Archives for March 2013

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Claws

Stay down. Stay down. Stay down. It ran like a mantra through her head. The front door slammed behind her and Layla, the gray-muzzled black lab who had been patiently waiting on the worn rug by the door, stiffly levered herself to her feet, tail wagging. Anna hurried past her without a glance or a pat to the head and the dog stared after her, ears drooping. Charting a steady course across the scuffed wood floor toward the stairs, Anna’s vision had tunneled down to a path only a little wider than the runner tacked to the oak risers. She blindly looped her messenger bag over the newel post as she took the steps two at a time, ignoring the thud of the books inside it as they bounced against the wood.

She could feel it stirring inside her, could almost hear the rasp of wings and the slide of scales as it slowly began to uncurl. A whimper forced its way past her tight throat and clenched teeth. She moved even faster, shoving open the door to the bathroom adjacent to her bedroom and closing it with loud snick as the bolt slid across the strike plate and shot home. She stripped off her sweatshirt in an awkward dance of jerky arms, tangled hair, and desperation and then stood utterly still, back pressed tightly to the door, both hands covering her mouth: holding the world out, holding herself in. Then, as if all her strength had suddenly evaporated, she slid bonelessly down the door and landed on the tile floor with a painful thump, pressing her face against her raised knees.

The voices ricocheted around in her head, each one clawing its way over the back of the mantra she had been using to maintain control until it was pushed so far down she could no longer hear even an echo of it.

A C-. I expect you to do better next time, Anna.

Come home right after school. You’ll do it again, and do it right this time.

We’re going to have to rotate you into the JV squad but at least you’ll get plenty of playing time.

Just hold still and-

A soft knock at the door startled her.

“Honey, is everything okay?”

“Fine, Mom. It’s fine.” Catching her voice as it began to rise in panic, she closed her eyes and held her breath for several seconds before trying again. “I’ll be out in a minute.” She forced a laugh. “Shouldn’t have had that second pop before the bus came.”

Her mom’s voice sounded uncertain. “If you’re sure….” A voice called from downstairs, muffled but clearly impatient. “I have to take your brother to soccer practice. Your dad’ll be home in an hour. Don’t forget, he wants you to help him finish cleaning the garage tonight and I’d like you to set the table, too. I’ll start dinner as soon as we get back.”

Panic fluttered against her ribs. “I remember. I will.” As the sound of footsteps faded away, the muscles in her left arm cramped painfully and she stared at the hand with something akin to despair. It was like it didn’t even belong to her anymore. Slowly, the fingers folded down as if grasping a handle and the razor sharp claws that had started to push out from the nail beds gently pricked her palm.

No. No no no nononono. She rocked a little, eyes pressed tightly shut. I’m fine. It’s going to be fine. This isn’t going to happen. I’m just going to breathe and everything will be fine. From the other side of the bathroom door came a whine and a soft scratching. To herself as much as to Layla she said “It’s okay. I’m okay. I’ll let you outside in a little bit.” She wrapped her arms around her legs, left hand angled away, and squeezed tightly against the pressure building inside her.

This wasn’t going to work. She couldn’t push it down this time. Defeated, she turned her head to the side and let it fall back against the door. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she was caught within a seemingly endless minute where everything was strangely normal, manageable, controllable. Then the beast uncurled within her and that illusion of control slid away as she watched, remote and with something almost like relief, as the dragon pushed its way to the surface, this other within her now ascendant.

Anna…the Anna now trapped within her own skin, heard as much as felt the soft rasp of claws and her focus shifted to her arm. The nascent talon of her left index finger scraped across her right forearm and was chased by a welling of iridescent red scales that raced down her skin – as if the claw was drawing them to the surface. With each shift, each fading of her humanity into this serpent that coiled inside her, the fear that she might never come back – might never be “Anna” again – grew. Within that fear, though, was a small seed with roots that burrowed deeper each day. A sibilant whisper of doubt that asked if giving in to the change, giving way to the dragon forever, was really such a bad thing.

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Wrecked

It was an eighteen hour drive to Portland and we were late leaving. We’d packed the car in record time and I’d been waiting, A/C running, while she grabbed her sunglasses from the kitchen counter and hurried out, pulling the door tightly shut behind her. As she reached the car and tossed them on the dash she stopped, one leg slanted in towards the footwell.

