Elizabeth J. Colen
from In the Reach, a novel
When Carrie was small she got headaches. Great big things that sounded like a wheeze. Sounded like a small non-cry crying. Crying stifled, still. Tears stayed welled in greenwide eyes. When the sickness dropped on her, she didn’t say a word if she didn’t have to. She sat quietly, or lay down, facing the closest wall, with the closest blanket or piece of clothing over her face. She left her mouth exposed for breathing. She contemplated how the wall fit into the future. What the inside of an afghan meant to the universe. How bright the pinpricks of light through the open weave. Inside her head she repeated sentences, sorrowing ropes of meaning like: I die a little each time, a little more dead; and there’s a fork stuck in my brain, dearliza dearliza; animals are better than humans as friends (this with the dog warming her toes); the hiss on the line goes on forever (after speaking with her father on the phone); and there’s a clog, there’s a clog, there’s a clog.
Each sentence she spoke not once inside, but repeatedly. They ran rampant, compulsive, like an actress inside her skull learning lines. She said nothing aloud. But the words continued, the thump-thump beating at the sides of her head under the hair, knocking on her cornea, optic nerve willing the world to red, then black. It wouldn’t be fair to say she heard voices. Every word came in her voice, her childish patter, cycling deeper and deeper in tenor. Her brain hurt, skull hurt, skin, fingertips, everything burned with pulsing. Everything made childhood feel ridiculous. Made swing sets and monkey bars and bicycles, balls and bats, crayons, even books obsolete. So that her world condensed to the size of the lack of motion, the rhythm below her scalp.
Carrie’s childhood brimmed with what the doctors called migraines. Vulgar Hemicrania. Pain in one side of the head, from hemi- “half” plus kranion “skull.” Actually they didn’t stop when she got big. They kept right on going. The blackouts. The vomiting. Sickly sickly child. Always vomiting, but she shouldn’t have here in the backseat of the car. No, not on the leather seats, not on the beige interior, staining the carpeting with darkpink like diluted blood. With two jobs and school, two children in tow and a husband who’d left me, I had no time for the extra need of illness.
When the headaches hit her now, she closes all the doors. She locks out light and noise, reverberation. Knocks off the clocksound even, piling all the timepieces on the front porch step for the rocks and birds and passersby to keep the time by. She turns out all glow and hum and girls and phones, food—everything. She tackles thirst in tiny sips from a tall water glass perched by the side of her bed. She screams inside when she swallows and it willows out in a murmur that makes the cat lift his head. Her eyes stay closed when she gets up to pee, her hands running along the wainscot haze of her hallway, bumping at the lip of the molding around the bathroom door. Sits in darkness. Sometimes stays for the full wellness of the tub. She keeps her head hunched under the water sometimes all day. Filling and refilling the water when the feel of it grows cold against her skin. When it stops feeling like nothing and starts feeling like difference, pressure. Sharp cold to her hot hot skin. She sleeps in there, her hair sighing against the iron wall as she slips down deeper, covering ears and muffling the sound of footfalls, the sound of birdsong, treerustle, earthspin beyond the bathroom tile. The warm ocean echo of her heart beating out loud. Sounding like two syllables or a hand held and then let go.
One morning after the separation, Taft had taken Benji for the day and it was just Carrie and me. I stretched out the morning, up early to watch the weather, see the news, blow smoke rings off the back porch at the arched fingers of oak overhead, and drink mug after mug of black coffee.
As usual, I called my rise-and-shine to the kid, said just that “Rise and Shine” through her open bedroom door. Then a second time on my third cup of coffee. Carrie lay silent and still in one corner of her bed. Shallow breathing. She wouldn’t get up.
“Lights on,” I said the third time around. “Let’s go.”
Five minutes later the room was dark again and the kid had crawled under the bed, locking herself in with pillows and her father’s old suitcase.
“Up Carrie. I’m not going to say it again.” But I did. “Get fucking up.”
I pulled her out by a leg, then both when I could reach the other. She kicked a little, started putting up a fight.
