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Time. It’s a peculiar concept. Although supposedly consistent, it always seems to vary, playing tricks with the mind. Time moves slower than grass grows when we beg it to speed up, yet never fails to fly by when all we want is for it to slow down. There is either too much or too little, and we are never satisfied with the time we are given. Every second, every minute, every hour of every day, we waste our time dwelling on the petty aspects of life, adding unnecessary worry onto our already complicated enough lives. Time. It’s the focal point of our world. It has the power to destroy us, and yet, without it we could not exist.
I haven’t always been this way. No, I can remember a time when I was happy. It was a while ago, but I remember. My favorite color was periwinkle, I loved to sing, and the scariest thing in my life was the farm down the road, because I was terrified of cows. I had lived in a beautiful brick house, surrounded by friendly neighbors and multicolored gardens. My name was Elizabeth or Lizzy, except to my mother, Carol, who called me Busy Lizzy, because I was always up to something. Those were the days when Carol was still married to my dad. Every summer they would take me and my big sister, Holly, up north for a week of boating, swimming, fishing, and eating s’mores around a campfire. Our Christmases were filled with bright lights and huge decorations, and we never missed an opportunity to play a card game in the evenings. My favorite was Go Fish, a game I would play at least ten times with Holly every Saturday night.
But as the years have passed, I’ve learned that time has the power to really screw things up, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Gone are the days of my innocent, carefree childhood, replaced by an almost unrecognizable teenager. My favorite color is black, I rarely speak, and let’s just say there are far scarier things in my life than cows. My dad and I live in a lame excuse of an apartment, which, I might add, smells like feet and has been known to host the local police on more than one occasion. Carol still occupies the brick house, along with her yippy lap dog and stupid boyfriend. Holly, the lucky girl, made her escape to New York the moment she graduated high school, where she now is following her dream of being a journalist. To say I envy her would be an understatement. I am desperate to leave, to get as far away from this town, my life, as possible. I am less than a year away from graduating, but at the rate time seems to be trickling by, I’ll never get out of here.
The door slams. I hear it from my bedroom, echoing through the thin walls. Dad is home. This is my cue to start dinner. Dad and I don’t converse much these days, but I figure it’s probably better this way. What would we have to talk about, anyway? There’s nothing to say, and so we simply coexist. Less than a year from now and he’ll have to learn to survive on his own, though to be frank, I’m not sure he’ll be able to manage.
Dad hasn’t been the same since he got back from Iraq. But then again, neither have any of us. He had joined the army shortly after the twin towers were struck, a term that was to last only two years. When he left he promised he’d return home before we knew it. What he didn’t know was that he was leaving his current life behind him forever.
Holly blames Dad for leaving in the first place, but I know it’s Carol’s fault. It was she who gave in. Time just wouldn’t move quickly enough for her, and so she moved on. But she was selfish. Does she think that time moved any slower for her than it did for us? I stared at the clock every night, pleading with it to skip ahead, to bring my dad home, so we could all be a family again. I would lie awake for hours at night, reminiscing in the days when we were all together, praying for Dad that he would stay safe. If we could all just hang on a little longer…
But Carol gave up, not just on Dad, but on all of us. By the time he returned it was too late. She couldn’t bear to face him after what she had done, and so he just left. He didn’t even bother to unpack. He simply pick up his bag and walked right back out the door. I remember calling his name, at first a whisper, then louder, louder, until I was screaming, pleading for him to come back. When he pulled out of the driveway, I gave Carol one long, cold stare, putting as much hatred as I could into my expression, before I retreated upstairs to my bedroom. It was the last time I looked directly into her eyes.
By then Holly was already a teenager who spent all of her time out of the house anyway. She had her own group of friends, own interests, and own agenda. But not me. After Dad left, I began to spend more and more time in my bedroom, locked away from the rest of the world. My only console was my sketch pad. I allowed my hand to dance freely across the paper as my mind wandered far away, back in time. I would revere in the times when I had a family. A whole, happy family. Drawing was the only thing that eased my pain and loneliness.
I packed my bags when Carol’s boyfriend moved in. It was the last straw, the hay that broke the camel’s back. I walked to Dad’s apartment, all the way across town. It had been a blistering hot summer day, yet my insides were as cold as winter.
Dad said nothing when I rang the buzzer. He simply sighed softly and let me in. To this day I swear I saw tears glistening in his eyes.
