“All of it?” I asked incredulously, my skin prickling and an odd swoop of panic rising up from my stomach.
It was a cool, autumn day and I was finally cleared for release from the hospital, the three of us walking out to the car. Candice and I were walking hand in hand while Jo was unable to contain her excitement, hopping around us in joy because 1.) I was coming home, and 2.) The house had apparently been successfully cleansed of every alcoholic drink. To say that I hadn’t been expecting that extreme course of action would have been an understatement.
“All of it,” Joanne affirmed happily, imitating a plane and ‘flying’ around us. “Me and Mo-er, Candice ran around the wholeeeee house looking for it all. Candice bet me that she could find more than me, but I won because I knew about your secret hiding place behind your bed,” she gushed gleefully.
I glanced over at Candice, who looked like she wanted desperately to look away, but instead she turned toward me, her face serious. “We disposed of all of it,” she confirmed.
“Oh,” I said, my heart pounding rapidly against my rib cage. I forced a smile, ignoring my sudden burst of anxiety. “That’s wonderful.” Candice gave me a skeptical look, as if she could detect my panic (and maybe she did, seeing as I was now gripping her hand tightly), but Joanne clapped her hands and did a little pirouette, clearly proudly of herself.
“Candice said that those drinks were making you sick. Is that true?” Joanne asked, stopping in front of us and walking backward to look up at me questioningly.
“Uh…yes,” I managed to answer. I rubbed my neck, feeling suddenly awkward.
“Oh, it’s good we got rid of them then!” she cried happily. I met my daughter’s gaze and smiled a bit, noticing for once that it didn’t hurt to see those glittering green eyes. My anxiety, however, did not dissipate.
While Candice and Joanne seemed to think it was wonderful that we had disposed of all the alcohol, my body, it seemed, was not in agreement.
In fact, over the next few days of being home, my disagreeable body completely revolted against me, stopping me from doing anything that could have at least distracted me from the fact that I was being cut-off cold turkey from any kind of alcoholic beverage.
The revolts started out just frustrating, like my hands shaking when I was trying to paint, or my brain refusing to concentrate when I tried to sit down to write, but the troublesome effects piled up.
It wasn’t long before I began to feel crushed underneath the weight of them all, desperate for the one thing that I knew could make it all go away.
“They couldn’t have found it all,” I muttered to myself, my blood rushing through my veins as I began to dig through my closet. I threw piles of junk onto my bed, pushing aside boxes full of papers and knocking items of clothing off of their hangers as my search intensified. Finally, after I had emptied nearly my entire closet of its contents, I found what I was looking for: a small, wooden box.
I nearly cried with relief, my hands shaking so badly that it took three attempts to get the damn thing open, but when I did, it was empty. I took in a sharp breath of air, dropping the box with a thud and scrambling away from it, fear suddenly taking a hold of me.
Why did they have to take it all? What were they thinking? Why wouldn’t they just let me have one drink? Didn’t they realize how much I wanted—NEEDED this!? They were killing me! They wanted me dead.
My lungs suddenly felt like they were collapsing, my breath coming out in short wheezes and my vision going dark at the edges as I crawled over to my dresser. Maybe there, maybe they didn’t find that.
I grasped the handle of my dresser tightly and yanked it open, then proceeding to empty my drawers of their contents. I had just finished the first drawer and was moving onto the second when Candice walked in. Her mouth dropped open in a perfect ‘o’ and then she raced toward me, wrapping her arms around my waist and pulling me away from it.
“No!” I shouted hysterically, reaching for the dresser and trying to struggle away from Candice’s grip. “NO! LET ME HAVE IT! I NEED IT! I NEED IT!”
“STOP, James! No! There’s nothing in there! Not anymore!” she yelled, panting as she desperately tried to keep me contained. I kicked off hard from the floor, convinced that she was lying, or at least doubtful that she’d gotten all of it as I’d been a pretty good hider.
