From the author: After his fiancee commits suicide, a young man goes to horrific lengths to resurrect her.
I guess you could say I met Charlie at work.
It was about three years ago, a couple of weeks before Christmas. The holidays are a hard time in general for hospitals, but I swear there was something wrong that night. It was as though the city had lost its collective mind. Trauma patients were arriving almost faster than we could treat them: traffic collisions, gunshots, assaults, burn victims from a house fire, a man who’d fallen from his three-story balcony, and a seemingly endless string of suicide attempts.
Charlie was a suicide attempt.
When I first saw Charlie, I barely even recognized her as human. It was like someone had tried to repurpose a marble statue into a Halloween decoration. White skin, blue lips, bruises around her neck, and tangles of self-inflicted cuts running all along her body like tiger stripes.
The full extent of her injuries, both old and new, only became clear on the operating table. Without going into detail, it was apparent that she spent a lot of time hurting herself. It was just as obvious that someone else had once spent a lot of their time hurting her.
Long story short, she made it.
I kept tabs on Charlie over the next few days, and learned that no one came to visit her in ICU. Not family, not friends, no significant other.
I’ll be honest; most of the time I feel like I don’t belong in nursing, least of all a trauma unit at the busiest hospital in the county. Not because I’m bad at my job – if anything, I’m closer to excellent than not – but because my patients haunt me. The ones who live, the ones who die, even their families – they all stay with me, no matter how hard I try to disconnect.
Charlie wasn’t any different; the vicious audacity of her self-mutilation coupled with the horror stories implied by her older injuries struck a deep chord.
Her aloneness did, too.
So, once she’d been released from the ICU and transferred to the general ward, I decided visit her. I went on my next day off, and had the foresight to bring my gym bag along in case I needed an excuse to duck out.
I knocked on the doorframe and cleared my throat. She looked listlessly in my direction. I immediately second-guessed the doctor’s decision to move her out of the ICU. She was sallow and far too pale. The hollows under her eyes were as pronounced as ever, and she had a very particular look about her – something that made her seem simultaneously very old and very young – that I associate with people who are waiting to die.
“I’m a nurse here at the hospital,” I started awkwardly. “I helped with your surgery the night you came in.”
She gave a thin smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Thank you.”
“No need. I just wanted to see –” I took a deep breath, cursing myself for not rehearsing my words before walking into the room – “to ask how you’re doing.”
Her face didn’t soften, certainly didn’t become warm, but something changed. A flicker of alertness, a shadow of interest. “I guess I’m doing about as well as you’d expect.”
This was a mistake, I realized. Whatever was wrong with her, whatever had precipitated her suicide attempt, was nothing I could soothe. My presence was pointless at best, detrimental at worst, and probably violated hospital policy to boot. I needed to leave.
“Well… I didn’t want to bother you. But I’d glad you’re here. I mean, not here, in the hospital, but – here.” I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth, and wished I’d just sink into the floor and disappear.
“Thanks,” she said.
I nervously swung my bag from one shoulder to another. About halfway through, I lost my grip, sending a cascade of pens, receipts, and clothes across the floor. I watched with horror as an old perfume roller – something that belonged to an ex, something I’m not even supposed to bring into the hospital - skidded under her hospital bed.
Face burning, I dropped to my knees and scooped everything back into my bag. Holy shit, I was stupid. This was such a ridiculous thing to do. This was why you weren’t supposed to visit patients, why you’re supposed to compartmentalize, why you’re supposed to be professional.
I was so focused on berating myself, I didn’t notice that Charlie had gotten out of bed until she was in front of me, dropping my gym shorts back into the bag.
“Ma’am, please - you need to get back in bed!”
“Don’t worry. I will.” She gave me a careful, appraising look. “What’s your name?”
A ghost of a smile touched her mouth. It still missed her eyes, but at least her face wasn’t blank anymore. “I’m Charlie.”
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and didn’t visit her again.
I found a small box in my mail tray a few weeks later, perched atop a mound of memos, paperwork, and schedule updates. I didn’t really think about it; it’s not unusual to receive things like pens, flash drives, and magnets from pharmaceutical reps. I opened it up and to my surprise found a perfume rollerball. I thought it was the one I’d left in Charlie’s room, but no; while it was the same scent, it was a brand-new bottle. Wrapped around it was a note:
Just replacing what I stole, but we can trade back if you want.
Underneath was a phone number. Even though I knew better, I tucked it away and called her after my shift.
It quickly became brutally clear that Charlie needed someone. She didn’t have anyone: no family, no friends, not even the obligatory work acquaintances.
Nobody but me.
I won’t lie; it was difficult to be with her. Charlie was sad and tired and exceedingly careful with her feelings. She had a tendency to dip into radio silence, often for several days at a time, before slipping back into my life as though nothing had happened. I wouldn’t have tolerated it with anyone else, but Charlie was different somehow.
