Note: This short story was inspired by Ana' Neu's original poem, "A big word for a woman," published on Sad Girl Diaries on 8/14/23 Click here to read it.
“You seem awfully quiet.”
I don’t move my eyes from the road. Mom turns off the radio before a new song comes on. I sigh and she asks if I’m hungry.
“I’m fine,” I say, feeling the tires bump against my cheek. “I’m just…soaking it all in.”
I feel my heartbeat stall as we begin our descent down my home street. Taking a turn my body will never forget. Home. Well, it wasn’t my home anymore.
“Do you even remember our number, Carmen?”
I roll my eyes, “Of course, Mom.”
She tsks her tongue - something she’d always do when she was about to start a lecture. “You just left quite quickly after high school, that’s all. And you have barely come back since -”
“Mom please - ”
Her hands splay up from the wheel. “Okay - I’m sorry. I know you’ve been busy.” When she turns into the driveway and parks the car, her face turns to me. “I just…missed you.”
“I missed you too,” I say without looking at her. She only sighs.
We both get out.
The house is exactly how I left it, all those years ago. As I look up, I see the same two windows at its face. Windows that used to make me believe the house had eyes. Beneath it, is the dusty porch where I’d get in trouble for not taking off my shoes. And the small doorbell is beside the smaller front door, one more thing that would always stop working in winter. The only thing different is a large picket at my feet painted over with one audacious word:
We begin loading the last of Mom’s things into the back of the car. It’s mostly kitchen supplies, noted, when the loose cutlery rattles as we pick up the cardboard boxes. And also some electronics, like the old TV we’ve had for a decade, and the hanging alarm clock Mom used to use to wake up the whole house on Mondays. When I pick up the TV, I almost lose my balance. I stand there for 12 minutes as Mom lectures me.
Dad is at work today. So, Mom made me fly from the opposite side of the state to help.
It was the least you could do, Mom had said over the phone.
I’ve been -
Busy? Yes. I know, honey.
After we squish the last box in the back seat, and wrap the TV in enough blankets, Mom finally pats her hands. “Now. We need to do a final sweep of the house. Can you check upstairs?”
I nod, “Yup,” about to turn my back when Mom stops my elbow. “Yes Mom?”
“Say goodbye to your childhood room too, Carmen. It’ll be the last time you see it.”
She looks up to the house. Bites her cheek. “It feels so weird leaving it, finally. Don’t you think?”
My lips twitch a little when I smile. Bittersweet. Awkward. Sad. “Yeah,” I say, “But sometimes, some goodbyes are good.”
As a child, I remember how the stairs seemed to swallow me up. The corner shadow on the landing that used to scare me seemed smaller, somehow. I lug my tired body up there. But it’s clear the steps haven’t shrunk.
God, how am I thirty?
I look for stray crates, or any loose watches, pens, hair clips - things that could have fallen from the boxes Dad and his friends cleared from the house. But within minutes I find…nothing. Though, I have yet to check one bedroom.
I stop a few feet from it. My childhood room. The pink paint was still the same shade. Rogue, was what I picked. My favorite color. I wonder if it still is.
I take a step.
Do I still like pink?
I open the door.
I don’t know.
I step inside.
Like the house, I felt like a giant. But unlike the house, here is the only space I felt I…could breathe again. Belong again. A room big enough to fit a doll my size. My age. My soul.
I brush my hands over the walls, feeling the bumps of sticky tape that used to hold paintings, portraits, things my mother would call ‘silly drawings.’ Though no furniture was in the room, I could still see the dust marks, almost silhouetting where my bed had lay like a ghost. My dresser, too. And my desk.
I walk over to it and draw up the old, undusted blinds. I expect to see the tree I used to always paint. A tree I named Willow before I knew it to be just a plain Spruce. A tree in the backyard, two streets over. A tree that held the first of many of my drawings. But it wasn’t there. It was simply…gone. Not even a stump.
