When my mother left us, I asked my father why she couldn’t come back. He leaned over me and whispered: “She don’t love us anymore.” He smiled, but I could see the sadness in his watery eyes. “She just don’t.” His breath smelled of whiskey and in the low lighting of the room, he looked old and sickly. I became cold and rigid, after hearing his words. I felt empty. He kissed my cheek and left, and soon after, the sound of his sobs seeped through the thin wall that separated us.
Three months later he announced that his great aunt, who had no children, had died, and he had inherited her old beach house. My sisters both began to cry; they didn’t want to leave their friends behind. And slowly I realized what moving meant. How it meant I had to leave the house in which my mother had raised us. All my memories of her would slowly leave me. I could never again look at the back deck and think of when I painted it with her, never again look at the door and remember her holding me after it closed on my fingers, never again look at the mirror in her bathroom and imagine her smiling back at me in the glass, hairbrush in hand. So I left the room, and I crawled into my bed, and I cried, but I tried my best not to make a sound. I wanted the Earth to swallow me up and the world to forget I existed.
Dad didn’t care. We moved, and for months I couldn’t forgive him. I stopped talking in an attempt to punish him for what he had done to us. For fifty-three days I didn’t say a word. I drew out plans to run away, and live freely, relieved of all my troubles. I wrote stories of a young girl who fell off a boat and realized she could breathe underwater. She found her mother, a beautiful mermaid, and she lived alone with her, deep in the depths.
But my mother was no mermaid.
Dad couldn’t afford a psychologist, so he begged. His begging eventually evolved into punishment. But he soon realized he had nothing to take from me.
The school would hand me detention after detention, for refusing to answer questions, until finally they suspended me for insubordination. Dad had to work, so for four days I was home alone.
On the third day, the phone rang. Not many people knew our new phone number. The caller began to speak immediately after I answered, “I know you told me I shouldn’t call, and I know I fucked everything up, and I’m so, so sorry, dear God, I’m so sorry, but you have to forgive me baby, please–”
There was a long silence.
Then she hung up.
That was the first word I’d spoken since we moved. I was glad my mother was the only one to hear it.
I ended my mute phase after that. I’d grown out of it.
She died a few months after that call. Dad wouldn’t tell me how. He wouldn’t let us go to the funeral.
Guilt clung to my back for a long while, hanging on my shoulders with its claws deep in my flesh.
Every night, whenever I reached that state of mind in which I was neither fully awake nor fully asleep, I’d sneak outside and visit the fairies that lived in the leafless trees of our backyard. I would lay down in the sand, and face the sea, and they would come and dance on my shoulder and my side. I’d wake up in bed the next morning, with sand still in my hair.
Sometimes I would rub my eyes, and the fairies would transform into clueless lightning bugs, flying aimlessly in the cold night air. They were trying to hide themselves from my conscious state of mind.
Some days of the week, I’d remain in that state between sleep and wake, even while I drew, or studied, or chatted with my teachers, and the only thing that’d wake me up was a good night’s sleep. I feared that one day the sleep wouldn’t be enough, and I’d be stuck in some kind of perpetual limbo, never to be fully conscious again.
I became obsessed with my mother. I felt I had to learn how she died, why she died, where she died. If I was at fault for her death. I wished I could talk to her. Every night I prayed to God to let me speak with her again, a full conversation, one that started and ended with happiness and love. But God stopped listening to my prayers after a while.
I felt entirely hollow, as I had that night the year before. I spent my days sitting on my bed, facing the wall, thinking of different stories and narratives and characters to keep me company. My body grew smaller; food all tasted the same. It was all the same, and I was stagnant, like a festering body of water.
I spent my nights on the beach.
Her name was Frances. Dad wouldn’t tell me her maiden name.
Like my spoken word strike, my search for answers ended abruptly, when I no longer had the energy to search for her ghost. But she never stopped haunting me.
The fairies danced on my shoulder, I laid in the sand. I watched the ocean. A figure rose silently from the water. The moonlight bathed her silky skin. Slowly she walked to my body. She wore a long white dress, unsullied by the sea’s predative waters. I watched from outside myself as she bent over and dragged a ghostly hand along my cheek. She walked around me with great caution, then lay down behind me, her body against mine. I closed my eyes.
These nights, I could not tell where the sky began and the sea ended.
When I woke the next morning, tears stained my white sheets. I realized that I no longer felt isolated. I felt whole again.
Years later, when the fireflies were no longer fairies, and the sand was no longer cushion, I looked through an old family album. By this time, Dad had died, my sisters had married good-looking men, and I had started college.
I recognized my mother, not from my early childhood, but instead from the night she had taken everything undesirable from my mind.
I drove back to the house I grew up in, the summer before my senior year in college. Someone had repainted the back deck, but the house did not belong to anyone. I let my fingers graze the door, let my mind wander in the old bathroom mirror.
I took this trip alone, as I felt that going with someone else would ruin the sanctity of the experience. I felt that no one could understand how much these hallowed buildings had meant to me.
Night arrived once I reached the beach house, and the moon colored the sand blue. After I moved out, my oldest sister sold it as a vacation home to a wealthy family in New England, and split the money between the three of us.
The home was empty.
I went out back and lay down. I closed my eyes and let the tears drift quietly down my cheeks. It felt as if my youth was ending. I didn’t want to move on, I didn’t want to leave the fragmented memories of my mother behind. I wanted her ghost back.
So the fairies danced on my shoulder.
Slowly, they healed the scars my guilt had left behind.
And I was at peace.
Max is a senior at Pope High School in Marietta, Georgia. He likes to spend his time reading, listening to music, watching an ungodly amount of Netflix, drawing, and writing novels he’ll probably never finish. This is his first time being published.