“Honey, let me have the keys. I forgot something inside”

I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel in an irritated rhythm. “It’s hot and I just got the car cooled down. Where’s your set?”

“Jesus, Chris,” she snapped. “Would you just give me the keys? It’ll take me five minutes. It’s not like you’re going to melt.”

I looked at her for a long moment, reached down to the steering column, and turned off the car. I absently rubbed the little brass horseshoe that dangled from the key ring. She’d given it to me as a joke after my one visit to a race track resulted in an unfortunate – and costly – decision about which horse to bet on. She could always make me laugh, even at the worst of times, and I wondered where that woman had gone. Flipping the keys at her, I turned to stare out the windshield as she slammed the car door and headed for the house at a jog.

Although the August heat wasn’t doing either of our moods any favors, Erin had been on edge ever since my sister had called six months ago to announce her pregnancy and invite us to visit when the baby was born. She’d been on a tear since then: organizing and cleaning our already tidy home, packing up clothes she swore she wouldn’t wear this summer, even going so far as to cull through the boxes in the attic for things to give to the Salvation Army. What I thought would be a nice break for both of us – time away from work, a relaxing stop at a bed & breakfast half-way there, and respite from the heat wave that had struck the entire Rocky Mountain Front Range – was starting to look like a disaster in the making. I didn’t look at her when she slipped into the car and silently handed me the keys, buckling her seatbelt as I started the engine and backed down the driveway.

The silence in the car stretched for over an hour until the tension between us was more than I could stand. “What is it? I gave you the chance to bail on this trip and you said you wanted to come along so what’s wrong? Is it my sister? You’ve always liked Becca. Is it the baby?” Glancing over at her with the last question, I saw I’d hit a nerve. Behind her tightly compressed lips I could tell she was running her tongue over her left incisor. We’d been together two years when she told me about the backhand from her dad that had knocked it out. She’d gotten a permanent replacement for it her freshman year but I’d learned that was her “tell” when she wanted to lash out at me and was holding back, as if she was checking a known weakness in her defenses to make sure it could withstand the pressure of the words that crowded behind her teeth, waiting to burst through.

 ***

We’d met in college; one of those chance meetings that seemed like fate when I looked back on it. I’d been crossing the quad at the U of Idaho, head down busily working out a systems problem that had been assigned in CIS 339, when I’d slammed into her as she was hurrying across the grass, late for her work study shift in the dining hall. The lid had popped off her coffee and it splattered all over my shirt. In a rare burst of assertiveness, I’d suggested she make it up to me by having dinner with me. She’d accepted.

On the surface, we had a lot in common: both raised by single parents, both struggling to balance work and school, and both of us determined to make a better life for ourselves. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered how very different our childhood experiences had been. Raised by my single mom, I was the oldest of four children. My dad left us when I was thirteen and a lot of the responsibility for raising my three sisters had fallen on me. Mom was so busy working two jobs to try to keep food on the table and meet our seemingly endless need for the next size of clothes that I fell into the role of caretaker for my sisters. Our house was hectic and sometimes we struggled to make ends meet but we always had each other.

Erin’s mom had died when she was five and she was an only child. Paying attention to an unwanted reminder of what he’d lost was the last thing on her father’s mind. Nights out at a bar mixed with day labor wherever he could find it and Erin was bounced between sympathetic neighbors and her elderly grandmother after school until she was finally left alone more often than not. She always said it was better than the alternative because when he was around, he was invariably angry and she was the most convenient target. She’d grown up with the knowledge that she was the only one who was going to look out for herself.

She was everything I wasn’t. She was outgoing, creative, flamboyant, and a little wild and I was instantly enchanted. We dated steadily for two years and after graduation, there was no question of going our separate ways. We had our ups and downs but on the whole, life had been very good. Lately though…. For the past six months, being around Erin was like living in a world of perpetual twilight; just when I was sure I could see a path through this familiar landscape, I’d stumble over something hidden in the shadows cast by her odd mood.

 ***

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“So there is a this?”

“Chris…” her voice trailed off in clear warning.

