I step on my tippy toes to reach the milk on the top shelf of the fridge. “Almost… Almost,” I poke my forefinger at the neck of the bottle, edging it off of the shelf.
“Are you even taking those vitamins I gave you?”
Startled, my heels hit the floor and I slam the door shut.
“The vitamins, Elena. I told you, if you don’t take them everyday you’ll be five foot two for the rest of your life,” Morgan says. Her heels click toward me and her eyes study every flaw in my outfit. My punk dress and knee-high socks aren’t the clothes that were laid on my bed this morning.
“Are you doing anything I tell you to?”
I don’t return her glare, because I don’t have a response. I wouldn’t know what to say. How do I tell her that no matter how many pills I pop I’m always going to be short? Or that whatever I’m dressed in, I still won’t be the country club-going, primadonna that she wants me to be?
I’ve lived with her for three years and she’s never once listened to me. And she’s my legal guardian, my foster mother; in her eyes I have to do anything she says, no complaints.
“And now you’ve lost your voice too. Is it so much to ask you to respond when I’m talking to you?”
“I-I’ve been taking the vitamins with my medication,” I mutter, keeping my head glued to the college fund she wears on her feet. “Would it be okay if I went back upstairs now… you know I have someone coming over, and I-“
“Oh yes, that’s right! It’s about time, I was beginning to think you were one of those loner kids. You aren’t wearing that, are you?”
I look down at my outfit and thread my eyebrows.
“Oh Elena, you’re not ruining this opportunity just so you can look like a boy?” she groans.
A boy? I’m in a dress.
And it’s not an opportunity for anything, but I failed to mention that he’s only coming over for a history project. If it was anyone else coming over, maybe she would be right and maybe the potential for a new friend wouldn’t be a lie that I let her believe to keep her off my back. But Mr Harris forced me to pair up with him, out of everyone else in the class.
“And while I have you here, remember to use that face mask before bed. You’re looking blotchy and we have important guests joining us for dinner tomorrow night. Oh and don’t forget your vocal exercises. I won’t have you muttering and stuttering over dinner.”
I dig my nails into my palms. I just want to go back to my room. I’m feeling antsy enough about who’s coming over; I don’t need anything else to fuel my shitty mood. This is the first time in five years that him and I will be in a room with each other alone.
“Can I go upstairs now?”
Crash. The front door rattles against its hinges. That sound sends an alarm off in my head. Morgan puts her hand up, a command to keep me in place like I’m a trained dog. She doesn’t have to look at me to know my eyes are pinned on the exit.
Maurice huffs into the room; a bear of a man: teeth ready to gnaw, claws ready to slash, roar ripe to deafen.
He slams his briefcase on the counter and growls, “if you don’t get that damn promotion soon I’m going to lose it! I spent an hour with a customer today and he didn’t even get a damn car. I know the name of his fucking dog and not a cent’s commission.”
Maurice stomps from one side of the room to the other; the freezer to the oven, the oven to the light switch, the light switch and back to Morgan. Every step shoots through the floor and into me, shocking me with bolts of anxiety. I shrivel up against the counter and bite down on my lip, begging for his temper to fizzle out.
Morgan doesn’t react like I do, she never does. She stays unfazed, and unmoving.
“My boss is coming over for dinner tomorrow night,” she assures, “everything should be sorted out then.”
“I wouldn’t have to work so many hours if we didn’t have her,” he says, flapping his hand in my face.
“You know that’s not the reason, Maurice. There’s a certain stature we need to live up to. Complain all you like, you aren’t cutting down your hours until I become partner.”
“You!” he spits in my face, “see what you put me through you useless lump of shit.” I wince as his fist smashes into the counter in front of me. His hot breathe smells of cigarettes and it reminds me of every time he’s taken his anger out on me.
That smell makes me sick; it makes the acid rise in my stomach and my throat blister.
In a second, my presence disappears from the room; his eyes look through me as if I was only in existence to yell at. He makes his way to the fridge. His bear belly sloshes from side to side and whacks me into the counter.
This is why I never come downstairs. All I have to put up with when I’m on my own is me. I can deal with me, and the depression that comes with it. At least that’s predictable. It’s the uncertainty I don’t handle too well.
He snatches up a cold one and cracks it open on the marble right below my ear. I flinch my head toward the sound. He doesn’t care what he does, or how sloppy he does it.
I watch this bear… I watch his primitive knuckles wrap around the bottle and those droplets of liquor fall to the fur on his chin.
Something flickers inside of me… a spark. Not of fear, the factory setting feeling that I’ve come to live with over the last three years. No, this spark is creativity.
So I shut my eyes, and I fade into the place in my mind that holds Barrack. This mythical world was made when I created Yannie, (a sort of fantasy counter-part of me), and started writing her adventures.
Whenever I enter into this part of my head a euphoria whirls inside me. My muscles are able to let go of all the emotion they were clinging to; the meaning gets stripped away and the fantasy re-routes them out of reality.
