There’s a line from a poem by felon-turned-poet Reginald Dwayne Betts I can never forget:
Sometimes, there is nothing— just days and their ruthless abundance.
I don’t remember anything else from the poem. In fact, I don’t even know the poem’s title. The only reason why I know the poet’s name is because we read his book in ninth grade English while learning citations, and since my teacher was a perpetually-bitter adult who enjoyed torturing fourteen-year-olds, we wrote them by hand.
My point is, I don’t have any real connection with the poem. But that one sentence— days and their ruthless abundance— just resonated with ninth-grade me, and today, as a freshly-eighteen high school senior.
Maybe my brain subconsciously relates it to the endless repetition of a school day— staying awake for period one and two, napping during lunch, then suffering through the afternoon. Maybe it’s the same shadowed face of the bus driver who always yells while I try to fall asleep standing after giving up my seat to a tiny old man. Maybe it’s the daily scene of downtown Brampton, the abandoned park, the creaking stairs up my apartment building, just to greet an empty home.
Or maybe it’s the way my mother wears the same expression of disappointment and wariness and exhaustion whenever she sees me. The regurgitated lectures about my failing grades, my looming future, my father’s inevitable dissatisfaction if he was actually here.
I think something in me snapped at some point. It wasn’t a snap in sanity, or anger, or anything movie-worthy. I just stopped feeling. The anxiety that’d pumped so constantly in my chest since middle school simply dissipated, fading away into a droning static, becoming a soundtrack to my life of ruthlessly-abundant days.
“Hey, Anderson. Get to class.”
Pushing my head off my desk, I notice how he only used only the anglicized half of my surname. When I stood up with my bag in hand, my teacher’s already turned away and settled back at his desk.
Whatever, I think, shoving in my earbuds and navigating across the empty room. It’s probably the only thing he remembers about me anyway.
Usually, the heavy pounding of crappy rock songs drowns out everything else. But there’s an itch in my chest and pressure in my throat today, so I swallow it down and dodge around rowdy friend groups as I make my way to History.
Somebody steps in front of my feet. I hit the ground before I even realize.
“Sorry about that, uh—“
Freshly bruised with an earbud knocked out, I glance at my assailant before stopping short.
“Oh,” says Luis Seng— flute player, literature nerd, and ex-friend. He’s wearing an expression between surprise and annoyance. “Sorry, Lea, let me help you—“
I stand up on my own when the bell rings, saving us both from the hallway tide. I turn away before he says anything else, putting my earbud back in, ignoring the growing itch in my chest and the lump in my throat.
History class is as stereotypically boring as possible. Ms. May’s voice fades into the monotonous humming in my head, and I’m stuck fighting the pull to fall asleep, even though she’s starting a discussion about some local murderous lunatic who made the news last week. Ninth grade me would have been raising her hand every other minute. Now, that motivation is stuck under layers of droning static.
“Have a great lunch, everyone,” she dismisses us an hour later. And then, with some real worry in her tone, “Careful walking home tonight. The murderer is still at large. Stick with your friends and take the bus when you can.”
It takes me a second to figure out what the hell she was talking about, but the frantic murmurs of my classmates made it obvious.
I don’t have the energy to use on worrying about an ax-murderer out on the streets. When the third period bell jolts me awake after lunch, I’ve already forgotten about it.
As I walk to English class, a small crowd in the middle of the hallway blocks my path, whispering amongst each other as they peek through a classroom’s window.
“Stop, stop!” calls the teacher inside, sounding haggard and impatient. I recognize the voice immediately as my former band director. “Drums! Stay on beat! The rest of us can’t play if you’re always behind!”
“Oh, Harry’s getting chewed out again,” one of the people by the door says, snickering with a girl next to her. They look like ninth graders, probably planning on skipping class to fit in with their grade’s cool kids.
When the band begins playing again, one of the boys glances up and sees me trying to calculate a path between their crowd and the one-way stream of last-minute sprinters rushing to class. There must be something truly disturbing on my face for him to start ushering his friends out of the way like a hall monitor, but I don’t say anything and resign myself to another late mark on attendance.
“You’re late, Lea,” my English teacher says, staring me down as I sit at the creaky desk at the very back. “We’ve already gone over instructions. Would someone like to explain them again for her?”
Dead silence rings in the classroom. I doubt I’m showing an obvious expression of distress, but I must look pitiful enough for a few students to raise their hands in that half-hearted way, with their elbows still on their desks. I only know two of the three kids— Ricky from elementary school, Jen from ninth-grade jazz band— but the teacher calls on a girl who I vaguely remember from Psych.
“Finish your essay first, if you’re not done,” she’s saying, but I’m already drifting away and wishing the teacher hadn’t seen me come in. “Then we’re starting the summative project for next week…”
Most of the class have already started their own work. Ricky sends me a sympathetic look before turning back to Jen. The girl eventually stops talking and the teacher tells me something with a stern expression, but I avoid her gaze, shoving my earbuds back in.
Another hour passes, and I’m being gently shaken awake by someone’s hand on my arm.
