What We Hold On To
Why do I come back?
The doorknob feels cold on my hand. The chill remains with me as I step into the foyer; as I tip-toe up the stairs. Even as I twist the lock of my bedroom door, it clings to me. In the eery silence of my home, it haunts me.
I stand on the stained floor for a while, monitoring my breath. It escapes in shallow bursts as the realization of the silence sinks in. I am alone.
Nonetheless, I am cautious. I crack the door to my room and peer down either side of the hall. There is nothing to disrupt the mocking peace. My feet slide across the worn wood until I stand on top of the stairs. The house isn’t all that old, and yet fatigue seems to eat away at its bones. The paint peels from the walls like silent cries, trying to pull away from its confines. No memories decorate the halls. No smiling faces in frames. Nothing to betray a bliss that never existed.
Downstairs fares the same as up. A stale air fills the empty spaces, which are everywhere. A single sofa furnishes the living room, accompanied by a TV with a broken screen. Glass bottles litter the floor; all drained. This is Dad’s room. When he get’s home from work, he’ll have already had a few. He struggles to get up the stairs on those days, so he stays here, usually.
On my way to the kitchen, the sound of keys fitting into a lock pierces my ears. My heart bruises my chest as it tries to escape from its prison. I stuff my hands into my pockets to hide their trembling. The front door creaks on its hinges, causing the hair on my arms to rise. My breath is shallow again.
Footsteps cross the threshold, and the silence evaporates.
I can smell his rancid breath from where I stand, motionless. If I stay completely still, maybe he won’t find me, but I find that the heavy air does not serve as an effective curtain. I am vulnerable as he approaches.
His icy presence washes over my shrinking existence.
His hand rises above the desolate being before him.
I did nothing wrong.
Why do I come back?
His hand falls.
It’s cold tonight. The heat of the blood that trickles down my face and the burn of my legs are hardly enough to comfort me. I wish to disappear. I don’t want to be seen this way. This is not me. These scars are not who I am. I don’t want them to be. I want to be someone else. Someone more than who belongs to this life. Something more than what I am.
I pick impatiently at the grass that pushes through the cracked pavement of the parking lot. “What’s taking them so long?” I mutter under my breath, leaning my head back on a lamppost. The lightbulb on this one went out a long time ago, along with all the others. A sea of abandoned concrete surrounds me, where each blackened light stands like the the mast of a sunk ship. I dwell on my own, little island, looking onto the canopy of solemn clouds. Do the stars that are hidden behind them still twinkle? Even though they are lost to us, do they still shine?
A sudden “WHOO-HOO!” shatters the quiet. I force myself up on my cramped legs as a pair of headlights charge me. Before the truck has stopped, wild forms begin to jump from its back. They race closer, until their arms encircle my body. The cuts and bruises on my skin sting incessantly, but I can’t help but laugh. The number of arms continue to increase until I fall to the ground.
“Get off me!” I manage through the bodies. “I can’t breathe, get off!” When the weight is relieved, someone offers me his hand. “Thanks,” I say as he pulls me to my feet.
In the light from the car, my abuse is visible to them all, but they don’t ask any questions. They don’t need to.
The boy who gave me his hand, Tai, has no parents and is looked after by his older sister, but she is hardly attentive. He picks up the slack and makes sure his younger siblings have food to eat. Another boy, Coen, is in the same situation as me, while another, Jay, lives under a bridge, as he was kicked out of his home.
“Sorry we’re so late,” Coen says. “Slow wouldn’t go more than fifteen over the speed limit.”
Laszlo, or Slow, as we call him, has drug dealers for parents. Because of this, however, he is the only one of us with a car.
“Sorry I don’t have a death wish like the rest of you,” he says, rolling his eyes.
“Come now, guys, play nice,” Jay says. “It’s too early to start a fight. Save it ‘till after ten, please.”
Tai wraps an arm around my neck and ruffles my hair. “Seriously, guys, we can’t fight in front of the kid,” he laughs.
I hate being the youngest.
“Are we going or not?” I plead once I escape my prison.
