Take Care of Her – Chapter 9

Chapter 9

The red dots on her phone never went away.  Gretchen hadn’t taken a call or acknowledged a voicemail or text in almost two weeks. She just couldn’t bear it – couldn’t fathom spending the day, or even an hour away from the girl. It was a life better than Gretchen ever imagined. Until one night, when the girl started crying.

“Honey, what is it?” The girl shook her head. “Tell me. Please. I bet if we talk about it you’ll feel better.”

The little girl sniffed into her pillow, burrowing herself deeper into the big bed. “I’m afraid you won’t be here.”

“What?” Gretchen asked, her heart sinking. “Baby, no. I’ll always be here.”

“I’m alone sometimes. And I get scared. I don’t like to be alone.”

Gretchen wrapped the girl in her arms. “You’re not alone. You’ll never be alone. I promise you. I will always take care of you.” The girl trembled and Gretchen felt the tears on her own skin. They cried together. Sometime in the night, they both fell asleep. Together. In the morning, they both went to see Rachel.

“I’m glad to see you. You missed appointments. I was concerned.” Rachel sat in the chair, notebook in her lap.

“I should have come earlier,” Gretchen said. “As soon as she came. I should have brought her in. Should have made you take to her. You didn’t believe me and I should have fought harder. This has to be so scary for her. I wasn’t a good enough mom.”

“It’s a great initiative you’ve taken. Really embracing this concept of caring for your inner child. You should be very proud of yourself.”

“This isn’t about me. It’s about her.”

“Yes. This of it this way, that by protecting and empowering the child of your inner self-“

“No. Stop your therapy shit. Her. Right there. I brought her in today. You have to work with her. She’s afraid. I want you to help her.”

“I’m not sure I understand.” Rachel leaned in to Gretchen. “Explain it to me.”

“What am I not explaining? Her. I know she’s struggling and I want you to help her.”

Gretchen turned to the little girl. “This is my friend, Rachel. I talk to her sometimes. And she helps me. I wanted her to meet you. Maybe you’d like to talk to her.”

The little girl shook her head. “You. I only like talking to you.”

“Gretchen,” Rachel said, “what’s going on?”

“I want you to talk to her. She doesn’t like me to leave, so I have to stay in the room. But maybe we could all talk-“

“Are you requesting some role play, or some dissociated-“

“I’m requesting that you acknowledge, that you look at and talk to this little girl. Right here. Right now.”

“Gretchen,” Rachel said, “we are the only ones in this room.”

“What is wrong with you? This beautiful little girl, who is scared and needs help and you’re acting like she’s not even there.”

“There is no little girl, Gretchen. There’s only you and me.”

Gretchen kneeled on the floor so she could be as close to the girl as possible.

“I don’t like it here anymore. I want to go home.” The little girl looked up to Gretchen with tears in her eyes.

“We’re going home,” Gretchen said. She stood and took the girl by the hand.

“Wait. Please,” Rachel said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening. Can you give me a minute? I’ll help. I just want to get something. Something for her. I’ll be right back. I promise. I’ll help.”

Rachel left the room. Gretchen squeezed the girl’s hand.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Gretchen maneuvered her car into the tiny space. She almost got it, but swore under her breath when her back tire bounced off the curb. The little girl giggled and the bright tinkle echoed. Gretchen couldn’t help but laugh with her.

“Are we going there?” the girl asked, pointing across the street.

“Yup.”

“Are you sure? Mommy never lets us go there.”

Gretchen swallowed. “Today, we’re going.” Both of them ran from the car.

Outside the museum hung bright swatches of fabric that billowed from the roof to the sidewalk. The swaying designs looked like dancing kites. In the courtyard outside the entrance, there were dozens of holes in the ground. Scattered in between those, were flat colored lights, designed to shine up to the sky. The little girl ran to where other children were playing. They darted around the building’s pillars, playing hide and seek. She gasped when the lights flickered on and sent blues and pinks and purples onto her skin. And then she squealed. Jets of water erupted from the holes in the concrete, sending cold sprays onto her warm skin. She jumped and splashed and clapped, throwing her head back with laughter and blinking when she squirted her own eyes with water.