I did call her out on it once, full of righteous anger and a solid measure of suspicion. Charlie’s response was a bleak, uncertain smile that was shocking in its openness. Charlie was never open. She guarded her feelings as though her life depended on it. So that smile – that sad, self-loathing, brutally honest smile – disarmed me entirely.
“I know it’s wrong,” she said. “But sometimes…I don’t know. Sometimes I just get tired of inflicting myself on you.”
I could almost understand her reasoning. In ways I couldn’t quite identify, Charlie was always on a precipice. She needed so much, but didn’t even know how to ask. More than once I walked into her apartment and found her curled on her bed, sobbing. She never told me what was wrong. Never told me what she was feeling or thinking. Sometimes being with her was like being in a pitch-black hangar. The door was there and I knew the key was somewhere nearby, but it was all so enormous and so dark, there was no chance of ever finding it.
But it wasn’t always bad.
She liked to go places. Restaurants, national parks, beaches, amusement parks, random little roadside attractions no one’s ever heard of. Her favorite place was an isolated beach bounded by tall, rocky cliffs on two sides, so I took her there often. On these excursions, she seemed alive. She seemed bright. I loved being with her on days like that.
More importantly, I felt amazingly comfortable with her. I didn’t feel like I’d known her my entire life – in fact, most of the time I felt like I didn’t know her at all – but I sensed that we fit together. That we belonged.
Sometimes, I was positive she felt the same way. Sometimes she’d look at me, really look at me, like she’d forgotten everything else existed. Like she was too entranced to realize she was looking. At times like this, she’d smile. And the smile would always reach her eyes.
But just as often, it felt like she was rebelling against that sense of belonging. She was quiet to the point of being uncommunicative, and maddeningly distant. Distant enough, in fact, that I frequently contemplated ending the relationship. But I never quite reached that point, because Charlie possessed an uncanny ability to close that distance before I could pull the metaphorical trigger.
Like I said, it was hard.
But I loved her, so it was worth it.
Even when things started to slide, even when she got increasingly distant, even when she began to grow cruel – I told myself it was worth it.
We had our first real fight on the second anniversary of her suicide attempt. I don’t even remember what it was about, or who was at fault. I only remember the cold, almost inhuman contempt with which she regarded me. I’d never in my life been looked at the way she looked at me that night, and it crushed me.
So I told her we were done, and tore out of there as fast as my car would take me. I drove to the beach, huddling my car in the farthest corner of the parking lot, and wept for a while.
When I was done, I leaned back and took a deep breath. I let it out slowly, in shifts, like a train whistling. To my surprise, I felt calm. Soothed, relaxed, clean. Hell, I felt good.
That was the worst part of it all: realizing that I felt better with Charlie gone.
She didn’t stay gone.
In fact, she came over to see me just two nights later. Her eyes were wide and almost blank. Doll-like. I let her in because I loved her, then ordered a pizza. We ate in silence on my patio as the brilliant coppers and oranges of sunset darkened to evening.
Finally, she said, “You didn’t deserve any of that. I’m so sorry, Theo.”
She ran her hands through her hair slowly, as if struggling to keep herself from pulling it out. It caught the dying light and seemed to glow. Burning embers, pulled apart into long strands, accentuating a raw patch of scalp that showed just how capable she was of following through. “I know something’s wrong with me. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t even think it can be fixed.”
I waited silently, training my eyes on the sky’s last ribbons of color.
“I don’t feel human anymore. Maybe that’s the problem. I’m not supposed to be human, not supposed to be here at all, and I know it.” Her voice broke. “You’d be better off.”
And she barely looked human in the falling dark: impossibly wide-eyed, smooth skin like gold-tinged porcelain, hair shimmering in the fading light. I shuddered and looked away. “That’s bullshit, Charlie.”
I expected her to cry, but she didn’t. She folded her arms and refused to look at me. So instead I looked at her, feeling bitter and helpless and above all, guilty. I would be better off without her. The past two days had been like a vacation. I’d felt free and light, like the sun had finally risen after a seemingly endless night.
But at my own invitation, darkness had fallen once again. My porcelain doll, my marble statue, my endless night, sitting once again at my right hand.
We sat in silence together for hours. Finally I took her to bed, and did everything I could to make her feel human again.
It didn’t get better.
In fact, it grew worse by leaps and bounds. It got to the point where Charlie expressed no emotion whatsoever unless we were fighting. Soon, she started picking fights every day. She said the worst things imaginable. Sometimes she’d simply leave afterwards, and stay away for days. In a perverse way, I looked forward to this. Not because I didn’t love her – I did, with everything in me – but because I always felt better when she was gone.
But she never stayed gone for long. She’d come back and apologize, always saying she didn’t know why she did what she did, and I guess I even believed her for a while. The atrocious harm she inflicted on herself after every altercation was convincing, as were her tears, and her instinct to run away. To spare me.
But I wouldn’t allow her to spare me. I wanted more than anything for Charlie to have some measure of peace. Maybe it was my ego talking, but I felt like I was the best chance she had of finding it.