That was the day I stopped trying. It was as if the decision to leave Carol’s house had drained me of all mental and physical capability. I was nothing but an empty shell.
My grades plummeted from nearly perfect A’s to low C’s and D’s. The only reason I didn’t get F’s was the fact that I showed up to class. There was no way I was going to sit in the apartment all day by myself, with no company but the stray cat, Herbie, which Dad had taken in shortly after the divorce was finalized. Herbie made me sneeze, and contrary to what many may think, I don’t like to be alone.
The present day no longer matters to me. All I have is the future. I want to be an artist. Holly already lives in New York, so I figure I may as well follow her as soon as I graduate and make a life of my own there.
Graduation is a few months away. I count down the days until I am free, each day crossing off another number, closer and closer to zero. But time is working against me, mocking me, creeping only slower with every day that passes.
This is why I draw. It’s the only thing that calms me, keeps me sane. I draw everything; Angry thunderstorms, tearing apart a city. A small child, sitting alone on a bench. Robins, building a nest to lay their eggs inside. I guess this is my way of communicating. It sounds kind of lame, and I’m the only one who even sees my sketches, but they are my escape world. If something ever happened to them, I think I’d lose my mind.
After dinner Dad and I continue our usual, unspoken routine of him sitting on the couch to watch the evening news, and me retreating to my bedroom. I carefully shut the door behind me, always afraid of Herbie getting in here and tearing my room to shreds. He’s done this twice in the past. The first time he ruined Dad’s couch, which explains the poorly sewn-on patches. The second time he attacked Grandma Stacy’s old afghan. Why my Dad keeps that dirty, trouble making cat I have no idea, but I am not about to take my chances.
I end up falling asleep at my desk, bent over a sketch I’ve been working on of an old, abandoned house with a broken window. The pencil is still clutched in my left hand, and I’m still wearing the jeans and sweatshirt I wore to school. But I don’t care. I hate pajamas, I hate beds, and I hate sleeping. Falling asleep used to give me relief, a time to quiet my mind and dream of a better tomorrow. But now it only causes me worry and dread.
Dad often wakes up at night, shouting at nobody into the darkness. I think he has war nightmares, but I can’t be sure because he never talks about it, and I never ask. His yelling sends chills through my bones, and even the heaviest blanket I own cannot warm me up. I never go to comfort him, because I do not have the faintest idea of what to say. Instead, I just lay in the darkness, desperate for day to come, for Dad to go back to sleep, and for the night to consume me and send me back to unconsciousness.
My alarm goes off at six a.m. as usual. I stumble out of bed, too tired to bother turning on the light as I get dressed. Last night was one of the worst Dad’s had in a while. I slept for maybe two hours.
I move like a zombie to the kitchen, grabbing some Cheerios out of the cupboard and pouring myself a bowl full. Dad sits at the table, drinking a black cup of generic coffee. I know last night must have been truly awful for him, because he doesn’t even glance at me when I sit down.
I’m pouring myself some coffee when I hear it. A shatter, like glass breaking into a thousand fragments, followed by a slashing, tearing, ripping noise. It’s coming from the direction of my bedroom.
Time freezes along with my heart. I move in slow motion down the hall, to discover that my bedroom door is ajar. I risk a peek inside, and my worst fears are confirmed.
Shreds of paper scatter the floor, sprinkled with pencils shavings as though they were thrown into the air like confetti. My jar of pencils has fallen off my desk, and broken glass litters the ground. Herbie the cat cowers in the corner, petrified.
There are no words to describe my emotions. My life, my dreams, my future, all of it has been taken away in a moment. My years of hard work, torn to pieces.
Dad appears at my side, but I don’t say a word. I simply pick up my backpack, walk out the door and down the hall, into the elevator. I am on autopilot as I press the star button, heading straight down to the ground floor.
I have made my decision, and no one is going to stop me. This moment has been long overdue anyway. I am far past reasoning, which is why it is just fine that Dad doesn’t follow me. As far as I know, he doesn’t even know I left. Good. It’s easier this way.
I step outside, the frigid January wind biting my cheeks. Sparkling snow covers the earth in a blanket of glittering white, as if the earth itself is resting beneath it. My sneakers make crunching sounds with every step I take. On any other school day, I would turn left toward the bus stop, where I would stand alone with my hands clamped into my armpits until the bus arrives. But today is not any other school day. Today I turn right, past the isolated, poor excuse of a playground toward the pharmacy.
