Would they still call it love if it didn’t hurt so much? Would they still be blissfully unaware if it didn’t sting so suddenly? Would they? Call it love?
To sleep no more
“If I die, I won’t blame you, I promise,” Amelia said earnestly.
Dipender flinched and he stared at her for a long moment before walking over to her and kneeling down so they were eye-level.
“Don’t say that. Don’t even think like that, you can fight –”
“I heard you talking to the nurse earlier,” Amelia said taking the oxygen mask off her face, “and I just want you to know that I don’t blame, just don’t lie to me.”
Dipender blinked a few times, swallowing the lump that was forming in his throat, he told himself that crying in front of patients was wrong especially children who looked at him with eyes aged beyond their years.
“I’m going to call your parents. I’m going to make sure they are here.” He promised taking her hand and he saw her try and hide a wince as the monitor beeped, Dipender let go immediately.
“You don’t always have to be so strong, it’s okay to tell me when it hurts,” He said, annoyed at himself for letting his voice break, angry at the world for wanting to even try and take this little girl’s life and powerless in his need to save her.
“It hurts all the time, so I have to be strong all the time.” Amelia said her voice modulated her gaze unwavering.
Dipender felt the moisture build in his eyes as he held her gaze. He carefully put the oxygen mask back on her face.
“It’s okay, it really is,” she said reaching forward and patting him on the arm lightly, as if he needed reassuring, as if the action didn’t cost her everything.
He didn’t even want to imagine the level of pain she would have endured to become that resilient.
“I’m going to call them, I’m going to…” he trailed off as she shrugged as though it didn’t matter to her.
I wake up and I’m gasping for breath, I glance at the oxygen reader in the room, it’s dipped dangerously low, I hastily grab for my personal canister – it’s empty. I’m frantic now and I shouldn’t be, because hyperventilating means I’m using up more air than I should. I have to meditate like they teach us in school but the nightmare I had is still keeping the adrenaline coursing through my veins and my heart is pumping double time which means I am breathing in too much air. I close my eyes and try to reduce the breaths I’m taking. It takes me a few minutes but I finally do.
My eyes are on the dial which reads twenty percent as I go and shower and prepare for school. I’m annoyed at myself; this is the fourth night in a row. We can’t afford to keep buying more air.
At breakfast everyone is upset as Dad tells us he has been put on reduced hours at work. Mum has tears in her eyes but squeezes his hand and assures him that they will increase his hours again soon.
“Stupid machines taking over all our jobs!” My brother says angrily stabbing at his meal, like everything we eat it comes in a can, made by a machine, produced in a lab.
“I want none of that anti machine talk at this table.” Mum says sternly.
I sit there feeling even worse not sure that I can tell them my personal canister is empty.
“Did you sleep better today?” Mum asks me.
I look up feeling guilty and shake my head.
“My canister is also empty,” I admit quietly.
“It’s alright, use one of mine, I start work late, I’ll use an old canister.” Dad says giving me a smile.
I nod fighting the tears and go into his room to grab a canister, it’s almost empty but it should last me through the day.
“Well Grandma is coming around today, and she always brings a few high quality canisters,” Mum says when I walk back into the kitchen.
I smile, I haven’t had actual fresh air in several months, everything in the city is recycled air – very few places still have fresh air, the air they pump out at school is borderline unbreathable – borderline so we still have to breathe it in.
I check my canister in at reception when I get to school, I feel embarrassed as the receptionist checks it in as an industrial tank but I don’t care or at least that’s what I tell myself as I remove my mask and walk into lesson. The air at institutions and most public places is thrice recycled but our school it is recycled four times, you can recycle air six times before you through it away – although anything past five is basically hazardous.
I suffer through my lessons – all they ever teach is how to build machine and how to repair machines, that’s all we are taught, all else is pointless, only if you are really clever can you actually design machines, my brother is one of the elite, he will get to design machines when he graduates this year, but me, I’m scheduled to be a repairer and even that I hate. I would rather paint – which isn’t even a real job, just a hobby, I could always paint the machines. I laugh and get a few looks as we all queue to get our personal canisters back. I put my canister on my own personal hover board along with my backpack as I make my way home.
My Grandma who I haven’t seen in a few years greets me at the door – she hates the city because of the air, and we usually travel to her, but since mum lost her job a few years back we can’t afford to travel anymore.
My eyes as always stray to the oxygen monitor it’s full of once recycled air, my jaw almost lands on the floor.
I look at Grandma and she beams at me – I almost knock her over when I hug her.
I breathe deeply and the air even smells delicious the feeling is different it’s almost too much for my lungs to manage – I’ve only ever had twice recycled air and that was an experience I can’t even imagine what fresh air must be like because this is amazing.
I breathe deeply for a few minutes before mum gives me a look and I default back to my shallow breathing that we are all trained on doing at school only rich people are allowed to breathe deeply.
