Week Twenty-Two Prompt: Bridge

Gremlins

We ride bikes over bridges. There are hundreds here, spread all over Osaka like some gigantic game of pick-up-sticks. We ride bikes because Alex isn’t allowed to drive or even get in a car for the next year. They ride bikes to work, riding straight on to the ferry then off again, then onto the train and off again, and I can't keep up. Alex and her friends laugh between themselves, calling out to one another, “The artist will not risk any harm, accidental or otherwise, to his or her body, while contracted to the company.” I don’t get the joke, the awkward younger sister playing catch-up tag-along with Alex and her friends. She explains over her shoulder. 

“We’re not allowed, but when we’re drunk we take taxis, and one night Chantelle wouldn’t stop repeating our contract, over and over, and I guess-” she sees my face falling. It’s not that funny.

“You had to be there,” Alex finishes lamely and I nod, uncertain. 

I’ve come here to help Alex, but she doesn’t want help. She wants to ignore it and I’m on ice around her, trying not to slip. So I nod and we ride, and there’s nothing between us but the wind in our hair and the whistling hum of bike wheels over bridges.

*

“Suit work is hard,” Alex tells me. 

“Suit work?” I’m distracted by the night parade spinning past, screaming at me that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Normally, for my family, it would be, but since that phone call, the one that changed everything, Alex has been ignoring us. So now I’m here, watching the night parade and Alex is beside me because she has the day off and wants to talk about suit work which she's never done but her friends have.  Suit work, when you have to dress up as Shrek or Bugs Bunny and spend hours standing around, every movement bigger than life, your face melting under the heat and the claustrophobic giant head over yours. Real important stuff.

Not as important as the answering machine telling you your sister needs to begin treatment for a cancer no one knew she had. Not as important as the scrambled panic to dial the buttons to call Alex to give her the news. She was only home for a week, and went to the doctor for a check up and then flew back to Japan to be an entertainer for another year, forgetting to wait around for the results, assuming she was fine. I hear the click that means she has hung up on me, and that click tells me she needs me. 

So I pack my bags, and while I’m packing I remember something from our childhood, something Alex was never seen without, something that lies forgotten in a closet somewhere. I pull him out, a bit dusty but still grinning. Gizmo, the Gremlin. We went on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld when we were little, screaming and clutching each other. Alex made me go on another seven times. Dad bought Alex the Gizmo toy and she dragged him with her everywhere she went; school, parties, bed. I hold him close now and breathe him in; he smells of childhood and is so tied up with Alex as a little girl that I start to cry. 

But now I’m here and I’m not crying but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She wants to talk about how hard suit work is, because she can’t admit to herself that she’s very, very sick. 

*

I lie on the floor of her tiny studio apartment; the one they give the entertainers who work for the company. Free from rent and space, the bathroom is in the kitchen and I’m on a mattress three feet from the front door, next to the toilet closet. Alex is on her bed and I’m dozing off when I hear her gasp. She sits up and I swear I can hear her heart pounding, or maybe it’s mine but I’m up on the bed next to her. She is struggling to breathe and I take her pulse. Her heart is racing and she looks at me with something like fear in her eyes. I reach into my suitcase and rifle through. My hand catches on an ear and I pull Gizmo out. Her tears fall like hailstones and her gulps are loud in my ears as we cling to each other on her tiny bed. 

“We’ll get through this. We have to.”

She holds me tighter and I know what she’s saying; that she’s not ready yet, that she’s glad I’m here, that she doesn’t want to leave but she will come home soon. That she can’t believe her younger sister is taking care of her. That she wants to say thank you, but can’t find the words. 

I find them for her, and I whisper to her in the dark. Words of encouragement sink into the night around us, wrapping her up in my hope for her future. You will be okay, you will get better, you will fight this and you will survive. Slowly, her breaths come easier. 

*

We wake, wrapped around each other, necks stiff and knees creaking. My eyes are puffy and I blink them open. I must have cried at some point and I feel like a wet rag wrung out, left to dry in a heap on the bathroom floor. Alex is next to me, eyes still shut, hands curled around Gizmo, so much younger than her 26 years. The street noises far below drift up to us like smoke signals. Start your day, get moving. 

She stirs, then clears her throat.

“Wait here.”

