by Aleks Haecky
Sandra sat on her bed, pocketknife open in her left hand.
Downstairs her parents screamed at each other. About Mom’s new vet-tech job at the zoo. About Dad’s risky investments. About their ever-pending divorce. And, of course, about her own inability to adjust to the new house, her difficulties at the new school, and the scars on her arms mother had discovered this afternoon.
If she had used even one of their expressive words, she would have been grounded for a week.
“Sweet sixteen,” Sandra said to her stuffed turtle, Theo. “The only sweet thing in my life is my blood.”
Theo remained silent. His programming did not include questions of life importance.
Sandra put the knife on her forearm.
“Wanna see some?”
The turtle only looked at her with its oversized eyes.
“There. See, how pretty?”
A thin line of blood trickled out of a new scratch on Sandra’s right arm. Carefully drawn from the crook of her elbow to her wrist, it broke the skin just enough to cause bleeding. She felt no pain, just a sense of released pressure.
“This one’s for Mom,” she said. “And this one’s for Dad,” as she drew a second line diagonally across, like dueling sabers. She watched the blood free itself from her body, and her focus allowed her to tune out her parents’ noisy argument.
“And this one’s for Robert,” she explained to Theo. “He didn’t look at me once today. Since Cathy has colored her hair blond, I haven’t even gotten a smile at the beginning of class.”
She cut deeper this time, and was surprised by the pain and the mess of blood. She fished for a wad of tissue on her nighttable. It soaked red in a few seconds.
Pressure bandage, she thought.
She pulled her bandanna off Theo’s neck and and wrapped it tightly around her forearm. Then she lay back on her bed. She grabbed Theo and pressed him against her chest in a tight embrace.
The scratch-cuts for her parents burned enough to cancel out her fear of their fight. The wound for Robert bled out her love sickness. Pain to kill pain, blood to cleanse her soul. In a few days, only pink lines of fresh skin would remain, adding to the pattern of white scars on her arms.
The turtle purred, making soothing sounds in her Aunt Allanna’s voice.
I miss you so, Auntie.
Sandra started to sob.
I want afternoon teas at your place. I want to move back home. I want to stop cutting.
After a slap, a scream, and a slammed door the noise downstairs stopped.
Sandra sat on the edge of a mighty leather couch at Doctor Teale’s office. She felt out of place with her spiky hair and chameleon coveralls.
She stared at the holographic wall hangings.
They all showed abstract moving patterns in reassuring green tones. Occasionally, a brown horse would gallop through the pattern soup, leap from one hanging to the next, until it seemed to jump out of the frame and into a beam of sunlight that had snuck past the curtains.
The psychiatrist’s voice droned in a reassuring rumble. Sitting across to the left from her, her mother squeezed her hand with urging firmness.
“Please, agree to take the medication,” her mother said. “Or at least let us to put in the nanos.”
“I think you could greatly benefit from treatment,” said Dr. Teale. “The medication would suppress your impulse for self-mutilation and alleviate your depression. The nanos would prevent further physical injury. This trial is a great opportunity for you. Not everybody is offered such a chance. Your parents are very distressed about what you’re doing to yourself. This treatment, combined with a series of therapy sessions could help you clarify your issues and take control of your life.”
Sandra contemplated her long red fingernails. She lifted her hands to cover her face, looking at her mother through her fingers. She put the tips of her sharp nails on her forehead, pressed until the skin broke and she felt the first drops of blood. She dragged her fingernails straight down her face to create a curtain of blood between her and her mother. She heard two gasps, quickly controlled.
“I’m not the one with problems. Why don’t you fix your own life,” she said.
“Honey, please, I can’t. It’s too late. I am stuck with the choices I’ve made. But I want your life to be different.”
Sandra looked are mother, stone-faced, and rose. She was done here.
On her way out she heard her say to Dr. Teale, “Please, Sisal. You must help me.”
Sandra glanced over her shoulder and saw him hand her mother a small box, which she slipped into her handbag. Her mother pecked Dr. Teale’scheek with a quick kiss before she followed Sandra.
Sandra dreamt, her semi-conscious mind a horrified observer of the images her subconscious paraded before her. An amputated arm, a lonely leg, a torso with a screaming head, floated into her field of view. Streaks of blood streamed down its decomposing chest. Then it all whirled away towards the infinity of a starless universe.
Sandra averted her inner eyes to look at herself. On her right thigh, something pushed at her skin from inside. A bulge grew under her black skirt. Panicked, she pushed aside the fabric, only to see how the taught skin parted as angry lips. A white porcelain flower emerged and opened into full bloom. She felt the flower sink icy roots into the muscles of her leg, its cold rhizome snake into her warm blood vessels.
