2015: The Year That Kicked My Ass (And I Kicked Back)

2015 wasn't the easiest of years for me. 

It was a sentiment I heard echoed by many of my loved ones; it seemed to be a rough year for many. I said often throughout the year that I couldn't wait to turn the page on 2015, that I hoped 2016 was far better.

But in hindsight, I realize that 2015 wasn't a bad year, necessarily, just a difficult one. There were many painful, difficult moments, and many downs. But every difficult moment also came with massive growth and opportunity. Every down came with a complementary up. In the end, 2015 might have ended up being the most important year of my life so far without me even realizing it.

My grandfather set the tone by dying on New Years after a brief and losing battle with cancer. And my grandmother picked up where her husband left off, passing away in October after a years-long decline. 

Yet, the day after my grandfather passed away, my sister learned she was pregnant with her second child. And in May, my youngest sister birthed my first bouncing, baby nephew. In September, that second child for my middle sister, her first son, was born. Two left our family, two who had lived long, full, complex lives. But two more entered, bringing with them the hope and promise that can only be found in the blank slates of brand-new lives not yet lived. 

I was home in October to meet those nephews for the first time, and I just returned from spending two weeks at home for the holidays. And while kids are not for me at this particular point in my life, I absolutely love being an aunt. It fills me with joy to look at them, just starting to experience this business of being alive, and wonder who they'll be. Will they be as kind and smart and sweet as my niece, who turned 7 this year? Will the three of them go on to do amazing things, grand, wonderful,  world-changing things? Or will they lead simple and quiet and good-hearted lives? Or will they do something else altogether? The possibilities are endless and I'm excited to see where life takes them, my little peanuts, the apples of my eye. 

Right after my grandfather's passing, my dad went in for some tests because he just wasn't feeling right, and the results came back: Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Stage 3 to be exact. In typical fashion, my dad, possibly the most stoic human being I've ever known, simply shrugged and said, "Okay. Just tell us what the next step is." 

The next step, as it turned out, was a months-long regimen of hardcore chemo that made him lose his hair and his beard. To put that into context, I have never in my life seen my dad without a beard. Not once. When I went home in October, he was bald as my baby nephew, with nothing but peach fuzz on his head and face. It was jarring. And the chemo tired him out, but worse, it left him with a debilitating case of neuropathy in his extremities that makes his hands and feet alternately go numb and feel like they're on fire. 

Except it's my dad - "debilitating" isn't in his vocabulary. Even in the middle of his chemo, he never missed a day of work running the construction business he owns, save for once when a fever spiked so high that he was delirious. Even then, he kept trying to get out of his hospital bed because in his mind, he didn't have time for that shit. If anyone ever wonders why I generally tend to treat my getting sick or injured with the "walk it off" philosophy, look no further than my dad. 

But on Tuesday, all that poison being pumped into his body finally paid off: He went in for his 3-month post-chemo bloodwork and scan and the results came back: 100% clear and cancer-free. While he'll have to return every 6 months for the next 3 years to continue to get follow-up bloodwork, the fact is that, save for the persistent neuropathy, his hair and beard are back (hair, darker and straighter; beard, grayer), and my dad is going to hopefully be around for a long time. 

Shout-out here to Dr. Lim and the team at UPMC Shadyside for their brilliance and compassion, and to Mario Lemieux's generosity and philanthropy to the city of Pittsburgh, without which the groundbreaking Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers would never have been built. 

Still, the hits kept coming. One of my best friends and former roommate at the time, more like another little sister, really, went into massive kidney failure and had to start dialysis, which made her sicker than a dog and wiped her out. And just after that, she got into a car accident and shattered the bones in her right arm. Having to relearn how to use her hand was added to her already crushing medical news. It was hard as her friend to witness, harder for her to live through it.

And I watched other friends make mistakes this year, both personally and professionally, that I couldn't fix. Mistakes that frustrated me to no end because all I wanted to do was shake them and say, "You're better than this! How can you not see that you're better than this?!" Mistakes and decisions and actions that hurt both them and me. 

But I also grew from it, and so did they. 

I broke up with my boyfriend in September, but it was the most amicable, adult, mutually respectful breakup I've ever had. The night we broke up, though I knew it was the right thing to do, I was a crying mess. After a few moments of awkward silence, I finally asked him, "What are you thinking? Say something."

"I'm thinking I'm proud of you. That took a lot of guts to admit those flaws about yourself...and to be honest with me about mine. Thank you."

In the end, we hugged and laughed and it was sad...but it was also okay. I may have lost a lover, but I gained a great friend who supports me no matter what, and me him. 

I dated for awhile after that. I had some great dates, some hilariously bad ones, and some potentially good things that didn't work out. I made a point to know what I wanted in a partner, what I wouldn't put up with, and to stick to my guns on both. And eventually, I lost interest in dating altogether, because right now, it's just not a priority. I'm open to it, but not seeking it out, and that's just fine by me at this moment. 

Because there weren't just changes in my personal life, either. My professional life experienced massive growth and upheaval. In October, my boss sat me down and informed me that with the new round of investment, they were going over the budget and everyone's job roles, and honestly, they weren't entirely sure what to do with me. Editor-in-Chief was a title I'd been handed, but not really one I ever truly got to live, as the structure of our company didn't really allow for it. Not truly what an EIC does, anyway. 

So the choice was presented to me: Accept a title change to editor-at-large, a role that was more suited to my strengths...and also accept a massive pay cut. Or take a month to find a new job, if that's what I wanted. It was very fair in how it was handled, but still, living in LA is not cheap and it came as a shock and with more than a bit of temporary panic.

In the end, I accepted the new role and pay cut with one caveat: That I'd be able to freelance for other outlets, as well. 

I put the word out there to my colleagues that I was still with my current job, but was open to other opportunities, and I was gratified that offers came in. Because of this, I can now say that I work for Marvel - MARVEL! - company of my dreams, as a freelancer on their site. I have also been able to participate in the amazing community at Film School Rejects, full of fans and exceptionally smart, talented writers. I got to see my byline and article published in Birth.Movies.Death's gorgeous, special edition print magazine for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and will continue to be part of it in 2016. I published my first article for Forbes, prestigious publication that it is, and will be a regular contributor from now on. And still, there are other opportunities out there. 

I may not be making nearly as much money as I once did, and yes, I sometimes lie awake at night worrying about finances, but at this point, I think that's part of the American condition. In return, I've gained a new audience, have gotten to flex my creative muscles, and have started to build more of an established name for myself in the entertainment journalism industry that I am sometimes still shocked I'm allowed to be a part of. Every time a colleague I respect shares one of my pieces or I get great feedback on something I've written, it humbles me. I'm just a girl who fell ass-backward into this job and still has everything to learn about it.

Yet 2015 was also the year that I started taking myself seriously. I slowly shed that starry-eyed girl demeanor and while I'm still so grateful for what I do, I also know now that I do it well. At least, better than many out there, well enough to make a living doing what I love, which is more than many can say. I look at most of what I write and think it's sloppy, know I could do better...but at the end of the day, at the end of the year, I can look at myself and go, think, You know, I--I'm pretty damn good at this. 

And I expanded professionally in other ways, too. I spoke on my second panel at New York Comic Con to a completely packed house, lucky enough to share the stage with five other amazing, talented women as the moderator of an insightful hour that left people inspired and buzzing. 

I wrote a pilot script with an exceptionally talented friend and I learned a lot from him in the process. While it hasn't been picked up anywhere - yet - it's still something I'm proud of and that we'll both continue to tinker with and put out there until all options are exhausted. What started as a running joke on Twitter turned into a new friendship and a learning experience for which I am so thankful. 

I was quoted in and contributed to other outlets and events as a professional, an expert. I was asked to be the guest in various podcasts, both live and otherwise. 

I met some truly amazing people thanks mostly to social media. Whether personally or professionally, so many people I've met this year fill me with awe. They are goddamn inspiring and I've learned so much from them all, whether they even realize it or not.

I had one of the best times of my life at San Diego Comic-Con and got to interview some incredible people. And I capped it off with one of the wildest, most fun nights of my life with friends old and new, and while the wheels drunkenly fell off, it turned into one of those crazy stories I'll tell forever.

I started a weekly show on Periscope through Parachute TV, the Marvel Universe Roundup. And while I am still new to it and my audience isn't yet that large, it's still something that I couldn't have foreseen myself doing a few years ago. 

The opportunities have continued to grow for me at my main job, as well. With the role change, I've been allowed to do what I do best - be creative and write. To that end, I can say that I have directly helped our sales and PR teams with their goals, I've been published in our digital magazine, my bosses have given me praise for what I've done, rare from them and great to hear.

I've accomplished things that I originally had no idea how I'd even begin to accomplish when I started them. And the reason for that is that I'm finally starting to know my worth. To know it as a friend, what I will and won't put up with. To know it as a woman, the kind of man I want and the relationship I deserve. To know it professionally, that I am at the point where I can say I won't write for free, where I know that I know damn well what I can bring to the table for anyone with whom I choose to work. To know it of my past, finally putting old, vicious demons to bed in both head and heart. And to know it of my future, what I'm capable of and who and where I want to be by the end of 2016.

Looking back, I can say that 2015 was the most challenging year of my life, but I'm more fulfilled than I've ever been. For once, I'm actually proud of myself and what I've achieved. 

As the Ninth Doctor said just before he regenerated: "Rose, before I go, I just want to tell you - you were fantastic, absolutely fantastic. And you know what?"

"So was I."

A Paean to My Friends

When I was in college, I used to make a habit of taking the time to write blog posts about individual friends, celebrating and praising them at a time that I loved one or the other particularly fiercely or when one needed to hear it most. But over the years, as time, and distance, and the priority shift of adulthood took over, I stopped doing that. On my drive home tonight (because driving always seems to put me in an introspective mood), it occurred to me that I should resurrect that tradition and make a point to let my friends know more often how much they matter to me. 

For the last few weeks, I have been dealing with a lot. Months actually, if I'm being honest. Most of it personal, some of it professional, and much of it the hard, scary work of finally addressing and putting to bed some of those darkest demons, the ones that have made me, I admit now, less than I could be. Old scars and new wounds. Old fears and new worries. It has been...a hell of a year, and while some of it has been good, much of it has been bad or life crossroads sort of moments. And in the past few weeks, it's all come to a head. 

My family is, and will always be, my first and most stalwart support system. But I live 3,000 miles away from my family and have for quite some time, and it is not always easy to pour out the hurts or fears or frustrations of the moment with a three-hour time difference. In their immediacy, my friends have become my support network, my sounding board, my life raft. My family, extended. 

This is for you, my friends who keep my world turning when it doesn't want to spin. 

Thank you. 

Just...thank you. 

I am loving. I am supportive. I am loyal beyond reason, and will fight like a tiger to protect my loved ones from hurt. 

But I know that I am also difficult, prickly, and often unyielding. I demand a standard of others that they sometimes can't live up to, the same insane standard I set for myself. I am calm and rational and understanding, and then at the worst possible moment, my insecurities will make me lash out with a venomous sting when I have been hurt. I am not for nothing a Scorpio, after all. I want so much for the people I love that I grow controlling and inflexible when I see them acting in ways that hurt themselves, damage their lives, or diminish who they are. I want so much for them to see themselves as I see them that I grow desperate in my frustration to help them stop tearing themselves down, rather than having the faith to let go and let them figure it out for themselves - even if I have to watch them walk through Hell and back. 

And the most miraculous thing to me, the most miraculous thing, is that just as I love you and see only your brilliance and best aspects when you can not see them in yourselves, you do the same of me. When I am doing and being all of the above and loathing myself for it, you take it in stride because you see all of me, not just the facet I am showing at the time.

You are all brilliant. You are beautiful. You live your lives in ways that leave me breathless with awe, and humble me completely. You are all fearless and brave and bold in your own ways. You are miracles, and every single one of you - every single one - is unique and rare and so wholly your own person. I could walk across the world a thousand times, and I would not find a person quite like each one of you, my inner circle, the people of my heart, my tribe. You are that vibrant and rare. Know that to me, you burn and you shine and you matter. You matter. You surprise me endlessly, and continually teach me what it means to be uncommon, to be brave, to be wiser, to be better

I have watched as you have each gone through...so, so much more pain than I could ever imagine enduring. Be it your darkest days, your hardest loss, the depths of the most primal grief, illnesses and disease that would strip me of my humanity, you only show me what it is to be human. I have watched you handle the worst things life could possibly throw at you with smiles, and while I'm sure I would only grow bitter and lash out, you humble me with your ever-boundless capacities for patience and selflessness. On your worst days, you have still carved out a small place in your own pain to let me pour out my petty hurts and complaints. You are all so strong that you make me stronger, just by being around you. You are each so much more than I am. You are the best of me. You have made the best of me. You inspire me each and every day to be more than who I am, simply so I can live up to the example you don't even realize you set. 

You have each, in your own way, healed me and helped me and kept me together this year when I felt the core of me starting to fray. But I have no gold to give, no statues to erect, no parades to throw. All I have is the only thing I've ever had to give, the greatest gift of mine as my only gift to you, my words. 

To my friends...

Thank you. 

You are my heart. 

Raw

That truly sucked to write. Normally, writing is a cathartic release, like pricking a wound full of poison to let it drain.

That was more like dragging myself naked over rough stones and thorns a bit at a time until I was scraped raw. Every word hurt. 

But it needed to be told. So I told it. 

What The Eye Never Sees - Part III

I was the one that kept him fighting. 

No, that's unfair. He fought every single day. He was, and continues to be, one of the strongest men I know. 

His fight within was simply to survive. I kept pushing him to thrive. The problem was, I was unable to fully understand that wasn't possible for him, not as he was. I had hoped that unburdening himself of his past and his father's death would release something inside of him, that that was the closure he needed to grow out of the depression. 

But that only happens in the movies. What we've been shown in movies and TV is a far cry to the reality of living with mental illness, or of loving someone with it. There is no magic bullet for depression, no miraculous epiphany to be reached that would change everything, no turning point. And, the thing that hurt the most: No matter how much I loved him, it wasn't enough to make him happy. 

I tried to understand, every day I tried. But how could I, really? There is no way to understand true, clinical depression, anxiety, schizotypal disorder, unless you've lived them. 

I got frustrated. Couldn't you just-- I wondered. But no, he couldn't just. He couldn't even begin to. And then the second, deeper hurt started to twist its tendrils into my heart: While I'd accepted my love wouldn't be enough to heal him, I at least thought his love for me would be enough to make him take a step, any step, toward climbing toward the light again.

It wasn't. 

"Allie," he asked me one day as we sat on the bed talking. "You do realize that this could be terminal, right?"

"What?" I asked.

"Has it ever occurred to you," he said calmly, "that depression might be terminal?" 

"What are you saying?" I asked him, grappling with the fear rising up within, trying to choke me. 

"I'm saying," he continued in that same matter-of-fact, tired voice, as if he were talking to a child who couldn't understand, "that I have fought this all my life. I have been on every medication. I have seen countless doctors. I have exercised. I have meditated. I have tried everything. And I just keep getting worse. I don't see a way out of this."

He paused.

"Except for one." 

He motioned to the nightstand where he had a handgun tucked away. 

I mutely started shaking my head. No, no, no, no, nonononononono. 

He shrugged bleakly. "No one understands, Allie. Because no one can see it. If I had a heart condition and couldn't do physical activity because of it, people would understand. If I had a broken leg and couldn't run, people would understand. If I had cancer and felt so awful and weak that I couldn't get out of bed for days at a time, people would understand. But depression is what the eye never sees. No one can see this. No one." 

"I see it every day," I said softly, looking down at the bedspread. 

He squeezed my hand. "No," he said gently. "You really don't." 

About a week later was the first time I came home from work to find him sitting on the bed, staring at the gun in his hand. I rushed over, my heart in my throat, in my head, exploded in fear. 

"Whatareyoudoing?" I asked him, so frantic it came out as one word.

"I'm fine, Allie," he said, letting go of the gun with one hand and holding out arm to pull me close. "I know it will sound weird - and probably scare you - but sometimes, when I'm having a really bad day, it actually makes me feel better to hold it. Just to know that there's an out, if I ever truly needed it." 

I stared at the gun in his hand, mute, while so many thoughts swirled through my head. What was there to say? What could I say? Scold him and tell him to promise never to do something to hurt himself? If he really wanted to do it, it would have been an empty promise and we both knew it. Tell him how much I loved him? He knew that, too. Just that morning, we'd hidden little love notes to each other in the house before I left for work. Tell him I understood? But I couldn't say that, not ever, saying that would have been to tell him it was okay, that he had my blessing, that I'd given up the fight. And I never would. 

