by Paul Isaac
The sun sets behind the trees, stoking the thinner patches of foliage to bleed through as though from behind a brighter filter. A golden streak of light exposes a gap between the leaves to cross the grass blades, stopping just shy of my feet. I will it forward, but its constant failure worries me I might have become a place where the light cannot penetrate.
My brother jostles my arm and I let the thought fall onto the breeze, favouring him with a smile. We’re squeezed together onto an aged park bench, Mother complaining about the state of it and causing the commotion as she frets over a weathered stain on the brittle wood that is probably older than I am.
“People are staring.” My brother complained. Well I can’t say I blame them. Dressed to the nines in our summer finest, the park appeared to be nearing capacity. The photographer is struggling to capture the moment without granting Frisbee catching youngsters or small inquisitive dogs honorary membership to our family. He’s stood arms crossed and brow furrowed as he analyses the latest snap on his tripod mounted digital camera.
“We can’t get her to wear a jacket or something?”
“I’m not cold.” I said instinctively. The breeze is not unpleasant. Mother looked at me with those beautiful blue eyes of hers. This morning when choosing my dress I made an effort to match them. Twirling in the mirror I thought I’d done it, but the fabric had been unable to replicate the soft nervousness an eye can hold. I got Father’s brown eyes, and right now he is narrowing his, a surly expression on his face as the man approaches with the camera. He’d brought it over to prove a point.
“The pose is perfect.” He explained, all the while my father’s anger rising. “It’s just-“
As he turned the camera to show him the image I accidentally caught a peek, and my world began to crumble like so many times before it. I pitched to flee, but Mother caught me and took me in her arms. I looked at her and she looked at me, those blue eyes of hers truly a beauty I’d lost the chance at forever, and suddenly she grew steely. She reached around for the arms I had hidden behind my back. I tried to fight, but her grip was so strong. She pulled them out in front and held them up for me to see.
“Look at them.” She said, stern yet kind. It took every ounce of will to shift from gentle blue to the horror that was to follow.
Searing pains shoot out across my arms. I watch a helpless passenger as the red streaks reveal themselves to me, one by one in assorted order, crawling across my flesh, etched in by memory’s painful quill. As they twin and twist I wish I’d had the foresight to select a kind of pattern, instead of giving in to life on an edge, especially when they’re so readily available.
Over time I’d trained myself not to see them. I’m so good, a mirror can’t even break the spell. But somehow a photo, that subjective third eye, had punched a hole in my self deception, and the tears flowed freely. Through the murky filter I stared for as long as I could, my mind’s eye confusing a second or two for a lifetime. Too deep, I grasped for the shallows of her eyes once more.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered. Mother shook her head.
“Stop hiding and embrace it. Your past makes who you are.” She released my arms and reached down for her blouse. Before I could render what was happening she’d removed it completely. It was like a dream, the petals woven into the fabric’s design dropping to the ground like nature had called them back to wither.
A group of boys cheered and wolfed a whistle. Father, who had his back to us span round before freezing in shock. My brother buried his head in his hands in embarrassment. Mother, though, cared for none of it. She pointed at the discoloured cross section on her exposed stomach. “This scar tells me about one of the proudest moments of my life.” She declared. “Even if it did turn out to be your brother.” She added, with a wink.
“Hey!” I gawped at it, not quite sure how to react. There must have been something solemn in my expression, because out of the corner of my eye I saw my brother’s face soften from outrage to understanding, and he began unbuttoning his own shirt. He threw it to the ground in triumph, the same shirt he spent over an hour ironing this morning, and pointed to a line of damaged flesh on his stomach.
“Appendix.” He grinned. “Doctor said I needed it removed or the pain would be unbearable. I held out for six weeks.” He framed it in a grid made between his thumbs and his forefingers. “Hashtag Legend.” I couldn’t help but smile a little at Mother’s frown.
“The point is,” She said, taking my arms again, “they’re a part of you now. When I look at these scars,” softly, she began tracing them with a finger “I think of every battle you’ve fought against a darkness that many would not be strong enough to conquer. Every battle you’ve won. I see them,” she said, and it rang true – every ragged path she followed matched the order I’d woven them, “and so should you.”
I know now, that I’ve been doing it wrong. Denial is the choice I’d made. A secret buried further and further over time, though a fresh layer of earth added to the grave has turned that hole in the ground of my subconscious into an unusual looking mound that draws suspicion. Secrets crave discovery. All they want is for one strong wind, one shift in the plates beneath the earth, one glimpse of a tiny screen on a digital camera.
The photographer still sneered at me, the ribbons I wear more offensive to him than the clothes my family lack. I wanted him gone, and that meant taking this damn photo. I look down at my brother’s ruined shirt, shrug Mother’s hand free, and then my dress. Another round of cheers goes up from those nearby and I expect my mother to panic, but instead she laughs heartily. It is a good sound. Father, however, lost control of the lower portion of his face. I think it came with a dawning realisation of the direction things were heading. He had a nervous glance towards my brother, which on reflection, was probably not the wisest decision. My brother’s expression twisted with devil, and he cupped a hand to his mouth.
“Off!” There it was, one single word. The key to bedlam. The wolf pack started first, baying at random before falling in line with my brother’s pulsing decree. Those nearby stopped to stare before joining the chant, spreading to the far reaches of the park like wildfire.
As the circle closed, Father looked around in panic before settling his eyes on me. I smiled sweetly and shrugged my shoulders. He smiled back. “You know me and your mother met in A&E.” He said, fiddling with the button on his collar. “You didn’t know it was because of an incident involving a lot of alcohol and a broom handle.” He ripped his shirt free, popping the buttons from their thread restraints like the Hulk, exposing a nasty score that cuts a line in the hair of his chest.
Those around us erupted in cheer. He span round, seeking the photographer who looked very small amidst the conflagration. “Take the picture Dammit!” He commanded, barely audible over the crowd. As the photographer failed to shake himself free of whatever nightmare he thought he was having, my father marched over and ripped the camera from him, turning it over and thrusting it back into his hand with the lens pointing towards us on the bench, wrenching him from his stupor.
Eventually his hand steadied long enough for him to take the picture, tripod lost to the encroaching throng, and he traipsed over to us uncertainly, flinching at every new voice bawled from the shifting mass that surrounds us. He flipped the camera round, and showed us the image on the screen. Of course, my red ichor twists were the first thing I noticed. But somehow, they seemed in place, flanked either side by those borne by my family. A collection of tales sat side by side against a backdrop of half a clamouring community, all crammed into one chaotic frame.
“It’s perfect.” I said. No denial. I meant it. As Mother put a hand on my shoulder, I looked down to see the sun’s dying light dance upon my painted toenails. We’d broken through together. I vow to accept its gracious end as my new beginning.