The darkness, free falling

by Kawshiki Nasser

eid03MALINA picked up the phone and was told that the car her mother was driving, in which her baby boy was riding, strapped carefully in the back seat, had been in an accident and they were both, the caller was very sorry to say, dead.
She doesn’t remember much of the next few weeks, during which she basically drank from the time she awoke till she passed out and if she woke up when it was time to go to sleep, she drank some more till she passed out again.
Maya ended up taking care of the funeral. Maya came around and cleaned up Malina, soaping dried vomit stains away, cooking a broth or a stew and spoon-feeding Malina.
It was most likely Maya who took care of the rent and all, because Malina has not been bothered by the landlord even once through her long daze, though usually he bangs on the door and threatens violence if she’s late to pay by even two days.
Dear Maya, always looking after her. Well, before the time when it was just Malina, Maya took care of Neena as well. Also of Sport, their three legged dog, and the house, where they lived along with their parents, who were now all dead and it was only Malina, and Malina alone was probably causing Maya more trouble than all four of them plus the bloody nuisance of a dog and the house and the garden had ever done.
Malina decides to get over it. It’s ridiculous, this much self pity.
She’d been through all of this before when her sister died when they were both 22 years, 8 months and 4 days old. An accident they had said back then, as well, and how sorry they were. The body was never found. She’d been swimming in the sea.
And then, too, her memory failed her. A blank period of several months that time, during which she lived on a combination of sleeping pills, ephedrine/cocaine and vodka.
Now she’s too old for drugs.
Also, she has much more trouble holding her liquor.
She stops drinking and watches TV and finally at some point, she finally falls asleep without a drink or a pill. She wakes up after many hours, maybe even a whole day, she’s not sure, because she has no idea what day it is the day before or today. She packs up a few things in a couple of cartons and stuffs half her already meager collection of tattered t-shirts and age old jeans into a duffel bag, all of which she hauls down to her Toyota hatchback, something from the early 90’s, maybe late 80’s, starts it up and as the radio begins to play ‘Carry on wayward son’ by Kansas, she breathes in deeply and drives toward the house she had sworn never to go back to.
She arrives rather late in the day.
She finds she needs to use the loo. Which strikes her as a little strange, given that she usually does her business in the morning after she’s had her very large cup of coffee. She was never big on breakfast. Brunch, with some mimosa, she can handle, but breakfast is such a pain in the butt. Supersized coffee while going through the morning paper. And yes, she is still one of those rare few who read the paper, printed, on paper. Nothing wrong with the Internet. She loves her Ultrabook, in fact. It’s just that she likes to smell the paper as she sips her coffee in the morning and hears the pages rustle under her fingertips.
And just as she’s about to reach for the toilet paper that she had the forethought to bring with her, the power goes out.
It’s completely dark in here and she is not prepared for this in any way.
And then she hears it.
Actually, she feels it at first, and her first response is to just get the hell out. Instantly all the years of city living, the remembrance of the idiocy of superstitions and the knowledge of the psyche kick in and she dismisses her initial instinct.
Until, after about a second and a half, she hears it.
Something is growling but growling very softly, very close to her. It’s coming from behind her.
Instead of a knee jerk reaction, she finds that she is unable to move.
The sound gets louder.
It’s the sound of her own voice, she thinks.
But she’s never growled in her life, so she can’t be sure. It sounds like she imagines it would if she were to suddenly get in the habit of growling from deep within her throat like a wild animal threatening you with its presence.
She closes her eyes, to be equal to the darkness that is complete.
Darkness like this does not exist in the city. There’s always some light coming from somewhere and she’s not bothered when the lights come in through her curtains deep in the night. City lights don’t keep her up. They soothe her.
But this fucking darkness. This fucking house. The wiring must be fucked. She’s sure it’s not a power outage.
She waits it out. Breathe in breathe out.
The growling gets louder and nearer. Now it’s just behind her, to the left side of her head, just behind the ear.
She feels a warm breath on the nape of her neck.
Just as she’s about to forget about hygiene and get the fuck out of that crapper, the power comes back on and even before she whips around to see what the hell was going on, she knows it’s gone.
Whatever was there just half a second before, she can’t hear it or feel it anymore.
The fridge works. She stashes the take out, boxes and all, in it and opens up a bottle of the cheap red wine she’d bought on her way in. She pours about half of it into her coffee cup and takes it and the bottle to bed.
The next morning she gets up feeling beat up. In the bathroom mirror, she doesn’t quite recognise herself. Then she realizes there’s something wrong with the mirror. It distorts her face slightly. When she moves up close, she can see her features perfectly clearly and even notices the hair growing on her upper lip, but on the whole, it looks like a murky version of her, like she’s looking through a sheet of hazy glass. It’s actually disconcerting to see her own features skewed like that and she hurriedly washes her face and moves away and it is then she remembers last night.