I settled for pulling the gun out of his hand silently and setting it on the nightstand, then climbing into his lap and nuzzling my nose and lips into his neck, breathing him in, letting him know I was there, that I loved him, that I would always love him. 

But the thing nobody ever tells you is that sometimes, love just isn't enough. 

After that day, I carefully brought up the idea of, if he ever hit rock bottom, having him committed. "Just--just to--to get you help. To--until you're...okay again..." I trailed off lamely. We both knew "okay" was a relative term for him. 

He looked me dead in the eye. "One of the few things I have left is my freedom. Without that, I have nothing. If you ever make the call to have me committed, I will kill myself before they can take me away." 

I didn't bother to point out that he had me. It hurt too much that it hadn't even been a consideration.

I pondered taking the guns away from him. But going to the range was one of the few activities he still could bring himself to do and still enjoyed, liberal as he was. Even as depressed as he was, he was the most responsible gun owner I'd ever known. And I knew that if I took his guns away, took away one of the last few pleasures he had in his life, that would be the end of us. If I tried to have him committed, that would be the end of us. 

And at the moment, I was the only one who was there for him every single day. His mother, while loving and desperate to help, lived a few counties over. His best friend lived even further away. 

I'm not sure I can describe, exactly, what it feels like to pause before you walk into your apartment after work, forehead leaning on the door, hand resting on the knob, swallowing your fear, your nerves, working up your courage to walk inside. To pause because you genuinely aren't sure what you'll find. If he'll be there, safe...or if you'll find a goodbye note. To have a moment where the thought crosses your mind: I'm not actually positive when I come home anymore whether or not I'll find my boyfriend alive. I'm not sure I can describe the helpless, hopeless, how-did-we-get-so-trapped-and-how-did-we-get-here feeling at that moment as your head rests against the wood and you think, just for a split second, about leaving. And then the overwhelming guilt. 

I don't know exactly when it was, but I spoke with a friend, a nurse who worked in the mental health field, about NAMI and finding him help. She gently suggested that I, too, seek counseling.

"But I don't need counseling!" I was surprised. 

"Most people don't understand how much of a toll it takes on them to be a caregiver. Whether it's a terminal illness, or a clinical mental illness, it sometimes takes almost as much of a toll on the partner as it does on the sufferer." 

"I--I'll think about it." I said. But I already knew I wouldn't seek help. I was supposed to be the strong one. I was supposed to be the one who had it together for the both of us. He was to be the churning sea, me, the steady rock upon which he broke. I could not not handle handling him. It was not about me; it had to be about him, because his issues, his illness, eclipsed all. 

But if I were being honest with myself just then, I'd have admitted that some cracks had started to chip away at my armor. I was a little less bright, a lot less joyful, much more dim. I was hesitant and insecure in some ways that I had never been, his constant, unintentional undermining of my self-worth happening in such gradual, incremental amounts that I didn't even recognize it for what it was. Neither of us did.

I wasn't perfect, either. Far from it. As the burden of trying to hold both of us up and frantically patch our holes got heavier and ever harder to bear, I started lashing out. Never directly, but I found myself getting passive-aggressive with him, or losing my patience when we had the same conversation for what felt like the 876th time and he still refused to try. 

We chipped away at each other until we loved one another more than we ever had, but underneath that love was something rotten and resentful and bitter as copper pennies. He loved me, but he was slowly killing me inside. I loved him, but my resentment burned him through. Mental illness is toxic. It's acid. It corrodes everything it touches, given enough time and proximity. 

I got a job offer that involved me going to Berlin for a while. It was a dream job, the opportunity of a lifetime. I really, really wanted to say yes. But I asked him, first. He wasn't comfortable or thrilled with the idea, but he didn't forbid me. 

So I said yes. It was indeed a dream job, but deep-down, I also was relieved to be getting away from him. From the oppressive sadness and silence, from the way that silence was filled with all the things we could no longer say to one another. I hoped that some time apart would help each of us to grow, to be better, stronger, to find ourselves. I saw it as a good opportunity for both of us, both as individuals and as a couple.

He, however, did not. I found out after the fact that he hated the idea of me leaving, that he hated that I said yes, that he hated being apart, that he hated the thought of a long-distance relationship, that he hated the thought of having to deal with his demons alone, that he hated feeling like I'd run out on us. 

And maybe I hated me a bit for running out on us, too. And maybe he never told me these things because the only way he could truly show how much he loved me, how much he understood, was to let me go. 

We stayed together through the distance and came back to each other. We were ecstatic to be together again; we promised that it would be different, that we'd start anew, that we'd talk things out. And it worked for a while, really, it did. 

But again, mental illness doesn't behave like it does in the movies. His depression wasn't gone; it had just gotten temporarily overshadowed by our happiness at being back together. If anything, his demons had an even stronger hold on him than before. And so did my resentment. It lasted only four months after I returned. 

Eventually, our foundation, eaten through, gave way. 

After months of being separated by half a world, months of me having a 2-hour daily commute each way, eating into our time together, of the three and a half years of hurts and illness and desperation, it came to a head. We had a blowout fight late one Thursday night, and he said the thing, the one thing of all the things he'd said over the years, that I couldn't get past. 

"We were a mistake," he finally snapped, rounding on me to look at me for the first time since we'd started fighting.  

I stopped mid-sentence, the wind gone completely out of my sails. "A mistake?" I asked, stunned. "Three and a half years and I was a mistake?" 

"Yes." His jaw ground in the way it did when a particularly bad headache was coming on, when he was saying something he was loathe to voice. "You...were a mistake." 

"I see..." I whispered. I felt a yawning chasm open somewhere inside me between us. This is the thing I can't get past; this is the thing he can never unsay; this is the thing I can never unhear. 

"And," he continued, on a roll now, "I've been doing an awful lot of thinking about why I'm not getting better. Why this depression has lasted longer than any of my other depressive spells. And the only thing I can possibly think of is that it's you. You make me worse. You're the reason I can't get better." 

Something inside me broke and gave way then. I made a noise that had no name. It was the best I could manage, suddenly being without breath. 

You make me worse.

He stared at me as soon as the words came out of his mouth, surprise and anger all over his face. That handsome, exotically carved face that broke my heart. 

You're the reason I can't get better. 

That night, long after he had shut himself in the bedroom and gone to sleep, I sat on the couch, catatonic with grief. I didn't sleep. I didn't move. I didn't even cry. I barely even blinked. I just sat there through the night, staring and still as a stone, locked so tightly in my shock and grief that I was rigid. He doesn't love me anymore he doesn't love me anymore he doesn't love me anymore he doesn't love me anymore echoed over and over again in my head, the soundtrack to the longest, most miserable night I've ever spent. 

But that's the thing I learned, after some time and some distance: He had loved me. Deeply and fiercely, he had loved me. He had still loved me even when he was saying the words that broke us. But he didn't have the capacity to keep showing me that love in the way I needed, he didn't have the strength to put himself back together again while worrying about me.  

I don't know how he is. We've not spoken since I moved out well over a year ago. I tried to contact him, twice - he never responded. I don't know if he's gotten better. I hope he has. He deserves to be happy. He deserves to be whole. The world deserves for him to be.

But I simply don't know. Because that's what mental illness does. It gives no answers, only takes. I've had to forge my own answers. And there are a few things I know now: 

One, if you're ever in a relationship with someone suffering from a mental illness, it will affect you just as much as it affects them. Have a support system. Talk to a professional. Don't shoulder the burden alone and without the right tools to deal. 

Two, people who commit suicide are not selfish. They are not weak. On the contrary, they are, quietly, probably some of the strongest people you've ever known, because they've been fighting against their head going under the water for months, if not years. Sometimes, they make it to the other shore. Sometimes, they drown. And you can't blame them for it any more than you can blame a swimmer's lungs for giving out or their muscles for not being able to make one more stroke. 

Three, our mental health care system is appalling. There's just too much we don't know, too much confusion about how and where to find support, too hard to get financial help, too hard to be taken seriously, too many people who will look at someone silently drowning and say, "You don't look like you're sick." 

Four, you may not believe in depression or certain other mental illnesses. That's fine. You don't have to. They exist with or without your belief. But for someone not waving, but drowning, telling them the problem is all in their head and not real is the worst thing you can say. So please, do them and yourself a favor and just shut up. Really. 

Five, someone suffering mental illness, however, is not an excuse for you to put up with being treated badly. It is, of course, always up to each of us to determine what we will and will not stand for, but if the relationship is bringing you more misery than joy, it's time to get out. And you shouldn't feel guilty for it. 

Six, and this is important. Learn to forgive. Forgive them, and forgive yourself. You could be bitter and hate. Choose instead to love and grow. 

Because if you can learn that and accept it after losing yourself, eventually, you'll find your way back again. 

 

What The Eye Never Sees - Part II

And so, I settled into my new life in Southern California. I lived with two dear friends at the time, a married couple, not with my boyfriend - I wasn't that foolhardy and impulsive, as it turned out. I spent every weekend and some weeknights at his place, but there was something deep inside of me that somehow knew that moving in together so soon would be a disaster. Not for me, but for him - he needed his space, and I knew that knocking him off his routine would make his anxiety skyrocket. 

But some things are inevitable when you're in love; we eternally move toward the next step whether we want to or not. And so, about a year after we started dating, I moved in with him and we began the next step of our life as a serious couple.

And it was wonderful. It was. "You are beautiful, Allie," he'd say out of the blue as he watched me from across the room, the only one to ever call me that, the only one to instinctively know that in my heart, I'd always preferred that shortening of my name to "Lish," which is what everyone else had called me since I was a little girl. He was appreciative of my affection, my patience, the things I did to care for him. And he was brilliant. Oh, so brilliant. The only person I'd ever met, much less dated, who had ever cowed me in terms of being able to hold my own in an intellectual conversation. Light years and light years ahead of me, ahead of anyone in that regard.

But that, I learned, was part of the problem. For me, with my brain that never quit, that was always thinking of new ideas, stories to write, couldn't understand that for him, his brain ate him alive. I tried to understand why there were days when he couldn't bring himself to make a quick trip to the grocery store, couldn't, some days, even get out of bed. I tried to understand when those days came more and more frequently. And then multiple days at a time. I'd spend my time lying in bed with him, holding him while he cried after the anxiety got too bad, the physical manifestation of the pressure within, trying to encourage him to eat when the nausea had him in its grip, or rubbing his temples when the headaches, caused by his medication and anxiety, splintered his skull with pain so badly he could barely see. Or, when he wanted to be left completely alone, I wouldn't interact with him for a day or two at a time. 

I tried to understand when his anxiety would spike out of nowhere, when his heart would be hammering like a jackrabbit and he'd be in a cold sweat, rubbing his back, whispering soothing sounds into his ear. I tried very hard to understand and not get angry when his anxiety would flare so fiercely that it triggered his schizotypal tendencies and he'd grow paranoid, say awful, cruel things to me - once in front of his mother - and then not remember a thing the next day. He would always be crushed when he'd learned what he'd said. 

I read between the lines when he'd mention his father, estranged since a time long past, and his childhood, and the hint of something heartbreaking and nightmarish and horrifying lurked in between all the things he didn't say, all the things he hadn't yet allowed himself to voice, to confess. The dark things in his past he couldn't bring himself to say aloud yet were all there for me to see, in the way he'd catch himself mid-sentence, in the shadow that crossed his eyes when he spoke of his childhood, in the bleak and bitter flint in his voice whenever I'd ask about his father. 

And I was the one who encouraged him to finally come out with the truth about his father a week after we learned of his death, with the story of his past, to set himself free. I was sitting right beside him on our big, comfy armchair as he invited his best friend over and he told us everything. I put my chin on his shoulder as he told us about the awful, unspeakable things his father did to him in the dark, the murderous threats should ever he have told, the quick punches to his stomach, the way he was young, young enough to believe his father's threats against his mom and sisters if he ever told, how he decided to carry the burden of the abuse alone, on his frail shoulders, how he started wearing t-shirts that he'd never take off so his mother couldn't see the bruises, the cigarette burns. How when his father got drunk - which was regularly - he'd get a predatory gleam in his eye, but not the gleam of someone who wanted physical violence, not in the punching bag sort of way, but in that way, the unspeakable way. We were the first people he ever told in all those years, the first he ever told. I wrapped my arms and legs around him, pulling him close, as if I could retroactively shield him from the pain and nightmares he had endured, but there was nothing I could do about the pain in his voice, nothing. 

That was the night I vowed that I'd be strong enough to withstand the demons in his head for the both of us. The night I vowed that I would fight for him and for us forever. That I was all in, that I would not do what so many had and turn their back on him. 

But the hardest of all was trying not to take it personally.

"Allie," he'd say for the hundredth time, "it's not you. Please don't take it personally. It's not you." 

"I know...you say that it's not about me. But the thing is...you make it about me. If I'm the target you take your anxiety and stress and rage and depression out on, then...it becomes about me." 

It was a conversation we had so many times that I honestly lost count. 

Because that's the thing that you are never told about loving someone with mental illness. While you're trying to help your beloved lost soul, somewhere along the way, you lose yourself, too. 

To be continued...

To read Part I, click here

Why I Never Accept Talent as an Excuse

Like most people, my philosophy on life has changed as I've aged. At least, I'd hope most people would evolve their views, or at least consider evolving. As my homeboy John Keats once said, "The only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing -- to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts." 

But while much has changed, one thing I've always thought that probably will always remain true for me is that I don't believe shitty behavior should ever be excused by talent. 

I've been thinking about this a lot lately in light of the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather bout set for tonight. Everyone is buzzing about it. Even people who aren't traditionally boxing fans and don't follow the sport recognize this is one of the most historic fights of all time. My boyfriend's roommate, who is a huge combat sports fan, has been excited about it for weeks. Even my boyfriend, a sports fan, but not one with a particular interest in boxing, wants to watch.  And I'm excited for them and want them to have a great time while watching tonight.

But me? A woman who knows more about hockey than most, and can hold her own when talking about a number of other sports? I have no interest in watching the fight. None whatsoever. I don't really care about watching two guys punch each other, but, more than that, I don't care about it when one of the men has openly spoken out against gay marriage and campaigned against women's rights in his home country, and the other has dozens of racist, homophobic rants to his name, along with a lengthy history of domestic abuse. 

I had a friend laugh and say, "Yeah, that's why I WANT to watch them punch each other." Why? What does that prove, other than that one will lose while getting millions and millions of dollars and one will win while getting millions and millions dollars more?

I've had many more say, when I expressed my disinterest in the fight, "Okay, yeah, maybe they are assholes, but you can't deny their talent." Okay, so? Both are obviously skilled fighters. Both have trained hard. Both have reached the pinnacle of their sport. I won't deny them that, because it would be disingenuous and false. But both are also men I don't want to support, even if it's only a decision that matters to me alone. 

I've heard that excuse a lot over the years, mostly from men. The idea that talent, usually athletic in nature, somehow trumps not being a shitty human being. "I know Kanye West is an an asshole, but he's really talented." "I know Ray Lewis got away with murder, but he's one of the greatest linebackers of all time." "I know Sean Connery used to beat women, but c'mon, he was JAMES BOND." 

And it confuses me every time. Being skilled in sports or music is completely unrelated to ugly personal choices like being abusive, racist, homophobic, or otherwise. The existence of talent does not excuse or negate the existence of inhumanity.

"Yeah, but that's the point," some say. "You can not agree with what they do, but you can at least watch them and appreciate them for their skill." And I do understand that. Being immersed in the movie industry as I am, I can know that a particular actor or actress exhibits some seriously jerk-like qualities and still really enjoy their films. 

Famous people say ill-thought, dumb things all the time, and I roll my eyes and think, Really? You thought that would go over well? I generally don't think most foot-in-mouth moments are purposely malicious,  just dumb. Most celebrities shouldn't be crucified for their facepalm-worthy comments.

But momentary brain lapses are a very different thing from being physically and sexually abusive, actively campaigning against the rights of others, or regularly spreading hate speech. So I can't get on board with the idea that he (or she, of course) might be an awful human being because of X, but we should forgive him (or her) because of his (or her) huge talent in area Y. Because for me then, personally, it means you are putting entertainment, ultimately meaningless, above the rights and welfare of other human beings.

"Why does it matter? I'll never meet the girlfriend he abused," or "I totally support gay rights, but, I mean...me watching this fight isn't going to do anything to undermine that," or "Of COURSE I don't think abusing women is right; it's fucked up, but me not watching this fight isn't going to stop him from punching another girlfriend."

And all of that is true. Here's the important thing, I absolutely do not judge anyone who feels that way.  Hell, I understand the majority of people do feel that way. 