“Hey,” the person says. I blink away my drowsiness to see the girl the teacher had called on, looking down at me through her dark bangs. “Uh, class just ended. I just— I mean, I saw you were still asleep, so… uh, we’ve got Psych together anyway, so I thought we could walk there together. Well, we don’t have to, I mean.”
It takes me a moment to understand her awkward explanation, but the teacher snaps at us to get out before either of us says anything else.
“Sorry!” the girl exclaims as I grab my things and head to the door. I’d fallen asleep with my music still playing, so my phone is dead when I tug my earbuds out and shove them in my pocket. My charger is still at home. If I miss the bus today, I’ll either be stranded in the middle of nowhere or be scrounging up some spare change to call my mom with a public telephone.
I’m debating whether or not I should skip last period and get on a bus now when I realize the girl has been walking beside me and speaking.
“What?” I say. She stops talking. “Sorry. I didn’t hear what you said.”
“Oh,” she says, and we stare at each other for a moment before she quickly looks away. “Uh, I was just asking what topic you chose for the Psych project.”
“I didn’t choose one yet.”
“Oh,” she says again. The conversation is painfully awkward, and I’m pretty sure it’s mostly my fault. I haven’t talked to a classmate casually in months. I don’t even know why she’s talking to me, and I hope she doesn’t know my name, because I definitely don’t know hers.
“Well, I’m doing depersonalization and derealization disorder,” she continues, dodging a few rambunctious ninth-graders as we walk in the class. “It’s a type of dissociative disorder, and it’s only recently been researched on— like, the past few decades, actually. It’s really interesting. I was stuck between choosing that or dissociative amnesia, but Rayne already chose that, then there’s only schizophrenia, which I can’t even spell.”
I don’t know what expression I’m wearing right now, but it’s probably some sort of confusion, and weird enough to make her trail off. Her cheeks turn red in embarrassment, and it’s only now I notice we’re sitting together in the back row.
“Um,” I say, feeling obligated to respond to her enthusiasm. “What’s your name again?”
Her face drops from happy and expectant to an expression of disappointment so similar to my mother’s that I have to swallow down the growing lump in my throat. The itch in my chest starts up again, and I’m trying to think of something else to say, but she grabs her bag and stands up before I can.
“It’s, uh,” she clears her throat and looks away. “I’m Sakaria. Nice to meet you, I guess.”
Then she turns and walks to the front, where her group of curious friends had been craning their necks to watch us.
“Good afternoon, kids,” says Ms. Jonas, greeting us with her usual booming voice. Usually her cheer and excited gestures are enough to keep me awake through the period, but now, I feel like sinking back into that static filling my ears and letting it drown me away into nothing.
I hide behind my computer, but I don’t fall asleep. Ms. Jonas comes along to check on our work at some point. She says something to me, her eyes dark and worried, but her words fade away the moment they enter my head. I nod to whatever she’s saying until she leaves.
Fourth period ends. The school day is over. And I feel as empty as ever, willing the pressure in my throat to go away and scratching that itch in my chest, putting my earbuds in just to feel like I’m actually here. My mind is void of crappy rock music, full of droning static.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt the ruthlessness of abundant days as much as I do now. Everything will repeat again tomorrow, and I’ll still be the same— alone, tired, and failing.
A gust of wind blows by. The bus comes, and I get on. A tiny old man arrives at the next stop. I stand and give up my seat, watching downtown Brampton outside the window while clutching a rusty grab-handle, getting off by the abandoned park. The wind blows again, colder in the darkening evening.
Footsteps behind me. A quiet schwip of metal. Ragged breathing in my ear, laboured but fast, and I can’t even turn around before the knife plunges through my side in a violent slash.
The person sprints away in the darkness. My backpack spills open as I collapse, blood already pooling around me, and even in the dark, my vision begins to fade.
I’m dying, I realize. My heart is pounding as it struggles to repair the damage. I feel it, but I don’t feel its urgency, which is strange— survival instincts should be triggered by now. Shouldn’t I be crawling my way towards help in a desperate attempt to save my life?
But instead of pushing myself to my arms and dragging my body across the freezing asphalt, I close my eyes. I let the emptiness and static engulf the pain I should be feeling. My last breath pumps out, and—
“Geez, I wish Lea was still here.”
I open my eyes to the glare of fluorescent lights.
“Why, so you can leech off her work? She’s probably tired of your crap.”
“That’s so harsh, what the hell! I just meant— y’know.”
“Not really, no.”
The conversation takes a moment to register, and I jerk upright, glancing around wildly. I’m in the jazz band’s practice room— I see the set of drums I used to play, the keyboard standing next to it, and some haphazard stands and chairs. On the ground next to it sits Luis and Sakaria.
Luis sighs, leaning back on his hands, facing directly towards me.
“I miss her, okay?” he says. I’m still trying to process my former friend and the first girl who had tried to interact with me in months in the same room. “I was such an ass to her, even though I knew she was going through hard times. She quit jazz band too. Jen and I used to talk to her all the time, but now…”
Luis is still looking right at me, but his eyes don’t focus.
