‘Welcome. You are now signed in.'
The black on white letters appear in front of me on my screen. I have just signed on for the latest in a long list of popular online games. Sophia, my friend, has been playing it since last weekend and she is totally hooked on it. This is one of the reasons I decided to sign up as well.
The most important reason though is that the summer holidays are looming ahead of me. Five long, long weeks of absolutely nothing to do. There will be no summer camps for me this year. Early every weekday morning, while I am still curled up in my bed, with Salem, my big, fat, black cat huddled too close in the curl of my legs, I will hear my mum and dad leave for work. Then an utter silence will fill the house and long, lonely hours will stretch ahead of me, until I hear my mum’s key turn in the lock again.
As I roll over, Salem makes an unhappy sound. “Move then, silly cat. Give me some space.”
He nuzzles closer to me.
I click on the button on my screen. The one that says: Create your virtual self.
A million different choices load onto my screen.
First, I have to choose my skin colour—white, then my eye colour—brown, my hair colour—brown, the curve of my eyebrows, the shape of my eyes and the roundness of my chin.
Then the choices move to the rest of my body. The length of my legs, the shape of my feet, dainty or knobbly fingers, and lastly whether I want to be really skinny, skinny, cuddly or really cuddly. Obviously, I choose skinny.
The screen asks me: Would you like to review your image?
I click: Yes.
The virtual me appears in front of a floor to ceiling mirror and then starts to rotate in a slow clockwise circle.
I decide I do not like my hair that mousy shade of muddy brown, so I click into the options again, and change it to long, blonde flowing locks. I save my choice and then do another critical review of myself in the mirror, before I decide I am happy with what I see on the screen in front of me. I look perfect.
Then comes the fun part. Shopping for clothes. The choices are daunting, but eventually I find the perfect outfit.
After I approve the way I want to look, I have to choose my personality. There are twelve choices and they are all linked to the different astrological birth signs. I choose one which is the complete opposite of me. I am an Aries, but sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a Pisces.
Then I have to choose my goals and aspirations. I click: Surprise me. Sadly, I do not have any goals and aspirations. Not right now. Not today.
I choose my family and social structure. I decide to keep this simple and only choose a mum and a dad. The way things are.
Lastly, I get to choose where I want to live, and seeing as I am stuck at home with no beach holidays in my foreseeable future, I decide a casual lifestyle in a trailer sounds like an exciting choice.
I have worked through all my options and I press the button: Start Game.
The screen warns me: Are you sure? Options cannot be changed.
I click: I am sure. Take me to my new life.
There was nothing special about the night Hannah was born. It was a normal night, maybe a little windier than usual, and it was one out of three hundred and sixty five days that year.
The alignment of the stars on that star studded evening determined her destiny and her future. The configuration of the planets in relation to each other decided her fortune and her fate. It was already decided what her life pursuits, and her secret desires would be.
When Hannah was a little girl, she believed people could get what they wished for if they wished hard enough and long enough and were good enough, and although she was fifteen now and she had long ago stopped believing in fairy tales, she never stopped believing there was something magical in the world around her. Somewhere, there was somebody or something watching over her, keeping her safe, considering her wishes, her dreams, her ambitions and her hopes, and sometimes, only sometimes, if she was deserving, her prayers would be answered.
Her dad taught her this. Her dad told her when she was still a little girl and they went for their long walks together, without her mum, that there were angels and that angels would do anything and everything to get people to believe. He said although people stopped hoping as they got older, sometimes they still made a wish when they blew out their birthday candles, or made a wish on a shooting star, and sometimes they really believed the wish would come true.
Hannah had a lot of wishes. Firstly, she wished they did not live in the trailer, but that they lived in a real house. Not a house on wheels, but a house built with bricks and a solid foundation, with a garden and a huge oak tree in the back garden, with a swing hanging from one of its branches. A house that would be solid and stand firm in any storm, even the strongest winds which sometimes rocked their trailer and made her feel scared when she was trying to fall asleep alone in her bed.