She didn’t seem to agree, because her desire to stop inflicting herself on me eventually mutated into endless refusals to come back after a fight. Endless because I always went to find her for fear that she would harm herself. I usually found her curled up on the floor or in her bathtub, singing lullabies or whispering long strings of nonsense: “Please God, watch the beans, the crow sings angel wings, apple green faith the size of a mustard seed… God please, please God watch the beans…”
Always, she was crying. And when the nonsense prayers ran out, she’d finally speak to me.
Just leave, she’d say.
Stop trying to help me.
Just fuck off, all right?
This isn’t going to work. It was never going to work.
It won’t work because I’m not human anymore.
I want you to hurt.
I need you to hurt.
So please go.
Please forget me.
I remember our last fight with perfect clarity.
For once, I started it. I laid down an ultimatum: get help – real help, medication and therapy and every type of psychiatric treatment available to her – or leave for good.
“They can’t help me!” she screamed. “Don’t you understand?”
“I want you to hurt!”
“You! I want you to hurt! And nothing will change it! Nothing will help! Everything is done, everything is finished, there’s nothing that can change!”
“Something has to change, Charlie!”
“It can’t. It’s done. I’m done.”
“Then so am I.” Tears stung my eyes. I glared at her and prayed they wouldn’t fall. “I can’t do this anymore.”
She smirked miserably as tears streamed down her face. “What can’t you do, Theo?” She wiped her face. “What can’t you do?”
Time stood still for a terrible instant. I watched her. Words vomited their way up my throat, crashed into each other, and jammed. There were too many. I was choking on what I wanted to say, what I needed to say, and what I shouldn’t say.
Charlie’s awful smile slid into a frown. Time snapped back into being. And somewhere inside me, a dam broke.
“I can’t deal with you anymore!” I shouted. “I can’t spend my life trying to fix you when you won’t even try to fix yourself! You don’t talk to me! I don’t know anything about you! You won’t tell me what you are or why you are what you are! You’re stealing all my time, Charlie, and sometimes I think it’s not because you need it, but just because you can!”
She blanched. Smooth-skinned and pallid, a porcelain doll, a marble statue. Utterly inhuman.
Then she marched out and slammed the door with such force my walls rattled. My neighbor’s front door creaked open. No doubt they were peeking out, hoping to catch a glimpse to go along with the cacophony they’d overheard. What would they think of Charlie, I wondered? Would she look like a sculpture to them? Like something that wasn’t human anymore? Or would they see her as she really was – a person who’d been in too much pain for too long to even dream that a life with less pain was possible?
I paced through my living room, weeping as the night darkened and the moon rose.
My sorrow was bitter and painful, borne mostly of guilt. But when I finished, I felt clean and empty. I was at peace. I was all right. I was free.
I really was better off without Charlie.
The following days were light.
I could breathe, I could think, and I could move so easily. It was as if someone had excised an anvil from my guts, or cut ropes that had been slowly crushing me. Something inside me, something that had been trapped, was free.
But freedom is lonely, and loneliness is bitter. It took a week for me to start missing her, and another week for that sense of missing to grow intolerable.
One morning, I woke up clear-headed and determined. I needed to talk to Charlie. I needed to see her, needed to apologize, needed to assure her that I would always be there for her.
I went into work, feeling refreshed and excited. I was ready for this. Ready to be whatever she needed me to be, for good this time.
When I arrived at the nurse’s station, I saw something odd in my mail tray: a small white box. A sense of foreboding swept over me.
I tore it open. Inside was a little pocket watch. Behind it was a note in Charlie’s handwriting:
Just replacing what I stole.
That day’s shift was the longest twelve hours of my life. When it finally ended, I sped over to her apartment as quickly as I could. She didn’t come to the door when I rang the bell, so I called her. It went straight to voicemail. I called again and again and again. She didn’t pick up.
Fearing the worst, I kept banging at her door. I hadn’t realized just how much of a racket I was making until the cops arrived. By this point, I was frantic. I explained who I was and why I was there, that Charlie struggled with suicidal ideation, that I’d ended our relationship recently and was afraid she’d harmed herself, and please officer can I request a welfare check right fucking now?
Given sufficient probable cause, the police obliged. Charlie, however, wasn’t in her apartment. Her car wasn’t in the underground garage, either. The cop told me she’d probably taken a vacation, gone away to clear her head.
I asked them to call her work to see if she’d been in lately, but of course the business was closed for the day. The cops said they’d give it a try in the morning, but in the meantime don’t stress out. She’s fine, they said.
I didn’t buy it, so I got in my car and drove to her favorite beach. It was a cloudy, blustery night. The parking lot was empty except for one terribly familiar car.
I peered through the driver window. She wasn’t inside, but her phone was in the cupholder.
More frightened than I’d ever been in my life, I ran up the beach to the cliffs.
