- 2011 -
It was November, that night I stood in front of the mirror in my bathroom, staring incoherently back into my own black holes.
Things suck sometimes. I knew that. I wasn’t at all unfamiliar with the frequent pains of living in a shattered world, but this — I had never known pain like this. No matter what I did to resist it, those deep waves of depression came crashing over me without warning or mercy.
Numerous times during the fall after Ashleigh left, the darkness would come and crush me like a diver on the ocean floor — like shoelaces being cinched up too tight around my ribcage. This continued in growing intensity until strange fainting episodes began setting on. I found myself losing it underneath the weight of depression and blacking out completely, once in a tattoo parlor, twice in my car, once during a friend’s dinner, and another time in the back of a restaurant where I worked as a waiter.
The last time, in the restaurant, I’d nearly made it to the end of my shift. I’d spent most of the day propped up against the computer counter whenever I could find the time for a break. When I felt the tunnel vision coming on, I quietly slunk to the floor and sat there until it passed. My manager must have seen me. She sent me home early.
So I returned home; home was now a three-bedroom house I lived in with Jared, from Yours Truly. The house was empty.
I dug out my phone and tentatively texted a few people with shaking hands. My world felt like the frayed end of a rope –– reality unraveling. After half-heartedly seeking out the comfort of friends and found that they were busy with other things, I did what I usually do in my darkest times: I isolated myself. I went to stand in front of that mirror, searching for something to live for in those dark, gaping pupils.
That void held nothing but pain.
Why? I asked myself and God.
It was useless. I had already begun to suspect the answer long before asking, because every daily glance towards the mirror would hint at it: the wrinkled brow, the sunken eyes, the corpse skin on my cheeks. When reflected, all that agony in Ashleigh’s wake looked terribly like love. Would I have suffered that much if I had never really loved her?
That realization made every hurt a double hurt; every wound I discovered ran deeper upon closer inspection. I did care for her. A lot. In fact, the degree of pain I felt was exactly equal to the degree of love I had for her. All the excuses I told myself about a loveless marriage so that I could cope with her leaving were unveiled as lies. We had no good reason whatsoever for separation or divorce.
I tore myself from the mirror and went to bed, but it was no use. In waking, the depression knocked me out. When I longed for sleep, it refused my eyes to close for even a moment’s worth of relief. My chest heaved. My skin went clammy like a dead person’s. It was more than I could handle.
Have you ever roused yourself from a nightmare, and at that waking moment when reality comes rushing back to you, wish that you could return to the world you just left?
I’d take even a nightmare, I thought. Even my worst dream has to be better than this.
And that’s when I remembered that unopened bottle of Crown sitting on top of the fridge…
The lights come on. I’m squinting, confused, blubbering. Tim is pulling me out of bed and Jared’s at the door, holding the bottle. It’s empty. They’re asking me questions but I’m fighting to get free. Accusation. Concern. Worry. Hurt.
Somehow I end up back in bed and it crosses my mind that I didn’t do a sufficient job injuring myself. Maybe pills would have helped.
Time passes. The lights are on; the lights are off. Jared’s and Tim’s voices drift in from the other room but things here are still. Waiting…still waiting for that nightmare…
And then the hands are on me — those horrible, invisible hands from nights past. I had only been drunk once before in my life, in a similar episode a couple of months prior. I had felt the hands then too, clawing at me, grabbing my arms and legs as if to draw me down, down, down through the bedclothes and the dirt to the burning core of the earth.
I fight them half-heartedly. Someone’s whispering in my ear, and I recognize the voice from times past.
Give up, it says. There is no love for you here. You deserve to be abandoned by everyone.
Images bounce around in my foggy mind; I see a mirror, bloodstains on a carpet, a girl. What’s her name? Alexia.
I’m drifting off, but I can still feel myself pressed up against the wall beside my bed as if by some invisible force. My knees and elbows knock against it and the drywall shakes. My mind floats away somewhere else…
- 2001 -
It’s the seventh grade.
I’m walking the vermillion carpeted halls of Lamar Middle School, like dozens of other kids, searching through soda machines and three-ring binders –– across friend groups and student organizations –– for the person I’m going to be the rest of my life. I’m desperate for identity. At thirteen, not much else matters besides the hope in discovering some unexplored piece of society I can adopt as my own.
In the corner along a row of lockers, an eighth grader pushes a late bloomer into the cafeteria doors. Girls walk by in cheerleading outfits, others in black denim and chains and hair dye. I guess that’s how they’re going about finding their identity.
And although I dress nice and put gel in my hair the same way all the popular kids do, a different sort of identity search is going on beneath the surface. And it always had been, really.