Grandma stays for a week and it gives Mum the opportunity to try and go out to try and look for odd jobs – Grandma helps me with my homework and she tells me that when she was fifteen the town they lived in people didn’t walk around with canisters, I can hardly believe her – of course I’ve heard rumours but the idea of walking outside and just breathing air terrifies me – it’s so murky out there I can imagine my lungs giving out after taking only a few breaths. I tell Grandma and she laughs and tells me she used to sit on fields and just watch the sky without a canister of air – she could breathe the air outside – the pollution wasn’t that bad then.
I look out the window; at the heavy smog in the air that looks noxious and wonder what life would be like if we all didn’t have to carry around canisters of oxygen just so that we could breathe.
A woman thinks she might be living next door to her grandson.
Cecelia glanced at the time it was almost time for Theo to come home, Theo, short for Theodore, short for Theodore Asante, she didn’t know if he had a middle name. All she knew was that he had the same slightly uplifted brown eyes of her daughter. The daughter who the police had urged her to be declared officially dead when she’d gone missing almost three decades ago.
She glanced out the window as Theo parked on the street and got out of his new car, a hybrid of some kind, she had heard one of her neighbours commenting on it, said he worked for the UN, was very environmental, all Cecelia knew was that from the first moment she had seen him his smile had triggered a memory and even though her friends told her she was being stupid, she couldn’t let it go, his eyes, those were her daughter’s eyes.
She had wanted to go over there so many times, invite him to the neighbourhood, apologise for the one and only time she had seen him, and had been tongue tied. He had been part of their neighbourhood for almost three months and she had been waiting for an opportunity, today finally she had one, a package had been delivered and she had all but rugby tackled the delivery man, who had looked like he was debating whether to drop the parcel off to Father John or Imam Yousef who were always the natural choices for undeliverable items.
Now she waited patiently as Theo walked into his house, then back out again several minutes later, his gaze on his cellular device. He knocked and Cecelia went to the door after a few moments, making sure the smell of cookies was prevalent throughout the house; her daughter had loved chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, always dark chocolate never milk.
She opened the door and her voice deserted her, as Theo glanced at her, an exact copy of her daughters beautiful brown eyes.
“Mrs Vandervu?” Theo said waving a hand in front of her face a small smile on his lips
“Please call me Cecelia, and do come in Theodore,” she said finally finding her voice.
“Sure,” he walked in and looked around, “this place smells delicious,” he said his gaze going to the cookies she had strategically placed on the counter, the part that could be seen from the front room.
“Please help yourself!” Cecelia said delighted. “Chocolate chip oatmeal,”
He walked past his package and made a beeline for them.
“Delicious,” he said as he ate one and reached for another.
“My favourite is actually blueberry like my mum; my dad loves chocolate, not dark though,”
“Does your mum like dark?” Cecelia said eagerly.
Theo shrugged; he was very tall, well built, most likely from his father.
“Did you paint these?” He asked looking at the water colours hanging on the walls.
“Yes, my daughter and I used to love to paint together,”
“My dad is into art, my mum prefers her books,”
Cecelia nodded and noticing that he had finished his cookies and was eyeing his parcel rushed to ask him more questions.
“Does your mum like spaghetti with garlic sauce and sprinkles of cheese?”
Theo raised an eyebrow but answered anyway, “No she can’t actually eat cheese, lactose intolerant.”
“What about watching movies on mute and guessing what the actors say?”
“My mum would hate something like that!” Theo said laughing.
Cecelia was undeterred and kept firing questions at him but the more she asked the less she wanted to know. Finally she ran out of questions.
“Thank you for humouring me Theodore,” Cecelia said unable to keep back the tears that had sprang to her eyes.
“Erm, you welcome Mrs Va – I mean Cecelia,” He said slowly, “look I can come by and help out with something’s if you want, I mainly work at home anyway.”
“No, that’s fine, take care now,” she said attempting to usher him out.
He hesitated at the door, his eyes so like her daughters, similar, but not the same, blinked slowly before he nodded and left.
Cecelia burst into tears, the pain of losing her daughter overwhelming her, it felt like the first time she had found out Monroe had gone missing whiles kayaking, the grief more than she could bear. She spent the next few days in bed, her head pounding, her eyes watering every time she saw Theodore.
Her friends came around to cheer her up, but it didn’t work, and she told them that they had been right; she shouldn’t have gotten her hopes up.
Almost a week later a knock came at her door.
“Cecelia? Mrs Vandervu? It’s me Theo please open up, I really need your help,” he said slowly.
Cecelia stood there wiping her eyes before setting her shoulders back, this young man may not be her daughter’s child but he was a good man, and if he needed her help she would help him. She opened the door.
“Please come in, is there anything I can help you with?” She said softly.
“Those chocolate cookies, my girlfriend loves them, do you think you could show me how to make them, I have some ingredients,” he said gesturing to his backpack.
Cecelia smiled, “of course, follow me.”
Despite his eyes still triggering painful memories every time he looked at her in a certain way, she spent the rest of the evening with Theo, he was kind, just the kind of man her daughter would have raised.
She had just taken the cookies out of the oven when his phone rang, he was using the toilet and she glanced down at the screen.