*

Alex is gone for over an hour, and I stare out the window in her apartment. I see the smoke stacks, the buildings, the cars, the bridges, stretched out over the city, people like ants from up here, crawling aimlessly. I wonder how many other people out there are sick, how many are crying, sleeping, laughing, eating. At times like this, I imagine there is a plan for us all; that we can’t all be here for nothing, that all the suffering has a point. I imagine the world is better than it is. Then I stop, because if I don’t I’ll go crazy and I do know the world also has a lot of good in it, and there’s a knock at the door and Alex’s friends are looking for her and they see that something is wrong and they wait with me. 

They stream America’s Got Talent on Alex’s laptop; one of their friends back home is going to be in it and they want to cheer them on. I’m sitting in the corner of Alex’s room, waiting for her, hugging Gizmo to my chest. One of Alex’s friends teases me about Gizmo, and another one tells me one of the judges was the voice of Gizmo in the Gremlins movies. 

Their voices mingle around me and I lose track of the conversation. They cheer for their friend, but I can’t; I don’t know this person, I don’t even really know these people, but I am grateful they are here and that they seem to care about Alex. 

She comes in and stops short at the sight of us gathered in her room. They mute the computer, and I can’t look at Alex so I stare at America’s Got Talent; watch fire twirlers glinting in the stage lights and I think for a moment I’d give anything to be one of them instead, away from this tiny room. Alex crosses over to me and snaps the laptop shut. My neck cricks as I look up at her. 

“I’ve just been to talk to the director. I’m going home,” she says to the room at large, but she’s looking right at me and suddenly I am five and I am on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld.  I am lost and scared and screaming and wanting to run from the Gremlins which have taken over and then out of nowhere I feel a hand over mine; I open my eyes and see it is her hand, and I look at her, teary-eyed and she is shrieking too. She squeezes my hand. It is her way of telling me that she’s here with me, that it’s okay to be scared, that we don’t have to face the Gremlins alone.

This has been an intersection with the ever lovely . I wanted our team name to be whipgig, but she just looked at me funny

Second Chance Idol: Week One Entry – What’s Missing?

Language warning.

The woman in front of her, “Call me Jan”, hard-faced and crazy eyed, demanded to know what was missing in her life. Jan’s words were sincere, but Rebecca knew better. She knew that the only reason this woman was bothering with her at all was for the commission she would make if Rebecca signed up to Milestones, all for the low cost of a $400 start up fee, plus a small annual fee, teeny-weensy ongoing fees for conferences, meetings, gatherings, forums and of course another minuscule (but so worth it!) fee for leadership training, at which point you begin to receive deductions for the amount of new people you sign up. Really, the only thing Rebecca was missing right now, she told herself, was a way out of this room.  

She had only come to support her best friend Renee who was desperately searching for a way out of Milestones. Was it impolite to call it a cult? Rebecca didn’t think so. Rebecca watched Renee from across the room, wondering how her wonderful, sensible, beautiful, intelligent friend had become involved in this crap. She couldn’t reconcile this needy, sad Renee of the now with the Renee of her past, the Renee who had helped Rebecca through break-ups and moving house and the Alison debacle (someone had called someone else a slut, and Renee hadn’t judged. She had held Rebecca and let her cry on her shoulder and had told her that all people made mistakes, but that good people made up for them). Intellectually, Rebecca understood how someone could become involved in this. She understood the allure of the promise of having it all, the assurance of finally having the answers, of moving to where the grass was greener; a better life, prepackaged and available in shiny bite sized pieces for the modern consumer. Just enough to keep them coming back.

“I know why you’re here tonight.” Jan was persistent. “Have you been feeling as though things aren’t how you thought they would be when you were little? Have your dreams of your future melted away before you? Have you sunk into mediocrity? Are you wondering where your life went and what you can do to turn things around?”

Rebecca was twenty-four, and thought that was a bit much. “Not really,” Rebecca was noncommittal. You could not give these people an inch.

“Rebecca,” Jan’s voice oiled its way to the floor between them. Rebecca nearly shuddered. A familiar heat crept over her; her palms became sweaty and she felt droplets forming on her forehead. “What you don’t realize is that you have so much potential in you which you will never unlock until you learn life’s secrets.” Her mouth was filling up with thick saliva, and she couldn’t swallow fast enough. “You can do it, Rebecca. I know you might look at me and be intimidated, but you could have my knowledge one day, if you’re brave enough to accept it.”

