My first one after… well, a very long time.
You walk into a room and come face to face with a ghost
She stood tall and thin before me, her body dressed in black and red and her face dressed in a scowl. Standing on the thick white carpet in her chunky Doc Martins, surrounded by unblemished white walls that almost seemed to glow in their purity, it was almost as if she had sucked all of the darkness and colour in the room towards herself and crafted it like armour. Spikes and studs wrapped themselves around her wrists, neck, and waist; yet more armour to keep me at bay.
Her stance appeared relaxed, nonchalant, but I could see that every inch of her thrummed with hidden tension. Her arms were crossed just a little too tightly over the thin black tank top that covered her torso, and her jaw was tightly clenched. Her eyes burned the icy blue of a winter sky, and were the only part of her that was the same as me. Even if hers were outlined harshly in thick midnight where mine smouldered gently in stormcloud silver.
I watched as she narrowed my eyes at me, and saw that not a spark of recognition flickered within. I was too different.
It is a strange feeling to watch someone you know so well look at you like a stranger. It is unfathomable that someone who lives in your heart and your soul and throws their weight into every action you take can still somehow be so distant.
I knew her inside out like a well-thumbed and much-loved childhood book. A book so familiar that you know all of the hopes and dreams and troubles and heartaches that live within each yellowing page. She, however, knew me only as a theoretical, inevitable eventuality. A faceless and shapeless thing that, in the naive optimism of youth, looked completely different in her mind’s eye to the thing that stood before her.
I was her, but she was not me. Not yet. And so she looked upon a stranger.
I turned around and gently closed the door, letting my hand linger wistfully on its glossy white surface for just a moment. I desperately wanted to be safely on the other side of that solid panel, where my future stretched before me like a winding river to a sea of opportunity, but I knew that I must stay here with the dust and the cobwebs and the scars and the ghost. It was time.
The girl shifted her weight to her other foot and folded her arms even more tightly across her ribcage. Did I still look that defensive when I stood how I was most comfortable?
“Hi.” The greeting was as short as possible, rushed out hurriedly as if she wanted to get it out and away from herself as quickly as possible.
“Hello,” I replied gently. I tried on a smile but it seemed to fit poorly, as if my body knew that I was forcing myself into a garment that was neither appropriate nor desired. I swallowed hard and gestured towards the two chairs in the room. “Shall we sit?”
She twitched one of my pale, freckle-scattered shoulders in the barest of responses. Wherever we were, she was clearly as enthusiastic about the situation as I was. At least we had more than our eyes in common now.
We walked over to the two white meeting room chairs where they sat in the corner of the room on their bland legs of pale wood. They were artfully arranged to be facing each other casually, not directly; a picture of non-confrontational conversation.
I sat down and crossed my legs at the knee. She dropped herself down onto the seat from her full height, and slouched down into the chair’s plush white cushions. A rebuke leapt to my tongue but promptly died there as I suddenly wondered if I was not myself in this world, but instead my mother. I let the girl slouch sullenly. It was the least I could do.
I groped pathetically for words but my head was empty, my mouth dry, and my tongue paralysed. The girl looked down at her hands, clad in fingerless gloves I remembered well, the black and red stripes looping their way up to her elbows. She began to fiddle anxiously with a long thread that snaked out from a frayed edge. An ice-blue glint and I knew she looked sideways at me through her thickly-coated lashes, edging as close to a challenge as she dared.
Why was I here? I had visited this ghost a thousand times before in my dreams and my nightmares, my moments of deepest melancholy and regret. I had picked her up and turned her this way and that, placed her on a chessboard and moved her through life in every way I could – as a Pawn and a Rook and a Knight and a Queen – just to see if things could have been different. I could never find a better path. Why did I need to visit this girl in black and red in person? I already knew that, as always, she was in checkmate from the start.
“I don’t want to talk” she stated bluntly.
“Okay” I replied dim-wittedly, still desperately grasping for where to begin.
