The Death of Life
My mom used to always smile. I often found it strange how she responded that way to any situation. Happy or sad, she was always beaming. The time I saw her covered in bruises, it didn’t waver. When I found her with blood-stained cheeks, that plastic smile stayed etched on her face forever.
I remember two versions of my dad. He was warm and brought me immeasurable comfort, but every light has a shadow. The early memories I have of him made me feel like I was floating above a sea of dandelions, eternally weightless and free from the confines of the world. With him, I felt invincible, but no feeling so incredible could last.
“Are you planning to stay down there all night? Didn’t you mention reviewing something for school, so you’d be ready for Monday?” My dad’s questions bounced around in the small space under his desk. He had a booming voice, one fit for a ruler. His words carried strength that could convince anyone to follow his lead. He didn’t take full advantage of his talent with his position at one of the smaller colleges peppered throughout Arcaya. I was never able to wrap my head around the material he preached in his lectures; the words he muttered to himself as he scribbled theories into his notebook left me questioning if he was even speaking the same language.
“I’ve got this! No one in class knows more on the cell than I do! I know how it produces energy for itself so that it can replicate its DNA, and then how it goes through the process of division, where it makes an almost perfect copy of itself. It’s called mitosis! The rest of the class doesn’t know it’s called that since Ms. Sutton told us we don’t have to know it for our test tomorrow, but after school today I snuck over to the middle school library and read all about it!” I said, relishing in my rant on the human cell.
School always made me excited. It earned me uneasy stares from my classmates when I shot my hand in the air to be the first to answer a question I’d been prepared to for days because I was always a week ahead of the class. It didn’t make me the favorite of my teachers either, but it did earn me praise from the one person I continuously strove to impress.
“Excellent! That’s not what you have down there with you now, is it? Not all your reading has to be educational. Don’t forget, the best way to keep your mind sharp is to treat it to some imagination; whether it’s your own, or the mystical worlds created by others.” He said, taking a break from his writing to roll back in his chair. His eyes shone through the thick glasses that crookedly balanced on the bridge of his nose. He took a swift glance at my novel, nodding in approval at my reading material.
“So, you’re reading that one again. It was your mother’s favorite growing up as well. I remember coming over when we were kids and she’d be entranced by the adventures written along its pages. I see you’ve taken a liking to it as well.”
His smile was soft, the shine from the light casting a bronze glow over his skin. It felt warm in that study with him. I always fell asleep under his desk; it was where I enjoyed being the most. It was where I felt safe. Those are feelings I miss.
* * *
The next morning, I awoke in bed like always. The sun filtered in through the pink curtain over my window. It was like waking up in a fairy tale. Birds chirped with their neighbors and aromas of breakfast wafted into my room like an alarm clock that used smell rather than sound to wake me. It was a typical weekend, and I knew my mother would be downstairs, assembling a meal fit for a princess and her queen.
I rolled to the edge of the bed, my legs too short to reach the floor. I let them dangle, taking a second to inspect my room. It was a daily habit counting the number of breaths I took before my eyes completed their thorough scan. I often asked my father why I was like this, for which he always replied:
‘The world’s finest have the strangest of quirks to act as restraints for all their raw potential. Accepting your quirks will lead you to heights others can only dream of.’
I always thought his response to be long-winded and lacking any real explanation. Sometimes, I think my father underestimated how mature I was at that age. I may have enjoyed the fantasy realms encased within the bindings of my favorite novels, but in the real world, I knew there wasn’t anything that functioned as a limiter on some hidden power or potential. There was something weird about me and that was that.
I leapt off the bed, my feet planted on the floor with firm balance. I flexed my toes and stretched my arms behind my back to loosen up. On my nightstand, sat the book I fell asleep reading, Among the Clouds, Vol. 1. A bookmark was delicately sticking out of one end, no doubt an act done by my father. He always made sure I didn’t lose my place in whatever fictional world had my fascination for the week.
“Ava! Hurry down or everything will be cold!” My mom’s angelic voice floated up with another wave of delicious scents. Saturday morning breakfast was ready.
“I’ll be right down!”
Speed was crucial now. The pile of blueberry pancakes and strips of bacon wouldn’t hold their heat for more than five minutes. I left my hair as it was, a frizzy mess of strands that barely reached my shoulders. I wiped the sleep from my eyes as I balanced on one leg to wrestle my pajama bottoms off. It was a clumsy affair, the pants only coming off after I had fallen to the floor. I threw off my top and swiftly replaced it with a casual shirt fitting for the weekend. After pulling on a pair of shorts, I was flying down the hall, my socks skidding across the hardwood like a pair of ice skates.
My mother must’ve heard the ruckus of me coming down the stairs because she was already equipped with a smile as I took my seat at the table. My breakfast was ready to be consumed, but one thing was missing from the scene.
It felt heavy, the silence that followed. It wasn’t just my mother that grew quiet, but the birds, the wind, and even the distant sounds of people hushed in anticipation for the answer. To this day, I’m not sure if what I saw next truly happened or not. There was a falter in her smile. It was only for a moment, but my eyes catch even the smallest of things that are out of place.
“He’s…out. He won’t be back till after the weekend. Oh, but some exciting news!” My mother clapped her hands together, the many thin bracelets around her wrist clattering together. She tapped the tips of her nails, the fresh coat of red on them blurring from how fast she moved her fingers. My mother was a woman that enjoyed looking her best regardless of what she was doing.
“Grandma is coming for a visit! She’ll be here to watch you for the rest of the weekend. I’ll be going into the city the next few days to help your father out at the college.” Her voice grew cold when she mentioned my dad. I bottled up my tongue to avoid an unrestrained question on why everything felt backwards. When I look back, maybe some good could’ve come from me prying further.
The doorbell’s chime rang throughout the house, my mother reacting with a tranquil hum as she strode for the door. Once she was out of sight I picked at my food. Suddenly it didn’t smell as pleasant as it had earlier. Just looking at it made my stomach churn with unease.
I slid out of my chair and crept after my mother. Faint whispers came from around the corner. I could make out my mother’s voice, but not the words she said. She had an urgency to her tone, unlike her usual self. I peeked at the doorway, studying the older woman hunched under an umbrella conversing with my mother. Considering the lack of rain, I found it strange. That was my grandma, without a doubt.
Despite the years that had passed since I last saw her, I recognized her face. She had the same cheekbones as the ones I saw in the mirror, and big round eyes that matched mine.
“Ava!” My mom shouted, something she rarely did. She locked eyes with me, catching me in the act of snooping. It stunned me for a moment, but not as much as the anxious expression she wore.
“Grandma got here sooner than expected, so I’m going to be heading out soon. Be on your best behavior for her, okay?” There was a shakiness in how she spoke. She tried to hide behind her smile, but I could see the quivering on the edge of her mouth.
I stormed off, agitated that the perfect Saturday was turning into a babysitting nightmare. I barely knew Grandma and I’d rather not have her sniffing around me all day. Instead, I chose the confines of my room. I watched from my window as my mother trotted off down the street. Something was amiss however, the train station was in the other direction. Even when she was out of sight, I stared out that window, fixated on one small idea.
What would I see if I followed her?