 “Excuse me,” Rebecca stammered as she turned and nearly sprinted for the bathroom. The door slammed shut behind her as she hurtled herself into the cubicle. The toilet cover felt cold through her jeans and she dug her nails into her palms, trying to force deep calming breaths but the nausea was too much for her. Spinning around and lifting the seat cover, Rebecca felt the all-too familiar bile rise in her throat, the scratchy heat as the warm, lumpy liquid came racing into her mouth, stomach contents splashing into the bowl in front of her, then it was over. The outside world went quiet for a moment, and all Rebecca could hear were her own harsh gasps and the quick thump of her heart.

Shaky hands pulling the seat cover closed, Rebecca took a sweaty breath. Jan was a bitch, but Rebecca couldn’t blame her for this. The thing was, Rebecca knew exactly what was missing in her life, and it wasn’t love, it wasn’t a reconnection with her parents, it wasn’t more money or success or failed dreams or lost hopes, it was a diagnosis; one that she was too shit scared of seeking.

She had no idea what the hell was going on with her body. Suddenly and without her permission (which just seemed rude, really), she had started to feel sick four months ago. Constantly, endlessly, vaguely sick. Exhausted, nauseated, bloated, sore, and – she paused there, thinking about the recent changes in her bowel habit. “Yuck,” she muttered to herself. She knew she definitely wasn’t pregnant because she had been too sick to have sex with her boyfriend for the past four months, but that was as far as she’d got in finding out what was wrong. There had been old articles in women’s health magazines, symptom trackers, medical textbooks and hundreds and hundreds of google searches, the top ten results of which were invariably cancer. Each time she saw the c word her blood ran cold; she thought of bald, sick, old people who were too weak to go to the toilet by themselves and who smelled and ate through a tube and who, invariably in her mind, died alone with relatives fighting over the will, and she was only 24 and she was in love and had her whole life to live and she had plans, damnit, and what if that was all taken away from her so suddenly in a quiet, well decorated office somewhere with someone she didn’t know sitting across from her telling her she might die and it might be soon and she shouldn’t be feeling like this at all and her family would be so mad at her if they knew she wasn’t getting treated but she just –

It was easier to ignore it. A sort of, ‘this too shall pass’, kind of attitude.

“Bec?”

Renee’s voice cut into her thoughts. Bec drew a shaky breath, laying her palms on the cold floor either side of her.

“In here.” Her voice was weak as she leant forward to slide the lock open. Renee squeezed into the stall.

“You look horrible.” Renee’s voice was welcome as air. “Let’s get out of here before these Milestone weirdos realize I haven’t paid my cancellation fee.”

*

Renee started to cry on the train ride home. Ugly crying, the kind where her entire face went red, followed by her neck and her arms, the kind with visible snot and mascara everywhere where words aren’t possible. Renee tried to speak.

“I just,” Gasp. “I just,” Gasp hiccough. “It’s just-” unidentifiable noise. “I’m so freaking-” Whimper. “Relieved.” Rebecca stared at Renee, willing her to continue. Somehow, Renee calmed enough to piece a sentence together. “They were so awful, and now I can forget about all the crap they taught me and just bloody go live my life the way I want to. You weren’t stupid enough to believe in it. You’re not scared of doing exactly what you want.”

Rebecca held her friend close to her, marveling at how someone who knew her so well could be so wrong about her. She looked down at Renee’s head on her shoulder, and felt her heart
swell at how Renee saw her – as someone brave, someone to look up to.

Someone who, if they thought they might have cancer, would bloody well do something about it.

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Inconceivable

Have you ever wanted those five seconds back? Just those five seconds? Like the moment when you reverse into a pole because you weren’t looking, or when you stub your toe on the bath, or when you’re talking about someone and they walk up behind you?
 
Lyn knows how that feels. If she had been more careful, she wouldn’t have tripped. If she hadn’t tripped, she wouldn’t have fallen. If she hadn’t fallen, she wouldn’t have lain on the floor at the bottom of her stairs for two hours, calling out to a neighbor with a voice that grew weaker with each passing minute, waiting for her husband to come home.
 
In Australia in the 1980’s, there was a huge push towards awareness of domestic violence. This was a good thing, because it meant that healthcare workers (who are often the first people outside the family to see the results of such violence) felt more comfortable in asking the tough questions.  It also meant, unfortunately, that sometimes they looked for something that just wasn’t there.
 
