I wake and pick. I scratch and claw and I bleed. Every morning, every day, always.
There’s something exquisite in the pain. Something necessary. Wounds that heal are wounds forgotten. I can’t allow myself to forget.
Each morning, my feet hang from the mattress, my toes, numbing. This is fine. It will be a while before I can stand. Today is no different.
I let the new light, yellow, pink, or gray, wash over me. Today it’s gray. Naked and cold, I reopen my wounds like gifts, one at a time, savoring the ripping and tearing.
I move from bed to shower. The hot water isn’t just hot. Hot water is for comfort. My skin glows red after I scrub. The loofa, soft in the scalding spray. Dead cells shed and washed away, leaving me raw, alive. Pain begs for attention.
My towel, burlap, despite its fluffy whiteness. My toothbrush, wire-bristled against the gums I scoured the night before. It’s time to replace it. The blue stripe has disappeared.
I choose my clothing from the sepia rainbow of my closet. This Dorothy stays squarely in Kansas. Standing out means standing up and I choose to live my life on my knees. Penance, flagellation, for crimes that were and were not mine. They stain me just the same.
My life is my own. My own to live and my own to suffer. My lessons are mine to learn and I must learn. I can’t stay as I am. Lessons come so hard.
I don’t eat. I like the tension between belt and breast. I like the twisting. The twisting means that my body needs me. Without me it will die and it’s I who will decide its fate. I like to be needed. I needed and had no one. I can be there for myself. I like the control. Today I’ll be there for him, on the other side of the glass. I like that control too.
I gather the necessary items, coat, shoes, blue notebook, change for the machine, and step outside. The air is damp and the failed snow bites at the skin between my collar and hairline. I put chin to chest, just for a moment, to take more.
Bus stop to bus to office to chair. Four hours of ignoring my tragedies by judging those of others. To pay or not to pay? A broken bone but a blown stop sign? Denied. A broken window but the proper use of the alarm? Here’s your check. As if money takes away the hurt. As if the settlement settles anything.
At lunch I choose a sandwich. I like lunch. It breaks the day before the day breaks me. Dinner, well, dinner happens when it happens.
I attend the Tuesday afternoon meeting where, as if compelled by Satan, Ken and Janice discuss everything we’ve already read in the interoffice bulletin. Today, there’s nothing new to report. There never is. No news is good news except when you’ve got to fill time.
I fill my time by taking notes because no one ever asks me any questions and no one expects my participation. I scribbled these into my blue notebook. Notes on him. Notes on what happened. I jot down memories so that they are fresh in my mind. I want to remember all of it as I stare at him.
Janice closes the meeting, I close three more claims, time ticks on and the office closes for the day. Leaving is a gauntlet. I dodge drinks by using my appointment as a shield. This is temporary as Marcus and Emmy are persistent people and I won’t have my shield tomorrow. I take the stairs since Steve’s elevator chats always end with me standing in the cold, pretending. Pretending to listen, pretending to care, pretending to be a sociable person. There’s only one person I have time for today.
The bus ride to the correctional facility smells of urine and the screw top rosé that the tweed man drinks from under his ripped jacket. I can see his face reflected in the window as he gazes out into the early dark of December. He is gray hair and blue eyes and sadness. The same eyes my grandfather would never show me. The eyes he would turn to the floor as he held my hand while the lawyers discussed the situation. My parents had been spared. Their suffering was over before mine began.
Scanners and searches and steel and pistachio-tinged florescent lights. Everyone looks sick in here. Everyone is sick in their own way. Some spread the disease and others catch it but we all suffer. Our suffering builds antibodies and those antibodies become our road to health but the suffering always comes first.
I buy one Snickers bar from the vending machine in the waiting room and take a seat. I put the candy in my pocket and take out my blue notebook. One more chance to scratch and bleed. I read and relive as those around me stand and leave as their names are called. A guard opens a door, says my name, and motions me into the visitation room. I hand him the melting candy as I pass and he takes it with a nod.
Inside, the same light burns and the same cement floor sends my footfalls bouncing off of every surface, all of them hard. In here, there’s glass between freedom and confinement. An invisible mass teasing the imprisoned with glimpses of another world, another life.
I look through that invisible mass and into his face. I sit and I stare and I am stone. Only my eyes move. I study him. His smirk cuts, but I bear it. I remember the smirk and what it means but that smirk is on that side of the glass and I am out here. There’s a bruise on his face. I remember bruises. I’m glad he can as well.
Silence is our common thread. Silence and hurt. Silence now and hurt back then. We share our silence once a month. I’m the only person on his visitation list.
I continue to stare though I force myself to blink as often as possible. The air is dry and I cannot tear up. He cannot see me tear up. All he can see is stone. He looks for me though. He looks at me as deeply as I him, trying to find the me he remembers. He always fails.
After five minutes, as is customary, I open my blue notebook and pick up the black plastic phone that hangs from the dividing wall to my right. He follows suit. Then, I read. Then his head falls and his eyes close. His smirk is gone. His wounds opened. His lessons, available to him.
When I’m done, I look to the guard who crosses through a heavy door and walks over to him. Through the glass, I can see the guard place the Snickers bar in front of him. He does not look up and he does not take it. He’s allergic to peanuts.
Suffering makes the man. Suffering makes us whole. Good needs bad. Right needs wrong. Light needs dark. I like it dark.
My apartment is dark when I enter. I own no television. My laptop stays closed. I keep my lights off as I sit in my chair holding my blue notebook to my chest. It’s comfortable. My body is done hurting for the day. My mind though, it prepares for more.
There is darkness without and within. My studio apartment and myself. I need to move. My home, not my body. The streetlights outside are unbearable. The blinds don’t seal at the edges and the reds, yellows and greens infiltrate my curated black.
Inside, inside me, I continue to pick. Each memory, a gash desperately trying to close. I want to heal one day but I don’t want it clean. I need the scar. Scars are reminders of our trauma. They are reminders of the triumph. I long for my triumph but have not earned it. Not yet. There’s still so much work.
I rise, move to the cupboard and eat. Crackers, nuts, no, tuna. Open, drain, eat the flesh from the can. My wounds can be opened but they don’t drain. My wounds are not flesh so I shouldn’t expect any different. One day it will be. One day, I’ll cut and squeeze and find relief from my past. One day I’ll heal. When I’m ready.
Shower, scrub, feel. Brush, breathe, feel.
As head hits pillow, I choose one last hurt. One singular instance of pain to study. We learn from our faults but we can learn from the faults of others as well. Their violence, my enrichment. Their choices, my text book. He owes me that much.
My life will be different once I’ve deciphered my past. My life will be different and my future bright but right now, I need the dark.
J. Rushing, 2nd place
J. Rushing is an American writer whose work blends elements of adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and horror to create worlds that feel as familiar as they do foreign. He is a former teacher who traded the microbreweries and Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest for raclette, chocolate, and the Swiss Alps. He and his wife live in Baden, near Zürich and spend much of their time traveling and immersing themselves in the outdoors.
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