“Why? Why can’t we talk about this now?” My voice was rising in anger and I hissed out a breath, trying to vent some frustration before I began again in a quieter tone. “Look, I know you don’t want to be around Becca’s baby but I told you, I’m fine with not having kids. Seeing a baby isn’t going to suddenly make me change my mind. Why can’t you just believe me when I tell you I don’t care?”

Her hands flexed and kneaded against the edges of her seat.  Finally she burst out, “Because I saw your face when she sent you the first pictures! Because you practically raised your sisters and you adore them and how can a man who’s done that not want to be a father? Why can’t you understand what I feel like knowing that you need something from me that I’m not willing to give you?”

You are what I need. You always have been. Why are you letting some imagined future ruin what we already have?”

“Because I understand and you don’t.”

“What exactly is it that I’m so clueless about?” Exasperation tinged my voice.

She turned her head toward the window and her muffled words ricocheted back at me from the glass. “I understand that when you can’t have something you desperately want, no one else can take the place of it.” Turning back to me, she replied in a hard voice “And I said I don’t want to have this-”

“That’s crazy! How can I lose something I don’t even-”

Our words collided and tumbled into an ungainly heap, and the silence that followed proved that neither of us was willing to dig through the pile and pick up where we had left off. Silence held sway as farmland turned back into hills and the sun transitioned to a faint glow behind the horizon in front of us.

 ***

The B&B was located in a small town well off the interstate. We checked in and put away our overnight bags before heading out in search of something to eat. We established a tentative truce at dinner – each of us careful to stay away from anything related to my sister, the baby, or our argument. By the time dessert arrived, we had slipped back into an easy give and take and I reached out and clasped her hand where it rested on the table. I held it on the walk back to the bed & breakfast and when she absently rubbed her thumb across my wrist as we let our conversation drift off into the dark, I felt a knot inside me loosen at this sign that we hadn’t irrevocably damaged our relationship.

Our normal routine as we prepared for bed was accomplished in a relaxed silence. I lay in bed and let my mind wander as she sat propped up next to me reading. I was reluctant to pick over our argument, even in my own head, but I knew we hadn’t settled anything and I needed to find a new approach that would reach her. Idly sifting through everything I knew about her to try to get at what was locking her into this tunnel-vision perspective of our future, I let the sound of pages turning lull me into a drifting state of random association. The light switching off roused me from my reverie and as the deepening night muted the sounds of life going on around us, I rolled towards her and pulled her tight against me. Her sleepy hum of contentment was the last sound I heard before I fell asleep.

It was still dark when I woke to the feel of her hand running down my hip. My breath caught as the motion began its return arc and her lips pressed against the base of my neck. Long minutes later I stared intently down at her – the faint sheen of sweat glimpsed in the glow of the clock radio evidence of our combined effort – as my weight settled against her. She wrapped her legs tightly around me and slid her palms down my arms, forcing her hands under mine where they pressed against the mattress. The ways in which she tried to bind our bodies closer together often held a hint of violence and sometimes I had the sense that if she could crawl inside my skin, she would. It was at those moments that I sensed she desperately wanted something from me. It was something she was never able to articulate but could only demand with the movement of her body: the impossibly close press of skin that sought contact at every possible point of connection, the fierce grip with which she held us together, the wild energy that radiated from her even as she held herself in silence. I never felt so inadequate as I did at those moments, unable to understand what she needed from me. Tonight, though… tonight this hunger that for so long had seemed like simple greed was slowly revealing itself to me as starvation. Even as our breathing slowed and my eyes drifted closed, a small part of my mind was restlessly trying to fit together disparate pieces. Her whispered “I’m sorry” was so faint as it trailed behind me across the border of sleep that it faded from memory even as I reached back for it.

 ***

We left right after breakfast. As I tossed the last bag in the trunk, Erin walked around the car and slid into the driver’s seat. She took a minute to adjust the mirrors and move the seat forward as I flipped through the CD case and loaded the changer. Hours and miles passed, intermixed with occasional conversation and mostly on-key singing as the CDs rotated through. As the traffic grew heavier, my tension increased. I was a cautious driver. I stuck to the speed limit, checked my mirrors frequently, and waited for long open stretches before I was willing to pass a slower car. Erin wasn’t exactly reckless but she liked speed and was extremely impatient with other drivers when they slowed her down. Being a passenger with her at the wheel was usually a test of my nerves… and she knew it.

