novel excerpt: "internecine"
By Liberty Smith
The sight of a building going up in flames is the sort of thing that scares normal people. Fires scare normal people because normal people are afraid of all the right things. Normal people are the lucky ones. Survival of the fittest and all that.
I should have ran.
I should have ran all the way back through the building as fast as I could and then I should have ran even faster once I got down to the sidewalk. I should have been so scared that my fourteen-year-old legs carried me back to the apartment in minutes.
But I didn’t run. I didn’t move or blink or breathe because for just a few minutes I wasn’t thinking about who was inside of those buildings just rooftops across from me or who would be risking their lives to help the people in danger. I was just standing on top of Michael & Madison not moving a single muscle in my body and the only coherent thought that would move through my brain was that I was in a state of reverent awe so great I felt almost jealous.
It was relentless and untamable and in control of a thousand different destinies including its own. The power it wielded was so inconceivable, so unmatched, that for just a minute it was the most beautiful and intoxicating scene I’d ever witnessed. Normal people are not jealous of elements. Normal people are especially not jealous of fire when human lives are hanging in the balance.
Later, much later, I thought about that feeling and I blamed it on my name. Normally named people get the luxury of creating a first impression, or if nothing else, at least deferring to their looks as a basis for judgement. They have the types of names that allow for sweet little nicknames like “Em” or “Maddie” and they can always find it on a keychain when they go on vacation. No one ever asked me if I liked being perceived as some ancient heroic huntress, devoid of all human sensitivity, or a winged goddess who ate lions for breakfast and refused to fall in love, but that was always the first veil that fell over me during introductions. With a name like Artemis, you’re automatically expected to be hardcore. It could be worse sure, I could have been Hera the scorned wife, or Aphrodite— vain and doe-eyed. But surely even Athena would have been better. All that beauty and wisdom. Powerful and yet still girlish. I suppose that to some extent, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you do, you become, and all that. If I’d pushed back early on and decided that I was going to stand my ground and pick flowers during recess and cry like I wanted to when I scraped myself up, then I’m sure everyone’s perspectives would have switched over eventually. But what exactly would I have been trying to prove? That I could be sensitive too?
And so, I went on perpetuating—ironically—the myth. I was tough and strong and brave and bold. And at some point, the lie became true. The thing I hated most about myself made up everything that I’d become. Maybe that’s why I didn’t shed a single tear during the day of the bomb explosion. Maybe my whole life I’d been training myself to endure the abnormal.
I did wind up running once I finally forced my legs to move, from the roof all the way down what seemed like a million flights of stairs, and back through the maze of the city, but when I finally threw open the apartment door my mother made it very clear that I could have taken a leisurely stroll for all she cared. Two hours went by before she spoke. Two hours of her staring blankly at the television screen and cracking her knuckles without even looking at me. She didn’t ask me where I’d been when I walked through the door. She didn’t wonder how close to the fire I’d come just minutes before. She didn’t know that the flames had climbed even higher than the roof where I’d stood gaping. It had looked like a volcanic eruption spilling out all over itself. The news coverage was saying the epicenter of the bomb was a small bar. A whole block gone.
That’s what they had labeled it. An attack on the country. A point to be proven. She kept shaking her head. Her lips trembled as she picked at her nail polish ravenously. She refused to speak or even look at me. It was annoying me more than it was scaring me, the way she was looking at the TV screen like she was looking into the eyes of the grim reaper.
“I know it was close by, but at least we’re okay.” My voice somehow came out even. I wasn’t new to assuming the role of parent, but I was hoping that she would snap out whatever fog she was in quickly. For once I needed her to be the rigid, emotionless shell of a woman she usually was. I was trying to be calm, but the explosion had rattled me. So many lives had been wiped from existence in a matter of milliseconds and a part of me felt guilty for having seen it as anything but a disaster.
I clicked off the power button in an attempt to draw her back into the real world. Instead she stared into the blackness. I threw down the remote hard, making a big show of my giving up, and went into the kitchen to fix myself some breakfast. She managed to say the entire sentence after I put the toast on my plate but before I had spread the jam.