From a very young age, I’d always been strangely interested in anything I deemed mystical or spiritual; this curiosity reached a dramatic climax my seventh grade year. Since my parents claimed no religious affiliation, and thought it best to let me explore whatever realm of spirituality I saw fit, I took full advantage.
In fifth grade, I drowned myself in a misconstrued brew of Buddhism and other Eastern religions. That didn’t last very long, because six months later, I consumed myself in the different mythologies of the ancient world — Greek, Roman, Egyptian. I moved from there to a more general infatuation with the spirit realm, organizing ghost hunts and calling psychics to hear my future foretold.
And finally, in seventh grade, I settled into what I thought at the time was a set of beliefs that seemed to suit me at last: Wicca.
Witchcraft –– or at least the witchcraft I saw in cartoons or movies –– had always captivated my imagination. More than anything, I desired to find something mystical and rare to assert power over. I wanted to lay claim to one of humanity’s secrets, so that some sought-out bit of enlightenment might fall on me, setting me apart from the rest of the world, just like Buddha or Mohammed or Jesus. I wanted to be chosen.
And what middle schooler doesn’t wish they could speak a few words in secret and be thrust up the social ladder? Who doesn’t wish their words had power?
Despite this swelling obsession, I didn’t delve seriously into the Wiccan religion until an apartment complex went up next door on top of the fields I played in as a child, and our new neighbors moved in.
Her name was Alexia. She was a year older than me.
Alexia and her mother took up residence in the two-bedroom unit nearest to our house. I could see her bedroom window from my back yard, between the trees my parents had planted for privacy from the new tenants.
Because of a previous injury or illness (I was never told the specifics), Alexia’s mother used a remote-controlled wheelchair to get around in, and was kept under close supervision. Alexia mostly took care of her. She changed the bandages around her head and fixed her meals. She was even given a special license so that, at only fourteen, she could legally drive her mother’s car to the grocery store, or to school, or to Sunday mass.
But Alexia, like me, allowed herself a certain amount of freedom with which religion she followed. Although her mother practiced Catholicism and regularly brought her daughter to church with her (as she couldn’t drive there herself), Alexia and I conducted very different sorts of rituals when out of sight from our parents. By the time school started again in the fall of 2002, we were spending much of our time outside of class together.
I got the hang of it quickly. Alexia had already spent a lot of time studying the laws and tenets surrounding Wiccan lore, and before long, we were swept up in the thick of the practice. We lit candles, constructed pentagrams, and memorized incantations for health and wisdom and power. I convinced my parents to buy me spell books and other witchcraft literature that I would study with fervor. We were together constantly.
“Watch this,” she would say nearly every day I saw her.
The things she showed me dazzled even my overactive imagination –– and yet, because of that imagination, those things seemed far less improbable than they do now, even to me.
Her favorite spell was the one she cast into her living room mirror (she did this quite often), which ever so slowly and slightly changed the color of the eyes staring back out of the reflection. Blue, green, purple, silver back to brown.
We didn’t tell anyone. Since most of the kids in my middle school tended to group me in with the popular crowd, doing witchcraft on the weekends didn’t mesh well with the image I had begun creating for myself. We continued in secret; I liked it better that way.
On one of the very last sunny days in October, Alexia turned up at my front door like she always did once she saw that I’d made it home from football practice. But today was different. Through the narrowing sunlight, I could make out her bloodshot eyes, and the blue-purple evidence of a bruise underneath her makeup.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“Was it him?”
She didn’t need to say; her silence gave her away. Alexia’s boyfriend of a few months had some serious anger issues that were no secret to those closest to her. She would arrive at my door in tears at times, or in a sickening rage about something he’d said –– and that was one thing. She’d never come over with bruises.
Without speaking, she held up a shaky hand, which was clasped around a wallet-sized picture of him. I stared at it with a sinking feeling in my gut. No further explanation was necessary; I knew what she intended us to do.
It had come time to cast our first curse.
Turning around, Alexia stepped off the front porch and I followed. We made our way to her room next door while lines from some Wiccan Rede I’d read floated through my conscience: “…that which you reap unto others shall return to you thrice over…”
As soon as we entered, she began setting up the altar with fierce determination. I reluctantly joined in, helping her position more black candles around the board than we’d ever used at one time before. And finally, after we were satisfied, we paused a moment to gaze at it. The sight of our finished masterpiece, all terrible and glorious, seemed to intimidate us.
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
Silence again. I knew the Threefold Law had to be running through her mind like it was mine.
“Yeah,” she said finally.
We burned his picture on the flame in the center, repeating incantations we didn’t understand, though they sounded ugly enough. Afterwards, she said she wanted to be alone, so I left.
