Everyone in Their Separate Houses

Lily lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling. There were so many hours until her alarm. The bed wasn’t quite right no matter how she moved her pillows, and she couldn’t tell yet if it was worth deep-breathing for an hour or if she should turn on a light and start reading. She could feel the invisible rubber band around her chest getting tighter, and her hair kept being in the wrong place. Her parents thought she was getting into trouble. She couldn’t tell them the trouble was inside her own mind. She was so alone.

 

Yolanda was desperately tired, but every time she put Levi in his bed, he woke up again. She had planned to go to bed as soon as he was down, but three hours later he wasn’t down yet. Michael was snoring like a chainsaw. Of course he was; he didn’t have boobs. Yolanda dropped a tear on Levi’s head, startling him. Tomorrow she would see if the girl next door could come over and babysit for a couple of hours after school.

 

Alex was staring at the tv, but he wasn’t really watching it. It was background noise; it was part of the act. It was how he kept his thoughts from getting too desperate. He just kept going back and forth – should he or shouldn’t he? Should he or shouldn’t he? He envied Michael across the street so much. Married, and a beautiful baby, and a year younger than Alex to boot. Jenna wasn’t ready to get married, and Alex was done with going out every weekend. He wanted to settle down. Deep down, he knew that if he stayed with Jenna it wouldn’t work out. He had to break up with her. It was going to suck.

 

Henry and Agnes slept holding hands. After Henry’s heart attack three years ago, Agnes insisted on it; she couldn’t fathom life without him. Henry didn’t mind. Oh, there were times when he watched that boy next door bring his girl indoors, and they weren’t very discreet, and he missed his youth. But after the heart attack he had dropped his longing for the past and focused on the present. Agnes was no sex kitten, but she loved him, and she still made his sandwiches. And when he overheard Alex and Jenna argue, or when he saw Yolanda and Michael’s exhausted faces in the morning, he didn’t miss his youth as much as he once did.

He moved his hand; it was enough to wake Agnes.

“What is it?”

“We should have them all over,” he said quietly.

“Who?”

“The kids. On our street.”

“Why on earth have you woken me up at midnight to say this, Henry Robinson?”

Henry smiled in the dark. She wasn’t angry. “I was just thinking how lonely it was. Especially in the nights.”

“But why not just tell me in the morning?” She was tired. He felt a little bit guilty for waking her.

“Their lights are on. See? That’s the girl’s bedroom, the teenager. Her parents are downstairs worrying about her. And next door is the family with the baby. Do you remember how tired we were?”

Agnes was fully awake now, sitting up. She nodded.

“And that boy next door. His girlfriend isn’t right for him. He looks so sad all the time. He’s watching that ridiculous television for hours every night. They’re all so alone, Agnes.”

“We were alone. We managed.”

“But wouldn’t it have been better if someone had noticed?”

“Well, you’re a fool. You don’t even remember their names.”

“What difference does that make? They still need to know.”

“Know what?”

“They aren’t alone.”

 

Lily hadn’t expected to stay at the barbecue. She was fidgeting in her seat. She hadn’t said a word for the entire evening, and had felt keenly the embarrassment of her parents towards their socially awkward daughter. But she stayed. When it was over, the host, Henry, looked like he wanted to give her a hug. She dropped her eyes and picked at her sleeve. He put a hand on her shoulder, and said softly, “You’re a good kid.” Lily looked up with surprise, and so did her parents.

Agnes chatted with Yolanda, and baby Levi lay on his blanket on the grass, cooing at the breeze.

Michael and Alex had a long conversation. When it was over, Alex wiped his eyes and left, already dialling Jenna’s number.

Agnes leaned into Henry, and he put an arm around her, a comfortable, familiar gesture. “You’re a good man, Henry Robinson.”

By midnight, the street was dark.

 

what to do when it happens again

On the surface, everything is calm.

She feels calm. She drinks her tea, eats her breakfast, gets dressed, brushes her teeth. The children get ready for school with their usual fights and screaming, as though they don’t sense that this calm is not a safe one. Something is wrong, but something is always wrong. Every day something is churning deep, deep below them.our

They leave the house. She is alone. She makes herself another cup of tea.

She sits down at her desk, wakes up her laptop, checks her email. Nothing important. She settles in to work, still calm, her hands steady. Nothing is wrong.