Wind rushed at me, stinging my eyes and whipping my face raw. I wasn’t dressed for the cold, which was brutal. But I didn’t slow down, didn’t turn back, didn’t even so much as think as I barreled up the narrow trail to the top of the bluffs, scanning the murky landscape. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I told myself I’d know it when I saw it.
And I did.
Something fluttered on my periphery. Heart skipping a beat as I turned, I saw a figure emerging from the shadows: wind-whipped hair, bright eyes, red coat flapping in the wind. But it wasn’t Charlie. Just a big, jagged rock perched on the edge of the cliff. Tangled around it was her red coat.
I drew closer. Each step seemed impossibly slow and heavy, like I was walking through sludge. But everything around me was clear and sharp. I saw it all: the grass, the vines, the rocks, the cliffs, her coat, even her sunglasses, wedged into a crevice in the rock, glinting in the moonlight. Like eyes.
I approached the edge of the cliff and looked down.
There was nothing, of course.
Nothing but a sheer drop and crashing surf far, far below.
I called the police again.
They took me seriously this time, but wouldn’t let me stay at the scene. When I resisted, they threatened to arrest me. So I left, screaming and cursing all the way back to my apartment. I got home and threw everything I could pick up at the walls, destroying everything in the process. Then, sore and crying and nearly delirious, I lurched to my liquor cabinet and drank myself to sleep.
I had a nightmare about Charlie. She was a child, no more than six years old, but I recognized her: clear, wide eyes and a wild tangle of sunrise-colored hair. She huddled in a dark corner in an even darker house, sobbing over her cupped hands. I approached timidly, sensing that something was terribly wrong. I peered into her hands and saw a scattering of bloody teeth, gleaming faintly. She looked up at me. I jumped back, startled. Her eye was black and swollen, and her mouth dribbled blood. She released a heart-wrenching sob. Many of her front teeth were gone.
I woke up nauseous, remembering a particular habit of Charlie’s that I’d never really considered before: the way she always reached up and pressed her fingers along her jaw as though feeling for her teeth.
A week passed. Charlie remained missing.
It was hell. I couldn’t work, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and after a few days couldn’t even drink. I existed in a twilight haze of pain, guilt, and panic. So when I started seeing things, I wasn’t entirely surprised.
At first, it was Charlie. Six-year-old Charlie, cupping her teeth and crying in the corner of my bedroom.
Toddler Charlie with a miserable moue and glassy eyes, sitting in a fetid crib in the middle of my living room.
Little girl Charlie standing before a locked wardrobe and whispering to the doors. She always knocked so softly, and whispered, “Paul?”
Slightly older Charlie, crying on a bloody towel in the bathtub…
Young adult Charlie, sobbing so hard she was hiccupping as she turned a pistol to and fro in the lamplight.
Charlie as I’d known her, curled up naked on my bed and screaming into a pillow as a boyish corpse with a horrific mouth tenderly sliced a knife into her arching back. “You’ll feel better,” he soothed. “You’ll be better after you hurt.”
I came to in the middle of this vision. It was like jerking awake during a falling dream. I shot up with a yell, and covered my eyes.
When I opened them again, Charlie was still there, crying and bleeding. The boy was nowhere to be found.
Overjoyed that she’d come back to me, I got back onto the bed and lay down beside her. She didn’t seem to see or hear me. But that wasn’t unusual for her. Sometimes all she saw was her pain.
But at least I could see her, feel her, touch her. I reached out and stroked her hair as she wept. All at once she looked up, terrified eyes fixed on a point over my shoulder, and screamed. I whirled around and gasped. A tall woman, with long dark hair and darker eyes.
I turned back to Charlie, but she was gone. Every hair on my body stood up. I closed my eyes, forced myself to count to ten, and slowly turned around.
The woman was still there, deathly pale, a marbled blend of cadaver-white and raven darkness. Her mouth was enormous, so huge it distorted her face. Looking at it made my mind twist and pull. I could practically see it: loops of glimmering consciousness sinking into my brain like overstretched taffy.
“She’s better when she hurts,” the woman whispered.
I shut my eyes and counted to thirty this time. When I opened them, she was gone.
I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, and ran.
Impossible as it is to describe what it’s like to fall in love, it’s even harder to describe what it’s like to feel like you’re losing your mind.
I didn’t see Charlie all the time, but I saw her everywhere. My apartment, my job, the grocery story, the street – it didn’t matter. If I went there, then eventually so did she in one form or another – a woman, a teen, a child...
I was invisible to her, but whenever she appeared in my apartment I went to her. I always told myself that maybe, just maybe this time she would see me, hold me, tell me she still loved me.
But if I saw her in public, I forced myself to ignore her and pass by. It broke my heart, but there was nothing for it. I couldn’t risk my job any more than I already had.
After a while, these manifestations became a source of comfort. Cold comfort, of course, but comfort nonetheless. On nights she lay on my bed, or in my tub, or on my sofa or floor, I slept beside her. I could stroke her hair, hold her close, and tell her everything would be all right. Sometimes it was hard to hold her, or even touch her. She was often broken or bleeding or limping, and almost always a child. But it was her. It was Charlie. And even if she couldn’t see me, I felt like I was keeping my promise: I was there for her, in every way I could be.