I’d nearly forgotten about the whole ordeal by the time I arrived at school the next morning. That’s when Alexia found me on the green before school started and told me with a smile that her boyfriend had been hospitalized during the night with a severe and unexpected case of pneumonia.
I didn’t know what to say to her. Congratulations? I’m sorry? I didn’t know what to say to myself.
My world tipped a little that day; a lens in the rose-colored glasses of my adolescence fractured as our crooked reality collided with the lingering auroras of my child-like imagination. Had I ever actually wanted to hurt anybody? Had I ever actually believed I could?
Feeling scared and guilty, I distanced myself from Alexia and resolved to never enter her apartment again. For a week, I avoided her at school. If I’d been paying attention, I’m sure I might have seen the growing disaster in her eyes.
It all came to a frightening culmination in early November. I had already climbed into bed when two of Alexia’s friends knocked at the front door. My mom came and woke me, and brought me upstairs.
The girls were crying hard when I came to the door.
“What’s going on?” I asked them. “Where’s Alexia?”
Through sobs they explained my darkest nightmares:
After arriving home from school, Alexia told her mother that she began seeing dark shadows moving behind the glass in the living room mirror we once used to morph our appearances. They spoke in deep voices, she said, yelling, threatening her. She finally told her mother that she thought demons were trying to escape the mirror to hurt her. Her mother called the girls. And the priest.
They wanted me to come over. I told them I couldn’t.
So they left, only to return a short time later reporting that Alexia had lost all control of herself. It had started with mindless babbling — “thrice the blood, thrice the bone, thrice the body.” But before long the chants became bellows and cackles until, according to her shaken friends, she began speaking in languages and voices none of them recognized. Her body seized; she dropped to the floor of the living room, dug her fingernails into her palms, and began to bow on hands and knees to the mirror she so adored.
I stood arrested as they told the story and then begged me to come help. They knew about the things Alexia and I did in secret.
Help? This Wicca thing had grown far beyond any help I could give. I refused again to come over, and instead I hurried downstairs, grabbed every Wicca book and candle and wand I had in my closet and gave it all to them to burn in the alley. They took the things and didn’t come back.
I waited a while after they left, went out on the back porch and looked over the fence at her bedroom window. A flickering orange light shone against the closed blinds. She had her candles lit. I went to bed and tried to keep from imagining what was going on behind the glass. I wouldn’t sleep well again for a long time.
Like a spy on reconnaissance, Wicca passed a little too quietly from my life in the months that followed. I only saw Alexia once again. She never told me what had really happened, other than to say that their efforts to burn her Wiccan possessions proved useless. She claimed that they kept showing up somehow, unscathed, on her doorstep each morning. I only ever half-believed her.
Shortly afterwards, Alexia and her mother moved out of that apartment to a neighboring town on the Arkansas River. And about a year later, I received news of her death.
From what information I gathered, Alexia had been driving home in the night with her special license when her car ran off into a ditch. The police said that from the impact, she must have been going pretty fast. They were unable to determine what had caused her car to veer off the pavement at such high speeds.
I was sitting in art class when I heard. I thought immediately of the Rede: “thrice the blood, thrice the bone…” As unwilling as I was to believe such a thing, I suspected that it had been them. Those horrible shadows from the mirror –– the ones that made her act so strange that night on the living room floor –– had also made her drive her car off the road.
I suspected this because I had begun to see them, too, in the dark corners of my room where we used lay our pentagrams out. Whispers spoke to me just below the buzz of the television, which I kept on at all times in vain attempts to drown out my terror. Still, the Voice would get louder at times, especially in my dreams, telling me that I was next in line.
I would spend many years afterwards waiting for my own demise because of what I’d done.
- 2011 -
You don’t deserve love, the Voice says. My leg hits the wall and runs up without my ordering it to. My elbow follows. My room is dark; the space in my head feels darker. Your wife is gone, your friends will be soon enough, and in the end, God will abandon you too.
I tell myself I should have done it right. Put myself out of my misery. Maybe, I think, it might be better to let the Voice just take me. Surrender to it. No Hell could be worse than this.
Then the light comes on. Tim is sitting on my bed. Someone holds my hand, and puts another one on my shoulder. Part of me wants to fight it, to fight them, but I don’t. Then Tim is praying. I can’t make out what he’s saying, but I know that the words he speaks over me are prayers because they’re louder than the Voice.
The last thing I remember from that night were those prayers. Apparently, after I settled down and my friends left the room, they could hear me singing a drunken rendition of “How Marvelous” through the door before finally finding sleep.