My eyes are groggy and my feet are cold. It’s morning. I stifle yet another yawn as I pad to the bathroom. Colgate cements the bristles of my toothbrush in a lazy line, and as I brush my teeth I peer into the mirror.
She peers back at me, saying nothing.
I don’t have time for this today, the thought flashes, quick and sharp as lightening before I have the chance to push it away. These type of visits were beginning to get more frequent, and I knew what she had to ask of me. Again.
Ignoring the image blocking my reflection, I manage to rinse my mouth out, and get halfway out the bathroom when I hear her for the first time.
The whisper turns my blood to molasses, as I turn sluggishly around to meet my fate. “Hello, Kathryn.”
She regards me silently for a moment, dark eyes flashing. “I know you can feel me fading, Adam. You know what needs to be done”.
I scrub a hand roughly over my face. Too early, too fucking early. I couldn’t meet her eyes yet, and I could hear her continue to murmur instructions. Instructions I already knew. Instructions she had been giving me every year since I was eight.
“Kathryn…”, I began softly. She continued to speak.
“Kathryn, please!” I almost yelled. I had to remember to keep my voice down; the house was still asleep.
Putting both hands on the cold glass, I looked into the tortured eyes of the spirit in the mirror.
“I can’t. I can’t do this anymore. It’s been nine years, and I’ve done all I can but you can’t stay here anymore. You have to move on – I’m sorry”.
I ducked out the bathroom as quickly as possible, closing the door behind me.
It made no sense, I knew – she would find a way, some way, any way to get to me. We had the same argument every year, each ending with me doing what she asked.
I could hear her begin to sob quietly through the bathroom door. My heart rose in my throat, and I felt myself beginning to reach for the doorknob.
She can’t win this time. It’s not fair. Seventeen year-olds should not be given such burdens; should not be able to decide the future for a loved one… or take it away.
Bile rose to the back of my throat, and my hands started to shake. Soon would come the black outs and the nosebleeds. She was resorting to desperate measures now - using what little strength she had to try to convince me physically.
I slide down slowly, my back against the bathroom door.
“Please”, my plea was barely audible. “Please… leave me alone. Please.”
I was not startled to feel cool lips press, whisper light, against my neck, “How could I?” She crooned, so sweet I wanted to cry.
“I’m all you have, Adam. You need me” her voice was like melted steel.
“You know you can’t live without me, it’s not right”.
“And what I have to do to keep you here is?”
She appeared in a flash then; dim and barely visible – but there. Bringing her face as close to mine as she could, I could see the extent of her deterioration.
Her cheeks had begun to sink in, and her hair hung dead and dry past her shoulders. I could see her tongue pulsing wetly through the invisible skin on her face, and her eyeballs swung loosely in her sockets.
I stifled a scream; she only appeared so solidly after her requests had been filled. When she was strong. Her body had begun to resemble her current physical state, as it rotted to bone in her expensive mahogany casket down on Sunny Brook.
“Look at me!” She shrilled.
Head bowed, I ignored her, trying to convince myself that everything would turn out all right this time; that I would finally be set free.
She began to shriek wildly. I clapped a hand over my ears, and squeezed my eyes shut. My arms dimpled with gooseflesh, as every hair on my body stood up in terror.
An unexpected voice sounded from above me suddenly.
“Adam? Ad- oh no. Oh not again”, my father’s voice rose with worry as he stood in front of the bathroom, my baby brother Nathan on his hip.
He set the toddler down, and sat in front of me with both hands on either side of my face. He was speaking to me, but I couldn’t hear a thing. She was still screaming.
He was stroking my face now, trying to stop the tremors that shook my body.
Her sound filled the hallway, bouncing off the walls. It was sharp and cold, slicing slowly through the front of my mind; blinding me with its intensity. It became otherworldly, a series of horrible, guttural sounds. Like the scream of a chainsaw, and the tortured snarls of the dead and burning.
The noises continued. I could no longer support my aching head; it dropped back against the door, bringing with it a new throbbing pain as it collided with the wood.
She had disappeared once more, but the sounds she created were enough to instill fear without looking into her decaying face.
My dad had left me now, bounding down the hall to get the phone, or my step-mother Michelle, not that it mattered. I knew what she was doing, and I knew she would not stop until she got her way. Still, I held on. I couldn’t do this for another year, I could no longer be obedient.
Nathan stared at me curiously, pacifier in mouth.
The sound began to wash over me in waves now, growing louder still. I ground my teeth together and clutched at my hair moaning, “Please… please.... stop”. Sobs racked my body as I tried to stay sane.