I don’t even have to think. I know exactly where to go, for I’ve done this a number of times. Only this time is for real. This time, I’m going to do it, and no one can stop me.
I snatch the bottle of pills off the shelf with one fluid motion, as if I’m afraid someone might catch me. For a moment I feel like a kid at the gas station, stealing a candy bar. But I’m not stealing, so I try to brush the thought from my mind. I purchase the pills and stuff them into my sweatshirt, refusing to look the cashier in the eye. Why am I so jumpy, so nervous? Feelings of doubt begin to penetrate my thoughts, and I feel a bit light headed. I shake my head, clearing away the fog, reminding myself that I have no reason to feel wrong, no reason to feel anything at all. That’s the whole point of this. To make it all go away forever.
I listen at the door of the apartment before I enter. Yes, Dad has gone to work. There’s no one here but me and the stupid cat.
I find a pen and pad of sticky notes after some rummaging in the kitchen drawer. I am not a writer, I’m an artist, so I’m not sure what to say, and since most of my drawings are demolished I have nothing to leave my dad behind. So I write the first words that come to mind.
I love you.
Don’t miss me.
It sounds so heartless, but it’s the best I’ve got, and so I place it on the table and walk into my room for the last time.
I don’t bother to step around the torn papers, broken glass, and pencil shavings. Instead I tread directly onto them, grinding the debris into the floor with the toe of my sneaker.
I plop on the bed and pull the pills from my pocket. I stare at the bottle, my hands slick with sweat. Can I do this? Can I really do this? Tears are streaming uncontrollably from my eyes, splashing onto my torn jeans. My whole body trembles, and I hear the pills rattle inside their container. They feel like a thousand pound weight in my pocket. I glance at my calendar on the wall. Just 113 more days until graduation. Maybe I can wait…
No. I’ve had enough waiting. Time is not on my side, and I’m sick of playing a game I will never win.
Before my brain has time to even register my actions, as if my hand has moved on its own accord, my mouth is open and the pills are being dumped down my throat. I swallow, and before I know it, the bottle is empty.
The world is dancing before my eyes. It spins faster and faster until I collapse onto the pillow. I hear Herbie meow softly. Then all goes dark as I am sucked into oblivion.
I am five again. I fell off my bike, about seven houses down from our own. I am crying out for my parents. My knee is badly scraped, and red rubies of blood speckle the sidewalk.
I see Dad running toward me, coming from his shed in the backyard, just as Carol comes flying out of the house, having heard me through the open window. Dad’s face has a smear of white paint across his nose, and in his hand he is still holding a thick paintbrush. Carol has her polka dotted cooking apron tied around her waist. They must have dropped everything they were doing as soon as they heard me cry.
Carol gets to me first. “Oh, honey, you’re okay. It’s just a scrape.”
Her words of comfort relax me, and suddenly the pain doesn’t seem quite so unbearable.
Dad smiles and picks my bike up off the ground, adjusting the woven basket on the handlebars so the Disney Princesses pictured on the front aren’t askew.
“Let’s go inside and put a Band-Aid on so you can come back out to play,” he suggests, taking my hand in his. My parents help me up and lead me back to the house. Dad gives me a pat on the head before he leaves to continue painting, but before he goes I catch him give Carol a quick peck on the cheek. She smiles at me. I love her smile. Her teeth are little white pearls, and her lips are full and wide, the color of strawberries in the summer. To me, she is prettier than the summer.
I wince as she rubs cream onto the scrape. “It’s okay,” she promises, “You are just fine.”
She sticks the Band-Aid over the wound and kisses it. “There you go. You are okay. It’s all okay now…”
Her voice fades away until it’s gone.
When I open my eyes, I am blinded by a thousand small white lights. I gasp, clamping my eyes shut, then slowly open them as I get used to the brightness. The whiteness, the cleanliness, the overpowering smell of disinfectant, and the muted crunch of material under my back as I shift. Where am I? How did I get here?
A plastic tube protrudes out of my wrist, and suddenly, filled with an unexplained panic, I attempt to rip it out of my flesh.
“Stop!” Carol yells. I turn to see her bounding toward me, and I can only think of her running to rescue my five-year-old self. It feels like centuries ago.
She’s at my side now, tears streaming down her face.
“It’s okay,” she promises, “It’s all going to be okay.”
For a moment I believe her. I really, truly think that all is well, until I look into her eyes and a sudden chill runs through me as I remember. The divorce. Her boyfriend. Moving out. A broken family beyond repair.
