The alarm’s shriek drills through my skull, a plastic-wrapped headache ready to go five mornings a week. I knew before I went to bed that today is going to be shit. Hell, knew a week ago that today is going to be shit. Hitting the snooze button is a nine-minute relief.
I shrug on a pair of jeans, the least worn hoodie. The box of crackers is still beside my bed from where I pretended to be sick instead of going to class. An avalanche of ignored homework spills across the surface of my dresser. The black and white of topographic maps, pictures of fossils, and a chart of the geologic time periods. A bottle of weak hydrochloric acid and rock samples top the pile, evidence of college major number two-going-on-three-and-counting.
I start my morning by pissing, washing my hands in cold water with generic soap. Splashing water on my face to wipe away the sweat of the latest nightmare. I dislodge my makeup bag from the sink cabinet clutter, slather on a layer of Target’s palest foundation, swab coffee-colored dust on my eyelids. My eyes reflect beneath the streaked and toothpaste-splattered mirror.
“Oh great,” I mumble to my reflection. Of course, I would notice today. My irises have paled gradually over the past couple years to the gray-blue of my father’s.
I thoughtlessly choke down a bowl of Cheerios, browsing Facebook. I finish and add the bowl to the tottering pile of the kitchen sink’s caked and crusted, shrug on my coat, and shoulder my weighted backpack. The key turns cold in the time it takes to throw both locks to the right.
My feet are heavy, but I only walk faster. I text quickly and angrily, reminding my boyfriend that he can go screw himself for making me do this. Harry replies with bullshit like he “is proud of you for facing this” and “this will be good for you”. I know I’ll regret my replies later today, but that doesn’t hold me back now. I fling insults like grenades. I toss them more aggressively the longer he remains calm. My feet pound against the sidewalk as I suppress nervousness with anger.
I am already here, just an awkwardly obvious ramp separating me from the front door. They might as well have trumpets and balloons stationed outside. A red carpet would be nice. I am suddenly aware of how much my lavender coat stands out, how distinctive my hair. I look over my shoulder, just waiting for someone from the sorority or the dorm or the rock wall to recognize me.
“Um, I have an appointment for eight,” I say as I approach the desk. I slide over my student I.D. like I am exchanging goods in a drug deal. The woman who records my name and I.D. number has thinning hair. She wears this expression like she wishes she would have been something more interesting than a secretary. She is overweight. My mom is also overweight.
“Tell me right now why you’re crying or so help me.” The words squeeze between my mother’s fat teeth. Everything about her is fat from her lumpy body to her frizzy hair.
“M−mom,” I whimper, “I’m s−suicidal,” I watch her face drop to a scowl. Her anger steaming across the bedroom.
“Don’t you dare ever tell anyone that again. They’ll think you’re crazy. You won’t have any friends. Do you want that?”
No, I don’t. I won’t tell.
I fill out forms and am ushered upstairs. The waiting room is orange. I hate orange. A puzzle is started on a corner table. Brochures are everywhere, so many that I imagine them multiplying and burying me in glossed paper. Just like that one movie.
I tap my foot but quickly stop. That may make me look impatient. I think of getting out my phone, but then I would feed into my generation’s stereotype. I want to write, but that’s another stereotype, considering where I am. She may ask about the disintegrating, taped notebook, and I’ll have to tell her about the story I have been working on since I was fourteen.
I don’t even know if it’s a she I’m going to be talking to. What if it’s a man? That would be even worse. Almost as bad as going to a male gynecologist.
“Kellsie?” Oh thank God, it’s a woman.
She gestures to a seat. She is young and sort of looks like me. I fold into the left most corner of the chair. I stumble through the general formalities, saying my name even though it is printed neatly at the top of her clipboard.
“It’s nice to meet you. Could you tell me what brought you here today?”
“I guess it’s kind of a long story,” I say, already getting embarrassed. Embarrassed about my genes, about my past, about coming here. I don’t need therapy, but my hands won’t stop shaking. I tuck them into the space between my arms and sides over the bulky winter coat. My stomach hurts.
His lips are tight on his orange-tanned face. I already know what’s going to happen. He bounds toward me in great leaps. My father is not a fast man, but he is faster than me.
“I was physically abused by my father and emotionally abused by my mother,” I say emotionlessly, just how I wrote it on my scholarship essays. Just how I told it to the people who asked why I lived with Harry’s family my senior year of high school.
“Could you tell me more about that?”
I crawl backward into a room too empty to be of any use. He sandwiches me between himself and the wall, kicking sharply at my ribs and legs. He pins me, warm and calloused hands gripping around my throat, cinching down on my spine. The oatmeal colored room pixelates and grays. My mother is above me with her arms crossed, wearing that satisfied I-told-you-so smirk. Images skip, jumping to the side and treadmilling back.
