She’s very active and inquisitive. She loves to climb up and down the patio chairs chasing invisible things. She also loves to weave in between all of my potted plants. And jump into them. And dig in the pots. That’s right, she’s a destructive little shit. Sorry, I meant she’s a cute, destructive little shit.
And that precious little cutting I was so proud of? Snapped in two by the rushing river, Euphrates.
But wait a minute, Anna! What is the life lesson you spoke of? Well, clearly the lesson is that we shouldn’t let fear stop us from growing. I was so afraid to prune that plant, even though I knew I should, that I almost missed the opportunity to do so. Once I pruned it, of course, both the original plant and the new cutting did well! (Until the Orange Fur-Ball of Destruction got to it, that is!) I think we sometimes focus so much of our attention on something we’ve already accomplished that we overlook and even miss an opportunity to accomplish something new. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the “sunk costs” of something and be afraid to let go of it, but that’s how we grow. Also, the moral here is that kittens are assholes. Obviously.
Sunset. A cool, autumnal breeze. A railroad crossing to my right. The silver tinted, blue waters of the bay shimmering on the horizon. A miscellany, to be sure, yet they are connected inside my mind. Experiencing them together causes a sadness to wash over me. My memory is stung by sharp, disjointed images, my senses overtaken with unconscious associations. He was here once.
All of the stories from my childhood come rushing into my mind at once, each one shouting over the other to be heard, flourishing a bit here and there just as he used to. All vying for attention and converging into an indistinct, yet thoroughly recognizable, single story: the story of my father’s life. I can almost grab hold of the entire thing right then. I can see it and feel it! I could retell it. I could write it down. It’s complete and mesmerizing! Then it is gone.
Memories are such fragile creatures. Broken by a fleeting thought about what to make for dinner or by the car in front of you merging into your lane too closely. I imagine memories as being encased in a soft-shelled bubble that pops and dissipates unceremoniously in a single instant. A trait eerily akin to the way we lose the people those memories are of. Yet, memories are also tough enough to withstand the paralyzing terror which grips us when we do lose those of whom we have made our memories.
The first few “awakes” after loss are filled with enough overpowering shock that it doesn’t occur to you that you won’t be seeing the person again. Then one morning, you’ll wake and find it’s the first thing on your mind. You’ll realize that the person with whom you both laughed yourself to tears and cried tears of the utmost sadness is now completely outside of your reach. There will be no new experiences shared or memories made. The realization will be shattering enough to send you into a frenzy as you try desperately to remember every last thing they ever said to you. You will panic as you grasp for every shard of every shared experience and you will try frantically to hold onto the sound of their voice, the ring of their laughter, and the smell of their hugs. You will feel dizzy with the overwhelming sense that you can’t remember them at all, much less any details of what they said or of the times you spent together. Eventually, the memories will return to you on small waves and you’ll think you hear their voice in the din of conversation over Christmas dinner.
Then one day, in his unforgiving way, Father Time will have moved an entire year past you and you will be amazed that it’s September again. You’ll be blown away at the thought that three hundred and sixty-five days have eluded you. It will occur to you that it’s a Leap Year so an extra day even slipped in somehow. You will cry. You’ll heavily avoid thinking about that morning a year ago- how your heart pounded mercilessly as you tried to restart your father’s. You’ll pass the hospital that was unable to save his life and curse it silently, knowing inwardly that it isn’t their fault and that cursing a building won’t change anything. You’ll curse it anyway. You will plan to go to the cemetery but decide against it, after all—just like he used to say—no one is there.
Yes, that’s right, your dad isn’t in that empty field. He’s in your memories. The ones that come flying into your mind while you’re trying to sleep. The ones that bombard you while you’re grocery shopping and pull at the corners of your heart—and the corners of your mouth—when you see Red Velvet cake and remember that was one of the last things he mentioned having a craving for. Your dad is in the thoughts that remind you to be kind to people, even when they are not kind to you. He’s in the thoughts that remind you not to let go of your faith even though you want to. He’s in the deep brown of your eyes and high cheekbones. He’s in your laughter and your smile. He’s in your heart as you watch the sun come into view, rays of warmth bursting into your hemisphere and filling it with light. He’s there beside you—all around you—as those rays fall across your face and you breathe in the cool air which signifies another opportunity to be all that you can be; and when you need a reason why, he will be there.