“WHY WON’T YOU HELP ME?! I GAVE YOU EVERYTHING!” The tortured wail blasted through the house, and echoed painfully through the centre of my head. I wanted to crack it open. I could barely open my eyes.
“I’ll do it”. The words came out almost instinctively, I could take no more.
The noise ceased at once.
My dad returned, Michelle by his side. She picked up Nathan, whisking him quietly to the kitchen. He turned and looked at me as she carried him away, wide eyes searching.
For a moment, blissful silence was all I could comprehend. I could not allow myself to think of the promise I had made yet again.
My father stared at me a moment, sensing that whatever panic I was in was beginning to subside.
He handed me a small white bottle, I took it slowly, hands shaking. I hadn’t needed my pills in a while; the plastic felt unfamiliar and cold in my palm.
"Thank you”, I could barely look up.
He sat beside me on the floor, looking straight ahead. His voice cracked twice as he spoke, “Is this my fault?”
“It’s every year, Adam. And just when I think you’ve gotten past it, it flares up again… I don’t know what to do, I’ve tried everything to help. She’s gone. I know it’s hard, but she’s gone and you have to let her go”.
I fought a wry smile at the irony. What if she’s the one that couldn’t let me go?
But I couldn’t go there with him again. Bringing it up the first few times as a child only got me sent to shrink after expensive shrink. I learned to keep Kathryn’s visits to myself, and let my family make what they would about my episodes.
He turned to look at me for the first time, studying the circles under my eyes. “Are you – How do you feel?”
I could hear the uncertainty in his voice. After years of trying to correct the same problem, there’s nothing you can say that has not already been said. She only ever attacked so viciously when I tried to refuse her. Now that she knew I would do her bidding, she’d leave me be until the time came. It was the only time of year I had a few hours to myself.
I got up shakily and extended a hand to my father. He took it raise himself up, and held on to it firmly before pulling me tight against his chest.
“It’ll be alright Adam, I promise”.
I let him hold me for a moment before breaking out of his grasp. I wished I could feel the warmth of his hug, yet nothing could thaw the ice beginning to coat my veins.
Shoving the bottle of anxiety pills into my pocket, I tread slowly to my room, unable to look back at his face, pinched with worry.
Creaking open the stubborn old window beside my night stand, I climbed onto the roof. The only thing that kept me from jumping all these years was the fear of being stranded with her forever in some sick, ghostly limbo. I fought the urge for a cigarette, as my mind began to wander in places I didn’t normally allow it to.
My mother died when I was seven. She was running late from work the night of my school play, and said she would meet us there. I searched and searched for her face in the crowd, messing up my lines on more than one occasion to try to find her. I saw only my dad, and his smile hidden behind the camcorder. Could he not sense that something was wrong?
After the show, we got the call. She was speeding and ran a red light. She was t-boned by a Fed-Ex truck. Driver walked without a scratch, my mother died on impact. I kept feeling like it was all my fault. I wanted to go back and tell her not to rush, I wanted to go back and tell her that my solo wouldn’t come till the end of the play anyway, but I couldn’t. And she was dead.
She came back to visit me exactly one year later on the anniversary of her death. I was playing with my Legos in my room when she appeared in front of me, cross legged on the carpet. I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense, but here she was, in the white dress we buried her in a year before.
Mama said she would stay with me as long as I needed her, to which I responded “I’ll always need you Mama, always!” First mistake.
My Mama was my best friend. She talked to me at night, stroked my hair, and woke me up every morning. She made funny faces behind the heads of the therapists my father brought me to, and taught me how to whistle. Though I couldn’t hold her, I could feel her touch, could smell her scent.
“You are mine, and I am yours” She would croon every night.
As the weeks went on, Mama began to fade. Her skin would slacken, and her hair would lose its shine. When I was nine, she asked me for the first time.
Mama needed blood.
She needed the blood of the living to stay alive. It started small at first.
Face red with concentration and tears, I watched the eyes bulge from my hamster, Jimmy as I squeezed both hands around his soft little body.
“Good baby, now take the knife and go up his tummy. Ah, ah careful, both hands. Yes, almost done. Ok, now turn around, don’t look at Mama”. She drifted slowly from her reflection in the mirror, as she used her last bit of strength to appear in her solid state.
Mama promised I would never have to do anything like that again. “It’s ok”, she crooned, drying my tears. “Mama’s back again, see? Isn’t it all better now?” She pulled back to kiss my face, her breath smelling like copper pennies.
Mama lied. And year after year of stray cats and yippy dogs, I began to realize that whoever – whatever she was, was not my mother.
