T/W: Abortion, Mental Illness, Gore, Blood, Self Harm, Hallucinations, Dead Infant, Eating Disorder, Nightmares.
My mother doesn’t know that demons are real. I have, at the very least, managed to spare her that.
Soon, the sun will rise and everyone else with it, but for now I have the world to myself.
Barefoot, I gaze out my bedroom window at our miserable patch of lawn. Dormant wet grass hushes gently like seaweed beneath the waves, ebbing and flowing around the granite slabs of the garden path. I cradle my peppermint tea, watching the gradual shift from night to day.
Sometimes, in those fleeting moments when another version of existence seems possible, I imagine a modern flat somewhere, obscenely white and flecked with chrome. Completely different to this house with its treacherous floorboards and mould spreading around my window like a disease, eating away at the faded wallpaper. But that is a mere fancy of the woman I once hoped to become.
She wore a sleek pantsuit with high heels. Topped off with a razor-sharp hairstyle. Brandishing the latest iPhone as she stepped off the subway and into the jet-stream of commuters, secure in the knowledge that she was a salmon swimming upstream whilst everyone else was merely treading water.
Janice Elisa Park: Sex and the City meets The Devil wears Prada. Now, all of that resides in the part of my brain that uses the past tense and the subjunctive. Where the should’ve, could’ve and was’s are formed.
My therapist, Dr Stanway, sat up when I mentioned these far-off ambitions. Her office is calm personified: light blue walls, cream sofa and armchairs, metallic oscillating thing on her smooth pinewood desk. Even the silver roman numeral clock on the wall ticks softly.
She said it could still be me and I wanted to believe her as she ticked off the things I should be doing on her manicured fingernails. “Attend a group meeting. You still have the leaflet I gave you at our first session, don’t you?” I nodded. Tick. “Get some exercise. Outside in the fresh air, preferably.” Tick. “Sleep.” Pause for emphasis. “It’s incredibly important for your brain to process what’s happened. How you’re feeling. Our sessions. It will get better, but you need to let your mind rest.” Tick. “Can you do those things for me?”
I nodded and lied, saying I’d do everything she wanted. Well, I could do the first two things, in theory, but sleep is not an option. The small collection of happy pills, sleeping pills and mild sedatives on my bedside table are open in strategic disarray - making it look as if I’ve been taking them.
A door creaks, stirring me from my thoughts. Slippered footsteps pad along the hallway outside my bedroom door and descend the stairs, the wooden steps groaning beneath a carpet worn thin with age.
The fridge sucks open and cupboards bang as my mother starts her day. The washing machine hums to life and drones onwards, overshadowed only by the roaring crescendo of the kettle. Sighing, I slip my arms through the wide sleeves of my green dressing gown and fasten the cord around my tiny waist.
“So,” Mum says, sensing my wraithlike presence behind her as toast leaps up into her fingers. “Any plans for today?”
She is an older version of me with black hair cut in a neat bob, high-cheekbones sloping down to a pointed chin. Big, dark eyes.
An older, healthier version.
“I might pop into town,” I say, tucking a greasy weed of hair behind my ear. “I need to get a gift for Sarah’s baby shower.”
A mental image of my old school friend, bursting with imminent maternal pride, threatens to choke me. Her golden hair bouncing with each graceful step, her belly swollen with potential that I turned down. It is like she dances in ruffled silk, gliding about a glistening ballroom whilst I crouch outside in the damp undergrowth, looking in.
“Are you sure?” Mum asks, her eyebrows raised meaningfully over her steaming mug. “Maybe I should come with you. I’m not working til later.”
“No, thanks,” I say. “I can manage.”
She nods slowly and sips her tea, clearly concerned but unsure of what to do, how best to proceed. I wish she didn’t know. If only she hadn’t barged into my room and seen me holding the test. Her adorable excitement had descended quickly into heart-broken tears once I made it clear I wasn’t going to keep it.
She had tried to talk me round. Pointing out that I was the best surprise that had ever happened to her. That I wouldn’t be going it alone because she would be there to help.
But, what could I offer a child? Single mother? Pah. I could barely look after myself! Twenty-five, living with my Mum, signed up with a temping agency and getting secretarial work in the city if I was lucky. No permanent job.
No partner; I wasn’t even sure who the father was and the possibilities didn’t leave much to be desired. One man who – after a few weekend mini-breaks – I discovered to be married, another who was nowhere near as interesting once I’d sobered up, one who… Oh, does it even matter?