Instead, there was only an ugly, grey pool.
“Oh,” I say, aloud. The word was small enough for me to forget.
Because outside I hear Mom on the lawn, talking loudly into her phone. It was probably Dad. They were always bickering over something. It felt all too familiar.
I turn away from the window, about to walk back downstairs but - something stops me. From the corner of my eye I see something white, fluttering. Paper. I turn to my closet and pluck off the sign I forgot I ever wrote. In messy letters it says:
CARMEN’S CLOSET. DO NOT OPEN.
How could I forget?
I smile when I open the door and slink down the wall and into its corner. The walls squeeze at my sides. How was I so small! I think, feeling my shoulders almost hurt. I opt for crossing my legs over one another for the door to shut on its own. After sliding the door’s lock in place, I reach above my head like an old habit, switching on the overhead light.
I lift my chin and breathe in. My paintings were still there, stuck on the shadowed ceiling, fused with the wall by old double-sided tape I stole once, from school. Though the light was dull and flickering, I could still see them -
Colors, shapes. Characters I would imagine, capturing them from my dreams and laying them bare on paper. Objects that I couldn’t shake from my mind. Teacups. Wings. Open books. Things that used to make sense to me. I wish they all still did. Because these were the ones I was most proud of. The ones I didn’t want Mom to see.
I feel myself sink down, drawing my fingers along the paint marks on the bottom walls. The smell of crayons. Nostalgia. I could almost hear the sound of graphite on paper now. Art in secret. A love that could now only breathe in darkness. A love that had to wait here, like the cross on Sunday’s. Because it had nowhere else -
I see a pencil roll slowly from the shadows of the other side of the closet. It rolls and stops at my toes. I freeze, looking up in the direction it came. A large, black coat was covering the other side. Tentatively, as if scared of the dark again, I reach out. When I pull it back I try to stifle a scream.
A girl is sitting in my closet.
The coat falls to the ground and she pushes herself up against the end wall. She looks - as scared - as scared as I feel. And she looks…she looks…
I see her hands. They hold a piece of scribbled paper. Hands covered in chipped paint and youth and dreams. While mine were gray - chewed up with stress - and shaking.
I pick up the coloring pencil from my feet and hand it out to her.
The girl takes it, staring at me. Continuing to draw, her small nose dipped. Freckles tint her face. Freckles that will disappear in six years.
“You're a ghost,” I say, afraid to move.
She looks up and back down. “No.”
Her lips pout, something she’d get scowled at by her future boss.
Hold on - how -
“How…how are you me?”
I look at her. And it's like I’m looking in a mirror. Like I’m…
I shake myself. It's the dust.
The dust is making me see things -
I reach up to the closet’s lock, knowing I should have gotten out of here as soon as I -
It was her voice. A strong voice I couldn’t believe belonged to me. Once.
I stop, sit back down. “You’re not real,” I say.
She only shrugs. Puts her paper up to her knees to block me, “Well, I wish you weren’t.”
I blink, breathing in. Readjusting my legs. Squinting in the dark. What - what does that mean? Why can’t I stop looking at her? Why do I want to listen to her? Stay with her?
“What are you drawing?”
Her brown eyes flicker up to mine in the closet. Something like…hope danced in them. Yes. A dangerous hope. That someone wants to see what you're doing. A hope that what you're doing is worth something. Worth their eyes.
But instead of turning the drawing around, she hugs it to her chest, crushing it with her small body.
“It’s nothing,” she says, “Nothing to you, anyway.”
I shake my head, “What do you mean?”
Her eyes flash up to me again. But they don’t stay in my sight. Because she stares up to my messy hair, my clothes - down every inch of my skin. As if I was different from her.
“What? What’s wrong with me?” I say.
I feel her breathe in. And it's as if I was breathing for her. With her. Us, exchanging carbon in the dark. I see her turn her cheek on her shoulder. Something I always did when someone was about to make me cry. But now, seeing it from across a space, I realize the habit only made her - me - look smaller. The girl pushes her braids back, almost tugging at them. She breathes in. Out. Sways on crossed legs. Rocking back and forth.