“Are you?” I asked. Isn’t that how psychiatrists get people to talk? Challenge their self-perception? Or perhaps I just made that up to justify my weak attempt at conversation.
“Yes” she confirmed, still worrying at the loose black thread.
Well that didn’t work. “So why are you here?”
“Because you made me come” she said sullenly, shooting a quick glare my way.
I longed to tell her that I was forced here too, but then I wondered if that were actually true. I had lived with this tall skinny ghost in my head for so long, had I always know it was inevitable that one day I must confront her face-to-face? Did I still believe somewhere deep down that I could make a difference?
I pressed on. “You don’t seem fine.”
“Only because I’m here!” she snapped in sudden exasperation. I blinked in dumb surprise. “I’m here and I already know everything you’re going to say and it’s never made a difference, but still you make me come here!”
I tried to keep the frown of confusion from my face, even as the confusion began to dissipate and leave a black pit of dread in my stomach instead. “How do you know what I’m going to say?” I asked with feigned placidness.
“It’s the same useless crap that the teachers say, and my parents say, and even some of my friends say. Stupid, useless crap from people who don’t know anything about me.”
The corner of my mouth twitched in a smile. “I might know more about you than you think, you know.”
The girl scowled and snorted in derision, sinking lower into the chair cushions. This was not going well.
“Does it make you angry, to think that I might know you?”
“No, it makes me angry that you think you might know me.”
I processed that for a moment. I suddenly felt a pang of empathy for everyone who had ever been in my position and tried to talk to me this way. It was a challenge.
Time to stop playing. I pushed my sleeves up to my elbow. It was a rather unprofessional habit that I could not seem to break, and saw the girl’s eyes flicker as she recognised the habit as one of her own. It struck me that showing her how similar we were might more effective than telling her.
Her eyes lingered on my sleeves. “Maybe you know more than I thought” she conceded. I tried to keep the smile of satisfaction from my face, a task which became much easier when she pulled those black and red gloves down from her elbows to her palms.
My happiness departed swiftly in a flurry of painful memories and I felt keenly the empty, aching vacuum that it left behind inside my chest. She had indeed noticed another thing that we shared, but not the one I had originally thought.
It is a common thing for adults to look back on their youth and minimise. It is true that compared to an adult life a teen’s struggles with school and love and friends seem insignificant. My five hours of lessons spread across seven hours of the day during just half of the year now seem like a holiday compared to the endless, soul-destroying drudgery of a 9-to-5 life. I can barely remember what seemed like life-changing issues that had caused so many fights in my circle of friends. And so we tend to apply that logic to everything in our former years, writing it all off as the melodramatics of youth.
But the mess of cuts and gouges and scabs and angry scars that littered her pale arms was just as awful and gut-wrenching to look upon now as it was then, and I swear I felt the pale ghosts on my arms tingle.
Every fibre of my being twitched to pull my sleeves back down, but I willed myself to calmness. If there was one person with whom I could share this, it was the girl in black and red.
“Maybe I do” I agreed, trying to keep my voice steady and my eyes from staring at the physical manifestations of our pain.
“Then how can you want to do this?” she asked, her eyes pleading with me to either provide a damn good answer or just leave her in peace. “You know it won’t help.”
“It helps some people” I hedged lamely, but she saw right through my facade.
“But not me. Never me.” She cocked her head to one side, an expression of knowing sympathy crossing her face. I marveled at the sudden change in her demeanor, though I should not have. Without meaning to sound arrogant, I know that I have always possessed a kind and empathetic heart, even when the rest of me prickled with metal studs and angst.
“Never me”, she repeated, and I could see her considering whether or not to say her next words. I prayed that she would not, but she did, looking at me with those sad, sympathetic, understanding eyes. “And never you.”
All of a sudden I felt the emptiness in my chest fill up with ancient pain. It rushed in from nowhere and swirled up and up like a storm until it threatened to overflow through my stinging eyes. I was shocked and surprised into lightheadedness by its power. I felt that it drowned me from the inside out, my memories given fresh life and power by the proximity of the ghost before me and the way her words pierced my secret thoughts that I tried to deny. But there was no denying it; nothing had ever worked.