At lunchtime, she submits her reports and stands up to stretch. There are leftovers in the fridge and she eats them at the table with her book, the one for her book club. It doesn’t hold her interest but she keeps turning the pages anyway.

The dishes go in the dishwasher. The kettle goes on for another cup of tea. She goes upstairs to the bathroom, then comes down again. Her tea steeps, and she looks out the window at the grey and brown of early spring, the squirrels skittering through the trees, the chickadees singing for mates. Nothing remarkable anywhere.

The timer beeps for her tea, startling her. It’s too harsh. She takes it back to her desk and sits down again, but this time, she can’t concentrate. The timer is not that big a deal, she tells herself. It just startled you. You should go for a walk, or call someone.

She stares at her computer screen. She picks up her tea, and her hands are shaking so badly that she spills tea on her lap. It burns, and she cries out.

Get a grip, she tells herself savagely. You’re slipping.

She slams her laptop shut. Takes her tea to the kitchen and dumps it down the drain. Goes upstairs to change her jeans.

In the bathroom, she opens the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. Her gaze is briefly caught by the neat rows of Advil and Tylenol and half-finished prescriptions. But she doesn’t need those; she needs the list on the back of the mirror.

WHAT TO DO WHEN IT HAPPENS AGAIN

There is a list of phone numbers, a list of activities, and a crisis protocol. Right beneath the heading it says IF YOU CAN’T DECIDE, FOLLOW THE CRISIS PROTOCOL.

She is surprised to find tears on her cheeks, but they shouldn’t be a surprise. She never wanted to do this again.

With a sigh, she takes the piece of chalk from its place on the shelf and goes back downstairs.

She pulls back the area rug and draws a wobbly circle on the hardwood. She writes the letters CMXI in the centre. She takes the first candle she can find, a disgusting “clean laundry” scented one, and lights it. She puts it down inside the circle. She gets her book club book and sits down in the circle to wait for help to arrive.

Belinda

Belinda arrived in London at the end of August, telling her parents it was just for a fun trip abroad before college started. She knew there would be others heading to King’s Cross on September 1st. It had become a pilgrimage of sorts for fans – and this year was special. This year was the “Nineteen years later” date J.K. Rowling had written about.  She knew when she showed up, there would be people she knew there, if not by face, then by screen name.

She wasn’t even the biggest fan, it had been William who drove her crazy with Potter facts and showing her what he’d found online everyday, it was William who brought her into this online community. William who wouldn’t be with her.

 

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Cookies and Stories

She lives on two things: cookies and stories.

The best afternoons are the ones where she comes home to a fresh batch, eats three, then dashes up to her room to read. She sneaks down again after a few chapters, while her mother is occupied elsewhere, and sneaks three more.

She reads entire books in one sitting, then flips to the front and starts over.

Stories fill her mind; stories she’s read, stories she’s watched, stories she’s written. She has dozens of beginnings written, and she keeps sketchbooks and journals everywhere. Her desk drawers are full to overflowing.

She goes to university and graduates with an English degree, the fancy way of saying she spent four years studying stories.

She goes a bit nuts with the cookies.

She gets married; works a bit; has some babies. She feeds her babies cookies, and stories. It’s hard, spending her days with pre-rational creatures who have no qualms about driving her to the brink and back day in and day out. They steal her stories, for a while.

The darkness is awfully dark. On their own, the cookies are powerless.

One day she looks back at the stories she wrote. The ones she put on a shelf in her mind while she dealt with school and marriage and babies and figuring herself out. She remembers the feeling of getting lost in the words, feeling them leak and bubble and gush and pour, keys and clues to the stories that unfolded in her mind while she walked to school, while she sat in the car on road trips, while she lay in her bed in the dark. She wants that feeling again.

The words are terrible. The story is not good.

She starts over. The words come. She eats cookies while she writes, and feels alive.

PPD

Two pink lines.

Nine months.

Fifteen hours.

Seven pounds nine ounces.

When Alana thought about the numbers, she was shocked by how small they seemed now. All of them. Nine months? That’s not very long. Seven pounds? A bag of flour is way bigger than that. But the implications of all of them were so heavy she could barely stand up.

She looked at Elliott, lying in his swing, like a tiny pendulum marking off the seconds of his life. He was two months old, and just barely over his birth weight. He looked so fragile. She felt so fragile.