But as days turned into weeks, these phenomena grew increasingly bizarre and disturbing. I came to believe that these hallucinations or visions weren't the product of my insanity, or even communications from beyond the grave.
They were hauntings.
And it wasn't Charlie haunting me.
Whatever had driven her to suicide, whatever had tortured her, whatever had broken her, whatever had haunted her, was now haunting me.
And God in heaven, it was horrific.
I only ever saw Charlie when she was being hurt, or had just been hurt. Sometimes she was just a toddler; other times I was painfully certain she was weeping in the aftermath of one of our fights. She was often alone, but just as often with a tormentor.
The tall woman with the black eyes and distorted mouth was the most frequent apparition. Sometimes she looked normal. Hard-eyed and bitter, but human. Other times she looked like a demon; a marbled mosaic of corrupted light and shadow, with black eyes that somehow burned. Her awful mouth was constantly in motion: stretching and pulling and smiling, hitching itself up as if to keep it from sliding off her face.
I became convinced that she was Charlie’s mother. I saw her wrench Charlie’s teeth out with pliers, watched her beat her, slap her, break her bones, even press a red-hot frying pan to Charlie’s belly.
When she looked normal, she didn’t notice me any more than Charlie did. But whenever she came in her monster form, she seemed aware of me. And she always said the same thing: “She’s better when she hurts.”
Charlie’s father appeared less frequently. Like the mother, he sometimes appeared normal – slim and mean-looking, with a pointed chin and blank eyes that shone like those of a doll – and sometimes he looked like a monster, twisted and rotting, with glistening needle teeth and pale, bulbous eyes sprouting all over his suppurating skin. He slid across the floor, across walls, across the ceiling, and into Charlie’s bed, leaving a trail of foul-smelling slime everywhere he went.
Charlie’s parents were painfully easy to understand. Monsters in human skin, horrific as hell and mundane as mud.
What I didn’t understand was the Charlie’s obsession with the wardrobe. These were the least violent of the visions. In fact, sometimes they weren’t violent at all. Charlie would go to the wardrobe, knock nervously on the doors, and speak to somebody named Paul. Paul, however, never answered.
But these were few and far between.
Finally, I could no longer stand it. The hauntings didn’t stop, but I stopped paying attention. A huge part of me, the part struck raw by Charlie’s suicide and by her pain, began to scar over, to become calloused. After a while, I was able to live – to eat normally, to sleep soundly, even to work - through the tableaus of Charlie’s immense suffering.
It disturbed me, how easily I was able to ignore the things I was seeing, the things she’d gone through. I didn’t like not caring; I didn’t like feeling the callous spreading over my heart. I wanted to care. I wanted to feel the outrage, the horror, the pain, as acutely as I had those first weeks. But I couldn’t.
And I was too exhausted to even try.
As though sensing my disconnect, the phenomena changed.
For a while, they were almost pleasant: Charlie and a slightly older boy with long red hair, playing games, telling secrets, cuddling in makeshift forts. Charlie spoke, but he didn’t. I didn’t think much of it; perhaps he was mute. Or perhaps the hauntings were finally losing their power.
I should have known better.
One morning, I woke to the sounds of children giggling. I looked up and saw Charlie, dancing in the sunlight streaming through my window. Charlie was whispering a nonsensical little song: “Watch the beans, the crow sings, angel wings apple green, faith the size of a mustard seed…” as her brother performed a clumsy, exaggerated waltz.
He swept by and pulled her into his arms. “No!” he whispered. “Like this. One-two, one-two -”
Charlie tripped over his feet and giggled hysterically. He tried to frown, but her glee was infectious. Before long they’d both covered their mouths, and were straining with the effort of keeping their voices low. I watched, smiling wistfully, as spurts of laughter erupted from behind their hands.
Then shadows nearby writhed and darkened, and her mother materialized: marbled shadow, shining black eyes, hideous mouth.
She grabbed the boy by the hair and wrenched him back. He shrieked. She shrieked back, calling him a vicious stream of the filthiest names I’ve ever heard. Then she swung him around and hunched low over him, hiding him with her body. He whimpered and wept.
And after a moment, he screamed.
The longest, ugliest, most heart-wrenching scream I’d ever heard. I shot out of bed and launched myself at her, but it was no good; it was like hitting a stone wall. She spun around and threw the boy against the wardrobe. His head hit the edge with a loud, sickening crack, and he crumpled to the floor.
I ran over. Blood streamed from a deep gash in his head and flooded from his mouth. He was still alive, breathing shallowly. As I watched, his eyes rolled up into his head.
Charlie’s hands were clasped over her mouth. She shook, wide eyes fixed on her brother, and watched mutely as her mother shoved him into the wardrobe.