Gretchen looked on and smiled. She had always wanted to do that as a kid. Never had the chance. The little girl bobbed in and out of the jets, circling the other kids. She chased them, coming close but never fast enough to tag any of them.

“So you’re one of the nutty ones too?”

Gretchen turned to the question.

“I used to line the car with garbage bags for the ride home. Anymore, who cares? Gonna get wet and dirty again tomorrow anyway.” The woman was a tall pixie-cut slice of cool mom calm.

“For sure,” Gretchen said. “Which is yours?”

“Pink shirt. Rain boots. Pants only. Pajamas,” she said, ticking off and pointing to splashing kids.

“Four?” Gretchen asked in awe.

“I like sex,” the mom said. “Yours?”

Gretchen pointed to the little girl. “Green t-shirt. It’s mine.”

The mom squinted her eyes, but didn’t see a little girl in a green shirt.

“I’m Gretchen.”

“Felicity.”

“We’re across the river. South. You guys near here?”

The mom nodded. “Their dad teaches. Some romance language that doesn’t pay a lot.”

“That must be nice,” Gretchen said.

“It is,” the mom said. “Except the days when it’s not.”

In the background, another woman’s voice bellowed and the handful of kids at the perimeter of the water scattered. The only kids remaining were the pink shirt, the rain boots, pants only and the pajamas. The mom stared at Gretchen.

“I just love watching them play,” Gretchen said.

The mom ran into the water. “Let’s go, gang. Come on.”

“Aw,” Gretchen said. “Maybe we’ll see you here again sometime.”

The kids huddled together, banging off elbows and knees as the mom hovered over them, trying to keep physical contact. She practically ran them into traffic hustling them all across the street.

Gretchen watched them disappear into the crowded sidewalk. “The kids left,” she heard.

“I know,” Gretchen said. “That’s disappointing.”

“You play with me,” the girl said.

“Oh…honey…I don’t,” Gretchen started. The girl frowned. Gretchen flipped the girl’s pigtail, then took off her shoes where she stood and ran into the water jets with the little girl.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 6

Chapter 6

“Why do you think you had the dream?” Rachel asked.

“I’m telling you,” Gretchen said. “It wasn’t a dream.”

“Okay. What do you think it was?”

“It was a girl. It was me. It is her. From my picture.”

“Why do you think-“

“I’m sorry, but this wasn’t my idea.” Gretchen said. You told me. You suggested this idea of taking care of myself. Of her. She’s here now I’m taking care of her. ”

“Do you think it’s reasonable, for a capable woman like you, to be so eager for a solution to her grief that she would invent this? To not think of caring for an inner child as a metaphor, but to start believing in a created-“

“She was always here. I don’t think my grief had anything to do with it.”

“She was there. I don’t think my grief had anything to do with it.”

“Is she here now?”

Gretchen was silent.

“Can I see her?”

“She’s right there.” Gretchen gestured to the girl in the corner, her legs in a ring, her fingers playing twiddle games. The register in the wall behind her kicked on and she jumped when the air hit her skin. She giggled and her pigtails shook when she laughed. Gretchen had put them in crooked, but neither her nor the girl seemed bothered by that.

“I don’t see her, Gretchen,” Rachel said. “It’s only you and me in the room.”

“You don’t have to make fun of me.”

“I’m not. I’m really not.  I’m concerned. I’m trying to map out what this coping strategy is. If it’s the best avenue for your work and energy now.”

Gretchen wished she could make Rachel see the girl. She’d love to show her that she wasn’t crazy.

Maybe she was.

But, for now, Gretchen chose to play along. Yes. There were only the grown-ups in the room. Yes. It was just a dream that crossed a boundary. Yes. She would come back in two days to talk again.

Until then, she decided that she wanted to really play for a while. So she left. And she took the little girl with her.

