I guess it all started with the whistle of the kettle. Actually, the sound was more like a scream. I was on my stomach, my unshaven cheek pressed against the coffee-stained carpet. With one eye closed, I looked under my bed for the fourth time in three days for one of my little helpers. It was only another step in my compulsive behavior; I’d already turned the pockets of all my clothes inside out, searched my bathroom’s sticky linoleum floor like a sniffer dog, and ripped my dresser drawers from their slides. The sound of the kettle, the image of its rattling top, it spewing steam, hellishly squealing for my attention, made me snap. The brain zaps were too much, my mood swings were too much; the gasping fear of what I might do was too much.
I yelled at her, “Jamie, get the fucking kettle!”
I was wrapped up in shame and hurt as soon as the words came from my mouth. The pills helped me live unapologetically, but I’ve believed I was wretched for a long time. I just needed my little helpers, and then I’d apologize and explain to her why daddy was acting angry this weekend. She’s only six years old; I thought things would go back to normal like they were three days ago. Then came the real scream. A painful scream like she was falling from the sky and was moments away from splattering on the pavement. My blood boiled; I have no empathy when I’m like this.
Next came the metallic boing from the edge of the kettle hitting the kitchen floor and, somehow, an even louder scream.
My face detached from the carpet like velcro.
“What did you do?” I shouted and stomped to the kitchen.
Her cries were like those of a starving infant, and they exploded in my ear like fireworks. My apartment is small. It was like I was trapped in a bubble suffocating from noise, and I felt like I was entering a melee when I got to the kitchen. My daughter was bent over at the waist, howling at her shins, holding her hand by the wrist. Snot drooled out her nose, and tears wet her face like rain on a windshield. Water was all over the floor, and the kettle laid on its side lidless, like a ship run ashore. There was an irritating ringing in my ear.
She was still bent over, staring at her shins but managed to show me the second-degree burn. The underside of the wound was bright red and wet like a dog's hard dick. It was covered by four bubbly blisters, milky white, ready to pop and ooze pus at the slightest prick. The burn seared the middle of her palm in a straight line like the kettle was trying to brand her. I’d never seen a burn so bad. The sounds she was making were ruthless.
“Calm down. Let me think.”
“I can’t," she screamed, and when she tried to shuffle her feet so she could come to me for help, the pitch of her scream, her turmoil, hit a note so high, I thought the glasses in the sink would break. It made me furious.
“Calm down!” I demanded.
“My legs!” She screamed.
The scalding water had splashed the front of her legs, leaving them ruby red like a sunburn you’d see on a homeless drunk in July. My kitchen was pandemonium and felt like a drill spinning into my skull. I was losing control; I told my ex I never wanted kids.
“I can’t, daddy!”
I took two steps, and the warm puddle of water soaked my socks, which agitated me. I turned off the stove by reaching over Jamie’s head, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her after me into the living room. She acted like she couldn’t walk, so she skip-hobbled to counter my tugging. As she whined, I ordered her to sit on the wooden chair by the couch.
“Daddy," she kept saying in between her bellowing, “It hurts!”
And then, for a second, I thought she would; she swallowed the next burst of sounds like a hiccup and shakily exhaled so I could hear her sit bones vibrating on the wooden seat. I looked her dead in the eye, daring her to make another sound, and she stared back at me, begging for help with shallow pools of water in the bottom of her eyes. I remained silent. She couldn’t take my inaction or understand the pain and why I wasn’t helping. Suddenly, she burst out again like a car engine exploding. The sound pushed me out of the room in a fit. I cursed some more.
“Stop fucking crying! I’m going to help you, just stop crying! I can’t think!”
I rage-walked to the bathroom, trampling over everything I’d thrown on the floor over the last seventy-two hours. The cabinets under the bathroom sink were flung open; nothing that could help Jamie was inside. The drawers were on the floor, and I kicked them around to see if the contents would shuffle and reveal ointment or one of my pills, but it was just toothpaste, face creams, and shaving supplies. My eyes scanned up to the medicine cabinet, which was already pillaged, and then I saw myself in the mirror. I was not the man I was three days ago; I was the man taking orders from the evil inside, the shadow in me that hides in the corners, flinging shame, insults, and suicidal ideations. The world disappeared for a moment, and all that existed was the black of my right pupil. The house was electric with pain I could not stop.
Back in the living room, Jamie’s white shirt was drenched in her slobber and snot. Her breathing sputtered and sucked, reminding me of the sound of a blowhole from a dying baleen whale.
“I’m trying to help!”
And I was. I grabbed an ice pack I used for lower back pain and told her to put her hand on it. She looked at me, unsure if it was a good idea, but I told her in the quietest voice I’d had in several minutes that it would help. I saw something churning inside her, skepticism in her eye like I was a stranger trying to lure her into my van, so I nodded at her and held the frost blue square out in front of me. As soon as her ballon-like blisters touched the icy nylon, she yelped, and the flood of tears that had been dormant for a short while came back and ejected me into anger. I spun around and threw the ice pack like a grenade, and it made a loud thud against the door, where it detonated. It hung there for a moment, like a dart in a board, until it slimed its way down to the floor, leaving a thick blue trail behind it. This is who I am without my meds.
I screamed, “Fuck,” again and again, and then several more times as I stomped around the house. I kicked the drawers on the floor, the piles of clothes, and my daughter's overnight bag. I swiped stacks of bills and a cereal box from the kitchen counter. I screamed and cursed and shouted, and Jamie was there, crying her eyes out the whole time.
