Bram settled himself in the rickety dining chair across from his mother and waited for dinner. Victoria sat and smiled, an odd crooked smile. It was the most emotion she could muster through the veil of heavy anti-psychotics. She would look at Bram, search, and smile.
“How was school?” She showed her teeth as a model when petroleum smeared on the enamel to force a smile. There was no happy emotion or even slight thought behind the grin, Bram could see the blankness in her eyes. Even though the fake inquiry, Bram still reciprocated the smile.
Though he didn’t want to comment about the school, his mother had been home from her last mental break for six months now, but his classmates knew all too well when she went.
Sedric’s mother was a nurse, and although she would never outright tell Sedric when Bram’s mother was tied to a chair, she would comment with, “how’s Bram. Take these sandwiches for him, and he might be hungry.” And Sedric wasn’t Christopher so that the kid could put two and two together fast enough.
Grade four school year was looking to be a challenge. With the new nickname and his friends pulling back like nurses with the leper’s antidote needle, Bram was suddenly diseased of the school. Mental illness may not be contagious (Bram had looked up during the summer to be sure), but his peers indeed treated him like it were.
The aging of girls made it worse, and puberty was touching them earlier than the boys, and dating suddenly became a hot topic. If you were a girl with a boyfriend, you were a slut, but a boy without a girlfriend was a loser. Bram was a loser. He had wanted to ask Malhi to be his girlfriend but couldn’t bear to invite her over to his house after school. Then she would see his mother.
He made her a card, and it had red hearts and ribbons he meticulously weaved through the paper board. It had a short poem Bram pained over for Malhi.
Your smile is the sun.
Your hair is the moon.
Your heart is the ocean,
And your love is the tide.
All one and one need another, and I need you.
The card was intercepted by Mr. Traseki during math class and abruptly thrown in the trash. Bram received detention.
Malhi loved the band, and she struggled through the school hallways with her heavy saxophone. She committed to band class, and Bram had tried to offer help a few times.
“I’ll carry your sax,” he would offer, but she would shake her head and walk faster.
“My dad had to pay lots of money for the down payment, Bram. If something happened.” her words would trail off as she turned the corner and lost to him amongst the crowd. He wished the card hadn’t ended in the garbage, but the way Malhi’s eyes pained when she had mentioned her dad, Bram thought it best they do just stay friends. He had seen bruises on her thin arms in areas impossible to injure on your own.
Bram’s father had married a woman named Samantha. Thomas had called his son the day after the wedding to introduce his new step-mom and step-sister. Justyce was several years older than Bram and seemed too awkward and lanky in her skin. The pain of the missing wedding invite (or so his father claimed) washed over him faster than Justyce had said goodbye into the tablet. Never offering the FaceTime call back to Bram and Thomas never attempted to call his son back. So, Bram moved on.
He dreaded the promise from Thomas to meet Samantha and Justyce soon. Bram had enough to work on processing. His grandmother moved in, she helped lots, but the sadness carried in her eyes from missing the farm. The horses cared for by a neighbor girl, and Evelyn did her best to put on a genuine smile for her grandson. Bram saw through it. Between his mother’s chemical in balance, which sent her into a live-wake coma and his grandmother flailing against losing her beloved farm to care for the grade four boy with no family. Bram could handle it himself, he had seen Home Alone enough times to know how to grocery shop, and he could make more than just the simple meals, and indeed, he could learn how to pay the bills if he had access to his mother’s welfare payments.
“School’s fine,” Bram replied after a long delay. He couldn’t tell her about the bullying; he was too tall for his age, too smart, and the son of a crazy lady who screamed about monsters at PAC meetings.
Nobody liked the friendly giant, not even the girls. Especially not Malhi, she had her green giants to resist. Older boys tried to pick fights with Bram, being the biggest in his grade, and he often accepted just to hide from the pain in Obscura while being pummeled. Victoria wouldn’t notice the black eye on her son. Some days he did tempt fate, “except I got punched.”
“Good,” Victoria replied and reached for the juice.
“I got suspended, Bruce started the fight, but I got suspended,” now the truth was in the open and Bram began to grow angry. Maybe he was a green giant too, just as Hulk was, and Malhi’s father was.
“Good,” she began pouring the juice and failed to flinch when the juice missed the cup and landed on the table.