Secondly, she wished her mum was happier and would spend more time with her. Hannah had a back-of-the-mind suspicion her mum never really wanted children and that is why Hannah was sometimes, most of the times, referred to as the ‘surprise’ baby by her mother, when Hannah overheard her speaking to her friends.
Her mum worked as a waitress and she complained every day how unhappy she was. Hannah thought her mum was very pretty and sometimes, when her mum was in a good mood, she would tell Hannah, she looked just like her when she was a little girl. Hannah had the same small facial features, her hair was blonde, and she had eyes the colour of melted milk chocolate.
Her dad was six feet tall and weighed nearly two hundred pounds, all muscle from working at construction sites for so many years. Although some days, Hannah would see him grimace when he moved after he came home from work, or she would see him stretch his sore muscles, he never uttered a word of complaint.
She used to sit for hours, staring out of the dust streaked window waiting to see him walking up the rutted, overgrown pathway to their trailer. Hannah would then start running toward him and when she reached him he would drop his lunch bucket to the ground as he scooped her up with his tired strong arms, and he would lift her with ease up into the air so she looked down onto his happy smiling face. Now that she was older, she still ran to him, but he no longer lifted her into the air, now he twirled her around.
Most of the times when her dad got home from work, her mum would not be home yet, and sometimes her mum would only stumble up the steps into the trailer long after dinner.
Her dad did most of the cooking and early in the mornings he would pack lunch for himself and Hannah, because her mum would still be fast asleep, but he never complained that her mum was not at home or still sleeping, and sometimes he would tell Hannah sympathetically that he and her mum got married too young. He never said what Hannah always suspected about her mum not wanting children, but he did not have to, because Hannah knew. Her mum was not like other mothers. Her mum did not care about her at all and sometimes Hannah thought if she had to disappear one day, her mum would not even notice or she would be so relieved, she would not even bother to come looking for her.
Hannah always asked, “Even if you were young, you must have been in love?”
Her dad would always smile the same smile when he replied, “We were, but we didn’t listen to our parents and we just ran off and eloped without thinking about the future. Your mum soon felt as if she had missed out on things and working long hours at the diner does not really help to make her feel better.” He would then always nudge Hannah playfully on the shoulder, before he continued, “And that is why we should let her have her freedom so she does not feel trapped by all of our love for her.”
Hannah frowned. “How can love trap someone?”
His soft green eyes would get a faraway glint and he would say, “When you love someone as much as we love her, you want that person around all the time, but having that person around all the time might make them feel as if they are in a cage. Sometimes you are afraid to let something you love go, even though you know that letting them go will make them happier.”
“Why does she not love us as much as we love her?”
“She does, in her own way. Now eat your dinner before it gets completely cold.”
They would then change the subject and talk mostly about what she had done at school that day.
The blue circle on my screen twirls and twirls. The game is taking an awfully long time to load. Although I am starting to feel a little frustrated, wondering if my tablet’s operating system will be too slow to handle running the game, I wait patiently as I watch the dots swirl around continuously.
The land-line phone downstairs starts its shrill ringing and I jump with fright. The sound is loud in the otherwise silent house.
Quickly I throw the blankets off me, and cover Salem in the process.
Sidestepping the corner of my bed, and running down the stairs, I reach the phone in the kitchen just as it stops ringing.
I decide to get something to eat, before I go back upstairs and just as I open the fridge, the phone starts to ring again.
Picking up the phone, I say, “Hello.”
My mum asks, “Are you up yet?”
Obviously. “I am.”
“Please do me a favour. I left in a hurry this morning, and I forgot to take meat out of the freezer.”
“What must I get out?”
“I don’t know. What do you feel like having for dinner?”
If it was up to me, I would definitely want Pizza for dinner, but having takeaways are reserved for Friday nights only. “Maybe Spaghetti?”