I pass the battles of the YER and the Dragon’s work union in the throes of another debate. The flashes of Sir Montgomery’s office come into sight and I stop.
Sir Montgomery stands there, berating another one of his lackeys, and Maurice disappears into the hair-gelled curls and perfect posture. Without a single blink, he struts over to his desk and pops out the stopper in his decanter. He pours the whiskey down his throat and swallows with one, silent gulp.
But as he calls for his next task, his voice transitions into a grumble. It’s too gravelly to be coming from him.
I realise Maurice is the one moaning and I’m ripped back into reality to the sound of the doorbell.
He’s not relieved like Morgan that I’m having someone over. She’s the one that hates that I spend all my time in my room and don’t have a load of rich friends knocking on the door for me. He just wants me to make the noise stop.
I rush to the door to prevent the bell going off again, but I have to steady myself before opening it. I didn’t even get a minute to prepare myself, I’m not sure I’m in the mood for this right now.
He doesn’t look like he is either though.
I start to rub the material of my skirt in between my fingertips. I want to say something, so many things come to mind; but neither of us even makes out a “hi”.
Rather than a greeting, I nod my head for him to come in and he brushes past, barely making eye contact.
I follow him up the stairs and direct him to my room from behind.
“Can we get this done quick? I have somewhere to be tonight,” he sighs and drops onto my bed.
I move to my desk and flip my violet hair over my shoulder. “This isn’t a treat for me either, Evan.”
“Don’t you…” he hesitates, wiping his hand through his already ruffled hair. “Straight-A student types go crazy for these kinda projects?” he shrugs.
I don’t answer. He knows I love History – but it’s been this way with him for so long, I shouldn’t expect any different today. I shouldn’t expect him to treat me like more than another faceless classmate.
I grab the first book on my desk, plop it onto my lap and start to flick through it; trying so hard to keep my face neutral. I tap my foot through the silence and let the words on the page push his presence out of my mind.
But after the fiftieth page of useless information, I steal a glance at him.
His crossed-legs are being absorbed by my duvet and he’s facing the wall, studying the drawings tapped to it. They’re really just doodles I do to pass time, definitely not anything artistic.
I stare at him for a moment, at his softened demeanour. I haven’t seen him like this in a while. Not around me. Not for years.
As his enthralment moves from one drawing to the next, a warmth wraps around my gut.
His eyes flicker over to mine and he snaps them back to his lap, shaking his head. “You got something for me to read yet?” He sprawls back on the bed and rests his head on his arms.
A sigh escapes me and that sensation in my stomach curdles over. I give one last glance at his eyes before reaching for another book. I didn’t want to see it, but it’s there; those contacts that cover them, that cold glaze. It’s back. And my hope that maybe he was, is gone.
I throw “The Basics of Early Medicine” onto the cushion beside him and switch my head to the book on my lap. The words are too blurred to continue reading. So I don’t.
I stop working and let my mind wander. I can’t stop myself from tumbling back into my childhood. I usually only go there to remember the moments with my Mother, but today I land somewhere else.
It’s one particular day that I land on; a day I wish I could return to, with a person I wish hadn’t disappeared.
It was sometime during spring. I can see myself there, swinging back and forth. It felt like I’d been doing it for hours.
I plunged my foot into the ground when I noticed someone venturing away from the crowd of children in the distance. I searched from side to side to see who else they could be heading toward, but there wasn’t anyone else; just me. All the other kids hung out in the same area of the playground. I was the only one on the side-lines.
We were all about the same age, seven or eight; all in the same grade at the same school, but I didn’t really know any of them.
It was a young boy, and he tripped over the wood chips on his way over to me. “You gonna eat that?” he said to the eight inch smartie cookie in my hand.
“We can half it,” I chirped and shot my hand out.
With a goofy grin, he took it in hand and hopped onto the swing next to me. He stared down at his foot as he twisted it over the gravel and scratched at the rust on the chains. “I didn’t really want the cookie,” he mumbled, “Billy told me that’s how you talk to girls.”
“What’s your name?”
“They like to call me Night-Rider,” he patted his chest.
“Well Night-Rider,” I giggled, “Billy sounds like an idiot to me.”
For a second he just stared at me. And then, almost like something clicked into place in his head, he burst into laughter. Through the breath breaks in his snigger he said, “your nose goes red like Rudolph’s when you laugh.”
“What’re you laughing about Rudolph?” Evan asks, propped up on his elbows.
“Don’t worry about it Night-Rider,” I tease.
He drops his weight back onto the bed and switches his focus to the ceiling.
“Why don’t you just go home? I’ll put your name on it,” I suggest and slam the book shut, returning it to the side.
Maybe I should forget about the past. I know he has.
He slides his feet to the floor and as he sits up, a brief veil of the person I used to know covers his stoicism. A moment of concern grapples at the fractured innocence on his face. But before I can appreciate it, it disappears. And he jumps from my bed and exits my room without a reply.
