Cover by Sybille Sterk
A beast lived inside of me.
At least, that’s the way I thought of it. An evil, life-sucking beast that reared its ugly head whenever the opportunity presented itself. It growled from within, never giving me the option to tame the thing, to harness it. I never knew where it came from, why it found me or what I’d done to deserve it.
My foolish little sister once referred to the beast as a gift.
Madness, of course. Gifts are pretty boxes fastened with colorful bows, received on birthdays and Christmas. Gifts can also be referred to as someone’s talent for playing a musical instrument or their superiority in academics. Gifts are things of beauty and pleasure.
Whatever I possess was definitely not a gift.
My first recollection of it came on a bleak day in mid-September. I remember the day perfectly, as if it were yesterday … I was ten years old. The cloudless sky was a misty gray. Damp fog blanketed the ground, creating a sort of creepy atmosphere. The black dress I wore was stiff from newness. I pulled at the starchy fabric constantly, the stupid thing not letting me breathe.
Although many people surrounded me, my world was quieter than usual. No one was chastising Irene and me for roughhousing or playing pranks on one another. There were no secret whispers or giggles shared between us, a normal habit of the Spencer sisters during dull, formal events.
None of those things were going on because our father, our handsome father, lay in an oak casket not far from where we stood.
The casket was a gift from his commanding officer. Soldiers in battle were engraved into the wood on the side panel. I stared at it intently. It was so detailed, almost magical even. The soldiers appeared lifelike, as if in motion. A haunting yet beautiful image.
Ironically, he hadn’t died in service. It would’ve made more sense if he had since he was so young. Cancer took him away from us. Lung cancer, they’d called it. It wasn’t the type you saw in movies where the process was long and drawn out. My father never received chemotherapy. He never got radiation treatments. There wasn’t time for any of that. He simply found out too late.
I stood on my tiptoes, trying to see inside the casket. Daddy’s face was expressionless. He looked so different from how he looked in life. The slight smile betraying his dimples was missing. His skin appeared harder. Paler, too. I missed his rosy cheeks, shaded by the light stubble of his twenty-four hour five o’clock shadow. I missed the twinkle in his brown eyes, the scent of black coffee on his breath, his dedication to helping me build my dollhouse, his unwavering love for us all …
I missed him. Period.
My mother cried nonstop from the moment she awoke this morning (and sometimes while she slept last night). Eventually the heart wrenching sobs were silenced, but her tears continued to flow with abandon. Even now it was eerie to look at her. Her face was still and unmoving, like a ceramic doll’s. Her cheeks, however, remained red and blotchy, wet with tears she couldn’t keep from coming. Large hazel eyes set within her round face, bearing an empty sort of gaze; she seemed to stare at nothing most of the time. I wished I could make her feel better, if only for a moment. I attempted it this morning, by embracing her in a bear hug. She merely pushed me away as she wiped at her eyes with a tissue.
I was beginning to feel as if I’d lost two parents instead of one.
While the pastor gave the eulogy, a small hand encircled mine. The hem of my sister’s pink dress brushed against my leg. Amidst the dreary sea of grays and blacks, the bright color uplifted me. My grandparents had struggled with Irene this morning, trying to convince her to wear the black dress they purchased specifically for the funeral. Irene refused to put it on. She threw a particularly nasty tantrum, shouting until she got her way. She wanted to look pretty for daddy and the pink gown was her favorite.
Normally I would’ve helped calm my sister, persuade her to listen to our grandparents. This time I stood by watching from the sidelines, almost in admiration of Irene. There was a passionate energy behind her determination to wear the pink gown. Hardly motivated to get dressed today, I couldn’t have cared less what color I wore.
In the end our grandparents caved and my sister got her way, as usual. Though Irene won that battle by being a brat, I was bizarrely proud of her for it.
“Essie,” Irene whispered to me. “Mommy’s sad.”
I nodded, holding my gaze straight, keeping my eyes locked on the pastor.
“I don’t want her to be sad anymore, Essie. I want her to smile. How can I make her smile?”
I almost snorted at the impossible notion- and would have. But it was at that exact moment when everything changed.
All things considering, maybe I’d pinpointed that moment since it was such a pivotal one. But it was the first time I felt it, really felt the beast inside me become unleashed.
I shivered as a thousand invisible, tiny needles pricked at my skin, spreading waves of tingles up and down my body. Little flickering lights obstructed my vision, blurring my surroundings. An achiness churned violently inside my stomach, nauseating me from the pain. Before I could comprehend what was happening, I turned to my sister and said, “Walk over to Mommy and sing her favorite song. Curtsy and smile. Give her a good show.”
As soon as I uttered the words, it was as if some heavy weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The little flickering lights disappeared. My stomach settled.
The pastor had only just finished speaking. The Honor Guard took their places to show their respect. In a few moments, they would fire off their rifles in honor of my father’s military service.
Though I was only slightly older than my sister, she still looked up to me. She followed my instructions and walked over to our mother. I covered my mouth in distress. My eyes grew round with the fear of what I’d just done. She wasn’t in her right mind and I didn’t want her to push Irene away like she’d done with me earlier. Not in front of everyone. Not like this.
Why, oh why had I told my sister to sing? I didn’t understand where those words came from. They just sort of … came.
I watched in apprehension while my sister sang. It was a lullaby, Mom's favorite. Silence spread over the crowd as everyone turned to listen. For as young as she was, Irene possessed a pretty-ish voice, soft and melodic.
Brown curls bobbed as my sister twirled adorably for our mother. Her hazel eyes beheld her youngest daughter in rapt attention, as if she were in a trance.
Then, a slight curve of her lips. A twinkle of humor in her eye. Our mother smiled. Smiled.
By the time Irene curtsied, she was chuckling. Everyone thought my sister was wonderful and clapped in unison for her.
I was stunned. My mother had been a zombie for the last few days. To see her face come alive again with laughter was definitely unexpected.
At the time, I thought it an extraordinary coincidence. Irene’s question was such an innocent one, after all. How can I make her smile? And the strange words that came out of me had produced innocent results. Nothing to cause alarm over.
Irene never thought it was a coincidence though. From that day forward, she knew there was something different about what I could do for people. About what I could tell them, what I could give them. She saw the beauty in it, the pleasure. She saw a gift.
God, how I wished it had only been a coincidence.