She walks slowly to his bed, leaving a trail of wet footprints in her stead. She is a ghost ship, silently making its way across the sea of his room. She looks at his sleeping form, he is curled in on himself. When he was younger and stronger, he would sleep like a warrior. He was so proud. He would dominate everything, his bed, his dreams, even sleep itself would bow down under his perceived strength.
He is so much older now. These days he sleeps like a child, or a cat, both starving but petrified of the mouse.
She hears the rattling of death, climbing out from the deepest parts of his lungs each time he exhales. It was the little things like these moments, she supposed, that she grew to love. They were her favorite part of all of this. Her favorite part of this very long endless day.
This existence, it is not a life, but it is not death. She is in the in-between. She is in the empty.
She climbs into his bed and into his world. She lies next to him; her body is damp and seemingly heavy. Her wet hair and wet face, and waterlogged body creep into his dreams. She is a memory revitalized, a nightmarish creature, a visitor come back to stay.
She stares at him, intently, she is focused. You would think, after 60 years she would grow tired of his face, of this, her nightly ritual, but she hasn't, and she expects she never will. She stares until she feels something building in her throat, it's her anger, it's her fear, it's her rage. It feels like fire, it burns inside her, aching to get out.
He opens his eyes, with the confusion of age, alcohol and
too many dreams. Before thinking better of it, his arm reaches across the bed. It reaches for her memory. He finds the other side of the bed empty, but damp. She doesn't let him touch her, not for many years. In the morning, his sheets will smell like the ocean, at least her side of the bed will. It will have the aching scent of brine, salt, and wet. It is so different from the way his side smells, which is of tears, whiskey, and the sour sweat of fear.
He gets up, ignores the wet foot prints she leaves on the floor, the ones that lead to his bed, the ones that circle him while he sleeps. He plods to the bathroom, washes his face, rinses the staleness out of his mouth, he thinks for a moment he sees her out of the corner of his eye. She will always look the same, with her soaked hair, white dress, her head down, no, she doesn't let him look at her face, not directly. His breath catches in his throat; he makes a sound, somewhere between a cough and a scream.
He should be used to this by now, used to her. The simple fact she can still surprise him like this is what keeps all of this from becoming commonplace. He thinks he picks up on the sound of her laugh, the way it would ring like silver in his ears, but he is mistaken.
She loves him.
No, that’s not quite right.
She loved him.
She tries to remember the time before she felt those things. this task of hers is more difficult than one would expect, the simplicity of trying to remember when she existed before they met, before she wandered into his life. This a burden she has not yet managed to bear.
Was there a time before they collided and destroyed each other's worlds?
She hates him.
She never hated him while she was alive, she should have, she knows that he deserved it. He deserved her hate.
She does hate him now. She knows is both a beginning and an ending.
Hate can be powerful, but not as powerful as fear.
She fears him now.
She feared him then.
There are ghosts and memories in this house that even she fears. This man, he only fears her. It is what keeps her here.
She opens her mouth, and she invites the rage that burns in her throat to finally have a voice and it feels like fire, waiting to be born. She feels it rushing out of her. It is a scream that has taken 60 years to finally be birthed.
She opens her mouth, and all that's there is saltwater.
He smokes and drinks too much coffee. He nods his head like he is listening. He makes it seem like his head is here in this room, that it's not just his broken body hearing these stories of loss, trauma, and grief.
Adam is thankful it is Tuesday, which means that tonight is his grief support group. His Tuesdays and Thursday evenings have been spent in a circle of shattered lives for the past eight months. Tuesdays and Thursdays are better than Mondays and Wednesdays. Those are spent in AA. For those meetings, he tries his hardest to be sober, sometimes he fails at this. Yet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, well who can blame him, who can blame any of them for showing up to a meeting like this directly from the closest bar. They are all lucky that the closest bar is just across the street.
In the eight months and 11 days since Elisabeth and Ben were killed in the car accident, he has tried his hardest to be at these meetings. He is often silent but sometimes "he shares." He knows these witnessed hours are the only thing that keeps him from falling into the abyss of nothing or from just ending it
all. This small circle in a smoke-filled basement is all he clings
to… this, and memories.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, he attends because his wife and son are dead. Mondays and Wednesdays because she was driving the truck that night because he had had too much to drink, at the faculty Saint Patrick's Day Party.
If he hadn't had his last drink, hell even the last two drinks, then he would have been driving the truck. He would be dead; Elisabeth would be the one with the shattered hip and a steel rod down her femur, the limp, and the ever-present cane. Unfortunately, four-and-a-half-year-old Ben would still be dead. In that version of things, he would be with his son, and that's something.
Now, he is nowhere, not really.
He is not even really here.
