-- the bell jar, sylvia plath
There were many things she couldn't remember.
For instance, she couldn't remember a time when the voices weren't there; ever since she was young, they'd lingered in the back of her mind for as long as she could remember. They whispered things to her at school, when she walked down the hallways hugging her books close to her chest.
(everyone was looking at her, everyone, they knew all her secrets, knew that there was something wrong with her, they all just stared)
They murmured words to her at night, too, when she tried to sleep, gave life to the shadows that danced across the walls of her room. The moonlight fell in thin stripes on her bed through the cracks in her curtains. A prison, she thought and stared up at the ceiling until it disappeared altogether. She could see the stars in the sky, glittering like diamonds in the velvety blackness. She could feel the sky pressing down on her and it felt like she was being suffocated, all the air forced from her crushed lungs.
She forgot what happened sometimes.
When that suffocating feeling got to be too much, things got a little dark. A little fuzzy. She went away to other places, other times. She saw herself, a little girl, reading in an impossibly green meadow, on an island where the sky and sea met. There was no telling where one ended and the other began. She saw herself as her father, dressed in his army uniform. Blue and crisp and determined-looking; her mother had pressed his outfit the evening before. She saw herself as another girl altogether, dancing. And then she was fearless and strong with the taste of sugar and cherries in her mouth.
She was herself, but not herself, and when she came tumbling back into reality she could never remember where it was she had gone to or who she had been. She could not remember, either, what her body had done in her mind's absence. She couldn't explain the cuts and bruises she found on her arms and legs or why her mother cried and wouldn't look at her or why so often she came back to the world to find her room in shambles.
(couldn't explain the blood under her fingernails or the words she'd scribbled on the walls of her room in sky blue chalk, nonsensical and jagged; her mother would wash them both away later, expression blank, jaw set)
It never got better, only worse. It could have only ever gone this way, Amber thought, felt like she was drowning, holding her own head down under the water until everything when black and quiet. Like death, perhaps; she felt death may be nicer than this.
More and more she found herself getting lost in the darkness when she went away to other worlds. She spent whole days lying in bed, sometimes sleeping, but mostly just staring up at the ceiling. She wouldn't even be able to get up if she wanted to, she thought. Her body was a foreign thing; she didn't know how to work her arms and legs. There was a weight, gravity, that kept her pinned to this world, pinned to the bed. She would float away without it, like a balloon caught in the wind.
When she was seven, her parents brought her to a carnival. That was just after the war. She remembered the sugary sweet taste of cotton candy in her mouth, the jangling music of the rides. And the looks, too. So strange. As if there was something to be distrusted, as if something was not quite right.
(maybe there was, maybe there was, maybe she wore it on her sleeve like a heart)
She was her family's secret. Shameful. The word tasted bitter when she said it to herself, out loud, and to the murmuring in her head and the shadows that danced across the walls. She said it to the moonlight prison that held her down at night.
(won't ever be free)
Her father whispered the word like a curse. Like a prayer. Kyōki. The voices laughed at it. Amber felt sad and angry all at once. She felt her mind start to drift away to some time before, and she dug her nails into her forearm to try and stay afloat in the present. She wanted to tear at her skin until she could see the bone underneath, just to prove that she was here now, in this moment.
She would not move from this place. She would not let herself get lost in the darkness again. This was her salvation, the sharp sting as her nails scraped across her skin, the tiny droplets of blood that sprang to the surface.
She didn't cry, but her mother did, her younger brother, he was only just a baby, did. They pressed their faces against hers, kissed her. Goodbye, goodbye. Her cheeks felt wet with their absence; she could pretend they were her own tears, she thought, and it was almost like being sad, she told herself.
(she woke up somewhere else, not her bed, but in a doctor's office with dingy gray walls and dressed in a dirty, faded jumper; it was the color of water with clouds mixed in)
There was always something about waking up, something about coming out of a dream. Everything always felt a little less real, at first. The lines blurred together and she thought perhaps she was imagining this moment now, too. But she could feel the couch under her and the pillows behind her head; she clung to those feelings for reassurance. She hated having to come back into herself, but she preferred it over mindless drifting.
She shook her head. Blinked her eyes. Flexed her fingers just to make sure she could still move; she had a wild, fleeting thought, that she'd finally been pinned down by the world for good.
Are you okay? a woman asked. She had dark brown hair knotted up on the back of her head. She sat on a chair across the room, a pen and notebook resting against her thigh.
The light of the room reflected off the lens of her glasses and Amber couldn't see her eyes -- or perhaps it was her vision that was wrong, not the light after all. She couldn't be sure. She stared at the woman's dress outfit, the material coarse and stiff. Her mother would iron out her school uniform like that; Amber liked the way the droplets of water, flicked from her mother's fingertips, would sizzle against the hot metal. Amber saw herself as water, dancing, burning up in the heat of the iron.
