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Thursday, 13 November 2014 10:22

The Dark Before the Morning by Nancy Vang

The Dark Before the MorningMy hand shakes as I press the cigarette against my lips and inhale. The nicotine seeps into my lungs, my blood, my brain, smoking out the reverberations of a nightmare. My doctor calls it PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, A.K.A. hell. I sigh, and gray swirls stream out of my mouth and dissolve into nothing.

From the edge of the balcony, the darkness saturates the city like a stain until it seems the sun will never touch the surface again. The squeak of a shopping cart brings my attention to the homeless woman down the street. She settles into her usual crevice in the alley with the patience of someone who has nothing to do and nowhere to go. I stole a look at her face a few weeks ago, startled by the faraway look in her eyes like she no longer cared whether people tossed her coins or looks of disgust.

 

 A few stories down, an open window broadcasts a shout and then the crash of glass against a wall. I recognize my neighbor’s voice, the man on the twelfth floor who gives candy to kids but beats his wife behind closed doors. Sometimes I wonder why we try so damn hard to live when living kind of sucks.

I grip the railing and grimace at the discolored, leathery scars twisting around my hands and arms. That’s what second and third degree burns do, make you look like Freddy Krueger. I lean over the edge to stare at the cracked sidewalk twenty stories below. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help imagining the wind slicing across my skin as I shoot through the sky and the obliteration of my bones as I crash into the concrete.

The glass door behind me swooshes open.

“Shit.” I grind out the cigarette.

“Chloe.” Dad blinks at me, scrutinizing my face. "What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

Dad shuffles outside in his slippers and leans casually against the railing, but I can feel the heaviness of his gaze. Dad is one of those parents who doesn’t know whether to be his kid’s father or friend. He always played ‘good cop’ to Mom’s ‘bad cop’ but kind of lost his will to discipline after she died.

“You know,” Dad begins, “I used to sing you a song when you were having a bad day.”

A familiar lullaby echoes in my head, unraveling a spool of happy childhood memories, but I fight to detangle myself from it. “Whatever you do, please don’t sing it.”

"Oh come on, it wasn’t that bad." Dad chuckles, but when he faces the sky, the moonlight reveals a sad, tired face. “Your mom liked it.”

I have a feeling Dad is about to segue into a pep talk about love and loss, so I start inching toward the door.

“Would you be willing to see Dr. Peterson again? It’s been several months since—”

"I’m fine."

Dad rubs his face, and it makes me think he’s wiping tears away. “You will be, but right now—”

“Right now I’m going to bed.”

“Stay.”

“Dad.” I sigh, tired of putting up a front. “What can you possibly say right now to change anything?”

He looks at me then, his eyes serious, and simply repeats, “Stay.”

#

“Go to sleep.”

I turn my head at the sound of a deep, melodic voice. Maxwell lies beside me on the bed with his head resting on the crook of his arm. I’ve been waiting for him and barely breathe in case I scare him away.

“I’m trying,” I whisper.

“Want me to rub your back?”

I shake my head.

“Tell you a story?”

I shake my head again.

Maxwell rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling with an intense, unwavering attention. He’s a pretty boy with tousled hair and hazel eyes, and he has a certain kind of charm that makes people say yes when they mean to say no. But his crooked nose and devil-may-care attitude gives him an edge that drives all the girls at school crazy.

To me he’s more than all that. He’s the one who protects me from school bullies with nothing but a narrowing of his eyes and an arm around my shoulders. He’s the one who sends me funny texts, making me laugh out loud in the middle of class. He’s the one who helps me see the world in beautiful, vibrant colors, because he loves life more than anyone I know.

I turn on my side, tucking my hands under my chin and breathe in his scent. Clean cotton. Sandalwood cologne. Salty skin. I study his silhouette against the glow of the window, the line of his jaw, the curve of his shoulder and resist the urge to touch him, to feel his skin against mine.

Maxwell gives me a sideways glance. “You know what I like most about you?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re not afraid to call me on my bullshit.”

“True.” I scrunch my face at him and shrink back when he motions to poke me in the ribs. “You never told me that before.”

“I’m telling you now.”

“I know, but you never told me that before.”

He shrugs. “Remember that one time at school when we hid in Mrs. Reid’s supply closet?”

“You mean when you pulled me in to steal a kiss?”

Maxwell grins, and I think I can detect pink in his cheeks. “Only we caught her doing the deed with Mr. Tan in the classroom.”

“That wasn’t uncomfortable at all.” I stifle a giggle, so I don’t wake up Dad.

“Not in the least.” Maxwell winks at me. “We were stuck in there for the whole period.”

"I ended up falling asleep.”

“And drooled all over me.”

“I did not.”

“And when—”

“I didn’t drool all over you!”

“Okay, okay, you didn't.” Maxwell holds his hands up in mock surrender. “And when you woke up, remember what you said to me?”

I grow quiet. I focus on the rise and fall of his chest.

“You said, ‘don’t ever let me go.’”

I swallow hard.

He ducks his head to meet my eyes. “And I said, ‘I’ll never let you go.’”

I burst into tears.

“Hey, what’s the matter?”

I squeeze my eyes shut, pressing my face into the pillow. “You’re not real.”

When I open my eyes a moment later, the other side of the bed is empty.