I've been told I think too much, that I sometimes take things far too seriously, that some of the things I take "too" seriously are just meant to be fun. I won't deny any of that. I'm an intense person and I admittedly do take deeper moral and philosophical dives into waters that are, to most people, only meant to be used as a kiddie pool. I get that about myself. I have loads of fun and so may sources of entertainment that I love, but sometimes, yes, I do need to lighten up and stop thinking so much.

But there are some lines in the sand I just can't cross. To me, I can't see this match tonight as "fun." So the rest of the world can watch it and cheer and I will be absolutely on board with that and happy for them. 

I just won't be watching, myself. 

What The Eye Never Sees - Part I

What do most people see when they look at me? 

I think, from the things I read and hear, they see a woman who has it - mostly - all together. Who lives a charmed life. A woman who has a very, very kickass job, the editor-in-chief of a wildly successful, quickly growing website, a woman who gets to live a hard-working, seemingly glamorous life writing about the movie industry and living in LA. A woman who - probably - needs to spend less money on pizza, and who - definitely - tweets too much. A woman who is tired of the massive debt she has and often worries about money, but is in a lucky enough position to have a career where she can hopefully one day dig herself out of it. A woman in a happy relationship, with amazing, brilliantly talented and quirky friends, and a fiercely loving extended family. 

That's what most people see when they look at me. 

But what they don't see is where I was even a few months ago. What they don't see is that every day, I push away the secret, nagging fear that I'm not good enough at my job, that I'm not the me I want to be, that I'm not good enough as a girlfriend, that I need to get my shit together, that I'm not good enough as a boss, a mentor, a friend, a sister, a daughter. That I'm not good enough. 

Oh, make no mistake. I'm not saying it's crippling or disabling. I'm not even saying that it keeps me from doing what I need to do most days. I'm generally happy and well-adjusted. I'm just saying that it's there.

But the thing is, while I've grown in confidence in some ways, in others, I'm more insecure than ever.

Let me tell you a story...

In 2011, I met a man. I won't refer to him by name, because this story is as much his as mine, perhaps even moreso. My friends and loved ones already know who he is and what we were - or, at least, most of it. And those who don't know who he is don't need to know. All anyone needs to know is that in 2011, I met a man, and a man met me. And we, as the ancient story goes, fell in love.

At the time, I was living in Dallas, and he, in Southern California. Our relationship was a long-distance one, at first, but we were open and honest, and despite our limited time together, started to build something solid. We traveled back and forth often to stay with one another, which was made possible by the fact he'd just been laid off his very lucrative job but was still flush with cash and savings, and that I had very understanding bosses and a flexible job. 

When we first started dating, he casually mentioned that he suffered from depressive spells. 

I empathized. I had suffered with Seasonal Affective Disorder for years without realizing that's what it was. I told him about my second-to-last semester in college when I, a straight-A student in an honors program on an academic scholarship, failed my classes or got incompletes that turned into failures when I couldn't bring myself to leave my room, let alone leave the house I shared with my sister and two roommates. How I lied to my parents about what had happened and why I had to repeat a few classes, because I thought the problem was that I was just lazy. Because I chalked up the complete apathy and absence of emotion to just me being unmotivated.  Because I thought the fact that I just. couldn't. care. about anything regarding myself or focus on anything wasn't a "real" feeling, because I wasn't in constant tears and I wasn't really sad, which was what I thought depression was. I was just numb, but numb didn't equal sadness, so there wasn't really anything wrong with me, I was just lazy. 

I told him about how, about a year before we met, I was finally fed up with not living up to my potential, to always feeling like there was so. much. more to me than what I'd shown the world, but it was like it was locked away behind a door in my head and I hadn't yet found the key. So I went to a therapist and spilled it all, the way I could never focus, but had a mind that didn't quit - ever. How I had a brain that could learn things instantly and remember them forever with a steel-trap of a memory, but had a hard time getting it to stay on task. How I got restless and anxious inside because I constantly felt like I should be doing something else, and that whatever I was doing at any time wasn't good enough if it wasn't productive, wasn't the thing I really should have been doing. But how I sometimes, for long stretches at a time, couldn't bring myself to actually do those things at all. 

And told him about how I finally figured out that I wasn't a waste, that I had been struggling with a one-two punch of Seasonal Affective Disorder and ADD for years. That both fed into one another in a vicious cycle, and that I'd gone so long without understanding what was happening because my whip-smart brain and steel-trap memory had masked both all throughout high school, college, and even grad school. 

I told him all of it. 

So when he said, "I get depressed," I thought I understood exactly what he meant. 

Which was why, when I'd decided I wanted to leave Dallas and move to LA, and he said, "Maybe you should wait until I get out of this thing, until I'm better," I said, "Don't be silly. We'll get through this together." 

And I moved. 

See, I'd always been fiercely loyal to those I cared about. Some might even have described it as obstinately, blithely so. I'd always seen the best in others, rather than the worst. And that wasn't a bad thing. I helped those close to me find the good when they couldn't find it in themselves, and I talked them up when they had nothing good to say about themselves. 

But it also meant I tended to ignore some very real warning signs about people now and then. It wasn't that I didn't see red flags, it was that I saw them but always chalked them up to a more sympathetic reason, landed on a kinder reading of what I saw. The alarm bells went off, but instead of listening to them, I always thought to myself, "Surely, no one could be that bad. I'm being unkind if I think ill of this person when they've done no harm to me." I was that girl who, when she saw a cringing or growling dog, would patiently hold out her hand, saying, "He won't bite me. I just have to be patient."  

My self-preservation instinct had always been, shall we say, somewhat haphazard in its appearances.

When we packed up my things, rented a U-Haul and hitched my car to the back, then drove from Dallas to Southern California with all the worldly possessions I hadn't given away and two cats, it was understandably stressful. But I was happy. I'd always loved long road trips, whether passenger or driver, and I was happy that we were going to be together. I was filled with the sense of possibility, the energy of a new chapter of my life starting. 

I understood, however, that most of the stress had been on him. He was the one who was driving the unwieldy U-Haul with a hitch on the back, and his anxiety sapped him. When we finally arrived in California at the home of my friends, with whom I was going to live, and he then disappeared for almost a full week, texting me but once or twice, saying only that he "needed some alone time to recharge," I was hurt. And I was confused. But I didn't want to start our relationship off on the wrong foot, not when it was truly beginning, and I wanted to understand him, so I said nothing. I told myself that it was an aberration, that him simply being unable to cope was a one-time thing, a weird blip that, of course, wouldn't be the norm for him.  

We didn't know then that it was the happiest he'd be in the three and a half years we were together. 

To be continued...

2014

2014.

What a long, tumultuous year it's been. Full of growth and change, painful and necessary and good.

It's fitting that today, on the last day of the year, I sit down to write this only a few moments after learning my grandfather has passed away. A complicated, larger-than-life sort of man his entire life, he was a maddening mix of loving good and cruel bad. Even when learning he was sick, part of me didn't actually think he'd ever die, only live on infinitely out of spite and sheer stubbornness. My mom, who has been caring for him in the last few weeks, told me that in his illness, the kinder, self-aware grandfather I used to know had resurfaced.

I wouldn't know, though. I wasn't there.

The story of my life in 2014. Travel and journeys, and being so present in the moment for some things, but so very far away for others. I learned of my grandfather's passing while driving home, stuck in the endless crawl of traffic on Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica. It was my sister, Brianna, who called to let me know just moments after it happened. She told me with tears threatening in her voice, but, much like me, she holds it together in tough situations and so they didn't overwhelm. Our youngest sister, Sharlee, always the sensitive one and now pregnant, I'm sure was and is a mess.

So now I sit here, with my fingertips still on my keyboard, staring out the window. I'm not sure what to do with myself. It's a strange feeling, both calm and tangled. My feelings about my grandpa are complicated, to say the least. So I'm doing what I've always done when I need to sort through feelings, both real and false. I'm writing. But it's been a long time since I've written purely for myself and not for my job. Too long.

This year has been full of moments like that, moments where I, usually so in tune with my inner self, have not been sure what I was feeling. When I wasn't even sure there were words for what I was feeling. Though, in retrospect, having lived in Berlin for 9 months, I'm sure there was an unnecessarily long, unpronounceable German word for all of it.

I started the year in Berlin, dodging fireworks being set off in the streets by drunken revelers, so many that the air downtown was thick with smoke and sparks. Freezing my butt off and laughing at my Russian friend, Max, swearing every time a firecracker zoomed past him. I was 5,791 miles away from the life I had been living in Southern California until June of 2013, when I moved to the Berlin-based HQ of Moviepilot to be a senior staff writer and help my good friend and former editor-in-chief train the editorial team. By November of 2013, he was gone and I had replaced him, told I would run the Berlin team through at least the end of 2014.

But things change, and by the end of December, a decision had been made that we needed to move the focus of our operations to Los Angeles much more quickly than anticipated, starting with sending me back to the U.S. to build up a content team there. Within two months, I was on a flight back to my parents' house in Pittsburgh, where had I had left my car and half of my belongings, globe-trotter that I was. My boyfriend of three years, Nick, flew out to meet me and make the long, cross-country drive back to California.

It had been a tough time being apart, hard on us, hard on our relationship. Harder on him than me, as he was going through quite a bit, personally. But then...he had been since we'd been dating. Our entire relationship had been hard. I was hoping that the time apart, which had helped me to grow, had done the same for him, and we'd return to our life together more grateful for and cognizant of what we had. I returned with a renewed resolve to work on our communication, on us, to be better, stronger, more what he needed. In return, I hoped that he had worked on himself, on dealing with the depression and anxiety and other mental health issues that had plagued him most of his life. And for a while, that new-oldness was enough.

But in the end, the center couldn't hold, and at the end of June, we broke up. It was...not easy. Most breakups aren't, but this one wrenched me apart in ways I hadn't even conceived of, let alone was prepared for. You would think that because the relationship had been so tumultuous, so hard, it would be easier to let go. But that's the funny thing about human nature. The more work you put into something, the harder it is to accept when it's over.

I'm not sure you've ever felt what it's like to have the person you love look you in the eyes and say that you, and the two of you, were a mistake. But I have. I heard that, and that all those years shouldn't have happened. That he saw no future for the two of us. There are some words you can't take back, can't unsay, can't unhear. "You were a mistake," is one of them, even spoken in anger, even when later, he said he was just angry at the time and hadn't meant it. Some things you can't get past.

So was hearing him, the man to whom I'd given everything, telling me he sometimes wondered if the reason he wasn't pulling out of his depression was because of me, because our relationship was causing his depression. That I was the reason his clinical depression wasn't getting better. Me.

Some things you can't unhear.

One day soon, I'll write more about that relationship, those years in which I got firsthand experience of the devastation that mental illness and a broken mental health care system wreaks in the small ecosystem of personal relationships.

But for now, I'll just say it ended ugly. The kind of ugly I'd never experienced before, a kind of ugly that found me sitting on the couch the night it happened, almost catatonic with grief and numbness. And the next morning, I got up. I went to work. I plastered a smile on my face. And I did my job, all while on autopilot.

Two weeks later, I had moved into a new apartment in a lovely little Santa Monica neighborhood with one of my best friends and coworkers, Dannie. It was close to the beach, close to work, a new start. I was still sad, but, for the first time in years, I was also angry, too. Truly angry on my behalf, rather than just blaming myself, as I always do. I had great friends, I had an amazing job with a company that was blowing up, I had a loving, supportive family, I lived in a great location, and I was free of a relationship I could finally admit had killed some fundamental part of me, had slowly worn away a vital part of my soul through attrition.

I dated around. I made a point to say "yes" to (almost) everyone who asked. I went on some good dates. I went on some hilariously bad ones, including one where the guy, a truly weird specimen, ditched me halfway through the date in the middle of a Barnes & Noble via text message. I couldn't stop laughing about it, my perverse sense of humor luckily helping me to find the funny in it rather than the offense. There was also the date in which I drove all the way to West Hollywood, only to have him tell me he had another "engagement" in 45 minutes, after which he ignored me for two weeks before randomly reappearing and asking if we could be friends. But that's how so many LA guys roll, I learned. All of them afraid to put themselves out there emotionally, both the good and the bad. When I got that text from him, I felt the urge to reply with, "Honestly, you didn't make enough of an impact to make driving to WeHo for a friendship with you worth it. Let's not kid ourselves." Instead, I chose not to respond at all.

But there were some good dates, and one great one. The great one stuck around, and we're still together 5 months later. He was the first person I reached out to earlier today when I learned of my grandfather, and I consider myself lucky that, though he can't physically be with me tonight due to his work schedule, I still feel more supported and cared for through a few simple words of his than I have in years. And we're taking it slow, so slow in many ways, but I am grateful every day that I feel built up with him instead of torn down, as I was used to feeling. It's a testament to the man he is.

~*~*~

I ran out of steam and was going to come back to this and finish it. But I think I'll leave it here, on a positive note. Because it has been mostly positive, truly. I'm happier inside myself than I've been in years. Work is amazing, and I wake up grateful every day (okay, almost every day) that it rarely ever feels like work. Growth, while painful, is always positive - one hopes, anyway. In my case, it was. While the year ended on a sad, heavy note, the rest of the melody for 2014 was a fanfare with an upward crescendo. And the next post I'd like to write is a hard one, a bitter one. So yes, I think I'll leave this here.

Down the Rabbit Hole, Straight Into Hell

*FLASH*

I wake up on an unfamiliar scene, and the scene is terrifying.

Immediate thought:
We have to get out of here. We have to get out of here, NOW.

Nighttime. We're in a field--a town square?--I don't know. I just know I'm in this place, it's bad, we need to get out of here. Me and the other girl with me. The blonde I can't quite see. I don't know where we are, I don't know how we got here, but it's a bad, bad section of town. The kind where "rape" and "murder" are common verbs. I don't care about any of that, though. What I care about is the sense of foreboding that's growing by the second and the tiny voice in the back of my head, the small, rational voice that realizes this is only a dream saying, Get out get out get out of this dream get out get out now. If the voice that remains sane in a nightmare is terrified right along with you, it's a bad situation. A really bad situation.

We have to get out of here, have to get out of here. Something's coming for us, we have to get out of here.

Where? Look. LOOK.

I turn around and see rooftops behind me, a distant town that looks nice. A country town, maybe.

THERE. I motion to her and point. We go there.

There is total silence. Whatever communication is going on between us is going on wordlessly. There is no sound. No cars. No animals. No planes. No other people. Just us, and the dark, and silence, and the growing terror.

I point again, and we run, pounding out of the town square and running down a small alley between run-down houses. I'm not worried about getting raped or murdered anymore. What's coming after us is worse.


Get out get out get out get out get out of this dream get out get out

I dodge down another alley, the girl right behind me, and I skid to a stop in some sort of courtyard. A farm? There is a gigantic, rambling-rotting-creaking Victorian house shaped like an upside-down U immediately in front of us. We're standing in its courtyard, and everything is dead. Halls of the dead, get out get out get out GET OUT The plants are dead. The farm equipment sits in silence. But to our right is a horse. Emaciated, silent, staring at us, but alive. There is still no noise, I don't know why, but it can't be good. If there is a horse, there have to be people inside. They can help us.

I point at the house, and she nods. Whatever strange mental connection we have is still working for us. All of this happens instantaneously: Alley, courtyard, point, house,
RUN.

We run straight into the house, yanking open its door. Everything is dim, dark, run-down. No noise. A television is on, but there is no noise. Everything is...muffled? Silenced?


Why is there no NOISE?

And suddenly, we know. We look at each other. There is no noise because everything is...waiting. For what, I don't know, but whatever it is, it's what the voice in my head is screaming at me to get away from, the usually calm, rational voice that's starting to escalate to pure gibbering terror.


Get out you have to get out now wake up wake up get out of this dream oh my god GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT

I can't get out of here. I can't get out, I don't even know how I got here in the first place or what's coming for us, and where all the people are, and I can't get out. We're running through silent rooms, running and running past empty chairs and beds. This place is enormous, it's a maze. Everything is dark and silent and waiting, and the only thing I hear is the panicking voice in my head and my heart beating in my throat.

We come into a kitchen
GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT and the faucet is running, but there is no sound, the water is making no sound. I race past the table, a flash of her blonde hair beside me and I note half-empty glasses of liquid next to half-eaten pieces of cake. And it's all old, and brown, and dim, like we've fallen into the epitome of every horror movie haunted house in every sepia-toned photograph ever.

Suddenly, we burst into an enclosed porch, and there is a huge black dog sitting there, tongue lolling, staring at us. Its tail is wagging, so I know it won't attack, but suddenly, it starts to cringe and whine and shy away from the corner and the frustration is growing,
why why WHERE IS EVERYONE??

