"Loneliness" by Brenna Leahy
In the car, on their way back from her grandmother Mae’s house, Abigail felt that they were not alone. It was a girl this time, red hair with curls that lay coiled like snakes against the pale skin on the girl’s neck. She sat in the back seat next to Lila’s sleeping form as if she were waiting for something. Abigail met the girl’s eyes in the mirror, as she held on tight to the steering wheel. There had never been an episode in the car before. There seemed to be an unspoken rule that Abigail should survive the encounters. The girl wasn’t smiling or grimacing, which was unusual. She looked decidedly neutral. Her even gaze left Abigail feeling cold and alone.
Distracted by the girl, Abigail drove directly through the intersection at MacArthur, past the glaring red light. Abigail heard the screech of tires to her left. Her eyes snapped back to the road, and she jerked the wheel of her car to the right and slammed on the brakes. Don’t overcorrect, don’t overcorrect, she heard her grandmother saying (screaming) in her brain, echoing through her. Her breath was coming in heavy gasps, and her body was electric – she could feel everything, her heartbeat through her fingertips, the jerk in her neck as the car slid down the lonely road. Lila sat up and rubbed her eyes, as the car stopped skidding along the road. A bruise was starting to form on her forehead from where it had knocked against the one plastic part of her car seat. Maybe if Abigail cut her bangs, it would be covered?
“Mommy, that hurt!” she said as she rubbed her head. Abigail was sure the bruise just looked so purple because it was dark outside.
“Just a bump in the road, sweetheart. Go back to sleep,” Abigail said as she forced her voice to be soft and sweet. Abigail kept both hands firmly on the steering wheel, so Lila wouldn’t see them shaking. She glanced in the mirror, looking for signs of the other car before she pulled back on the road. There was only a line of trees waving back at her. It was an ominous wave. The trees knew her. They saw what she had done, and they wouldn’t forget.
Abigail glanced back into the mirror. The girl was gone. There was no one in the back seat but Lila. At least this time, Abigail hadn’t had to watch. In the car, there was nothing to do about it but wait for the end. Five seconds, then silence.
Lila was sleeping again. Abigail doubted she would remember this when they arrived home. She was always such a heavy sleeper, such a good baby. Abigail’s hands still shook as she switched through the radio: country, country, “Jesus saves,” commercial for erectile dysfunction, commercial for the Humane Society, Spanish, country. It was late enough that her concern about hitting a deer was less than it would have been at dusk. It was early enough that Sam wouldn’t be able to say anything about bringing Lila down so late without sounding like he was crazy. He probably wouldn’t even notice the bruise. This was so stupid, she thought, as she drove on.
Abigail was exhausted to her bones. The roads were mostly deserted, with an occasional car gliding by. She smelled terrible, like Mae and her childhood, a mixture of clothing washed with no soap and ramen. She had brought the scent into the car with her. Lila was coated with it now. It was on her clothes, in her hair. She’d probably swallowed a bit. Abigail tried to keep her mind in the present, as they rushed past fields of corn and wheat that all looked the same. She thought about Lila, soft and warm in the seat beside her. She thought about her soft brown eyes with lashes that reached far up and far down, spidery soft.
When Abigail and Lila had arrived at Mae’s that afternoon, everything had looked the same. Mae had the same hair – short, spiky, and dyed black so aggressively that it looked purple under the right lighting. The house itself was the same. Rickety and barely standing, it perched on the ground, miles away from the nearest town. Vines reached up, grabbing the sides of the washed out boards and pulling them down towards the earth with determination. The vines added the only color to the otherwise faded boards. Mae was waiting for them when they pulled up in their car. She waved broadly from her perch in the garden, the sun shining at the perfect angle on her dyed raven hair to make it an alarming shade of purple. Abigail held Lila’s hand tightly, as they walked towards the house.
“Hello, ma cherie.” Mae said in her delicious, low voice, pitched low and husky from years of smoking. She wrapped Abigail, then Lila, in her thin arms.
“Hi, Mae,” Abigail said, smiling down into Mae’s lined face. She was still so beautiful. Mae had one of those rare faces that never lost its beauty, even after years of sadness and neglect. The lines looked like they had been earned, and Mae wore them with the same nonchalance that she wore everything. Abigail envied whatever it was that made her beautiful.
Lila ducked behind Abigail, shy of the stranger in front of her. Mae had met Lila only a handful of times in her life, and Lila was only four. Young enough that any lapse of memory could still be forgiven.
“Come in, come in. I have some soup,” Mae said, waving them up the steps and into the broken house.
Inside, the smell was the same. Abigail suddenly wanted to leave intensely, but she forced herself to sit down at the table and ate the soup, one spoonful at a time, while Mae chattered on about her garden (the radishes were doing well this year) and her last trip into town (it did not go well), and Lila pretended that her spoon was an airplane. Abigail felt herself losing focus on the conversation, as the atmosphere settled around her like a blanket. She wanted to scream.
