Molly Brainard is a writer from Southern California. She is a lover of cats, tea, and a good book on a rainy day. She has been writing poems and short stories since she was young and has had a short story published in the online journal Dodging the Rain.
I could feel people staring at me as I walked up to the check out. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Hunching my shoulders a bit, I placed my items on the conveyor belt and waited my turn. As I moved to stand in front of the cashier I peered suspiciously at her, wondering if she would confront me. But she simply smiled her mechanical store clerk smile and asked me if I’d found everything all right. I nodded briefly, glancing down at my “groceries”: two bottles of chocolate milk and a four pack of Easy Mac.
I paid, stuffed my things in my backpack, and left the market, itching to get away from curious eyes. It had been two weeks since Hannah. One since the mark. One week and still nobody had said anything to me about it. They only stared, trying to be subtle about it.
Then again, what would anyone say? “Hey buddy, you might want to get that checked out”? Besides, people were too polite to say anything like that to someone’s face.
As I walked home spring bloomed all around me, cheery and aggressive. I cursed it inwardly. A few minutes later I reached home and retreated, relieved, into my dim apartment.
The second I walked in the door I nearly tripped over some stray bit of trash. I kicked it out of the way and plopped my backpack on the table, also littered with debris. The neat freak in me was M.I.A.; probably suffocating under piles of paper coffee cups and Chinese takeaway boxes. I grimaced, yet made no attempt to clean up the mess. Instead, I walked slowly into my bedroom and eyed my reflection in the mirror. I wondered what my parents would say if they saw me.
Untidy mop of dark hair, purple shadows beneath my grey eyes, slumped shoulders.
And an ugly bruise colored mark creeping round the side of my face.
I woke up one morning last week and there it was, natural as anything. It had started just above my stomach. Over the past week it spread, climbing up my right side, reaching around to my back, up my shoulder and neck, and now it was starting to invade my face. I really wasn’t too surprised to see it there. I had expected some sort of physical manifestation of my mental state to appear at some point.
At first I had gone straight to the internet for answers. The closest thing I could find that resembled the thing taking over my skin was internal bleeding. The only problem with that was I didn’t have any of the other symptoms. The mark was the only thing. After that I figured it really had nothing to do with my body’s health; rather an outward anomaly caused by what was happening inside my mind.
I raised my arm and examined the veins at my wrist. Still there; still blue-green with blood.
“Hmm.” The word escaped me as a deep sigh.
Still alive, it seemed, despite my deteriorating physical state. This inspection of myself, both inward and outward, had been a regular occurrence for the past week. It was not something I consciously chose to do. I was on autopilot; very convenient for avoiding emotion. If I didn’t feel, I didn’t hurt.
I hadn’t seen anybody I knew since it happened. Not my friends, not my parents, not Hannah’s parents. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want them to see me like this, with such a big part of me altered. And in such a way.
My voicemail inbox was full of unheard messages. I stayed away from my email and social media. It was easier to forgo any kind of human interaction because the only human I wanted to interact with was gone forever.
I walked over to my dresser, pulled open the sock drawer, and took out a small, black, velvet box. I didn’t open it, just stood there and held it in my hands, running my thumb over the soft lid.
Hannah had once asked me what my favorite part of the body was.
“Favorite part…” I’d mused, picturing every part of her in my head as I did so. “I think I have to go with the eyes.”
She’d smiled and looked at me with her own wide amber eyes. “Okay, that’s a good answer.”
“What about you, what’s your favorite part?”
“Hands?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes,” she replied confidently. “Human hands are amazing. They can play instruments, they can paint masterpieces, they can build cities. They can hurt and heal. They can create and they can destroy.”
I had just gazed at her, thinking that was the best answer to a question I’d ever heard and thinking how incredibly lucky I was.
That was less than a month before.
It was Hannah’s father who had called to tell me. On the flight back from visiting her grandparents in Hawaii, Hannah’s plane had crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Rob’s voice had been so weak and choked with tears I’d hardly recognized it. I could not recall the rest of what he’d said to me. After “gone” all I heard was a loud roaring in my ears. The room around me had faded into an undefined greyness as I stared, unseeing, frozen. Surely there was some mistake, some miscommunication. Things like this didn’t actually happen to people. Not to me.
I looked down and realized I was clutching the little box so tightly my knuckles had gone white. I took a deep breath and loosened my grip.
I’d had it all planned out. I was going to do it when I picked her up at the airport, right there in front of hundreds of people. Just like a movie. Four little words that would change both of our lives forever.
Well, my life had certainly changed forever. I had no idea what would happen now and that terrified me. What do you do when your plan for the future, your whole life, disappears into the great unknown? Do you disappear with it or do you keep going? I had considered both of these options. If there was a third option I would have chosen it. Unfortunately, so far as I knew, there was nothing in between.