The action freed me from Candice’s hold. She lost her balance and fell as I raced back to the dresser, but it soon became apparent that she was right—my stash of drinks was long gone. I could hear Candice let out a sigh of relief—grateful that she had successfully found it all.
I began to breathe heavily, my body trembling as it rejected this news. I shut my eyes tightly, shaking my head. This couldn’t be happening. There was no way there were just no drinks in this house. No way. Couldn’t they see that I needed this to live? That I needed this to even function?
I turned on Candice, rage bubbling over from within me. “YOU’RE KILLING ME!” I shouted. “Did you fucking hear me, you stupid BITCH?! You’re killing me!”
Candice looked at me, her eyes wide and her mouth open in shock, and that’s when I realized what I had just said.
“I’m sorry,” I said in a rush, my heart pounding unnaturally hard. “I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean anything of that. I- ” my voice trailed off as I watched Candice press her lips together and stare down at the ground, her body shaking.
“Candice….” I said softly, holding my hand out to her. She took in a shuddering breath and got up off the floor on her own, ignoring my hand. I expected her to yell at me, to scream and to rage just like the Candice I knew would and I would have deserved it, but instead she just looked broken.
“I forgive you,” she said quietly, and then turned away from me and walked out the door.
I’d never even known that it was possible for those three words to hurt.
I tried really hard after my outburst, forcing myself to paint even when my hands shook and practically smashing my keyboard as I squeezed out word after senseless word—anything to try and keep myself from snapping like that again.
I also kept to myself as much as possible. It felt somehow safer that way. Any interactions with my family usually ended up with me snapping in irritation, or worse, completely blowing up like I’d done to Candice.
I became a recluse, leaving any room I found my family in and burying myself deeply within my own mind.
Sleep was the easiest way to avoid everyone, especially when attempting to paint and attempting to write just didn’t cut it anymore. I slept so often I woke up at odd hours, getting up only when the rest of the house was asleep. This suited me just fine.
This night, however, was an exception. I had woken up at an odd hour (1:00 AM to be exact), but instead of seeing Candice in bed beside me, the place beside me was empty.
I drew in a short breath, suddenly afraid. Where had she gone? Had she finally had enough of me? I got myself out of bed, my heartbeat quickening as I went to go look for her.
As soon as I left the bedroom I found her—and Jo for that matter, sitting at the dining room table. Before I chanced an interaction with them to ask them what they were doing awake, I heard Joanne speak.
“Can I ask you a question?” she asked, sounding anxious and shifting uncomfortably in her chair.
I paused mid-step, wondering what question would make Joanne behave in that manner.
Candice gave Joanne a puzzled look, probably thinking something similar to what I was, but after a time she relaxed and smiled. “Sure. What’s up?”
“How come…” she started, but then bit her lip, looking uncertain.
“Go ahead. I won’t get mad,” Candice assured, laughing lightly.
Joanne still looked a bit unsure, but finally she took a deep breath and asked, in a rush, “How come Daddy calls you ‘Candice’ and not Mommy?”
I suppressed a groan, covering my face with my hand. All I could feel was guilt and stupidity. Why hadn’t I brought this up with Jo before? Why hadn’t I explained myself? I had noticed Jo switching between calling Candice by her name and calling her ‘mom’ long ago, so why had I never thought to clarify this already?
Because you’re a selfish son of a bitch, my mind reminded me.
I rubbed my temples, trying to ignore the voice. That was a lie. I had meant to bring it up. I really had, but something else always came up.
Yeah, your own fucked up self.
I winced, but I didn’t have time to think of a soothing counter-argument, because suddenly I heard Candice’s voice.
“Well…” she said awkwardly, wringing her hands, “that’s because I’m not technically your mom.”
I opened my mouth, fully ready to interject here and have the conversation that I should have had with my daughter ages ago, but upon seeing the look of confusion and hurt on Joanne’s face, Candice plowed forward with her explanation before I could say anything at all.
