They were everywhere. Everywhere, she knew, there were people, and they wanted to hurt her. They hid just out of sight, waiting, ready to come after her the moment she let her guard down. Nobody could be trusted. Of course, she knew if she tried to tell anyone, they’d just laugh it away. They’d go look in the shadows, point behind the bushes and say, “See, there’s nothing there.” But she knew better. She’d seen them slinking under the cover of darkness, dark shapes moving, scuttling around. As soon as she turned to look, they were gone, hiding from her. Hiding in the shadows. Hiding in the trees. Hiding in the bushes, all the time trying to get inside. Sometimes, while she slept, she could hear their scratching, fingernails on her window, trying desperately to get in. Her fingers closed around the cold steel of the gun she kept under her pillow, just in case one of them got in. Without it, she had no doubt that she would succumb to the insanity and terror that was always with her, dancing just outside her consciousness.
There was a knock on her door.
“Aiko, are you in there?” the muffled voice of her mother came through the door. It sounded exhausted, almost mournful. Aiko was silent. A sigh came from the other side of the door, full of hurt and grief and resignation.
“Dinner’s ready if… if you want to come out.” Aiko was still silent.
“We’re having curry tonight. You like curry right?” No response.
“Your father… he made it sweet, just the way you like it.” Nothing. Aiko’s mother sighed.
“You know we love you, right Aiko? Your dad and I… we love you. And we’ll still love you, no matter what. So… if there’s anything you want to talk about then…” She trailed off. She sighed again and spoke, her voice thick with tears just barely held back. “Please Aiko, come out.”
There were a few seconds of silence, and then she could hear the sound of her mother’s footsteps retreating from her door. And although her mother had tried to hide it, she had heard a sob escape her mouth.
“No…” Aiko’s mother tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, but they were quickly replaced. She fell onto the couch next to her husband, leaning against him. The comforting weight of his arms encircled her shoulders, and all the grief she’d been trying to hold at bay suddenly burst out all at once. A sob escaped her lips. It was a terrible sound, full of misery and despair, an expression of hurt so profound words alone could not do it justice. She buried her face in his chest and sobbed and he held her and cried silently over her shoulder.
“She’s dead...! Shuuji, our daughter... is dead! And it’s our fault!” She struggled to talk through the tears and the sobs, drawing breath only to let it out again in a wail of misery.
“No she’s not. She’s very alive in there. And even if she wasn’t, it isn’t your fault, nor mine.”
“She is dead, Shuu, and you know it. Our daughter isn’t in there anymore. Her body eats, breathes, goes to school, but it isn’t her. The Aiko we knew is dead, and she’s not coming back!” Her husband waited patiently until her crying began to subside. She unburied her face and looked up at him.
“Shuuji… what did we do wrong?”
“I don’t think we did anything wrong. You need to stop blaming yourself, Mitsuko. It’s bad habit of yours. I’m sure what’s happening to Aiko is just a phase. It’ll pass if you give it time.” Aiko’s mother nodded, clearly unconvinced.
“She hasn’t been to school in days, she’s not eating, and I can hear her screaming in her sleep at night. I don’t think it’s a phase, Shuu. I think there’s something wrong with her. And if there is, it’s our responsibility as her parents to find out what it is and try our best to help her. I want my daughter back, Shuu. And if there’s any hope of that, I want to do anything and everything in my power to do it.” Shuuji was moved by the determination and passion in his wife’s voice.
“What do you suggest we do then?”
“I’m not sure. But I’ll think of something.”
That night, as Aiko got up to use the bathroom, her foot knocked against something hard. She looked down. A bowl of cold soup had been set in front of her door. Mom left dinner for me…
Picking up the bowl of soup, Aiko proceeded to the bathroom, dumped the soup into the toilet, and flushed. She felt no remorse, no sadness at the sight of the food her mother had set out for her as a way of trying to show her love being washed away in the toilet. Indeed she didn’t feel much of anything.
The empty bowl lay forgotten on the bathroom floor as the person for whom it was intended slept.
“Naire? Are you in there?” Naire heard her mother knock lightly against her door. She didn’t have the energy to get up and go open it. She didn’t have the energy to do anything.
“Your teacher called today. He wanted to know if… if you were going to come to school this week. They’re preparing for the school festival.” Naire hid under her sheets, stripped naked due to the intense heat underneath the covers. She didn’t mind it though. The darkness felt good. It was soothing. Even if she was hot and sweating and disgusting, she was safe. Nobody could touch her while she was under the covers.