“Do you want to know why they keep coming back?” Mae asked softly, looking at Abigail with pity in her eyes. Abigail considered pretending like she didn’t know what Mae was talking about for a moment, but she decided against it. Mae had always been open about what she saw, and she had always told Abigail exactly what would happen to her. Abigail hadn’t believed her because she had wanted so badly to be normal. She hadn’t wanted to inherit a damn thing from Mae, whether it was this broken down house or visions of broken souls. Abigail finally let her pride slip just a bit, for the sake of her sanity, and nodded.
“Wait here,” Mae said, and walked to her bedroom. As she waited, Abigail pressed her thumb into her other four fingers once, twice, three times. She liked the way it felt when her nail dug into the soft pads of her fingers.
When Mae came back, she was holding a photo album. It was dusty, and the binding was frayed to an alarming extent. Mae scooted her chair closer to Abigail and handed her the book. The first page was filled with pictures of strangers.
“What is this?” Abigail asked.
“What do you see?” Mae countered.
“Just pages and pages of strangers, Mae. Why are you showing this to me? I need your help,” she said, as she flipped through the book. It wasn’t thick, but there were still many pictures, glued in and faded to the book. Some were newspaper clippings; others, Polaroid pictures, yellow with age.
“For so many years, I didn’t know what was happening.” Mae began, looking small and frail.
“First, you see a person. You don’t feel threatened at first. You feel oddly at ease, even though they act so erratically that any self-respecting woman would hear all of the alarm bells at her disposal going off. As soon as the eyes begin to turn, though, cold seeps into my heart – her soul. Afterwards, I can’t think straight for days. You remember what it’s like, I’m sure. And the disappearance is always the same. The melting. But I think you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you?” Mae asked. Abigail nodded slowly. She hadn’t specified what she’d needed help with on the phone, but of course, Mae would understand.
“I had hoped this wouldn’t happen to you. Sometimes it skips a generation,” Mae said, “but that is clearly not the case. You look exhausted.”
“How did you know?” Abigail asked quietly, hyper aware of her daughter, who was now running between rooms. Apparently, she was no longer shy.
“You have been very vocal these past few years about your thoughts on my sanity, ma cherie. I can’t imagine you would bring your daughter with you, for the first time in years, if you didn’t believe me on some level. Now, do you want to hear my story?” she asked.
Abigail nodded, looking down at her hands.
“When I first starting seeing them, my mother sat me down and told me this story. She called it a history, but I’m still not completely convinced. A long time ago, when my great-great grandmother, Rebecca, was a young girl, she saved a witch’s life. The witch decided to grant my great-great grandmother one wish, and only one. Being young and hungry for love, she asked that the witch allow her to see the one who would love her most in the world. The witch agreed and granted her wish, but what Rebecca didn’t know was that there isn’t just one true love for everyone. There isn’t just one type of love either. When Rebecca found the one she thought was her one and only, she began to see all the others she could have loved fade away.” Mae stopped to pour herself a glass of water.
“The pictures are proof, at least to me. When I fell in love and began to see them, I made sure to remember their faces. I looked for them everywhere, and in this book are the ones that I found. It helped me to see them, to know that they were alive,” Mae said.
“How do you make it stop?” Abigail asked Mae, after a moment of stunned silence. Abigail didn’t want to believe her because she had written Mae off long ago as completely insane, but this explanation was better than nothing.
“Fall out of love. If you truly can’t stand it, you have to distance yourself from everyone you love. I did it for a time. In the end, I found that it wasn’t worth the loneliness. I would so much rather be mad than alone, wouldn’t you?” Mae said.
“Thank you for talking with me, Mae,” Abigail said, as she put Lila in her car seat.
“You’re welcome any time, my love,” Mae said.
As Abigail pulled away, she looked back to see Mae kneeling in the garden, her lips moving as she sang softly in what Abigail knew was French. Abigail thought about the first time she saw a vision.
A week after Lila was born, she had been home with Sam for a few days, living in their little starter apartment, surrounded by a myriad of other little apartments. It was in the evening, around seven. Abigail heard a knock on the door – three raps in quick succession. She walked to the door without thinking it was strange because sometimes Sam forgot his keys when he left in the morning. When she opened the door, she was surprised to find a woman standing there, smiling.
The woman stepped towards Abigail with her hands out, still with her mouth stretched in a red smile. Abigail stepped backwards quickly, her hand protectively hovering over her belly, an old habit.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Abigail asked as her back hit the wall. “You need to leave right now. This isn’t your house.”
Even as she spoke, she knew on some level what was happening.
