*Choose the method of reading the truth as you see fit
Once you were gone, our—my—mother secluded herself in the master bathroom. At 16, I acted like a child tiptoeing through mom’s room; more worried for her than myself. In the darkness, I remember her purple silk comforter tossed across her bed from a poor night’s sleep. She’s never been one to sleep well.
I sat against the door on plush red carpet, listening to mom crying. She would suck in the air, and it would come out in rasps one after another. A debate to go in ensued, but I knew she was waiting for you and not me. Somehow, I worked up the courage to knock on the door.
“Come on in,” mom’s voice reverberated through the door. With the noise of toilet paper twirling and being ripped, I knew she was preparing to present the face of a strong mother.
I ambled across each bathroom mat as if I moved toward something foreign and terrifying. The light glistened on mom’s tear-streaked skin. Despite her attempts, one tear after another slid down her cheeks. I worried the streaks might be permanent at the end of all of this.
Ash from the joint resting between her fingers fell onto Ozzy Osbourne’s face in the ashtray below. With a sigh, she lifted it and took a drag. The smoke blew out in broken wisps. I wondered if anything would be the same now. We said nothing. After all, what was there to say? If I was you, it would have been different. I could have reconciled everything. But I was not you, and you chose to fall, taking us down with you.
~ ~ ~
Once she left, I steadied myself on the edge of the large plastic bathtub across from my mom who sat on the plush toilet seat in the master bathroom. Just two hours prior mom had been smiling, laughing, but now, the bags around her sunken green eyes looked cavernous. The tear-streaks coating her cheeks threatened permanence.
“Did you know?” Mom asked, her gaze pleading me to have the answers—asking me to make everything better.
I wouldn’t lie to mom like she did. I wouldn’t make the same mistake.
“I had no idea.”
With a nod, mom’s gaze returned to the ground as ash from her joint dropped into the ashtray that rested on her lap. At that moment I wished she would be angry, throw the ashtray—scream curses. I wanted her to show the same emotions that were building inside me. Confirm rage was a solution and that my anger was justified.
But she did nothing more than lift the joint slowly, laboriously. Sucking in the toxins, she held them in for several moments. I worried she would suffocate, until she blew out the smoke in one smooth motion. It filled my vision, trying to cover up everything that happened.
We sat in silence, listening for the door to open—for her to come back. But it was all in vain; she would never come back.
~ ~ ~
Surrounded by foldable dollhouses, poorly proportioned dolls, and small plastic boomboxes, we crafted the lives of others.
“This is Robin.” You flailed around a doll with brown hair and Sharpied nose ring. “She lives with her mother and three siblings. Her father’s a drunk and left.” You were drawn to tragedy even back then. “And she’s in love with Dave.”
Dave wore black cargo pants and a tight London T-shirt. He was a Christmas present from your mother last year, not that it mattered which doll was yours or mine; we never used to care whose was whose.
“Mandy also loves Dave.” I held up a doll, dressed in an orange dress and black plastic heels.
“And Robin hates Amanda.”
“But Dave loves them both and has to choose.”
We played for hours—teetering between happy endings and false beginnings—before my mom honked her horn from the driveway.
“Come on girls, pack it up.” Your mom hurried into the room as if two seven-year-olds would know the dynamics of time.
“Just a little longer?” you begged.
Your mother frowned; the eyeliner unable to hide the deep circles beneath her eyes any longer. She was going through a hard time since your father left.
With our request denied, we packed up begrudgingly, throwing the dolls into their designated tubs. You grumbled, “I wish we lived together.”
“Me too.” I believed that things would be better if our dream came true. Did you?
~ ~ ~
I prepared an excuse as my mom’s car rumbled into the driveway. The white two-story home came into view, and the sparkling, blue four wheelers sat in the driveway like trophies. As a child, I never understood how my cousins could get new things while my family still had an ancient box TV in the living room.
When my excuses failed, I said goodbye. I was greeted by my aunt as my cousin, Lori, proudly showed off the gap between her two teeth. We were only a year apart and had been best friends for as long as I could remember.
As she led me to the game room, we passed the massive fish tanks, a small shark turning around and swimming toward us as if it was ensuring its presence was known. Before we got to the game room, I eyed the massive TV that took up nearly the entire wall in the living room. Once inside the room, she presented their newest pinball machine and bean bag chairs.
I pretended to be excited, faking a smile and pressing the buttons. I followed my script and ignored the knotting in my stomach. I pushed aside the voices in my head that begged to just go to Lori’s room and play with dolls like we always did.
I didn’t want to see her family’s newest things. They were intimidating, and the jealousy gnawing into me was hard to contain.