A knock at the front door paused my rampage. I shot a look at Jamie to let her know that whatever was happening was all her fault. She was seething in pain like an animal caught in a trap. I muttered terrible things under my breath and looked through the peephole. It was my overweight black neighbor, a woman I’d never spoken to.
“I see you looking at me,” she said, “What’s going on in there?”
“Daddy, it hurts,” my daughter said from behind me.
“Nothing’s going on,” I barked, “Just an accident.”
The woman rolled her eyes, then banged on the door again, “I see you seeing me. I know you got a little girl in there, and I heard her screaming and banging, and you screaming."
“It was an accident! Go away. We’re fine.”
“I want to go away! I really do, so show me the girl and that she’s ok, and I’ll leave.”
I wanted to throw another fit and bang on the door with both hands, screaming at the top of my lungs like a toddler on the wrong end of a sugar high, shouting leave me alone. I hate being told what to do, but the woman had me beat, and I only saw one way out. Sometimes my impulses get me into trouble.
“Jamie, come here.”
“It hurts, daddy,” she whined, “I can’t walk.”
And at that, she got up and hobbled. I had nothing but anger as she dragged herself toward me, and my shame of that fact made everything worse. Then, I got another brain zap, a jolt of cold electricity like a sword piercing my third eye, and that was enough to do it. I told the pharmacist I needed the prescription and that I didn't act right without my meds, but she didn’t listen.
I shoved Jamie in front of me, digging my hand into her shoulder, and opened the door enough for the lady to see.
“See? She’s fine,” I said, swinging the door shut.
“She don’t look fine,” the woman said, stopping the door from shutting with her foot.
“Lady, back the fuck off!”
We were both pressing as hard as we could against the door, me trying to close it, her trying to open it, and Jamie was stuck in the middle.
“It’s ok, sweetie,” the lady said to Jamie, trying to get into my apartment with all her weight. She was strong, and my feet began to slide in my wet socks. I lost my footing and tumbled backward with Jamie as the lady busted down the door to behold the wreckage of my life.
My daughter screamed even louder at the pain caused by her fall; one of her blisters had popped on impact.
“You see what you did?” I shouted, “Get the fuck out!”
“What the hell is going on in here?” The lady motioned around the apartment, “Have you lost your mind?”
She extended her hand to Jamie, and that’s when she saw her burns, “Oh my god. Sweetie, are you ok?”
“It was an accident!” I shouted, scrambling to my feet. I felt like an eagle trying to protect its nest from a pesky raven.
“Get out,” I squawked, “We’re fine!”
For every step I took toward her, she took one back, like we were connected belly to belly by an invisible rope. Her eyes never left mine, and in them, I saw fear; the same look of panic showed on my daughter’s face when I first saw her screaming in the kitchen. The woman walked backward into the open door and winced from the pain of it digging into her ass.
“This isn’t ok,” she barked at me coming toward her, “Stop right there!”
I halted, “You’re in my house!”
For the first time in several moments, she dropped her gaze from mine and looked at Jamie, “You’re going to be ok, swee--”
“--Don’t talk to her! Get out!”
She felt for the door behind her and quickly exited, slamming it shut, but her absence did little to calm my embarrassment. I was breathing heavily, and I heard Jamie begin to sob behind me.
“I want mommy.”
I hate when she says that.
“Stop it,” I said.
Her blubbering got louder, “Daddy, please, I want mommy.”
And she did. She swallowed her next cry and stared at her blistered, oozing hand. I stood above her, letting the newfound silence do its thing; I thought it would make me calm, but I was reminded that the evil inside me uses silence as its time to attack. It wasn’t just the shame of the neighbor seeing the disarray of my home. It was that she ever had to knock on the door in the first place. I hated myself for letting it get to this and for not being better. I hated that I couldn’t be who I wanted to be without my little helpers and that I’d let my daughter down. My mood swung from rage to a deep sorrow that sucked whatever was inside me out, leaving me feeling hollow and ragged. My shoulders slumped as I questioned what I’d done.
“Jamie, I’m sorry.”
But Jamie wouldn’t look at me. She turned her head away from her injured hand and to an indiscriminate spot on the carpet at her side. I knelt beside her and tried to be gentle.
“Honey,” I said, “Daddy’s sorry, ok? I didn’t mean to do this.”
Her eyes were watering again, and I saw tears begin to flow. She expressed the kind of disappointment I’d only ever seen captured in paintings and when my ex told me we needed a divorce. I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off and scooted away until she was out of my reach. I had failed again, this much, I was sure.
When I heard knocking at my door the next time, I knew it was the police. My black neighbor was standing behind two officers, and I was surprised that on her face, I didn’t see someone who thought that they’d won; I saw someone who was concerned. I let the officers into my house and was intimidated when I noticed that one of them kept his hand near his pistol the whole time. I told them what had happened, and they told me they needed to talk to Jamie.
Jamie wept and told them how she’d burned her hand and how all she wanted was her mother. I sat on a stool in my tiny kitchen, my hands covering my face, my feet still wet. I can’t say this is how I envisioned my life to go. I have problems inside my head that I can’t seem to figure out. I need my meds, my little helpers, to help take the edge off - to help me keep my distance from the shadow lurking in the corners. I texted my ex this information as part of an apology after the police had called her and advised her to pick up her daughter, and I waited for a reply, but it did not come. I looked at my phone every couple of minutes after that, hoping she’d say she'd forgiven me, but there was no response; it was only silence. Then, the shadow hurled an insult from an undefinable place, and I hated myself even more.
I don’t know how to grapple with my sins, but I could use a little help. I recheck my phone, and this time I have a notification; it’s the pharmacy. My pills will be ready for pick up tomorrow, but I must first make it through the night.