I ignore the sound of the front door. I don’t want to think about what happened to him. I don’t want to think about a friend that became a stranger.
So I pull my hip length hair into a bun, switch the computer on and go on the search for that twinkle to lighten my chocolaty eyes.
I don’t need to have a nice night if Yannie can have one for me.
I don’t know how long I write for, time doesn’t pass the same when I do. It’s like I enter into a worm hole and can plop out at any moment. All I know is that I must have fallen asleep at some point.
I know that because I wake up.
I wake up in a place I recognise. In a flurry of confusion and grey air.
There’s a tower in front of me. It seems to reach beyond the sky. So far beyond the sky that it’s as indistinguishable as the edge of the atmosphere. Its sides are a blockade. No matter how far I move backwards, I can’t see a thing. All I can see is this wall.
It doesn’t seem to be made of stone, it’s more like ash. Blocks of dense ash, with cracks that ooze a lime coloured gas. It reaches into my nose and the stench of rotten flesh sticks to my chest. The taste of decay takes over my senses, until the tornado above my head makes me choke on my disgust.
It’s a whirl of greys and blacks that promises to inhale anything below it. But it’s what echoes from within the cyclone: the laugh… The taunt.
That’s what makes me run.
Run like prey, like a deer from a coyote. But just like prey… Just like the deer, running gets me nowhere.
The swirling greys and blacks descend; they get closer and I get no further away. I try and I try. I push harder. I tear into my sprint but everything that surrounds me is immersed in fog.
It can’t be happening, not now, not again. Why can’t I get away? I never get away. That voice, I just want it to stop. Please just stop.
It doesn’t stop, it only gets louder. The laugh is so loud now it knocks the movement from my feet. I shudder and snap my head in all directions, but doesn’t matter where I look, I can’t decipher a thing. Not where the voice is coming from, not an escape, not a thing but grey.
The laughter turns into a hiss, a whisper intertwining with the mist. It circles me: round and round - the threats go round and round. They don’t stop until I break down to the floor.
I grab my hair in my fists and stare down at the emptiness below. It starts to become clearer, the emptiness… the blackness. I see my knees sink into it and feel as though I’m disappearing, like it could swallow me at any moment.
Only it won’t.
The mist becomes sentient, it obeys; it rescinds to something in front of me. I know what’s commanding it. I know what’s there.
I beg not to look, I pray for the void to consume me. But he won’t let that happen… he never does.
My head is drawn upward, I can’t hold it down any longer.
Behind the smoke, emerging from it, is the mouldy green hood. I would give anything for it to be something else… anything else. But it’s always him.
It’s always the hooded man.
Those eyes, the ones I can’t see, they bore into me. He stands, an immovable hulk; the only part of him even flinching is his chest. It pumps up… and down - each long breathe imitating the below of a bull.
The hood, the growl, they start to fade behind the cloud of mist. It reaches for me. Its arm twists around me and its gaseous fist wraps around my body. It clenches tighter. I can still see him, commanding it. All I can see as my lungs squeeze and my scream dies, is his face; the shadow beneath the hood. The mist grips tighter again. A snake of smoke reaches to my shoulder. It slithers around my neck, slow and teasing.
And then… SNAP!
“Elena, Elena!” I hear a voice echo somewhere in the blackness.
“Why do you always do this to me?! Maurice and I have work in the morning.” I blink open my eyes and a horizontal figure is distorted through a layer of liquid.
Am I still asleep? I blink my eyes and the tears trickle down my forearm, clearing my vision.
I see Morgan standing there, scowling through the darkness. She’s in her silk night gown and her face is worn and makeup-less. I guess it was me that woke her. I don’t remember but I must have been having a nightmare; that would explain the sweat.
“I’m not doing this with you again. If you can’t stay quiet, I’m moving you down to the basement,” she says, backing toward the door. “Don’t disturb us again.”
The door slams and the pain in my neck hits me like a cricket ball, it’s all twisted-up from me using my arms as a pillow and the edge of the desk is jammed into my ribs.
My limbs creak as I straighten them out and make my way to my bed. I stretch out my legs, pull my duvet up to my chin and drop my head to my shoulder to nuzzle in the covers.
I remember where I was now… with him. Morgan knows where I was too.
She knows about my nightmares. What caused them. What took my mother away from me. She knows about the hooded man.
They all know, and they all know that he’s still out there; they just don’t care anymore.
I press into my knuckles, the purple skin collecting my fear, and I shut my eyes. I try to picture my mother - the time she got me an Easter bunny; Bobby was the cutest thing I’d ever seen, he had a kitten’s nose and the eyes of a chipmunk. I try to picture him too.
Evan and I played with him every day, and then Rufus came along; Mom knew Evan wasn’t allowed a pet but thought he deserved his own. I try to picture all of that love in one room, all of that happiness; but it won’t take away my fear. I never get to dream about any of that; no matter how much I drill these images into my head.
It’s always him… every time I fall asleep it’s him.
Thank you for reading!