“Mom, please. I don’t want to go. Can you just leave me alone for a while. I promise I’ll come out to eat. Just… let me be.” There was silence for a few seconds, then Naire heard the sound of her mother’s feet walking away. Naire felt like crying. She knew how much she was hurting her mother, how selfish she was being. But she just couldn’t bring herself to come out of her room for anything other than food. She could not bring herself to put on that uniform and face the hostility of the students at school. If only I could disappear forever.
This wouldn’t have happened if Fae were still alive. If Fae were still alive, if she still lived in Ireland, if she hadn’t met that boy, maybe she wouldn’t have to suffer like this. But Fae had insisted on moving to America to study. Her parents had discussed it and decided that the entire family should move too, so that Fae wouldn’t feel lonely or homesick (this was her mother’s biggest worry and no amount of arguing from Naire would convince her otherwise). Needless to say, Naire was the only person who had opposed this. Fae had been grateful and Dad… well, Dad just sort of went along with it. Naire could feel the sadness rise up again, the sadness and the anger and the helplessness she’d felt back then when her parents had told her that she was going to move to America, away from her hometown, away from her friends, from everything she knew and loved. She reached her hand out from under the covers, feeling around on her bedside table. After a few seconds, she found what she was looking for, and pulled her hand back in. The metal of the razor blade against her skin felt cold in comparison with the heat she was engulfed in. She pressed down… and stopped. For almost a minute she sat still with the blade pressed against her arm, trembling. It would be so easy. Just pull and… no. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t do it anymore. She took a deep breath and set the blade down beside her. Never again. She had to prove to herself that she could do this, that she could be strong. She looked at her arm. The scars were already starting to fade. Maybe, someday they would be completely gone. Naire looked forward to that day.
As Naire’s mother set the table for dinner, she couldn’t help but remember Leannán. He used to always cook for her while she took care of the children. In fact, he was the one who’d taught her how to cook. It was one of the simplest, yet most important things he’d ever taught her. After he’d gone and died on her, leaving her alone with Naire, she’d needed to learn how to provide for her and Naire. And it was thanks to his lessons on how to cook that she and her daughter weren’t eating reheatable pizzas and convenience store meals. She went to knock on her daughter’s door to tell her that it was time to eat and she needed to come out of that awful cave of hers, but stopped. She could hear heavy breathing behind the door and… crying? Was her daughter crying? Quietly, she opened the door, peering into the darkness. Her daughter sat naked on the edge of the bed, a blade pressed against the inside of her arm. Naire’s mother’s eyes widened.
“Oh my god, Naire! Stop!” She turned on the light and ran for her daughter, taking the razor from her hand and placing it on the bedside table. Her daughter collapsed against her, shaking and crying.
“I’m sorry mom. I’m sorry. I tried not to. But…”
“Shhh. It’s okay. You didn’t. You didn’t do anything. You’re fine.” She stroked Naire’s hair, holding her against her chest. Her daughter’s body shook and she snuggled her face further into her mother’s chest.
“Really?” Her voice was muffled
“I’m not… I’m not hurting you?”
“Of course not. Now come eat. It’s time for dinner. Are you up for it?” Naire smiled.
“Yes. Let me get dressed and I’ll... be right out.”
“So, Aiko, tell me about these… uh… nightmares you’ve been having.” Aiko sat silently on the couch across from the man who was to be her new therapist. He was a thin, balding man with clothes that didn’t fit him very well. He wore small reading glasses in order to see the clipboard he held in front of him. Behind them, his eyes were a light blue color, the color of the sky. Aiko hated everything about him.
“Your mother told me you haven’t come out of your room in two weeks, not even to eat. And she told me that you’ve been having nightmares for several months now.”
Aiko sat for a few minutes, staring at him defiantly. He stared back, seemingly unaffected by her lack of response. Finally, he spoke
“Aiko, I’m here to help you. I don’t know what it is that has happened to you, why you’re having these nightmares. I need you to talk to me, to help me out here. If you don’t talk to me, I can’t do anything for you.”
“You can’t help me anyways. Nobody can.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’ve seen countless people like you. I know how you people think. You don’t give a fuck about me, do you? You just want to collect my mom’s money and pretend to help me. You people are all the same. Claiming to help people yet doing nothing to help. So many people have claimed to be able to help me, and yet here I am not any better than I was last year. Not a single person has been able to do anything for me. You expect me to believe you’ll be any different?” The man was quiet. His blue eyes stared at her with an intensity she was not used to.