There was also the mark to consider. I probably should have been more worried about it, but more than anything it intrigued me. I was absurdly bothered by the fact that it did not appear until a week after Hannah was gone. I knew now that was the cause of it, but why had it taken so long to manifest? It made me feel strangely guilty; as if I had not been properly sad right away.
I shook my head and placed the box gently back in my sock drawer. Just then, my cell phone rang. I took it out of my pocket and looked at the screen. Mom again. After staring at it for a few seconds I hit the “end” button. If I answered it she would beg to see me and I couldn’t let her. Not yet. Not like this.
Maybe it would go away after a while.
A couple hours later, after a nutritious meal of macaroni and chocolate milk, I climbed gratefully into bed. Sleep was a relief to me these days rather than something that escaped me, as one might expect of a grieving lover. I didn’t have to deal with the real world and I got to see Hannah. I had dreamt of her every night for the past two weeks. The problem was, no matter how much sleep I got I always woke up feeling exhausted. I had yet to figure out why. Closing my eyes, I soon found that that night was to be no different.
The next morning I woke up around 6:30 and laid in bed for a couple hours, staring at the ceiling. I spent most of that time trying to think of reasons to get up. Finally I decided to go and find some food. Eating didn’t really appeal to me lately but I figured I had to keep myself alive. For the time being, at least.
I threw on some clothes and left, heading downtown. The morning air was cool, but the sun was warm on my face. Ignoring it, I put my hood up to hide what I could of the mark on my neck and face. As I walked, I thought about the dreams I’d had the night before. They were more like memories than dreams, really. Remembering experiences we’d had, things we’d done. Four years together; the happiest of my life so far.
We had met my sophomore year of college, Hannah’s freshman year. She was studying anthropology, a subject that seemed very unique and interesting compared to my generic major of journalism. We’d had a mutual psychology class and that was how it started. I hadn’t known she existed for the first half of the class. I sat in the back, Hannah in the front, and I’d only ever seen the back of her head. Then, right before midterms, each student had to stand up and give a presentation in front of the class.
The second I saw her face, I knew that was it. She talked about Stockholm Syndrome which normally would have fascinated me. But all I could do was stare and listen to the sweet sound of her voice, not understanding a word she said.
I bumped into somebody then and was jolted back to the present.
“Sorry,” I muttered as the person grumbled and hurried on their way.
I looked around, blinking. I’d walked a block and a half past the café I had set out for. With a sigh I turned around and retraced my steps.
As I walked through the door I glanced quickly from person to person, making sure none of the occupants were people I knew. I’d been studiously avoiding places Hannah and I used to go with our friends and this place was off the radar. I was pretty sure I’d be safe here, but I couldn’t help checking.
I went up to the counter, hood still up as I’d taken to doing whenever I went out in public. I realized it looked a bit odd, but better that than having people stare at the mark there. I thought I saw the cashier’s eyes flash briefly to the side of my face and my heart skipped a beat. Then she smiled and asked me what I would like.
No, I thought, she couldn’t have seen anything. Aloud I said, “Can I please have a small black coffee and a blueberry muffin?” Hannah loved blueberries.
“Sure thing,” said the barista cheerily. “And can I get a name for the order?”
“Great, we’ll have that right up for you.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly, and sat down at a table in the corner facing the door. Soon enough I was lost in my own head again. I thought about Dr. Reid, the psychology professor that Hannah and I had. He and I had become good friends during the course of that school year and remained so. He was almost like a mentor to me and I had talked to him a lot about Hannah. He’d tried to contact me several times in the past two weeks. And just like with everybody else, I had ignored him.
But, as I sat there in the café, I wondered if he might not be the best person to talk to. He wasn’t emotionally invested enough to be too pitying like my mother, but we still had that connection that would allow him to talk to me in a friendly and sincere way. He may even be able to give me some insight into why a significant part of my body was covered in a giant painless bruise.
I looked down and realized my order was on the table in front of me. I glanced around for the barista, feeling embarrassed. She’d probably called my name several times before giving up and just bringing it to me. I grabbed my things and left quickly, drawing as little attention to myself as possible.
When I got home I found a cardboard box sitting outside my door. Puzzled, I went inside, left my breakfast on the table, then retrieved the box. I sat on the couch and placed it on my lap. My name was scrawled across the top and someone had haphazardly tucked the flaps in so they would stay shut.
The first thing I saw when I opened it was a blue and black striped t-shirt. It was an old one of mine that I didn’t wear anymore. I’d given it to Hannah almost a year after we’d started dating. Under the shirt was a pile of various CDs and DVDs that I’d loaned her or left at her place over the years. There was a note on one of the CD cases that read “Thought you might want these back.” For a second I thought the handwriting was Hannah’s and my stomach did a somersault. But I immediately dismissed that notion. It couldn’t be. Hannah’s roommate Chelsea must have taken it upon herself to return my things.
