Why Was Your Life Hidden Within the Walls of a Modern American Home? - Edited!
You went missing on July 16th, just two days before your twenty-seventh birthday. Two weeks later, I was standing in the amber glow porchlight of a neglected gable front house, unsure if the key you gave me would fit in the lock.
Three days passed since I crossed through the threshold of that seemingly innocuous front door, and now I am sitting at the small, round breakfast table with my back pressing against the far wall of the cramped, wall-papered kitchen.
I found a box of old photos stashed away under the belly of the bed in the upstairs master bedroom. I’m sorting through them now under the dim light of your old kitchen. I don’t know if you intended for me to find it. I don’t know if you intended for me to be here alone for days, cranky and bored and uncertain. With my back straight against the chair, I sip at a forgotten coffee that had been poured when I first set the box on the table. Cold and bitter. My head aches; a dull pounding above my right eye. I’ve been sorting through this box for hours now—a discolored paper carton, the brand Staples scratched out and replaced with photos underneath in thick black marker. Your life is separated into piles upon this weathered breakfast table. Years sorted with years, and unnamed faces stacked on the edge, teetering, threatening to topple over for as large as the stack has grown. Who are these people, Cass? Why am I finding yellowed photos of you hanging about them, laughing, your arms wrapped around shoulders and waists, kissing and holding hands? Look, before you start, I’m not jealous. Your life outside of me is your own, and I have no right to question it, but why did you never tell me?
Warm tears swell in my eyes, and I blink them away. I stand, scraping the legs of the aged wooden chair against the laminate tile-illusion of a kitchen that hadn’t been renovated since the early eighties. I pour the rest of the cold coffee down the drain, stale mocha lingering on my breath, and watch as the creamy brown liquid splatters against the sides of white porcelain sink. My natural instinct is to wash it out, but I do not. I want the sugar to stain the memories here, the ones you had without me.
There was also a box in the closet of the master bedroom. I didn’t grab it before—my hands were full of the first carton—but I am going to it now, climbing the creaky staircase carpeted with burgundy-colored shag to hide the discoloration of alcohol stains. While the carpet may have hidden splashes of berry-flavored red wines and margarita mixes that we used to sneak and drink on the small roof balcony (hiding from your parents and scolding older brother), it was useless against concealing the musk of dust mites and wet dog. I reach the top of the stairs and place my right hand on the wall, tracing the textured beige paint with my fingertips as I head towards the master bedroom. I dare not look behind me at the room that lay on the left side of the upstairs. The door is cracked open, but I fear that if I go there, if I peak in, that I’ll see you as I always did—sprawled upon your childhood bed. I wonder if your old bedspread is still on it, the sides tucked under the mattress like a hotel bed because your mom had some weird obsession with straight lines and order. Will you be waiting for me as you were before, in knitted crop tops and low-waisted Levi’s? Part of me wanted to turn around, to fling open the door just to see you again, to share myself with you again on that bed, the same place where we shared our first kisses and first touches before we even knew what we were.
I stay my course and open the master bedroom’s closet door. Within the wood-paneled closet—really? Wood-paneling? —I move aside pleather jackets and felt dresses to reveal the carton buried under two sets of Mary-Janes and a fallen turtle-neck sweater. The box is labeled Sera.
Cass, who’s Sera? Were they important to you? They must have been, considering the designated box, but you never told me about them—you never brought them up when we talked about exes—but maybe you did, and I wasn’t listening. I was lost in the sound of your voice, but never in the words you spoke. Did Sera listen to you, Cass? Did they love you?
I tear the lid off, scotch tape ripping down the sides of the weak cardboard construction. There is a photo album on top, pink and gold and frilly—not your style, or I thought wasn’t your style—and miscellaneous objects, miscellaneous junk. I dig through the box, setting the album to the side (I will deal with that later), and I just find shit. Dusty clothes, disfigured origami animals, an orange tabby cat beanie baby, its once-soft fur matted around the sides of its belly, a dead Tamagotchi, and letters. So many folded letters in girlish, bubble pencil, “To Cass.” I open one. A love letter, sickeningly syrupy and gooey like a pack of warm Gushers, the sides of the notebook paper letter is embellished with pink hearts drawn in sparkling gel pen and cat doodles. How cute. How disgustingly cute.