Driving through the city calmed her. Not the bridges. The bridges themselves were fine, but the crossing lanes and jockeying frazzled her. The neighborhoods, she liked. Her hands and feet steered on autopilot and she watched the brownstones and the people on their stoops pass her windows.

“You took a long time,” the voice said from the back seat.

“I know,” Gretchen said. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m glad you left. I didn’t like that lady talking about me. It made me sad.”

Gretchen glanced in the rear-view mirror and smiled. The little girl was there, still in her oversized green shirt. Her legs bounced the front passenger seat as she talked.

“That’s why I left,” Gretchen said. “I didn’t want you to be sad.”

“Are you tired?” the girl asked.

“No. Why? Are you sleepy? Do you need a nap?”

“I don’t like naps. They make me sad too.”

Gretchen smiled.

“You like to take naps. When you come home.”

“What would you like to do?” Gretchen asked.

“Play,” the little girl said.

“Okay,” Gretchen said. “Let’s go play.”

Take Care of Her – Chapter 5

Chapter 5

The little girl sitting across the table from Gretchen had pigtails. She had been there since Gretchen came into the kitchen. There was a scream, but the little girl didn’t seem to hear. She simply sat in the big seat and swung her legs. Gretchen slid into the seat next to her, no longer having the strength to stand. She opened her mouth to ask any of the million questions flying through her head. None came out.

Gretchen backed away from the table, knocking the chair to the floor. She ran into the bedroom for the picture. There it was. Same little girl. Same bikini. Her sweaty hand slid across the picture as her fingers felt for the rigid edges. She was having a bad dream. Not a nightmare. Just a really weird dream. Made sense. She hadn’t slept for shit lately and this was her brain’s way of finally letting go. There wasn’t actually a real child in her apartment. Her therapist wanted her to take care of the little girl inside her, and her screwed up synapses gave her an apparition girl. A ghost guest. Wouldn’t last long. She’d wake up hot and headache-y, sad and alone soon enough.

She decided to wait it out. Since she was up, she figured she’d make coffee. Her hands and arms worked. They usually didn’t in dreams. It was a constant terror that she’d try to punch, and instead her fist floated away from her body and through the air. Or her legs would kick, and never connect with dirt or shins. She leaned on the counter and watched the dark brew drip. It smelled like coffee. Without thinking, she touched the stream. It was hot. Her skin burned and she sucked on her finger. Coffee. She could taste it. She shook her hand and poured herself a cup. Normally. it was cream and sugar. Tonight, it was black.

The girl stared in wonder at Gretchen’s coffee routine.

“You want some?” Gretchen asked.

“My mommy doesn’t let me have coffee,” the girl said. “Did you get a boo boo on your finger?”

The girl could talk. Why not? Gretchen decided she’d play along. She wanted to remember all of this — take it back to Rachel and let her untangle what it meant.

“Your mommy sounds very smart,” Gretchen said.

“She reads a lot,” the girl said, nodding.  “Big books.”

Gretchen stared into her mug. She was right. Her mom always had a book. As a kid she didn’t care. As a teenager, she hated it. Only mom on the bleacher who wasn’t watching. Or at least pretending to watch. Her mom was the one reading. And it was embarrassing reading. Romance. Alien science fiction. Gretchen had tried, begged her not to. Her mom didn’t care. Reading made her feel better. So mom was going to read.

“Are you hungry?” Gretchen asked. The girl shook her head. “Cold?” She shook her head again. “I’m cold. I’m going to get you a sweatshirt.”

There were piles of clothes of assorted cleanliness slung throughout the bedroom. She managed to put on worthy clothes for work, but this search made Gretchen admit that she had been wearing the same boxers and t-shirt around her house for…a long time. Surely there was something she could put on this kid that wasn’t blotched with wine or smeared with duck sauce. Clothes. Drawers. She had drawers. With clothes she’d washed when she still cared.

