The darkness a blanket, made of stillness and silence and smiles. How could she know it would be that beautiful? The carousel stops, the music is cut off abruptly and there is no laughter, no voices, no colors, nothing. Has she ever felt like that in her life, so… – ‘how does that make you feel?’ – happy. This must be it… She does not want it to stop, she wills this to go on forever, there is no chance-
The rain in her face is the first thing, the naked asphalt under her the next. Her teeth clatter, she cannot prevent it although she tries to close her mouth and someone is screaming, a sound she has never heard before, like a frightened, tortured animal, and someone else is there, here with her and it is all his fault, why did he bring her back, she did not want to go back, she wanted to stay because everything is better than this.
“C-c-cut it out.”
Something nudges her side, nudges and nudges, unrelenting, and she flaps at it with her hand, let me be, let me sleep, I am tired, I do not want to go, I want to go back. DON’T TOUCH ME!
“Y-y-you got to w-w-work w-with me then, Ra-Ra-…. Rachel.”
And she stares into the blue, it is an ocean, the ones they show in commercials or on postcards and it is deep, she did not know it would be so deep. Numb fingers search and find and close around the cold, slippery metal rod that has been poking her side.
“I-I d-don’t think this is a-a g-good idea,” Noel stutters but she keeps holding on, it is the only thing she can hold on to.
“Oh… o-okay, okay! I g-got you. C-careful.”
As they move, or the world moves around them, she brings her lips to his ear. “Someone is dying,” she whispers, urgently. They have to do something. She heard it, she knows something or someone is in danger.
“E-everything is going to be o-okay,” his voice says. “Let's get out of h-here.” He is close, very close, she is not sure where her body ends and his starts and there are these metal things she is still holding on to, does not want to let go and, apparently, neither does he. Then the sound of the rain changes, gets numbed, gets distant.
“We have to rescue it.” Dry and soft and dark.
“Let go, Ra- Rachel. Please.”
“Noel? We have to-“
“It w-w-was you.”
“You. Y-you screamed.”
She is tired, so tired, she forgets to hold on.
White. The linens, the blanket, the walls. Dark wood. Familiar. Her head explodes, as she sits up, her arm sears with pain as she rips out the needle, the opaque liquid of the infusion dripping on the floor steadily.
“Where is my money?”
Noels sits at the table in the kitchen, a small vegetable knife in his hand, onions, carrots in neat dices, a steaming pot on the stove and his blue eyes wide.
“Y-you should be in bed.”
Her fists hit the table top, the knife clatters on the floor, and vegetable dices roll away in all directions, fleeing like she wants to. Gone, gone, gone.
“Where is my fucking money?!”
He looks at her… disappointed? Angry? Scared? And jerks his head to the low cupboard next to the main door. The bag sits on the surface, innocently. She snatches it, presses it to her chest. She will have to count later, make sure everything is still there. She should never have taken it in the first place.
“Please… go b-back to bed,” he pleads, still sitting in his chair, his elbows braced on the table, shifted a little to the side.
Her sweaty hands grab the wall, the room is spinning, his low voice tuning in and out. “How… how long?” She rasps, squeezing her eyes to keep the swirling colors out. How long has she been out of it?
A fist in her stomach, unprepared, she turns to the sink, hurls. Spits. “Two days?” Raw panic, rippling, boiling to the surface.
He nods, jaw twitching.
There is her jacket on the single hook next to the door, his jacket below and then the silver rods of his crutches.
“Y-you c-c-cannot go like this.”
“Watch me, asshole,” she growls, slipping into her jacket, turning the knob of the door.
“D-don’t, please.” He is standing now, swaying, one hand splayed flat on the door of the yellowed fridge. “You shouldn’t-“
“And what do you know?” She does not know where it comes from, never knows, but something uncoils, lashes out, hissing, spitting, blinding rage. Two days! She has left her alone for two days! No one there to cook, to remind her to drink and to take her medication, no one to soothe her and to tell her that this is the present, this is real, even if she herself often does not know for sure. No one to keep her from burning the house to ashes or leaving because there is no milk left and forgetting where she lives after rounding a corner. “All you do is sit around and… and fiddle with documents and give people pills. You have no idea, no idea at all! You don’t know anything about me!”
He is rooted to the spot, half leaning against the fridge, legs all bent and quivering and she does not know why but she cannot stop herself and she cringes before she even speaks, knows she is wretched and sick and has always been.
“You are nothing but a fucking cripple.”
He stares at her, does not breathe, like a statue, unmoving, cold. The air freezes to ice, for a second, tiny crystals forming in her head, in her lungs, stinging hotly. He shifts, lurches back to the seat and falls into it, chest heaving but no sound. Picks up the knife from the ground, gripping the table’s edge while bending down. Sorts knife and chopping board and remaining vegetables and starts cutting again, slowly, determined, his hands too big for the small knife, cutting pieces with the tremors rippling through them.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” she says, weak words that mean nothing, broken, transparent from overuse. How can one hurt somebody with so many words but un-hurt only with one?