And a word appears in midair, floating: COMING.


What?? What do you mean, "COMING"? What's coming?? WHAT IS COMING FOR US??

COMING.


WHAT IS COMING FOR US?? WHERE IS IT??

UP.


GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUT

And there is a roaring in my ears, and suddenly, the words in front of us change, morph, turn into pen ink and start scrolling across the air

DRINK DRINK. EAT CAKE. COMING FOR YOU. COMING NOW.

And suddenly, I remember the half-eaten food and drink on the table, and I don't want to see, don't want to see what's coming for us, don't want to see, beside me the girl is screaming with her hands over her ears but I can't hear her, we can't hear anything but the roaring and screaming inside our heads and our gibbering internal voices, and the dog is cowering and I know he's whining but I can't hear that either, and suddenly, I'm aware that I'm screaming, too, and I can't stop, my throat is bleeding because something is coming for us oh jesus something is coming and I don't know what it is but I have a feeling that whatever it is, I will pray for death before whatever this thing has in store for us and the words are whipping past faster and faster and the screaming in my head is getting louder and


GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT WAKE UP WAKE UP WAAAAAAAAKE UUUUUUUUP

and that's when I wake up. That's how I come to be awake at 5 a.m., clutching my pillow and whimpering in terror and afraid to go back to sleep for the first time since I was five years old.

Childhood Memories

I've never been a normal kid.

I blame my father.

I’ve always had a fascination with ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and other sundry things that go bump in the night. Vampires and wizards, witches and demons, ghosts and the Bermuda Triangle, mysterious disappearances and UFOs, psychic powers and werewolves--if it was scary, gruesome, couldn’t be explained, dealt with the supernatural, or was just all-around bizarre, I was all about it. Big blue eyes, wispy blonde hair, tiny body—complete with a fascination for gore and horror that could not be sated.

I don’t think it surprised my parents when I told them I wanted to be a writer. Certainly not my father, who had always wanted to write a book, and in his heart, I believe secretly wished me to do what he was never able.

When I was a little girl, there was a show on USA called Saturday Nightmares. Anyone remember that? It was an hour-long show geared toward adults that told a horror story, usually quite gruesome and (from what I remember) with fairly decent plotlines. Dad would smuggle me downstairs into the basement every Saturday night, where we would watch the show together, me either curled up on the arm of the chair beside him, or, when I was feeling more adventurous, perched on the chest freezer to his left.

Keep in mind, I was seven at the time. Seven. And my Dad thought this a fantastic idea.

Suffice it to say, at 9 o’clock every Saturday night, we would watch the show together...

...And at midnight, I would be running into my parents’ bedroom, screaming as if Satan himself were after me. Of course, from what I remember of the subject matter of the shows, I’d prefer Satan chasing me to some of the things in them. I remember one particular dream in vivid detail. I won’t get into it here, but it involved my eyeballs being sliced open by a cat’s claws...a cat that just would not DIE and was everywhere I turned. I remember waking up right as the razor-sharp claws were piercing my eyes and flesh, so terrified, the only sounds coming out of me were strangled screams and whimpering.

Mom would then give Dad holy Hell for letting me watch "that horrible show" again. And Dad would then give me holy Hell for getting him into trouble. Mom would forbid me from watching the show the next week. On Monday, I figured, no sweat: Mom will have forgotten all about it by Saturday... As the weekend drew nearer, and it was clear Mom had not forgotten the...incident...of the previous Saturday, I cunningly switched tactics and reasoned with her: Mom, I promise I won’t be scared this time. And even if I am, I promise not to come wake you and Daddy up. See? Everyone wins! By the time Saturday rolled around, I resorted to what every child does when in a desperate situation—I whined: Moooooooom, you HAVE to let me watch this…pleeeeeeeeeease, this isn’t faaaaaaair. If I had understood the meaning of the word "fascist" at that time, I’m sure I would have thrown that in there, too. By Saturday night, I employed a well-known war tactic: I called upon my allies. Namely, Dad. He would then step in on my behalf and finagle a deal with my mom regarding who was responsible for calming me down and putting me back to bed when I would (inevitably) come running into their room later that night.

It was a weekly cycle. Wash, rinse, repeat.

For some reason, tiny beings terrorized me far more than huge, lumbering psychopaths. Pit me against Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Leatherface any day of the week—just don’t introduce me to Chuckie, any of the dolls from Puppetmaster, or Freddy Kreuger—the one life-sized killer fearsome enough to be placed in my ranks of the truly terrifying. It was the idea he could come after you in your dreams. Your dreams, man. There’s no escaping that. If you killed Michael Myers, sure, he’d come back, but at least you’d have a few years’ hiatus in the interim. Kill Freddy, and he’d just wait until you fell asleep three hours later then come for your soul.

And creatures like Chuckie and possessed dolls...they were tiny, but all the more horrifying because of that. You could see Jason Voorhees coming after you—usually at a shambling lumber just a bit faster than the speed of drunken thought. You couldn’t see Chuckie if he decided to hide under your bed and slash your tendons with a razor blade. You couldn’t see if one of Toulon’s demonic creations was lurking in a tiny slip of shadow in the corner. It was because of this fear that a certain porcelain doll of mine met with her untimely demise...but that is another story for another day.

It was at a friend’s birthday party sleepover, and it was Child’s Play. Actually not one, but all three. I stayed up that entire night with my girlfriends, giggling with surface terror. We had fun eating popcorn and letting ourselves be scared, drawing bravery from our fellow pajama-ed comrades. We liked to think we were scared, but all that was window-dressing. Stage terror, designed to give us a sense of camaraderie in the shared danger.

It was a little different the next night, when I was sleeping in my own bedroom...alone... in the dark. That was when true, creeping terror began.

I remember laying awake for hours at a time for a month straight. I couldn’t figure out which was the best way to lay: Flat on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin (everyone knows the monsters can’t get you if all your limbs are covered by a blanket)? But then there was the disadvantage of only being able to see straight in front of me, lest I turn my head. On my left side, so I could face the small gap made between my wall and bed, perfect for a cannibalistic doll to hide in? Ah, but then that would leave my back exposed to my entire room. Easier to see...however... more hiding places. So then I would flip onto my right side so I could face my room and window ...but then... then there was always the tingling sensation I’d get in my back as it faced against that dark crevasse. The tingling sensation itched halfway down—right about where I imagined a butcher knife held by a tiny little hand would plunge.

I told you I wasn’t a normal child.

And did I think Chuckie would come after me, hellbent on slitting my throat with his knife? Was I, Alisha, the object of his rage, though I had no reason to fear him? Did it matter that at no time had a child in reality ever died at the hands of a psychotic puppet? Had he, somehow, sensed through the projected images on an old TV set that I was watching him kill his victims, and, incensed by the fact I dared to intrude upon his murderous psychosis, was now hunting me in the nightmarish dark?

Oh, you betcha.

The same went for the Gremlins. Those scaly little bastards kept me awake for two months running, thanks largely in part to a malfunctioning dishwasher, which I was convinced was their work. Also largely due to my father, who, upon my asking him whether or not he thought it was the work of said creatures, said straight-faced, "I don’t think so..."

And then added, "...but I’d check under your bed tonight."

I am beginning to wonder if, perhaps, my father didn't take rather too much glee in messing with me.

He was also the one to give me my first Stephen King novel, and sparked a love affair between myself and the King of Horror that has yet to be diminished. I could never figure out why my teachers thought my choice of reading material odd. Just because I was in elementary school and dragging copies of Cujo, and Carrie, and IT to school… But then, I also couldn’t understand why, years later, my College Prep teacher took it upon herself to stop my mom in church and tell her she found my term paper topic a bit disturbing.

"Vampires, Hematodypsia, and the Dark Side of Human Nature" isn’t disturbing—that’s just doubly-damned interesting, if you ask me.

As I grew older and matured, so did my taste in sources of horror. I read Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine voraciously...but Stephen was my idol. I watched Tales from the Cryptand Are You Afraid of the Dark? religiously, and could sometimes get my sisters to watch with me. Well, Brianna...not so much Sharlee, who used to be scared of her own shadow. But when it came to watching The X-Files, I was on my own.

...in the same chair I had once watched Saturday Nightmares with my father. Every Friday night, before I was a cheerleader, before I could drive, before the lure of being seen at school football games outweighed the lure of the supernatural, I worshipped at the throne of Mulder and Scully. I’m not sure how many of you reading this remembers the first few seasons of the show…but there were some truly terrifying, creepy episodes. I would watch the show intently, glancing every now and then to the door that led to the back yard…and to the woods beyond. I couldn’t help but think that the forest that surrounded my house looked like every single scene of every single alien abduction in every single episode of The X-Files ever. I was convinced I would look over at the door one night and see a slobbering creature, gibbering its alien language as it pressed its slavering, demonic face up against the blackened glass.

One night, as I sat engrossed in the show, I heard a scratching sound coming from the other side of the basement…on the drywall…directly behind me. I dismissed it as a trick of my imagination. I settled back to watch the show. And again, the scratching came for a second time. I had now given up on concentrating on the show, and was instead, intently listening for the sound to come again. And for a third time, it did. The scratching came.
Not the frantic, tiny scrabblings of a mouse or the clankings of a pipe...but the slow, deliberate scratching of a creature smart enough to know how creepy it sounded. And suddenly, I knew what it was...

My dad. Who started laughing his ass off as he came from around the other side of the basement. I yelled at him that it wasn’t funny, and stalked back to my seat. He clumped back up the basement stairs as I settled in to resume watching the show once more, and closed the basement door.

I had just gotten engrossed once more, when the scratching came again. I rolled my eyes and yelled at my dad to knock it off...and then the words died in my throat as I remembered my dad had gone back upstairs and was now watching TV in the living room. And if... it wasn’t... my dad... on the other side... of the wall...

...then what...was it?

Suddenly, in the starkness of this dawning realization that the rest of my family was upstairs, I could see with crystal clarity the monster on the other side of the wall. The monster scratching on the other side of that wall. Making that deliberate, patient noise with the curved claws on the ends of its mangled hands. I swallowed the absence of spit down a throat suddenly dryer than cotton balls. Throat clicking, I stood up and reached for a baseball bat that leaned against the wall. Every single sense was heightened. I could feel my own heart beating in my ears, and my own steady breathing trying to strangle itself in my throat. I took slow steps to the other side of the room. Images from every single horror movie I had seen flashed through my head. I didn’t know what it was…but I knew it was evil. I was going to die, but at least I wouldn’t let it get my family...

When all is said and done, I believe the bravery of a child will always far outweigh the bravery of any adult. Adults battle with known fears—cancer, car accidents, war. In the end, death is the result. But children... children know that there are things out there far worse than death. There are things... an adult would never be able to grasp and accept, much less fight. But children know in that part of their mind which hasn’t yet been killed off by growing up and education and logic that there is the unexplained. There is always the unexplained, and it is blackness. Children haven’t yet lost that part of their brains that goes back to a time when all cavemen had to survive were their instincts. Children know they will never be believed...but they also know it doesn’t make the monsters any less real. Adults battle with the known. Children battle with the unknown. And the unknown is far more terrifying.

Back to the basement...

I stood there, next to the stairs. Three more steps and I’d be in the other side of the basement. Three more steps and I’d know what it was that had come to kill me. I could hear the blood rushing in my ears, and though my heart raced with heavy staccato thumps, and though every muscle in my body was tensed in a fight-or-flight stance, my brain was calm. I remember thinking to myself the best plan of attack would be to jump to the right as I entered the other side of the basement, and swing with the bat at the same time. With any luck, I’d be out of the range of the claws (or whatever it used to defend itself), and could score a hit with the bat before it got over its momentary surprise.

I took the last three steps... I jumped to the right and crouched down low, starting to swing the bat just in case...

...And almost connected with my sister’s head. My sister, who was laughing hysterically.

My sister, who was in cahoots with my dad. Not a monster, but my sister, who had snuck into the basement as my dad was stomping up the stairs, using the sounds of his footsteps upward to mask her own quiet ones downward. At the same moment, the door to the basement opened and my dad spilled out into the stairway, laughing so hard he had to sit down and wipe the tears away.

For a split second, I was relieved.

Then I was in shock.

Then I was pissed.

Then I tried to line drive my sister’s head again.

I remember thinking to myself two thoughts, almost one on top of the other. First, My dad is one sick bastard..., and then, I'm just like him...

Summer days and nights were spent with my best friend, Mike. We would roller blade, or swim, or play hockey until the sun went down and the moon came up. Other than my family, Mike factors into more childhood memories than anyone else in my life, having been present for the majority of them. Though exact opposites, we had befriended each other when we were only tiny children, and continued to be as close as sister and brother as we grew. I was the ever calm soul, he was the histrionic hypochondriac. Being the dreamer and future writer, I believed in all things unholy. Being the pragmatist and future doctor, he believed in nothing he couldn’t see, smell, or touch.

But there was one thing we agreed upon, and that was that aliens existed, and abductions were real.

This was thanks to him having just watched Fire in the Sky, and my having just read Communion by Whitley Strieber. Then, as we shared everything, we were so kind as to trade off with one another, thereby scaring ourselves two-fold. One night, we went a bit too far.

We were playing hockey (as usual) in my driveway. The sun had set an hour before, but thanks to the full moon, there was enough reflected light to see the ball for a while longer. Eventually, we called it quits, and sat down on my porch. We started talking, and the topic waxed and waned, as they always did. Eventually, we started talking religion, which led to the supernatural, which led to aliens. By this time, we had worked our way inside to escape the plague of mosquitoes, and my dad had joined us.

Not surprisingly, it had been my father who had introduced me to Communion.

As we discussed the subject of aliens and alien abductions, pondering just how frequent they were, and just what, exactly, they did to you while in their spacecrafts (the needle-in-eye scene from Fire in the Sky being the unspoken thought shared between the two of us). This was aided and abetted by my dad, who, I now suspect, took a few liberties in his "facts" and stories, as he had sensed Mike and I were coolly trying to appear as if the whole subject matter didn’t terrify the crap out of us.

By the time midnight rolled around and Mike reluctantly said he better go home, he and I had worked ourselves into a dimension of freaked-out we had never yet reached. He had to walk home alone, and, knowing full well that he was as scared as I was, though we were both pretending as if we weren’t so scared we could taste our own fear, I walked him halfway home.

The halfway point between our houses was where my gravel road ended and his paved road began. He wheeled his bike to the pavement and then we stood there, nervously stalling the inevitable. It was just bearable to walk up that road, half of it hidden by trees and the pond beyond when we were together. But when faced with the prospect of continuing on our ways home…alone…it wasn’t as easy. Finally, we gave up the façade of nonchalance and did what all kids do when charged with an impossible task: We counted to three.

"Ok...ok, on the count of three... we’ll... we’ll both take off. You run, and I’ll ride my bike, and we’ll both be home in a minute or so. That’s... that’s not so bad... right? Yeah...no...ok. Ok... count of three. Man, I wish these trees weren’t so dark... what? Ok, ok, you’re right, don’t make it worse. Ok. Ok... ok, ready? Ok, godspeed... what? Don’t look at me like that. That’s what sailors used to say on journeys away to wish them a safe trip—WHAT?? Ok, ok, I KNOW you know that, I was just SAY—oh, ok, yeah, you’re right. No more stalling. Ok. Focus. On the count of three..."

"One..."

"Two..."

"THREE!"

We both took off, he for his home, and me for mine. It takes about two minutes to get to his house by car, five minutes walking, three minutes running. Tops. That night, however, it felt as if it took all the ages of a lifetime to reach the familiarity of my porch lights.

I remember running like the wind, feeling the damp summer breeze whip my face as I flashed past the dark woods and shadows. I vaguely remember the half-thought that if my track coach could see me now, I’d have anchor position on the relay team for sure. I ran like the hounds of Hell were after me. I tore up the ground between the halfway point and my house with the fleet strides that only terror-induced adrenaline can produce. It was a wonder I didn’t twist my ankle or snap a shin on the uneven, rocky ground. And still, it wasn’t fast enough. Not nearly enough to escape the eyes I saw in the trees, nor the bony, rotting hand that was surely going to reach out of the woods and grab me around the ankle. Not nearly fast enough to outrace the shadows of demons arcing toward me from the midnight sky.

As I rounded the curve of the road that hides my house from view, along with the stand of trees along its edge, I put on an extra burst of speed, the very last in my reserve tank of energy...

...And some crouching inhuman figure jumped out from behind a tree with a blood-curdling roar and raced toward me by the light of the moon.