As I emptied the box, another thought occurred to me. There were no photos. It seemed strange. Why hadn’t Chelsea given me the photos Hannah had of the two of us together? She must’ve known I would want them.
I ate my breakfast in a daze, chewing mechanically. There was something in the back of my mind, some thought or idea, that I couldn’t quite get ahold of. It was the feeling you get when you leave the house and know you’ve forgotten something but can’t think of what it is. It stayed with me the rest of the day and into the night. By the time I got into bed the feeling was so strong that it was beginning to worry me. I laid awake for hours, racking my brain, trying to figure out what it was.
I woke with a start at 4 am in full panic mode. My entire body was trembling and my breath came in quick bursts. I threw the covers off and sat on the edge of the bed, trying to get myself under some semblance of control. As the shaking subsided and my breathing slowed, I realized that the nagging thought was still there in the back of my mind. Had it been the cause of my panic attack? It seemed incredible but I could think of no other explanation.
Unable to go back to sleep, I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I stood by the sink for a while, thinking. When it was late enough, I decided, I would call my mother. Perhaps that was the cause of the itch in my mind; my subconscious telling me I needed to rejoin the world.
When 6 o’clock rolled around I took a deep breath and called my mom.
“Simon?” She picked up on the first ring, her voice anxious.
“Oh, Simon, I…how are you? Are you all right? I mean…” She trailed off uncertainly.
I sighed. “I don’t know, Mom.”
“Can we come see you? Maybe we can go to lunch and talk.”
My first instinct was to say no. It took an effort for me to tell her that was fine.
We arranged to meet at a local restaurant at 12:30 that afternoon. As I hung up I noticed that my hands were still shaking. Trying to ignore it I jumped in the shower, willing the steaming water to wash away my chaotic thoughts. Or better yet, the past two weeks of my life.
I spent the majority of the morning listening to the CDs that had recently been returned to me and figuring out how I was going to explain myself to my parents. Both my lack of social interaction and my alarmingly altered physical state.
At 12:20 I set out for the restaurant. I had tried to find a way to cover up the mark without keeping my hood on the whole time but nothing seemed to work. A hat didn’t do any good and my hair was not long enough to try to brush over it. I was already sweating nervously at the thought of what my parents would say. Part of me, a large part if I was being honest, wanted to turn and run screaming.
Danger! Danger! Turn back now!
But another part, I was surprised to discover, actually wanted this confrontation. To be seen and cared for. I knew I would get that from my parents; especially my mother. And probably more than I wanted.
My thoughts flashed again to Dr. Reid. Maybe I would drop him a line.
As I neared the restaurant I saw my parents standing by the entrance, waiting for me. I strolled up, casual as could be. As soon as my mother saw me her eyes filled with tears. She put one hand on my cheek, briefly, then wrapped me in a tight hug.
“Hi Mom,” I said in an exaggeratedly breathless voice.
She gave a nervous laugh and let me go.
“Dad.” I nodded to him.
He hugged me quickly. “It’s good to see you, Simon.”
I waited for them to look closer and express their shock and horror at the ugly mark on me. But they just smiled at me in a melancholy sort of way and then we went inside, and I was left to puzzle over their seeming blindness.
To my relief, we were seated on the patio. There were less people; less eyes watching.
After the waitress took our orders the interrogation began.
“Have you been eating, Simon?” my mom asked worriedly. “You look thin. And tired, too. Have you not been sleeping well?”
“I’m fine, Mom,” I reassured her, trying to sound more confident than I felt.
Sure, I’m surviving on a toddler’s diet and living in constant fear that people are staring at me like an ape in the zoo. But other than that, everything is A-OK.
My dad chimed in then. “Have you seen any of your friends lately?”
“Uh…no, not really,” I mumbled.
I glanced up just in time to see my parents exchange a look. A look that said, “This isn’t right. Something must be done.”
Luckily, before they could tell me what I should do about it, the waitress came over with our meals. As we ate I realized that whatever had been bothering me for the past twenty-four hours was still there. That feather-light touch, just noticeable enough to be irritating. Seeing my parents didn’t seem to be helping. What was it then?
All of a sudden I began to feel angry. The fact that they could sit there in front of me, with their pleasantly pitying smiles, and not even acknowledge this huge bruise was infuriating to me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath through my nose, trying to calm myself.
“Simon?” My dad’s voice was slightly alarmed. “Simon, are you all right?”
I stood up and slammed my hands down on the table. My mom gave a little shrieking gasp.
“How can you just sit there and act like you don’t see me?” I yelled at them. A few curious looks came from the surrounding tables. “How can you look at my face and pretend everything is normal?”