The cutting stops, the knife is placed back on the table and he shifts, digging one hand in his pocket.
“M… maybe I kn-know m-m… more than you think.”
She stares at the object on the table, white streak blinking at her.
“What- How? What did you do?”
She is over him in an instant, rage flaring up once more, stone in her hand. Smooth, warm, soothing what does not want to be soothed.
He is small sitting down. Eyes like a trapped animal, lashes shining brightly around them. “I… She is okay, Rachel. V… Victoria. She is f-fine.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve been o-over. Yesterday. T… today.”
Why she believes him, trusts him, she does not know. Maybe she knows she would never have made it to her, not like this, and she only hopes he tells the truth. Maybe it is him, trembling, shoulders hunched, at the table and watching her, flinching when she sinks to the ground, sobbing.
“Ra- Rachel? Don’t… shh… it’s going to be alright, o-okay?”
She wants to believe him, she really wants to.
“W-we need to c-clean this up, Rachel.” He is there, again, lowering himself on the ground with his elbows first on the table, on the chair, on the floor next to her and takes her arm in his rough hands, gentle as if it is a bird fallen from its nest. “O-okay?”
She nods, watching the blood seeping out, a tiny river net warping around her forearm, the red drops on the floor too bright against the white tiles to be real. He covers her arm with something, tells her to put pressure on it herself and she does, glad for the pain, glad for something to do.
“Don’t fall asleep on me here. Um… can you get up on your own, g-go back to bed?”
She giggles because he did barely stutter there and since when does he have a rainbow on the floor of his kitchen, sparkling and fizzing with color?
“Where is Noel?”
“Also hello, Rachel” Karl says, grinning as he turns around. The crinkles around his eyes have deepened, shifting into the smile with the rest of his face.
“Hm... hello. So?” She takes place in the new chair. A metal frame, seat and back made of yellow hard plastic. Scoots to the edge, fingernails digging into her knees.
Karl places the binder into the cupboard on the back wall, cards his fingers through his blond beard. Finally sits opposite of her. Same ponytail, same brown eyes, sparkling, reassuring. “You know that he was only an intern, Rachel. He went back to school.”
She stares at the sweets in the bowl on the table, half of them gone by now. Says nothing.
“I'm sorry if you didn't know.”
“No, I did... I...” Her knees start bobbing up and down, heels drumming on the floor, rocking her entire upper body that is leaning forward on them. Did she know, at some point?
Karl nods slowly and gets up again, moving more binders into the cupboard. “Is it true that you left without a word?”
“What?” She stops herself, sits on her hands instead, her knees pressed together. “Yeah... yes... I guess. Couldn't leave Victoria alone longer.”
“How is she?” Karl asks, starting to move towers of documents over the desk.
“Fine.” Victoria had not noticed that the money was gone, as Rachel had known she would. She is still punishing herself for taking it in the first place.
She says nothing, tearing her eyes away from the colorful sweets in the bowl, fixing them on Karl. “I want to go. Please.”
“Okay,” Karl says, sitting down again. Face neutral, no judgment. Pushes the familiar sheet of paper over to her.
“Hm?” She does not turn, hand on the door handle.
“Apologize to him.”
She meets the bull again, a few blocks from the medical center, waiting for her, his hand around her throat before she notices he is even there. She has long since learned how to deal with people like him. There are only a few really dangerous ones and they scare her out of her mind but he is not one of them. Men like him are all the same, they all long for the same and their rage is a wild animal, satisfied and calmed easily if you know how to. The bull is even simpler because he knows that although he is angry he still owes her. He sweats and grunts and she feels nothing, thinking about not to forget to buy bread before she goes home while she buttons her blouse up again when he is finished.
The days are sand, drifting by, sometimes clogging, plugging, then blown away when the storm picks up again. At calm nights she sits, watches. Always the same place, always the same dark cubicle with the small light in the window. When he leaves, so does she. He never notices there is one more shadow among the others.
She does not like the new chair. Instead she sits on the desk, letting her boots swing under it.
“You could try it. You don't have to stay if you don't like it. It's not a closed institution, if that is what you are afraid of.”
“I'm not afraid,” she says, fishing the last sweet out of the bowl, slowly unwrapping the blue paper. Silver on the inside.
Karl sighs, a rare sound. “I know. There is nothing you are afraid of.”
She grins, throws him a triumphant look. Pops the chocolate in her mouth.
“Apparently not even of losing your place in the program,” he says carefully, placing his hands on the back of the plastic chair in front of her.
“What?” Chocolate is clogging her mouth, coalescing to a stubborn mass at the back of her throat.
“Rachel...” Karl sits on the chair the wrong way, leaning over the back of it. “Why did you go to Matt? You could have called me.”
“Huh?” The slimy, sickly-sweet glob barely makes its way down to her stomach. “How do you know?”
Karl shakes his head. “I have my ways. Why do you think Matt did not sell you anything?”
Karl's features are calm, disgustingly smooth, his eyes kind. Her fists twitch at her side, ready to follow the itch to change that. Oh, how she would love to see him angry for once, see him lose his appearance that is always so fucking composed as if nothing really matters. “Are you insane? I nearly died!”
