by WitChi Woman
What if you had an invisible disease, and no one believed you?
"Nobody can go back and start a new beginning,
but anyone can start today and make a new ending."
Lightning crashed inside Collette’s head, crawled under her eyelids in shimmering fractals of light. A series of fireworks crackled down the center of her skull; hot sparks of pain melted down her head, dripped over her ears. The smell of coffee mingled with the oily, electrical scent of burned plastic.
It was a sign.
The system was shutting down.
Every neuron fired simultaneously. She fought against the hand crushing her throat, the lightning rod jammed up her spine, immobilizing her as easily as a specimen pinned to cardboard. Her primitive mind sunk claws deep into her consciousness, struggled to pull her back from the edge, while logic told her it was hopeless. The lightning drained away, leaving a red wash over her vision. Collette stopped struggling. The voices knew best.
* * *
The stale marijuana and fresh cigarette smoke of Simon’s camouflage jacket warned Collette that her brother was behind her. She only had time to swallow the cereal in her mouth before a sharp thump landed on the back of her head.
Collette widened her eyes to stall the tears in the corners, willing the pain to lessen. She decoded the words on the cereal box, chanting them in her mind. Yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers. Lucky Charms, they’re magically delicious.
Simon kicked the fridge closed, brandishing an apple in her face. “I suggest you tell everyone at school you’re adopted, or I’ll pulverize you.” He peered over his sunglasses and shook his head, pouting. “Poor wittle baby can’t tie her own shoes.”
Collette stared at the cardboard box. She heard shuffling, the hiss of the screen door, and his parting words: “Later, Retard.”
She could cry if she wanted. But she didn’t.
* * *
Mom was making even less sense than ususal. Good wolf, bad wolf, the one you feed will win. Heard it a million times. “Listen to the voices of the ancestors.” What the hell did that mean, anyway? Maybe if her mother would stop the fake sermonizing, the voices would come through. If she could tune out the crackling flames, the slow churning of the crazy carousel in her head. If the heat and smoke would leave, if the faces in the flames would stop dancing.
She wasn’t stupid, just curious. The irony of an alcoholic dropout teaching her either moderation or Native religion made her stomach heave.
The spirits coursed through her veins; sat her cross-legged, urged her to sing. Her first thought burst out.
“Going up to the spirit in the sky.” (off key, too slow) “That’s where I’m gonna go when I—” Her head spun in dizzy circles as Jack Daniels and pizza climbed up her throat.
“I think I’m going to puke.”
* * *
The B+ smoldered like a burnt cross on Collette’s desk. A flurry of excuses for her parents cycled through her head, interrupted by the sound of her name.
“Collette! You got the highest grade in the class, can you tell us how you solved the equation?”
She diagramed the sentence in her head. You—(can) tell? It would be rude to remain silent. “No?”
Laughter broke over the classroom. The waves surrounded her, threatening to inundate her mind, to push her back into the numb comfort of silence.
Dr. Vitner waved his chalk at the students. “Quiet! Out of four physics classes, Miss Badeaux was the only student who answered the question correctly.”
He turned to Collette. “Surely you remember?”
You—remember—? Endless possible answers. Logic fled as instinct took over. “I remember it was a trick question!”
She felt the heat of her blush before the titters of her classmates reached her ears. Collette hung her head and mumbled, “There was no math.”
She waited for jeers and insults to pin her to the seat, but the whispers faded quickly as the class settled. It was the professor’s soft sigh, amplified by concrete walls, which resonated inside her mind long after the white tornadoes of chalk had been erased.
* * *
The stench of Scotch made her eyes and nose water. Collette forced down the bile in her throat as her husband leaned over the sofa for a kiss.
“Did you conveniently forget my mother's coming? You didn’t mop the entry.”
She stared at the freshly-vacuumed Persian rug and tuned out his laundry list of complaints; the underlying themes were etched on the tape in her brain. Forgetful. Stupid. Childish. Lazy.
She fell into the paisley spirals of the rug, searching the whorls and dots to find order and meaning. The only symbol she understood was the blue flame spiraling in on itself to infinity, a stairway leading exactly nowhere. It was the endless cycle of trying every day and failing miserably.
* * *
What seemed an eternity of darkness was a few seconds as her mind shut down and rebooted. Elements solidified out of nowhere as her brain blazed back to life—floor beneath her shoes, wood under her hands. Her body grew heavy as the lightning drained away, stealing her energy. A diffuse glow stabbed the back of her eyes; her crown buzzed with electricity.
Collette forced her eyes open to a friendly world. Sage walls, antique desk. Home.
The fractal lay on the blotter in full color. Dendrites branched out in unending spirals, intricate paths doomed to replicate for eternity, to grow but never touch. Beauty reduced to a mathematical equation, edged with streaks of madness where the numbers wouldn’t fit.
It was a pretty picture, and also her Master's thesis. But Collette thought of it as the map of her mind.
Automatically, she squeezed her hands into fists, flexed her cramped fingers to bring the blood back. Her whole body felt brittle, cold. She needed to sleep off the stupor, but something tugged at her subconscious, waiting to be noticed.
