AN EXPERIMENT IN LIVING
CHAPTER 2- Bloody Sarah
Math class. By far the most pointless class of the day.
Don’t get me wrong. Math was important. But calculus? When was I ever going to use calculus?
I sighed and escaped into my mind. School was incredibly boring. Just like my parents, the teachers were predictable. They just spoke out of a textbook that I could easily read on my own.
Luckily, I had always had a good imagination, a thriving internal life. It was what separated me from Sarah, what saved me from her same disappointment and anger in life. If I was ever disappointed, or bitter, or simply bored, I could always Escape. Daydream. My own personal superpower.
What would it be today? I flipped through the genres in my mind. Romance was always a fun one. I pictured my mystery dream man (who always looked suspiciously like our quarterback).
What will it be today, my love? I asked him. A fantastical epic filled with dragons and royalty? A story of forbidden romance set in 1920s Hollywood?
A murder mystery in a haunted house?
Images and thoughts filled my brain, fragments of familiar stories and dreams combining to create something that was more interesting than the smell of whiteboards and the kid picking his nose in front of me.
White hands covered in red.
A body no longer moving. Almost alive, but not. Such a fine line between life and death. Breathing, and then not. Still. Gone. Waste.
1, 2, 3, 4…I counted the scratches on my desk, trying to calm myself down. The fantasy, I reminded myself. The quarterback – no, my dream guy – fending off ghosts that attacked me in a dark house…..
But it wasn’t working. There were ghosts, but the ghosts were more like memories chasing me. Memories of a cold silver object in a drawer. Of a horrible action taken in the dark, after everyone was asleep. Memories of blood and yelling. Fingers turned pale. Eyelids opened and blank eyes stared. I heard a scream ripple through the whole room, reverberating against the walls-was it her, was it the person who had found her, or –
Boom. Just like that. Brought back to earth. No red against white tile. No dead eyes. Just a musty old classroom with fluorescent lighting and a wrinkled woman in an Amish-looking skirt, and about 20 bored looking kids my age, at least 8 of them texting.
I looked at Ms. Gafner. She was staring at me expectantly, her tiny spaghetti-like arm lifted and pointing at a map on the SmartBoard. God, that thing was annoying. Those 4 points on the screen you had to click to calibrate it- if hell was real, it was definitely just watching Ms. Gafner shuffle endlessly between clicking each one. Like a sloth. A really, really old sloth.
But she had saved me. What had happened? Why had that happened? I was simply trying to escape, go back into my head like usual. I hadn’t even been thinking about Sarah. But it was like she was an intruder there, just waiting for me to enter.
Focus, Posie. What had she just asked? I tried to go back in my mind, but it was full of the terrifying images.
RING! Saved by the bell. Ms. Gafner was still looking at me, but I got up to go anyways. She was one of those “class isn’t out ‘til I dismiss you!” teachers, but she didn’t say it this time. The other students around me accepted it, and began to shuffle about as well, packing up. I liked to think they appreciated me for it. But probably they just felt the same pity I could feel emanating from Ms. Gafner’s beady eyes as I left the room. I hated that. Pity. It was so useless.
It was kind of nice that I got that free pass, though. I guess that was one of the perks of your big sis offing herself in the school bathroom.
Oh, sorry. I wasn’t supposed to say it like that. I was supposed to say “passed away”. “Moved on”. Moved on to where? Disneyland?
Always the freaking euphemisms. There were worse euphemisms than those for dying, too. Things like “checking in” and “how are you doing”, that really meant “how does it feel to have your sister die”, “did you know”, and, worst of all, “are you going to kill yourself next?” Ah, yes, the Golden Question that my mother had asked me just the night before: are you next?
I guess I preferred the euphemisms after all.
It was funny how people tried to cover up something horrible and make it look nice. Might as well tie a big freaking bow around my dead sister, right? So that no one had to see her in their mind, picture her lying there in the bathroom….
Stop. You’re seeing things again.
Except, no. I actually was in front of the bathroom. A bathroom that was no longer blocked off by one of those yellow triangles.
Caution: wet floor. No one else seemed to see the humor in that but me.
Except now there was nothing. Nothing, except, I realized as my eyes travelled next to the door, a gaggle of freshmen waiting to go in.
Not waiting. Arguing.
“Come on, this was your idea!” one of them, a girl who looked much too small to be in the 9th grade, whined to her Juicy tracksuit-clad friend.
“It was my idea for you to do it,” Tracksuit corrected. Her back was to me, and I couldn’t help but stare at the “sassy” emblazoned on her butt in rhinestones.