He shifts uncomfortably in the metal folding chair, and his cane slips and falls to the floor. He reaches for it and it slips again, and he thinks this time perhaps he did have one too many drinks before he arrived. They all look at him. They smile in the way that reeks of sympathy. They have smiles that doesn't quite meet their eyes. The kind of smiles which still leaves the corners of the mouth down turned.
If he was still capable of feeling anything, it would be shame for interrupting Kathryn. When his cane hit the floor it created an explosive sound reminiscent of a gunshot. Adam can see in the slight twitch of her face that the sound hits too close to home. Kathryn is the group's longest standing member. If there were an award for most tragic, it would belong to her, it is a mantle that none of them wish to claim, none except her. It is all she has, now that she has survived the “worst thing that can happen to a mother”. She is very vocal, and she wears her tragedy like an ill-fitting costume. She tells her story almost weekly. They have all heard it, but there is no way to tell her that she's said enough already. That they have all grown bored with her life-long grief.
No one wants to be the asshole, the one who tells this
woman that no one really cares anymore, the fact that her son killed himself on Christmas Eve, and she found him in the laundry room when she went to get the presents...they don't want to tell her that her grief means almost nothing to them, that all they care about, and all they feel is their own torment. Their own holiday grief. They all have their own bloodied laundry room filled with festively wrapped gifts that they will never give away.
Ben never understood Christmas, not really. At his age he understood presents and chaos. Adam hoped Ben did not understand that Daddy smiled more when he had a few drinks and that his Mommy smiled much less. Adam knew eventually, Ben would have understood the family dynamic even more than the toys and wrapping paper. He would have understood tradition and family meals. He would get the idea of Elf on the Shelf and the rest of the bullshit. He would have grown to understand the necessity of attending Midnight Mass because it makes Grandma happy. If only he had grown older, he would have understood the tedium of rituals like Secret Santa and the crippling hate of songs like Jingle Bell Rock. He too would have grown sick with nausea when he heard I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Adam never understood that song, never quite understood if it meant that Mommy was cheating on Daddy with a man in exchange for toys. Or was the meaning that Santa was just another bar room scoundrel, seducing Mommy’s and then gone in the morning. Was Santa giving gifts to keep them all quiet? When he tried to talk about these things with Elisabeth, she told him that he was “awful,” and to “just let people enjoy things.”
"You haven't shared anything for a while Adam...Adam?"
Kathryn left it there, the pregnant pause filling the room. A silence that feels like a grenade t about to go off destroying all in its vicinity. Adam could hear the passive aggressive tone in her voice. He knew that if someone was to compete with Kathryn for the most tragic of losses, it was him. He knew it and more importantly she knew it. Her sympathy for him was always smeared over with a fine layer of contempt. Adam lost his son and his wife. Adam became disabled in the accident and almost lost his job. His let his alcoholism swallow the parts of his life that grief forgot, but that was always an afterthought for him.
He shared “often enough” when he first started to attend these meetings. Strangely, these people were not as easy to fool as the people in AA. They could tell he was leaving something out. His big painful secret that kept him mired to his self-destruction. Every Tuesday and Thursday he thought it would be his time to say it, to finally voice out loud what he has only whispered in his own head. As he was about to open his mouth and say the words "I never loved my wife, and I don't care that she is dead..."
He was interrupted.
Anthony was born on Dagger Island. Though he tried several times over his 82 year to leave, he understood deep in his bones that he was tethered to this place. An invisible umbilical cord attached him to this land, and it was never severed. He was connected to this little part of the ocean and to this house. He has lived in this house his whole life, his parents before him, and his grandparents before them. This house and the Island were wound into the very fibers of his being.
The house is a sprawling Victorian. It was once a pale blue color but over the years the weather faded it to a dull gray, much like Anthony’s hair. He often thought of it as a large decorative cage or prison cell. When he was being honest with himself, he knew that it was a prison cell of his own creation. He deserved far worse he deserved a real cell. That was also something that was wound into his fibers.
He grew up sharing this house with strangers, both living and dead. A "Rooms to Let" sign had been hanging on a squeaky hinge since he was a baby. His father, a man he never knew in life, did not come back from France at the tail end of the World War II. His mother, a proud and Stoic New Englander with a demeanor of granite, was also tied to this land. She had refused to entertain the idea of leaving this house, or the island. "When your father comes back, this is where he will come to. He will come back home, to me." She would never say that Anthony's father would come home to both, his wife and son, no, she only included herself. It was a statement that even as a child Anthony understood, and resented.
Most assumed Cecile was in denial all those years, thinking her husband would one day come back to her, alive and well. But Anthony knew even when he was small, that was not the case, she never thought he would come back to her alive. She always knew in her heart that he would eventually come back to her, dead.
