The ghost of my mother was making it impossible to deal with all of the other ghosts in my life, and after a week my stepfather had refused to do the logical thing and let her go.
His voice stumbled through the door of my bedroom, and I sighed and slid the window closed on the April swelter. The conditioned air of our house cooled the sweat on my skin, and I shivered in relief. As I shrugged my feet out of muddy Converse high-tops, I let them thump to the floor as an answer.
"It's just that..." he started, stopped.
I ducked a low-hanging string as I crossed to the bed and dropped my satchel onto it. The beat-up canvas bag clanked in response, and I winced. Probably hadn't needed the canteen for this short of a trip, and it made a lot of noise against the trowel.
"You should carry a purse, my dear," said my mother's memory. "They come in all sizes. Space for makeup and, what is that, some sort of nail polish remover?"
"Phenolphthalein solution," I had muttered back. "You know I don't wear makeup."
She'd scoffed. "My dear Gwen, I only want what’s best for you. We live in America now, where a little makeup will not kill you, but too little might. You could at least do your nails for your first day of work."
My stepfather continued, "... I miss her. I know you miss her, too."
... she hadn't said that last sentence. My memory was playing tricks. It never played tricks. Well... how long had it been since I'd slept? Thirty-seven hours and forty-three minutes? I blinked, feeling my eyelids scrape over bloodshot eyes. No. Forty-seven minutes.
A subtraction error? I was starting to lose it.
According to a 1998 study by Stanley Coren, sleep deprivation mimics psychosis: distorted perceptions can lead to inappropriate emotional and behavioral responses.
My more prominent ghost's voice was proper and crisp, with a slight tinge of impatience.
“I’m not emotional,” I growled.
There was the sensation of a raised eyebrow from somewhere indistinct over my shoulder. From the other side of the door, my stepfather sighed, and I glared at the indistinct figure flickering at the edges of my consciousness.
“I know, I know. You say that nothing ever bothers you. But Gwen, you haven’t come out of your room since the day before yesterday. I’ve been home! Good grief, kiddo, you’ve got to pee sometime!”
I rolled my eyes at my ghost, who nodded back.
He defuses tension through humor. There was a pause. He is worried about you.
“Opening the door isn’t going to make things any better,” I gestured about the wreck of my room. To the untrained eye it might appear… cluttered.
“I know, I know,” my stepfather answered. “I keep expecting her to stroll in the front door, wearing some sort of expensive new outfit, to laugh it off and say, ‘Oh, Leo, you believed that note?’ But Gwen, it’s been over a week. She’s never been gone this long before. And she’s definitely never left a note. I think…” he choked it off for a moment.
I was only half paying attention. If I’m being honest, a great deal less than half, but it didn’t take that much of my attention to be able to loudly ignore my stepfather’s pity party.
He is trying to comfort you, my ghost scolded.
I pulled a dirt-covered box out of my satchel. Take that, mother. Can you imagine putting something so filthy in anything made by Louis Vuitton?
“You’d be amazed at the sort of filth that finds its way into a woman’s purse,” I remembered her. Her eyebrows had wiggled, and my stomach had followed suit.
Get out of my head, mother. I followed the clues you left. I found the box you buried with dad’s old dog. The grass had grown back over the spot. You’ve been planning this for a long time, mom.
You’ve been abandoning me for, what, weeks? Months? Have you been abandoning me for years, mother?
“I don’t think she’s coming back, Gwen.” The words spilled out of him in a rush, and I could hear him deflate. His shirt hissed in defeat as he slid down the wall next to my door.
A theory worth putting to the test, said my ghost, face blank.
I eased myself down onto the bed, box in my lap. It was wooden, sturdy, simple. My breath caught. I brushed some of the soil off, but I could feel my ghost’s lips purse in disapproval.
You know what this is.
I knew. She’d had this box with her when we left Yemen. Life had been a whirlwind six years ago when Leo had taken us out of the place I was born, where my birth father had died. We’d had so little, but she’d always had the box. When we moved from Sana’a to the hinterlands, traveling with qat merchants by night when it was easier to hear the buzz of the spy planes, she’d had it. When I had met my brother, the box had been nearby. When things got bad and America’s war came too close, we took the box back to Sana’a only to find a changed city, one that now reeked of shit and cholera, with flies tripping over the lips of babies whose hearts had fluttered their last. That box had been with us since there had been an “us”. I’d known that box my whole life.
I had never once seen it opened. There was a small metal clasp on the front. My fingers hesitated over it.
I had tried before to open the box. I was a… difficult child. I had opinions. Few fears. Little respect for authority. In a life with so few things, the box had been an object of curiosity since I was a child. There must have been a hundred nights I had decided, this time I’ll find it!