I can feel the ghost of fingertips using the top of my spine as a rest. Right on that first vertebrate. The smudge of thumbs at the soft spot on my throat. I guess I can’t expect you to understand. If you do, I am so sorry.
“You think you’re independent…but…you’re…fucking…not.” With each word, he raises my head and drops it against the floor. His enraged spit splatters across my face.
“I’m leaving,” I croak once he releases me. The world pauses in anticipation as I struggle halfway to my feet.
“Then fucking get out.” I am yanked, hoisted painfully in the air. He runs, shaking the floor as he carries me to the open door, and flings me. Throws me like I am one of the garbage bags of clothes he will drop off at Harry’s house three days later. My father is not a strong man, but he is stronger than me.
“How did you leave?”
I pinwheel my arms as I am airborne. My feet sting on impact. I slip them into a pair of blue flip flops. The flip flops are worn underneath my big toes. I start walking the mile to my friend’s house. I ignore my father, who is throwing a tantrum on the front porch and screaming, “What are you going to do now? Your pussy-ass boyfriend doesn’t even have a job!” I keep walking, even when my mother hushes him and warns that the neighbors will hear. God forbid.
“And was this an isolated event?”
He squeezes both sides of my face in the vice that is his hand. My lips part. My teeth hurt. The cement is cool through my pants. He wants an apology for my attitude. He forgets that I can’t speak. At every gargled response, his grip tights.
“No, it happened for as long as I can remember,” I answer.
“And do you have any siblings? Were they abused as well?”
My bed is kitty-cornered against the wall my sister and I share. There is a small triangle of space bloated with blankets and stowed away pillows. I have another nest in my closet equipped with a flashlight. I bury myself as I listen to the yelling, the screaming, the sound of skin hitting skin.
I cringe as I reveal the last piece of my family’s biggest secret. The therapist, I already forgot her name, scribbles more in bolded handwriting. She finishes and glances at the clock behind me.
“I want to thank you for sharing. I know this is hard. I have you down for next week. I think then would be a good time to maybe look at a diagnosis. Is that something you would be comfortable with?”
“Hmm?” Diagnosis pulls me back from whatever train of thought I had been riding. My palms have left sweat beads on my water-resistant coat.
“You display several symptoms of PTSD. Flashbacks, inability to concentrate, and lack of motivation…I believe you mentioned earlier that you have been suffering from nightmares. We will need to explore more at our next meeting before I can be sure.”
“He fucking strangled me.”
“Well,” my sister replies over the phone in an unconcerned monotone, “I’m sorry about that.” It has been over half a year since I last saw our parents.
“You’re a fucking cunt,” I scream, but I can’t be that mad. This is revenge for all the times I listened and did nothing.
“There are several ways to develop PTSD. In your case, it could be from experiencing a life-threatening event or events.” I run my tongue over the backs of my teeth. Over the sharp canines, the chipped front tooth. I have to concentrate to not fall back into the memories. “So I’ll put you down for next week?”
“Yeah. That sounds fine,” I respond even though I’m not sure if it is fine or not.
“Of course we can discuss more during your next appointment. We are out of time for today, but thank you again for being so open.”
I leave the building with my head down. I follow my worn Converse from carpet to stairs to tile to pavement. Do you know that feeling when you’re backpacking and it’s day three and you’re at the bottom of a new mountain and you’re already exhausted from the other forty-five miles you’ve hiked and you just want to sleep in a real bed and you know that you’re never going to eat French fries again unless you suck it up and just start going? That’s sort of what this feels like. Except worse because I’ve never gone backpacking alone.
I heave open the door to my first class. I don’t remember getting here, but I did. I take my seat in the back row. My computer hums awake, materializing a picture of Harry and me last year at the beach. My hair is freshly dyed red, strands of it obscuring parts of my face. We’re laughing, but who knows at what. The palm-tree-print on his old-man-shirt barely make the frame.
My hand shakes against the open notebook. I lay within a semicircle of paper and textbooks and pens. I glance at the alarm clock. It rests on a yellow dresser along with many other miscellaneous items. Rough drafts flutter over the time display, but I know it must be close to eleven at night. I sweep my hair into a lumpy bun that wobbles on the top of my head. My bangs hang and brush the paper.
My heart hammers, but I have this urgency twitching my fingers. A few weeks ago I argued with my professor that writing is selfish. An author should never concern himself with the reader. I pick up my pen with the intention of contradicting myself. I pop the knuckles in my left hand and begin writing:
The alarm’s shriek drills through my skull, a plastic-wrapped headache ready to go five mornings a week.
Author’s Note: In writing “Don’t Tell,” I aspired to raise awareness to the long-term effects of child abuse, along with the importance of combating the past.