I'm not sure, she said.
Somewhere in the room, a metronome clicked back and forth. One, two, one, two.
How old are you? a girl with limp, black hair asked her, staring across the space between their beds. She had wide, dark eyes. She looked young. Pretty. She reminded Amber of other world girls.
Nice. Same age as me.
The girl paused, then grinned. You're right. I'm seventeen.
Amber didn't remember being seventeen. Or at least, she didn't think so. Seventeen made her think of her mother in the kitchen, baking. Amber had snuck freshly washed cherries from the bowl beside the sink; she'd liked how they tasted sour-sweet and the way they stained her fingers. Like blood, only sweeter. Lighter. Her mother had sighed with relief when she'd realized the red on Amber's hands was only from the cherry juice. She'd laughed and kissed Amber on the forehead.
I'm Amber, Amber said. This girl was, perhaps, the first person she had ever introduced herself to. As far as she could remember.
The girl smiled at her. It was softer than her playful grin. I'm Blondie.
Blondie, Amber repeated. She liked the way the name rolled off her tongue, like a song.
She's not really like us, Blondie told her, nodding towards a tall girl with honey-colored hair, sitting a few feet up and away on a bed on the theatre's stage. Sweet Pea. She's different.
Amber wanted to know how.
Because she can survive outside, Blondie said, cocking her head up and back towards one of the windows high up on the wall, near the ceiling. So very out of reach. Blondie told her, Girls like you and I, we couldn't make it out there. We'd be dead.
I don't remember that world much, Amber said. Outside. I wonder sometimes if I simply dreamed it all.
She thought about a dead baby bird she'd found in her backyard once when she was much younger. It looked like it had fallen out of the nest, its little body was all twisted and broken. Its eyes were blank and glassy, two lifeless black orbs. She'd wondered if that was what she would look like when she died. Wrong. Unsettling.
There'd been a tiny smear of blood on the bird's chest, matting down the thin feathers there. She'd wanted to touch it; her fingers had itched with excitement and she hadn't been able to calm them down until she'd gone inside and fetched a knife from the kitchen. She'd sat in her room and drawn thin lines on her own stomach with the blade and touched the bright crimson blood that welled up in the cuts.
She wanted to ask Blondie if she'd ever felt that, such a morbid curiosity to see her own blood and her own insides. Wanted to ask if she looked at dead things and pictured her own body, in death. Instead, she pointed to the small scars on Blondie's hands, white and curious, and said, What are these from?
Blondie's mouth twisted into something halfway between a smirk and a frown. Anger, she said. You haven't -- I -- I get angry sometimes. I broke my hand once before I got here; I punched a hole through a wall. I don't really remember it that well. That happens sometimes. The not remembering, I mean.
But it's okay. Usually.
Amber wanted to kiss the scars on Blondie's hand, but that would have drawn attention from Blue and Dr. Gorski and the others, so instead she just traced her fingers over them again.
Blondie had a habit of slipping into Amber's bed after lights out, after the orderlies had checked in on them for the last time. Amber knew that Blondie shouldn't do it -- they'd both gotten separate warnings from Sweet Pea, that if they got found out, things could go really bad for them, but she also didn't care. Blondie was her constant, her anchor.
She was always there when Amber had to find her way back to the present. She was the one who helped killed the static buzzing in her brain after Amber's electric shock treatments. Everything felt a little less hazy because of them, everything seemed a bit more real.
(how strange indeed, to have such an effect on her)
Blondie quieted the voices. Not entirely or always, but enough and often.
One evening Blondie crawled into Amber's bed, she seemed different. Like her mind was somewhere else -- and Amber thought, curiously, that that must be what she looks like when she's dreaming of another world. There was a sense of static in the air, like just before a storm when lightning's being passed between clouds. Full of potential and the hint of disaster, the pendulum swinging lower and lower. She reached for Blondie, found her hand; she intertwined their fingers.
And here, in the dark, where no one else could see, she brought Blondie's hand to her mouth, kissed the old scars on Blondie's knuckles. Kissed the fresh bruises on her wrist, purple and ugly in the light, but like smears of dark purple paint, like posies, in the darkness. They could take chances, here, she thought. There was no where to go but up, after all. She leaned in and kissed Blondie full on the mouth, tasted the blood from the split lip she'd gotten earlier from fighting with another girl.
(cherries, teeth stained red)
She grinned at the memory and kissed Blondie harder, swallowed the small whimpers. They could do this, in the dark. The sweet, secret freedom of the darkness. There were no dancing wall shadows, no moonlight to keep them locked up. There was only sky above and sea beneath, an endless plane of midnight and stars.
And in the distance, paradise.