“Your father was in the law library on that block.”
Blood red strawberry clumps slipped through my fingers and fell to the floor below. The knife followed. Drops of blood joining the sticky mess, trickling from my hand where the blade had sliced it. My mouth was filled with the taste of cough syrup. Everything around me felt too clean. Like a morgue closing in upon us. The astringency too potent.
“How do you know?”
My voice didn’t sound like my own this time. It was like I was underwater. It was older, composed of nothing. I wondered for a moment if the words had even left my mouth at all. I stared at my own blood drip drip dripping, unable to move.
“He called me this morning.” Her eyes had glazed over. The voice coming out of her was barely audible, “He was doing research.”
An icy ripple cut its way into my spine. I was filled with a feeling so cold it was scorching. I turned the TV back on immediately, mechanically. I read the words on the bottom of the screen. A bar, a clothing store, an apartment building, and a small law library.
Law research. Research that he easily could have been doing a million miles away. But he wasn’t. Questions formed but just as quickly fizzled out. I didn’t have the energy to ask them. I believed I would never move again. My skin would rot and I would crumble into oblivion staring at the stupid video footage of smoke rising like an angry monster. Someone had poked holes in me and I could feel the very essence of myself seeping out of them. The date on the screen seared itself into my skull.
June 14th, 2015.
She started cleaning the kitchen floor.
The days that followed have hours scratched out of them, clawed from my brain. Like when you fall asleep halfway through a movie only to wake up at the end confused at how the hero managed to save the day and get the girl when he seemed like such a loser at the beginning. There was a lapse of time—its length unknown to me—that I sat at the dining room table watching my mother scrub at a dark red stain on the couch where my hand wound had spilled over my palm and fingers. The physical throbbing sensation had become background noise to my mental shock. When she finally accepted that one of the couch cushions was ruined, she muttered a few curse words and retreated to her room. They were the only utterances I heard from her up until the airport. Eventually I gave up calling his cell phone. I let go of that last hopeful possibility that he might have gone a block over to grab something to eat.
I don’t recall packing a bag. I’d forgotten I even owned one until it was being shoved into my hands. There was no conversation in the taxi. It had been just over two days. Two days that felt like two years that I had no memory of. They’d shut down airfare for forty-eight hours as a safety precaution. So we sat in the quiet apartment together but not together at all, not eating or speaking. I didn’t see her cry once. Being around her felt suffocating. He had linked us together and now we were two strangers grasping at ashes.
“I’ll fly in this weekend. I have some loose ends to tie up at the office. The neighbors will pick you up and Bradley is going to stay at the house with you.” Everything she said sounded like I was hearing it in slow motion. Everything about her was distorted.
A bar, a clothing store, an apartment building, a library.
“Artemis are you listening to me?”
Bradley was my father’s only sibling. He’d been MIA for most of my life, I’d only met him a handful of times. I doubted he’d be very present. My father’s parents had conceived late and were put in a nursing home by the time I was six. We didn’t see them much and I knew they were both sickly with lots of memory problems. They probably wouldn’t even be told about his passing. My mother could have called her parents I suppose, but no doubt they were both three pitchers of margaritas deep in the Caribbean somewhere and most likely wouldn’t find out until the next Christmas card. From what little I knew about them, I guessed they’d find a way to blame my mother for what had happened.
With enough warped imagination, even I could.
I yanked my eyes up from the airport tile spreading out like a sea beneath my black boots. I wished it would swallow me. I grabbed my luggage handles and walked through security without answering her. The phone conversation she’d had that morning before I’d slipped out played on a loop with the list of blown away establishments. A broken record. A constant re-wind and fast-forward.
“I know he’s angry…I pushed him too far this time…It’s not safe…”
My brain spray painted nothing but her words on every surface of the inside of my head. For the entire plane ride I thought of nothing else. People had been drinking. Drinking to celebrate. Drinking to go numb. Drinking to get through a nine to five. They’d been shopping. For a first date and school pictures and the Fourth of July. People had been making coffee and reading the newspaper and checking their messages and making dinner plans.