She didn’t want to take her eyes off him for even a second. He was clipped in, blankets away from his face, the cat locked in the furnace room and meowing his head off at the indignity. But she couldn’t handle the thought that he might hurt her baby somehow. She knew someone, or her girlfriend knew someone, whose cat had scratched a baby and the baby had to go on antibiotics. She couldn’t handle the thought of giving her baby antibiotics. She couldn’t even handle giving him formula, even though she had to use it. Stupid useless sacs of fat on her chest.

She couldn’t stand seeing herself in the mirror. She’d taken them all down, and put paper over the one in the bathroom. She only opened the curtains a minute before James came home, and then closed them again as soon as the sun began to set.

She’d found a piece of paper lying on the kitchen counter by the coffee maker. James must have left it there. It was some sort of quiz for postpartum depression, and it had made her so angry, those accusatory words that James had to leave lying around passive-aggressively, that she had screamed out loud. It had woken Elliott, and he’d cried. She’d held him for the rest of the day, and James had given her such a look when he came home and realized that not only had she not dressed or showered or swept the floor, she hadn’t even eaten.

She was fine. Everyone had told her that the first few weeks were hard. She just had to hang in there and it would get better. She didn’t spend much time thinking about the future, though, because probably at some point someone would get her to leave the house, and James would probably want to have a more serious conversation, and maybe even have sex. Sex made her whole body want to shrivel up in revulsion. Sex made babies and babies made hell, and now her body wasn’t her own anymore, even though it didn’t even work properly.

Alana hadn’t even realized she was crying, and that Elliott was crying. She didn’t remember picking him up. She looked down at him in her arms, squirming and flailing and rooting around, still trying to latch even though it wouldn’t do any good, even without a shirt in the way. She could feel her panic mounting as she dashed into the kitchen to mix a bottle. It took so long, and he was already so upset, that it was going to be another disaster feeding, with him throwing up and wasting all that liquid money.

Someone knocked, and she startled so violently she nearly dropped Elliott. She curled up on the floor, shushing him and praying the person would go away. They knocked again, and she whimpered, rocking back and forth over Elliott’s body, both of them crying.

She had an awful moment of clarity, her first in two months. Who was she? What had happened to make her so afraid? Slowly she became aware that her brain was trying to steer her down a terrible, awful path. She shuddered. How could she have come to this place? How did she get so far from the person she imagined herself to be?

The person at the door was gone. Elliott was screaming, his little face red and furious, his little fists flailing. She lurched to her feet and stumbled into the kitchen. She remembered that James had brought home premixed formula, and she’d had yelled at him for spending the extra money. But right now, relief flooded her. She grabbed a tiny bottle out of the fridge and screwed a nipple onto it, then jammed it in Elliott’s mouth. They both went limp as the screaming stopped and was replaced with frantic sucking.

She carried him over to the couch and sat down. She pulled out her phone and dialled James. No answer. She hung up and took a deep breath, looking down at Elliott, gulping his bottle so hard that it would undoubtedly all come right back up again. Her eyes welled up again; he deserved so much better than a mother who was falling apart. She dialled another number. It rang four times, five times, six times. She was about to hang up in despair when the line connected and she heard her mother’s breathless “Hello?”

“Mom?” she whispered, feeling the tears charging back. “Mommy? I’m not okay. I – I need you.”

Monsters Under the Bed

When I was small, there were monsters under my bed.

Everything was fine during the day, because they were afraid of the light. Daddy would read my bedtime story and we’d say the Lord’s Prayer (that tranquilized them for a while), and he’d turn out my light and close the door three-quarters, and I would make very sure to stay exactly on top of my mattress and not let a toe or finger or piece of hair extend past the boundary, or the sharp little teeth would snip-snip. One night I slept with my head right next to the edge, and the piece of hair from my widow’s peak had draped down, and in the morning I was chastised for cutting my own hair. I had done no such thing.

When I was a bit older and Daddy no longer read me stories and tucked me in while I stared at my stylized modern floral wallpaper until they turned into a three-dimensional optical illusion, I would have to leap into bed as quickly as possible while I swung the door closed behind me. I was grateful that my little sister still needed the light in the hallway left on. The coloured glass panels around the single bulb, red and blue and amber, were enough light to keep the monsters deep in the shadows. They would burn at the slightest light. I still said my bedtime prayers, though without Daddy’s rock solid faith to undergird them, they were less effective.