#

I sit on my bed in the dark and gaze at my blurry image on the window pane. At some point after Maxwell died, I stopped brushing my hair, started living in my sweatpants, and cut myself for fun. I look every bit the crazy girl and feel bad Dad has to see me. I certainly hate seeing my own reflection. There was a time when the mirror showed a girl who had her shit together. Except one day I got tired of the goody-two-shoes label and said yes to a college party when I should’ve said no.

The night was a blur of alcohol, but I remember waking up in the car with flames bellowing out the front of the hood and smoke flooding through the vents. I remember seeing Maxwell bloody and unconscious in the passenger seat with the heat melting his leather jacket and thinking he’d be furious about it. I remember the swelling and bubbling of the skin on my hands as I tried to unbuckle his seat belt and drag him out.

A train whistles in the distance.

Half-asleep and half-awake, I move without thinking, pulling on my hoodie and tiptoeing out into the hallway. I pass Dad's bedroom, careful not to step on the loose floorboard, and slip out the front door. It doesn’t take long to ride down the rickety elevator, break out the back entrance, and run through the backyard of trees and overgrown weeds until I reach the train tracks a block away.

There, a beam of light in the dark.

I walk onto the track as if in a trance, my boots crunching over dirt and gravel. I’ve been drowning in a bottomless ocean with no sense of direction or time. But as the light grows bigger and pushes the shadows to the edges, the beat of my heart synchs with the rhythm of the wheels on the track, and…I can breathe again.

Stay.

Dad’s voice startles me as if he’s standing in front of me, shaking my shoulders. I blink a few times but can’t stop picturing the way he looked after mom died, his brown eyes dimmed, his mouth slackened as if he would never smile again. My attention returns to the train, and something crawls in my stomach. I take a step back.

Something cold and damp clutches my hand.

I stare down at the hand on mine before my head snaps up to find Maxwell’s dark eyes boring into me. The train’s light flicks shadows across his face, sharpening his features, making him appear more frightening than I’d like to admit. I know he’s only a figment of my imagination, my doctor calls it a hallucination, but he never touched me before. Partly as a test, I try to pull away. His grip tightens, and I wince as pain spirals up my hand.

"You’re hurting me,” I say. “Let me go.”

“I told you,” he says. “I’ll never let you go.”

I want to assure myself he isn’t real, that he only seems real, because I haven’t been taking my medication. Except he is a solid mass of mist and smoke, radiating a chill that racks my body with shivers, and his eyes hold a depth and determination I couldn't have imagined. The track rumbles under my feet, and I spot the train over his shoulder. I hear a scream, and it takes me a few seconds to realize it’s coming from me.

“Don’t be afraid." He wraps his arms around me, rubbing my back, spreading goose bumps all over my skin. "It’ll be over soon.”

The empty field absorbs my cries until I collapse against him, struggling between desire and fear, fantasy and reality. Then I clench my fists until my nails draw blood, and the sting clears my head. I know Maxwell better than anyone. I know just what to do.

“I wish I hadn’t drank at that stupid party,” I begin, my voice shaking. “I wish I hadn’t started a fight with you and driven off like that."

He draws back to look at me. “None of that matters anymore."

"But if it wasn't for me, you’d be alive right now. You jumped in the car and tried to stop me but—" I lower my head. “I deserve to die, so go ahead and kill me."

“I'm not here to punish you.”

"Then why are you doing this?"

"Isn't this what you wanted?"

"I..." I hesitate. Take a breath. Raise my chin. "No."

"Well that's too bad." The muscle in his jaw tenses. "You're coming with me, you're the only one who can bring me peace."

Peace. The word tugs at something inside me, unveiling an answer I didn't know I was looking for.

"I'm sorry Maxwell, I can't bring you peace. And death wouldn't bring me peace." I peer into his eyes, and it’s like peering into the universe. "I think peace is something we have to find within ourselves."

We stare at each other under the starless sky, surrounded by dead leaves and broken buildings, with a train screeching toward us. I’ve never felt more alive. Maxwell doesn’t say anything, but his eyes are shimmering. The back of his fingers trace the curve of my cheek like he’s memorizing every inch of my face for safe keeping. Then his hand falls away.

And I jump.

I tumble to the ground, my arms and legs flailing. A second later, the train roars past, whistle blaring, engine hissing, and the vibration and heat of it crashes over me in angry waves. I stagger to my feet as the train cars shoot down the track, one after the other. I barely notice the tears burning my eyes or the pebbles imbedded in my hands as I whirl around, searching for him.

Maxwell is gone.

#

I walk home with the moon fading behind me. Before I walk through the door, I smooth my hair and wipe my face even though I know it doesn’t do jack for my appearance. Dad's voice drifts toward me, and I follow it out to the balcony to find him on the phone, his hair disheveled, his back taut.

“Hi, Dad.”

“…file a missing person’s report—” Dad spins around and lets out a breath. “Chloe, thank God. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Dad frowns and tilts his head, probably debating whether to lecture or comfort me. He must see something kind of tragic in my face, because his eyes soften. “Where did you go?”

I face the sky and watch the sun emerge from the horizon, showering gold flecks across the surface of the world. I wrap my arms around my center in an attempt to contain all the pieces of myself and manage a small smile.

“I decided to stay.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Nancy Vang works and writes in Wisconsin where the insanely cold winters give her an excuse to hole up in her apartment, spinning her imagination into stories. She also enjoys normal activities like drinking coffee, going for jogs, and watching Netflix.

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