My mum sounds unsure. “I don’t know.”
I lean against the kitchen counter as I wait for her to decide.
She says, “Okay. Take out the mince, will you please?”
“What are you going to do today?” She sounds uneasy.
I sigh. “I don’t know. Maybe watch some TV.”
“When is Sophia coming back from Spain?”
“Only next week, Friday.”
“Not that long. You can use this time to recharge your batteries.”
I can hear the worry in her voice, but she is too scared to mention the unmistakable truth of my situation. She thinks saying the words might remind me, but she does not realise I do not need reminding. I remember. I remember everything. Every memory flashes in my mind, all the time. My every thought plays out the history of my life. There is no future. Everyone says, it will get easier, but how can it when time is forever frozen in my head.
“Okay. Gotta go. I’ll see you tonight,” she says when I hear someone ask her something in the background of her office.
“Okay, Mum.” I try to put a smile in my voice.
I hear her sigh sadly as she ends the call.
After getting the meat from the freezer, I put it in a container on the counter, before I open the second from the bottom kitchen drawer, where my mum stashes all the crisps, biscuits and sweets. Looking down at my choices, I decide to take a sleeve of Chocolate Crisp biscuits. Considering the ingredients it is almost the same as a bowl of cereal, minus the milk. To make me believe my choice for breakfast is indeed as healthy as I try to convince myself, I pour myself a glass of milk.
With the plate in my one hand, and the glass in my other hand, I walk back up the stairs to my bedroom.
Salem has moved out from under the blankets and is now curled into a ball right in the middle of the only space he allows me to have.
I put the plate and glass on my bedside table, and lift him. His eyes do not even open when I put him down at the foot-end of the bed. He only lets out a loud purr.
After fluffing up my pillows, I let them lean against the wall behind my bed, before I sit down again and pull the blankets across my legs. I balance my tablet against my pulled up legs, and reach for a biscuit.
I notice the game has eventually loaded, and there is a girl, similar in appearance to me on the screen.
One day as Hannah was sitting in her room studying for her weekly History test she heard car doors being slammed and someone was crying loudly.
Hannah rushed to her bedroom window and saw Sheila, her mum’s friend, get out of Charles Andrews’ car. Charles Andrews was her mum’s boss at the diner. The back door of the car was opened and she saw Charles help her mum out of the car. Her mum was crying uncontrollably and being supported by Sheila on one side of her and Charles on the other side. They helped her mum walk to the door of the trailer.
Her mum suddenly let out a piercing scream, and Hannah felt her heart speed up. Her legs turned to lead and her feet felt as if they were nailed to the floor. For some inexplicable reason tears overflowed from Hannah’s eyes as panic filled her heart.
Hannah managed to walk to the front of the trailer and she reached the living area just as the door opened.
When her mum saw her, she cried, “Oh, Hannah.”
Hannah asked urgently, “Mum! What’s the matter?”
“There has been a terrible accident. Your dad and two other men at the site… are dead.” A long sigh escaped from her throat. She swayed and would have fallen if Sheila had not been holding onto her.
Hannah shook her head vehemently. It could not be true, yet there they were all standing in front of her with horrible, tragic expressions on their faces. “No!” She screamed and pushed through the three bodies standing in the doorway. She pressed her hands over her ears as she ran. She was unaware of the direction she had taken and she ran until she was not sure whether she was gasping for air or if it was the sobs tearing through her body.
She stopped running and stood there crying until she heard Sheila call her name.
Sheila walked toward her and tried to hug and comfort her, but Hannah pushed her away roughly, screaming hysterically, “They are lying! Tell me they are lying!”
Sheila shook her head as she bit her lower lip and waited for Hannah to stop sobbing.
The sun set and crickets started singing in harmony with the toads that started croaking.
Sheila asked, “Aren’t you cold?”