“He hit me because I wouldn’t let him cheat off my test.”
“Okay.” Victoria stood and left the table, a faint tear from a soul hidden deep below the anti-psychotics and anti-depressants.
“Abram,” Evelyn snapped to her son, knowing full well he was pushing his mother on purpose. Victoria left the kitchen, and Evelyn put the serving platter down with a loud clang as she went after her daughter. Bram could hear her voice in the hallway, persuading his mother to return to the table. She’ll never come back, he thought to himself begrudgingly.
“Smells good, Grandma,” Bram offered up but received no response.
He tipped the platter and pulled half the dish onto his plate. The chicken appeared burnt but smelt of garlic, paprika, and pepper strongly in his nose. It made his eyes want to squeeze and his mouth water. The chicken thighs were scattered and danced colorfully among baby corns and zucchini chunks and ruby red tomatoes. Bram was grateful for his grandmother’s money, and it did add some meat to his bones. Gone were the self-taught meals of pan oats and boiled hotdogs.
“I would hope so,” she chuckled as she and Bram’s mother returned to the kitchen. “It took me half the day to marinate this chicken.” She sat Victoria down at the table and made quick work of wiping up the juice and dishing out the chicken for herself and her daughter. “I mean, the plastic bag trick I found on Pinterest worked great. It gave me time to ride Spirit. Lany is doing a great job of taking care of the horses.” Her face lit as she spoke but sunk when she mentioned the neighbor girl’s name. Bram redirected the conversation, and there was enough sadness in the house.
“Some people marinate dinner the night before.” He winked but caught an ear of baby corn on his temple as a response from his grandmother. It slid to the table, and he shrugged and stuck it on his fork with bare fingers next to a cut of chicken.
“Okay,” Victoria interjected and halted any lightheartedness of the meal. Bram missed his grandmother’s laugh immediately and threw a piece of zucchini at her to cause a rise, but the mood disappeared. The meal ended in silence. Bram tried to not look at his mother, and she stared at him with a dead pane expression. No makeup and no hair products in her once majestic brown locks. She looked ruined, and she looked as a dementia patient when she looked to him.
Bram and his grandmother made quick work of cleaning up the dinner mess, clearing the dishes to make way for their nightly crazy eights card game. Victoria would sit at the third chair, facing the wall, which created the fourth spot of the table and say not a word.
“Do you want dessert?” Evelyn offered as she placed seven of hearts on the table, Bram shook his head in response and set the seven of spades on top.
“Why not, sweet pea?”
“I’m trying to lose weight.”
“Abram, you don’t need to lose weight! Your skinny enough,” Evelyn played her card and pinched his non-existent tummy.
“Good,” Victoria interjected, “good. That’s all good. He’s good…”
“Vic,” Evelyn turned her attention to Bram’s mother. Catching her mind was slipping and could soon crumble into a full psychotic break, “Vic, honey. Bram is just fine. He is here.” She touched her hand, the rings becoming too large around her fingers and the wrinkles deepening by the day, to her daughter’s arm. Victoria pulled her arm away in response and pushed her chair away from the table.
“No, not Abram! Not. Not. Not, Abram!” She threw her arms up and then her bottom down, and she was sitting and rocking on the floor, screaming and crying. Evelyn threw the cards down and jumped up to assist her daughter. Bram ran from the kitchen to his bedroom, and he couldn’t take watching her thoughts suffocate his mother as she were and to be screaming his name! Was she upset with him, was this his doing?
Bram ran straight to his bedroom and threw himself on his bed. The blanket was nearly too small, his feet already hung over the edge of the bed, but Obscura would rescue him soon enough. Take him to the darkness where there was no one unless he wanted there to be.
The screaming stopped, and the creak of the stairs gave away a guest in Bram’s room. He secretly wished it were the monster who harassed his mother, maybe then she would be able to make him sandwiches for school.
“One day,” his grandmother’s voice was reassuring as a spring flower in a blanket of snow.
“One day, what?” Bram took the bait. She pulled the blanket down from his head and ran her fingers through his straw-like hair. Burnt umber and finally growing longer, Bram’s grandmother paid for monthly barber trips. He boasted a high skin fade with a hard part comb-over, and it suited him well. The sides soft as a baby bird’s under feathers and the top as wild as his gel would allow.