“This is so dumb, nothing’s gonna happen,” another said, though her pink flushed face said otherwise. “Right?”
“Then why don’t you go in?” Tracksuit shrugged innocently.
I felt trapped, forced to watch in horrid fascination, like slowing down to see what animal’s been killed on the side of the road.
“It’s easy. Just turn the lights out, spin around, and whisper her name,” Tracksuit continued.
Ah. So it wasn’t just about going in. No, they were playing a real life Bloody Sarah.
God, the teachers were idiots. They were limiting bathroom breaks to 3 minutes so that the dogs were sent out when you did anything more than apply chapstick, but they had re-opened the Bathroom of Death and left it unsupervised after school.
It was kind of funny, actually, their efforts to Help Us: the assemblies on suicide prevention, the letters sent to parents. All it had done was freak out parents whose kids were never in a million years going to kill themselves, and anger parents whose kids had any sort of chance.
No, that was a blanket assumption. Maybe it had helped. Maybe it had stopped someone else.
I almost laughed out loud at the thought that Sarah’s suicide had actually helped someone.
She would’ve hated that.
I swallowed my horror, concentrating on the humorous image of Sarah’s imagined anger as I tore myself away from the gaggle of girls and walked on, feeling the wall of icy air hit me as I kicked open the door. I liked the way it felt. Biting and angry, telling me to go back inside. Just hide from it all. Familiar thoughts, for me.
I gently reminded myself to smile as I walked to the car, and not about wet floor signs or my sister’s annoyed face. Maybe try something actually happy, I told myself. I searched my mind for something….warmer than the cold wind that whipped my face. Maybe the fantasy again?
“Posie!” I heard behind me, interrupting me just as I got ready to dive back in.
Could I pretend I hadn’t heard it? I paused to think – too late.
“Wait up!” Lily caught up with me and grabbed my arm.
She always did that: always touching people. I hated it. It reminded me I actually existed outside my head.
I turned reluctantly. “Lily!” I said, acting surprised to see her.
In reality, she had pinned me down each time she’d seen me since I’d come back to school. Remember what I said about “checking in”? Yeah, that was her specialty.
Lily was, unfortunately, my best friend…..very loose definition of “best”. We ate lunch together, we occasionally went shopping or saw a movie, and that was about it.
“How was your day??” she asked with fake positivity.
“Fabulous,” I smiled, widening my eyes. My own little trick, devised out of the fact that among the many things Lily did not understand was sarcasm.
She looked unsure, but smiled back. “That’s great! I didn’t see you at lunch.”
“No, I had my….daily appointment,” I said with a fake grimace.
Sometimes euphemisms were useful, actually. Especially when you wanted to lie. I hadn’t been with the counselor this time, actually. I had been in the library, reading Harry Potter for the 12th time. Avoiding her.
Her smile froze then, plastered on her face as the wheels moved in her brain. I watched her reach each step with amusement. An appointment. At school? With who? Who would you meet everyday….ah. The school counselor.
I watched these thoughts go through her head at an alarmingly slow pace until she finally gave me a sympathetic look.
“That’s too bad. We miss you.”
That was a funny way of putting it. “We” consisted of exactly 3 people besides Lily and I. The first and my personal favorite (though we’d maybe spoken twice) was Lily’s boyfriend JJ, who spent most of his time silently drawing borderline pornographic anime – I’m not joking on this, they stopped letting him show his stuff at school art shows. The next member of our table was….well, Table. He was a foreign exchange student Lily had taken pity on who had actually chosen the English name Table, though I was convinced he was actually American and faking his lack of English to get into easy classes. Last, and definitely least, was Mary Elizabeth, whose two first names and multitude of knockoff Hermes scarves did not make up for the fact that that she lacked any personality beyond desperately gossiping about those around her. It really was a random assortment, like someone was just trying to get rid of the extra ingredients in their pantry and ended up whipping up a pile of mush.
But none of us really had anyone else. Lily used to have other friends, but there had been some falling out with her and this girl Bekah who had dated her way into the Fringe Group (what I called the people who were almost popular, but not quite). Lily had adopted all of the rest of us because we either moved from another town (like JJ), or didn’t have any friends before. I fell into the latter category. I had lived in Philipson, Colorado, for most of my life, except for a year-long sabbatical my parents had taken in India back at the beginning of middle school. By the time we returned, my best friend Janie had moved away and all the kids were pretty set into their middle school cliques. Which, then, turned into high school cliques.
