Scarlet

I wrote this for my Forms of Fiction class last year.

[1]

I opened the door to Kimberly’s bedroom and screamed.

Red ran along the walls in a ribbon of sloppy drawings. The walls of sweet lavender with pink paisleys were vandalized with ugly red. Vaguely, I made out a house with a sharp triangular roof, a dog with a spotted eye and two little girls in triangular dresses, holding hands. A jagged line flowed from one wall to the other, the crooked base upon which all the drawings started.

The pleasant atmosphere of my 5-year-old’s bedroom was interrupted by the crudeness of the color and the rough illustrations.

Kimberly stood inches from the wall, silently clutching the red marker in her tiny hand.

“Oh my God, Kim!” I cried, storming over and snatching the marker from her. She winced. “What on earth are you doing? Why did you draw on the walls?”

Lowering her gaze to the ground, she shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. In a tiny voice, she replied, “I thought you’d be happy.”

My jaw clenched. I’d never been angrier since the new intern at work accidentally deleted all my documents pertaining to our potential clients on the office computer today. Thankfully, I remembered I had a backup of those documents saved on my little jump drive. Or I swore I could’ve killed him, after I fired him from Earnst & Young.

“Why would I be happy? You just drew all over the walls! It’s going to take days to get this stuff off!”

“But I wanted to show you what I learned in school today!” she protested.

“They taught you to draw on the walls?”

“No! I learned how to draw people,” she gestured to the drawing of the two girls on the far left side of the wall, right beside her bed. They looked identical with the same large round heads, square-ish haircuts that ended above their shoulders, and stick bodies. A smile crept across her freckled face. “That’s me and my new friend.”

I sighed. “Honey, your drawing’s great, but please don’t draw on the walls anymore, okay? They’re really hard to clean.” I didn’t even want to think about how long it was going to take to get the red off. Her room was never going to look the same. Until repainted, the walls would be stained with the mistakes of her youth. “Just use paper next time. Daddy and I will get you a special book with blank pages so you can draw in it as much as you want.”

She nodded silently. “I’m sorry, mommy. I didn’t know you would be mad. My friend said you would be happy when you saw my drawing.”

She looked so guilty that my anger receded at the sight of fresh tears welling up in her round, sky blue eyes. Her bottom lip quivered.

I softened and drew her into a hug, making a mental note to find out who this friend was so I could talk to her mother about what a bad influence she’d been on Kimberly. “I like your drawing, sweetie, just not on the walls. Now, can you do mommy a favor and clean this up?”

After I told her to scrub the walls with soap and water, I left her to it. Descending the stairs, I smelled Kevin’s cooking from across the house. I ventured into the kitchen and smiled at the talented chef who was standing with his back toward me as he stirred meat sauce on the stove. The sleeves of his crisp blue shirt were rolled up to reveal his bulging biceps that brimmed with masculinity. I wrapped my arms around him and leaned my face into his back, breathing the faint cologne.

He stopped stirring and turned around to face me. I loved the way his brown eyes twinkled whenever he smiled. He didn’t have to say anything. All he had to do was pull me closer and plant his warm lips against mine, and the dark cloud above my head instantly vaporized.

“I caught our daughter using her walls as a canvas,” I said. “She’s never drawn on the walls before.”

I expected him to be angry, but he only raised his eyebrows and laughed.

“Glad to know she’s cultivating her artistic skills,” he joked and resumed stirring. The tiny brown chunks of meat bobbed in the surface of the bubbling red liquid as the spatula painted a continuous swirl.

I smacked him gently on the arm. “It’s not funny! Those walls will take forever to clean. I don’t want her to make it a habit and start drawing on all the other walls in our home. And apparently, she learned it from one of her friends.”

“Who?”

I plucked a strand of cooked spaghetti from the heap and lowered it into my mouth.

“I don’t know, but I want to find out.”

[2]

 I’d have the same recurring dream at least once a week, where I would wake up sobbing and trembling.

It always took place in the same dark, narrow tunnel. I’d be running after a little girl in a red dress, Scarlet, yelling her name and listening to my own empty echoes as they bounced off the grimy walls of the tunnel. No matter how much I pleaded, she wouldn’t slow down for me until the very end, and every time I finally caught up with her, she would turn around and I’d be staring into a faceless entity. Where her features were supposed to be was just a pale sheath of skin.

The words “I’m sorry” would be trapped in my throat, and then I’d wake up.