With her left elbow resting on the thin strip of vinyl at the base of the window and her palm loosely draped across the top of the steering wheel, she reached out with her right hand and rested it on my thigh. I shifted uncomfortably and then tensed in anticipation even as she slammed her foot down on the gas pedal. Pushing her hand off my leg I ground out “Both hands on the wheel. Please?” as we rocketed around a slow-moving RV and the broken passing lines merged into a solid strip. She wasn’t looking at me but I knew she was aware of my unease and the sharp laugh that burst from her lips as we pulled up close behind the car ahead of us held a wildness that made me turn to examine her face intently. When we stopped for lunch, I made a point of grabbing the car keys from the table as soon as she set them down, signaling my intention to drive the next leg of our trip. She smiled at me, amusement creasing the skin around her eyes, and leaned over to kiss my cheek.

 ***

It was dusk as we hit the long stretch of I-84 that bordered the Columbia River Gorge. We’d make Portland late tonight and it would be such a relief to reach my sister’s house and stay in one place for a few days. I still hoped that seeing me with Becca’s baby would calm Erin’s fears for the future. The traffic hadn’t noticeably thinned as evening settled in and as Erin reached for the radio to adjust the volume, I darted a quick glance in her direction and smiled in response to the relaxed grin on her face. Turning back to the road, I was blinded by the bright headlights of a semi and Jesus! It was half-way across the road into my lane. There wasn’t time to react before we collided.

The world narrowed down to the sound of metal squealing and glass popping and cracking and for a split second all forward momentum appeared to stop, as if that sound was a physical barrier preventing us from moving forward until, with snap that threw me against the seat belt, the car seemed to resume motion with an oddly skewed lurch. Without conscious thought, my right arm tried to stretch across Erin’s body to hold her back against her seat but its progress was interrupted by a stabbing pain that kept it pinned in place. The stretch of dark outside the windshield flared into blinding flashes of light and whirled back to dark before light once again lit the car’s interior. The guardrail high above the river passed across my view and once again I heard metal screaming and compressing. Erin seemed to move toward me as if she was trying to climb over my seat to reach the door. For a moment, everything was quiet except for the rough clatter of the engine.  My heart seemed to lift. Thank God it was over and we had come to a stop. We were all right. And then the car tilted – sideways and down – and rolled along a bank of rock until it hit a solid mass of dark water and nothing was ever right again.

 ***

I woke to the hiss and beep of machines. Car wreck. Hospital. I had a moment to put those pieces together and then I was pulled back into the black nothing I had emerged from.

The second time I woke, Becca was sitting in a chair next to me. She looked exhausted and I wanted to reach out to her but my arm didn’t seem to want to move. When I tried to say her name, a rough scrape of sound was all that came out but it was enough to catch her attention and her head jerked up from the book she was reading and turned towards me. “Oh Chris. Thank God. Thank -” her voice choked off as she tossed her book aside and leaned over me, running a careful hand over my hair. Tears ran unchecked down her face and she gave me a tentative smile.

“Erin?” I managed to turn my second attempt at speech into an actual word but wished I hadn’t when I saw her smile immediately drop. I tried again. “Where’s Erin?”

The muscles around Becca’s eyes tightened while the rest of her face assumed an expressionless cast that I recognized as deep reluctance to say whatever was coming next. And I knew. It was almost anticlimactic to hear her say the actual words. “I’m so sorry. Oh Chris, I’m… She… Erin didn’t survive the crash.” She swallowed hard and gently squeezed my hand.

The shaft of grief that struck me was so intense I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak, I wasn’t even sure how I was going to pull in my next breath. It held me pinned to the bed and I had the ridiculous urge to reach up and tug it out, as if it could possibly have a physical manifestation. I just wanted to shove it from me with everything I had and let this horrible feeling bleed out of me. Instead, I closed my eyes and wished as hard as I could for the return of oblivion.

 ***

Three weeks in the hospital as a result of a concussion, fractured right arm and leg, cracked ribs, and the onset of pneumonia from time spent in – and inhaling – the water of the Columbia turned into more recovery time spent at Becca’s and I was desperate to get out of here and back to Denver. My youngest sister, Katie, was arriving in Portland today after a stop-over in Denver where she was going to pick up some of my clothes, collect an outfit to drop-off at the funeral home for Erin’s service, and generally get things set up for my return. She was going to accompany me back and I couldn’t wait.