Anyways, the thought of JJ saying “you know who I miss? Posie” actually put a smile on my face, which Lily of course mistook for gratitude.
“….but I get it. You gotta practice self care”
Oh, my god. There it was. The S word they kept using at assemblies instead of Suicide.
“Oh, I practice self care religiously every night,” I said earnestly, knowing the joke would go over her head. “But I really have to be going. My parents-well. We have a Thing.”
Another euphemism. I was actually changing my mind about them! Or perhaps it wasn’t the euphemisms but the simple fact that it wasn’t polite to ask questions when someone died. Whatever it was, it was quite useful. And it wouldn’t last forever. I knew it had a deadline.
I hated myself for even thinking that, that I’d better take advantage of it before the annoyingly concerned looks turned into judgmental pursed lips and raised eyes, looks that said “yes, but that was weeks ago.” What was the limit on grief? What was the time when things were supposed to go back to normal? Personally, I would love for there to be one. But that limit seemed to exist only in other people’s minds. What was a person’s life worth, not in money but in time? Was it suspicious to act “normal”, to smile so soon after a death, yet selfish to refuse to do so a month later, a week? How much allowance were you given? Did it matter how many years the person lived, or how close you were to them in blood, or how long you knew them?
“Of course!! I wouldn’t keep you!” she said, as if horrified by the thought. “I’ll text you later!” she waved, backing away, her straight black hair whipping back in the wind against her lilac floral backpack.
Well, the allowance was clearly still in effect now. Thank you, Sarah.
As I walked back to my car, I ignored the cold air, slipping back into my mind….maybe I just needed to try a non-ghost fantasy. Maybe I could imagine myself famous, or a queen, or a renowned inventor….
But each time I tried to start one of my stories, it inevitably shifted back to the bathroom. To Sarah.
I shook the images away. Yet still they lingered, floating through the air, waiting for me to grab on. Tired of fighting, I reached out. What was the harm?
And suddenly it was me, and I was on the floor, and I couldn’t breathe, and then I was staring blankly as people screamed around me, ashamed, disgusted, hurt, alone, and then it was all black around me and there was nothing and I was screaming too and then-
BAM. I slammed on the brakes-too late. My car skidded to a halt. My car? Since when had I gotten in the car?
I looked around me, bewildered. I was halfway home, passing Jameson street. I had hit someone’s trash can, which had fallen and gone flying back.
I sat still for a moment, breathing heavily, blinking rapidly. What was happening to me? That hadn’t been me. I hadn’t died. I was alive, hadn’t this reminded me of that? Painfully, truly, alive. And in trouble.
Crap. Could I just…drive away? Someone came running out of the house. Damn it.
It was some guy with a dadbod and some scruff-maybe late 30s? I quickly tried to produce some fake tears so he wouldn’t yell at me for knocking over his trash can and spilling a copious amount of what looked like either vomit or a disgusting attempt at cooking macaroni. I rubbed my nose to make it red, put the car in park and stepped out, coming around to the passenger side.
“Are you ok??” he asked worriedly, stopping just short of me.
“Ye-yeah,” I said, confused, still unsure if I should act like I’d been crying. I wasn’t exactly an Oscar-winning actress, despite my fantasies. “Um-sorry about the….trash. I’ll clean it up, I can get you a new bin-“
“Oh no, don’t worry at all!” he said, looking at me closer. “What happened?”
“I….I guess I was…distracted. Not texting!” I quickly added at his face. “You can see my phone in my bag if you want, it’s off….just…just, please don’t tell anyone, I was just….upset and, and lost in thought, and-“
“Here, sit down, it’s okay,” he said, looking concerned. “What’s your name?”
Crap. Was this for some kind of police report.
“It’s-It’s Posie Larson, please don’t tell my parents, they’ll kill me-“
“Larson?” He frowned, trying to place something. Then a wave of recognition passed over his face. “Oh. Oh. I see.”
Great – just my luck. Now he was Really Worried.
Perhaps I could twist it to my advantage. I covered my face in my hands, accepting I was not going to be able to produce any fake tears.
“It’s been a rough week,” I sniffed. “I was just….lost in thought.”
“It’s okay,” he said, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder.
Was he seriously buying this? Perhaps I was a better actor than I thought?
“Do you want a ride home? Or could I call someone for you? Your parents?”
“I….I’m on my way home to see them. We have an Appointment.”
He nodded-his processing was better than Lily’s it seemed.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any damage to the car,” he said, stepping away to examine it. I quickly rubbed my eyes to make them red as he looked away. “Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I said. “Thank you, so much….and I’m sorry….again….”