“One day, she’ll get better.”
“Better from what? Grandma, what’s wrong with her? Is it me?” Bram threw his body over to face his grandmother, her green eyes brimmed with tears, and she ran a loving hand over his cheek.
“No, sweet pea. Your mother loves you from the bottom of her heart, but her mind is drowned in sorrow. Her mind creates monsters with guilt from her past. Doctors can help her if she wants help. They can talk to her and work through problems. First, she needs time to heal, mentally, then physically, her mind will follow.” Evelyn repositioned her body. On a single bed with a nine-year-old giant of a boy, was difficult. She still managed to wrap her arms around him.
Bram let the explanation sink in, allowed it to blanket the truth he had already learned. The doctor’s note he had read (as best he could) when he would visit Victoria in the psychiatric ward. Bipolar disorder, dissociated borderline personality disorder with manic hallucinations. None of those words had the definition of healed, and Bram regretted reading up on some of them. He curled himself into the love his grandmother was offering. In place of his mother’s, it was sufficient. It was warm and comforting, and Bram found no words to respond to her. He was grateful for her embrace.
“It’s nothing you or I have done, and it’s in her DNA. In her soul,” she touched his chest, reached to his soul, then began humming. Not speaking the words of the baby lullaby, she used to sing, just humming the tune and allowing the vibration of her hum to come through her chest into Bram’s body.
“She only cries. She’s never happy anymore. She doesn’t cook or clean or leave the house other than the hospital,” Bram stated. He knew it wouldn’t help get her out of her depression.
“At least she won’t cry in her sleep anymore, that’s something. One solace for her to enjoy. Dreams. And to dream is to be human, so she is still in there. Somewhere, just stuck. Like a fly in a web.” She stroked his cheek and hair, and her hand pressed firmly against his face. “There are times, and she’ll go into herself for hours. She’ll stare at a wall as if it is an old projection movie, and slowly a smile will cross her lips. Maybe she thinks back to you as a baby, and it will lift her spirits for a time. It’s not much, but she’s in there. It’s been hard on her, your father leaving, and now he has this new wife.” The words took away from the humming, and Bram suddenly wished she would only hum, no more speaking.
“Thomas left because she was always sad, I remember.”
“Emotions are hard to deal with, even as adults we struggle. Sometimes, they get us like a spider. Out of the darkness, they bite you without even realizing what it is was bothering you. Sometimes you still won’t know in the light of the day, but the venom is already there. The medication, it’s like a cocoon for the fly, to wrap and protect while the mind and soul become one again. Then, before he gets eaten, he will burst free from his cocoon and fly free as a butterfly.”
Long pause, Evelyn had slowed her pet of Bram’s face. He feared she would fall asleep, and if the bed were more massive, he would be okay with, but it wasn’t.
“Grandma, how do I make a girl like me?”
“Well, that’s an age-old question,” she jolted at the response as if it came from somewhere other than her lips, and she realized she had begun to slip into sleep. Evelyn pulled herself out of the embrace with her grandson and stood from the bed, “you have to be a hero for the girl.” She kissed him on the forehead.
“How about,” the green in her eyes sparkled, her face lit with life as Evelyn created an idea. Evelyn’s face may have begun the sag of time, but she still had a sophisticated, youthful atmosphere. An established aura that took a lifetime of kindness to accomplish. Bram could only wish for a facade such as his grandmother’s. He wondered what went so wrong with his mother, wouldn’t his grandmother have been the one to raise his mother? Shouldn’t her love and fantastic persona have rubbed off on his mother? He wondered if he could trust his grandmother to tell her about the dark place. The Obscura drew his mind all too often. The alternate dimension he spent years convincing himself was real, as he would reach out and turn over the answer key in class. The cheating wasn’t necessary, he was already named Bram the brain for a reason, but it was easier to cheat. To then have the time to move girl’s clothing inside the change rooms in gym class. It was not a figment of his imagination, and maybe it was available to him because of his mother’s elevation towards insanity. Regardless, it was real.
Bram tried not to think of the few times he had failed the exam from suddenly finding himself trapped in Obscura before the buzzer rang time to end. He tried to not dwell on the feeling of energy which somewhere in Obscura, the one strangely solidified recently. Bram has yet to see it, but he could sense it, he could feel the outstretch of its hand when he entered Obscura as if requesting a payment. Retribution for entrance, no sound, no sight, but he knew in his emotional being.