“It’s better that he hurts now,” her mother said reasonably. “Hurting is what makes you remember.” She patted Charlie’s shoulder affectionately. “It’s why you don’t scream anymore.”
Then she stalked away, melting into the shadows. Charlie watched her go without a word.
For the rest of the week, I saw Charlie only as an adult. She lay in bed or on the floor as the rotted revenant of her brother cut her flesh to ribbons. She often cried. Occasionally, she screamed. But mostly, she lay passively, biting her lips so hard they bled as tears streamed down her face.
“It’ll be better soon, Charlie,” Paul always whispered. “It’s always better after you hurt.”
Sometimes her brother flickered in and out of reality like a bad TV signal, sometimes changing shape, twisting into another form entirely. More than once, I found myself looking not at the boy, but at the twisted, distorted silhouette of Charlie’s mother.
And sometimes, the boy would flick out of existence entirely and I would see only Charlie, harming herself while her mother chortled from the shadows.
The torture at her brother’s hand persisted all around me, every day: at home, on the streets, in the car, even at work, where I’d do my best to ignore young Paul performing his special sibling surgeries while I assisted the doctors with theirs. At first, I thought I’d go mad. But just as it had before, the torment reached an unsustainable level and eventually killed part of me. The shock faded. Along with my empathy. Before long, my compassion was calloused over, too.
And while I can’t say life went back to normal, it got to the point where I could pretend it was, because none of it affected me anymore. I could see it, walk right past it, sit by it, even lay by it now. I was so dammed up with scars that I could go on with my life as if none of it had ever happened. And that was all right.
I was better that way.
I may have been dammed to the gills, but dams eventually break.
Mine finally broke at work.
I was primed for it, I suppose. The hauntings around me that day were of Charlie and her brother playing. House, Tag, Hide and Seek, and a particularly weird permutation of Duck Duck Goose. It was pleasant. It was sweet. The ice behind the dam began to melt.
After several hours, I finally had a break. I took advantage of it and hurried to the cafeteria, intending to wolf down as much food as I could.
The moment I entered, I noticed the wardrobe. Her brother’s wardrobe, sitting in the corner of the cafeteria as though it had always been there.
The hair on the back of my neck rose. I turned around. Sure enough, there was Charlie. Charlie, aged twelve or thirteen, bounding into the room. She cast several frightened glances over her shoulder, then darted past me.
She knelt down before the wardrobe. I watched, bewildered, as she clasped her hands and began to pray. I glanced around carefully. No one was paying attention. So I crept closer.
About halfway across the room, the stench hit me: thick and heavy, a corrupted sweetness that crawled up my nose and down my throat and clung like oil. I held my breath and came closer. I could hear Charlie’s words now: “Please God, watch the beans the crow sings angel wings apple green faith the size of a mustard seed God please please make him alive please I love him so much and he’s so good please bring him back, please. I know You can do it. I know when I open the wardrobe he’ll be all right. I have faith, Lord, I know he’ll be all right. I know You’ll bring him back. I love you. Amen.”
Charlie stood up and took a deep breath. Tears continued to stream down her face. She closed her eyes, reached for the wardrobe, and pulled the doors open.
The stench rose up and outward, erupting like a jack-in-the-box from hell. A body tumbled out, knocking Charlie to the ground. It was a horror show: swollen face, bulging eyes, stiff limbs, bloated body, identifiable only by its long, tangled red hair. Charlie kicked at it in a panic. When her foot collided, the gut split open. Fluid and putrescent viscera spilled out.
Charlie screamed, and so did I.
I wound up sedated and admitted to my own hospital. I had terrible dreams while I was under. Scraps of hauntings, of Charlie, of her poor brother Paul.
She’s better when she hurts, I thought feverishly. She’s better when it hurts.
And somewhere in that haze of drug-suppressed hysteria, I had an isea.
When I got home, Charlie was waiting for me.
My living room looked like an abattoir. She sat rocking in the middle of it, hunched over and weeping a lullaby to a bloodstained little bundle. Her legs, I saw, were soaked in blood.
“It was an abomination.” Her mother’s bored voice sounded from the corner. I looked up, startled. The woman leaned against the wall, arms crossed. “If you’d just done it yourself, I wouldn’t have had to.”
Charlie rocked faster and faster. Tears streamed down her face, and her whispered lullaby grey more frantic. Only it wasn’t a lullaby, I realized. It was a prayer. “Please God, watch the beans the crow sings angel wings apple green faith the size of a mustard seed God please please…” Her voice broke and a high, shrill sob erupted from her throat.
I came closer. It was like the night I’d found her coat on the cliff: every step was heavy and slow, every detail sharp and bright and starkly clear, like I’d been granted the sight of a hawk at the very moment I wanted nothing more than to be blind.
Sunlight slanted through the window, turning the blood on her legs to glistening, vibrant red. The bundle in her arms was bloody, and tenderly swaddled in her shirt.