The page blurred before her eyes. A simple to-do list.
1. switch major
2. call cousin Rosalee--Cherokee, NC
3. set timer for
A series of spikes and spirals substituted for the last word. She looked at her palm mechanically, barely registering the bloody scratches where nails bit into flesh as the seizure overwhelmed her.
She searched each brief scene for the thesis statement, laid it over the blueprint in her mind, waiting for the pieces to click into place. Voices from the past shouted through the static still surging inside her head.
How does a girl with an IQ of 140 fail Algebra?
Collette clapped her hands to her head to seal out the ridicule, but it only amplified the blood rushing in her ears, the panicked staccato of missed heartbeats. She leapt from the office chair, shaking her wrists as it to flick the burning shame from her fingertips.
Don’t flap your arms; people will think you’re afflicted!
An agonizing wail of pain erupted inside the small study, bounced off the walls and streaked along the floor boards. Collette ran from the ghostly sound; knees buckling as she sought the door. Numb toes banged against the trashcan, throwing her off balance. She flung her hands out to catch herself.
What are you, drunk?
The walls breathed in and out beneath her palms as howls reverberated off the wall and hit her face. From an alternate universe, Collette recognized the crying as her own voice. She slumped to the floor, wet cheek sliding down the cold plaster.
Curling her arms around her knees, she rocked back and forth (not real not real) until the hardwood floor sang in sympathy (not real not real). The voices that haunted her were just tapes in the head (in the head in the head); the people long dead (long dead long dead).
There was no one left to notice she was acting retar—autistic? (in the head in the head). Except her lush of a husband downstairs on the couch. It would take the house burning down around his ears to wake him up.
Collette resumed rocking, the voices still circling, waiting to swoop down for another peck (in the head in the head). She squeezed her hands into fists and gathered the last vestiges of her energy for one final act of rebellion. She screamed at the mocking walls, her dead kin and their useless advice.
“I. Am. Not. Retarded!
If she could just find the answer, she could sleep. She gulped deep, shuddering breaths, silently asking the ancestors to give her a symbol she could plug into the equation to distinguish reality from illusion.
A feeling of déjà vu descended; something hovered behind her, eager to pull off the cloak of shame she wore as protection and expose her to the chilling truth.
The one you feed will win.
A tiny crack formed in the barriers of her mind, enough to let a fresh stream of images bubble to the surface, drenching her in the recent past—a dizzying whirlpool of tears, screams, fists. She had fought the voices before. Last month? Last week? Mustn't feed the lies.
As if waiting, warm streams of light floated into her peripheral vision, covering the room in a hazy red glow. She felt the ancestor's breath upon her neck, their shuffling steps as they fell behind her in a semi-circle. A blessing from kin she barely knew, all her Cherokee relatives gone. Except Rosalee and Aunt Liv.
And then she remembered the root of her shame, the monster inside that she hid from herself until forced to acknowledge it. She wasn’t bipolar, retarded or autistic.
Technically, she was brain damaged.
Pickled. Soaked in alcohol for eight months. She walked, talked, and thought like a drunk because she was drunk--permanently. The whole family bought the smug, middle class lie that "not retarded" equaled "normal". The difference between her and "sweet little" Rosalee was nothing but IQ points and false expectations. She could manage time, money, or emotions no better. The seizures and verbal gaffs were symptoms of a brain unable to communicate with itself, woven into her DNA months before the blanket settled over her cold, tiny body in the NICU. For the first time, being right gave her no pleasure.
Her body felt like stone as she struggled to her feet. Plopping into the office chair, she took several deep breaths, detecting a faint whiff of herbs and smoke. Collette calmly picked up the pen and filled in number 3 – set timer for roast.
She picked it up, felt her life fast-forward with each click on the dial, her heart speeding along with it, teeth clenched together to brace for impact.
It was the timer, not the fractal that ruled her life. Each shrill ring zapped her out of her tangled mind and into reality. Make list. Take meds. Study.
In minute fractions of time she traced society’s lines, highlighted each important point, and neatly ticked each box, only to end up with a page of chaotic spirals. She could stare at the pretty picture for hours, calculate the symmetry, dissect the symbolism, and never find meaning. And not one damn bit of it was her fault.
A blessed relaxation melted her shoulders, her mind, her very bones, better than the handful of drugs she took to sleep.
Sleep. She scribbled an acronym, FASD, rolled the page, and snapped it to her wrist with a rubber band.
Collette forced her eyes to remain open as she stumbled into the hall. She paused to get her bearings before tossing the timer down the steps, watching it tumble in slow motion like a drunken Slinky to stop on the landing.
Leaden feet slogged to the bed; she fell face first in the heavenly down comforter. Collette clutched the list tight in her fist like a totem. The feather-light page was a soothing weight pinning her to the bed as she fell asleep.
A classic black and white film flickered on her eyelids, where playful wolves nipped at her heels as she wandered up a lush hill, lured by the sound of chanting and drums. The smell of meat roasting on the fire welcomed her home.
Written for "Quotation Inspiration"