“Here we are,” Gretchen said, holding out the green t-shirt. The kid was gone. “Honey?” A squeak came from the bathroom. She turned the corner and saw her. The little girl was standing at the sink. The mirrored front of the medicine cabinet was open and her small eyes stared at the bottles of pills. And the small scissors.

The girl reached her hand toward the high shelves.

“Let’s get you covered up,” Gretchen said. She handed over the shirt and closed the panel.

The shirt hit the floor and the finger, opened the mirror and pointed harder. “Want,” the little girl said. “Help.”

“No…no, okay, come on.” Gretchen steered her out of the bathroom. “Let me help you put this on and we’ll get some breakfast, okay? I’ll take care of those later.” The girl lowered her arm to her side. Gretchen slid the shirt over the small body in the tiny bathing suit. The hem hit at her bony knees. “Now, what can I make you to eat?”

The girl smiled. “Panny cakes.”

“Let’s go have pancakes,” Gretchen said. She didn’t know why. And to be honest, she didn’t know how. But thirty minutes later, Gretchen and the little girl sat down to breakfast. They didn’t talk. The food was delicious, and they both smiled and laughed as they ate. Butter landed on both of their hands somehow. The little girl threw her head back with giggles when Gretchen licked it off her own thumb. She closed her eyes to enjoy the last sugary bite. When she opened her eyes and reached for her coffee, the lone grown-up realized she was alone in the kitchen. There was no little girl. Gretchen shook her head at herself and started to clean up. Her plate was empty, except for a shimmery coating. The other plate held two cold, hard pancakes and congealing syrup.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The bedroom floor was covered with an old blanket, mismatched shoes and an outdated video camera the size of a microwave. A frayed sweater and a dusty bouquet of silk flowers flew into the pile. Gretchen grunted. She couldn’t find it. Already on her hands and knees, she edged deeper into the closet. She winced and drew back her hand to rub her knee. Something sharp had cut into her skin. She groped blindly and grunted in frustration. Why had she kept every box from every pair of shoes she’d ever owned and then tossed them in this hole? She dragged an armful out onto the floor. Only one had a pair of shoes in them. Ugly ones. Another box had padded push-up bras and a garter belt. She shoved that one right back in the closet and far out of sight. The third box was heavy. Whatever was inside shifted when she lifted up the box. She’d found what she was looking for.

There was no system or strategy for her photographs. Years collided together—polaroids on top of glossy, drug-store developed prints. Her fingers touched faces. Her mother. Her father. Her sister. Her grey and white cat. She hadn’t wanted to do this. Rachel had suggested, and Gretchen was desperate. So far, this wasn’t helping. She turned the box upside down and the pictures cascaded onto the floor. Using her fingertips, she picked through them. Finally, she found what she was told to look for. A picture of herself. Kindergarten. First grade maybe. Outside in the sun. Gretchen was wearing a bathing suit. Her hair was mousy brown and laying on her shoulders in wet streaks. Her little belly rounded out between the nylon top and bottom. Her eyes were closed because she was smiling so wide. It was her and Gretchen didn’t know this girl.

Gretchen put the little girl on her nightstand, under her reading lamp. She was supposed to take care of this girl. That’s what Rachel said. To be the caring adult to give this baby in her bikini boundaries and respect and love. No matter what. She was lucky to brush her own teeth these days. How was she supposed to take care an inner child? She’d likely just tell the kid she was going to grow up to be a mess. Who’d never wear a bikini again.

As the grown up, she felt badly for saying that. She felt it. With all her heart. But, she didn’t want to tell the little girl that. Little one looked so happy. She didn’t want to take that away. The room went grey, then black and she closed her eyes.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 3

 

Chapter 3

Merlot was easy. Not cold. Not hot. Not sweet. Not something she had to think about. Not something she had to remember. The first glass was fast. The second, she drank as slowly as she could manage, thinking about every sip. Still fifteen minutes before her therapy appointment. She couldn’t wait any longer. Gretchen gulped the last of the wine in one sip and paid the bill. At least it was happy hour.

Rachel didn’t call her back into her office until 6:02.

“How’s the week been?” Rachel started.