My legs shook as I stepped closer. I peered down into Charlie’s arms and saw a baby. It was small and still, covered in blood. The tiny skull was crumpled and broken, smashed like a fallen egg. Blood and pulp and tiny bits of soft grey skull peeked through the brokenness.
My knees gave out, dropping me to my knees in front of Charlie. I tried to look away from the baby, but couldn’t. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I whispered.
Charlie continued to weep and rock.
“Why? Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you let me help you, Charlie?”
“Watch the beans the crow sings angel wings apple green faith the size of a mustard seed…”
“You wanted me to know. You must have wanted me to know, because you’re showing me now. So why didn’t you tell me before? I could have helped you. So why didn’t you let me? Why didn’t you tell me?”
I lunged for her, intending to do I don’t know what – grab her, grab the baby, or simply hold them, hold them and see them until my heart calloused over and I wouldn’t have to think of them or feel for them ever again – but my arms closed on nothing.
They were gone.
I slid to the floor and lay there, curled upon myself. After a while, I saw the boy. Paul, with his blood-matted red hair and gaping black hole of a mouth. He slithered forward and knelt in front of me. “It feels better after you hurt.” The ragged stump of a tongue shifted weirdly in the cavern of his mouth. “It’s always better after.”
I blinked, and he was gone. And I understood.
I got up stumbled to the kitchen. I grabbed the first thing I found – a paring knife – and held it in my palm for a long time.
Then I folded my hand over it, and cut.
I hurt myself until dawn, mimicking Charlie’s injuries: tiger stripes and ladders, burns and bruises and blackened eyes. I pulled out my nails and eyelashes, I broke my fingers, and I cut myself to ribbons.
Around ten in the morning, I heard a knock on the door. I lurched over, gritting my teeth against the pain exploding in every part of me, and opened the door a crack.
It was Charlie.
My Charlie, more beautiful than she’d ever been, waiting for me to let her in again. I threw open the door. She looked at me uncertainly, eyes widening as she took in my injuries. Distress played across her face, but she didn’t cry. And why would she? She’d hurt so much worse than I could ever imagine.
I ushered her in. She guided me to the bathroom, set me down in the tub, and bathed me with great care. Every gesture, every touch, was exceedingly gentle.
Then she helped me out of the bath and into bed. Between relief and exhaustion and blood loss, I was already mostly asleep. But I noticed something, something that troubled me deeply.
When she first came in, she’d been lovely. Full, healthy, and glowing: gold-tinged porcelain skin, bright eyes, golden sunrise hair. But now she looked withered. Pale and dull and terribly thin, like she’d been sick for weeks.
My mind tried to put the pieces together, but before it could finish, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When I awoke, Charlie was asleep.
For a while, I simply watched her.
But eventually my need to talk to her, to know where she’d been and how she’d come back, overwhelmed me. I stroked her shoulder. Then nudged her. Then shook her.
I couldn’t wake her.
I rolled her over. Horrified disbelief avalanched down on me. She looked dead: papery skin, sunken eyes, cadaverous skull, prominent ribs and bones, as if she’d lost half her body weight in the span of hours.
I looked up, helpless and panic-stricken, and saw something in the corner. Gleaming black eyes and a black hole of a mouth recessed in an ashen face.
And I knew.
I went into the kitchen, found my paring knife, and reopened the wound in my left palm.
When I returned to the bedroom, Charlie was awake. She still looked terribly sick, but she looked twenty pounds heavier, and there was a hint of color in her face.
“Don’t do this,” she said. “It doesn’t get better.”
“How do you know?” Blood trickled from my hand and dripped onto the rug.
“Because I tried it.” She straightened up. “You saw my brother. Paul.”
I didn’t answer.
“I tried. Again and again I tried, and that’s all I got. Hurting isn’t enough, Theo. It’s never enough. So stop it.”
I loved her more than anything. I loved her in spite of herself. I loved her so much I nearly killed myself to give her another life. So I didn’t listen.
Instead, I sat down beside her. She watched me distrustfully. I cupped her head in my good hand and held my bleeding palm to her lips.
Her face twisted and her eyes brimmed with tears, but she drank.
Charlie lived on pain. Fresh pain. I had to hurt myself constantly. If I didn’t, she sickened and withered. Two days without a fresh injury was enough to starve her into unconsciousness.
So I willingly became my own torturer. Knives, needles, rope, rocks, pliers, matches, and so much more – if it could inflict an injury, I used it. She protested at first. She wept, she screamed, she fought.
But in the end, she relented.
And after a while, she changed.
I always thought Charlie was beautiful, but this was different. She became so much more than beautiful. Smooth and bright, firm and lineless, fully perfect. Absolutely, unbelievably beautiful.
No one could quite believe that she’d come back. It felt like a miracle to them, so they flocked to her. Her coworkers, my coworkers, my friends, my family – everyone wanted to know her. Everyone wanted to be near her.
And Charlie – my weird, quiet, anxious Charlie who was so shy she could barely speak, even to people she knew – blossomed. It was like a switch had flipped. She suddenly loved everyone, and as a result, everyone loved her.