She didn’t dare to rip out the parasite. If she did, she knew, she would bleed to death. In her dream, she sat, watching herself invaded, overgrown, and finally strangled by the reddening roots. As she let go of the last of her breath to accept darkness, she felt her mom’s gentle hand on her forehead.
Her breath returned.
The soreness in her leg remained.
“Everything will be all right now,” Mom said, and she kissed Sandra on the cheek.
Sinking again, Sandra found herself hanging on a cross, unable to live, unable to die, a dragon chewing at her heart forever.
She woke up crying.
Her mother was holding her tight, rocking her.
“You’ll be all right now, Baby,” she said.
The soreness in her leg remained.
Things settled down for a while. Mom and Dad seemed to live in a cold truce after Mom started her zoo job against her father’s objections. Dad became practically invisible, saying that the volatile stock market was rattling the foundation of his company, and he was the only person who could hold it together.
Sandra got to be on the same math team as Robert. The group practiced twice a week, and their common goal brought them closer together.
A new housekeeper, Carla, could not replace Aunt Allanna, of course, but at least Sandra was not alone in the huge house after school. And there was milk and cookies, and someone who asked how she was doing just for conversation.
Her mother didn’t mention therapy again.
Then Sandra didn’t get her period.
She had cramps, bad, disabling churns in her abdomen, but the flow of blood, the cleansing, didn’t start.
“That can happen,” her mother said.
“I haven’t slept with anyone!” Sandra said.
“I didn’t say you did,” said her mother.
The cramps wouldn’t let her go, insisted that there had to be blood before they could subside.
Her mother gave her pain medicine. Sandra didn’t take it. She didn’t want to get rid of the pain. She wanted its completion. She lay face down on her bed, a heating pad under her stomach.
It only made the pain be all there was.
She sat up, opened her pocketknife, and drew a line across her abdomen. Pain to cancel pain. Blood to complete the cycle. Blood did pearl out for a second, then the wound closed and all she saw was a thin pink line.
She cut again.
The wound closed as she was watching.
She cut deeper, gritting her teeth against the pain. Blood ran onto her pants, but that cut, too, healed within a minute. Sandra dragged the knife across her stomach, one line after another, criss-cross, criss-cross, not feeling pain, only growing dread, creating a few drops of blood and a pattern of pink lines. She stopped when her arm grew tired, and understood that her body would not let her bleed anymore. She dropped the knife, buried her face in Theo’s shell, and cried herself to sleep.
“I did it for your own good,” her mother said. She rested her clenched fists on the coffee table. Her knuckles shone white, contrasting with the black wood. Sweat appeared on her forehead and pasted her brown bangs to her forehead. “I am worried about you. It has to stop. The nanos heal all the bleeding in your body. That’s why you didn’t get your period.”
“I don’t want machines in my body. I told you that! I’m fine. How could you do this to me?”
Sandra rose and slammed her fists next to her mother’s. “Get. Them. Out!”
“No.” Her mother’s voice was deep and final.
“If you agree to take medication, if you see Dr. Teale, then maybe we can talk about it. This has gone too far, and I, your parent, put a stop to it.”
“You had no right. I’m not insane. I’ll go to court.”
“I have every right to protect you from yourself. Until you come of age, the nanosstay. If you show improvement—”
Sandra turned and stormed out of the room.
Upstairs in her room, Sandra fished her pocketknife out of the sock drawer. On her bed, arranged in rows, sat her companions of a lifetime. Theo, the turtle. Fatty, the hippopotamus. Coco, the monkey, and twenty-seven other stuffed animals.
She grabbed her knife and slashed into Fatty’s belly. He split open with a satisfying pop and pale, dry sawdust spilled out. Theo's shell was next. Poly-something pearls tumbled out and a small black box like a pirate’s treasure. It squeaked unturtle-like over the abuse. Coco’s straw held up well, so she gouged his eyes. They hung like oversized glass tears as the monkey stared at her from empty sockets.
Sandra threw the knife on the carpet. She took three determined steps and rammed her head into the wall. Once, twice, three times. Color splotches danced before her eyes. She thought she saw a dent in the sheet rock. The pain just hurt without the hoped for relief.
Sandra looked at the destruction, cried a little. She remembered a movie where a hallway full of insane people had rammed their heads into the gray sanatorium walls, until the walls fell and they escaped into a green world of sunshine and birdsong.
She pulled her duffel bag from under the bed and dumped out her gym stuff. She packed her favorite clothes, her ebook reader, her seashell necklace. She shouldered her school bag and the duffel. She picked up poor Theo. She pinched his wound shut and applied some tape and cradled him against her chest. The pocketknife stayed on the carpet, open, pointing at the door.
