BY EMILY HOPE
Copyright is held by the author.
“IT WAS the best day of my life when I dropped his stupid keychain down a storm grate.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know. I was free.”
When Opal woke up that morning, she felt a familiar heaviness deep in her stomach. She tried to sit up, and the heaviness lurched inside her. Opal clenched her eyes shut and balled up her hands into fists. For a moment she didn’t think she could move at all. She was supposed to go into work at the vet centre this morning, but if she didn’t even have the courage to get up, then getting dressed, getting in a car, driving to work, and putting on a smiling face were definitely out. Just the thought of getting in the car sent a surge of fearful dread pushing its way up from her stomach and into her throat.
With a heavy sigh, Opal decided to take the day off — of everything. No cooking, no getting dressed, no going to work. She didn’t have to do anything. Just rest. Until the fearful surge released her body. It wasn’t practical, and Opal knew that, but lately the only thing that kept her grounded was reassuring herself that she could stop whenever she wanted. Whenever the little things became too much, she could take a break, and wait for her body and her brain to return to normal. That way, she never took things too far — she never got so tired or felt so sick that she stopped taking her meds, or stopped trying at all.
Opal curled up on the couch in an oversized grey t-shirt and sweats. She turned the television on to an idle image of a daytime gameshow, and she watched it intently. She let the spinning wheels and flashing lights take up all of her attention so nothing else had to. She took periodic bites from a stack of dry rice cakes on the floor in an attempt to eat something. She stayed that way for hours, and if she was still enough, the heaviness inside her faded from her body for a few moments at a time.
Opal heard the sound of a car pull into the driveway, followed by heavy footsteps and the key in the door. She curled a little more into herself, and her body stiffened. Her roommate Cody entered the house. He barely took a look at Opal lying there before he started shaking his head. “Did you call in sick to work again?”
She lifted her head an inch off the couch. “I’m not feeling well.”
“You always say that.”
Opal didn’t reply. She stared hard at the television screen, trying not to notice Cody move through the house. He tossed his wallet and keys on the messy countertop, then he snatched up the mail and rifled through it, somehow managing to make that task a noisy one, too. He scowled without looking up at her.
“You can’t skip out of work. We need the money.”
“I know, but —”
“Don’t start with me, Opal. I hate it when you argue with me about this.”
“I’m not arguing, I swear. I don’t want to argue with you, either.”
“We would have nothing to argue about if you would show up to your job on a regular basis.”
“I really don’t miss work that much.”
“That’s not good enough. You think I can cover rent and bills and everything in this house by myself?” Cody took a box of cocoa puffs off the top of the refrigerator and shook it at her. “You’re the one who likes name-brand cereal. You have to make a choice, Opal. You need to work, or start cutting back on stuff like this.”
“It’s just one day.”
“No, it’s not — how many times have I come home and found you just lying on the couch? It’s ridiculous. You never do anything. And all you have to say is ‘I’m tired, I’m depressed, I can’t do anything.’”
“I am depressed —”
“You’re so full of excuses.” Cody opened Opal’s cabinet in the kitchen and took an orange bottle from inside. He rattled it menacingly at her. “I’m sick of it. You think this means you can get by without working, without taking the same responsibility as everybody else, but without these you’d have to face the world just like the rest of us.”
“Cody, wait!” Opal sprang off the couch and into the kitchen, but she was too late. She watched as Cody tore the cap off the bottle and dumped a slew of small white pills into the sink. He turned on the faucet and flushed them away. Opal held her skull between clenched fingertips and fell to the floor. All the air was sucked out of her. “Cody, what did you do — I need —”
“No, you don’t. You need to buck up, and get to work like everybody else. You’re so negative all the time.” Cody walked past her into his room. “No wonder you don’t have any friends.”
A few days later, Opal was sitting on the back-porch steps, holding her head in her hands and trying to talk herself down from a deluge of tears after an exhausting day at work. She knew she was just tired — the hours dragged on and on, and there was no way for her to get any real rest when she was working. The more people she talked to, the more times she smiled, the more tired she got. It was hard for her to stop the little things when they were already in motion.
Cody had gone days without speaking to her, leaving and re-entering the house like a sudden storm. Just his presence in the house felt hostile, but not having to talk to him so much was a relief, in some ways. Still, she never knew when this cold-shoulder routine might evolve into something worse.
Opal heard footsteps move through the house. She braced her shoulders. Cody opened the back door and sat down on the steps next to her.
“Hey,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” he said. That was all. “Let me make you some pancakes.”
Opal looked down at the bottom of the steps, where fuzzy green moss was growing and tiny red insects skittered around the pavement. She picked at her thumbnail. “No, thanks.”
“Come on, Opal Lynn,” Cody threw one arm around her and pulled her in close. Opal’s body stiffened. “For old time’s sake?”
“‘For old time’s sake.’ He always said that.” Sinking back into her therapist’s couch, Opal shook her head. “When I said I was moving, I thought he’d get mad and scream at me or something. But instead he gave me this stupid keychain with an opal on the end. ‘For old time’s sake.’ He thought it was cute, or something.” Opal sniffed. “And when I dropped it down the drain, it was like — gone. Gone forever.”
Irene sipped her tea. She sat effortlessly still, without shifting her long black hair or adjusting her strong shoulders. “And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? You did what was best for you.”
“I mean, yeah, I think so. I don’t know.” Opal shifted on the couch. “It’s like, part of me knows that all the stuff he said, all his concerns were pretty reasonable. But the ways he hurt me . . . I’m still angry about it. It just bothers me that he’ll never know what he did.”
“He knows what he did. He knows what he said to you, and he knows he threw out your medicine.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything he did was bad.”
“What makes you think that?”
Opal shrugged. “I never told him. He always thought he was doing the right thing. He doesn’t know what he did to me—there’s so much I wanted to say to him that I never did.”
“Tell me.” Irene set down her mug. “Tell me what you wanted to say.”
“All right.” Opal started shakily. “Well, Cody was—he used to be—my friend . . .”
“It’s all right. Go ahead. Pretend I’m Cody.”
“Okay . . . Cody . . . I . . .” Opal clenched her fist. She felt her neck and shoulders tighten, like they were trying to hold her back, but she went on. “I wanted you to know for so many years how you hurt me. How you devastated me when you stole my journal. How I wanted to scream every time you called me your “little loser.” How I wanted to believe you every time you apologized, and you just hurt me more and more.” Opal paused, gasping for air through her closed-off throat. “How that time you said you couldn’t stand to be around me because I was too sad, I thought about hanging myself in your bedroom. I wanted you to find me when you came home and see what you’d done to me. There are so many things . . . I wanted you to know the damage you did. How I was sick, but you made things so much worse.”
Opal took a deep breath. She was shaking, and her eyes were red and hot. Her voice was so powerful inside her now she thought she might pass out. “I wanted to do awful things because you did awful things to me. But it’s in the past. I don’t forgive you, I can’t yet, but you’re gone now. It’s just me I’ve got to deal with now. And I’m still hurt.” She sighed. “But I don’t need to keep holding on to you like this. I don’t need to say any of this to you the way I thought I did.”
“Okay. Good. So what’s your next step?”