“Aiko, you have to understand something. It is not our job to ‘fix’ you. We can talk to you. We can help you, give you a place to talk. We can offer advice and guide you. But it’s ultimately up to you to choose to help yourself.” Aiko raised her head, looking directly into his eyes.
“What do you think I’ve been doing this past year?” Without waiting for a response, Aiko got up off the couch and walked to the door without a word. As she was about to leave, the man called out to her. Aiko paused with her hand on the door handle.
“Find somebody to talk to. If you find somebody you can open up to, you will feel better. I guarantee it. It doesn’t have to be me. It doesn’t even have to be your mother. But find somebody to talk to.” Aiko’s jaw tightened. Without a word, she left the room. Behind her, she heard the man sigh.
“Done already?” asked her mother. Aiko just nodded and walked right past her and out the door to the parking lot. Because her back was turned, she couldn’t see the look of hurt on her mother’s face. She climbed into the back seat of the car and looked out the window. She didn’t look at or talk to her mother the entire half hour ride home. Rather, she thought about the conversation she and her parents had had last night…
“Aiko. Come out of your room. We need to talk to you.” Aiko grudgingly opened her door but didn’t walk through it. If her parents wanted to talk to her, they could do it in here. Her mother sighed, seeming to understand that she wasn’t going to get her daughter to come out and walked into Aiko’s room. It was dark inside and cold; even though it was the middle of December, Aiko had all her windows open. Aiko sat in the only chair, leaving her parents to find the most comfortable place they could on the floor.
“Well? What did you want to tell me.” Aiko aimed her eyes down and to the side, taking care not to look at her parents.
“Aiko we were thinking of… we’re going to take you a therapist. We want to find the best way to help you get over whatever it is that you’re struggling with.” Aiko smirked.
“Well I hope he does better than those other failures you wasted money on.” Her mother flinched at those words.
“I just want to do what’s best for you. And me and your father… don’t know what to do.” Aiko could see her mother visibly shrinking as she spoke. Aiko laughed coldly.
“If you want to do what’s best for me, get out of my fucking life. You think you can do anything for me? You’re fucking wrong.” Her mother was trembling now, her hands squeezing the fabric of her dress so hard her knuckles were turning white.
“I don’t need your help. I don’t need anybody’s help. Now get out of my fucking room, you pathetic excuse for a mother.” Aiko’s mother had started to cry long before her daughter had finished. Her father wrapped his arm around his wife and squeezed.
“Please Aiko, just give it a chance. One session, that’s it. If you never want to go back, you won’t have to. And… we’ll never make you go to another therapist again.”
“Because you don’t want to pay for it?” Her father’s mouth tightened.
“No. Because we want you to be happy. And if giving up on therapy does anything to help, we’ll do it for you.” For the first time, Aiko looked at her father.
“You mean it?”
“Of course. Will you go?”
“I’ll try it. But only once.”
“Now get out.” Aiko pointed towards the open door leading out to the hallway. Her father guided her still-sobbing mother out the door. Aiko closed the door quietly and climbed into bed…
Aiko was out of the car as soon as it pulled into the driveway. Her mother raised a hand to try to stop her, but gave up. It wouldn’t make any difference what she said. Aiko ran straight up to her room, closed the door, and climbed into bed. She was exhausted from going out today. It had been weeks since she’d set foot outside, and the stress of doing something new had taken it’s toll on her mind and body. She rolled over on her side and pulled the covers more tightly around herself. She reached under her pillow to make sure her gun was still there and closed her eyes. Darkness engulfed her, soothed her. She could feel her body relaxing. Maybe she should try it now. Maybe it would be easier now that she was more relaxed. Her hands crept down her stomach, between her legs and stopped, trembling in the air less than a centimeter away from their goal. Slowly, carefully, she extended a finger and stopped again. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She could do this. She could…
Her finger went closer, closer until finally it touched. She bit down on her other hand to calm herself and keep from screaming. She pressed harder, dragging her finger up. Her breath caught in her throat. Fear filled her. No matter how often she did this, she was always reminded of him. The man who had hurt her, who had done this to her. She cursed silently. Over a year later and she couldn’t do this. She gave up, bringing her hands back up to her face, cuddling her gun the way a normal 10 year old would cuddle her stuffed bear. The things were back. She could hear the scratching on her window pane. Aiko squeezed her eyes shut and pulled her knees up to her chest, laying curled up on her side. The scratching grew louder, more insistent. Aiko squeezed the gun more tightly. She’d kill them. If any one of them managed to get inside, she’d kill them. She hated this: this constant fear, this constant feeling that she needed to defend herself against. There was a knock on her door. For a second, Aiko almost pointed the gun at the door, convinced it was one of the People. But then rational thought kicked in, telling her it was just her mother. Aiko relaxed her grip on the gun.