“Patience is a virtue, Ash,” Jay teases, taking a seat on the ground.
“Whether it’s a virtue or not,” Coen taunts. “we all have a limited amount.” Being the largest of us, Coen makes quick work of Jay, tossing him over his shoulder like a sack of flour. “Let’s go, guys,” he calls back to us.
“I'd hate to be on his bad side,” Tai mumbles before jumping onto the back of the pick-up. I shake my head and smile.
Slow carefully buckles his seatbelt and rolls his window down. “Hold on!” he yells as he slams his foot onto the gas. The wind rushes through my clothes, numbing my skin. My fingers are the only things that anchor me to this world. One slip, and I would fly away. One slip, and I would be shrouded by darkness. Lost forever.
But my hands do not give me up. Slow speeds down the desolate road, past the sleeping houses and innocent dreams. Ahead, the mountain tunnel looms with its black eye, daring us closer. As we advance, Tai clasps my ankles and gives me a slanted nod. Coen and Jay do the same, eyes crazy with excitement. Slow honks the horn and begins to accelerate. Tai shouts something to me, but his words are taken by the wind before they reach me.
My legs wobble from uncertainty as I rise. The road races by me at a formidable speed, causing fear to choke my voice. Jay squeezes my ankles reassuringly, urging me on.
The tunnel is almost on top of us.
With a sudden rush of adrenaline, I force myself to stand straight in the torrent just as I am consumed by the mountain. Orange lights dart past me at such a speed that they become a single, glowing line. The cold halts my breath and stings my eyes.
See me as this. This is who I am. I am the air that floods my lungs; the cold that torments my soul; the one that is lost; lost in contemptuous freedom.
I spread my arms out to either side of me and dread the end of the tunnel. “WHOOOO!” I scream. The emptiness is enveloped by the sound. My throat feels raw, but the cry does not cease.
Every flame of anguish; every drop of fear is torn from my body.
Too soon, does it come to an end.
Tai helps me back down to solid ground, the underpass left behind. My legs wobble with each step on the dirt road and Tai proves to be a useful crutch. Slow parks the car behind a bush and follows the rest of us around the bend of a hill.
The sky has begun to clear as we climb nearer to it, allowing us a peek into the heavens, though I doubt we will ever reach them. We continue on, however, undeterred.
The stars that were concealed by grey are now revealed to us.
Jay clears a path for us, pushing aside stray branches and spiderwebs. The trees grow darker as we are swallowed by them, the road all but forgotten below us. My ears are tortured by the sound of bark against bark as the wind forces the trees against each other, but my chest still swells with anticipation.
When the forest breaks, we find ourselves standing on the edge of a vast meadow. In the blackness of night, we cannot see the golden grass dance with the breeze, but we hear its rusty tune beneath our feet. We trek to its percussion until we reach the highest point of the field. A massive boulder serves as our resting place in this exquisite wilderness. Below us, the trees fall like a blanket upon the mountainside, draped over the subtle dips and rises along the ground. Along the bottom, street lights fit as stitches, holding the land together.
Beyond that, our city shines brightly against the dark backdrop, yet they are not nearly as brilliant as those that shine above.
“I found the big dipper!” Jay exclaims, pointing into the rich abyss.
“And I found the little one,” Coen adds in a far more reserved manner.
“There’s O'Ryan's Belt,” Slow says, seemingly mesmerized. I search the sky, trying to look beyond the stars, but the depths of the galaxy are impenetrable.
“I used to be able to name all the constellations,” Tai whispers, but we all hear him. “Dad used to point to one and ask its name, and I could always tell him. Except for Gemini. I could never remember that one.” Silence claims us again. Tai’s face hardens, and I can only guess that he is recalling how his parents passed.
“You know, I used to look up to you,” I say to him. “But now that I know you were a nerd, I don’t think I can hang around you anymore. You know I have a reputation to uphold.”
Tai turns his head to me, raising his eyebrows. “You mean the reputation of being the baby?” he laughs, throwing his arm over my shoulder. I scoff, but I can’t hide the smile that tugs at my lips.
