“—Son of a bitch,” I hiss, pulling the knife free of my neck and wincing at the gout of blood that follows. The sensation is like a pair of sharp fingers burying themselves in my artery then pulling. I clamp a hand down over the warm, stick stuff, trying to get a purchase on my own slippery skin. I struggle against the sick rising in my throat. Would it come up through my mouth, or out the side of my neck? My stomach heaves at the thought.
“Mom!” I yell, not caring that it’s late and none of us have had the luxury of a full night’s sleep lately. “Mom!”
There’s the muffled thump of heavy feet above and the distinct sound of a mattress creaking. I hear my mother groan audibly. Likely, she’s sliding her sleep-frozen toes into her worn slippers. It’s only a matter of minutes before she’s standing beside me.
“What’s this, now?”
“It’s just after 2,” I say flatly, trying to keep from swaying as the blood loss starts to affect me.
“What, already?” There’s a metallic, discordant sound behind me as she wrests an industrial-size first aid kit from beneath the kitchen counter. She sets to work bandaging my neck.
“Is it bad?” I ask, wincing as she pries my fingers away from the wound.
“You know it never is.” Her voice is bone-weary. “The wound’s already starting to heal itself, look.”
She pulls the toaster, plugged into the wall on a nearby counter, over to show me. The wound, a result of the knife penetrating up and alongside one of the larger neck muscles at a 45° angle, had nicked the jugular vein. It likely also caused some nerve damage, if the numbness now coursing down my left side like a trickle of ice-water is any indication. It’s closer to the back of my neck and I have to squint to see, but already the gash is starting to pucker with the healthy pink of new skin along the edges.
My mother drags one of her fingernails across the new growth and into the lip of the wound.
“CHRIST!” I shout, then lurch forward unsteadily, away from her.
“It must be,” she breathes. “How else could we explain this miracle?”
I roll my eyes, plucking a bit of gauze from the kit and pressing it to the wound.
“I think this has more to do with the devil than anything else,” I mutter under my breath.
If Mom hears, she chooses not to rise to the bait. “Move the gauze out of the way,” she instructs brusquely. “I want to take a good picture for SWASS.”
I hold still for as long as it takes her to grab the small digital camera from its perch atop the credenza and realize that she had forgotten, yet again, how to work the flash. I gesture impatiently with the arm not currently hampered by a neck injury and turn it on for her. Another several minutes pass in quiet agony as Mom lines the shot up just so, then clicks away from half a dozen angles.
When she’s finally finished I reattach the gauze and gently but firmly fix it in place with a strip of crepe bandage. Then, exhausted, we both go back to bed.
The ghost hunters are coming to the house and I’m nervous.
“I wish you wouldn’t call them ‘swass’,” I say, fiddling with the medical tape at my neck. The slit had further closed overnight, allowing me to tape it rather than rewind the bandage around my neck like some sad, unfashionable choker.
“What else should we call them?” Dad demands. “That’s their name. I’m not going to say Southwestern Obtruse–”
“—Abstruse,” I put in.
“—Sufixation Syndicate,” Dad carries on, unbothered.
“It’s Substantiation, George,” Mom says gently. “What’s wrong with calling it SWASS?”
I huff, then cringe as the gesture elicits a sharp pain. I’ve already explained this to them sixteen times, and now it’s too late—the back door is rattling with the knock of our guests.
“Southwestern Ontario Abstruse Substantiation Syndicate!” calls a pleasant male voice. “You said knock at the back, right?”
I shoot my dad a look—See?—and go to the kitchen door to let them in, exchange hellos, then offer the pair a coffee. The man and woman are both clad in jeans and dark jackets. To my dismay, the man sports a black cap embroidered with the acronym “S.W.A.S.S.” across the front panel in light grey thread.
Dad catches my expression and his eyes flit across the hats, then back to me with eyebrows raised and head cocked in silent triumph. I busy myself pulling coffee mugs off the worn mug tree jutting from the counter.