When I got older again, I stopped believing in the monsters. I stuck my leg out over the edge of my bed for a whole minute and nothing happened, ergo, they were not real. I stuck out an arm, and my whole head. Still nothing.

When I was older still, I began to hear a whisper in the back of my head, so faint I could hardly make it out. I concentrated, but I couldn’t quite catch it. One day, after a week in which I was laid off, my boyfriend dumped me, and I got in a fender bender, I finally made out the words.

You’re a failure.

I was shocked, and told the whisper to be quiet. But it unsettled me, that such a damaging statement could come from within my own brain.

Over the next few years, I heard the voices more and more frequently. Every time I flubbed a job interview, every time I had a failed first date, every time my mom phoned to ask how I was doing with that extra special tone of voice that implied that she was disappointed in me. I didn’t have to strain to hear it anymore.

You’re a failure.

Finally, broke and depressed, medicated to gills and on the edge of a serious alcohol problem, I moved home. My room was still the same. Still the same modern floral walls. Still the same textured grey-brown carpet. Still the same red-amber-blue light fixture.

Same twin bed. I looked at it through my foggy brain, in which the only clear thing I had left was the whispered voice, louder than ever.

And I knew where they had come from.

 

Helpdesk

Hello, this is Helpdesk, can I help you?

Yes! Oh thank goodness, I’ve been trying to get through for hours. I was about to give up.

Yes, that sounds right. We only respond when people are close to total collapse.

…Oh. Okay. Well, can you help me?

Let’s find out. What do you need help with?

Um… It’s kind of hard to put into words.

Take your time, but please be aware that there are three hundred people on hold currently and we cap your call at ten minutes.

Right. Well, I’m just feeling overwhelmed. Depressed, I guess. Yeah. I’ve been having a lot of bad thoughts and I don’t know where else to turn.

Depressed, you say? Are those bad thoughts about hurting yourself?

Yeah, yeah I guess so.

That’s too bad. Can we go through a quick checklist so I can figure out how best to help you?

Sure.

Any changes in your sleeping patterns?

Yes, I can’t sleep at all anymore. I just…

Just a yes or no answer will do, thanks. Changes in your eating habits?

Yes, I’m not really eating either.

Just yes or no please. Has your personal hygiene gotten worse?

Yes.

Do you have any social contact anymore?

No.

Any family to help you?

No, they cut off…

Please, spare me. Okay, I think I have a picture now.

You do?

We are currently offering a special where someone can come to your house and stay with you indefinitely, making you meals, cleaning your space, and working through your problems. This person would be authorized to acquire pharmaceutical medication to help you recover your sense of equilibrium, and in addition to drug therapy, they would be equipped to offer touch therapy, talk therapy, meditation practice, personal training, and life coaching.

Oh wow, that sounds amazing. How much does it cost? I’m afraid to ask.

Don’t be. It’s free.

Seriously? Okay, can I get that service then?

Certainly. We’re currently booking seven years from now. Does Thursday March 31st work for you?

Seven years from now?

Yes.

Seven?

Yes, I just said that.

Um… is there anything I can get sooner? Like this week? I’m really feeling like I’m at the end of my rope and I’m trying not to do anything drastic.

No, sorry, even our basic packages are booking next year.

Shit. I was really expecting that you could help me.

Was this your last resort?

Yeah, basically. I mean, like I said, I don’t have anyone else to call.

Well, there is one other service that we offer.

Why didn’t you say before? What is it?

We can dispatch someone within five minutes.

…To do what?

Would you like this service?

You haven’t explained what it entails.

You’re a smart girl. Figure it out. Would you like this service?

I… I have to think about it.

Your call is nearly over. You must make a decision. You know that by calling Helpdesk, you agreed to accept our services.

So it’s this mystery service, or wait for seven years?

Eight years now. Fifty-seven more people signed up while you wasted my time.

Shit. Shit. I don’t know what to do.

Shall I sign you up then?

I don’t think I can wait that long though.

Alright. Your time is up. Dispatching now. Thank you for using Helpdesk, and have a nice day.

No! Wait! I don’t want…

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