I shrieked so loud, something in my throat ripped and it hurt me to talk for three days afterwards. As my head whipped around to meet this expected terror, I tripped and started to fall. Luckily, I threw myself toward the grass—had I fallen on the road at the speed I was running, I would have been torn to pieces. Even so, I just got my hands down just in time to hit the grass with my shoulder and do a tuck roll, nicely executed considering the complete lack of finesse with which I dropped to the ground. About halfway through my somersault, it registered that the monstrous figure was my dad. I was screaming at him before I even came completely out of the roll.

He continued to lie on the ground, rocking back and forth with laughter. The more I yelled, the harder he laughed. I limped back toward the house with as much dignity as I could, given a bleeding palm and twisted ankle, winded beyond breath. My mom met me on the porch and I just stalked past her. I spared her one dirty glance, then stared straight ahead and kept walking.

"Don’t look at me, it wasn’t my idea. Your dad’s been hiding out there ever since you two left the house."

Limping my way upstairs, I heard her giving him the scolding of his life for scaring me like that as he walked across the yard toward the house.

He waved it away dismissively, still grinning. "Ah...it’s alright..."

"Someday, she’ll thank me for this."

Come Hither, Girl...

Come!

Come.

Gather ‘round, children. Gather ‘round and huddle close, for the night is dark and cold and there are things that would reach out and snatch you…take you away, if they could…and change you…

Let us talk of fear. But let us not talk of ordinary fear, the heebie jeebies that sometimes come creeping, skittering up the back of your neck…on a night…much like this night…

No, let us talk of true, creeping terror, the kind that yawns at the very center of your soul.

And a girl. Let us talk of a girl. I want to tell you a story…

Once upon a time, there was a girl. I’ll call her Girl. Girl was inquisitive, and carefree. The world she knew was the world she loved, for she knew it as she knew the back of her hand. Each familiar nook and cranny, each beloved thing—it was all hers, all hers, and she would trip-skip-hop through the paths and love it all. There were occasional storms, but she even learned to love these…normally, the weather was bright and sunny and she assumed it would always be this way, forever. She was happy, so happy, and Girl never thought this private world of hers would change.

But as she grew older, she started noticing…something. Something…different. Something…unpleasant. For at the edge of her world, she noticed there was a hole starting to form. Where it came from and what it was, Girl did not know. One day, it was flat and tranquil ground and the next…a hole. Girl did her best to avoid this hole. She knew not what it was, only that she wanted no part of it. So she did her best to ignore it, but it grew and grew, until it was no longer a hole, but a Hole.

Then, it started calling to her.

And soon, it became too much to bear. Girl had to look; she simply had to! So one day, she worked up her courage, and dared to draw close to the Hole. She inched, closer and closer, and soon, she was at the edge.

She looked down.

And what she saw was…the black of forever. And endless, yawning gape in her world, the blackness, the antithesis of all. And swimming in that absolute negation of being, she saw…things. Things.

There was Mediocrity, with its strengthless, wispy bloodroot of a body, slowly wavering past. And as it turned to look at her, she saw it had her face. And Madness was there, a gibbering, slavering, twitching demon and it grinned at her with her lips and her own eyes, glassy and wide, stared back at her. As she stared in horror, Madness grinned a sly, changeling grin and beckoned to her. And Apathy, transparent and fleshless, limbless, with a hollow, whining sound. Selfishness and Manipulation, Siamese twins, twitched past her. Selfishness reached for Manipulation with mangled lovers’ hands and swallowed it whole, only to vomit it out again, and Manipulation cackled with delight as it devoured Selfishness in turn. Depression wove its way through them all, a slithering, grey mist and everywhere it touched died. The blackness died and became something worse than evil, worse than nothing. She stared in bulge-eyed horror.

Her face. They all wore her face. Twisted, misshapen, the deadest things alive, they all turned and stared at her…

“Come, Girl,” they whispered, “Come and see. Come in! Come in! All you have to do…

…is…

…juuuuuuuuuump…yesssss…

For a moment, she wavered. The voices were distorted and garbled, and yet…familiar. She hesitated, frozen. Girl’s eyes glazed over and she shifted slightly. One foot was planted firmly on the ground and the other…the other hung over the abyss. Girl was…gone. She didn’t even notice the loving blackness starting to crawl its furtive way up her leg…then her wrist…

Suddenly, she blinked. She gasped and threw herself backwards from the edge, flinging herself away with a scream that ripped something in her very soul. She ran, and ran, putting distance between herself and the Hole, flying over the familiar ground until she was home.

After that day, she never went back to the Hole. She gave it a wide berth when she was walking around her land, and she tried to shove the events of that day from her mind.

But sometimes, at night, when she was laying in bed and all was silent…she could hear the sibilant whispers…

“Cooome. Coooooooome, Girlllllll…soon, you will come…to love ussssssss…you will be one…with usssssss…”

And she would lay awake, terrified beyond all being…because she knew she already was.

Urban Legend

Like a handful of people in this contest, I grew up in Western Pennsylvania. As areas of the country go, you wouldn't be able to place the accent like you would a Brooklyn brogue, or a Texan drawl. It holds no spots of significant historical meaning, like Gettysburg or Philadelphia. And it has been long since it's been socially relevant, like New Orleans, or become littered with stereotypes and cultural references like the South. But anyone who grew up in the rolling foothills of Western PA, a place still with more trees than skyscrapers, where deals are still sealed with a handshake, can tell you that we have history in spades.

We have myth. We have folklore. We have a long and storied history of things that go bump in the night, of George Romero spawning the undead all over our tranquil area of the country, and Stephen King's Walkin' Dude leaving his coal-black footprints on our roads. We are a quiet people, yet still largely a superstitious people, an amalgamation of the deeply-held fears of the Scotch-Irish, the Italian, the German immigrants and Amish who settled in the land. We dig up arrowheads of Indians (And yes, there, the word is still "Indians") and are reminded of their ghosts which still haunt the lands. The woods are still dark and deep, and if you sit still on your porch on a quiet night, you can hear the cries of things in the woods, lost things, scared things...dangerous things.

Oh, yes. We have history. We have myth. We have legend.

We have the Green Man...

The Green Man.

I know there are a few people reading this right now who will jump when they read that. They know what I'm talking about. Yes. Oh yes, they know. They should. They came from the same place. They know of the legends...

"Don't go out at night--the Green Man will get you!"

"Be careful and be home by dark--else the Green Man will snatch you away!"

"Green Man, Green Man, try and run, while you can..."

Every culture has a Boogeyman, a dark and malevolent creature just waiting to snatch unsuspecting children.

The Green Man was ours. He belonged to us...and we belonged to him.

Oh, you heard the stories growing up. In horrified, whispering giggles from friends while huddled around sleeping bags and popcorn. In the teasing of older kids, trying their best to scare you while pretending not to be spooked by the Green Man themselves. Some even called him Charlie No-Face, but to most, he was the Green Man.

The Green Man, so they said, was horribly disfigured ("My grandpa says he knew him! No, my uncle knew a guy who knew a guy..."). Once, he had been a normal man, but after suffering a tragic accident--some said it was a factory accident, others said he had been mauled by machinery in the field, still others held with the notion that he had been struck by lightning ("It's the electricity...that's why he glows, you know...")--he changed. He became insane, dangerous. Legend had it that he took one look at his non-face in the mirror after the accident and snapped. He dragged his mangled no-face and faintly glowing, green skin along the twisting roadways at night...and rumor had it that if you were to drive down a certain stretch of winding, lonely road in the dead of night, you'd see him. You'd see the Green Man in your headlights. Sometimes, it was a stretch of road ("I've seen him, I have!" Me 'n Dave!"), while at other times it was a tunnel, or a bridge ("See, you sit there at night and turn your headlights off, see..."), and that's when he came. You'd drive into the middle of the bridge, or tunnel, and extinguish the lights...and you'd wait. If you were brave enough, that was. And supposedly...he came. He came out of the night and would touch your car, and due to the electrical disturbances he caused, he could stall your car out, break it down...leave you stranded...come for you.

Touch you...

He was myth, he was legend, he was our Boogeyman. He haunted the desolate, country roadways of Western Pennsylvania like a wraith, snatching people, taking victims... Sometimes, the missing were attributed to the work of the Green Man. The name alone grew to have the power to terrify, to send people scurrying to the lights of their homes after the sun went down. I used to lie awake at night in bed, terrified lest I'd see his gibbering, green face in my window, or perhaps a twisted shadow gliding amongst the darker shadows alongside the road...

It wasn't until I was much older that I learned the true story of the Green Man. He had been a real person, and due to a tragic, childhood accident, had been left horribly disfigured and completely blind. Because of his mangled face, he had grown reticent and hermetic, and withdrew from the public eye, venturing out only at night, where he could walk in peace, aided by his walking stick. It became a game to people, to spot the Green Man. People would drive around in their cars and come for miles, driving up and down the stretches of road he supposedly walked, just trying to get a glimpse of him. Sometimes, people were kind. More often than not, they weren't. He was hit by more than one car, careening around a bend. And he was hit by more than one bottle or rock on his walks, superstitious people waving their torches and pitchforks as this abomination, this Frankenstein's monster. Or worse, they would take pictures and laugh, and run back to their dates and their buddies and show everyone the pictures of the freak, of the monster, of the Green Man, the trophies of...bravery, if that's what you want to call it.

But as he grew older, he withdrew and became more and more reclusive, and by the end of his life, he was living in a nursing home. He passed away quietly in 1985 but by that time, he had ceased to be Raymond Robinson, the man, and had become the terrifying myth of the Green Man. Now, over twenty years later, no one knows who Raymond Robinson was, but everyone still tells the tales of the Green Man.

And I suppose that's the truly frightening aspect of urban legends, isn't it? Not that they are made-up lies and false stories...but because they are true. All urban legends, no matter how far-fetched, are based in a kernel of truth. They may become twisted and warped over the years, and grow to epic, outrageous proportions. But go back just a few twists and turns in the story and you arrive at its inception, the true event or person that spawned the myth. Sometimes, it's even more terrifying in a way than the urban legend itself. Sometimes, it's mundane. All too often, such as in the case of the Green Man, it's just sad and lonely and misunderstood. But in all of them--ALL of them--there is some truth about the human condition, some real thing that we recognize in ourselves. Sometimes, we deny it. Sometimes, we lock our doors to it. But it is a part of us. The Green Man is a part of my land, a part of my people, as much as we are a part of him.

We are intertwined, and I can no longer tell where the man ends and the legend begins, where the true story leaves off, and where people picked it up and spun it into legend with their stories. All I know is the Green Man has always been there in Western Pennsylvania, and will continue to be there, long after I am gone, haunting the roadways and waiting to snatch you away...

And then you shall become part of the legend, too.





(For those of you wondering about the true story of the Green Man, you can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Robinson_%28Green_Man%29 and read about him on Wikipedia.)

Full Circle

Let's run away!" she said, and he merely looked at her.

"Come on. Let's go somewhere, anywhere, let's just go!"

He gave her a puzzled frown, and she turned away, sighing. Her gypsy blood was whispering to her again, the fire in her mind starting to spark and pop. Her life had ever been a series of waves, and now she wanted to go, go, go. She was growing restless here, she was feeling caged. She could feel the endless days of monotony slowly rising up to strangle her, a choking vine of killer grey tendrils. She wanted to push at him, laugh and yell at him, hit him, kiss him, fuck him, fuck him madly, roughly, even angrily, to do something unexpected and shocking, just to make him respond with...something. To make him not only feel something, but show it. Anything but another day of mild passiveness. She gazed at the back of his head, and her face was a twisting mix of amusement and sadness and quick, jackrabbit thought.

He didn't understand. Had he ever understood? She thought he had, once upon a time, when she was the queen of a fairy-tale, not the hapless, absurd subject of a local paper's human interest story. She had always felt there was something inside her, something flaming and glowing and huge inside her head, just waiting to get out. She knew she was capable of big things, so she never thought on the small scale. Truth be told, she never questioned the fact there was a smaller scale. She had felt something coming full circle the past few years, and she hadn't seen its shape until recently, but now she could. It was her, a younger her, a more idealistic and compassionate her--the her she had lost over the years, and the her she had struggled so mightily to find again. She wanted to get lost in the marketplace of an ancient city somewhere, to get her hands dirty in the muck of some small town in Africa as she scratched out English letters in the dirt, to donate every drop of her sweat and tears and blood to helping the desperately poor, the unlearned, the scared and the broken and the lost.

Go West, young woman. Go North, South, and East. She wanted to see the world, and why not? She had come to a slowly dawning decision, this year--this was not the life she wanted. It never had been, and she had just put the life she had wanted on hold for a while, convincing herself it was time to settle down and be "normal". But she realized she couldn't do it. Not that she wouldn't, but couldn't. Not forever. It had quietly been creeping up on her, the thought that she wasn't sure she could handle a life like it, so sedate, so unchanging, forever, without losing her damn mind. Without going crazy batshit off-the-walls stark raving destroy her relationship destroy her life mad, just to feel again, to burn. To again become one of Kerouac's Roman candles which lit up the sky. She couldn't deny it any longer. She was never meant for the calm, steady pace at which most people lived their lives. She looked at most of those people, and felt for them--they were miserable. And most said, "You have to stop being so idealistic." or "You have to settle SOMETIME." or "Just accept it's life."

NO. She didn't want that life. Her very atoms shrank back against the thought, and some small, trapped creature inside her (my soul; it's my soul she thought) shrieked out in broken misery.

She could feel it, this year. Standing at the outpost sign on the road that had stretched through the years of her life. This one read "The Rest of Your Life, est. 2008. Pop. ?" The question mark was odd. The question mark was troubling. The last few years, the sign had always read "2". The road had always been straight for a miserable span of months, and flat, and, dare she say...boring. She had trudged along, darting off into the bushes every time she saw something interesting, or stopping to talk to the people she met along the way, but it was always straight and narrow. No twists. No bends. Nothing changed.

She sensed a fork just beyond the welcome sign, this time. She couldn't quite see it, yet, but she was certain a few more miles would bring it within view. She thought about which path she would choose, with the fork coming so soon. She didn't know. In the end, she would, as always, go where her heart led her. Some might say it had led her wrong in the past, but she didn't agree with that. Wherever it led her had become whomever she was, good and bad. She had never regretted her decisions, not once.

She peered into the near future, trying to ascertain the shape of the fork, trying to ascertain the shape of her life. And she prayed, god, she prayed, that this time would not be the first time she would ever know regret.

Open Letter to a Future Daughter

Some people are born angry. They'll rage against everything in life with an inexplicable chip on their shoulder, daring anyone to look at them funny. Some people are not fighters. They are passive, preferring to let the world pass them by however it will, letting it shape itself around them, rather than doing the shaping for themselves. Still others are those somewhere in the middle, fighters at heart emotionally, passionate and strong in the face of adversity (even when they should back down). I fall into the latter category, but even so, there are some laws I won't break. Though I have a decided problem with authority that abuses its power and the unspoken laws of society, my own authority over myself is one I try to follow daily. It's not always easy being a woman in this world, and I've often thought that if I ever were to have a little girl, what would I tell her? What would I teach her? What wisdom could I possibly impart that I would hope she'd never disregard? And so, I write letters in my head, sometimes to myself; sometimes to my future children and I tell them everything I wish I had been told, even if I know there was no other way to learn it but on my own.

These are the laws I hope I never break.

Hello, honey,

I'm just wondering what kind of woman you want to be. If you want to be anything like those whom you emulate, who walk into a room and simultaneously light it up while a cloak of respect settles around their shoulders like a crown on a queen, there are some rules you should follow, both for yourself and the world around you. If you break these, that's okay--you have to break them to see which ones work for you. But try not to break them too often.

One, classy always trumps trashy. It does. Believe me, darling, it does. In this day and age, the internet permeates your world. There are far too many websites where far too many girls far too young take off their clothes and prance around in their bra and underwear for the benefit of men. They look carefree and happy in their pictures, and maybe a very few of them are, but don't let them fool you--they are trainwrecks waiting to happen, sure as the night follows day. It may seem hard now, because these girls always, in reality and online, will always get more attention. But it is shallow attention, surface attention. They are not the girls guys would ever take back to their mothers--they are the girls they sleep with and then brag to their friends about how easy she was. It is the classy girl that will earn their eventual respect, though they may not brag to their friends about how much they like you, at first. But that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them having insecurities of their own.

Two, speaking of sex, I realize you'll have it. There is nothing I can do to stop you. But I hope you'll always remember to be safe and smart about it and if you do start having sex, I'd rather you come to me so we can get you on some birth control than hiding it and ending up like Jamie Lynn Spears (I know you don't know who she is; thankfully her family inbred itself to death, but even so).