“…and we can go to the water slides.”
Bram realized he had stopped listening to her, “What?”
“Correct word is pardoned, not what.” Her brows creased with the irritation of her grandson’s sudden lack of manners. She was about to step out of the bedroom door.
“Water slides?” Bram persisted.
“I said, how about we drive into the city tomorrow and go to the water slides.”
“It’s a school day tomorrow, Grandma.”
“I know,” she smiled wide and pushed her massive streak of dark grey back to meld into the near-white of her hair, “but you deserve to be a child sometimes. So, turn your alarm off.” She winked and closed the door. The darkness of his room washed over him, like a warm blanket. Old love renewed.
Bram laid with his arms crossed in bed, played with the offer his grandmother had, “you have to be a hero.” If he wanted Malhi to love him, to accept him, he had to be a hero. He knew her father hit her, and maybe he could interject into a fight to stop the hit. Perhaps he could show her preadolescent boys could be healthy too, even if they were smaller and weaker than grown men.
It was almost too easy to enter Obscura to locate Malhi. He traveled through the hallways following her strawberry shortcake scent, and he could even hear her voice before any light emitted. Obscura was musky this evening, and it felt dampened with something he couldn’t explain and the slight tap, tap of a fingernail into a palm looking for payment persisted. He turned toward the thickest of scents of Malhi and felt a pull off his face, a peel of his persona as he passed through with the determination he would use Obscura to be Malhi’s hero.
The energy felt satisfied. Bram felt it in his being, although he felt a small bit emptier as he approached Malhi’s branch of the dimension. The tree turned off where she resided, and immediately the light of her aura filled the space. The pinks and purples of the room sprang to life, and Malhi’s hair was tied into two braids as she spoke on the phone. Her voice was full of laughter as she brushed her doll’s hair and braided it to match her own. Tight, intricate braids began at the crown of the doll’s neck. The phone wedged between her shoulder and her ear. She wore a green nighty, which made her eyes appear lime green.
Bram smiled as he watched her, not caring to absorb the words of her conversation, only the laughter she had from the friendly conversation.
The phone hung up, Malhi placed the doll to the floor, and Bram watched as she rubbed her stomach in an apparent reaction saying she was hungry. He allowed his presence to follow her, the creak of the steps as she walked down the identical staircase to his own community housing home.
The familiar turn toward the kitchen was the same Bram would have to do, but his essence nearly passed Malhi as her steps had stopped suddenly at the bottom of the stairs. Her face is looking to the living room at her left rather than the kitchen to her right. Bram saw nothing, and her attention turned to a ghost for all he could tell. He pushed Obscura harder, to reveal more of the picture she was examining. Her mouth opened in a cry, but no sound came out as she rushed into the living room.
Malhi fell to her knees, her nighty pulled tight around her throat and had to be choking her, but she seemed not to flinch. Her hand grasped around something, and Bram pushed harder, he willed more of an image to come to life and reluctantly, Obscura obliged.
The room filled in with color. The walls the same drab puke green, to match the drab puke green of the siding outside the square townhomes. To match the drab puke green of their dying lawns as the low-income housing units never cared to water. The green just before it died off to a brownish yellow and people gave up ultimately. But it wasn’t the paint color which made the room fill with horror, and it was Malhi’s sole parent who laid on the floor.
His face covered by vomit, Malhi’s hand was wrapped around a syringe as she had pulled it from the nook of his elbow. She tossed it and grunted as she struggled to get the near two-hundred-pound lump of her overdosing father into her arms. She cried out to no one who would hear as she dragged him to the kitchen. A shudder came from her father’s lips as she dropped his body and threw a chair to the floor.
Malhi moved in what seemed to be automatic movements as she positioned him over the side laying chair. His head is hanging down, so the vomit could spew out and not threaten to choke him to death. Her legs moved her faster than Bram could follow as she ran back to the living room to grab his phone off the coffee table. She slipped in her fathers’ narcotic induced vomit and fell hard onto the coffee table.
Her fingers shook violently as she tapped 9-1-1 into the phone, and before Obscura kicked Bram back to his body, he watched in horror as a dark black bruise appeared on Malhi’s collar bone from where she had connected with the coffee table.