It wasn’t the first time she fell. I remember her falling many times before then. My memories are very strange. They are like sharply outlined shadows. Very few are vivid enough to recall, and the rest are left in a cold, gray, uneasy fog. These memories trail behind me every day. They have become a dark, hunched, lanky figure with his hands in his pockets. I can always feel him breathing chilly air onto the nape of my neck, and occasionally he slowly runs his crooked, jagged nails up my back while he chuckles softly. Occasionally he will attack, grabbing me around the throat and flinging me to the ground. He stands behind me with his arms crossed, the corners of his thin mouth turned down and his eyes just two burning embers. I clutch my chest and stomach and rock back and forth, back and forth, and gasp for air. He doesn’t attack often, but when he does, it’s with a hard and violent anger. I really wish he wasn’t around. I wish he would follow someone else. But I still remember. I remember when she fell.
It was the middle of December. It was the coldest, hardest, and bitterest of winters. The kind that makes bones creak and muscles ache with a pulsing soreness. There were about four to five feet of snow. Plows had pushed loads of it into breathtakingly tall, virgin white piles. My chin and cheeks were hidden securely and toasty warm within my thick parka, and I was plodding down my driveway after the bus had dropped me off after school. I gave the front door a hard kick — it was always getting stuck — and went in as my dog, an elderly Scottish Terrier named Frankie, walked up to greet me. Even as a young pup she always walked. She never ran up to see me, or even “trotted” like some other dogs do. She just walked. She walked like a queen walking among her people, with an air of quiet dignity and self-assurance. She was always an old soul. She died a few months after that. I bent down on my knees and gathered her close to me, cradling her sweet, furry face in my hands and whispering softly. I got up and unloaded, pulling off my snow-caked boots, my hat, my jacket, and my gloves.
I heard the couch creak in the living room. I stopped momentarily, then proceeded to take everything else off, a little more quickly, left with only my T-shirt and ripped blue jeans on. I gathered all of my school supplies and headed to my bedroom. The living room was the only room in between. Keeping my head bent, I watched my feet move — well, shuffle — across the living room’s hardwood floor. No matter how quiet I tried to be, the floor was always noisy. I was halfway across the floor when I heard a guttural moan. I looked up and dropped all of my things. She was bent over a pot of hot water, her palms resting on the edge and her fingers sunk in deeply. She was breathing hard. I could see it was hard. It was very hard. She looked up, and her eyes were heavily hooded and clouded. I hated that look in her eyes. I hated that look more than anything. With effort, I looked at her right back. She looked down, gulped, and took her hands out of the water for me to see. I stopped breathing. The tips were at least three times as large as they should have been, and blotched with angry red. She put her fingers back in the water and closed her eyes.
She had frostbite. I knew that, but later my father told me the whole story. She had walked outside in her nightgown because she wanted to check the mail at the end of our driveway. She slipped on a patch of ice and couldn’t get up. She just couldn’t get up. She passed out and woke up two hours later, then dragged herself back inside the house and managed to heat up water for her frozen fingers. The next six months were absolute hell for her. She laid on the couch all day, every day, and sobbed, holding her fingers under her armpits. She screamed at night; that was when the pain was the worst. I remember her saying it was worse than childbirth. She couldn’t drive, and even when her fingers healed, she wore gloves when she drove, because her finger tips were so sensitive. She couldn’t do anything. It was hell for all of us.
There are other shadows. Other memories. One night she fell off the couch and hit her head on the coffee table, drawing blood. I led her to the bathroom, set her on the toilet, cleaned her cut with alcohol, then covered it with a Band-Aid. She mumbled something. I asked what she said, but she had passed out. Her head fell between her legs, and her arms hung like spaghetti at her sides.
Soon after that incident, I started sleeping upstairs in my father’s room. Downstairs, at night, all I could hear were crashes, thuds, her voice murmuring, and at times her shouting loudly and angrily. I was too afraid to sleep. I always slept up there occasionally — my father had a mattress upstairs just for me — but when she got worse I slept up there every night. I remember one night when she came upstairs (and she never came upstairs — that’s why I always slept there). I heard her walking up the stairs, and I covered my head with blankets. She called to my father, and I heard him get up and walk over to her.
“I want to see her,” she slurred.
I was hiding under the covers, trying to keep very still. Trying to disappear.
“No,” he whispered viciously.
I didn’t hear her say anything, but I imagined her glaring at him. I heard her walk down the stairs one by one. When I didn’t hear her anymore I jumped up and crept down the stairs. She was leaning against the wall. She pushed off with one hand and staggered to one side, then the other. Walking a little bit forward, and failing to find something to hold, she fell sideways into a chair, her legs flying up in the air. She pushed herself up and took a few steps forward, then leaned and fell directly into the bookshelf. I started down the stairs, and I felt my dad grab my arm gently.
“Don’t,” he whispered.
I looked back. She opened the door to her room and leaned her back against the frame, grasping it on both sides. She slid down slowly and hit the floor with a sick plunk, then leaned her head back. Her face was bathed in sweat, and small tendrils of her long hair had stuck to her cheeks and forehead. She was gasping. Her head sagged to one side, and she looked at me. I looked away.
I always looked away.
A few months later, when I came home from school, she wasn’t there. When I walked into the kitchen, my father was there. He was sitting in one of our wicker chairs. His elbows were propped up on the table and his face was in his hands.
“Dad, where is she?” I asked.
“She fell down the basement stairs. And hit her head.”
I sat down in the other wicker chair. His back was hunched and his shoulders quivered.
“Where is she?” I repeated.
“At Lewis’s house,” he said. Lewis was one of my mother’s friends. I was furious and dialed Lewis’s number. I heard her mumbling on the other end.
“Where are you?”
“At Lewis’s house.”
“Did you go to a hospital?”
“Mom! You could have a concussion! Don’t you know how dangerous that is?!”
“Shhhhh,” she said. “Don’t be nasty.”
“Mom, go to a hospital, please!” I was crying.
“No,” she said. “I’m … I’m all right here.”
I hung up on her.
We had fallen apart far before then. We had all become hollow. All of us. As empty as the bottles my father and I found hidden behind her dresser and underneath the kitchen sink. We were falling. We were falling with her.
It wasn’t the first time she fell. She would fall many times after that. Down the stairs at my grandmother’s house. Out of bed in a rehab center. Slipping away.
I remember when she fell. I remember when we all did.