“You know that a baby grows inside a woman’s tummy, right?” she asked, biting her lip some in uncertainty.
“Yes,” Joanne answered promptly, the hurt on her face disappearing as she sat up a little straighter in her chair. “Our teacher read us a book about a girl who gets a new baby brother, and her brother grew in her mommy’s tummy,” she said matter-of-factly.
“That’s right,” Candice said, looking immensely relieved. “Well, you didn’t grow in my tummy. You grew in another mommy’s tummy…um, your mommy’s.”
“Oh,” Jo said softly. She pressed her lips together, her eyebrows furrowed as she processed this bit of information. I barely even breathed as I waited for her response. I could hear Candice tapping her foot anxiously. “So…where’s my mommy then?”
Unthinkingly, I ran my hands through my hair, stopping before reaching the ends and clutching the locks. This time I was pretty sure I had stopped breathing as I stared at Candice, my knuckles white from gripping my hair so tightly.
“She died…in a car crash,” she answered gently, looking like she wasn’t sure if she was being too blunt or not. “You…you were just a baby.”
If I thought Joanne was quiet for quite some time after she received her first answer, she was now quiet for what seemed like an eternity. Candice seemed to have become uncomfortable as well, because she reached out for Joanne’s hand, holding it in both of hers. “Are you okay?” she asked, looking suddenly regretful.
“Yeah,” Jo said softly. She looked down at Candice’s hands and then back up at her, a questioning look on face again. “Can someone still be your mommy even if you didn’t grow in their tummy?”
“Yes,” Candice responded without hesitation, tightening her grip on Jo’s hand. “Absolutely. Lots of kids have mommy’s who didn’t grow them in their tummy’s.”
Jo’s face lit up, relief and joy easily apparent on her face. “Oh, good!” she exclaimed, releasing her hands from Candice’s grasp to clap her hands and sit up in her chair once more, “because I really want you to be my mommy.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding and then, absently, returned to my bedroom, thoughts of a rejected proposal eating away at my brain. I begged for sleep.
Sleeping really was so much easier than being awake.
I needed it. Why couldn’t anyone understand that I needed it?
I sighed heavily as I sat on the couch, hunching over and ducking my head. I debated sneaking out and maybe having a drink at the bar, but every time I even looked at the door Candice would stare daggers at me. I was a prisoner in my own home. I was a prisoner in my own wretched body, unable either to stay in seclusion.
“Hi, Daddy!” Joanne suddenly cried out as she burst through the front door, having just gotten home late from ballet lessons. She slammed the door behind her and then looked over at me, seeming terribly excited that I was outside of my room for once. “I got an A+ on my spelling test today!”
“That’s great,” I said quietly, hoping that Joanne would get the hint and lower her voice. My head was pounding.
Joanne did not get the hint, letting out a little squeal as she dropped her backpack behind the couch and then ran over to me. She skidded to a halt in front of me, grinning. “The teacher said my reading level is three grades higher than normal,” she announced gleefully.
“I’m not surprised,” I muttered, thinking of all the countless hours I had sat with Jo reading books. Candice looked over at me from the kitchen where she was making something, raising her eyebrow. I flushed, turning my gaze toward the coffee table instead. I really should have reacted better, but Jo didn’t seem to mind, already regrettably launching into her next point of conversation.
“I’m also getting really good at ballet. See?” she said, attempting to drop down into a neat little plié. She lost her balance though, flailing and then giggling. “Oopsie!” she said with a sheepish grin. She righted herself and then suddenly gasped dramatically, hitting herself in the head with the palm of her hand. “Oh my gosh! I almost forgot!” she shouted.
“Forgot what?” I asked with a frown, irritation beginning to crawl up my spine. “And please, Jo, lower your voice. I’m right here.”
“How about a snack?” Candice suddenly asked, clapping her hands together to get Jo’s attention and then gesturing for her to come over.
“YES! I want cookies!” she exclaimed, but stayed exactly where she was.