She’d seen herself last night. In the many mirrors that line the hall. She was dancing from room to room all over the house.
But she looked so much younger! And how she’d danced! She couldn’t remember when she had ever had that much life in her to dance like that.
But, she thinks, what a terribly vivid dream! And only one bottle of wine!
She really must pay more attention to the fact that she’s no longer young.
Her bones feel so old. And her whole self aches. Jeez, she needs some water.
The water is cool and wonderful as she gulps glass after glass from the tap in the kitchen. The water was always good in this house. Good to taste. Good to her skin and her hair. Everywhere else she went, her hair fell out in clumps and her skin got old.
Whenever she came back to the house her skin and her hair would glow.
In the shower she notices a large red swelling on her right shoulder. It hurts to towel it dry. She can’t think of any reason for it. If there are bed bugs, wouldn’t she have gotten it all over?
She decides to air everything out anyway.
She pulls sheets off all the beds in all the rooms. And strips all pillows and cushions of their covers. She puts it all in the washer on hot. And then she takes out the mattresses one by one to the verandah that line the entirety of the house. The sun is strong today. And it’s pretty cold. Whatever is in these old stuffy things, would surely die from the cold, she thinks, and dry out in the sun. Which is it that kills them, anyway?
She takes the cushions and pillows in a large basket up on to the roof. She wonders what she could possibly have been doing last night, maybe taking up her dead sister’s habit of sleep walking, in order for it to ache even to step out of the window on to the gentle slope of the roof on this side of the house.
When she unbends and looks up from her task, she is hit by a distant but strong memory.
She’s remembering with sudden and complete clarity a cold morning like this decades ago when she had been asked to help Maya shake out the comforters and mats of the house, but somehow, taking advantage of the absurd naiveté of Neena, had convinced her to do the task in her stead while she peeped through the curtain, watching with a child’s amusement as Maya grumbled and wondered aloud about what ever had come over the girl, behaving more like her sister on this beautiful clear crisp day.
Of course, she’s been caught at her little trick.
It maybe took Maya five minutes to figure out which girl was which, a whole lot less than it would their mother to figure it out. And of course, she got a good thrashing for it, too, all the while Neena protesting that she’d volunteered and Malina was not to blame. The little, silly, stupid thing.
But this is what Malina remembers – the looking on at Neena as their mother and even Maya thought she was Malina.
She now looks toward the window. The curtains are the very same.
The curtains move just a little. Like a slight but sudden jerk. There is no wind.
Trick of the eye.
What, like the trick of my mind in the bathroom last night? she asks herself, but doesn’t wait for an answer.
She gets back down and goes to the door to get her paper.
That’s when she notices her house keys are still in the key slot and she hasn’t locked the main door.
She may have been brought up in the country, a far way out of town, but she certainly did most of her growing up in the big city, and city girls never forget to lock their doors.
And Malina is fairly sure that she has not left a door unlocked for almost all her life, so why would she do it now?!
She grabs an umbrella from the rack beside her, locks the door, forgetting the paper, and walks softly and cautiously inside the house.
It’s a big house, built chaotically in fits and spurts, without much planning, and it’s not easy to go through it in an orderly manner, the way she would have liked. She heads to the kitchen at first opportunity, where she exchanges the umbrella for a big, sharp knife that she’s seen used for carving up sinews and fat of game. She takes the knife handle firmly in her hand and tiptoes over the ground floor, checking to see that the basement door is locked from the inside.
She even goes back up to the roof to make sure there’s no one but her own self in the house and by the time she’s done with checking the house, it’s almost dark and she decides she’s finally hungry enough to heat up some dinner.
It’s a good thing she stashed her dinner from last night. But then again, she always was a bit of a hoarder.
She eats last night’s dinner heated up, standing by the kitchen counter and takes her bottle of whiskey with a glass and some water to her room. She’s tired, but she has the feeling she gets when she knows it will be a tough night.
She wakes on her side, in the double bed she used to share with Neena way back and sees her own self looking back at her. She thinks, I’m dreaming. This must be a mirror reflecting back my own image to me, like I’ve been seeing recently. It’s not so bad, it’s sort of like that brilliant scene in ‘Inception’.
She smiles slightly and is reassured by the reflection of her smile in the mirror.
Still befuddled with her alcohol-induced sleep, she smiles at her own self more broadly and lazily reaches her arm out and tries to touch the mirror surface.
She touches flesh.
She touches the finger tips she’s reaching toward, but they is not a reflection of her own.