It hurt me badly. Not because she was happy – all I wanted, after all, was for her to have a life that gave her joy, a life where she didn’t hurt – but because this wasn’t Charlie. Or at least, it wasn’t the Charlie I fell in love with.
But maybe that was for the best. The Charlie I loved had been in too much pain to live. Maybe she’d been half-right when said she wasn’t supposed to be alive; she wasn’t supposed to live as she once had. This was how she was supposed to be: a wildly beautiful, irresistibly charming jewel who could conquer the world with a smile and a word. It wasn’t my Charlie, but my Charlie didn’t exist anymore.
She didn’t have to exist anymore, because she was better.
So I continued to hurt myself. It got to the point where she wept every night over my self-mutilation. “You can’t do this,” she said. “I told you. Pain is not enough.”
But I’d look at her, all bright and beautiful and healthy, and tell her, “It is, Charlie. For me, it is.”
“You’ll be so much better without me.”
This was true, but it wasn’t enough to stop me.
This went on for months. I learned to be careful. I was able to hide it from my friends and family, patients and colleagues. From everyone except Charlie. To my relief, she finally stopped complaining about my pain. It got to the point where she even started to help me. Maybe because she wanted to take responsibility. It was better for me, because I didn’t have to look, didn’t have to watch. I only had to feel. Sometimes, not even that; every once in a while she sedated me. Not often, though, because if I didn’t feel the full force of the pain, it offered no benefit to her.
Sometimes, especially at night with her asleep beside me, the insanity of the situation would hit me. And I’d finally admit to myself that I couldn’t see myself living this way for another year, let alone fifty.
But then I’d look at Charlie, inhumanly beautiful Charlie sleeping peacefully for the first time since I’d known her. And in those moments, she was enough.
And then, one day, I’d had enough.
I was weakening by leaps and bounds. I’d hurt myself to the point where I could no longer work. It hurt to walk, to sit, to lie down. Even with sedatives, my sleep was always thin and restless and full of pain.
Charlie barely noticed. She was so happy, so full, that I’d become a bit of an afterthought. Something for her to take care of when she finally came home, like an old dog.
I’d been thinking about it for days. It’s always better after you hurt. She’s better when she hurts. It isn’t enough. No amount of pain is ever enough.
Pain sustained her; bits of my life converted to pain, to energy, for her to absorb and thrive upon. The question was, did this make me a golden goose? Was I only worth something if I was alive and hurting? Or was there maybe another, more permanent solution?
I didn’t want to live like this, but I didn’t want Charlie to die.
So what if I died?
Pain wasn’t enough. But would death be enough?
Would giving it all make it all better?
One morning, I woke up and realized I hadn’t seen Charlie in three days. My heart twinged, and resentment flared briefly. But then it faded, replaced with content resolve.
I got up, wincing and hissing in pain. I found Charlie’s painkillers, the ones she gave me whenever I’d let her. And I took them all, one by one, crunching them to a bitter paste between my teeth. I ate them until I passed out. The bottle was the last thing I saw: innocuous and orange, with a half-peeled label.
And then I was gone.
I was better.
Somewhere in the haze, I was dimly aware of movement. Of voices, of Charlie’s cries, of tubes shoved roughly down my throat, of horrific, cramping pain. Then it was dark again. Dark and warm and soft. I wasn’t alone. Charlie was with me in the darkness, warm and gentle. “You’ll be better soon,” she murmured. “I promise.”
Her voice was the last thing I heard, following me into the warm, suffocating darkness.
When I came to, my parents were in my room, which turned out to be at the nearest hospital. They tried to be happy. They smiled widely, they gave me hugs, they exclaimed over my recovery. But there were shadows behind the smiles and their eyes. Night was inside them, cold and hopeless.
And I knew.
“She was in a car accident.” My mother’s sobbed. “It happened yesterday. I’m so sorry, honey.”
I’d failed monstrously. Everything I did, all the love I had, it was for nothing, because in the end I hadn’t made anything better.
I’d only made it worse.
Charlie’s death was the worse, but it wasn’t the only thing that hurt. My own futility crushed me. Why wasn’t it enough? Why wasn’t my pain enough? Why wasn’t I enough? What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t live through the pain? What kind of joke was I, loving her enough to force her back to life, but not enough to keep her that way?
Guilt nearly killed me. If I’d listened to her in the first place, if I’d been what she needed, if I’d made her safe, wouldn’t she have told me? After all, if I’d known, I could have helped her.
But I couldn’t help her because I’d done nothing to make her believe I could help. I’d failed. So her first death was my fault, too.
Hours turned into days, which turned into weeks, which bled into long, bleak months.
Like I said before, the worst thing is that part of me is better. I can breathe again. I can move. The anvil in my guts is gone. The ropes have been cut and burned. I am free. But freedom eventually becomes loneliness, and loneliness is bitter.
I guess you could say I’m better.
But being better isn’t enough.
It’s not even close to enough.