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Mum asks.
“Yes,” I say, attempting a smile. “A walk will do me good.” I leave my toast uneaten, as usual, not understanding why she still bothers to put it there.
Habit, I suppose.
Later, as I traipse along the footpath into town, I am escorted by déjà vu, my near-constant companion. People pass me in a fragmented blur: an elderly woman in a red coat wheeling shopping behind her, a young couple holding hands and laughing, a middle-aged man smoking, talking animatedly into his phone. I have seen them all before, many times, but they never see me.
Dr Stanway’s advice resounds in my head and I shudder at the thought of those group meetings. Sitting in a circle on foldable chairs in some wood-panelled church hall or community centre, listening to strangers talk about their religious guilt or how they were forced to have an abortion they didn’t want. Women younger than me with much better reasons for making that choice. On my turn, I would shake my head, not meeting anyone’s eyes and wait for the attention to finally shift away.
Why would I do that to myself? I wouldn’t be able to tell them about the monster that tortures me when I sleep, warping every dream into a vicious nightmare. It sneaks up to the house whilst I lie in helpless slumber, leaving me slick with petrified sweat. My only hope resides in finding a way to fight it and so I stay awake, guarding the house. Thinking.
I can’t tell them. If I did, the men in white coats would haul me away and lock me up.
Never to be seen again.
“How have you been?” Dr Stanway asked during our last session – or was it the one before that? Don’t know. Doesn’t matter. “You previously mentioned relief, and guilt for being relieved. I’d like to talk about that some more. Do you feel the same?” I shrugged. “Everything you’re feeling is completely normal and understandable. You made a decision and now you’re… Janice? Are you listening?”
I was listening. And not. I was staring at the metallic swirling ornament on her desk, mesmerised by its undulating movements. I get that it was some sort of soothing apparatus, but it was ever so distracting.
“I am listening,” I’d said. “I don’t feel guilty. I did what felt right at the time.”
“Good.” She picked up her pencil and scribbled something on her notepad. Something very short. Maybe it was just a doodle, to trick me into thinking that progress was being made. “So,” she said. “What about your social life? Have you been to see your friend, Sarah?”
I blink, and the memory of Dr Stanway… flickers.
The roman numeral clock on the wall in her office ticked, ticks.
I am back in the street, stepping up onto the curb after having crossed the road. I glance back to see I’ve used the crossing and mentally pat myself on the back.
There is a shop that sells baby clothes on the corner of Church Street, just before the bustle of the town centre truly begins. It smells of lavender and emanates a comforting warmth in pastel tones and soft curved edges. The employees are all female and chirpy, their professional smiles faltering only for the briefest of moments at my appearance.
I could almost pretend I haven’t noticed.
Quickly, I choose a new-born onesie covered with bright yellow goslings and hand it over. The service is excellent and swift and their relief is palpable as I leave. Their gaze burrows into my spine as I walk away without looking back.
The driveway is empty when I return.
The house moans, hungry for life to be lived once again within its parched walls. Upstairs, in my bedroom, I place the silver bag containing the baby grow on my dresser and lay down on my bed.
Patterns form in the crusted white stucco ceiling, swirling and weaving like oceanic undercurrents. I allow it to carry me off, drifting, but not to sleep.
Some time later, I lean forwards against the plaster-flaked windowsill of my bedroom, continuing my vigil of the front lawn. In the fading light, a mottled grey cat is picking its way across the grass.
As I watch, its ears prick up and its head turns slowly towards me. Its dead stare finds mine and I catch my breath. Grass swishes around the animal who remains still. It’s gaze pierces mine like it’s searching my soul and not liking what it sees. It arches its back and snarls. I can’t hear it but I know the sound; a serpentine hiss reverberates in my ears. A snare drum of loathing. I hug myself, trying to counter the unpleasant sensation creeping over me. The cat is shuddering now, utter disdain flickering behind glassy eyes.
And it’s gone.
I rub my eyes and look around, searching the garden. No cat. I begin to doubt myself. Had there been a cat? Did I fall asleep for a second? It is possible.
My hands press against the sides of my head and I take a deep breath. Things like this are happening more and more often now.
I turn to examine myself in the wardrobe mirror and grimace. I’ve lost too much weight to be attractive; my whole body seems to hang limp from my collar bone. Sunken eyes stare back at me with pity and a lump of sadness sits in my throat. I lift up my dress and gasp at the red welts and scratches on my stomach and thighs. They’re fresh and weeping. A sudden peal of fear cracks at my core, pulsing through me.
