Dad and I are horsing around in the kitchen, playing en garde with plastic spatulas. I jump sur les pointes to avoid a swat across my thigh and he smiles. We love to sword fight. Dad learned how once on a set. At the Renaissance Faire every year Dad and Keith and I dress up and go with wooden swords and take on all the knights there. We look really cool cuz Dad got a hold of costumes from a movie he worked on three years ago so our costumes are as good as the fair workers. Mother used to braid my hair in a Renaissance-y way, but last year we didn’t go because I was in the whack-job hospital, and my hair is short and black now. No more girly braids.
Mother walks in and eyes us in a suspicious way.
“Greg,” Mother says, and Dad stops in mid-jab, his spatula falling limp in his hand.
“En garde, m’lady,” Dad says to her in his best British accent, and he rushes over to Mother and starts poking at her with the spatula. He hugs her from behind and keeps poking her in the ribs and she laughs, and it’s the first time I’ve seen her smile since the last time he was home. I smile but wish he were still playing with me. Keith the Wretched Brother walks in and sees fun happening without him. He lunges for Dad, his hair a mess from his usual nighttimetossings.
“Dad!” he says, jumping on his back. His arms go around Dad’s neck and Dad keeps holding onto Mother, but now he’s trying to whack Keith on the head with the spatula, and they’ve become a writhing laughing human ball.
“I didn’t know you were home,” Keith says, jumping down off of Dad’s back. He’s almost as big as Dad and I can see relief in Dad’s face. Mother straightens her hair
and robe and pours herself some coffee. I haven’t seen her in anything but work clothes forever. Dad jabs Keith in the ribs with the spatula next.
“Here, freak,” I say, tossing my scraper to him so he can swordfight. He catches it, game on.
“Be nice to your brother, “Mother mutters.
“I am being nice. I gave him a weapon, didn’t I?” I sip my coffee.
Mother stares at me in this way I don’t get. It reminds me of The Granddaughter as her eyes become those same dark pools, pools of I-Don’t-Know-What. Not anger, not love, not understanding , but somehow a combination of all three, but with hesitation mixed in. There’s something else in there, a darkness. Pain? I don’t know. It makes me uncomfortable the way she stares.
Keith and Dad collide into us and we barely save our coffees to the counter. I become a damsel in distress and flee as Mother becomes a trapped Rapunzel on the edge of the kitchen sink. She smacks them with an oven mitt as they swordfight beneath her.
“Stop, you cads! Stop!” she squeals as Dad throws her over his shoulder. The spatula falls to the floor and he runs through the swinging kitchen door with her. The kitchen falls quiet as the energy of action settles away into the corners of the room. We hear the pounding of Dad’s heavy feet on the stairs and Mother’s laughter far away.
“Lost the maiden fair and square to that one,” Keith says, picking up the spatula and putting it in the sink. He opens the fridge and pulls up some orange juice. I look at the clock. Good thing it’s not a school day or we’d be late.
Kara Slauson sits across from me at Starbucks. I haven’t seen her except on Skype since last year, when we were in the head-case hospital together, but we Facebook and text each other a lot now that she got out of her latest hospital stay, so she wanted to see me. She has tattoos up her arms now to hide the scars from her cutting problem and her suicide attempt. They look like blue and black flames and you can’t tell her arms used to resemble nicked up ice at a skating rink after a public session.
“I can’t believe you’re sitting here. It’s so weird. I mean, we’re dressed in real clothes, out in public, no doctors around.”
“I still have plenty of doctors,“ Kara says with a shrug. “Now I just go and visit them, on my schedule.”
I nod, thinking of Michael. We aren’t so free yet, she’s
right. I sip my caramel latte and look around. Sunday–there are no classmates of mine here to see me talking with the freaky tattooed girl. I’m a little disappointed.
“So how’s life in the real world, Jess? Are you the school zombie too? The one who came back from the dead?”
“Yeah . . . sort of. But since I hooked up with Jimmy, he’s saving me right now. I hope you can meet him soon. I told you he’s a jock, you know, B.M.O.C., my dad calls him that. Big Man On Campus. People don’t mess with me too much cuz they know I’m with him. Well, except some wretched cheerleaders but what do you expect.”