“Have you guys ever thought about leaving?” Slow suddenly says, his eyes distant from us. “Why don’t we all just run away?" He pauses, eyeing us carefully. "Don’t tell me none of you have never thought about it. What do we have here, anyway?”
The wind shifts among the whispering trees.
“Of course we’ve thought about it, we just…” Jay trails off.
“We can’t,” Tai says. “Well at least I can’t. I have my siblings.”
“What about the rest of you?” Slow presses. My eyes dart about anxiously. Coen sighs.
“I’m in,” he says eventually.
“Me, too,” Jay agrees. “I live under a bridge, dammit. Why the hell should I stay here?”
Simultaneously, they all turn to me, but I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to stay in my home anymore. I can’t take all the blood. I desperately want to escape from this life. But...
“I can’t.” My mouth leaks the words before I can think. “I can’t,” I say again. They look surprised at my response.
“Why not?” Tai probes. “You should go. Get away from your dad.” My eyes well with tears. I bite my lip to hold them back. Men don’t cry.
“I’m not going.”
A streak of light stretches across the blackened sky. It began so brilliantly before fading back into the endless black above. A subtle, airy laugh escapes my lungs as a grin captures my lips. “I don’t want to look back on all of this,” I begin, gesturing to the beauty that surrounds us. “and by saddened by it. I don’t want to remember our stupid, ridiculous times as something intertwined with our misery.” At the edge of the meadow, a deer and her fawn emerge, their coats lighted by the silver ribbons of the moon.
“If we go, everything we’ve done, everything we have, will be gone. It’ll all be wasted on our worthless youth. Running away will destroy every laugh I’ve had with you guys! Coen,” I look only to him. “Remember that time we went to the beach for your birthday and the car got stuck in the tide?” My eyes shift to each person, now. “We ended up sleeping on the sand that night. When we got back the next day, Coen,” I turn back to him. “You were terrified of how your parents would punish you, but later, completely covered in bruises, you laughed and said it was all worth it. You said you had no regrets, and would willingly do it again.” A pause claims me as I watch the smiles grow on each face.
“I would,” Coen says. “I would go back in a heartbeat.”
Slow begins to chuckle to himself. “Do you guys have any idea how messed up my car was after that? The tailpipe was spitting water for a week!”
“But why are you bringing that up,” Jay says to me. “I don’t see the point.”
“Because that was one of our best days, wasn’t it?” I reply, baffled by his cluelessness. “If we leave all this behind, every time we look back on that day, we will see it as a brief moment between the pounding of a fist, or the breath of a drug. It will be lost to everything we hate in our live. But if we stay…”
“If we stay in our hellish lives,” Coen interrupts. “the little bits of happiness we experience will seem greater?” I cringe at his question, not sure how to respond.
“If that’s the way you want to look at it, fine,” Tai breaks in. “but Ash has a good point. I know this sounds cheesy, but we’ve all grown up together; we’re family, and running away from our homes would be running away from that. We would leave our relationships as tainted memories of what was once all we had to stay alive. I don’t want to do that.”
“You’re not even coming,” Jay argues. “You don’t have the right to say anything!”
“If you guys leave, I’ll have nothing left either! I’ll be in the same position as you!”
Slow rubs his temples as if his head hurts, his eyes firmly closed. “Just shut up!” he finally breaks. “I’m not going, either.”
Coen stands but says nothing. Tai shakes his head back and forth. I observe quietly from the side.
“Me neither,” Jay manages through the thick silence. “I’m not going without you guys. Not even you, Tai.”
Tai’s shoulders begin to relax, though his eyes are locked on Coen, who remains on his feet. After a moment or two of painful reticence, he sighs.
“Where could I go by myself?” he says. The hush falls as we rise with relief.
It’s late when Slow drops me off. Dad is probably still up, watching his broken TV with a beer in hand.
Why do I come back?
Because we all come back. Our existence in this reality is all we hold on to.
© 2016 Mae Hanson