It’s getting stronger.
At first, it could only torment me in my dreams, but now it can physically hurt me.
I must stop it, but how? I need help but who would believe me? They would call me crazy and believe that I’d done this to myself. Doctors would appear, more pills would be administered and they would put me to sleep. Where I am not safe.
I readjust my clothing to hide my wounds when something catches the light, winking at me from the floor. There’s a shiny pink bag next to my bed. Curious, I pick it up and look inside.
It’s a present: a green baby-grow dotted with white clouds.
But, wait. No. I just bought Sarah’s present today; it had yellow goslings on it. When did I buy this one? My thumb brushes the gentle fabric and I pause, deeply uncomfortable with this discovery. I do not actually remember buying this, but obviously I did. My mother’s concerned expression suddenly takes on a whole new dimension of meaning.
I take a step back and look at my room. Really look. Unease snakes over me as one by one I notice all the other bags. There are so many. Dozens. More. All of a similar size, piled on top of each other and I don’t need to open them to know that every single one contains a baby-grow. All gathered here like some disturbing obsessive collection. The corner ones are layered thick with dust.
How many? How long? The volume of bags is dizzying; an army of rustling tissue paper. Whispering. Mocking. Nausea washes over me as I close the door and flee downstairs, my chest painfully tight. The cruel murmuring is still audible, but I ignore it. I’ll deal with those bags later.
Because already, night is descending.
Birch trees limned with moonlight are bent over, their longest branches slapping and scratching at the living room windows. In unison with the incessant rain. All animals are hidden away, cozied up in their nests and warm burrows. Storms help me stay awake and so I sip my tea and watch.
I gaze upon what I think, at first, is a shadow. A small shadow on the lawn, nestled beneath the billowing silver trees. Then, the shadow moves. I think it’s that cat again, caught in the storm. However, as the creature slinks closer, its languorous gait stirs a wariness within. What is it?
I put my tea down on the windowsill and edge closer to the glass.
As my forehead touches the icy window pane, a cold shiver snaps down my spine and thunder rumbles overhead. I can feel it coming; a maelstrom of power surging and swelling closer.
Instinctively, I know that I must look away, right now, but I don’t.
The shadow lumbers forwards.
I am transfixed. My body frozen. Panic tingles, mounting as snakes whip and writhe in my abdomen.
“It can’t be.” My voice is barely a whisper and I pinch my arm. Hard. “I’m awake. It can’t get me when I’m awake!”
Despair gnaws at my insides as the doll-like human head looms into view, dragging its small body through the wet, cloying grass. The tiny hands shuffle forward in a lopsided but determined advance. Bile rises in my throat as the undead thing cricks its neck to the side. The puny body must be too weak to hold the head up and so it rests askew like a weighty pendulum and fixes me with one beady, reproachful eye.
Gelatinous sweat slides down my face, stinging my eyes but I dare not look away. Not now. Not now it has found some way to get to me. Some way to cross the divide between us.
The anger emanating from that one eye is terrible. An ancient, primordial anger that knows no forgiveness. No mercy. The voice sears my brain from within.
"No, no, NO!"
I choke and splutter on my own sweat. It seems to be oozing out of me as viscous as tar. Coating me like a seagull in an oil spill. I have no reason to give this creature. I have not uttered a word, yet I know that I have already been measured in some way and found wanting.
Then, it hits me. If it is here, in my world and able to hurt me, then I can fight back.
I wipe my face and my hands come away bloodied. The creature smiles a smile of the truly wretched and a deep, guttural chuckle carries into my ears. Clamping my bloodstained hands to my head, I finally wrench my eyes away and search for a weapon.
Anything will do, but I must be quick. I snatch the lamp from the side table, yanking it from the wall socket and turn back to face my enemy. Screaming.
The storm continues whipping the trees into a frenzy, but the garden is empty.
As though it always has been.
“No,” I say, shivering violently. “I’m not mad”.
Defiant of the elements, I rush outside and scour the lawn for evidence. In desperation, I kneel in the sodden earth, my dress clinging to my bony frame and grab a handful of dirt. It falls through trembling fingers. The last tiny particles tumbling away forever.
I rock my body as the night shifts slowly to day. Eventually, my mother fetches me from the susurrant grass, ushering me inside with kind words and a thick, warm blanket.
But my consciousness remains outside, ticking over, trying to understand what has happened, flickering, soaking into the wet soil. Tick tock, tick tock.
And my mind… flickers.