He’d been researching.
And they all could have been a thousand different places but they weren’t. I was consumed with it. I gave them faces and names and backstories. I thought about every single one of them religiously. I couldn’t eat breakfast without imagining a tall blonde woman walking to work with a cappuccino in her hand. I couldn’t look at my closet without picturing a tiny pigtailed girl trying on a red polka dotted dress. It became an obsession. A compulsion. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t picture his face. A good-looking businessman taking shots at that bar because he’d found out his wife was having an affair or because he was losing money in the stock market? Sure. But every time I tried to outline the features of my father’s face in my mind, I came up blank. Nothing but shadows. Seeing him in the photos on our mantle felt foreign, like they were mocking me. I viewed the next few weeks through a broken camera lens. I believed nothing. I spoke syllables and nails came out of me like arrows.
I’d been right about Bradley. After three days I could count with my fingers how many words he’d said to me and after three days I lost count of how many empty liquor bottles were in the trash. The first thing my Aunt Jackie told me when she flew in a few days later was that she would make me some tea, but I didn’t count on it until the mug was sitting in front of me, the steam coating my face. I didn’t expect to take a single step until I’d made it. It was the worst form of denial imaginable. I could feel everything, talk myself out of the urge to suppress what I knew to be true over and over again, and yet the notion that nothing could be real bled over into every other part of my life. The things I once loved and believed in morphed into darker versions of themselves. Like a tattoo that was once beautiful, and then suddenly riddled with a residual blur. The neighbors, the co-workers, the distant relatives—they all had different catch-phrase clichés that were meant to help me sleep better at night. Some even contradicted one another.
“He wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad.”
“Nothing could have prevented this.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Well no of course it wasn’t.
There were a lot of things that had happened that weren’t supposed to. You’re supposed to have two parents and they’re supposed to be in love and they’re supposed to love you and then you’re supposed to have a family of your own and you’re all supposed to have big family Thanksgivings and then your parents are supposed to get mildly sick and subtly senile while you’re going through a midlife crisis and saving for your firstborn’s college tuition and then your parents are supposed to die once they see their grandchildren get married and you’re supposed to be sad but then you’re supposed to be okay because you had a whole lifetime with them. And then thirty or forty years later, you die and that’s the end. And so it goes.
Except for when it doesn’t.
Except for when you’re fourteen and your dad’s existence is wiped from the planet in a matter of seconds and your mom’s agony radiates off her body whenever she moves.
But she didn’t move a lot.
Her guilt devoured her more and more with each passing day until she grew almost ghostly. The million shades of grey bags under her eyes grew lower and darker, as if etched into her skin. And her sins became her broken, brittle center. She could sense the words that sat on my tongue, the ones that constantly tiptoed behind my lips. You had an affair. She’d had the time. And she’d wasted it on someone else. She didn’t have the right to grieve him. I wished for it to be a tangible thing that I could pull out of the air and take from her. I wanted the pain to belong only to me. She didn’t deserve to feel it.
I tried to care, tried to empathize. And I could to a certain degree. One day you’re wishing your parents would stop fighting because you can feel deception in the sound of their footsteps on the floorboards above your ceiling and the next you’re at a funeral wishing you wouldn’t have complained about the yelling because at least everyone could always sit down at the dinner table without there being an empty seat. I’d taken him for granted too.
But that wasn’t enough. I refused to let up. She knew a piece of information that she wasn’t sharing. He’d flown all the way across the country only to wind up in a library. Why hadn’t she wanted to see him? She said she’d planned on doing so later that day but I didn’t buy it. She retrieved his things from his recently checked into hotel room after I left Boston. I listened to the muffled closed-door conversations between her and my aunt. She’d told him she didn’t want him at the apartment and apparently, he’d still flown out. What was so important? So pressing? What would have been bad enough that she had intended on sending me back home? She’d played a part in his fate.
She knew it. I knew it.
I just didn’t know how.