“I can help you.” I managed to choke the words out, unsure of exactly whom I was trying to convince. “I know I can. It can be different.”
She shook her head, eyes gazing down at the angry red lines on her skin with a mixture of sadness and twisted affection. “No, you can’t.” She looked up at me suddenly, her eyes piercing bright. “Do you know what does help me?”
I did, but I didn’t want to. My arms burned with the memory of a thousand blades. I stared down and saw those blades dart over my arms in wild and impulsive geometric formations born of rage and all-consuming heartache, a tally of every hurt I had ever suffered. I felt myself fill with relief as I emptied of blood, as if all the pain that boiled in my heart had spilled out as bright crimson through those ghostly wounds. My skin was a pressure valve, one that could only be opened with a knife.
I had always known that it was bad and that it was wrong, and I had always known how I hurt not only myself but all those who loved me. I also knew then what I still know now: that I had no choice. In all these years I have found nothing that compares to the relief that those blades offered to me on a blood-soaked platter. As an adult I have learned to cope with those feelings, those urges, and to attempt release in other ways. I write, I cry, I love, I sing, and I run for my life, or from my life. I sat now before the girl in black and red as a woman in many colours, tempered by time, with greater impulse and emotional control.
But controlling the urges is not the same as not having them at all. The reason I played all of those chess games with this ghost, I realised, was to try and find a way out. A place where I was free from the scars and the urges that weighed me down. I wandered the maze of my past and searched for any exit but the one that left me with this lingering addiction. I had thought that perhaps if I exorcised my ghost of her ghosts, then perhaps in turn she would leave my mind in peace.
“You can’t save me” the girl said gently. “But don’t worry; I can save myself.”
“How?” I whispered hoarsely through a throat lined with fire.
“I don’t know how” she sighed, standing up and tugging her baggy jeans down until they sat on her hips. “I just know that I can. Eventually.” She walked over to the door and yanked it open in that careless way the young treat the things around them.
“But how do you know that!” I called after her desperately. She couldn’t go now, she couldn’t, I needed to fix her, to fix myself. Maybe there was one move I hadn’t tried, one final way where she could finally dance over the black and white board with a hop, a skip, and a jump to freedom. “How do you know that you will ever be rid of these demons? How do you know that they won’t infest your life forever?”
The girl turned back to me and smiled. “One day, my cuts will be scars like yours. It won’t matter that they were cuts, because they won’t be cuts anymore. My body will heal me, my skin will cover my wounds, and I will be whole. And these things” she said scornfully, holding her scarred arms out towards me, “will be nothing but memories that cannot hurt me. Urges that I have conquered. Feelings that I have found the strength to ignore and overcome. When I have won once, I will know that I can win every single time. When I am you, I will be whole. I will have saved myself.”
Tears spilled freely from my eyes and splashed on to my arms. The memories of the blades and the red paths that they marked disappeared from my skin, leaving nothing but traces of white behind, a pale mirror of the cuts that the girl held out before me. That spiderweb of old scars had seemed so bright, so vivid to me before, but now seemed like nothing more than old fading ghosts.
I looked up at the girl I had been and saw just how far I had come. So far in fact that she could not even recognise herself in me. No matter how close it all felt, how real and how deep it went under my skin, it was nothing compared to how it used to be. It was a ghost of a previous life, slowly fading further and further into the misty past. Just as I would always carry the scars on my skin, so too would I always carry scars in my mind. I would live with both and be ashamed of neither, for in the end I had won. My skin had healed itself, and so had my mind. She had healed herself. I had healed myself.
I looked up at the figure in the doorway. All I could see through the open door were shadows, slowly creeping out into the bright light to take her away. She smiled, but it seemed sad, as if the darkness of those shadows loomed over her at every moment and tainted every happiness. I returned her smile with my own, and felt its sunlight. Her shadows no longer haunted me.
Then my ghost in black and red walked through the door, shut it firmly behind her, and left me in peace.