“Sick,” she said. She covered her eyes with one pudgy arm and clung to the slats on the underside of the bed frame with the other.
I dressed her while she had her palms pressed into her eyes. She cried. The velour suit pushed over her hair made her scream. I put her in slippers. She didn’t care.
“Here,” I said. I put her brother’s ski mask backwards over her face. Still she clung to the bed. I unwrenched her claws, finger by finger from the bottom of one of the bed posts. Her head lolled side to side as I marched her out to the car, slid her sideways onto the Mustang’s backseat.
“What? Fuck. Shut up, Carrie, we’re late.”
“I don’t have to be anywhere.”
Sick. Even sick. Even five she could be insolent.
“Yes, I know. You’re sick.” I wheeled onto the main road. Let the car go faster. Smoothslick over the autumn ice, falling through curves.
“Going to be.”
“I’m going to be sick.”
“I have to throw up.”
“No you don’t. We don’t have time for that.”
She started crying again. I could hear it when she breathed in, trying not to sob. Trying to be quiet.
“Carrie, for fuck’s sake.”
“I do, Mom. I do have to throw up.”
“Sit up, you’ll feel better.”
She kicked the side of the car, slow thuds like a weak heartbeat or a record having run through all the songs fucking with the needle as it goes around. One thump for each rotation. One bump of the needle taking flight.
“Sit up. Quit that. You’re marking up the car.”
“Slippers,” she said.
She took off the ski mask.
“Vomit,” she said. “Sick.”
“Sit up. Okay? Sit up.”
And what happened next she’ll remember like this: I did not pull the car over. I did not pet her head. I did not let her loose the contents of her stomach, smooth pinkred juice mucking up the scrub on the side road. Grey rocks blackened reddish wet under the paused pushed-in velour of a five-year old’s knees. I did not hold her hair. I did not slow or look back, turn around. I did not buy her ginger ale. I did turn the radio up, Fleetwood Mac drowning out the moan. Thud thud of a leg pulled back and kicked into the side of the backseat. I did yell again. I did. I yelled a few shut ups, a few what did I do to deserve a wretched childs. This is what she’ll remember. That I reached back and grabbed the first thing I could grab. Snoopy and Friends coloring book, her name in blue pressed into the upper right corner, waxy brown shadow pulling out below the dog and its house, scratched in as Carrie thought of the blue-skied sun and proper perspective. And do you want me to, she’ll say I yelled over the deep-throat of Stevie Nicks, do you want me to and rolled down the window a little. She’ll remember the windsound drowning out the music, and then my shouting louder. Do you want me to. And Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night and wouldn’t you love to love her? She’ll say I said, shut up shut up shut up. She’ll say I threatened and then she rules her life like a bird in flight and who will be her lover. And then dropped the coloring book out onto the road, its pages flapping behind on the two-lane highway like a hawk cut down by a shotgun. And she’ll say that’s when she let it go, redpink all over the seats, head tilted sideways, slick liquid sloshed under the passenger seat, staining the carpet red. And she’ll say I pulled over then. Finally, she’ll say, she finally pulled over. And that I hit her twice with the paperback book I pulled out of my purse. That I swatted her face, her shoulder, put the book away and drove on.
This is not how I remember it. This isn’t it at all.
Elizabeth J. Colen is an obscure functionary cultivating harmless eccentricities. She has lived in the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, and currently makes her home in the Pacific Northwest. Recent poetry and prose of hers has appeared or is forthcoming from Redivider, Pebble Lake Review, Knockout, 3:AM Magazine, Juked, and Bellingham Review. Recent accomplishments include completing the first draft of a novel written in fractured narrative, finally sewing buttons onto her winter coat, and getting married in Canada to her favorite person in the world.
“My great grandmother ate marshmallow banana sandwiches on the front porch of her turn-of-the-century house while watching banana spiders as big as my father’s hand weave webs that spanned between the porch’s posts. While the front porch seamlessly held out the rain, the spare bedroom upstairs—the red-room named for the color of the tiles—sometimes leaked in heavy storms.”