“Simon, please…” my mom whispered, reaching out to me. I jerked away from her hand.
“What are you talking about, son,” asked my father.
I stared at them incredulously. “This!” I shouted, gesturing to the mark on my face. “This discolored misery come to life!”
There it was; that look of horror on my mother’s face that I had expected upon her first sight of me. I felt a sick sort of satisfaction. But, as I registered the genuine bewilderment on my father’s face, my anger started to fade and confusion took its place. My shoulders slumped and frustrated tears filled my eyes.
My parents looked at each other and my mother nodded significantly.
They both stood and my dad put his hand on my shoulder. “Simon, there’s someone we want you to see.”
I frowned but agreed to go with them. We left the restaurant and got into the car, and soon enough I realized we were driving to my school. I sighed, knowing there could only be one reason for that.
Despite the fact that I’d been considering talking to Dr. Reid myself, I felt slightly betrayed that my parents had done it without asking me. I should have expected something like this, really. They were my parents. Of course they would do what they thought necessary to help me.
Once we arrived at the school, we parked and began walking towards Dr. Reid’s office. My mom kept shooting me anxious glances as I trailed behind them, not speaking.
My former psychology teacher opened the door with a smile, as if he’d been expecting us. I supposed he had been.
“Please, come in,” he said, standing aside. He clapped a hand on my shoulder as we filed past into his office. “Simon.”
“Dr. Reid,” I said quietly.
My parents sat together on the couch. I stood against the back wall, ignoring an inviting overstuffed armchair. Dr. Reid leaned on his desk and looked at each of us in turn, a kind and open expression on his face.
He was a tall thin man with a shock of light brown hair and the friendly, droopy eyes of a basset hound. Those eyes were now fixed on me, gently probing. I stared back, not wanting to speak first.
“Is something wrong with your neck, Simon?” he asked.
I realized belatedly that my left hand was resting on my neck, covering the mark. Force of habit.
I dropped my arm and then held both out in a grand questioning gesture. “Is this a joke?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Dr. Reid said slowly.
I looked from him to my parents and back again. “So we’re just going to pretend that I’m not covered in a giant bruise?” I lifted up my shirt desperately, displaying the reddish purple blotch.
I had a sudden thought that this was what crazy people must feel like. Alone, isolated; like they’re the only ones who can see or feel something. Even something that seemed so blatantly obvious.
Dr. Reid cleared his throat. “I think I know what’s going on here. Simon, I know that you’re upset about –“
“Upset?” I was getting angry again. “My girlfriend just died and you think I’m upset? I was going to marry her!” My voice broke on the last word.
I turned around and pounded the wall once with my fist. I rested my forehead against the cool plaster for a moment, trying to hold back tears. When I was sure I wasn’t going to dissolve, I turned back around.
They were all staring at me. Dr. Reid’s eyebrows were raised so high that they nearly disappeared into his hair. My father’s mouth was hanging open and my mother was covering hers with both hands, her eyes looking watery.
Then Dr. Reid’s brows lowered into a frown. “Okay,” he muttered almost to himself, nodding.
“Simon,” my dad said in an odd, strangled voice, “Hannah isn’t dead.”
I gazed blankly at him, not comprehending what he’d said. “What?”
My mom took her hands away from her mouth and whispered, “She left you.”
My entire body went cold, as though my blood had turned to ice. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears.
“No, she… The plane crash. She died in the plane crash.”
My dad was shaking his head. “There was no plane crash, son. Hannah returned safely from Hawaii.”
“But her dad called me.” My voice was rising, frantic. “He called me and told me!”
I turned to Dr. Reid, desperate for him to correct them; to tell them they were mistaken. But he was on their side.
“Simon, you created that story in your own mind. It’s a coping mechanism.”
I opened my mouth to protest when I remembered the box. The box addressed to me in Hannah’s handwriting. The box with no photos of us in it. Of course not. She wouldn’t want me to have photos of us together if she was leaving me.
I slid to the floor, arms pressed against my stomach. I was only vaguely aware of the three pairs of eyes watching me with concern. The room seemed shimmery and too bright. And then her voice was in my head, clear as day, telling me she was leaving. She felt trapped. She was suffocating. She was sorry. She loved me.
Yes, it had been Hannah’s voice on the phone, not her father’s.
I frowned and shook my head slowly. It was frightening to know that your own mind could deceive you in such a way.
I realized suddenly that the tickle in the back of my mind had gone. It was only then that any doubts I had were completely erased. This was the reality. I looked down, peeking under my shirt, to find that the bruise on my stomach was no longer there. But I immediately wished for it back because the pain which then filled my heart was far, far worse. I almost wanted the plane crash to be true.
After all, wasn’t it easier to believe that somebody you love left you against their will rather than by choice?