“You’re getting fruit,” Candice insisted. Jo stuck her tongue out, but then giggled and focused her attention on me once again.
“My teacher says I have a beautiful singing voice! She said that maybe I could sing on the stage, and everyone would come and watch me!”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” I said quietly, rubbing my temples now and closing my eyes. A deep ache was growing within my skull, making it feel like my eyeballs were going to be pushed out from the pressure of it. I could feel myself slowly becoming angry, but didn’t understand why. I tapped my foot and rubbed my temples, trying to release excess energy and coax my body into relaxing.
“Yeah,” Jo agreed, her eyes widening. “But I think she might be just being nice. Hannah told me that sometimes people say nice things even though they don’t mean them, just because they want that other person to feel good. She says they’re called ‘white lies,’ but that still means they’re lies, right?” she asked. I opened my mouth to answer, and to remind her once again to lower her voice, but she didn’t wait to hear my response, instead continuing to talk. “She says teachers and parents do that a lot, but I think she’s wrong. I don’t think people lie that much. That would be really mean. After all—”
“GOD WOULD YOU JUST SHUT UP FOR ONE FUCKING SECOND!?” I suddenly shouted, losing my temper entirely.
Candice gasped, her hand literally moving up to cover her mouth as Joanne jumped in place, her eyes suddenly filled with fear. I felt like the world froze after that, my blood pulsing through my veins and my ears ringing in the silence that followed my outburst. At first, I barely even realized what I had done, but as understanding slowly dawned on me, horror was all that I felt. I took in a sharp intake of breath, glancing at Candice, who was suddenly looking so disappointed, to Joanne, whose eyes were starting to fill up with tears.
I stood up slowly. I felt like the world was falling away beneath my feet. What was wrong with me?
“I didn’t…I didn’t mean….” I started to say, but then lost my ability to speak, the bitter taste of panic shutting my mouth in a vice. I shook my head and tried to take in a deep breath, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
“Come on,” I suddenly heard softly from beside me. I turned my head only to see Candice there, her hand on my arm. She was speaking to me the way a trainer might to a feral dog, and the realization sapped all my energy from me. I was stone, sinking deeply into the silt.
“No,” I whispered, half in a daze and still shaking my head. “No—I can’t. I can’t…” I stared from Joanne to Candice, my eyes suddenly wide. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep hurting you guys.”
“Forget it. You’re sick, don’t worry about it,” Candice started to say, but I held up my hand, feeling ill at the thought of being forgiven for what I’d just done. Withdrawal or not, this was no way to act. I should have had more control over my body—over my emotions. I hated what I had become off the drinks, and I wondered if my brain would ever normalize, or if I would just be stuck like this forever.
The latter possibility was unbearable to consider.
“That’s not an excuse,” I finally said, pained. “I’m…I’m hurting you. I’m hurting…I’m hurting…” I glanced over at Joanne again, seeing the tears running down her small face, and I shattered inside. “I have to go,” I said in a daze, the realization hitting me like a splash of ice water.
“James,” Candice said, reaching for me, but I took a step away from her. Her hand was still held out as she looked at me, her face full of questions and hurt. I couldn’t stand the fact that I was the reason she looked so pained. I was the reason for all of their suffering, and no matter how hard I tried nothing ever seemed to get better.
I had been permanently damaged, and there was no going back—I knew this now. There was no hope because there had never been hope in the first place.
“I can’t,” I whispered, my lungs suddenly squeezing in on themselves again. “I can’t, I can’t,” I repeated, turning away from Candice and heading straight toward the front door.
“James, don’t!” she shouted, stepping forward in a panic, but I darted out of range, my body colliding with the door before I wrenched it open.
I could hear both Candice and Joanne yell after me as I left.
The rain battered me as my feet hurriedly took me away from this place.
They deserved better than my poisoned mind.
They deserved better than my broken body.
They deserved better than the constant pain I caused them both.
I refused to hurt them anymore.