I fold the letter back up and place it into the box with the rest of the senescing junk. Why do you keep any of this? Did you store it and forget about it? Packaging up all of your memories of this person and stashing them away deep into the mess of an old closet of an old house you never planned to revisit. Is that why you sent me here; do you wish to store and forget about me until one day when you’re feeling nostalgic, you can turn the lock on the front door and find my skeletonizing remains sitting on your living room couch? I hope you find my gouged eyes reflecting in the old family tube TV whose wires were long ago chewed by a rodent, a rodent that also chewed the valves of my rotting heart, his tiny furry body stashed away within the closet of my ribcage.
I shove the box away from me and stand, tucking the photo album under my arm to add to the rest of the photos downstairs. I should leave it. It’s probably not worth the heartache. I take it anyway.
Before I head downstairs, I stop and look into the open bathroom on the right, in the middle of the two upstairs bedrooms in the short hallway. I see myself in the gold-rimmed mirror, face dark from the back-lit illumination of the gable-window that overlooks the foyer. I’m a mess—a crying, blotchy mess. For a moment, I don’t recognize myself—the deep brown eyes are not mine, nor is mellow-brown hue and maroon-tinted cheeks. There are bags under my eyes, a gauntness to my structure, and a tiredness down to my bones. I peek at the scar above my right eye for just a small second before feeling like someone else is staring back at me. My heart flutters, sudden anxiety peaking, pulsing through me as I remember the childish tales of Bloody Mary. In a rush, I shut the bathroom door and flee downstairs to the confines of the kitchen. It was silly, I know, but you know I believe demons are real.
The album slips from my hand onto the table as I head to the coffee maker. Still warm. I fill a clean cup and add some sugar and lean my lower back against the countertop, staring at the table. The album calls to me. I can’t pull my eyes from it. Do I really want to know, Cass?
Against my better judgement, the album lid opens under my fingertips. Yellowing photos, some with water stains. Some photos from a Polaroid, some that look like they had been printed from a Walgreens, grainy and blurred. Dates from as early as 1996. Prom. Prom dresses, but you were in a suit. I remember you that night as I watched you—from a distance, I think?—as you busted the stalest, cheesiest moves on the dancefloor in a navy-blue Guess suit and your tawny beige hair slicked back. You wore those stupid gold-rimmed glasses with the red lenses, remember? They fell off during your version of “Hammer Time” and you didn’t stop dancing until you slipped on them, snapping the frames and cracking a lens. You cried in the bathroom for an hour after that. The album also has college photos, ’98 and ’99—first day and last—happy you and happy friends, laughing, smoking joints, playing some sort of lute that I can’t truly identify, open mic night, SNL live shows. You and Sera.
Did you have fun? Did you meet Sera and make new memories as I laid on white polyester sheets? Wrinkle-free, they say, yet my skin still molded into the folds while I was under, barely conscious throughout the days while you were out and about living a life you never really wanted to share with me. I remember this revolving door, Cass, of doctors and nurses. Beeping and scans, white lights and antiseptic mixed with chocolate pudding and little pills. I saw so many pity-filled faces, yet I don’t remember seeing you. Where were you, Cass? And where are you now?
I squint at the blurred faces. Why does Sera look familiar? Did you introduce me to them? They’re with you in every single picture. Yeah, they’re with you in the prom photo under the balloon arch. They’re in a muted, metallic green dress, sheening golden under the floodlights. Golden leaf headband in their dark brown hair, feathery bangs hanging right above bright brown eyes. Golden eyeshadow and body glitter gleaming like metallic sand over a Saharan dessert sunset. They look so... healthy. I can’t help it. My eyes drift to their forehead. No scar. I nod. That’s what I thought. I flip an album page and they're there again with you at college—the two of you posing in front of a boxy black Impala. God, you look so fucking happy.