The woman introduces herself as Severyn; her companion is Bill. Severyn has long red hair that looks to be primarily made up of synthetic extensions, the kind you clip in. Her nails and eyeliner are the blackest black, achieving the kind of emo-chic look popular among some groups at my school. I don’t hate it, but I know that my mom would make me scrub my face red if she ever caught me with that amount of makeup on.
“We’re sorry it took us so long to get out here,” Bill says, accepting a mug of coffee from me with a grateful nod. He is wearing jeans that are pale and frayed from washing and the same dark brown Wind Runner sneakers that I’ve seen on other dads at school. “Our caseload has been growing and with less staff than we’re used to—”
“They don’t want to hear about our staffing troubles, Bill,” Severyn says, smiling apologetically at my parents. “Let’s talk about what brought us out here. We don’t normally do house-calls, since we prefer to encourage our clients to consult with their faith-leaders, but your message sounded—urgent.” She punctuates this statement by dumping three heaping spoonfuls of sugar into her mug.
“Oh, Meg has had her priest in to bless the house,” Dad says dismissively. He turns to the woman. “Severyn, that’s a name I’ve never heard before, is that what your parents call you, or did you come by it another way?” He smiles brightly and Severyn returns his look with a slow blink. I cringe a bit, embarrassed for him and hoping that Bill, sitting across from him, can’t smell the coffee in Dad’s cup. It’s more brandy now than coffee, anyway.
“There are several Saint Severins in the Church, do you know,” Mom says, fixing the pair with her own smile. “And George is right, our priest—” here she shoots Dad a warning look “—has been to the house many times. He’s blessed it and Dani. But this is…still happening.” A note of desperation creeps into her voice, cracking the polite façade.
“Mom was very religious,” Severyn says, smiling now in a way that makes Dad shift in his seat, then avert his eyes and look back over at Mom.
Mom continues: “This only started happening a few weeks ago, and only to Dani. We’ve tried staying up with her, but on the nights that it’s happened, we’ve always fallen asleep. We’re afraid it’s going to do some lasting damage—”
“Why don’t you let Dani tell it?” Severyn asks, her luminous gaze now fixed on me. Her eyes are sea-blue, the colour I’ve always wished for in place of my own, a flat brown. I pull up a chair at the kitchen table, wishing that my mom wasn’t there so I could have my own cup of coffee. Neither of them knows I’ve started drinking it, but if Mom found out she’d definitely flip.
“Uh, what they’re saying is right. It doesn’t happen if they stay up with me past 2. If I can stay up past 2—” my eyes flick down to the coffee in Severyn’s mug “—sometimes, I can—it doesn’t happen, either. But it only just started a few months ago, like they said. And I have to have the dream.”
“What dream?” Bill asks, taking a draught from his mug.
I eye his coffee like a junkie jonesing for a fix in a bad after-school special. “It’s the one where I dream what happens. I’m at my computer, it’s just turned 2 in the morning. I hear something downstairs and when I go down to check if the TV’s on—”
“Then this happens,” Mom interrupts, producing the camera with a flourish.
Bill and Severyn’s eyes grow wide when they see what’s on the digital camera’s display screen. Bill’s eyes flick up toward my neck, but it’s Severyn who asks.
“Do you mind—can we see?” Her hands come up to touch her own neck on the left side, mirroring the question.
“Sure,” I say, peeling the tape up where I’ve already worried it. It’s been almost ten hours since it happened and already it’s starting to look like a month-old injury—more like it did a month after I got it the very first time. I can see the thought forming in Severyn’s mind. She looks at me kindly, with a little pity.
“Honey,” she says softly, “Dani. We’d like to talk to your parents. Alone.”
Mom’s quick thinking—having the priest bless the house, then me, since I happened to be there—is what saved them the first time. It’s Dad’s finagling that gets them out of trouble the second. By the time the police come knocking after S.W.A.S.S.’s call, the bandage is off, and the scar left behind getting the benefit of a twice-daily treatment from some off-brand “Scar B Gone” treatment Mom says worked miracles on her pregnancy stretchmarks.