Gretchen’s eyes filled with tears when she answered. “Same.”

“That’s okay,” Rachel said. “Remember what we talked about last time. You’ve had a loss. And you’re grieving. The feelings that you are experiencing, that are making things difficult for you, are normal. And expected.”

“Still?” Gretchen asked.

“There’s no timeline on sadness. I think you’re doing fine.”

“I don’t feel fine. I feel like I’m dying.”

“Is that a reasonable description of what you’re feeling?”

“I don’t know,” Gretchen said.

“Do you think it’s possible that you might be mis-naming this continued discomfort? Calling the feeling something a little unreasonable? That while you may be hurting, that you know you’re not actually dying?”

“This isn’t helping,” Gretchen said.

“Why do you think that?”

“I know what you’re looking for. Yes. I brushed my teeth today. Yes. I went to work. I slept. More or less. I ate. More or less.”

“And you don’t think that’s doing well?”

“I also cry every day. I think about him every day. I hurt every day.”

“That’s absolutely expected.”

“Maybe I should hurt. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I deserve it.”

“That’s a false thought.”

“That’s all I have.”

“Gretchen,” Rachel said.

“I know,” Gretchen said.

Rachel settled into a long pause. “What was your favorite birthday party as a kid?”

“What?”

“A true thought. A time. A happy memory. Something you loved.”

“I can’t think of anything happy. Nothing’s happy.”

“Is that a false thought?”

Gretchen curled her knees to her chest and tucked into the upholstered chair.

“What’s another version of that thought? Take your time and give yourself a chance to remember. To really consider all the possible choices.”

“My fifth birthday,” Gretchen said. “My mom let me paint my nails purple and I got a white cat.”

“That’s happy,” Rachel said.

Gretchen nodded.

“Was that girl worth it? The purple nails and the white cat? Did she deserve those things?”

Gretchen hugged her knees tighter to her chest.

“Consider that as an equally true and valid thought.” Rachel made sure she had Gretchen’s full attention. “You didn’t ask for this hurt or sadness. But you’re dealing with it. You didn’t ask for the job of healing yourself, but you got it. And your job is to take care of that five-year old. So make sure she knows how worthy and good enough she is.”

Gretchen didn’t cry any more.  She didn’t say much for the rest of the session.

She listened.

147 E. 9th Street – Chapter 13

New horror fiction.

147 E. 9th Street – Chapter 13 – The End

 

Chapter 13

 

“Lynnie?” Shawn called from the doorway. The apartment was silent. “You home?”

He dropped his bag by the door and moved to the kitchen. There were cups and glasses scattered on the counter. No dishes. On top of all these, toppling into the sink, were handfuls of dishtowels and at least two bath towels. The pilling cotton looked like someone had spilled a bottle of red wine, maybe two, and tried using one after another to mop up the mess. Shawn didn’t see a wine bottle. He ran to the bathroom.

The tub was empty. The floor was bare. There was another wet, red dish towel in the bathroom sink. The faucet slowly dripped water onto it, forming a pink puddle in the folds of the fabric. Shawn ran to the bedroom.

Carolyn lay on the bed, alone. She was only wearing a t-shirt. There was blood smeared from her pubic hair to her thighs. It clotted on her skin. Her eyes were open. But she was gone. Even though he saw that, knew that in his heart, he jumped on the bed with her and tried to save her. He pumped, he breathed, he yelled to her, calling her name. But she was beyond all that.

Shawn climbed off the bed. His own shirt was now covered with patches of blood. He had to call. Someone had to take care of her. He reached in his back pocket for his phone. It wasn’t there. He touched across his chest and his pants, looking for it.

“I have to get my phone. I’ll be right back,” he said to Carolyn, who lay on the bed without breathing.

He ran out of the bedroom, past the empty bathroom and the kitchen with the towels he now knew weren’t stained with wine. He crashed to his knees by his bag he had dropped by the door, upending it. Clothes, linen sheets, bottles of massage oil and a knobbed roller flew across the room. “Where’s the god damn phone?” he yelled to the lifeless room. He spun around the room, searching, scanning. Finally, he saw Carolyn’s phone on the table. He raced to it and dialed 911. He didn’t remember much after that.