I pull my hand out of hers and scowl. I may not know where I am or why I’m here, but I don’t know why she’s here either, bending over me like a real mother would protect her child. She acts like the past ten years haven’t even occurred. I’m about to tell her this, to pour out ten years of silence when Dad enters the room.
He sits on the edge of my bed. For the first time in years, his eyes are clear of that dead, absent look they’ve held since he came home from Iraq. He smiles, clearly relieved (of what though I have no idea) and pats my head softly.
“It’s good to see you, Liz,” he barely chokes out my name before a plump, heavy tear escapes his eye, landing on the thin blanket covering me and creating a perfect circle on the fabric.
And then he takes Carol’s hand and they both cry together. All at once, the anger drains out of me. Just the fact that my parents are in the same room together astounds me, and now they are holding hands. I must be five again, a time when my parents loved each other and took care of me. When we were whole. I grin, wishing for this moment to last forever.
But of course it can’t, because time is selfish and stops for no one.
“Oh, good. You’re awake.”
A woman walks in, dressed in periwinkle scrubs with clashing neon pink tennis shoes. Her frizzy black hair is pulled back into a ponytail I can only describe as Pebbles Flintstone. Her expression is polite but formal.
“Does she have any recollection of the incident?” she asks Carol.
I glance at her just in time to see her give the faintest shake of her head, as if to say, not now!
“What incident?” I ask, puzzled and a little scared. The woman jots something down on a clipboard.
“Oh my gosh! Thank goodness you’re alive!” Holly practically knocks the woman over as she rushes toward me, embracing me in a bone-crushing hug. She too takes a seat on the bed, now so full I’m afraid it will collapse with the weight.
“Alive?” I have so many questions, but again, I only receive silence. I am clearly missing vital information, but everyone just stares at one another, at a loss for words.
“Well, someone’s going to have to tell her eventually,” Holly whispers.
The woman occupies herself with checking what I think must be different monitors and IV drips, clearly not about to give us any privacy.
“Liz,” Dad begins, “You tried to commit suicide.”
I rack my brains, desperate to recall this information. Surely I’d remember such an event. Think!
Herbie. My Dad’s wretched cat who tore what remained of my life to shreds. I had gone to the pharmacy, had purchased a bottle of pills…
My memory ends there, no matter how hard I try to remember. All I see from that moment on is blackness. Surely I didn’t….
“It was lucky I found you when I did,” Dad says, staring intently out the window as if it’s the most interesting thing he’s ever seen, although all it overlooks is the highway. “You weren’t breathing, but your heart was still beating, and I knew it was worth a shot.”
His breath catches and he stops for a moment. “You’ve been here in the hospital for three days, completely unconscious but breathing steadily. However…”
He looks at Carol for help. She too is crying, but clears her throat and says, “You were out long enough before your Dad found you to… If he hadn’t found you any sooner, you, you wouldn’t…” The tears are drenching her shirt. She takes a risk and glances at my face. I’m sure she just sees an incredulous stare. “Anyway,” she continues, “the doctor says the lack of oxygen damaged your brain, and possibly your kidneys and liver as well.”
The silence that follows these words could stop the world from spinning. Holly’s shoulders shake as she sobs silently into her hands. Dad gets up and exits the room, finally having reached his limit. It’s crazy, but my worst fear at that moment is suddenly not that I could be dead by next week, but the fact that Dad just walked out of the room. After ten years my family has all found a way to survive in the same room for more than five minutes, and he is walking out all over again. My chest tightens my breath shortens. I want to cry out his name but my voice is trapped in my stomach. He’s disappeared down the hall by now. I’m too late.
I turn to Carol and Holly, both now watching me attentively. I can’t recall exactly what they have told me, but the words hospital, damaged brain, and suicide all swarm in my mind, overwhelming me. “How long?” I barely breathe the words, but they hear me.
“ The doctor says it could be anywhere from a year to a couple months,” Carol says, “it just depends on how long it takes before your brain stem is affected.”
A couple months. Brain stem. The words crush me. I could have as little as a month to live. My family is finally coexisting, or at least trying to, and I am losing time to enjoy it with every second I sit here. For ten long, lifeless, tiresome years, I’ve begged the clock to speed up. Now I desperately plead for it to slow down, to give me back all the years I’ve lost with the one thing I’ve been craving most.
“Visiting time is over,” the woman informs us, making us jump at the reminder of her presence.