Dad stays sober long enough to tell the officer that it was a misunderstanding, that you really can’t know what kind of volunteer nut-jobs come out to join a ghost-hunting league anyway, shows the officers my neck. S.W.A.S.S. didn’t think to get the photos off Mom’s camera so there wasn’t much for the authorities to go on anyway, even if their visit does go on Mom and Dad’s permanent record with Family Services and the police.
For a little while, it stops happening. We find loopholes. First it’s letting Mom in on my new coffee habit; staying up until 2:01. She and I sleep in shifts, waking up when it gets close. Once we tried changing the clocks in the house to see if it would confuse it; it did, but it also confused us so much that I was almost late for school and Dad missed an important meeting that cost his company a major deal with a client. We set them back. It happened again.
Mom’s church group came in and prayed over me. Our neighbour, a practicing Wiccan, smudged our living room with a highly flammable bundle of dried kitchen herbs, nearly setting fire to the net curtains over the window in the process. Dad did some internet research and drew a ring of salt around the knife block in the kitchen. He barricaded me in my room at night. It didn’t matter; I always got out somehow.
One night, Mom woke up in the chair she’d put outside my bedroom door to the sound of something scrabbling, scratching frantically. She undid the deadbolt and the padlock and threw open the bedroom door, only to find my bed empty and curtains fluttering in the breeze of the gaping window. I was sleep-crawling along the roof, sliding down the shingles barefoot and bloody, trying to get down into the living room a different way. I was compelled by some irresistible force to repeat the gruesome scene over and over again.
As an absolute last resort, Dad tells me, they’re sending me to a headshrinker. His words, not mine.
“Alyssa,” is how she introduces herself. She has a wide, warm smile and a neutrally decorated office with an excessive amount of throw pillows. My parents wait outside in the reception area while we have our introductory session.
“Tell me a little about yourself,” Alyssa encourages.
“What do you want to know?” I ask. “I’m a pretty normal teenager.” She nods, and I continue. Unsure what to say, I just blurt out whatever comes to mind. “I have friends and a lot of CDs. I like to watch TV and read.” I tell her what kind of movies I’ve seen in the last few months and the books I’ve dog-eared. I’m running out of things to say.
“…and I wish I had a dog,” I conclude.
Alyssa smiles. “Have you ever had one before?”
“Dad said he and Mom had one before I was born but that it was too much work to look after two animals, ha ha. A year ago, a man broke into our house and stabbed me. I don’t think that would have happened if we had a dog. Or maybe, it would have, but the man would have stabbed the dog—in which case, I guess I’m kind of glad we don’t have a dog.”
Alyssa’s eyes are, not unexpectedly, wide. She nods and recovers her composure with admirable efficiency. “Your parents mentioned a trauma,” she says carefully. “Do you remember much about it?”
“I do,” I say. I don’t add: because I’ve started reliving it in my dreams every night. Because I’m being haunted by what happened. Every time I dream the thing, I live it. I wake up with the memory of an injury, only it’s real—it’s on my body—but it heals faster than the actual injury. Almost like it’s a hallucination. Only my parents have seen it—touched it—felt the place where the knife had gone in second before—too.
“When did it happen?”
I scrutinize Alyssa’s sympathetic, open face. She seems genuine, so I tell her. “A year ago. I was up late finishing an assignment, and someone broke into our house. They think he got in through the back door, the kitchen door, because Dad left it unlocked. I surprised him—I heard something, I thought it was the TV. He grabbed a knife out of the butcher’s block and stabbed me. He just nicked the main artery in my neck—my parents woke up in time to stop the bleeding and EMS was in the neighborhood for something else so they got to me in time to save me. Well, technically they did—but I died in the hospital on the way to the ambulance. I was only dead for 32 seconds before they resuscitated me.”
Alyssa nods understandingly, as if she too was dead for over half a minute in an ambulance and she can understand how hard that must have been for me.
“And now you’re reliving the trauma? You’re having dreams?”
“Sort of,” I say, shifting uncomfortably in my seat. “They feel—more real than a dream. And if I stay up past the time where it happened—when it first happened, I mean—I don’t have the…uh, dream,” I finish lamely.
“Why do you think your mind would want you to relive that experience, if it was so awful?”
