Those of us who survive what happens behind closed doors don’t talk about it much more than those who didn’t.
And you. You know there are mothers who look at their children as bloodsucking leeches, blaming them for their dwindling energy and passion for life. You know there are fathers who see their daughters as a possession, their innocence a vulnerability to exploit. You know that drugs, or alcohol, or the festering hatred of wasted years can curdle the blood until convictions of “right and wrong” subtly transform into “is someone watching or not.”
But we don’t talk about it, because maybe it’s our fault they don’t love us more. And you don’t think about it, afraid your own love will be spoiled by the guilt of those who go without. But if I’m going to be brave enough to talk, then I want you to be brave enough to listen. We are no longer children, and we must both accept that closing our eyes does not make the monsters go away anymore.
My parents died in a car accident when I was 14. Uncle Viran and Aunt Isabelle said they had always wanted a daughter and took me in after that, treating me with the polite indifference you’d use to summon your waiter. And that was okay with me, because I wasn’t really expecting to have a family again. I had one once, and wanting that intimacy back with other people seemed disrespectful to their memory. Wherever I would go, whoever I would be with from that day on, I knew I would be alone.
Viran was always watching me with his beady little eyes, nearly invisible behind huge spectacles. Isabelle tolerated me, although she was better at it when I stayed in my room. And life went on. I never stopped wearing black after the funeral, but over time I added some bows and lace because Uncle thought I looked depressing.
It wasn’t good enough for him though. He bought me a lot of brightly colored ornaments to wear so “the room didn’t look like someone turned out the lights” every time I entered. Isabelle thought it was a waste of money, and I agreed. There was something powerful and elegant in my dark wardrobe which protected me from life’s banalities. The other things made me feel like a clown on display, an object for the sole purpose of being seen and used.
I’d try them on though, whatever it was. Pink dresses, sunhats, stiletto shoes. Uncle would make me model them, striking poses and spinning around while his eyes sparkled with undisguised appetite. I’d thank him politely, keeping the rest of my words to myself, waiting for his face to flush with sweat and his words to awkwardly tangle in his mouth before he’d let me leave.
They were nice things, he told me. Expensive things. He wanted to keep them clean, so he’d make me undress to store them safely. Not in the bathroom where I could spill water on them. Not in my bedroom where I kept it so dirty. Right here in the living room, it’s alright. There’s no-one else here. And I’d do what I was told, he’d remind me, because I was a good girl who appreciated everything he’s done for me.
Isabelle was returning from the store when she caught him like that once. His hands were already on me, helping to slide my new skirt down. I caught her eye with a sort of helpless pleading. She got so angry she actually started trembling, her lips pressing into a bloodless scar. I thought that was going to be the end of this game. She was going to yell at her husband and swoop in to save me like my own mother would have done if she’d found me like that…
But my mother wasn’t here anymore. Isabelle turned around and went into the kitchen without another word. Uncle followed her, and I took the chance to run for my bedroom. I listened against the door for a sound of a fight, but they were both speaking low and soft. All I could hear was the frenzied pounding of blood in my veins and the mounting scream of a tea kettle.
I thought she was just making herself a cup to calm down until my door opened five minutes later. I knew something bad was going to happen as soon as I saw her: face like plastic, thick rubber gloves up to her elbow, and tea kettle in hand.
“Viran told me everything,” Isabelle said as she sat down beside me on the bed. She touched me with one of those rubber gloves and I started shaking so bad the headboard rattled. “I don’t want to do this, but it’s for your own good. Girls have empty heads sometimes, and must be taught lessons that are not easily forgotten.”
Isabelle’s carefully maintained countenance twisted into a snarl when she grabbed my hair and began to pour the boiling water over my head. The more I cried, the louder she yelled to be heard. How dare I try to seduce her husband, she’d said. Selfish slut, just like my mother. Home wrecker. Ungrateful bitch. Two-faced whore. By the time the kettle was empty, I was writhing in agony on my soaked bed sheets. I just lay there gasping, my tears evaporating where they ran across my scalded skin. My eyes were too swollen to see, but I heard her stand and exit the room.
“Even if you try, I don’t think he’ll want you now anyway,” she said as she left.
When the door closed, I tried to pull my drenched shirt off but every brush of fabric on skin was excruciating. I had to cut myself free with a pair of scissors, biting my tongue to keep myself from howling. Then staggering to the bathroom to splash cool water on my face I could see blisters the size of my nose already forming on my hands and neck which had taken the worst of it.
It took almost a week for the swelling to come down. Aunt Isabelle brought me aloe lotions and cooed over me like it had been an unfortunate accident. Uncle didn’t even look at me, so I guess I should be grateful in a way. As my skin continued to heal, I kept applying rouge to make it look like the skin was still scalded. I thought maybe he’d leave me alone as long as he thought I was ruined, but I couldn’t keep up the disguise forever.
One week is all the respite I got. I felt his hands resting on my shoulders as I bent to peer into the fridge, their gentleness as vile as Isabelle’s iron grip. He said he was sorry for what happened. It was wrong of her to treat me like a child (he knows I’m not a child anymore) or to punish me (when I had been so good). Not to worry, he assured me; next time she’ll never find out. Next time, he’s going to have a special present to make up for what happened.
He was right about one thing: I wasn’t a child anymore. You can’t stay a child after something like that has happened, no matter how hard you try. With his hands running down my back as lightly as snow upon a grave, I knew what next time meant. There wasn’t going to be a next time though, because I was going to run away. Over dinner that night I made a big show coughing and playing sick. I told them I felt like I could sleep forever. Once in my room, I stuffed a couple pillows under my blanket to make it look like someone was still sleeping there.