Three, LIVE LIFE. Passion is key. Honey, this rule is the most important of all. Don't take the conventional road simply because someone tells you it's what you should do. Even if it's me. Question everything, then let your heart forge its own way. Trust your instincts and your heart. They will sometimes lead you wrong (usually in relationships), but if you can learn something from your experiences, every time, you should never have a reason to regret. I don't know a regret in my life, and while I've made mistakes, I will always be glad I was a person who experienced all that I wanted rather than slowly dying while being chained behind a desk. If a corporate ladder is what you want to climb and the rat race is what you want to run your entire life, that's fine, too. But if you want to climb a mountain peak and race a lover to see who can fall in love fastest...if you're any daughter of mine, these will suit you better.

Four, speaking of love, you will get your heart broken. There is no way around it. But just remember, everything passes in time. Your pain is not the end-all, be-all of your life. It will not kill you--it will only temper you and make you more resilient. Even heartbreak, pain, anger, and loneliness. I know at the depths of your misery, when you just want to wallow and shut out the world, this will not be the first thought on your mind. But if you can view life through a telescopic lens and see the big picture, rather than the very limited lens of the here and now, you should be fine. It will instill you with an inner core of serenity that will help you safely through the rougher waters of life, not solely the turbulence in the aftermath of love.

Five, be kind. This is another important one. Your grandma taught me this. There is such a lack of compassion now in the world, if you pay attention to the news. It's all fear-mongering and atrocities. And perhaps it's true. Perhaps we are moving to a time in which it is easier to detach. The internet makes it far too easy to treat people on the other side of the screen as so many pixels, rather than living human beings. And there are some idiots in this world, believe me. But I hope you give everyone the benefit of the doubt, that you assume they are generally good, decent people when you meet them, and that if they prove to be otherwise, you shall first try to understand why they are how they are. And if that doesn't work, well then, stand up for yourself by all means--but always do it with tact, class, and kindness.

Six, read. Read often and learn much. And this one comes from your grandpa. Nothing is sexier to a worthy man than a woman with a brain who's not afraid to use it. I realize that at your age, being a "brain" rather than "hot" is hard to swallow. And guess what? Occasionally, that doubt will jump out at you when you're least expecting it--I still have my days when I think to myself, "Screw it. Maybe I SHOULD drop 5 pounds and be anorexic. Maybe I SHOULD get a nose job. Maybe I SHOULD be a mindless flirt, instead of a woman with a mind." But darling, any man worth your time will appreciate you for your mind and will be thrilled you've indulged it so. Your mind is the one thing that can never be taken from you by another. Cultivate it as you would a garden and I assure you it will return to you a hundredfold what you put into it.

Seven, love your family. Even if you sometimes are distant and communication gets scarce now and then, your family will always love you. It is the one thing you can always fall back on. To this day, it amazes me when I hear of others talk about how they are distant from their family, how they hate their family, how they barely talk. It makes me sad, because I think a large part of the inner core of serenity talked about a few rules ago stems from having a great bond with your family from childhood.

Eight, be silly. Never lose that child-like joy for the world. Trust me, life will sometimes be a slog, monotonous and gray. But if you can always find time for a spot of joy, hopefully you will never feel the homicidal urge to start lighting people on fire with your mind. Nor will you ever turn that grayness inward upon yourself. The child inside is necessary in times of stress and depression. Sometimes it's the only thing keeping you from taking every relationship you've built apart at the seams, just to watch it all burn. It's that child-like joy that keeps you sane. Even if it's to look at a tree waving in the wind, or to indulge in an entire pint of ice cream in one sitting, find time each day to do something you love. Eventually, hopefully you'll remember to carry that mindset into your adult relationships.

Nine, speaking of adult relationships. When you're finally in one, sometimes it will get boring after a while. I'm not going to lie to you, honey. Sometimes, no matter how much you love someone, no matter how much you love them back, it just doesn't work and the relationship ends. Hopefully, yours will last. But even if it does, it's work. Always remember, affection is important. Women, we need it. We can not survive without it. It is our lifeblood in a relationship, along with communication, and if we're not getting one or both, it starts to whither and die for us. That being said, men need to be appreciated, too. Be affectionate. Don't stop giving him a kiss or a hug. Cook him something you know he'd like, just because. Surprise him with a gift here or there, even if it's just a text message, to let him know you've thought of him throughout the day. Ask how his day was, and LISTEN. You may not always get this in return, but if you can do these things, then you can say you're a good girlfriend, and a good woman.

Ten, be yourself. Even if it means disregarding every rule I've given you. Be yourself as much as you can be, and don't ever kowtow to the pressures of whatever the current "popular" group is, or what society tells you you should be. If it makes you uncomfortable, don't do it. If your instincts warn you away, don't do it. That being said, if you find there is something about yourself you truly do not like, something that offends or hurts other people, try your best to change it. We are eternally works in progress. We don't stop striving to be better, kinder, more learned, simply because we reach a certain age.

There are many more rules to follow, and more you'll add to your own list. But these should give you a headstart on life and will hopefully help you become the type of woman you want to be. I love you.

Love,

Me

Skipping Stones (Unfinished)

Hollie, someone died today.

I’m sorry…

I just…I don’t know what happened.

Come on over. We’ll go for a walk.

Half an hour later, we are at Whitewater, so named for the boiling rapids that spring up between the rocks every spring, when the snows melt and the creek runs with excess rainwater. A huge, flat glacial boulder acts as a natural dam. Initials and hearts with arrows from generations past are carved deep into the rock. To the right, tumbled boulders create a pressure valve for the water, which pours into a deep sinkhole and becomes a swimming pool before pouring over another tumble of boulders and foaming over the rocks in a torrent. A rope swing used to hang from one of the thick branches of an overhanging tree for those generations of souls brave enough to risk life and limb for a few flying seconds before dropping into the deep pool. It’s rotted now, though, and only a fool or a drunk would attempt the drop.

Will and I almost drowned there once. We had gone hiking, and ignored the warnings from my mom to not go into the creek, especially around Whitewater, where the spring rains had created dangerous rapids and hidden traps among the rocks. Of course, we ignored her. We were kids. Kids never pay attention to warnings.

I jumped in first, and Will followed, after a second or two of hesitation. I knew what he was thinking. He was doing damage control in his head and figuring out a way to explain our wet clothes and muddy shoes. I never thought about the consequences. I always knew, vaguely in the back of my mind, that I’d think of something later. It didn’t matter. What mattered was the water pouring over the boulders, and being in it.

So I jumped in, and started wading across. Will started across a few seconds after me, but more slowly, taking care to gauge which was the best rock to step to next. I was doing alright until my foot slipped on a submerged rock, dangerous slick with moss. My ankle twisted. I was small for fifteen years old, and only my good sense of balance kept me from going head over heels into the water most times. But with my balance gone, my foot shot out from underneath me, and the rest followed.

I don’t remember much of what happened. It all became a blur. I do remember being pulled under the water and yanked along. I cracked my head a pretty good one off a jagged edge of shale, then got sucked underneath an overhanging edge of boulder. I held my breath as long as possible and tried to fight my way to the surface, but I was so turned around and battered I wasn’t sure which way was up. I couldn’t even get a good enough grip on the rocks to push myself to the surface with my feet.

But then suddenly, my head was above water, and I was breathing air. I gasped and looked up to see Will hanging halfway off the boulder I had just swept past. His hand was clamped on my arm in a pincher grip, and he was half-dragging, half-pushing me up onto a rock beside him. I crawled up onto the warm sandstone and flipped over onto my back, sodden clothes squelching water that ran down the sides of the stone and back into the creek. After I caught my breath, I rolled over on my side and looked at him. His face was white under his early summer tan, except for a smear of mud along one cheek. He stared at me. I stared back. I grinned. He kept staring.

“Thanks.” I paused and looked at his muddy, torn clothes. “Your mom’s gonna kill you.”

His voice came out in a croak. “I saw you go under the rocks. I thought you were drowning.”

“Nah, I just went for a little swim, that’s all. I’m ok.”

His eyes flicked up to my temple. “You’re bleeding.”

“I am?” I reached up to my head and my fingers came away bloody. I remembered bashing my head on the submerged rock. I showed him my fingertips. He turned even paler. I laughed.

“What, you wanna be a doctor and you’re afraid of a little blood?”

“It’s not that, Hollie, it’s…you…”

“I’m fine. Right as rain. Promise.”

I stood up and looked down the creek. Will climbed to his feet behind me and gingerly stepped over to my rock. I turned around and smiled at him over my shoulder, then made an impatient gesture with my hand. We hiked on. In a few minutes, we had forgotten all about it. It was just something that happened, like anything else. Kids do that. They don’t realize how serious a situation is, and it fades from their minds like fog. I’d give just about anything to have that ability back.

We scrubbed the dirt off our clothes as best we could, and walked the long way home to give our clothes time to dry off. Our mothers never knew what had happened, and to this day, I don’t believe either one of us has ever told them. I ate dinner and played with my younger sisters that night, and everything was fine.

But later, after I went to bed, I had nightmares of being suffocated, of being crushed under an oppressive blackness. I woke up gasping for air. Then I started crying.

After that, things changed. Our friendship was stronger than ever. But now we had become aware of something. An innocent chapter of our lives had closed and another had opened. We couldn’t have said what it was, but I’m ten years older and I know now. It was the knowledge of our own mortality. Death had brushed so close, we felt His robes whisper against our cheeks. He hadn’t taken me, but He had taken our innocence, and our faith in our own immortality. Or perhaps He hadn’t taken anything at all, but added something new to our lives—an awareness that we too, could die, and could at anytime. It’s as if a child is protected from death up until the point she learns of it. Then she is aware of it everywhere, possibly with her name on it.

And here we are, almost ten years later. I perch on top of a boulder, watching the water below me rush past. Will sits on the glacial boulder, fingertips tracing “Johnny + Karen” as he lets his feet dangle in the water. Some things never change, including our favorite spots. We skip stones into the pool with hands steady from years of practice in the precise art of flinging bits of shale across every body of water in our neighborhood. The trick is to select the right kind of rock. Not too big, or else it will be too heavy and the rock will never skip. But not too small, or else it will be too light and will never have the weight to rebound from the surface of the water. About the size of your palm is best. They have to be thin and smooth to skim the water, though the shape doesn’t really matter, if you have the stone-skipping technique down. Hold the edge between thumb and forefinger, with your thumb on top and forefinger curled underneath. Snap your wrist forward in a smooth motion, and flick your fingertips at the last second. The trick is to throw it across, not down. That’s where a lot of people mess up. They’ll flick it down, instead of smoothly across, and then it hits the water on an edge and breaks that surface tension. Then it’s all over. The rock sinks.

As usual, Will has a small pile of perfect skipping stones next to him. He won’t throw as many as I will, but it’s almost a sure thing that every one he throws will get at least four or five good skips before sinking. My pile of stones is bigger, but only one out of every four or so will skip properly. I just don’t have the patience to find the perfect kind of stones the way Will does. I never had Will’s patience. Only when it comes to people. My mom once called me “the collector of broken things”. I wasn’t sure why then, but I now know. People plagued with demons just somehow seem to flock to me. Still do. I don’t mind. Other people make sense in a way I never do to myself. I can talk to someone for an hour and understand so much more about them than they ever know. But I am a blank to myself, most days. I guess that’s normal though. The way we can dispense advice to others so easily, and yet be doomed to repeat our own mistakes over and over. If you think about it, why do we bother giving advice at all?

Will is the first to speak. “She just died. Just died. I was assisting Dr. Cartwright on a routine surgery, and she just…died. There was a blocked artery, and we knocked it loose. It killed her. We killed her.” He speaks in a dull voice, staring at the water without really seeing it.

Will is in his medical residency at a hospital in the city. The kid once blew his own eyebrows off in Chem class, and now he’s going to be a doctor. It would be laughable—hell, it is laughable. But that doesn’t stop the fact he’s barreling down the luge track of medicine, hell-bound to be a doctor. And a damn good one, too. We rarely get to see each other, because of his schedule. This was the first patient of his that had died. I mean, others had died. But those were always some other doctor’s patients, or they died of old age, or a terminal illness. Will’s hand had never had a hand in dispensing death. I know he has to get used to it if he wants to be a doctor. But then again, were I in his position, I knew I’d be taking it hard, too.

I don’t say anything. I just let him talk. Besides, what could I have said? It had already been said to him by the senior doctors. It wasn’t his fault, they couldn’t have known, things like this happen, they did everything right in surgery, the surgery had to happen or she would have died for sure, it’s the cycle of life and death, there was nothing he could have done, it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t his fault.

But it is. In his own mind, it is. It will be for a while. Maybe forever.

It’s always kind of been like this. We take turns saving each other. We save each other from all the fuckery in our heads. He saves me from doing stupid things, as my modus operandi is to usually jump headlong into something without thinking. The half-assed approach isn’t always the best way to handle life, or so he has shown me many times. Or more accurately, I’ve shown myself, and he’s been there to pick up the pieces when I screw up.

In return, I keep him from being too neurotic and straight-laced. I slow him down when his anxiety train is charging headlong down the tracks, before he derails. Which is often—though thankfully not like it used to be. Once, when we were playing street hockey one summer day, Will became convinced he was having a stroke. He panicked, because he felt dizzy and sweaty, and saw bright flashes of light in front of his eyes. He had himself three-fourths of the way talked into going to the hospital when I pointed out we had been playing hockey in ninety-eight degree weather and he was more than likely overheated. Although, I did once shame him into playing freeze tag with a broken collarbone for a full hour before he went home. I told him to stop being a baby, and that he had probably just jammed it. Apparently, I was wrong. He never did fully trust my medical diagnoses after that. But then, I suppose that’s why he’s going to be the doctor, and I’m going to be the writer.

Will falls silent again, and I watch a monarch butterfly meander its way through the flowers growing along the embankment. I watch it flit from flower to flower, never really settling on one but always on the search for one that’s bigger, brighter, sweeter. I look over and see that Will’s gaze is focused on a red-tailed hawk sitting high up in the branches of a dead tree down the creek, and I’m not sure which is more still. Probably Will.

“Hollie, remember when we were kids and I used to take my toy trucks and Transformers apart, and put them back together again, just because I could?”

“Yeah. I remember.”

“It’s so different…so different when it’s reality.” He pauses, then continues, “If you make a mistake when putting your Tonka truck back together, no big deal. It still works, for the most part. Still runs. But this…this just…”

“Will…I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not going to tell you what you’ve already heard. It happens. That’s life. Sometimes…things just happen. Whether you want them to or not. You have to decide if the good outweighs the bad. If not…then maybe being a surgeon isn’t for you.”

“But, Hollie, I should have known…should have seen…”

“You can’t save everyone, Will. Some people just can’t be saved. And some just don’t want to be.”

He snorts. “Oh that’s ironic, coming from you, the self-made savior of the world.”

I smile into the distance, without really seeing anything. “I know. But even I am learning when it’s wiser to give up, than keep forcing something that just will not be.”

Will tosses a stone to me and I catch it neatly, then spin it into the water. It skips five times, a perfect combination of my technique and Will’s piece of shale, then sinks. Will makes a comment on how I haven’t lost my rock-skipping skill, and declares me the best stone thrower in western PA. After a few minutes, his face grows serious again.

“Hollie, do you believe in God?”

I’m quiet, measuring my words and thinking of how best to put my thoughts into speech. This is a difficult subject for me. Not so much because I am caught in any struggle for the eternal salvation of my soul, or am chained by years of religious dogma and brainwashing, but because I simply don’t know. I don’t know, and my ideas about it keep going in circles. Finally, I give him the answer I feel to be most correct, the one that has taken me twenty-five years of my life to come to terms with.

“I don’t believe in…God, per se. Not in the Christian sense of the word, anyway. But…I do believe there is something out there. Or maybe it’s just that I would really like to believe there is. I’d like to believe there is an afterlife, and my heart tells me there is…but I really just don’t know. My logic fights with my hope, and I’m not sure which to believe. I guess, in the end…I’m not sure. I really want there to be something, but if there is something out there…then my idea of it is a hell of a lot different than the traditional ideas.”

“I have to believe there is something out there. I have to.”

“Why?”

“Because…I see so much every day. The after-effects of violent rapes. Kids shooting each other without a second thought. Parents beating children too helpless to fight back. I have to attribute that to evil in the world. Because if I don’t…then there’s no reason those things happen. No reason at all. And I can’t handle knowing that terrible things happen for no reason, that nothing matters. That I have no control over anything. And if I believe in evil, I have to believe in God, because I have to believe there is a balancing force, an equalizer for the horrors I see every day. I’d…I know I’d lose my mind, otherwise.”