Her eyes - the way her mouth twisted. Such sudden, hidden pain on a child’s face made me want to blame the shadows. A teenager. She was just a teenager. And I could feel her heart bleeding. I could feel it filling the closet.
“You…” she tries, her small jaw working, her eyes blinking up to the ceiling, “You…”
I find my own eyes blurring up. And she, too, blurs. The small, hunched figure in the corner of this closet. My closet. She’s there, then not. And suddenly, I don’t want her to go.
“You changed,” she says finally, “You…changed me.”
I try to swallow, but all that slides down my throat is dust. It's dry. I say nothing.
“What do you do now, then?” she asks. A demand. Her cheeks are flushed, but she's not crying. Not anymore. Because I am.
I open my mouth. Close it. She’s only a teenager. A baby. A baby who’s screaming at me.
“What? Tell me. Are you an accountant? Like how Mom wanted?”
I bite my lip. It's true but -
“I got us out,” I say, hopeless, “I got us out of here.”
She shakes her head at me.
It was like crying in the mirror.
“I tried,” I whisper, “It was her; you know. But you will understand - she loves us. She was right. She was…protecting us - ”
“She was right? Are you happy now -?”
“I could have done it. I could have made it.”
“Please - ”
“Now look at you! You're pathetic. So pathetic -”
I feel myself shaking outside of my body. I can’t - I can’t -
“This was our soul!” She scrunches up the paper -
She holds it between us, in her fists. A fist that still shakes.
Still shakes -
In the corner -
Always again. Again -
And I thought -
I thought I was strong. I was strong. I was. Was. Was.
And now I’m covering my eyes. My ears. My shoulders feel so small again. The closet eats at me. The walls scream.
“You gave up on me,” she says.
I stare at her, staring at me. Her figure wavy, her fist just there. And not -
“Carmen?” I hear a voice outside.
“Carmen - are you in here?”
The door begins to shake, the knob turning -
“Carmen? I see the light on. I’ve been calling for ages…”
But her voice fades when I see me - no - her - stand up. Putting her hands on the lock. The lock we made to keep our mother out. The world out.
“No - ” I say.
She looks at me.
I push myself on to her, climbing her legs. Clawing at her hands.
“No - no - don’t let her -”
But her fingers are like steel. Unbleeding -
“Please - I take it back. I…”
She’s still staring at me. Her face, void of emotion. Etched in sharp lines. But - so soft.
I can barely see her anymore.
The door opens, and the light streams in. I fall back, hitting my back against the corner. Cowering, again, Breathless, again.
I don’t look at my mother.
Because I’m looking at the mirror. The mirror at the other end of the closet. I see myself. The wrinkles, just starting to grow under my eyes. The sour mouth twisted under my streaming nose. Numb hands at my hair, hands that have never been able to still.
How did I grow up so fast?
“Carmen - why are you crying?” I see Mom kneeling down to me, but I push past her.
I’m on my knees, sniffling.
I grab the piece of paper from the floor. I unravel it like a stubborn child’s hand. Open it like how you would open a can. A soul.
And I cry.
It was a beautiful drawing of a tree.
Ana Neu is an Australian writer, law student, poet and content creator who adores all things creative. She's passionate about not only her own stories, but also inspiring and guiding other blooming writers to develop their own compelling plots and exciting characters that reflect what they want to tell to the world. Ana mainly writes literary fiction novellas and some fantasy novels along with original poetry. She is currently querying her novella - known to her audience as project.ghost. Ana is known for her videos on authortube (@ananeu), and her podcast on Spotify (Writing with Ana Neu)! Though she's in law school, her dream is to become a full time author and content creator - a dream career that goes against the world, her family's and sometimes her own expectations. Instagram: @_ananeu.