But I wasn’t taking any chances. I’d even picked up a cheap wig which perfectly matched my auburn hair. After fastening it around a soccer ball, I pulled the blankets way up to its “chin” and took a step back to survey my work. I briefly considered trying to rig up one of those audio recorder setups where a string is attached to the door and plays a message when it’s opened, but it seemed too complicated and I was already terrified of being caught before I got out.
Isabelle hadn’t entered my room since she burned me, and Uncle seemed uncomfortable there as well. I hoped they would just think I was sick and not disturb the dummy until I was a long way from here. My backpack was stuffed with clothes, some snacks, and about 40 dollars, and I looked back one last time before I left. As terrible as it was here, I had no delusions that life outside would be any easier. I figure people are going to suffer no matter where they are, but at least now I could choose how.
I didn’t think anything could make me stay longer in that house, but then again, I couldn’t have expected what I saw when glancing back. The pillows I’d carefully lain under the covers had shifted. The bundle was leaning back against the headboard now, the long auburn hair falling down to completely obscure the soccer ball.
Then before my eyes, the dummy head moved. Now to the left. Now to the right. The wig swishing softly as it dragged along the sheets. Now it was looking right at me, or at least I think so. I still couldn’t see anything underneath the thick hair.
I took a step toward the window. Then a step back into the room. The head followed me both times. Then the whole form began to stand upright, although the sheet hung loosely as though an emaciated human frame was hidden beneath rather than the pillows I had placed there. Does that mean the soccer ball was gone too? As it lurched toward me, I could only imagine what horrifying visage was underneath the hair now.
I stood frozen as it stopped in front of me. Up close, I could see the hair wasn’t a wig anymore. It looked so soft and real that I had to stop myself from reaching out to touch it. For a gut-clenching moment I thought it looked like my mother’s hair, but no, it was so much longer and wilder than hers. But wasn’t the figure about the same height as my mother, just a head taller than my own?
“Are you going to help me?” I asked.
The hair nodded as the head bent from forward and back. A shift in the sheet let a cold wind escape outward as though someone had opened a window.
“Are you going to punish them?”
It was definitely a nod this time. I was so relieved that I couldn’t contain the rush of bubbling thoughts and feelings swelling up within me. The idea that it was my mother made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It was my mother. It had to be. She’d never stopped watching me, even from the other side. She saw what happened and she wasn’t going to forgive them. She was going to make them suffer because they deserved it, and she was going to save me because…
A whisper. I couldn’t catch what she said. I leaned closer and she spoke again.
“Switch places with me.”
“What do you mean?”
A short, powerful rush of air entered the form, and she spoke louder as though she was gradually waking up. “I’m not of your world, and cannot hurt them until I enter. Switch places with me, let me have my fun, and then I will trade back with you when I’m finished.”
The voice was more real with every word. I could imagine myself back in our old house with mother tucking me into bed at night. The security of her presence, the affection of her voice. The unbridled fury at anyone who would do me wrong. I devoured those words. That love, that anger, it’s what kept me alive.
“What is it like, your world?” I asked, but even as I did I knew that it didn’t matter. “Yes, I’ll switch places. It won’t take long to punish them, will it?”
The head shook. A fleeting glance of a green eye shining beneath the hair, and then it was gone. “Cut your finger,” she instructed me, and I did so without question, pinching the skin of my forefinger with the scissors beside my bed. These scissors which I had used to cut my scalding shirt off would now be used for revenge. I’ve never felt so sweet a pain in my life.
“Now let your mother taste it.” The voice was deeper now, more masculine, but I didn’t care. All I could think about was how good it would feel to see them pay. I’d be able to live alone here, taking care of myself. I wouldn’t have to be quiet anymore, or afraid. Or maybe mom could come back and visit when this awful business was over, and we could talk like we used to. My dad must be there too, and I could even switch with him to let him play a round of golf and enjoy the sun again. I lifted my cut finger up inside the wild hair and felt the cold wind licking the blood from me, and I smiled.
My finger was ice, and it felt cool and refreshing on skin still tender from the burns. The freezing presence swept its way up my arm, over my chest, and deep into my heart. I felt myself falling though I stood in place, plummeting through an abyss of thought. The form in front of me was removing its sheet now, and I could see its grey/black skin bristle and distort as though something within it were viciously pounding its way out. Wherever I went though, whatever was waiting for me, I didn’t care. My mother had saved me, and I loved her. And soon I would be back to see what she had done. No torture was too gruesome; no punishment fell short of righteous in my eyes. I only wish that I had still been there to watch it happen…
But that was forty years ago. Now I know that the other side is no kinder than ours, and that there are those who seek out the weakness and vulnerability of others just as readily as they do here. Those faceless beings form a blanket of leering eyes as they wait for their opportunity to strike. Forty years in a nightmare realm, hiding and fighting and struggling to survive against the nameless savagery which mocks our petty struggles here on Earth. Forty years hating myself for leaving this world so readily, and fanning that hatred within me to keep me warm against the unending night.
I wasn’t her daughter; I was her prey. She felt my desperation and came to me knowing I could not refuse her offer, and so she escaped from her world and into mine. It had taken forty years for her to have her fun and trade places with me again, but even being back, I feel as though I do not belong in this world. Isabelle and Viran are likely dead, but I don’t even care about that anymore. I’m just waiting for my specter to show itself again, because I still haven’t gotten my revenge. And perhaps in the darkest night of your defeat he will come for you too, promising to serve you if only you trade places. I pray that even in your loneliest despair you will maintain the resolve to refuse him, although if you don’t…
…then I pray instead I will find you first, so that together we may strive to make this world better instead of fleeing into the grasp of what waits on the other side.