Over the years, I’d found that a strong enough spirit could cure most pains. My current plight, a strong pain in my left side, had been reduced to a manageable though constant ache and settled itself neatly below my ribs. Adriana creaked and moaned, cradled by the gentle waves of the Indian Ocean. We’d sailed out of Onslow headed northwest for The Cocos Islands and were now adrift 100 miles from their shores. It should have been a simple journey, but as is often the case with sea voyages, something went wrong.
Our lookout saw them first. Sitting atop the Crow’s Nest, there wasn’t much her Eagle vision missed.
Dragons. Third Realm creatures without soul or reason, destruction their only goal.
Zendya yelled down from her tower “Captain, there are over a dozen!”
Astonished, I asked if she were certain.
“At least fifteen. I’ve never seen this many gathered at sea.”
My mind was drawn to a battle we’d waged on Turkey’s shores while clearing the Black Sea. There, we’d encountered two dozen medium sized creatures. It was a long fight, but we pulled through. The Caspian, Mediterranean, and Red Seas had been quiet and we’d been able to fight mostly on land, luring the creatures to the shore with baited Schooners. Despite reports of numerous creatures in the Persian Gulf, we were able to clear it with relative ease as well. Most challenging had been the Adriatic. At least a hundred Dragons rose up, but again, we’d been able to lure most to land or fight them in pairs at sea.
My team was part of a special task force assigned by the Seven Kingdoms with ridding our waters of Creatures of The Realm. We’d had great success, but the Indian Ocean would be different. Larger and with fewer shores to fight on, most battles would be fought at sea. It would require more manpower than the fleet of ten ships we traveled in. While the resources were gathered, my team was sent to Cocos for relaxation.
I scanned the eyes before me. All held fear. I expected it of the crew, not of my teammates. We were a team of six: José, a Storm Catcher. Arden, an Electric. Fern, a Swordsman. Zendya a Vision. Gail a Sorceress, and myself, a Firebender able to sense the thoughts and feelings of those nearby. I drew a breath, addressing my comrades. “No reason to lie, we all know this won’t be an easy fight and some of us won’t be retelling the tale. It’s been a pleasure to work alongside each of you. Be courageous.”
No one spoke, instead moving quickly to their battle stations as we came upon the creatures. Their scaly skin slithered around Adriana in a way that seemed sinful.
It was a valiant fight, but three of my team and the entire crew perished. Most were thrown overboard, lost to the sea, the others eaten by Dragons. Now nighttime, a passing ship had seen our lights and sent a lifeboat.
Gail approaches me from behind, her voice tentative.
“They can’t see in the dark, you know?”
She thinks a wise-ass response but only says “yes” aloud.
“If we’d come upon them later we’d have-” I pause. “Everyone would have lived.”
“Wasn’t it you who told me it’s a sailor’s luck to lose?”
I scoff although it sounds like something I’d say.
“The lifeboat is waiting.”
“Then board it.” I tell her.
“Andrus, please.” Her familiar tone is one she’d never use in front of our team. The team we’ve just lost. “There’s no reas-”
“Gail. Board.” I don’t look at her. I’m sitting on Adriana’s deck, legs crossed, hands wrapped around my flask, eyes on the sea.
Gail heaves a deep sigh, wincing. She took some heavy hits as did I. My mind finds its way back to the pain in my side, numbed by the rum and outweighed only by the pain in my heart.
“Andrus, let’s go home.”
“I am home, Gail.”
“Home is to die with her?” She’s angry.
“She isn’t dead. She can be repaired.”
“Dragons may find you!”
When I remain silent, she curses, saying, “Fine! Do it then. I suppose it’s only fitting!” She’s always been jealous of Adriana. She turns swiftly and I sense a wave of pain shudder through her body.
“Gail?” I stare at the pitch black sea.
She turns and asks wearily. “Yes?”
“Can you get the lights for me?”
Even without my sixth sense, I can tell she’s smiling as she replies. “Yes, Captain.”