Lyn’s husband came home and he could barely see the digits on their phone through his tears. Lyn comforted him from where she lay on the floor, knowing that right now he needed her.  “Come on baby, just focus. Just do this for me, and then I want you to go pick the kids up from soccer, they’ve been waiting.”
 
Lyn’s husband wanted to wait with her ‘til the ambulance arrived, but Lyn wouldn’t hear of it. She kept picturing her boys sitting on the curb in the darkening night; soccer ball under one arm, their tiny faces hopeful as each car drove by. She couldn’t bare it (it turned out that a kind mother had taken them home with her own boy; she knew Lyn wouldn’t be late to pick them up without a good reason). The husband nodded and kissed his wife. He made her more comfortable with a pillow and a blanket, and sped off to find his boys.

The ambulance arrived. Lyn was lying there, alone, bloodied and bruised. They couldn't believe that a husband would leave his wife for any reason when she looked like that. They decided that Lyn was the next poster girl of domestic violence. They refused to take her in until she admitted that her husband had done this to her. Lyn begged them, and it was only when her husband arrived home with her boys that one ambulance driver said to the other, “Come on mate. She needs help. Let’s just take her in.”
 
At the hospital, they inspected Lyn, searching her all over. Bruising covered her back, dried blood pooled on her forehead where she had smacked her head on the stairs. They looked at her; so tiny, so young; so obviously, in their eyes, a victim. “You need to tell us the truth. This is a safe place. Did he hurt you?”
 
They refused to scan her when Lyn didn’t give them the answer they were looking for. The husband took Lyn home, and the fresh-faced idealistic resident folded his arms across his chest, watching them. “I’ve just changed her life,” he thought, and he felt good about it.
 
Slowly, Lyn’s body healed, but not in the way it should have. Bones fused where they should never fuse, torn muscles never worked the same way again. She learned to live with the pain. She began to gain weight. She saw doctor after doctor, each looking at the initial report from that night in hospital, each seeing that the resident had written that there was no obvious injury, and therefore no need to scan the patient.
 
She was diagnosed with depression and subscribed painkillers and anti-anxiety medication. Sometimes, if Lyn took enough, the agony stopped for a little while. She saved the really good painkillers for special occasions, like when her sons graduated from high school, or when they got married. On those days, she was able to sit without pain and just be a mother. On those days, she cried because she was proud.
 
One day, her therapist moved away and referred Lyn to a friend for her continued treatment. Lyn was excited to meet him; he was a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist looked at her, looked at her records and decided to send her for some scans, just to see if this patient who had been labeled over the years as a hysterical liar who likely suffered from Munchhausen’s could possibly be telling the truth. Maybe, he thought, she hadn’t ever been given the benefit of the doubt.
 
Twenty-six years after Lyn fell down the stairs, Lyn got her scans. She was immediately referred to surgeon after surgeon, all of whom said she weighed too much for the surgery to be a success, until one surgeon said yes. He’d give it a go. He said she had one of the worst backs he’d ever seen, and after this he’d need to look at her neck, her hips, her knees and her ankles.
 
I met Lyn when she was recovering from her fifth surgery.  I went in to take her blood pressure. She was happy. She was grateful. She told me her story. I had to leave the room to stop myself from crying in front of her. There was no place for how I felt about what she’d been through in her life. When a person is that vulnerable, bearing scars from surgery in places no-one should ever look, looking up at you with tearful eyes and matted hair and no make-up and hooked up to machines with tubes coming out of them every which way, telling you they’re grateful, you cannot fall into pieces. You suck it up. You hold back their hair, you wash them, you feed them, you take away their pain and you listen to them. 
 
Later that night, I called my dad up and told him her story as best I could without bursting into tears. He’s a doctor, and he nearly vomited when he heard how she had been treated. I asked him how this could have happened, how it could be possible that here in a first world country with excellent healthcare and fantastic standards could this be possible.
 
“Oh love I don’t know. That’s…Some people just…slip through the system, I suppose. She was just one of them.”
 
Sometimes I think about Lyn, and wonder how she is now. I think about everything she’s gone through, and I hope her and her husband can do all the things they wanted to do together but couldn’t because Lyn was too damaged. Sometimes I think about her grandkids, and I hope she can lift them up without pain.

Sometimes I think about those five seconds, and how different everything could have been. Just those five seconds.
 
 

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