She almost dropped the cookies – an image of her daughter, of Monroe, older, but still the same stared up at her, she touched the screen with shaking fingers. Tears in her eyes.
The phone stopped ringing just as Theo came back; Cecelia had the phone in her hands.
“Mrs Vandervu?” He said hesitantly.
“My…my daughter,” she wordlessly went into her bedroom and took the last picture she had taken of Monroe, she showed him a picture of Monroe and he jumped.
“That’s, that looks like…” his hands went to her eyes.
“It is your mum, my daughter,” Cecelia said.
“You’re my grandmother?” Theo asked his voice breaking.
Words failing her again, Cecelia nodded and embraced him.
The words are hurled at me and despite clasping my hands into fists and staring straight ahead, a few tears slip past my control and trail down my burning face. I hate myself more than anything in this moment, more than her and definitely more than him, who looks at me smirking form the side-lines.
“Are you listening to me you spoilt useless brat?!” She screams getting right up in my face, her breath toxic with alcohol, “you think crying is going to soften me huh?”
She pauses and I can’t believe my body has the audacity to indulge her as more tears trickle down, my mind is clouding from the breath I don’t want to stop holding but I’ll do anything to stop the tears.
She slaps me hard across the face.
“Next time you answer me!” she says grabbing my face: she looks at it, contempt written in every line of her still youthful face. I hate that she is pretty, that she is stared at when we leave the house together, that she is the youngest mother at my school; that some of the teachers openly lust after her and the guys in my stare at her with wide eyes. She loves it and she flaunts it.
I stare at her defiant and she steps even closer.
“No wonder your dad left me,” she whispers, “sick and tired of taking care of you, if I could do it over, I’d abort you in an instant.” She clicks her fingers in front of me as she releases her claw like grip of my chin.
It’s an insult I’ve heard before, but as she steps back her face slyly victorious she knows that it’s hit its mark. She turns and walks back to her boyfriend her face so altered that even he does a double-take, but he still follows her upstairs.
I am rooted to the spot, angry beyond my own comprehension. I fist my hands even tighter, I want to hurt myself, I fist my hands tighter still but my freshly cut nails only leave faint imprints. The thought is enough to jar me from that insidious path I’ve taken more than a year to shake.
“Leave the environment,” I whisper to myself, that’s what my school councillor advised me and I listen, because even though the feeling of hurting myself is still a beating pulse in my chest I don’t want to end up like Tiffney, I shake my head at the image.
I walk out of the house, it’s surprisingly warm outside, the sun not yet set, it’s actually a beautiful day, I walk briskly to the end of our road, then I pick up the pace as I walk a little further, a glance back and I can still see the house. What if I just take off, what if I just run. Better yet what if I don’t come back.
The thought causes me to actually smile and as I wipe at my face a kind of madness sets over me as I begin to run.
I’m running and it feels so good.
I run for a good long while, slowing down, almost stopping before I speed up again, my thoughts always galvanizing me forwards.
It’s late now, the sun has well and truly set, she’ll not worry, she never worries but she’ll wonder.
“I hate her!” I say vehemently and it feels good to say it out loud to own the feeling.
I’m always tip toeing around her and her latest squeeze, because she lets me eat her food and sleep under her house. I’m on guard all the time, more than that I’m fearful, especially after the incident, I almost believed she cared that time she punched the guy who was trying it on with me. I remember her rushing to me to see if I was okay, hugging me tightly and turning to threaten the guy, I’ll never forget that look of fury on her face as she protected me, I was only ten but still that memory of that day was crystal clear.
I’m crying again. I hate myself but the tears keep coming and I’m gasping for breath because I want my mummy, I’m pathetic and stupid and idiotic and weak. I keep up a stream of insults until the tears run dry because I know I have to go back.
The walk back home is much longer and I pause a few times trying to think of radical ways I can leave home forever, but I can’t. I know how hard it is out there being a runaway, and my situation isn’t half as bad as others I’ve heard of, I just have to make it four more years, then I’m off to Uni, then I’m gone for good.
I keep up the stream of positive images like my councillor tells me to do, but it all falls short when I see the house. I don’t have a curfew because she doesn’t care to set me one but still I know it’s late; past eleven at night.
I walk in – they are both cuddling on the coach, but she jumps up when she sees me and follows me to my room.
“Didn’t have the balls to go through with running away?” She sneers.
I sit on my bed and glance up at her, my exhaustion is weighing down on me and I show no surprise.
“Answer me!” She says angrily.
I nod suddenly I’m bone weary and just want to sleep.
She glares at me her face suspicious; she’s moving her weight from one foot to the other. I glance at her questioningly.
“Well next time –”
“Don’t worry there won’t be a next time. Three years, then you won’t ever have to see me again.” I want to say it firmly and confidently but it comes out strangely detached and she flinches.
She hesitates before she says; “go and wash those dishes in the sink!”
I nod slowly and I can see that my indifference is getting to her.
My councillor always tells me not to react and I don’t I just stand there and take her abuse but this is something different – I’m acting like I don’t care because I really don’t.