He’s looking through me.
I step closer to them and tentatively wave my hand in front of their faces. Luis just sighs again and turns back to his work, and Sakaria doesn’t even look up from her computer. When I try to tap her shoulder, my hand phases straight through.
“At least she knows your name,” Sakaira says. When I crouch closer to her, I notice her eyes are red like she’s been crying. The implications of that are slightly unbelievable, but I cringe when I remember our failed conversation earlier.
“We were friends since fifth grade, so—“ Luis pauses, and it seems he notices her red eyes too. “Hold on, what happened?”
“I helped her in English today, then I woke her up when class ended, and I thought— this is my chance to actually speak to her. She even took her earbuds out, and even though she looked like she was zoned out, I thought she was listening. I started talking about our Psych project, and we even sat down together in class, but—“
Luis is silent as he opens his arms, letting Sakaira hug him.
“She didn’t even know my name,” Sakaira continues bitterly, wiping her eyes. “I’m friends with you, and you’re friends with her, but I guess I’m just that unimportant.”
“Y’know what,” Luis starts when Sakaira stops talking. “Who cares about girls? Crushes are dumb, and Lea’s not dumb, but all the girls you like are dumb anyway.”
It’s fortunate neither of them can actually see me. I think my jaw is past the floor.
When Sakaira laughs and extracts herself from Luis, the lights begin glowing so bright I have to close my eyes, and the next moment, I’m no longer in the practice room.
My Psyche teacher stares at me. She looks exasperated, and I’m already thinking about my several unfinished projects until someone speaks behind me.
“Sorry, Ms. Jonas,” says Ricky. His expression is sheepish as gestures at the blank Google Document on his computer, titled lea ricky psych project. “Neither of us really tried contacting each other.”
Ms. Jonas sighs. “I’m not really mad, Ricky. I’m just worried about Lea. How long has she been… despondent?”
Ricky shrugs helplessly. Ms. Jonas sighs again, uncrossing her arms and rubbing her eyes.
“She was my top student, you know. Full marks in every unit since tenth grade. I wish I could help her as her teacher, but kids need their space. Lea can reach out when she wants.”
“Yeah, Lea’s super smart,” Ricky says. I barely hear what he says next when the classroom warps away. “I miss her too.”
The scene changes again, faster this time. Now I’m back home, staring at my mother’s back as she enters our apartment.
She checks the clock on the wall, frowning, probably wondering why I’m still not home.
Like a broken dam, my survival instincts ram into me, unapologetic in its delay— but I don’t care. Because even as some fucked up ghost, the empty droning static tugs away and I’m suddenly hit with that mass of panic and regret and—
Mom, I want to yell and beg for her to get to the bus stop where my body’s lying and rapidly losing life. I’m sorry— for always being so distant. For rejecting her presence even though she worries. For blaming my dad’s faults on her. For all my failures as her only daughter.
I want to hug her again. I want to cook dinner together, I want to her to help me with my math work, and—
Damn it, I think, and that emptiness clears away like clouds in the sky. Don’t let me disappear.
The scene changes again. I’m at the bus stop, standing beside my mother, who’s bent over my unmoving body, sobbing into her phone.
“Please,” she says, “My daughter is dying.”
Her voice fades as I do.
I wake up a week later in the hospital, with a breathing mask and an IV needle, staring up at a white ceiling. I hear each of my breaths and feel the fiery pain at my side when I inhale too deeply.
The world is quiet. The static is gone.
On my bedside table, I can make out a few vague objects— a card, a tiny drum set, and a plate of fruit.
Get well soon, the card says. We miss you. From Sakaira, Ricky, and Jen.
Luis isn’t there, but I can assume the drum set is from him. The plate of fruit— definitely my mother’s. Her form of love ever since I was a kid.
Another day passes, but it doesn’t feel ruthless. I don’t think there’s an abundance, and I don’t feel that droning static pushing me towards emptiness anymore. Days are short, and everyday brings little moments— but those little moments make all the difference. I don’t want to disappear, because I’m a friend and a classmate, I’m a student and a daughter. I want to live this life of mine until no days remain, and I don’t want a single one of them to feel ruthless or abundant— I want each day to feel full.
And I won’t disappear again.
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Absolutely incredible, V.H. This is one of the best things I have read of this genre in a very long time. I love how you wove the flatness of her existence into something that was nearly the cause of her demise, then eradicated as she found something to live for... and that line from the poem was so profound and impactful, as well. I'm not nearly the reviewer that I would like to be, where this is concerned, because I'm certain it is deeper and more layered than I have the skills to elucidate upon, but I absolutely loved it! I see it's...
Thank you so much for your feedback, Wendy! I was really nervous about submitting this because it’s my first time, but I’m so glad someone enjoyed it. Your interpretation of the narrator’s character is really accurate. Despite this story being pretty loosely based off of Betts’ poem, I wanted to highlight the its original meaning anyway (at least, what I believe Betts wanted readers to understand): the past does not have to define your future. Don’t let your mistakes repeat. Reframe them into lessons, events to learn from, so your life can...