"If you want something bad enough, and want someone bad enough, the island will give it to you. It may not last forever but it will give you a chance. You just need to be patient enough to wait." She would tell him this while putting him to bed at night, and she would say it to the guests of the house when they were checking in. She would say it to the people in the shops, and really to anyone that would listen or at least pretend to listen.
Anthony grew up with the reality of a haunting, the same way other children grow up with the facts of grass being green and snow being cold. He understood that Dagger Island, a small and mainly rocky landscaped part of the second-best known archipelago off the coast of Maine, was not like other places. Unlike Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard this was not the vacation spot of the New England sailboat and old money crowd. This was an island filled with people tied to hope that the worst loss in their life could disappear, even if just for a moment.
It took 7 years, of Cecile waiting, before Anthony's father came back. Now, keep in mind Anthony never saw him. He never heard his voice. Anthony did hear one half of countless conversations between his mother and father. He heard her laugh, which he had never heard before then, not once. He grew to accept that his life wasn't a family the way other peoples were. No, his family was a mother, a son, and a memory come back to stay.
But as an old man with a lifetime of regret, he knew that not all memories are good memories. He also knew that some things that stay, should never have been allowed to. He wished he had something to shoo the bad memories out the door with, as if they were an unwanted cat, rubbing itself strangely on all the furniture.
As he washed the sleep out of his eyes and rinsed his mouth out, he thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Something dark red with its head down and wet hair. She was always there, lurking in the corner of the room. Her footprints were often found on the stairs. The cushion of the sofa, the one he never sat on, smelled a little too much like the ocean and felt wet and cold even on the driest of days. There were always scattered bits of her reflection in darkened windows, and in mirrors. She was always the strongest on the beach. It was there that he could sometimes see her in her full form. She could be seen dancing near the water with an invisible partner. He loathed his jealousy over this invisible kelpie. He should be better than that.
Over the years, he told everyone who had stayed in the house with him not to go in the water, it was "too cold," and the current “too strong.” That “the waters just past the rock jetty were too dangerous and unpredictable.” It was an ocean that was easily angered, and not to be trusted. The guests never realized he was describing himself.
Was he scared she would do something to one of them? No, it wasn't really that, not really. I guess you could say his jealousy, it was always his downfall. He didn't want to share her. She belonged to him. She was his, from the first time he saw her, and she would belong to him long after he died.
He didn't really know why she lingered. He hadn't asked for her, he hadn't hoped for her return the way he saw his mother yearn for his father. Or the way all the broken ones do when they come here looking for solace. No, it was opposite actually; he never wanted her here. It was too late now; she was mixed into the ocean mist. Her presence coating every surface like salt air.
He always thought it was better to have something for a little while rather than have it forever.
But still she lingered. He guessed they were attached to each other, that her name was written on an invisible deed that he kept inside of him. It made sense, in the same way that it makes sense to ask questions in a letter. His attachment to her was useless but necessary. The loss of her was wound into him, it was a loneliness never spoken of, and she was a shadow always ignored.
In the moments in the deepest part of the night, when he was seemingly at his oldest and youngest, it was also fear, yes. He feared her, and he knew that only made her stronger.
"I, I talked to her. I talked to my Sally."
These words suddenly burst out of “old man” Bruce's
mouth. Normally, Bruce kept to himself and didn't talk too much. He’d been around for the past 4 months or so after his wife passed away. They were childhood sweethearts. Bruce and Sally had met in the 4th grade and spent their lives together. They knew each other for almost 50 years and were married for 38.
Sally had breast cancer, which she suspected for close to a full year, but did nothing about "for vanity reasons". It wasn't until it metastasized to her lungs and then to her brain that she took it seriously, by then vanity didn't matter. She was dead in less than three months. The cancer in her brain ate away any semblance of their lives together even before that. Bruce attended group regularly because his oldest daughter dropped him off. She would tell him it would be good for him. It was better for all of them if he didn't fight it too much.
He doesn't share though, not usually, so a sudden explosion of language from him is startling and demanded their attention.
"Bruce, Adam was about to share..."
"No, no what I was going to say, it's not anything" Adam mumbles this but no one is really listening at this point, the voices overlap, with so many questions for Bruce.
"Did you go to a Psychic?"
"Was it a dream?”
"Some people say that it's their spirit visiting you in your sleep."
"It's good to talk to them, out loud it helps us be less lonely"
Adam, said nothing, he just felt anxious and disgusted by how willing they all are to placate him. There should be no attempt to humor any of them. This group, this sacred hour, this Tuesday and Thursday ritual is about acceptance and about coping. It is about creating about your new life. A life in this new empty, a life in this new endless stretch of the alone.