“Aiko? Can I come in?” Aiko didn’t answer, instead covering herself in blankets. Her mother seemed to take the lack of an answer as a “yes”, opening the door and coming inside. At least she didn’t turn on the light.
“Hey there. I just wanted to ask you what you thought about today.” No reply.
“He… seemed nice enough.” Aiko remained silent. Aiko’s mother continued, but in a slightly shakier voice.
“So… do you think you’d… want to go back?” Aiko sat in silence for a while before answering.
“No. I won’t go back.”
“Oh.” Her mother sounded deflated.
“He can’t help me.”
“Yes… okay… well, I guess that’s it. I’m sorry for making you go.” Aiko was silent. Her mother sighed and turned away. Just before she was about to leave, Aiko yelled, “Wait!”
Her mother turned around hopefully. Aiko took a deep breath.
“I… I want to go to school tomorrow.” Her mother’s eyes widened.
“I want to go to school tomorrow.”
“Hey there, it’s Naire. I know we haven’t talked in a while, but I was wondering if… if… ah, goddamnit!” Naire slammed her fist against her desk. It’d been 20 minutes since she’d sat down to practice what she was going to say and she still couldn’t even get through the first sentence. Tears of frustration and anger slid down her face and fell onto her desk, making dark spots where they landed. He was gone. There was no reason for her to want to talk to him, let alone see him anymore. And yet, for some reason, she couldn’t let him go.
“Hey there, it’s Naire. I know we haven’t talked to each other for a while, but I was… was… I… fuck.” She gave up, flopping down on her bed and staring at the ceiling. Her legs dangled off the side and she swung them back and forth, thinking. Maybe she should just call him. Get it over with. Obviously practicing wasn’t doing anything. But what if she tripped up? Naire rolled over on her side, sighing. Why did it have to be this hard? It was just a phone call. She wouldn’t even have to talk face to face with him. She took a deep breath and reached for her phone. Slowly, digit by digit, she typed the phone number she knew all too well. Naire’s finger hovered above the send button for a split second before pressing down. Her hands shook as she brought the phone up to her ear. It didn’t even ring once before she got his voicemail. “This is Alan. I can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave a message and I might call you back.”
There was a beep indicating that it was time to leave a message. Naire took a deep breath, exhaled, and started talking.
“Hey there, it’s Naire. I know it’s been a while since we last spoke, but I was wondering if… if… if it would be okay for us to meet up sometime. There are so many things I want to talk about with you. So, if you get this message… when you get this message, please call me back. I’d love to hear your voice…” Naire clutched the phone to her ear. She needed to hang up soon; she didn’t want to let him hear her cry. She took another deep breath and whispered “I’m sorry” before hanging up. She let the phone drop to the floor. She’d done it. She’d called him. She looked up at the ceiling and laughed. She’s done it. Now all she had to do was wait and see if he’d call back. Her eyes drifted sideways to the school uniform hanging on the wall and made up her mind. If he called back, she’d go back. She’d face the taunts and jeers of her classmates. She wanted so desperately for things to work out again. Maybe if she saw him, even if it was just one more time, maybe she’d be able to make up the things she’d said to him. Maybe he’d find it within himself to apologize. That way, even if they never saw each other again, the bitterness wouldn’t be as strong.
Naire looked to the side, to her bedside table, to the thing on the bedside table. The blade of her razor glinted slightly in the soft light of her room, casting reflected light at the wall opposite it. The bed squeaked as Naire crawled across it to the table, picking up the razor. It sat in her hand, looking both evil and completely innocent, like a child who hurts without malicious intent. For almost 5 minutes she sat there, just looking at the tool in her hand, the blade she used to mutilate her own body. Then, before she lost the will to do so, she got up and threw it away. Never again. She would never do it again. Her scars were almost healed, and she wanted it to stay that way. Even if she was hurting, even if she was sad, she’d find a way to cope without hurting herself.