She can feel Neena’s hand and she closes her eyes and puts her palm flat against the other palm. Then she gently clasps her fingers around her sister’s. It’s been so bloody long since she’s touched her.
Only after her hand starts to slide down the other hand does she finally wake up properly, and realise that her reflection is not reflecting her action. It really is not her own reflection, but Neena’s, on the opposite side of the same bed that they’d shared when they were young.
But now she’s awake.
Well, as awake as three quarters of a bottle of Jack Daniels can allow her.
And she’s screaming.
She’s screaming because her dead sister is simply not allowed to be beside her in bed in the middle of the night.
And as she screams, she sees with her wide open eyes that her reflection is not screaming, that, in fact, it’s giving off a somewhat startled air, and that it’s fading right in front of her and then just as she’s catching her breath to let out another scream, cause let’s face it, that’s what we do when we’re faced with ghosts of our past, we scream till we can’t scream any more, she realises her twin is gone and she’s alone in bed stifling a scream deep down in her throat.
Mailna stands on the verandah with a cup of strong black tea.
How long has it been since she moved here?
What she knows is that it doesn’t hurt so much now as it did back then. These days she finds she prefers tea to whiskey.
She warms her hands around the large cup and then sets it down on the wooden railing that goes around the entire porch. She’s looking far away into the distance, not really looking at anything, looking more inward than out.
She puts her hands, so suddenly old and withered, the skin loose and folded, in the back pockets of her jeans.
She’s always done that. It was part of her and whether she picked it up from the line in the Dylan song, she puts her hands in her back pocket, Betty Davies style, or if it was just something innate to her, she herself would not be able to tell you.
She takes one hand out from the pocket, reaches for the tea and slowly turns around to go back inside.
She’s waiting. Waiting very quietly. Patiently. Warily. There may be the growling thing. Or there may be her mirror image. She’s never sure which may come. Or if any will come.
She can feel herself being watched. She doesn’t mind it anymore now. She remembers she used to go for walks and the house stood over everything, looking down upon it all and always, always she felt as if she was being watched. She used to turn right back and come inside. Over time, she got used to being inside.
Can I trust you? She’d asked one time, out of the blue.
Always, said the other, knowing just what was being asked and why.
Who had asked and who’d answered? And when?
Malina can no longer remember.
What’s the difference anyway. The words were said. A long time ago.
And after that there was death and darkness.
How death affects the living and leaves the dead in peace.
But does it? Leave the dead in peace?
Malina looks out from the window and in the distance, not even that far, really, maybe about 20 minutes on foot, she sees the grey sea. The one thing she always liked about this house was the view. Windows here and there and just step outside and the sky and the horizon and the sea are all yours. Maybe that’s why she ended up spending so much of her growing up years outside.
It’s strange, she can’t remember much about her childhood. Her memory for details and things is fairly accurate. But all she remembers from when memory started till she finally left the house is the house itself, settling, always settling, groaning gently like an aged aunt sitting back down in her favorite old rocker.
Only, the house didn’t feel quite so comfortable as the thought of the old aunt.
Even now, decades later, it settles.
Every night Malina stays up till she can’t keep her eyes open any longer and she hears the house settling. Before it settles, just when the night outside gets at its quietest, the house rambles a little. It ruffles itself up, puffs its features out, prepares for the quiet time, huffs a little, lets out a few deep soft sighs and finally, taking long slow minutes, it settles.
And then she sleeps. Then her sleep is calm and deep.
She never did like being in the house.
This morning finds Malina thinking about many things in no order at all. Maya has died, she has heard. She sent her condolences and a check, meager as it was, to Maya’s niece, the next of kin, as far as she knew.
She thinks maybe it’s now five years since her son died. But who can tell any more. She has enough money in the bank for her whiskey and the occasional bottle of red wine. And what little food she eats. The house is hers. Whether she likes it or not.
She thinks maybe the house likes her more than she likes it.
While she thinks this, she smiles a crooked smile. She used to be known for her sense of irony, way back when. At the time when it was ‘charming’ to see her put her hands in her back pockets. Betty Davies style.
She sits in the worn out arm chair by the window and looks out. It’s a cold, grey day, with a pale ashen sky and snow that falls in a feather light motion, filling her mind with a slow, light feeling like she’s falling asleep slowly and knowing that in a second or two she will be away from the reach of this world.
Like in a moment or two she will be with her twin.
She has made coffee today. The day seemed to call for strong, bitter, black coffee. Usually it seems too much a hassle to make a pot for just herself and she settles often for tea, black at times, green, white, herbal. But now she sits next to the window, looks at the snow and she tries to see the sea which today is far, too far for her to see and on the radio Tom Petty sings about free falling.
Perfect, she thinks.
Like the snow. Like this day. Free falling.•

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