It was late evening when she pulled up at Becca’s in a rental car. After a quiet dinner where conversation limped through desultory starts and stutters, Katie took a deep breath and stood up, pulling Becca with her. “I’m so sorry. I don’t even know how to-” her voice broke and she reached for an envelope tucked into her purse on the counter. “When I stopped at your place to get the outfit for Erin’s funeral, I couldn’t find any of her clothes in any of the closets and the only clothes in the bureau were yours. Then I found this on your kitchen table. I’m going to leave you alone to read it.” She turned and resolutely left the room, tugging a bewildered Becca in her wake. I pulled out the single sheet of paper and blanched at the sight of the careless loops of Erin’s handwriting slanting across the page.

            Chris,

            I’m writing this before our trip and I don’t know right now what I will have told you about why I had to leave you in Portland and fly back to Denver. Obviously by now you know I’ve moved out. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry to do it this way and I know it’s the coward’s way out to do this in a letter but I can’t look you in the eye when I tell you I can’t stay with you anymore. You want something from me that I just don’t have in me to give and the longer this goes on the more I’m going to hurt you. I love you enough to leave but I guess not enough to change who I am. I’ve asked a friend to move my stuff out while we’re gone so when you get back it’ll be a new start for you. We had a lot of good times together and I hope you’ll remember those when you think about me.

Once again I was paralyzed by a cold shock – turning numb, even as I tried to understand this new loss.

 ***

Home, and yet…not home. Not with Erin gone. I navigated the memorial service in a haze. Katie stayed with me for a week before she had to return to her job in Phoenix. I went back to work. Rehab sessions for the shattered leg were grueling and I was glad when I could finally put them behind me although it still ached at odd moments. I was taking all the steps, going through all the motions, but I just couldn’t adjust to my new reality. Just when I thought I might finally be wrapping my mind around her death, the thought that she meant to leave me – hell, that she had left me even before her death – ambushed me.

Her things had been cleaned out of the house but I was constantly wandering from room to room, looking for something that would let me pretend she was just behind the next closed door or curled up on the couch in the room I’d just passed through. Without her things as a touchstone – without her – I was adrift. Time heals all wounds, isn’t that what they say? Not for me; I seemed to be fraying more and more with each day that passed. Becca called to check on me every other day or so but I finally told her I was going out of town for a conference and wouldn’t be available for the next week. Every time we talked, the sympathy in her voice was too much and it was cutting through the illusion of normalcy I was trying to prop up.

I started going for long drives: winding my way through narrow mountain roads and trying to recapture some sense of the last time Erin and I were together. Sometimes, when a bright shaft of sun obscured the next curve until I was right on top of it or when dusk was falling and an evening rain shower caused oncoming headlights to reflect off the shimmering asphalt surface until I had to use the outside lane marker to keep the car on course, I could almost sense her in the seat next to me. My trips grew more frequent as the days passed. I had started calling in to work a couple times a week, claiming illness or telling them I would work from home, only to grab my keys and head out without a map and without a destination. Summer had given way to the depths of autumn and the melancholy that had been riding me settled deep into my bones. On those endless drives through twisting roads skirted with fallen leaves, I finally made peace with the fact that it was never going to leave me.

It was a foggy morning – unusual for that time of year in Colorado – when I backed out of the drive and resolutely headed upwards into the mountains. Every time I glanced in the rearview mirror, I could see the fog swirling madly in my wake and I took an odd pleasure in the sense that I was tearing through its veil. I pushed the car to go faster with every incline, blessing the relatively unoccupied roads and cursing the hint of sun I could see starting breaking through the white canvas that stretched in front of me. Cresting the last high mountain pass before the descent into the eastern plains began, I turned on the CD player and reached over to rest my hand on the seat beside me. Accelerating into the curve of the road as it twisted downward around the mountain’s slope, I closed my eyes briefly and heard the ghost of her wild laughter in the seat next to me. I pushed harder on the gas pedal, ignoring the faint ache in my right leg, and smiled for the first time in months.