~ ~ ~
The hospital smelled of chemicals and my grandmother’s laundry soap as I moved across the tile toward your mother’s room. I only visited her a few times when my mom and dad made me.
I disliked the abundance of loud noises: the beeping, the machines, the people. I hated the sight of your mom thinner than ever with wrists even my child fingers could fit around. The machines hooked up to her, the hair falling from her scalp, her sunken in eyes lacking the color they once had.
I told myself I didn’t want to see her, that I didn’t even like her. It was terrible, really, to say such things about your mother. But to me, she was the person that would force me to eat onion-filled goulash and called me “turkey.” I found the nickname horrible and never quite understood what she meant by it.
More than that, the fact your mom was in the hospital meant you didn’t want to play with me anymore. That you were sad. And I wished things would go back to normal again. By visiting her in the hospital, I was admitting things weren’t normal. That there was a chance that things would never go back to the way they were. And they didn’t.
When your mother died, we got our wish. You moved in with me and we became sisters.
~ ~ ~
I forced myself to cry at my aunt’s funeral. It’s horrible really, but when my aunt’s remains were buried, I was excited.
My aunt was young when she died—in her thirties. It was a surprise for everyone. “Candle in The Wind” by John Elton played in the background on a cheap speaker.
Tears streaked down my father’s face as the black casket was lowered into the ground. Beside him, my cousins sniffled into tissues, sobbing. My mother and grandmother wept. I stood with my father on one side and Lori on the other, begging the tears to come. I didn’t want to look insensitive.
Even though I was young I understood that my aunt’s body was in that casket. That meant I wouldn’t see her anymore. It meant Lori and her siblings were parentless. I knew it was a sad moment. I willed the tears to come, managing to pump out a couple. I hoped the tears were enough to make everyone believe I was sad. I hoped they covered the smile threatening to tug at my lips.
A couple days before the funeral my parents asked me how I felt about Lori living with us. It was a dream come true. We’d finally become sisters—spending the night together, always. We’d be closer than we ever had before.
~ ~ ~
I scampered across the blue carpet toward the bathroom in the middle of the night. It’d only been a little over a year since you moved in, but you were failing in school, getting into the wrong friend group, and drifting away from me. We barely talked anymore. Your lamp was on and I stopped to listen. You whimpered, taking deep breaths one after another.
I can’t remember if I knocked or just walked in, but I recall the sight on the other side of the door.
Knife still in hand, you hunched over your bed, your arm laying on the side table as if it were art on display. Blood bubbled up before curving down your arm, forming a path to the carpet below.
“Don’t tell her,” your voice was hoarse. You never called her mom even though I thought of her as our mom back then.
I shook my head, the picture of you etching itself deeply into my memory. “I won’t.”
I don’t think I said anything else, but I remember grabbing the knife and forcing you into the bathroom. My fingers shook and you held back a scream as I washed the cut, pouring hydrogen peroxide over the wound. The chemical mixed with the blood, leaving an odd pink color streaking the sink.
The carving itself was indistinguishable, but I bandaged it up before we returned to your room. I told you I wouldn’t tell anyone each time you asked. We fell asleep back-to-back in your bed together that night.
~ ~ ~
Despite living in the same house, we were more distant than ever. At first, I tried to play and talk with Lori as if everything was normal. She didn’t want to play or talk or sit together. She was hurting, and I didn’t know what to do.
In the middle of the night, when I would wake to use the restroom, I recall several nights where I’d pause outside her door, listening to her sobs. I’d debate if I should go in and try to help. But each time, I’d wonder how I was supposed to help her. I’d keep walking, use the bathroom, and return to bed.
The alarm went off at an ungodly hour, and I wished I didn’t have to go to school. Begrudgingly, I slid out of bed, threw on clothes, and walked to the kitchen. I made peanut butter toast and checked the time. As I sat in the dim light—the sun not even awake yet—I waited for Lori.
Eventually, she emerged. We said nothing to one another, as she prepared a Toaster Strudel for breakfast. I was observant and noticed the fresh cuts and gashes on her arms. They were puffed up, parts of it turning white and oozing, smelling of chemicals. I almost asked if she washed it or what happened—but I settled on saying nothing. It was better not to bring attention to it.
We walked to the bus together but sat in different seats. I sat in the hallway for lunch, while she snuck out to try the next drug her newest friend group got their hands on. We had separate classes and didn’t see each other again until the bus ride home. We walked back to the house, side by side, saying nothing. We let the suffering fester.