The woman reached out towards Abigail, as her eyes began to turn black. It blossomed from her pupils over her brown eyes until her eyes were completely black. Abigail was frozen against the wall; she couldn’t stop looking at this strange woman’s eyes. The clock above the baby’s crib, the one she and Sam had proudly bought when they moved in together, ticked loudly five times. Neither woman moved. As Abigail stared, the woman began to, for lack of a better word, melt. Her eyes went first, black bleeding down into the tan of her skin, mixing together so she got darker and darker, all the parts of her blending together until she disappeared through the generic blue carpet. Abigail stood and looked blankly on. No one appeared, as she stared at the open door. No one appeared, as she slid down the wall and put her head in her hands. In the next room, the baby began to cry. Sam had come home that day to find her staring into space blankly, blindly.
“Abi?” he asked softly, moving closer to her.
“Do you see her?” Abigail asked, gesturing helplessly to the wall. Sam obediently looked at the blank wall. It was beige, with a crack that ran along the length of it.
“What’s wrong? Did something happen?” Sam asked.
Abigail shook her head and looked down at the floor. Lila was asleep in the crib next to her. Abigail opened her mouth to tell him what she saw, what she had been seeing, then closed it again. The moment had passed anyway.
It looked like what Abigail would imagine an acid trip was like. The first time she saw it, she felt like the most accomplished surrealist painter, as she watched. And, for a brief moment, she wanted to claim the terrible beauty for her own, to capture the swirls and drips, falling like melting wax, and keep them.
Abigail pulled herself back into the present, as she parked the car and gathered Lila in her arms. Sam was probably worried. It was later than she’d thought. As they walked through the door of the apartment, Abigail smelled burgers (one of the two things Sam was good at making) and smiled. She set Lila down and watched her run into the kitchen to see Sam.
“Hey babe,” Sam called.
Abigail walked into the kitchen, smiling, and hugged Sam tightly, taking him by surprise.
“I love you,” she said, with her head buried in his chest.
It was seven o’clock on a Friday, and there was only one customer in the seedy bar where Abigail was currently working. The man was overdressed. He had blonde hair long enough to be considered edgy and a beard that was trimmed to perfection. He was dressed like a stereotypical lumberjack, if lumberjacks wore suspenders and dress shoes and looked too slender to pick up an axe. The problem with this particular fake lumberjack was he was gasping deep and long gulps of air and trying to carve symbols into the wood of Abigail’s bar with his fingernail. The carving was not happening, but as Abigail watched from the corner of her eyes, his constant scratching broke off some of his nail, and he began to bleed on the freshly cleaned bar. He didn’t seem to notice. That was definitely against sanitation codes. She wished her manager were here to clean this up. He was always late.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Abigail said, her voice calm and sharp, as her hands trembled.
He didn’t look up. Abigail grabbed some paper napkins and pushed them across the bar slowly, careful to avoid the blood, hoping to God that this was just a junkie. The man looked up at her suddenly, with a sharp jerk of his head that displaced a strand of ridiculously shiny hair over his eyes. Abigail stepped back as her heart began to audibly pound. She was sure he could hear it. His pupils were dilated so much that she could barely see the blue of his eyes. She figured cocaine was his drug of choice, but it could’ve been something else. She figured that she shouldn’t care what he was on, as long as he didn’t hurt her. Almost as if he heard her thoughts, he relaxed back in his stool, looking at her like he was starving. As she watched from behind the bar, the blackness in his eyes spread like a disease until the blue was covered, then the whites.
Abigail could feel her heart beating faster and faster even though she knew what was happening. It resonated through her body, and every pound made her hair shake, the impact rippling down the length of it. Her back against the wall of bottles, she closed her eyes and counted slowly down from five. Five. She could hear his stool scraping against the floor. Four. Patent leather shoes slapped slowly across the floor. Three. The footsteps came closer, behind the bar, then stopped. Two. She could feel his warm breath on her cheek, smell his scent, sharp and laced with toothpaste. One. She felt nothing. Abigail opened her eyes and looked cautiously around. He was gone, just like she’d known he would be.
The bell dinged as Abigail’s manager walked through the door. He started to smile at her, then stopped. She smiled at him halfheartedly, as she crossed her arms and looked around to make sure no one else was hiding in the shadows.
“Is everything okay?” he said, somewhat nervously. Abigail got the feeling that he was a little afraid of her.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Abigail said.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Abigail hesitated as she looked at his concerned face.
“Actually, I feel really sick. Do you think you could get someone to cover my shift?” she asked.
He didn’t even hesitate before saying yes. Abigail drove home, passing by buildings that grew progressively derelict. This part of town was always waiting. She entered her apartment eagerly. Soon, she and Sam would have saved enough to move to a better part of town. The visions hadn’t gone away, and if Abigail had anything to do with it, they never would. She was still afraid when she saw them, but she would so much rather be afraid than alone.