It was always the same dream, leaving me crying into my pillow as I tried to muffle my sobs so I wouldn’t wake Kevin. I’d had this dream for ten years now and yet every time it happened, I would still wake up with large pit in the depths of my stomach, overwhelmed by an incomprehensible guilt that never seemed to go away.

Tonight was one of those nights. I took a deep breath and glanced at the alarm clock on the bedside table: 3 A.M.

I decided I needed some water, so I quietly got out of bed and left the room. As I walked down the hallway, I was pretty sure I heard muffled giggling coming from Kimberly’s room at the end of the hallway. Her door was slightly ajar, so I tiptoed until I was standing outside the door, peeking into her room.

The moonlight shone through the windows, illuminating the room in an eerie blue glow. The hairs on my body rose when I spotted Kimberly sitting in bed, whispering to an invisible person on her right.

“I wish my mom would tell me a bedtime story. She’s always so busy so dad has to do it,” Kimberly was saying. She cocked her head slightly like she always did when she was trying to listen. Then to my horror, she nodded. “Yeah, my mom’s mean. She scolded me for drawing on the walls today. No, I don’t think we should do it again, because I don’t want to have to scrub them myself. You wouldn’t help me.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I pushed the door open and stepped in. Kimberly stiffened.  Her eyes widened in horror at my presence. “M-Mom! What are you doing here?”

I was instantly aware of the temperature drop, which caused me to shiver beneath my thin satin nightgown.

“Kim, who were you talking to?” I demanded.

As I spoke, I scanned the room to see if she was talking to a doll or stuffed animal, but my heartbeat quickened when I realized she’d just been staring into blank space the entire time she was having that conversation. My gaze lingered on the drawing of the two girls, and I looked away. Something about it made me uncomfortable.

“I was talking to my friend,” Kim said. “She just left. She doesn’t like you.”

“Who is she? What’s her name?”

“She says I’m not supposed to tell you.”

I couldn’t believe this was happening. I planted myself on the edge of her bed and reached for her tiny hand. “So, are you actually telling me she was the one who made you draw on the walls?”

She nodded, strawberry blond curls bobbing just above her shoulders.

“Honey, you’re imagining her. She’s not real.”

“No, she’s real,” there was such hardness in her voice that I straightened. When did my daughter start conjuring imaginary friends?

“She’s not real, honey. You need to stop talking to her, okay?” I leaned in and brushed my lips against her forehead, ending our brief discussion with a whisper, “Goodnight sweetie. Go to sleep.”

The fine hair on my arms were still standing as I got up and walked out of her room, closing the door behind me. I didn’t go downstairs for water. Instead, I went back to bed and stared at the blank ceiling, rolling over the discussion with Kimberly in my mind. And then, slowly, bits of repressed memories became shoving themselves into my head while I tossed and turned.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get that night out of my mind. That dusty blue Yankees baseball cap. The salty-sour smell of his sweat pressed against my cheek, the jagged grunts that escaped his throat while I writhed beneath him. It was the night that changed everything.

[3]

In the morning, I told Kevin about last night. I didn’t tell him about the flashback. I told him about Kimberly.

“She has an imaginary friend,” he repeated, smothering peanut butter on his second slice of toast. He bit into it and chewed. “So?”

I wanted to smack him. How could he so ignorant about this?

“So, I’m worried about her,” I finished. “She’s seeing things. It’s not healthy. Let’s take her to a children’s specialist. You know, like a shrink for kids.”

He just shrugged like it was no big deal. “Kristy, relax. You’re blowing this out of proportion. Kids imagine things all the time. Didn’t you have an imaginary friend when you were little? I used to imagine I had an older brother named Scott.”

“Did you play soccer with Scott too?” I rolled my eyes. He frowned.

“Point is,” I continued. “She was having a conversation with that thing. Like she could actually hear what the thing said. It’s one thing to imagine, but it’s another to actually hear, isn’t it?”

“That’s the power of imagination,” Kevin said. He reached for another slice of toast from the toast pile in the middle of the table. I slapped his hand away.

“Why aren’t you concerned? Our daughter may be seeing the devil and all you care about is a stinking piece of toast.”

“Whoa!” he threw his hands in the air. “She’s not seeing the devil, okay? You need to relax. All kids go through that phase. They need to imagine. You were just weird for not having a wild imagination.” He winked at me and rose from the table. “I’m gonna go, wouldn’t want to be caught in the traffic.”

He walked over and kissed my cheek. And then he left the house, leaving me alone with Kimberly upstairs. Except I had a feeling we were joined by a third presence – Kimberly’s imaginary friend.