~ ~ ~
Before our—my—mom was crying in the bathroom, we were playing cards with the family from Norway. It was my 16th birthday. Great grandma made my favorite cake, and we all gathered around the table. Everyone but you. The relatives from Norway just happened to be there that day, but it made me feel special. Like they also wanted to celebrate with me.
You wouldn’t leave your room since that morning. I remember feeling disappointed that you hadn’t been there to sing happy birthday or for the cake. I tried to be happy, knowing if I wasn’t that it’d look bad in front of the company.
They spoke in Norwegian and I asked what certain phrases meant. We laid down our cards and mom had won the round. She smiled, taking the pot of quarters and dollar bills in the center of the table.
The dog began barking as a car pulled into the driveway and stopped part way down. We tried to figure out who it was when you stormed out from your room, three garbage bags in hand. Everyone’s gazes locked on you, but it was mom that stood up, her chair slamming against the wooden frame around the window.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m leaving.” Your eyes were red from crying but you acted confident.
You and mom began screaming. She told you to go to your room; you refused, saying your boyfriend was waiting for you. Mom followed you down the driveway as the shouting got worse. The Norwegian family asked what was happening. I didn’t know what to say. I had been kept in the dark.
You hadn’t told me of any of this. Of these plans. Of your unhappiness all along.
~ ~ ~
Two hours before mom and I were crying in the bathroom, we were playing cards on my 16th birthday. Lori chose to spend the day in her room instead of celebrating with the family. We had my favorite kind of cake with fresh strawberries in between the layers of cream and rolled almond paste on top. The relatives from Norway happened to be there. It felt special to have company over that day, with everyone sitting around the table together.
I was grateful Lori hadn’t come out of her room. She’d been in a poor mood all week and I didn’t want her to ruin the party. I was worried about her bad attitude and dramatic nature embarrassing my family while we had company.
As we laid down the cards, my mother won the round. She grinned, explaining that she was keeping the pot in the middle of the table so we could all play again. Before we could deal another hand, the dog began barking and a car pulled into our driveway. The timing was too perfect as Lori rushed out, three large garbage bags trailing behind her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” My mom’s voice was harsh as if she expected an attack.
“I’m leaving,” Lori stated simply as if she had been planning it with us for weeks.
She stormed out the door and down the driveway. My mother followed, screaming at her to come back. I wondered if she did it purposefully at my birthday party when company was over. It wasn’t sadness that came, it was rage that bubbled deep in my chest. It stung as tears swept down my face.
~ ~ ~
After the night I bandaged your cut, I remember being closer to you. We sat together on the bus, joking and laughing. We parted ways only for the classes that we didn’t have together. Every other moment we were together, even at lunch.
I thought you’d abandoned the drugs, the poor decisions, the bad friends. I thought we were okay.
I dreamt of graduating together. Of us walking across the stage, smiling just at one another. You used to say you’d become a model, a singer, or a makeup artist. I believed in your future. In what you could become. We’d go to college together. We’d stay best friends. I’d talk to you every week, sometimes more. We would heal together.
Did you dream of anything like that? Did you think of me at all?
~ ~ ~
The lights flashed one after another off the boy’s car as the police officer stepped out. I stood on the deck and grandma left with the Norwegian family; they were going sightseeing.
I did nothing as you and mom destroyed what remained of the relationship between you two. You were 17, and the officer said he couldn’t stop you from leaving. Our—my mom—was holding back the tears, begging you to stay. You didn’t even look at me as you loaded the bags into the trunk and got into the car. As the cars left, mom’s shoulders sank as she retreated into the house. She’d lost.
I wondered if you even considered telling me your plans. If you’d planned it this way purposefully so it would hurt us more. I questioned why you had to drag us down with you.
You never came back, and we haven’t spoken since.
The blue and red lights flashed off the boy’s car as the cop stepped out. The Norwegian family had left with grandma so they weren’t subjugated to the screaming any longer. I didn’t go with them and stayed behind.
I watched through the kitchen window as my mom and Lori destroyed what little remained of their relationship. The officer said he couldn’t stop Lori from leaving because she was 17. My mom said she was stupid for leaving, I agreed.
As she loaded her things into the trunk and the car left, I’m certain she didn’t look back. I remember wondering if she ever cared about us. Once mom returned to the house, I could hear her crying from the kitchen.
Lori never came back, and we haven’t spoken since.
Cassandra Lawton is a student in the NEOMFA program. With a Master’s in social work and an MFA, she seeks to research the healing benefits of writing in therapeutic and community spaces. She has served as the Assistant Editor, and later, Editor-In-Chief of Jenny Magazine. She has flash fiction published or forthcoming in Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal and Rubbertop Review, nonfiction published in Entropy, and poetry published in Volney Road Review.