I began backing away, slowly.
When I realized he wasn’t going to stop me, I jumped into the car and put it in reverse, then drive, as I drove slowly and carefully down the road until the trashcan became a speck in the distance.
I tried to concentrate on the road as I drove home, instead of whatever lurked in my mind. Except…it kind of demanded attention.
I had to figure out what was going on with me. Could I no longer escape without my mind going to the darkest possible conclusion, image? My daydreams had sometimes been…dark, dramatic, but not like this. Nor had they been as consuming.
So consuming that I didn’t even feel like I was really driving. A part of me felt like the little mini-crash had never even actually happened. Like I wasn’t capable of doing damage in real life.
My parents’ cars were in the driveway when I got home, but they must’ve been in their offices, because I didn’t see them as I walked brusquely up the stairs to my room, desperately seeking my bed, as if it would somehow solve my problems just because it was soft. I needed to think, I needed to figure out what was happening to me-
I stopped as I passed the bathroom. More unwelcome images flooded my brain: images of blood splattered on dirty yellow stalls, police tape, and limp hands….
No. I was bent over, breathing heavily. No. Don’t think about it, I told myself. These visions, these images, weren’t real. They weren’t things I had really seen.
“Stop,” I told myself softly.
I quickly walked past the bathroom and into my room, shutting the door behind me. I sank onto the bed. “Think,” I said, to make sure I could still talk. My own voice sounded from another world: warbly, strange, and unfamiliar. Meanwhile, the walls, the chair, and the colors in front of me felt like an illusion, a screen – fake.
I squeezed my eyes shut tight, beginning to breathe heavily. This is real, I told myself, concentrating on each breath. In. Out. In. Out. 1, 2. You’re alive. You’re breathing. You need air. You’re human.
I dug my fingernails into my palm until it stung.
See? You’re alive. You still feel pain.
Focus. Count. I looked at the ceiling, meaning to count each stroke. But it didn’t feel real. Time didn’t feel real again. The images were leaving, thankfully, but I still didn’t feel present. I didn’t dare escape back to my head, my fantasies. I couldn’t risk getting stuck again.
Without my daydreams, everything in Real Life felt quiet. Not just in volume. Quiet like an old abandoned building in a ghost town. Quiet like a heart that’s stopped beating. Quiet like the clouds fading away from view. Like an unplugged machine. Quiet like dead. I felt dead.
Shouldn’t I have felt alive? Shouldn’t have crashing my car been a loud reminder that I was still there? A reminder that I couldn’t just fade away?
Shouldn’t my sister’s death have done that? Shouldn’t those girls in the hall?
Everyone else seemed to React to things. Even those that didn’t really know Sarah, like Brynn, had Reacted to her death. And I looked at them all and I couldn’t relate to them. I couldn’t relate to the dad who had showed concern when I knocked over his trash can. I couldn’t relate to anyone who felt anything more than vague annoyance at being disrupted. It wasn’t just my grief that was abnormal. It was me. It was everything I felt.
When had this happened? I had always used daydreams to escape. But lately, something had changed.…the more exciting my dreams had become, the more unpalatable real life had become. And so I was always in my mind. I existed in real life only as a hologram, an imprint left behind by someone who used to Exist.
Whatever reality that reality had lost, my dreams had gained. Only they weren’t dreams anymore. Or they weren’t mine. They were Sarah’s. She had her grip on me, even in death. How? And why?
Most importantly, how could I escape her? How could I escape a mind I had trapped myself in?
It was simple, wasn’t it? Just ignore it. Just….don’t live in your mind anymore.
But it was easier said than done.
I did my homework. I watched some TV. I had dinner with my parents. I painted my nails. I kept busy, and I kept sane.
But then it was night. And there was nothing to do, nothing else to focus on but my own thoughts.
Thoughts that called out to me, pulling me in, asking me what the harm was in just letting them in. Just for a few moments. Why try so hard to keep them out? What harm could something that only existed in your head do? Maybe it could distract you while driving, but before bed….?
Yes, the images seemed scary on the surface. Yes, they were dark. But….at least they weren’t quiet. At least they filled the silence.
It was normal to be curious, wasn’t it? About what Sarah had done? There was no harm in curiosity.
And so I closed my eyes and I found myself back in the bathroom. Back in her bedroom, that one night. I tried her experiences on like a costume.
What was it like, Sarah? Why did you do it?
Like I’d said, I’d never know. But I could wonder. I could picture each possible conclusion, situation, all night long.