Soon, I began to resent her requests, began to understand that it was wrong. When I was twelve, I told Mama I didn’t want to do it anymore. Told her it wasn’t right, told her it wasn’t fair.
That night I was awoken by cold lips pressed against mine. My mother kissed me, sobbing. Thick streams of blackened blood poured from empty eye sockets as she cried, “Please don’t leave me, Adam. Please let me stay. You’re mine and I’m yours, you need me Adam, YOU NEED YOUR MAMA ADAM!” her shriveled toothless mouth stretched thinly over unhinged jaws, as she roared.
I had never seen her in such a state of rot before; it terrified me. The next day, I hopped the fence to my neighbor's yard, and smashed their chihuahua’s head in with a rock.
Solid and beautiful again, my mother insisted afterwards that I call her Kathryn.
“You know, like a real grown up”, she insisted, grinning. The corners of her mouth were stained red, and I looked away without answering.
Kathryn all at once became both the greatest love of my life, and the person I feared and hated more than anybody. She would grow angrier each time I refused her requests, and start to manipulate me physically.
Lost teeth, cluster headaches, temporary blindness were what got me to give in ages thirteen to fifteen. After which, she would hover over me constantly, my personal dark cloud. I could never get away from her, except those few hours after I caved in. Then when the deed was done, she would return quietly, filled was soft whispers and lips that smelled of rust.
My sixteenth year on Earth was the year that changed everything. Already trying to think of a way out of giving in to her requests, Kathryn whispered into my ear the night before the eighth anniversary of her death.
Her voice came out in a dry rasp, as her desiccated vocal cords forced the air out for her to speak.
“Not…enough. Mama… needs –“ Her voice dropped. I could hear her trying to gather the strength to continue to speak to me
“Animals… not enough. Mama needs… flesh”.
I shot up in bed, tears already pooling in my wild eyes; I knew what she wanted.
“Kathryn, please. Please, no. I’ll – I’ll get you a dog, a big dog! I’ll – I’ll go hunting, for fuck’s sake! Catch you a - a moose or something!” I was wheedling now, desperate. “Just please… please, not that.”
There was silence, and I wondered if maybe, just maybe I had convinced her. I was wrong.
I felt her fingers – strips of leather, with sharp bone poking through the tip, begin to sink into my body. She morphed into me slowly, until I could feel my skin begin to separate from the muscle.
She trapped me, and unable to move I was forced to look into her ruined face, as she sank deeper and deeper into my flesh. The pain was staggering, blind spots dotted my vision, and I could do little but open and close my mouth in desperate little gulps, like a dying fish.
“Either you get me it, Adam, or I take it myself”.
I looked down, I could actually see the outline of her hand, as it moved excruciatingly beneath the skin of my abdomen. She disappeared then, leaving me writhing in invisible agony.
No stranger to pain, I tried still to refuse, which is when Kathryn set her sight on something else. That something else happened to be a pregnant Michelle – I agreed.
And that was the year that I followed a beggar downtown and slit his throat with a pocket knife. That was the year I took a human life, that was the year my mind snapped, and I spent four months under intense care at the psychiatric ward. They never caught me for the nameless beggar, though I spent many a doped-up night wishing they did.
I was no use to Kathryn during these months, and finally, mercifully – she left. She visited me once, surprising me in her perfect state, to tell me she had found more willing hosts. I wept that night, lonely tears that stained both relief and desolation onto my pillow.
My father brought me back home to heal wounds that I could never recover from. Once home, Kathryn returned as if no time had passed, as if nothing had changed. And now it had been an entire year once more, and once more, she came to me with her requests.
Climbing back through the window, I decide what I must do. Even if it meant being trapped with her forever, I needed to break this cycle. Searching through my drawers for the blade I kept hidden in a pair of socks, a soft voice startles me from behind.
“Looking for this?” Kathryn drives the blade, quick as a dart through the soft skin of my neck. Blood jets out with frightening volume, as I begin to lose consciousness.
“I don’t need you anymore, Adam”, my mother whispers as I take my last breath.
I arise moments later, my physical form still bleeding out on the floor. I could see straight through my hands. Finally, Kathryn had me all to herself. But she wasn’t paying any attention to me now.
With the lazy swiftness of a snake shedding its skin, Kathryn climbs into my body, still pouring blood. With awkward jerky movements she stands up to my full height, and grins at me slowly. She speaks, and I hear my own voice, garbled and mushy – “Nathan! Come to Adda!”
Tiny footsteps begin to pound down the hall.