Footsteps descended the stairs and Kimberly appeared in her pale yellow cotton pajamas, her light curls tousled from sleep. I smiled at her. “Morning, honey! Did you sleep well?”

She didn’t answer, but perched on the chair across from me. She propped her elbows on the table and rested her head on her open palms, looking tired.

“Did you not sleep well?” I prodded. “What happened?”

“She wanted to play, so I did,” Kimberly said.

I dropped the butter knife and it hit the edge of my plate with a clang! Kimberly looked unfazed.

“Kim, you have to tell me what’s going on,” I said firmly. “When did you start seeing her?”

“Yesterday.”

“Did she say how old she was?” My heart was pounding.

“Ten.”

“What’s her name?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you…”

“Why?” I was exasperated. I was so afraid for her. Kevin might think it was normal for kids to play with imaginary friends, but I had a feeling Kimberly’s imaginary friend might not be imaginary after all. Something told me this girl was real. And that sent chills down my spine.

Kimberly bit her lip, a sign of nervousness. She glanced past my shoulder. “Can I tell her?”

Every muscle in my body tensed when I saw that she was openly talking to something… or someone behind me. I dared not turn around, afraid that it might manifest itself.

“She says her name is Scarlet.”

[4]

The next few days, Kimberly became stranger. She talked to Scarlet in the open, even when I was in the room. It freaked me so much that I had to run to my bedroom and shut the door.

One stormy afternoon, I returned from work and went upstairs to look for Kimberly. She wasn’t in her room, but her windows were open. A small puddle of rainwater had pooled at the base of the windows. Dread washed over me. Those windows were always locked. Why were they open today?

I hurried over and stared out at the garden ten feet beneath me. Kimberly wasn’t there. The ominous gray clouds were releasing heavy rain and claps of thunder. Every ten seconds or so, a flash of hot-blue lightning would strike across the dark horizon. “Kim!” I shouted. “Kim!”

I heard her little voice coming from somewhere above. That could only mean one thing. I panicked. Oh God! She was on the roof.

I dashed downstairs to find Kevin. In seconds, we were both racing up the stairs and into Kimberly’s bedroom.

“Mommy! I’m scared!” Kim shouted. She sounded so close, yet so far. I couldn’t see her.

“Honey just hold on, okay? Don’t move. Daddy’s coming to get you,” I assured her and urged Kevin to get up there. He swung one leg carefully over the window sill.

“Be careful!” I shouted, my heart pounding wildly in my chest. Soon, he disappeared from sight as he climbed the ladder outside Kimberly’s window to get to the roof. I clasped my hands and prayed for their safety.

After what seemed like eternity, Kevin reappeared with Kimberly. They were soaking wet. I rushed forward and wrapped them in a tight hug, with Kimberly sobbing into my stomach.

“What were you even doing up there?” Kevin yelled at her. He hardly yelled, except when he was mad or really, really afraid. Kimberly was shaking violently.

“I was playing with Scarlet,” she sobbed.

Kevin’s eyes widened and my heart dropped.

“She said she had a cool new game, so I followed her onto the roof…”

Kevin was listening intently. “What was the game?”

“She called it Freedom. She jumped off the roof… and then she asked me to try it.”

“She jumped off the roof?” he echoed in disbelief.

“Yeah, then she stood up again and laughed. And then she told me it was my turn.”

My blood turned cold.

“But I couldn’t do it. I was too scared…” Kimberly was sobbing so hard now, she was hiccupping.

I glanced at Kevin, and he was shaking his head, raking his fingers through his matted brown hair and looking extremely disturbed. Our eyes met.

“I’ll look up a children’s specialist,” he said at last.

“Thank you,” I whispered, hugging Kimberly’s wet body to mine, not wanting to let her go, wanting to keep her safe.

[5]

I was running through the tunnel, chasing after Scarlet.

“Scarlet!” I cried. “Scarlet, stop! Please. Stop!”

She refused to stop.

“Slow down, please.” I was losing my breath. My sides were aching and my lungs threatened to explode if I didn’t stop running. “I want to talk to you!”

Miraculously, my legs finally caught up with her and I was inches from her back. I reached out and grabbed her shoulder, gasping as my fingers wrapped around cold skin.

She stopped, but didn’t turn. I secretly didn’t want her to turn. I was fine just talking to her back, staring at her shoulder-length brunette hair. She was taller than I remembered from the last dream. The crown of her head leveled with my elbows. We stood there in silence, and for the first time, I heard an indistinct thumping, gaining audacity with each passing second. I wondered why I’d never heard it before. It sounded like a heartbeat.