“Wow, that sounds almost tolerable. The only guy I’ve even dated was some college guy who also tried to kill himself in high school. He was so depressing I dumped him.” Kara smiles, pushing her overly-dyed red and black streaked hair behind her ear. “What a loser.”
“He didn’t get you?” I ask, breaking off a piece of my crumble cake, pinching it together with my fingers so it won’t fall apart all over my lap.
“No, he was a head-case. Depressed, paranoid . . . had one of those secret government conspiracy things going on.”
“Well, those are usually true,” I say, making my eyes roll around in a crazy way. Kara smiles and eats her zucchini cake and sips her iced chai latte.
“He wasn’t like us. . .” Kara’s cell rings and she holds up a black-fingernailed hand and answers. We really are two groups of people, us suicide attempters. There are psychos, the ones who don’t see it as a game but as a way to leave the planet, hurt everyone they ever loved, and leave a bitter spot in their absence. Kara and I aren’t that way. We are more like dare devils, risk takers, people who want to explore the edge of this reality but we made it back. Not that we cared if we did or didn’t come back. Going there at all, touching that line made us special. Kara is the only person in my life who really gets that. She’s a senior like Jimmy; soon she’ll be free to live her life and get beyond the whole high school suicide attempt label. As we sit on the usual Starbucks-beige couch, I find myself wishing that I only had a few months left of school as Kara texts someone and then snaps her phone shut.
“My sister needs money, what else is new. Sorry.” She gives me an ironic look. “So you’re doing okay?”
“I’m good, I’m still seeing my therapist. It’s mandatory, part of the school’s deal to let me back in. But it’s just a lie. There’s some stuff I can barely tell him.”
I halt, wanting to tell her about The Granddaughter. I know she’d think it was cool, but maybe later on she’d tell someone, “Oh Jessie? She’s okay but she’s psycho now. She’s seeing time travelers from the future or some weird shit . . .”
“I hear you,” Kara says, her hands dancing in front of her. “My last head shrinker was nuttier than I ever was! You know what his hobby is? Taxidermy! You know, making dead animals look lifelike? How creepy, don’t you think? I asked him about it and he told me there’s power in bringing things back to a new form after death, and that’s why most of his patients are suiciders! So I’m like some roadkill on the freeway to him, right? Let’s see if we can make this dead thing whole again! How nasty is that?”
“Nasty.” I shudder, glad Michael is at least human. I’ve had a lot of weird-ass doctors; he could be worse.
“I’m with Marsha now, my new shrink. She’s cool. She’s helping me with ‘my issues.’”
“Like what?” I ask, not really paying attention as I scan the aromatic coffee house for my high school peers.
“Well, my mom split, remember?”
I had forgotten but I nod, refocusing on Kara.
“My dad is starting to visit me at my Grandma’s. We’re talking about giving it another go. He’s tried to get me back into the regular school. . . your school . . . but I’m stuck at continuation for now. Grandma’s cool, she’s the only one treating me like I won’t break. She’s pretty strict, actually. She calls her way of dealing with me ‘snapping me back into shape.’ At first it really pissed me off but now I sort of appreciate the fact that she’s organized. My dad takes me to my appointments and stuff. How ‘bout you?”
“Dad’s home, he’s in between jobs, which is good. He’s cool, like nothing happened. But my mother. . .” I hesitate. What is going on with her? I think of the discombobulated way we start each day with missing keys, dirty laundry, and yelling about being late, but she’s not mean. She’s distant. Like an island far off on the horizon that I can see, that I want to touch and experience and understand, but it’s too far to swim. I know I can’t make it. The journey itself will kill me.
“Your mom?” Kara asks, pulling me away from my lost thoughts as the whirring of the cappuccino machine hums in the background.
“It’s like she’s not there,” I say. “She’s . . .”
“A cold fish.” Kara says, finishing my sentence and her drink. Her words are different from the ones that I would use but there it is, the essence of Mother. My cold fish.
“Probably why you tried to dump yourself in the first place,” Kara observes. I just stare as she rattles the ice in the bottom of her cup while sucking the last sip of chai loudly through her green straw.