“What difference does it make?” Hannah snapped angrily. “What difference does anything make?”
After a while, Hannah said, with a voice which sounded dead, “Let’s go back.”
Silently they walked next to each other, and Hannah did not know how she got her legs to take those steps, but eventually they got back to the trailer park, and then to the trailer. Charles, who had brought her mum home, was gone.
Sheila followed Hannah into the trailer.
Her mum was sitting on the sofa with a wet wash-cloth on her forehead.
When Hannah walked into the trailer, her mum reached up to take her hand. Hannah fell down on the floor in front of the sofa, between her mum’s legs and she pushed her head against her mum’s stomach. Hannah felt nauseous and she thought the pain will never, ever go away. Inside, she was still crying and screaming.
A few moments later, when Hannah looked up at her mum, her mum was fast asleep.
Sheila said quietly, “Let me make you a cup of tea.”
Hannah did not reply. She sat there on the floor, next to the sofa, still holding onto her mum’s hand. She lowered her head and cried quietly until Sheila touched her softly on the arm, and said, “Come sit with me. Let your mum sleep.”
Hannah stood up from the floor and followed her meekly to the table. She sat down at the table, across from Sheila and watched her pour two cups of tea.
Sheila said, “Go on, drink it.”
Hannah blew on the hot, milky liquid and then she took a sip. She looked across the table and smiled. “He will be coming home soon. It’s all just a big mistake.”
“Hannah,” Sheila said sympathetically.
“No, you don’t understand. My dad has someone looking over him, protecting him and they will never let such a terrible thing happen. It’s all a mistake, you’ll see.”
Sheila reached across the table to take Hannah’s hand. “You have got to be brave for your mum now, Hannah. She is not a very strong person, you know. There is going to be a lot of suffering to endure over the next few days.”
Hannah drank some more tea and then she got up. She glanced across the small living area toward her mum asleep on the sofa and then she slipped on her coat.
Without saying a word, she walked out of the trailer and then she stood in front of it, looking down the rutted path where she will soon see her dad coming home.
As she stood there, she closed her eyes. “Please,” she prayed, “I don’t care if You do not answer any other wish but this one.”
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes, looking at the pathway expectantly. The road was empty. She waited and waited.
In the morning, when the sun rose in an angry grey sky and the wind howled among the trees and made the long grass around her ankles sway in a hundred different directions, she realized as she looked at the road one more time, her dad was not coming home. He was gone forever.
Slowly Hannah turned around and walked back to the trailer.
They say darkness finds a hopeless soul, and I have to admit it has been a very, very long time since there has been any hope in my heart. Darkness creeps in little by little, like long shadows at the end of a warm summer’s day. Dr. Browne says people with depression cannot imagine a future, and in a way I suppose this is true. Since Shayne left, I cannot imagine my future. Sometimes I cannot see beyond the wall of night, which separates one day from the other.
In the past months, I have stayed hidden in my room, and now Salem is my best friend in the whole, entire world, even more important than Sophia. Like my parents, Sophia imagines I can just scrub my brain clean. Take an eraser and wipe away the memories, but I cannot. Maybe there is something wrong with me. There must be, if everyone seems to think I am staying stuck in my memories on purpose. I am tired of people saying, life is what you make of it, because, for me, it is not.
For months I denied it even happened, so how could I even have tried to imagine anything would get better, if I could not even face the truth. Every night, as I curled up with Salem, I would tell him how awful Shayne was being, just disappearing from my life. How he broke my heart so badly, it was too painful to even take deep breaths. For months, it felt as if he was still around, somewhere, but just not with me. For brief moments, I would consider sending him a text, but then my mind would just go blank, and think of something else. It was as if my entire being lived in denial. My mind could not handle the intense pain of even contemplating the very idea of the truth, and my mind buffered the shock, by blocking out words and hiding me from the facts.