I measured my words slowly. “Well…I think you have to learn that sometimes, things just happen. Even if there is something up there holding the universe in the palm of its hand. You can’t control everything—and you shouldn’t. You’re a human being. Only the gods can control fate. You have to learn there are no answers for some things, because that’s the only way you can really ever live. Any other way, and it’s just a shadow of a life. You can’t control everything.”

“I know, but—“

“But nothing. I think in the end, that’s all you can really do. Make up your own mind for your own reasons and live by that. Whatever makes the most sense to you, or gives you the most hope.”

“I suppose so. I just need something. I don’t have your blind faith that I can survive on my own and thrive, simply because I have willed it to be so.”

“Will, I’m not so sure I have that blind faith anymore, either.”

“You have to, Hollie. You were always the one who jumped without knowing whether or not there was a cushion at the end of the fall…you just always knew there’d be.”

“Yeah, well…life has a way of being unkind to people who hold those beliefs. So you change, or get dragged under. And if you can’t change…well then, you’re screwed.” I shrug.

The Protectors (Unfinished)

She lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. Most of the time she didn’t know who she was, where she was, or why she was there, and this particular moment was no exception to that foggy state of being.
It was maddening. She gazed at the ceiling and tried not to let frustration overwhelm her. Somewhere, dancing just on the edges of her mind, she could feel all the answers. She knew she should know who she was, where she was, why she was. She felt all those dancing thoughts hidden away behind a secret doorway in her mind. If she could just find the key to unlock them, she’d know what this was all about…but she couldn’t quite make the shadow-shape answers formulate themselves clearly. So she settled for staring at the ceiling and tried not to focus on the nagging feeling that she was forgetting…well, everything. A blank mind was better than a continually foggy one, or so she thought.
And just like that, as it sometimes did, the door unlocked.
“Margaret,” she said emphatically. “I’m Margaret.”
Margaret carefully pushed herself upward, not wanting to bother her arthritis more than she had to. Her hip had been bad lately, very bad. That much she knew. She surveyed her surroundings and made a slight face: Pleasant Manor. Though on her more lucid days, Margaret knew better. “Pleasant”, her hind end. Places, especially nursing homes, were always given cute, soothing monikers like “pleasant” and “golden” to hide the fact they were really places where very old people went to live out the messy end of their rapidly-shortening lives. If they were lucky, they’d keep their faculties fully intact to the very last, but more often than not they went with cranky bowels, weak bladders, half of their teeth left in their head, half a brain left in their head. It was sad and it was inevitable, but Margaret had decided to make her room as cheerful as possible and focus on the good. So when she moved into her room, 103—no second story for this manor, couldn’t have the septuagenarians falling and breaking any bones—she made sure to bring the needlepoint throw pillows she had made over the years, her crocheted blanket, a few photo albums, so she could look at well-loved faces even when they were no longer familiar…and her dolls.
Of course, her dolls. Sitting in chairs, on the television, on her dresser, were the dolls. Her son, Richard, had even erected a shelf that ran the full length of the room so Margaret would have more room for her beloved doll collection. It was a strange fascination, almost an obsession, how much Margaret loved her dolls. But Richard figured if it made his mom happy, who was he to take away one of the few things that brought her true pleasure in her remaining years? So he drove down early one Saturday morning with his tools and nails and within a few hours, Margaret had a shelf on every wall for her friends.
She climbed out of her bed with bones that creaked louder each day, and shuffled over to the shelf directly across from her bed. There, Emily held the place of honor. She was the oldest and most beloved of Margaret’s dolls. Margaret was eighty-seven years old, and Emily older still. The doll had been given to Margaret when she was only five, by her grandmother for whom she was named.
She picked Emily up in her hands and wondered who would take care of her dolls when she was gone. As long as she could go out on her own terms with a little bit of fight left in her, so be it. She didn’t much care what happened to her, but she cared about her dolls. They were the only true friends she’d ever really had.
She hadn’t had many friends and even those she had the occasional play date with hadn’t really been friends so much as acquaintances of convenience. It wasn’t that her classmates had been mean to her or that she had disliked them. Somehow, other children had just seemed to…stay away from her. But she was a loner by nature, so that was alright.
It was why she loved Grandma Meg so much. From a very early age, Margaret had noticed that Grandma Meg tended to be a loner, too. People respected her grandma, but neither were they overly friendly with her. They never showed her anything but courtesy when went into town, but they still left her alone. It was rare that Margaret ever saw her grandma sharing a cup of tea with someone after Sunday church, and even rarer still that Grandma Meg had visitors to her home, a huge, rambling Victorian at the end of Hawthorne Lane on the edge of town. Other houses shared the street, but Grandma Meg’s was the biggest, and, Margaret had thought, the nicest.
Margaret gazed down at the doll in her hands and thought about the day Grandma Meg had bequeathed Emily to her. It had been a few days after her fifth birthday, and as a treat, her mother had allowed her to spend the weekend at her grandmother’s house. Margaret had been overjoyed. She loved Grandma Meg’s house, and loved being able to roam as she wished through the rambling corridors and explore the attic. It had cloth-draped shelves and dusty chests filled with all sorts of interesting things.
At first Margaret had worried that maybe it bothered her grandma that she poked through the old things—once, when she had showed Grandma Meg a strange pendant she had found, with curious marks all over it, Grandma Meg’s face had gone stark white and she snatched it out of Margaret’s hands. Margaret never saw it again, though she searched high and low for it in the months that followed.

You Ain't Never had a Friend Like Me

The first thing I observed was that he was very, very ill. I wish I could say that the first thing I noticed was his cheeky grin, or the curious way his eyes darted over the crowd, but I can’t. The first thing I noticed was his hair. Soft brown, thin and wispy in a way that whispered of heavy doses of chemotherapy. The vivid curiosity of warm brown eyes undermined by anemic dark circles. And translucent, sickly skin that hadn’t seen the sun in far too long, leeched of its childish health by the most virulent kinds of drugs.

The second thing I noticed was his mother, young and harried, and his father, holding a little girl. “Are we too late?” she asked, “Are we too late??”

They were, according to policies regarding cut-off times for seating for Fantasmic!, Disney MGM Studios’ live action water and fireworks show. Disney had pretty strict policies on, well, just about everything. A lot of details went into making it the happiest place on earth. And usually, they were needed. But one thing I loved about Disney was the fact it was an organization so willing to break the rules when the happiness of a kid was involved. Especially the ones in the—I glanced down—yep, he had one of the round pins on his shirt: Give Kids the World, Disney’s answer to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I took one look at the little boy and the way the mother’s hands wrapped white-knuckled around the handles of his wheelchair and made the executive decision to ignore the seating time rules, and ushered them in.

I showed them to the VIP section, reserved for our Give Kids the World guests and delighted in the grin he gave when I told him it was the section we only let very special guests sit in. His mom shot me a grateful look as I hunkered down to talk to the little boy.

“Hi! What’s your name?”
“Brandon. Hi!”
“And how about your little sister, Brandon?” I asked, smiling at the shy, tousle-headed little toddler.
“That’s Kaylee. She’s my sister. Who are you?”
“I’m Alisha.”

Brandon grinned and chattered away, telling me about his school, his sister, how much he liked the third grade, that his favorite subject was reading, that sometimes the chemo made him very, very tired but Disney was really cool, especially the giant gingerbread house in the middle of the Kids Village. At this, I had to look away to keep him from seeing the tears in my eyes. If you were accepted into the Give Kids the World program, it was because, simply put, you were not getting any better. Ever. I spied my good friend and partner in crime, Max, strolling past just then. “And this right here is Max. Max, come say hi to Brandon and Kaylee.”

Max strolled over, six feet of lanky Kentucky drawl and whip-quick wit: “Oh, man. They told me you’d be coming today, Brandon. I was just waiting to meet you. And you too, Kaylee,” he continued, bending down and hugging the little girl.

“They?” Brandon asked, wide-eyed.
“Oh, you know, Mickey…Minnie…” He glanced at me. “Tarzan and Jane, and, let’s see…who was asking about you earlier…?” I pretended to lose my train of thought, “Oh yeah! Belle and the Beast—I think she wanted to show you some of her books.”
“She did?? I love books! I won the spelling bee in my class a few weeks ago!”
“You must be pretty smart, Brandon. Who’s your favorite character?” asked Max, picking up where I left off.
“Aladdin!” he said immediately, “And Jasmine.”
“Those are my favorites, too!” I said—and they were.
“Oh, man,” he sighed wistfully, “I love them. It would be so cool to meet them…”

I glanced over at the parents. The father, looking sadly at Brandon, the mother, eyes fixed hopefully on me. My eyes met Max’s over the top of Brandon’s head.We have to make this happen, I silently mouthed. He nodded once.

“Okay, Brandon, Max and I have to work now, but we’ll be back in a little bit, okay? You enjoy the show.”

I pulled Max into a corner and we looked at each other in dismay.

“Max, we have to do this. We
have to make this happen. Can…can we arrange a meet-and-greet?”

“Aw, hell, I don’t know…I mean, if it’s one character in the park, sure, they sign autographs all the time, but you’re fixin’ to have him meet the whole cast of Fantasmic!? I mean, that’s a hell of a lot of characters, Lish. I don’t even know if we can pull it off. Has it ever been done before?”

We ran to find Kevin, our manager, to learn that no, it had never been done before. We dragged him over to meet Brandon and within three minutes of meeting the spunky little guy, Kevin was as on board with it as we were.

“Okay, let me make some calls and see if I can pull some strings. We’ve got to hustle—the show’s about to begin.”

Fifteen minutes, a handful of pulled strings, and some massive orchestration later and Kevin was back, “Okay,” he beamed, “They’re in. They’ll stay after for a meet-and-greet.”
“Which ones?” I asked. “Tinker Bell? Prince John? Aladdin?”
“Nope! All of them.”
Max broke in—“What do you mean, ALL of 'em?”
“I mean ALL of them. The entire cast has agreed to stay after hours for Brandon.”
“Holy…! Let’s go tell him!”

Max and I sprinted back to Brandon and his family.

“Hey, buddy,” Max whispered, kneeling down next to Brandon, “enjoying the show?”

Meanwhile, I pulled Brandon’s parents to the side so as not to be overheard. I told them what we had arranged, but that they’d have to stick around for an extra half hour while the characters got from backstage to the front, after the park had cleared out for the night.

I was confused when his mother’s face crumpled, and the dad seemed crestfallen. “It’s our shuttle,” he explained. “It’s picking us up at 10 p.m. sharp to take us back to the Kids Village. It’s the last one that runs; we won’t have a way to get back if we miss it.”

I stared at them for a second, wheels in my head spinning. There was no way I could let this little boy down now, no way Max and I could kill this surprise with a handful of empty gestures. I smiled at them while inside was all dismay. “Don’t you worry—I’ll take care of it.”

I was in it now. I had no idea how we were going to do it, but somehow, we were going to make this happen. I leaned over and whispered the problem in Max’s ear. “Aw, hell. Look, I don’t care if we have to drive ‘em back ourselves in our own cars, this little dude is GOING to meet Aladdin.”

We sprinted back to Kevin. By this time, the show was almost halfway over and we were working with borrowed time. Back on the phone he went, making calls. He returned a few minutes later. “Okay,” he breathed out. “Normally, they don’t do this as all the shuttles run on a schedule, but some of the drivers were willing to make an extra run to pick them up after hours. No worries, a shuttle will be back to pick them up at 10:45.”

“Kevin, you are AWESOME.”

Back we ran to Brandon’s parents, Max in the lead and me hot on his heels. We were getting a workout tonight, running helter-skelter around the giant amphitheater. He skidded to a halt and I bumped face-first into his back as I stopped behind him. I ducked under his arm and gave them the OK sign, while Max explained in a low voice.

Brandon turned around, completely oblivious to what had been going on behind his back the whole night. “Hey, Alisha! Max! Come watch the end of the show with me!”

After the show was over, knowing we’d have time to kill but not wanting him to be suspicious, we regaled him with stories about Disney and introduced him to various friends as they wandered past during clean-up. We told him that because he was a special VIP, he got to stick around the park after everyone else had gone. Luckily, thanks to Max’s mile-a-minute mouth and my ability to make up stories on the fly, the time passed quickly without Brandon getting suspicious. While I was entertaining him, I saw Kevin signal to us from the backstage entrance. Max wandered over and came back a minute later. He deftly nudged Brandon’s wheelchair around while kneeling down so his back was to the entrance.

“Hey, buddy, Lish and I have a surprise for you. I don’t know if I should give it to you, though…”

Brandon’s eyes widened and I elbowed Max.

“Okay, okay. Wanna see what it is?” Max grinned at Brandon, who grinned back at us, nodding. Max and I spun his wheelchair around so he could see what was unfolding behind him. Disney characters galore poured out of the backstage entrance, resplendent in their colorful costumes.

I pulled the cast member playing Prince Eric aside. “Thank you so much, guys.”

“Hey, no problem. This is what we’re here for, right? A lot more fun than the usual routine.” He grinned easily and gave Brandon a high-five.

They kept coming: Sorcerer Mickey and Minnie started the parade, led by Peter Pan and Wendy, followed closely by Captain Hook and Mr. Smee and a scolding Tinker Bell. Snow White and her Prince, Belle and the Beast, Ariel and Eric all stopped by to say hello. Snow White’s evil stepmother swept imperiously by, but not before offering him an apple, which he nervously declined. Governor John Ratcliffe and the Native Americans bartered a peace treaty long enough to talk to Brandon. John Smith and the lovely Pocahontas came by and had a chat as Cinderella and Prince Charming danced past. Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip joined in the waltz and for a time, Brandon’s face was rapt as a handful of Disney’s royal couples twirled in front of him, a riot of color. The Seven Dwarves, Chip and Dale, Donald and Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Hercules, Rafiki, and a galaxy of other Disney characters.

And last but not least…

A tap on his shoulder and a voice saying, “Not NOW, Abu!” as Aladdin and Jasmine materialized. Jasmine bent down to hug him and Aladdin messed up his hair: “Monkeys, ya know? You can never train them.”

I swear to you, I will never see another face more exploded with joy than Brandon’s was at that moment. I had tears in my eyes. Max had tears in his eyes. Ditto for Kevin. Brandon’s mother was sobbing openly, and his dad had turned his face away, presumably so we would not see him cry.
Thank you, his mom mouthed at Max and I, over and over again, Thank you. The only one not crying was Brandon, who had been transported to a near paroxysm of glee by his idols.

Eventually, pair by pair and one by one, they drifted away, the heroes and heroines and villains of his childhood, dwindling to a close. The last to go were Aladdin and Jasmine, and Brandon begged his mom to take a picture of him with them. Max and I stepped back to let her snap the photo when Brandon asked, “Why are you two going? I want you here, too!” We stepped back in and took our positions.

FLASH!

And that is how we were immortalized: Jasmine kneeling down on one side of his wheelchair, smiling with tears in her eyes. Kaylee, tucked between my legs on the other side, one of my arms wrapped around the shy little girl in a hug. Aladdin, high-fiving Brandon, who was giving a thumbs-up with his other hand to match the one Max was giving. And Brandon, caught mid-laugh as he mugged for the camera.

We saw them to the entrance where the shuttle was waiting, and said our goodbyes, Brandon’s mom hugging me tightly, still whispering her fierce thanks. His dad, clapping Max on the back and shaking his and Kevin’s hands. Kaylee and Brandon were babbling excitedly to one another even as they were being bundled onto the shuttle.

And so they left.

A few months later, we received a letter while at work, addressed to the two of us. It was a letter from Brandon’s mother, informing us that he had passed away. She thanked us for everything we had done and told us that up to his very last day, he still talked about us, as if we were old friends. And that the first thing he did when he got home was put the snapshot from that night on his bedside table. After he died, she had taken the picture out of its frame and had placed it in the coffin with Brandon. Max and I never got a copy of that picture. We didn’t need one. I can guarantee it will be seared in our minds when we are old and gray,
far beyond this time.

Static

Madness.

There was madness in any writer’s soul, for who but a masochist would want to write for a living? (Who was that one writer that said or maybe it was a poet) How could one do this—who could do this—accomplish this Sisyphean task of rolling the crushing boulder of an idea uphill through one’s mind? (need to get ahold of the girls) She stared blankly at the computer screen (focus) as the strains of a gothic organ washed over her. The notes of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor soared and tumbled as she absentmindedly twined the end of her copper braid (need to get a trim) through her fingers (really like the color why can’t I focus).

Madness, she could embrace. There had been plenty of times through her life when she felt like a prisoner (why can’t I FOCUS this is just a short topic) in her own mind, had stepped back as an observer and marveled with clinical fascination (I wonder what the weather gotta call my mom guilt) the destructive patterns that repeated within her. There was only white noise and static at the moment—nothing of use for her to write about. Her fingers jittered in arrhythmic time to the uncontrolled chaos (need to thank why can’t I ever-FOCUS-get organized) in her head.