Carol and Holly get up to leave, promising they will be back first thing tomorrow morning. The woman is at my bedside, holding a pair of crisp, clean hospital pajamas. I see a badge dangling around her neck, reading “Josephine, R.N.”
“I’ll help you into these in the bathroom,” she tells me.
I try to swing my legs over the edge of the bed, but they are stiff and painful. Despite this, however, I give her a scornful stare.
“I can do it myself, thanks,”
She immediately shakes her head. “No. You are still on suicide watch. You can’t be trusted yet.”
My heart drops to my intestines and my hands feel like slippery, cold fish. She is treating me like a small, incapable child. The room suddenly feels like a prison cell, trapping me until my sentence is up. And it will be sooner than I think, because experience has taught me that time is about to race ahead.
And of course, I’m absolutely correct.
Three weeks and two days later, I’m discharged, not because of my improving conditions, but because I’m being allowed to spend the remaining time I do have left in the comfort of my own home.
I find myself back in Carol’s beautiful brick house. Holly has managed to take leave off work and is at my side 24/7. Carol is home, too, though since I was discharged she has been a bit more distant. We both know our differences and grudges and problems still exist, but there is now no point in trying to resolve them. Time hasn’t given us the option.
Carol’s boyfriend, as it turns out, broke up with her only four months before my incident and moved out. Holly told me this yesterday, and amazingly, I almost felt guilty for not knowing this on my own. I guess after I moved out, I didn’t just stop caring about myself. I stopped caring about others, too.
Dad stops by the house daily to visit me. I still sense the formality in his exchanges with Carol, but I am so thankful that they are talking that I barely notice.
This morning I woke up to a strange tingly feeling in both of my legs. Walking has become increasingly challenging, but I do the best I can to hide this from my family.
“Holly, bathroom. I’ll be right back.” I mutter. She nods, fixed in a trance by whatever TV show that’s on.
I cautiously make my way down the hallway. Every step hurts, but I don’t dare make a sound. Just a few more…
Crash! My legs give out from under me. I’ve hit my head on the wall, sending an old picture of me and Holly as toddlers smashing to the floor. I’m aware of Holly screaming out my name, of her right beside me, holding my hand, of the warm sticky fluid that runs down my forehead. Then I pass out.
The next few months are significantly less dramatic. My health gradually deteriorates. I have to go to the hospital once more, but they tell us there is nothing they can do for me. It’s only a matter of time.
In spite of being physically drained and only more enervated with every day that passes, I can’t recall the last time I was this happy. Dad now occupies one of Carol’s spare bedrooms, too afraid to leave should it, God forbid, be my last day. Holly had to go back to New York five days ago, but she calls at least twice a day to check in on things. Carol managed to extend her leave, and is always at my beck and call. At dinner time, Carol and Dad eat next to me. We watch movies at night together, and sometimes they even tell me stories when there is nothing to do but wait.
The good thing about waiting, though, however long, is that eventually it ends. Whether it ends the way you plan or hope, I don’t know, but time will eventually run out, and you will reach your destination.
Today is the day I will reach mine.
I’m lying on the couch, rasping, as if I inhale dust with every breath I take. Carol, I think, has learned to tolerate it, but I can tell it still sets Dad’s teeth on edge.
We are watching a movie when I attempt to suppress a particularly loud gag. Instead it makes me choke, and I splutter, my body too weak to put up much of a fight. Dad shuts his eyes tightly for a moment, stands up and leaves the room, but not before I see him begin to weep.
Carol bends down beside me, her face only inches from mine. Her hazel eyes are swimming with tears. I break down, a waterfall cascading down my face, soaking my thin, unhealthy hair. Carol grabs my hand with such force, I feel my knuckles crack.
“Don’t go, Lizzy,” she whispers.
Lizzy. She called me Lizzy.
And that’s when I know I’m home. A deep sense of calm suddenly overwhelms me, a strange sensation for this moment. I smile and squeeze Carol’s hand with as much strength as I can muster.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” I murmur, “I love you,”
I know this is my time. Right here, right now, holding my Mom’s hand and knowing that she truly loves me. It has been ten years of suffering, but I have finally gotten back what I was willing to die for. My family. For the final months of my life, my family was returned to my side, picking me up and telling me everything would be okay. And now it is. For the first time in my life, I feel truly satisfied with the time I was given. Time. True, it does have the power to destroy us, but it also has the power to give us everything we want the most.
I close my eyes
for the last time
and drift off