I never had. She’d hidden it so even her difficult child couldn’t find it. The one time I had ever even seen it, the soot still streaked both our faces as we fled as-Sa’id, and my ears still rung with bomb blasts. She had near-dragged me through the hills, the road distant even by daylight. Tears had streaked my cheeks as I fought to put that place behind us, but my ten-year-old body betrayed my will, and I’d collapsed in the dust, tears and all. Wordlessly, she’d picked me up and cradled me close, carrying me over peak and through valleys as I nodded in and out of consciousness. We’d had no water since that morning when we left.
I woke up to darkness, my mother clutched around me, breath ragged but steady. The box was there, too, sticking up out of the shawl into which she’d wrapped our few worldly possessions and even fewer food stuffs. The metal clasp sparkled in the moonlight.
She was definitely asleep. Carefully, I reached out, inch by inch, determined finally to reveal this secret. After all we’d lost, this was perhaps all I had left.
<<No, my dear,>> she’d said, her dark eyes on mine. <<Not yet. Please. This is not the time. You don’t need it yet.>>
It was the only time she had ever asked me for anything. Looking into her bloodshot eyes, her body pushed beyond the point of exhaustion, I was still a child. I couldn’t give it to her.
<<Why not, mother?>> I’d whispered back in Arabic. <<We’re in the middle of a war with hundreds of miles between us and the city. We have almost no food and no water. You say I don’t need it, but we need everything. Tell me, mother, what do we have that will make the rest possible?>>
<<We have each other, my dear child. Save the box for darker times.>>
My fingers brushed dirt off the clasp. We had made it to Sana’a, and out of Yemen, into a house that was a mansion even by American standards. My stepfather became a Senator, and we moved to a different mansion. Here was the box in front of me. There were no spy planes with their bombs, no soldiers with their guns or their leers. There weren’t even any Beckys with their straw hair and twig waists and pointed smiles.
There was only the box in my lap.
The box, and the thing that was not there. Darker times, indeed.
I unclasped the lid.
The odor was of cigarettes and cloves. I could smell sweat and tears, and some sentimental part of me heard a shrill cry, an infant’s struggle for air and food and warm and soft and need and mother. The paper was yellowed with age, and the pock marks in the paper were the marks of a young woman who had been pushed so far beyond what any woman was capable of, into the realm that all woman could be capable of. She had been crying, and I could detect the barest whiff of iodine and antiseptic.
She wrote this while in a hospital. You had just left her breast, to be attended by nurses. Her fingers trembled with emotion and exertion.
“My dear daughter,” the letter read in English, “this day is inevitable, but I will fight it until you leave me no choice. Know that even still I am fighting. You cannot imagine why, but this is for the best. Know this: you cannot find me. Not even you. But I am still your mother. You still need someone to look after you. Tomorrow. I promise. Tomorrow you will find a guardian. And on the day that you become the guardian, I will return to you. I swear it.”
The letter was signed, “Reem ar-Rahmani (your mother)”.
The postscript read, “You cannot imagine how much I love you.”
Then, “I am so sorry.”
I sat, not breathing. Even my stepfather was silent.
Slowly, I re-creased the letter and slid it back into the box. I put the box back into my satchel, thought better of it, then placed it quietly onto a shelf.
She had been right. I couldn’t imagine why.
She had also been wrong. I didn’t need a guardian. She couldn’t have imagined why. I didn’t need anyone to take care of me.
“Gwen?” my stepfather choked. “Honeycomb, I love you. You’re not alone. It’s the two of us now. I’m not going anywhere. I swear it.”
I swallowed, not that there had been a lump. I blinked, not that there had been tears.
I pulled off my shirt, unclasped my bra. I unbuttoned, slid my jeans down with a shimmy, hooking my underwear along with them. I wrinkled my nose at them. There was a wadded up towel next to my bed that smelled only faintly of mildew.
CLICK, went the door.
Still shrugging my way into the towel, I pushed out into the hall next to my stepfather. He’d hit fifty that year, but could have passed for his late thirties… at least, until last week. Yellow hair that was all his, strong jawline, dark eyes… I remembered when I’d first spotted them back in Sana’a after the last time I’d come close to that box. I’d been holding back the blush of womanhood for some time, but even I could see what my mother had appreciated in his broad shoulders, the way he squared them against the universe. He was doing it even now, from the floor, trying to be strong for me when you had abandoned us.
You, mother, goddamn you.
Stepfather or no, Leo was enough of a man in the presence of an articulated young female to avert his eyes as I secured the towel in place, barely decent even in my own home.
“I need a shower,” I told him as I passed him by.
It wasn't a lie.
But Gwen, it is also not the truth.