Sandra headed downstairs and for the front door.
Her mother, in the kitchen, hands in a bowl of sticky dough, looked up.
“Where’re you going?” she said. “And what’s in the bags?”
“Home. I’m going to live with Aunt Allanna,” Sandra said. “She said I could always come if things got too bad here. They’re too bad now.”
“No, you are not,” Mom said in her voice of death. “And running away won’t solve anything.”
“It’ll take me away from your fights, it’ll take me away from this horrible house in this horrible city, and most of all, I might forget what you’ve done to me.”
“ I only want to help you.” Mom pulled her hands out of the dough, inviting a hug. “I love you, Sandra.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t live with you anymore.”
“I am sorry, too, but you have to.”
“If you don’t let me go, I tell Dad about Dr. Teale.”
Sandra knew she had won when her mother stuffed her hands back into the dough.
Before Sandra closed the door, she said, “I’ll get better. On my own terms.”
“I didn’t leave you,” Aunt Allanna said. “My dear brother asked me not to move to the new house with you.”
Sandra and Aunt Allanna were sitting on the back porch, around a small wooden table, in their hands, large glasses of freshly made ice tea with fat red straws and a thick slice of lemon.
“Because I was apparently a bad influence on your mother, encouraging her to get that job in the city, with a nice long commute and plenty of time to think for herself. And because I was apparently a bad influence on you, too, with my misguided sense of fashion.”
She padded her short hair that was colored in tiger stripes. “And he was worried you’d get a tatoo.”
Sandra laughed and pointed at her bare belly button that was pierced by a steel ring and circled by a celtic knot. “He never knew about this.”
They sat in silence for a minute, then Aunt Allanna said, “It’s time for these three things. First, the nanos need to go. Second, you need an after-school job to help me pay the rent. Third, you will have to make peace.”
Sandra gasped, but Aunt Allanna continued. ”And to answer your likely questions, for the first, my partner, for the second, that’s what adults do, and for the third…”
She looked at Sandra, expectantly.
“Because that’s what adults do, too?”
“Actually, it’s not. But it is what good people do. You mother is a good person. She wants you to have a happier life than she has. And I think for all it’s worth, that has currently been accomplished. You owe her the first step.”
“There is no other shoe, Sandy. Just think about it a little, every day, until you find it in your heart.”
It was getting dark outside. Quite a few customers milled around the bookstore, waiting for the author reading to begin. Sandra was shelving books in the romance novel section of the store. After six months of working here, the task had become mechanical, a time for her to reflect.
The door announced another customer.
“Hello, Sandra. How are you doing?”
“Robert!” Sandra spun around, dropped her books, and threw her arms around him. Robert held her for a moment, then they awkwardly separated from her.
“Sorry,” Sandra said, her voice hoarse. “I’m just glad to see you in person.”
“It’s OK,” Robert said. He pushed his hands deep into his pockets. “I came for the reading. You know I am a big fan.” He paused. “Your mother, too.”
“Hello, Sandra.” Her mother stepped out from behind the bookshelf.
Sandra’s face tightened.
“I’m not coming back,” she said, her voice stiff.
“I’m not asking you to,” said her mother. “With the reading as a valid excuse, I thought I could see how you’re doing.”
Sandra braced herself against a hug she didn’t want, but her mother just stood, looked at her, asked with her eyes for some kindness. Her left arm was slightly raised, an invitation.
Just go to your damned reading, Sandra thought. Then she noticed the pink criss-cross on her mother’s wrist, where the sleeve had slid back. She swallowd and forced her face to remain neutral.
She bent to lift the leg of her trousers. A blue dressing covered her lower leg.
“Dog bite,” she said. “When I was jogging in the park. Aunt Allanna’s boyfriend works at NBTech. I convinced him to zap the nanos out of my life. I understand now, why electroshock therapy has gone out of fashion.”
Sandra rearranged her jeans, then stood straight. She looked at her mother and waited for her reaction. When none came, she pushed back the sleeves of her flannel shirt and showed off her arms.
“No stress, no cuts,” she said.
“It seems like you’re managing,” her mother finally said. “I wish I could say the same for myself.” A bell chimed. “The reading is starting. Come, Robert, let’s go.”
They turned away from her. Sandra bent to pick up a book.
I don’t need my mother, she thought stubbornly.
She reached up to shelve the book. From the corner of her eye she noticed her mother’s slumped shoulders. She used to walk so straight.
Maybe, she thought, my mother needs me.
She finished pushing the book into the shelf.
And I owe her the first step.
“Save me a chair,” she called after them.
lled after them.