 

 

 

When he walked back in the apartment the next day, his bag and its contents laid scattered where he had left them. He dropped his keys on the floor among the chaos. He was so tired. His feet drug along the floor as he slunk to the bedroom.

The bloody sheets were still on the bed. He sat down on the edge of the bed, far away from the red stains. He pulled the phone out of his pocket. He was still carrying Carolyn’s phone. He dialed.

“Dae,” he said when she answered. “I’m all right. Just got back. No. It was the cysts like we thought. Ruptured. Bled and they lost her pressure. No. Not tonight. I can’t tonight Dae. Can’t do it. Come round tomorrow. We’ll look. Pick something. I know, love. Yeah. Ok. Bye.”

He threw the phone on the bed. He couldn’t stop looking at the blood on the ivory sheets. He grabbed anything within arm’s reach: the sheets, the comforter, the pillows, everything. Yanking them off and curling them to his chest, he squeezed them, rogue pillow cases dropping as he ran to the hamper to get them out of his sight. His eyes barely open, he slunk back to the bed and laid on the bare mattress. He curled his knees to his chest and closed his eyes.

The room was dark when he woke. The world outside the window was also dark. It wasn’t the light that woke him. He heard it again, music. Soft tune with sharp ebbs and flows. It sounded like music that might have played at a fair he remembered. One in May. It kept playing. He sat up and looked around the room. It was in the room somewhere. They didn’t have a radio. His laptop wasn’t on the desk. He still had no idea where his phone was, but if he did, that song wasn’t on it. He looked to the pile of dirty sheets in the hamper. There. He lunged at the hamper and pulled everything out, shaking and sifting their soiled life onto the floor. Then, he heard a dull, flat thud. Carolyn’s phone landed on the floor in front of him, still singing its organ-grinder ballad. He stared at it. He had lost his phone and was carrying hers. Why was her phone in the basket? Why was anyone calling her? Someone who didn’t know. He jabbed at a button to make it stop. It didn’t and instead kept playing. He stared at the screen, an image of him and Carolyn wearing plastic crowns. That’s when the music stopped and Shawn lost consciousness.

When he awoke, Pam was standing in the doorway. Shawn was lying on the bed, nestled in freshly-cleaned sheets. He started up in bed when he saw her.

“That one wasn’t bad,” she said. “You’ve had much worse.”

Shawn wasn’t afraid. He was alert and oriented enough that he knew he should be. But he wasn’t.

“Don’t worry yourself over who I am or what I’m doing,” Pam said. “She’s fine. And so is she.”

Shawn tilted his head.

“She. The baby,” Pam said.

He lilted his head again.

“They never want to listen to women. Always want to think they’re crazy. You started having fits and they didn’t think you were crazy. Just a little bug in the brain.”

“Carolyn…”

“You have to take it back for a while. The seizures. They’re start again tomorrow. But Carolyn is fine. She did what she could. Did a good job of it. She’s happy now. And the baby.”

“I want-“

“No,” Pam said. “Can’t have that. Too late now. But we’ll be seeing you again. Soon.”

Shawn looked around the room. It was clean. Clothes folded, shelves dusted, and a navy suit was laid out over a chair.

“She managed to name him after you. Lucky girl.”

He stared at the suit. He remembered her buying it, but never wearing it. He teased her about stockings. That seemed so awful now.

“Is she…” Shawn asked, but the room was bare. The woman in the room was gone. He saw Carolyn’s phone in the folds of the bed. Grabbing it, he curled his hands around it. He laid on the bed and waited for it to ring again.

As he was drifting off to sleep at dawn, it did. When he picked it up, he heard a baby cry. Then he heard nothing. The seizure took over his mind and body. There was no more baby. Only dark.

My dark novel Drowning Above Water is now available at Amazon.