"No, no,” Bruce interrupted. “I heard about a place. A place to go so you can be with them. If you lost someone, you go there, and if you wait, well they come to you, you can be with them. You can talk to them, if you want it bad enough...I would have stayed there, but my daughter, she said I was being foolish. She said I needed to be home for the holidays."
Adam knows he doesn't want to hear this. His stomach turns inside him at the thought of poor Old Bruce being taken in by some sad fake psychic. The kind of “spiritualist” who works out of their home. A dilapidated old white house with a neon sign and front steps that crumble when you step on them. These terrible houses are usually on busy commercial streets near used car lots. Adam always wondered how these glorified shacks would somehow become home to a psychic. He could picture this psychic, a woman who smoked two packs a day of menthol cigarettes. One who would always seem surprised when a customer would show up. The type of person who would take Old Man Bruce for all his money and replace it with some smoke and mirrors.
He expects people to start saying these things too, but instead there is only silence. It’s not the silence of disbelief, it's the silence of hope. People would think silence is all the same, but you can feel the difference, especially in a room like this. This was the silence after a prayer before you understand it will remain unanswered. In this room where the emotions are thicker than the walls and more toxic than the second-hand smoke this kind of silence is an unexpected visitor. It is a ghost. This time the hope feels like the ache inside of your bones when it's going to rain or snow.
"I know I sound crazy..."
"Of course, you don't"
"Who is to say what happens to us after..."
"If it made you happy."
"Were you happy?"
"Was she happy?"
"Was she at peace?"
Again, there are too many questions, and no answers.
"She seemed happy, I guess, she was the same. Maybe she was faded a little. Mostly she was the same. Maybe she was a little sadder, but it was still her." His eyes plead with everyone in the room. His hands flailed in the air like they were reaching for help.
"Sadder than her cancer Bruce?"
As Adam says this, he knows he should not have. He knows he should give a poor old man whatever he needs to get through this day, or this week. A man as good as Bruce deserves anything that can get him through this giant emptiness stretching out in front of him.
"I'm sorry, I know, I know, I'm just..." Adam wanted to say he was trying, but he knows he wasn't. He decides instead to not bother with a halfhearted excuse.
Adam says this as he picks up his cane and grabs his coat. He moves slow, his limp worse today than yesterday. He moves worse than a man who is 34, even an old 34, should move. He doesn't go to physical therapy. He doesn't do the exercises. He doesn't care about the limp. Adam doesn't care about his life, and decides he doesn't want care about Bruce, or how he saw "his Sally."
He does hear the words Dagger Island though, before the doors of the church recreation room close behind him.
He knows on Thursday he will be filled with a world of apologies for Bruce and for all of them. His apology will be too humiliating to even say out loud. It will come in the form of down turned eyes and the shame in his voice as he whispers his beleaguered hellos to them all. These people, who are all broken doll parts in a box, deserve more. Adam knows he doesn't have it to give to any of them. For now, all he cares about is whiskey. He limps across the street and he is once again thankful that Fall River, Massachusetts, is a city, tormented enough to have a bar across the street from every
He changes his location but not his overall goal, he sits at the bar and decides the same way he decides every night, that with each sip he will forget what happened earlier in the day. He sets the alarm on his phone for 8:30 pm. This is the time when he stops drinking every night. He is determined while on this path to his self-destruction that he won't be a burden on the students of his 9th grade English class. He won't ruin Lord of the Flies for them. He wakes up in the morning, he works, he teaches, he talks about the hidden Christ figures in every novel ever written. When the final bell rings of each day, he starts it all over again. 2:35 pm until 8:30 pm Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday's are different. There is no alarm on his phone on those days.
It is his drinking schedule. The road to perdition, slouching towards Bethlehem, he clings to this, the empty.
At the bar he orders a Jameson, neat, a double. He drinks it before the bartender gets a chance to leave and asks for another. "I'm not driving; you know, so it's okay, I won't kill anyone". Adam says it, not sure how decipherable he is, but his point must have been made. He hears Linda the bartender as she says "no, you're just trying to kill yourself." She doesn’t have any emotion in her voice, she just says the words. She has long ago given up on all her customers.
Linda has a face like a dustpan, hair like a broom, not trying to be insulting in his description of her, more a praise of her usefulness; she is something everyone needs in their life, something to clean up the mess of every little spill.
He feels blurry. The edges of his consciousness start to crumble. He becomes the mess she cleans up. He is nothing more than the bother of dust and dirt. He feels the spill coming, just as the thought in the back of his mind creeps in...
Why would Bruce lie? He's not a man who lies. Adam starts to wonder if a man who is honest says something that's not true, does it automatically make it a lie?
Does it make it hope? A wish?
He remembers the name Dagger Island, as the world spills away, and the broom comes to clean it up a little with another drink.
The alarm eventually goes off on his phone.