The Light at the End

A mind will do anything to feel in control. Today, mine is doing donuts in my soul’s parking lot. I can feel the concentric circles of nonsensical logic, irrational guilt, over-analysis and a profound sense of impending doom drawing closer and closer to one another in the middle of the circle until the four horsemen of my anxiety have become a glowing ball of pure radioactive panic. Yeats says the center cannot hold, but I can’t get this center to let go.

My therapist tells me to listen to what my mind is telling me, but I’m too far into this panic to hear anything but anguished shouting from inside and outside my head as I rock back and forth. My knees are pulled into my chest, my eyes are wide open but staring at nothing, every muscle in my body is tensed to the point of pain. It’s times like these that make me wonder how my head can hold everything that I feel. I have to find something to ground me in physical reality or my body and mind are going to shake apart. I don’t know how I know this, all I know is that I do.

My mind is like a 20th century nuclear test town. I’ve been building a tenuous sanity, painstakingly dressing it to look like a real life with real people, real pets, and real red checked picnic blankets. It won’t survive the night, but I knew that when I started putting it together. Soon, I will watch as my mental equivalent of mannequin faces melt, cheap plastic rubber spilling over immaculate navy blue suits and brand new silk dresses. At my next therapy appointment, two figures will don hazmat suits and pace through the ruined town, investigating every square inch of ruin and leaving no stone unturned. And then I will take a nap and start rebuilding again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The town is still standing, the ruin has not yet come. I need something to hole up with in my lead-lined refrigerator while I weather the storm. I’m out of medicine, so I pull out my crochet supplies and get to work. In, over, pull, over, pull, over, pull. Again and again and again and again and again.

Without so much as a whisper, eight hours have gone by. I have created a full foot of afghan without moving from my seat or glancing away from what lay on the other side of my hands. My fingers are stiff, my hands are cramped, my mouth is dry, and my stomach is rumbling. I shake myself back into conscious awareness and turn my face to the work I’ve done.

My stitches are flawless. Thousands of them, neatly spaced and wound tightly like a Möbius strip composed of colors so bright they almost seem to be mocking my mental state. Like a Möbius strip, there is no end to this project that I can see. I’ll just keep walking the same paths, feeling the same feelings, writing the same sentences. A mind will do anything to feel in control.

Siren

The kids in town know to be careful around Travis Lake. That’s where she lives. Run afoul of her, and she’ll get you. No one is really sure who (or what) she is, but whatever it is isn’t good.

There are stories around town, sightings of this mysterious figure in the dark depths of Travis Lake. Descriptions of her have remained remarkably consistent over the years. Parents and grandparents all remember hearing about billowing red hair, bright blue eyes, and skin so pale it almost glows in the moonlight. Old Mr. Dunlap claims that she tried to drown him one night. Apparently he was paddling his little boat around when he heard a loud thud, like a fist beating on the wooden bottom of it. He says she then snatched the oar out of hand (in the weeks following the incident, that’s the part of the story where he held up his palm and showed the kids gathered around his old rocking chair on the porch his palm full of splinters) and swam back into the depths that she came from.

They say that her song is powerful, luring you into the depths against your will. No matter who you are, they say that no one can resist swimming to her once they hear her sing. Those who claim to have heard her say she sings of a profound sadness so deep that it could kill you just by hearing about it.

There is one person in town who knows differently about her, though she’d never say so. Miss Helen (who lives down on the end of Christopher Street) is always quiet when the topic of conversation turns to Her. She knows what they say about her, her vengeful ways and great beauty. The two of them sometimes talk about it over tea. Miss Helen knows of her beauty, she has seen it first hand, though her eyes are definitely more green than blue. She also knows that she has a name that isn’t “her”, but Maris. The week that Mr. Dunlap was spreading his tale around town, Miss Helen visited Maris as usual.

“What were you thinking?” Miss Helen asked.

“Damn fool had a flashlight in my eyes. I was half-blind from it and so I ran straight into the bottom of the boat,” Maris told her, rolling her eyes.

“Please be more careful,” Miss Helen said, kissing Maris on the forehead. Maris just smiled and leaned into the kiss.

It was really an accident how they met. Maris saved Miss Helen from drowning in the lake once after she took an ill-advised walk alone at night on the shore. A friendship was born that blossomed into something more later on. After that, Miss Helen visited Maris at least once a week on that same patch of lakeshore, picnic basket in hand.

Miss Helen has known that Maris’s song isn’t about a sadness of now, but one to come. Maris has watched Miss Helen grow older and older over the years while her hair kept its red sheen and her skin remained wrinkle-free. When Miss Helen dies, childless and unmarried by all, Maris weeps for her. The is a foot higher than it’s been in past years, even in the middle of a drought.

As per her last request, Miss Helen’s ashes are scattered over Lake Travis.

My Cup of Tea

My left ankle clicks with every third step. If I were trying to hide it, I’d put on thick socks to muffle the rhythmic shallow pops from deep within my joint and the smack of my callus-covered feet on the antique hardwood floors.

But I’m not trying to hide anything tonight.

I hide from my family. I dampen my noise nearly to the point of silence. I keep the “me” that I am bound and gagged in a corner of my mind while the “me” that my family is gets her time on the outside. I pull my multitude of earrings out, leaving only a single stud in either ear. I paint my nails blush pink. I wear high-backed tops so they can’t see the tattoo on my left shoulder. I say nothing provocative and I don’t under any circumstance swear.

My feet reach the kitchen. I stand on my tiptoes to reach the top shelf where my secondhand teapot sits. The crinkle of the cellophane covering the fragrant teabag is loud under the bright fluorescent light of my tiny kitchenette.

My grandmother dumps sugar, honey, and cream in my tea. Tonight, I’m pouring in a good measure of Jim Beam. The first sip burns my tongue.

“Shit,” I say to no one in particular.

Growth

Looking back, she’s pretty sure her grandfather is ten feet tall. He stands tall and unfettered, without an ounce of the world on his shoulders. His voice is smooth and deep from her place on his lap with her ear to his chest. When she’s that close, the voice feels like her own, traveling seamlessly from one soul to another. She feels so warm and safe with him, shielded from pain and fear and the inevitable heartbreak of the future to come. Nothing can hurt her from where she sits.

As she grows, she begins to see the cracks in the facade. A little more than six feet (and growing shorter every year, as he says) is much closer to the truth. Too big to sit on laps, now the voice she once could have mistaken for her own is muddled by the distance separating the same old chair where Papa sits to the settee across the room where she now does. When he grasps her hand, it’s not the warm hand from her memory, but a cooler one made that way by poor circulation. The future to come has become the present, the potential hurt actualized.

She worries that her grandfather is beginning to show his age. But is it him that’s showing his age, or her?