The most maddening part was that when the static cleared and she caught clear glimpses of the words in her head (How can I do NaNoWriMo when), when she was granted enough pause to see the shape of an idea, lurking just beneath the surface, she knew (broke his promise again not even surprised anymore) she was sitting on something…remarkable. That just made the guilt worse because she told herself (just FOCUS GODDAMMIT), had told herself for years she was just (really want brownies should I bake how much will a plane ticket home be) lazy and lacked mental discipline and focus, that she was (or maybe muffins where is he) simply complacent (really feel like I’m losing it lately) with her undeveloped, wasted potential.

Right, then. So time to force it. Even if (first appointment with the doctor Tuesday) it came in bits and pieces (kind of nervous wonder what) and wasn’t up to her demanding standards, even if there was no inspiration (Adderall Ritalin Am I lazy I’m just lazy) behind it, even if she posted it five minutes (huh, 12:52 should eat lunch where IS he) before the topic deadline, she refused to give up simply because (I tried to discover a little something to make me sweeter) she couldn’t focus (oh baby, refrain, from breaking my heart) and the white noise in her head was growing so much worse the past few (oh god I hope Dr. McAllen can) months. Just time to get SOMETHING (Erasure? Seriously?) down on the page and post it and (wonder how he’ll diagnose think I’m off the charts) and if her lack of coherence (I’m so in love with you I’ll be forever blue oh goddammit) cost her in the long run, well then, she could at least say that (maybe he’s never coming back) she didn’t let her demons keep her from writing…again (so tired of fighting myself).

The Art of the Polite Smile

Oh, polite smile. Is there anything more socially saving and emotionally awkward than you? You have saved my ass many a time, polite smile, hanging on for dear life about my lips when all I wanted to do was punch your recipient repeatedly in the throat. You are my level-headed compatriot, the one who keeps a lid on my sarcastic streak. No easy task, and I have to thank you for all the situations in which you've enabled us to escape gracefully rather than letting me succumb to my knee-jerk reactions and blow up a bridge or seven.

Take for example, if you will, that time I went to get my first Brazilian. Oh, you know what I'm talking about. You might say you don't, but I know you remember the tiny, middle-aged Indian woman who did the deed. The one who pointed imperiously at us and commanded, "You! Clothes all off, please!" causing your buddy nervous laughter to join the party. And a bit later, when you and I were both caught by surprise and you froze awkwardly on my face as we heard the words, "Oh my, you're a bleeder!"

You clung even as I strangled out, "I...is this good?"

"Oh yes, very healthy, very healthy follicles down there."

"Um...I...th-thank you?" Champion that you are, you blazed forth. Even as I wondered if it was the correct etiquette to thank someone who had just given me a compliment on the follicular health of my ladybits. I mean, really, we found ourself thinking the most surreal thoughts while that tiny Indian woman was manhandling us like a Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker, no? We also learned the value that day of knowing what, exactly, a full monty was. The hard way. I suppose the more important lesson we learned was to, for the love of all that is holy, ALWAYS SAY NO WHEN IT IS OFFERED.

You even managed to stick around for the ultimate indignity when she commanded again, "You! Overturn!"

"Wh-what?"

"Overturn!"

"I..."

"DOGGY STYLE!"

"Ohmygod!" Horrified laughter at the hilarious absurdity of our situation joined us then. And we couldn't stop giggling at ourselves all the way home, could we?

Or the conversation I had one night a handful years ago, when my college ex, with whom I was still mostly in love, and with whom I had been dancing around the idea of getting back together, said to me, "Are you sitting down?"

"Haha, why? You get your girlfriend knocked up or something?" I teased.

"...Yes."

There was silence on my end as you struggled to appear, as he continued:

"And I'm going to ask her to marry me. I wanted to tell you first."

"Tell me, Mike. Why do you think I'd want to know this?"

"Because you deserve to."

You surfaced then for me. When I couldn't think straight, when I wanted to vomit, when the door led to that particular path of "What if?" slammed shut with the finality of death, you appeared and hung on for dear life, mechanically forcing me to offer a polite, "Well. I am very happy for you. I wish you the best." while inside, all the shut-down switches were being flipped and the numbness overspread, overrode my knee-jerk reaction to lash out and hurt him as deeply as he had just hurt me. You were the rational savior, my life raft, polite smile, and the reason he and I are still friends to this day--and why I now feel nothing but happiness that he is happy.

You have become my greatest tool, along with smooth persuasion, in my years as a bartender and server. We've learned never to underestimate the stupidity of people when left unsupervised in public, haven't we? Such as the time that entitled Highland Park trophy wife ordered our version of capellini d'angelo, stating it sounded so good with all the shrimp and crabmeat. Then promptly sent it back because it tasted "too fishy" and gave me a look as if it was my fault for not warning her. You clapped yourself around my face post-haste just then. And because you are so good at your job, you enabled me to respond with a perfectly polite, "Well, yes, ma'am. That is generally what a seafood dish tastes like: Seafood." without her cottoning on to the fact that I had just verbally slapped her upside the head.

Or the time we waited on a table full of slick, Dallas businessmen. The new money kind with their start-up corporate cars and their name-dropping and their general backhanded condescension for anyone with a "lower" status. The ones completely unaware that we were probably smarter, and made just as much money as these entry-level "millionaires". Especially that ONE guy, do you remember him? Yeah, you do. The one who confused his lazy patronizing for actual charm and kept referring to us as "sweetheart" and "babe", even though he was no older than us. Oh, bless his heart, he had no idea what a tool he was, did he? I mean, for God's sake, he wore a colored dress shirt with a white collar and suspenders. The one who, when I told him I was finishing up my Masters in English, said, "Oh. Don't worry, you can still find a real job if you look." The very embodiment of a man who had so fully mastered the art of being a tool that he had actually reached holy communion with his inner douchebag and had become one with it. Truly, we marveled that one so young had reached the nirvana of perfect prickdom. Wewanted to ask, "Tell me, did it take years of practice to achieve oneness with your inner douche, or were you just naturally gifted from the start?" but even you may not have been able to save me had I said that, polite smile. Subtlety is our field of play.

You did, however, enable me to say, "How VERY Gordon Gekko of you." when he called me "sweetheart" one too many times. The slightly confused expression on his face as he tried to work out whether or not I was being serious or mocking him was worth sticking around for, wasn't it?

"Oh, uh...yeah! Thanks?"

"Just think, you could even upgrade to Patrick Bateman!" It was amazing how quickly he responded to you, dazzlingly polite smile.

"Hahahaha yeah!"

"I mean, who doesn't want to go full sociopath, right?"

Amazing what lunatic, cutting things can come out of my mouth with your help. You even softened a bit when we caught the eye of the guy sitting immediately to Douchebag's right, the one who had been shooting us I am so sorry my acquaintance is such an idiotlooks all lunch. The one who knew exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it, and smirked behind Douchebag's back when our eyes met.

Or that time in graduate school, when in the middle of a heated discussion about Percy Shelley's bizarre philosophies, a fellow classmate called me a heretic. You froze on my face, both of us stunned that at this age, at this level of academic discourse, I had gotten judged simply for playing Devil's advocate and defending the genius of a poet, however offensive his ideas might have been. It was a good reminder that while the majority of my classmates were level-headed, rational, deeply intelligent thinkers, we were at a very conservative, private Catholic school and there would always be one or two outliers who let their beliefs get the better of them. You stayed in place for the moment of shock as I finally said, with as much tact and aplomb as I could muster, "What I am arguing may be, that's true. But genius is still genius whether or not it's a genius you agree with."

Oh, polite smile, we've had some good times in the trenches of social engagement, haven't we? Here's to the thousand we've had, and the thousand more we'll have yet. Polite smile, the yin to my sarcastic yang, the steady hand when I am hot-headed, my clever partner in passive-aggressive crime, my trickster-natured friend, able to go from smile to smirk and back again, I thank you.

The Phoenix and the Falcon

Once, there was a great dark bird, and he was the only bird like him in the world. He had winged his way across the seas and back many times. He was wise, but he was very lonely, for in his freewheeling travels, he had seen much of pain and suffering, but very little of beauty. He did not recognize he was lonely, for this was the only existence he had ever known. He had never seen another creature like him, who could tell him who he was. But something in him desired to learn. Whenever something caught his eye from high above, he grew hopeful. "This looks interesting," he would say to himself. "I wonder if they can tell me things." So he would dive down and alight.

"Hello," he would say, "Who are you, and why do you exist?"

They would look at the great bird, with his wind-tattered wings and his battle scars, and shake their heads. "We are who we are. And you are strange."

"Who am I?" he would ask, and they would shake their heads again.

"We do not know. You are strange to us, and we do not understand you." And they would leave him. He would fly off again with only the solitude of his existence as his guide.

This he repeated many times, with many creatures. Each time brought him the same result.

You are strange to us, and we do not understand you.

Eventually, the bird lost hope. It was too painful to be reminded of how alone he was, how alien and strange. And, he assumed, ugly. For no creature ever stayed. No creature ever understood.

One day, long after he had quietly accepted he would always be alone, the bird spied something below. He did not think he would find answers, but still, it was curious to him. It was a bright spot, brighter than anything he had seen before. Even the sun in the sky above and the sharp diamonds of tossing waves were not as brilliant.

He flew closer and landed. In front of him was a creature he had never seen the likes of before. She was standing in the middle of a flame, the brightest thing he had ever seen, but she did not show pain. Instead, as he watched, she smiled, spread her wings, and burned up.

The huge bird was horrified. She was there one moment, and then she was gone. The bird ran to the spot, and saw nothing but golden ashes. And he surprised himself then, for he realized he was sad. He bowed his noble, scarred head. The first tear had fallen when he noticed something stirring in the ashes. As he watched, a shape grew and grew, and as it grew, he realized it was her, the creature he had seen, rising from the ashes.

He had seen much in his life, but this astonished him.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I am Phoenix," she replied.

"Why do you exist, Phoenix?"

"I exist to burn."

"But why?"

"Because it is in my nature."

"And who am I?" he cried out in misery.

She touched his face gently.

"You are Falcon, of course."

"Falcon? I am Falcon? But how do you know?"

"Because it is simply who you are and who I understand you to be. It is you. It has always been who you are."

And just like that, Falcon knew who he was. He had been named, and recognized. He had been instinctively understood. He was home. For the first time in his life, he did not have the urge to immediately take to the sky again to find another adventure or battle, but to say with this strange, gentle creature.

"I will stay with you now," said Falcon.

"Yes. You will. We are each made for the other. I have been waiting for you," said Phoenix. But Falcon sensed a sadness in her, and asked why this was.

"Because it is in my nature to burn."

"I do not understand," said Falcon.

"My love," she said, touching his face again, "You will. And the pain will be unbearable."

"You will never hurt me, Phoenix," he said. "I know it is not in your nature to hurt."

"No," she said simply. "But it is to burn. You will understand."

"I am not afraid," he said.

"You are not afraid of anything. That is your nature. And I love you for it."

She paused.

"But I will burn."

So the Falcon settled down with the Phoenix and for quite some time, they were very happy together. They learned, and they talked, and they grew together. The Falcon thought this would never change, and he was at peace. He was so overjoyed to have found his companion. Every night, he would wrap his wing tightly around Phoenix and pull her against him. And every morning, he would let her go only after she had said she loved him. They both found joy and solace in having found the other. But still, Falcon would sometimes sense an undercurrent of sadness from Phoenix that scared him, he who had never been afraid.

"You hold me so tightly," she said to him, "Sometimes I can not breathe."

"I do it because I love you and I always want you close," Falcon said, smiling at her.

"But I want to be close."

"I know." He smiled again.

"No, you don't. And it will cost you your heart." She gave him a look of such love and pain that something in him quailed in terror. And he pushed her words-I will burn-out of his mind.

One morning, he woke up and found her already awake, and looking at him sadly.

"Good morning, my love," he said. "What is troubling you?"

But she was restless in his wings and would not be still.

"Are you not going to tell me you love me? As you always do?" he asked. The fear sparked, and grew.

"Yes, I love you," she said quickly, growing more agitated. As she struggled to pull away and free her wings, so he wrapped his own wings more tightly around her in his panic and his fear and his love. Tendrils of smoke started to curl up around her and he tried to fan them out, brushed his feathers over his beloved's face, as he could see she was as scared as he was. This unnerved Falcon. She had not been scared to burn before, it had never caused her pain.

"Please," she panted, "Please let me go."

"No!" he cried. "I can not. I love you too much to let you go." And he held her more tightly.

"You must," she said, struggling more wildly. Tiny sparks were starting to jump from between her feathers, and the tendrils of smoke were growing. "Please," she begged.

"No!"

Little licks of flame were starting to pop up in spots between her feathers. The smell of scorching was in the air. She was trying her best to hide the tiny cries of pain as the flames ate at her.

"I must burn."

"I can not let go."

"Then I will take you with me, my love. I am so sorry, so sorry."

And with that, she burned.

She burned up in his wings, blazed forward in a apocalyptic fireball that blinded him. Burned until there was nothing left but ashes. Because he could not let go, the blast of fire and flame engulfed him, and he burned, too.

Time passed.

Falcon awoke some time later. He was in the most unimaginable pain, the worst pain he had ever borne. He had had many injuries, had bled many times. But nothing compared to this. His feathers crumbled off in black bits. He oozed blood and matter from charred spots on his body. He turned his head, weeping in agony, and saw the pile of golden ashes in his wings. It was too much to bear. Too much.

He closed his eyes and went away again.

It was a long time before he came back.

When he came to again, the physical healing had begun. But his heart. Oh, Falcon's noble heart. It was naught but ash and cinder.

Carefully, he placed his pile of golden ashes in a safe place. Made sure they were protected from the wind that might try to take her away. From the rain that might try to wash her from his view. From the sun that might dare to think it could beat her for beauty.

Still, he was in agony. He thought about leaving. About taking to his wings again and this time, never coming back. Never alighting again in the world, but flying forever, alone, ungrounded. Once or twice he even took to the sky, once his wings had healed, determined to go away forever. He returned every time. For no matter how far he flew, she was still there. And so too, was his heart. That was the only thing he knew.

So Falcon returned for the last time. He knelt down by the pile of beloved golden ash and bowed his scarred, beautiful head.

"I will wait for you, Phoenix," he said. "I would rather wait a thousand years for you than fly alone. I will wait for you. And if you never come back, I will still wait for you. Because that is in my nature."

And so he waited.

Time passed.

Still, he waited.

One day, something happened.

One of the golden ashes moved. Falcon whipped his head around, staring intently at the spot. Another ash moved.

Another.

Another.

And as Falcon watched, as his heart leapt into his throat and beat wildly with hope and panic, she grew from the ashes again. His beloved. His Phoenix. And as she grew and reshaped herself, so too did his heart.

Within moments, she had risen from the golden ashes and was standing before him again, looking at him in love and sorrow.

Falcon could not speak for joy, but knelt in supplication. She knelt down, too, and studied him. Silently, she touched the burn scars all over his body, the spots where his beautiful feathers had charred and not grown back properly. Tears dripped from her eyes, and still, he could not speak for joy. He kept running his wingtips over her, making sure she was there, making sure she was real. Making sure he was no longer alone.

Finally, he spoke.

"You came back to me," he said.

"Of course I did." Her voice was tired and desperately sad.

"Why did you leave me?" he demanded.

"As I have always told you-because it was in my nature to burn."

"I have been waiting for you," he said.

"I know." She looked at his scars. "I am so sorry we have caused one another this pain."

"We?" he asked incredulously, angrily. "I did nothing but love you."

"But you did not love unconditionally. You set conditions on the love, for, though you did not see it, you demanded the same of me in return. You were too blinded by love for it to be unconditional."

He was silent for a moment.

"I never understood the nature of unconditional love until now. And we both had to burn in the process to see that and change our natures. I see that now."

He bowed his head again, and finally wept.

"I am sorry, Phoenix. I will ask you this, because I love you still. But I have learned. You can fly where you'd like, and burn how you like, and I will not bind you. I ask you now with an open palm: Will you stay with me from now on?"

And she smiled then, blazing forth with joy.

"What you never understood was that just as it was in my nature to burn, so too was it in my nature to love you. Do you know why I burned so brightly the first time you saw me? It was because I burned for you and you alone. You never had to bind me to you, for you see, I never would have left in the first place."

She touched his face.

"And so I never shall."

They flew off, side by side, into the great blue sky.

And so they remain to this day, the Phoenix and the Falcon, streaking like twin comets across the heavens.