I shrug. The motion pulls on my neck and I wonder if the scar there is pale enough against my skin that she can see it. “I don’t know. It kind of feels like I’m being haunted by it, I guess.”
A pause. “Did they ever catch the man who did it?” she asks softly, just when I think maybe I should start talking again.
“They didn’t,” I say. “My Dad left the back door open. The guy—after he—well he just dropped the knife and ran out.”
“Your dad must feel awful about what happened,” Alyssa said. “Does he ever talk to you about feeling guilty?”
I shrug again but my cheeks are hot. “It happens. It was just an accident—he had a couple of drinks. It really wasn’t his fault.”
Alyssa looks at me for a moment or two more, then she smiles. “This is a good place to break. Let’s bring your parents in, and we can talk about when to have your next session, okay?”
Dad is in a blind rage over the therapist, yelling the words “insinuation” and “accusation” as Mom drives us home. They’re still fighting when we get out of the car. I expect Dad will be having the bottle for dinner, so I book it up to my room as soon as I’m able. Doors slam downstairs and I hear the engine turn over in the front drive. Mom knocks softly on my door a moment later, to tell me my ‘father’ has gone out and she has a church friend picking her up for evening mass in a few hours. He’s only ever my ‘father’ when he’s done something bad.
I drowse for a while in my room until Mom comes back from mass around 7:30 with a grocery store rotisserie chicken that we eat in front of the television in silence. I fall into a half-sleep during an episode of M*A*S*H and when I wake up, Mom’s covered me with a crocheted throw. The time on the PVR is 1:59 a.m. and Mom is asleep in the lazy boy recliner beside me. I hold my breath, waiting for the clock to flip ahead one minute.
I know I should wake Mom but as soon as I think so I hear the click of the backdoor latch and a low, throaty chuckle. The hair stands on the back of my arms and the fear is mixed with the pain, the memory of the knife blade sinking into the side of my neck like the grotesque reversal of a phantom limb. There’s a weight bearing down on me, my panic made solid, but nevertheless I feel myself rising, walking toward the kitchen, my hand outstretched to turn on the light.
I feel like a passenger inside my own body as I walk by Mom’s sleeping form without saying a thing, without waking her up. With the last bit of force I have, I lurch forward toward her and my outstretched hand knocks clumsily against the TV tray, still bearing the half-eaten chicken carcass. It rocks back and forth and my fingers land on the carving knife Mom had taken from the butcher’s block to carve the breast for us. I clamp down in a sudden, desperate bid for control. My feet are still moving me toward the kitchen, but the knife is in my hand.
I walk toward the door separating the living room and the kitchen, my heart hammering, my body still on autopilot. This is the first time I’ve been awake for the reenactment, as I’ve taken to calling it, and I can’t fight the fear rising in my throat, threatening to choke me. The back door is limned with light from moonrise. A dark mass moves suddenly to my left and I have no time to turn, only striking out blindly with the knife. I take the breadth of a second to wonder—is this a dream? It’s unlike any of the times before—and then the knife hits something solid. There’s a grunt and the figure stumbles away, out in front of me, back toward the door.
My father clutches his forearm with one hand, his shirt sleeve red with blood. A sigh of relief passes through the kitchen, coming from everywhere and nowhere, and I see my hand, the knife still clutched within it, pull away from my body—further and further—until it’s not longer a part of me, but an echo. A girl is standing between myself and my father. She looks just like me, but she holds a knife in her hand and she is wearing a mirthless smile and a great slash of red across the side of her neck.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” she asks in a whispering voice that sounds like the sigh of the wind through the leaves—only it’s coming from inside my own head. “Last time he caught you by surprise—but he never saw this coming.”
I only realize later, it’s then that I begin to scream.
I hope this was a treat to read! I based it something I wrote for my Grade 9 English class—a truly horrible short story, which I recently found in an old and very dusty binder. With the confidence only an adolescent could have, I abused both the conventions of meta and the word “irony” which does not, contrary to popular belief, mean “a coincidence”. I inexplicably chose to print it out in Courier New, pt 10, bold.