“But you didn't.”
“Yeah, if not for-” she claps her mouth shut and pushes off the table. She cannot sit anymore, there is an army of ants under her skin and it is just getting ready for war. She paces up and down the small room, from one dirty yellow wall to the other. It is a tiny room, much too small to breathe in.
Karl sighs, again. “Matt was not supposed to throw you out,” he says, a trace of anger in his voice. “But if he had sold you anything, you know that would have been it, right?”
She ignores him, trying to walk the itch off.
“Fuck! Fuck you! You are a shit fucking traitor, you know that? You think we are friends but we are not!” As she passes the desk she takes the bowl, out of an impulse. The glass makes a satisfying bang as it hits the opposite wall, glass splinters raining down on her and Karl. She does not even flinch as one grazes her cheek, stinging sharply. Red. “Fuck!”
Karl lowers the arms that he has thrown up to protect himself and flicks a glass shard from his shoulder. Calmly. “Maybe you should thank me.”
She stops in front of him, towering over him for once, her arms wrapped around her torso. “What for? You weren't even there!”
Karl climbs off the chair again. “Yes, right, I had things to do.” He pulls out his wallet, flips it open, turning it to her.
“Shit... Shit... Karl...”
“Oh fuck, Karl... I didn't even know that Helen...”
He smiles, that all-content smile that wants to hug the earth and for the first time in days she wants to smile with him. “Oh shit, congratulations! Karl…”
She sits on the table because her legs do not want to support her anymore. Stares at the picture of something round and fleshy, with big blue eyes. “Aren't you like... hundreds of years old or something?”
Karl laughs, a freeing, booming laughter. He flips the chair a little, glass shards raining from the seat and sits, tucking the wallet away again. “You know I'm not.”
He is right. His long beard and his skinny appearance, these deep set eyes in the crinkled face might deceive some but not those who are met with a similar face in the mirror every morning.
“But… you were gone such a long time?”
Karl’s features turn grave for a second. “Nine weeks early.”
Karl lifts his hands. “They are alright. They are home now, since yesterday.” He watches her. “Do you want to come over for dinner this week? Helen would love to see you again. You haven't been for a long time.”
She kicks glass shards over the floor. The sound of tiny little bells.
“It doesn't have to be long,” he says.
“I have to clean this up.”
“Don't bother. Are you coming?”
This is the last night she watches him. She knows everything she needs to know.
The house is exactly as she remembers. Small but friendly. Tidy but not as sterile that it makes her feel like a contaminant. Helen seems tired but she smiles, hugs her long in the hallway and then pulls her to the small child bed in the living room. She hears Karl in the kitchen, whistling a song to the clanking of pots. She thinks that his son has his large ears.
After dinner she stays for a few more minutes because the small weight in her arms, the warmth against her chest makes her unable to stand, unable to breathe, unable to think. Karl sits down next to her on the sofa, smiling.
“Thanks for dinner,” she says.
“You are welcome. I didn't totally blow up anything, that's something.”
“How come then it looks like something exploded in here?” Helen yells from the kitchen and he laughs.
Karl turns to her, lowers his voice. “Listen, Rachel. I have the documents here...”
She stiffens. “Karl...” The small bundle in her arms starts whining as on cue, a tiny sound escaping, eyes still closed. Helen is there within seconds, carefully taking it from her and the sound stops.
“Sorry.” Suddenly there is a strange feeling in the corners of her eyes and her chest constricts even more.
Helen sits on the other side next to her, cradling the baby, humming to it.
“Oh, don't worry about it, Rachel. He always starts crying immediately when I take him,” Karl says and winks. “About the clinic...”
“I don't want to.” Why is Karl enforcing this now? He has been talking about the clinic for years, so why now?
Her eyes fall on the bundle in Helen's arms. Karl and Helen want to get rid of her. Of course. They have better things to do, a more important human being to care for now. They must have grown tired of her with time, she should have known. Usually she knows, does not expect anything else anymore.
Helen has loosened the bundle a little, tiny head poking out. The skin rosy under flimsy hair.
“We've gone over this, Rachel. You need help, you said so yourself, remember? We are always here for you and will remain so but we are no professionals. It's not your fault, it's completely normal-”
“I'm not normal, Karl.”
“No…” Karl’s eyes are sad. “No… you are anything but. That’s why we want you to get better. We want a better life for you, Rachel. Because we love you and we care about you.”
She blinks at him.
“You know that, don’t you?”
She frowns. Truth, lie?
“It's a good clinic,” Helen says.
“Everything is settled, you do not need to pay a cent, it’s close so you do not even have to stay overnight, they have an open space and are waiting for you. All you need to do is sign. If you don't want to do it for yourself or for us, do it for Victoria.”
She stares at Karl and at Helen and then down as the thin, vein-riddled eyelids flutter and open to tiny slits that grow, two blue spheres looking back at her, unblinking.
--> Part IV
--> Part IV