Then I got angry. Mostly, I was angry at Shayne. I resented Shayne for causing me such immense pain, and then I felt guilty, which made me even more angry with him. I got angry for waiting for answers, I knew I would never get. I could feel the rage burning in my stomach. I sat alone in my room, in my bed, taking my anger out on Salem. Refusing to let him get up onto my bed. Then, I got angry with me, because I should have known, I could have done more, I should have seen it happening. How did I not see it coming.
But, then after a day or so, I would go back to denial, and apologise to Salem, letting him back onto my bed, and hugging him close as if I could transfer my pain to him. The pain was just too much to bear on my own. His purring would fill my mind with a sense of peace, and those were the only times I could fall asleep. His calm presence deflected my intense emotions away from my vulnerable heart.
Then, the darkness found me, and that is when I met Dr. Browne.
My chest shudders as I take a deep breath.
I look down at my tablet’s screen and realise it is inevitable for Hannah’s dad to die, because equally I could not play a game where someone is happy. Inadvertently, I wanted the girl in my game to also feel that same constant pain in her chest, to see the images in her head of things and memories. Things that could have been. Only remembering things from yesterday, while never being able to see tomorrow.
Shayne gave me a glimpse of the life I could have had. With Shayne I could see every day for the rest of my life, but he erased them all the day he left.
Besides, it is only a game. Sophia often tells me how she sets some of the people in her game on fire when they irritate her.
At her dad’s funeral Hannah heard a lot of sobbing and noses being blown. Somewhere at the back a baby was crying incessantly, but it seemed fitting and did not bother Hannah in the least bit.
After the ceremony, outside the church, her mum kept releasing a long sigh after each long sigh, mumbling to herself. “I wish this was over.”
Sheila, who was standing next to her mum, kept encouraging her by saying, “There, there Charmaine. You need to be strong.”
Although her mum was dressed in black and she was not wearing any make-up, Hannah still thought she looked beautiful. Sadness made her look more fragile and brittle.
At the graveyard, Hannah gazed at her dad’s coffin one final time as it was lowered into the cold dark ground, finding it hard to believe he was really inside of it.
Hannah softly mumbled, “Goodbye.” As the word whispered over her lips and drifted off on the cold wind, she knew that one word is the saddest word she will ever know. Never again will her dad hold her close or smile at her lovingly. He was forever gone.
At the end of the funeral, the mourners walked past Hannah and her mum. Some stopped to hug her mum and others touched her hand, murmuring their condolences. Most of them seemed to only linger briefly, as if tragedy were a contagious disease.
When everybody was gone, her mum rushed to the car. It was as if she could not get away from the sadness fast enough.
Once they were back at the trailer, her mum stripped the black dress off and threw it in the dustbin.
Hannah looked at her baffled, and her mum said offhandedly, “I do not intent to mourn for weeks. Sadness does not bring back the dead.” She walked past Hannah to her room at the back of the trailer. “I am off to bed. I have an early shift at the diner tomorrow.”
“Are you going back to work tomorrow already?” Hannah asked surprised. Hannah thought the world had stopped turning when her dad died. How could their lives ever go on?
Her mum said, “I don’t have much choice. We need the money.”
Hannah supposed this meant she would be going right back to school as well, although it just did not feel right, carrying on as if her dad had not just died.
After her mum closed her bedroom door, Hannah went to her room and threw herself down onto her bed. She buried her face in her pillow to smother her anger, which she felt building up in her chest, pushing aside the sadness. Hannah kept thinking if she prayed hard enough she will see her dad come walking up the rutted pathway, a brilliant smile on his lips when he sees her waiting for him, but she knew that nothing will bring him back. She wondered why she was even born if the one person who really loved her was taken away from her. She decided she will never pray again, make a wish, or even go to church, ever again. Where was this person or entity who was supposed to look over her, to make sure she was happy, who decided what happened to her in between being born and dying. This entity did not care about her in the least bit and she did not care anymore either.
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