She turned and once again, I saw the faceless face. I wanted to scream. And then I noticed she wasn’t alone. She was holding the hand of a younger girl, and when that girl spun around, my scream finally broke free and rang through the endless tunnel. The other girl was Kimberly.

“Scarlet! What are you doing with Kimberly?” I cried.

Scarlet spoke, but in a metallic whisper that resonated in my mind, “I’m lonely. I want a friend.”

“You almost killed my daughter!” I tried to grab Kimberly, but Scarlet tightened her grip on Kimberly’s hand. “Please, Scarlet, let her go. Don’t take her with you. Take me instead. I’ll keep you company.”

“She means more to you than I ever did.”

The weight of her words struck me. I stared into the blank white face and before I knew what was happening, I’d stepped in and touched her hair. They were soft and wavy, like mine. I wondered what other similarities she would’ve inherited if I’d given her time to develop in my womb. My knees buckled and I dropped to the ground, clutching her bony wrists. “Oh, Scarlet! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Years of locked away hurt came rushing back and streamed down my face as I knelt in front of my first child. “I shouldn’t have aborted you. I was selfish. I was thinking of myself. I’m sorry. I made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean I don’t regret it.”

“Why did you do it?”

Memories of the night I’d tried so hard to repress came gushing back. I saw a scruffy man in a blue Yankees baseball cap. I smelled the sweat on his neck. I felt the sharp agony between my thighs as he forced his way in. I felt the strong arm pressing on my windpipe, obstructing my ability to scream for help. I saw the positive mark on the pregnancy test. I tasted the salty tears. I saw the doctor who plastered a tight smile when I explained my situation, her lips forced into a thin, straight rope as she scribbled my information on a pad. I saw the bleak white walls of the clinic, and thought they had seen the worst of humanity. I felt the pain between my legs again as the doctor inserted a metal device to stop the stream of life that had been growing healthily for three weeks. I heard her muffled voice telling me it was over. I felt my heart plunge where it had never plunged before. I saw the blood at the base of the gurney, a bright scarlet puddle that stained the white sheets. I knew bleach would eventually remove the stain on the sheets, but no amount of bleach would erase the stain in my conscience.

“I… I was raped,” I choked out. “I was only sixteen. I was so scared, Scarlet. I didn’t know what to do. If I had you, you wouldn’t have been brought up well because I would have had to drop out of school and work two jobs a week just to take care of you. You wouldn’t have had a good childhood because I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford kindergarten for you… I would’ve been a bad mother.”

She stood there, listening. Waiting.

My entire body was trembling with tears as I continued, “I was a bad mother anyway, because what I did was unforgiveable. I let you pay the price for my misfortune. He… that monster… he had his way with me. I didn’t want anything to do with him. And you… you reminded me of him. I just… I couldn’t…” I broke off because the weight of it was just to much to handle.

“Why didn’t you tell Kevin about me? Are you ashamed of me?”

“No, I wasn’t ashamed of you,” I gasped. “I was ashamed of myself. What I did to you was awful. I couldn’t forgive myself for that. I didn’t want Kevin to know what a horrible person I was. That’s why I never told him. I’m so sorry, words just can’t express… I…” I reached forward and hugged her, locking my face into her shoulder, ignoring the iciness radiating from her skin.

“Please believe me, Scarlet. I’m truly sorry. I think about you all the time, and believe me, not a single day passes without me thinking about my actions. I have never stopped thinking about you and I never will. You were my first child, the child I never got to raise. I… I love you.”

She was rigid for a long time. Then gradually, I felt her body relax. Her arms wrapped around me. “I forgive you, mom.”

I couldn’t stop crying. I held on to Scarlet for a long time, forgetting that Kimberly was standing there watching us. I cried so hard, but this time, they were tears of joy and for the first time, I rejoiced in being able to hold her in my arms.

[6]

“Mommy?”

I opened my eyes and blinked several times as my vision slowly gained clarity. Morning sunlight filtered through the curtains and bathed my room in fresh radiance. Kimberly’s face hovered over my bed.

“Hey, sweetie, is everything okay?” I was aware that my voice was still thick with sleep. I reached out and stroke her smooth cheek. Beside me, Kevin stirred.

She shrugged. “I had a weird dream last night. Scarlet and you were in it. She called you mom.”

“Oh, yes, she was your sister.”

I saw the confusion on her little face. And then Kevin tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to face him. “What’s going on?” he frowned.

I took a deep breath. “Kevin, there’s somebody I should have told you about a long time ago…”

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