Before We Lit It Up by Amal Clare June 27, 2021

1| After

There are claw marks on the walls. They're long and jagged, black, and seem deep – endless even. Like if I stare hard enough, they won't be claw marks anymore, but just brutal gaps, black holes that might one day finally swallow me whole.

They're the first thing I see every time I wake up, and the last thing I see before I fall asleep. And every morning, there is a new one, the same length, the same cracks around the wall, the same menacing gap in the wall, thin and long.

I would know, I put them there after all.

They're less a mark of destruction, and more of a plea, a way to mark it down, to give my thoughts an out. To make my thoughts seem tangible.

Real.

Vivid.

Show the panic and the monstrosity that grows in me every day has been growing in me every day for the past one-thousand-and-ninety-five days.

It's a sick, festering feeling. A feeling that never fails to make my heart clench, and bile rise in my throat as panic, rage, and helplessness claws at me. Claws. The irony isn't beyond me.

Except the marks on my wall are not real. No creature slashed the wall with wicked long and sharp claws. And outwardly, I'm not what society might deem a 'monster.' I don't have fangs, I don't have horns curving out my head, I don't have claws growing where nails should be. Most define a monster as something that appears alien.

"Scary."

"Ugly."

"Animalistic appearance."

So, I'm not a monster.

But I did put those claw marks there. With a steady hand, I have done each and every one. Painstakingly exact and vivid, that if anyone were to ever come into my room and see them – which no one has done for the past 1095 days – they would scream.

And I'd laugh.

I would laugh because I have been hearing that sound in my head for the past years. I haven't spoken a word, and sometimes, it's noticed, questioned, but never realized that it's because I am too loud in my head.

I am screaming in my head, clawing at a way to escape my mind, and it's always so loud. So to hear an actual scream again, because of me, would be hilarious.

In truth, no beast lurks in my room, and the marks on the wall are all painted. Fake. Fraud. A lie.

Just

Like

Me.

My room is exactly ten by fourteen feet, and the ceiling is precisely nine feet above my head. There are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 surfaces in my room, and every single one is covered in paint. The ceiling, the floor, the walls, the desk, the armoire. Everything is covered in paint since I've had three years to paint it. To memorize everything, dedicate it, and note it and engrave it to memory.

Swaths of light flicker over the walls from the moonlight streaming in through the shutter, but I know what's on the walls.

All similarly haunting, eerie, and depressing paintings. It's almost pathetic.

I run my gaze over the paintings and designs, the splashes of vibrant colors and deep hues, over and over again even though I already have them committed to memory. But I want to be able to remember them. Not because of what they all symbolize, but because painting has been the one thing that's kept me sane. Well, sane to a degree.

After today, I have no plan for ever seeing them or any part of this room and house again. That is, if I can and don't get caught. I was sure that if I did, things would be infinitely worse. Then, I'd be put, quite literally in a cell – bars and all.

That's all it takes for the panic to seize me again, making my breathing quicken and pure fear tear its way up my throat. What if it doesn't work? Will I never leave this place then? Never get the chance to?

I heave in a breath, trying to get the thoughts to go away and the panic attack to seize. One would think that after years of experiencing these attacks, I would get somewhat better at warding them away. But black spots still dance in my vision, the covers over me become suffocating, and I half-expect to look down and see that they are snakes, scaly and slithering, their red tongues flicking as they tighten and tighten around my ribcage.

Vaguely, I register that the sun is starting to rise and that my clock reads eight. That soon, I will have to start moving. That I'll have to feign sleep otherwise I fear I'll be suspected.

Even though it's quiet, the silence suffocating, it's still so loud. The blood rushing in my ears, my pulse pounding and rapid breathing make it too noisy to me, and I'm so sure I'll be heard. That this will all be over before it starts. Except maybe I'll be noticed and taken to a hospital, which in a way, means I'm getting out of here. But I'll probably be brought back here, too. It's funny what money can hide.

Breathe.

Calm down.

I close my eyes, and I try to remember. A smile, promises, stolen kisses, dark hair, and deep amber eyes.

The panic eases, even if remembering brings a new wave of fears. They don't matter. I know I won't meet him again, the odds are too great, and it's been too long. Remembering is like basking in the sunlight on a spring day, spread over grass – the fresh, clean kind – watching the clouds rolling above. Like taking a pause in life despite the many problems pressing on you like a noose. It gives a sense of bittersweet peace.

It doesn't help by much, but enough for now. Enough for me to untangle the covers, pull them to my chin, and school my features to make me seem asleep – brow unfurrowed, eyes closed and not scrunched tight or narrowed, lips slightly parted, shoulders relaxed, and body loose. My ears are strained, trying to pick up the routine noise of shuffling, keys clinging, and then the door shutting, but today, he's late. I ignore the pang of fear that stabs me and keep my body relaxed.

I've planned this day for months. Backup plans and lies ready in case, and before that, I planned my guarantee to succeed – if I got out – for years, so that being reliant would not be what kept me here.

The shuffling sound starts, muffled and beyond a few walls, in another room. I keep my ears trained, my heart pounding, and wait for the routine to start. A few moments later, and he doesn't disappoint.

It's funny how people, no matter how much they say they like change or mess, always have something in their lives that they like to stay permanent, organized, routined. Be it their schedule, their romantic interests, the state of their home, or anything really. Some are detailed and exact, relentless in having their lives 'perfect' and planned, while others are chaos in human form. But everyone, regardless of interests and lifestyles, has something in their lives that is the same, every day, every time.

A door opens, knob scraping and opening, the sound louder and closer before footsteps pad across the carpeted floor on the hall outside. He makes it to my bedroom, standing outside, like he does every morning, the silhouette of his shadow visible. He always takes a deep breath, as if he's about to face the world, before he opens the door, slow and sure but slightly hesitant too. Everytime he sees that I am still on my bed, in one piece, 'asleep' soundly, he always lets out a sigh of relief that never fails to have me scoffing inwardly.

If he's always so relieved to see I'm 'alive' and still here, then why does he pretend he isn't when I'm awake?

Why did he curse me to the pits of hell and always glare at me when the accident happened, years ago? Why did he hate my surviving yet still wanted to keep me 'protected?'

For someone who used to be someone I trusted, no one has ever confused me more than my father.

He takes a breath and I know he's about to say something. Maybe a confession or a truth, or something that would explain why.

For the past three years, he has been the only face I see, the only voice I hear, the only other person to live in this house. But despite all that time, I can count all of our one-sided conversations on my hand.

"Happy Birthday," every year.

"Merry Christmas."

"Say something."

"Eat something."

And sometimes, when he's in an apologetic mood, "It's for your good, you'll see."

Like every time, I don't say anything. Not only because I'm feigning sleep, but because I never answer. He got what he wanted, it shouldn't matter to him whether I answer him or not.

He stays for a moment, his body silhouetted by the light filtering from the window in the hallways, casting a shadow in my room, over my closed eyes. I can tell he's probably running his gaze over the room, over the painted walls and painted everything. I try to keep my breathing even as fear ties its familiar noose around my head, wondering if all of all the days to start searching my room, he is going to pick today, and find the packed suitcase, the returned college applications. But he doesn't, and soon, I hear the door groan and creak as it is closed, and then the sound of footfalls over the staircase.

The loud coffee machine starts, buzzing and whirring, and a few moments later – finally – the front door opens, keys jangling, and it shuts.

And now it begins.