The coffee mug went bottoms up, attached to my lips, downed. I stare at the white popcorn ceiling as the mug settles back onto the table. My eyes fall to the front door across the way on the left side of the house’s front wall. My eyes drift farther into the open-floor living room, to the bay window and the dingy dog bed. They meet a set of brown eyes staring back at them. I yelp, hand jumping to mouth. My hand falls. It's just me. It’s just a mirror. I thought... I thought I had taken that down? The octagonal one in the living room? Your mom loved that mirror. I took it down the first day I got here, afraid I’d see ghosts behind me by the microwave. I look over myself again. Thin dark brown hair, darker eyes. Golden yellow light shimmers on beading sweat over ochre skin. Pale, muted scar. It’s almost as if it’s gone now. I can barely see it. Premonition bubbles with bile in my stomach.
The photos. I look over them again. Cass, who is this? A doppelgänger? A face-stealer? A Skinwalker? Who am I to you? Did you find a replacement?
No. Fucking hell. Who are you? And who are you to think that you can use me this way? I just want the fucking truth, Cassandra. Why did you go? After all that time, why did I wake to find an envelope on my hospital bedside table with this address on it and the key inside? Why didn’t you tell me anything at all? Who the fuck is Sera?
It needs to come down. Now. I strut across the room and try to tear the mirror off. Digging my fingertips behind the frame, I tug. Black-painted nails snap, peeling back flesh in the process. I scream as sharp pain runs through my knuckles to my wrists. I pull back. Fingers red and bloodied. It must come down. Down. Now. I throw the porcelain coffee mug at the sneering face of the mirror. I shatter it. One throw.
The lights above the breakfast table flicker. I glance over at the five-bulb chandelier, yellow-gold and dust-covered. The lights go off.
Thud. It came from upstairs, from your old bedroom. Like a door slammed. Footsteps. Cass, there are footsteps upstairs. I’ve been alone for three days. Cass, where is Sera now?
It’s echoing now. Down the carpeted steps. Frames on the staircase wall clatter under each step. It’s in the kitchen now, Cass. The chair moves. Then the photos scatter through the air, swiftly off the table, furiously fluttering. Oh, God, Cass. Wailing. It started sobbing. No, maybe that’s me. I can’t tell. Someone’s crying, Cass, and I can’t fucking see. I hear it tearing up the photos. The chair is bumped. The chair is thrown, clattering against the fridge, smashing the coffee pot. It’s screaming. The lights are flickering again, strobing.
I stumble back, slicing my feet on the shattered mirror. I feel the wall behind me and inch towards the front door. Locked. The door is locked. The door is locked. The door is locked. I fall to my knees, trapped. It’s going to get me.
The chandelier bulbs flash; they release a high-pitched buzzing that gets louder and louder, then pop pop pop. Filaments disconnecting. It’s dark again.
Bang. Deafening, I tense, body paralyzed for a moment as my head absorbs a sharp echo of thunder, as lightning illuminates the first floor through the scattered windows. My ears are ringing.
I saw a shadow, Cass. Only for a moment. It was at the table.
In the dark, I feel the pitter-patter of raindrops against the living room windows. The rain is coming in. Slowly, the chandelier light grows from dark to dim, two bulbs survived. The chandelier sways slightly over the table. There’s blood splattered on the window, Cass. The one facing the table. Rain is coming in from shattered parts of window.
There’s a shuffle in the kitchen, Cass. I can’t really see over there. I want to cry. I can’t move. A figure emerges from the kitchen—the shadow—illuminated now by the chandelier. It’s you. It’s you, and you’re crying. You look scared. Do you have the right to cry? To be frightened? Where the fuck have you been?
Before I could unleash the wrath of pent-up questions that boiled inside of me, you extinguish all of that. From wet, red lips you say:
“Sera? You came home.”
I choke on a scoff, “Who’s Sera?”