Chapter 1 - The Truth Underneath
I must be seeing things…
As was so often the case, Emily found herself unwilling to accept the truth standing right in front of her.
She clenched her teeth and shook her head angrily. It can’t be true! I mean look at me, I’m such a mess!
Standing in front of a small vanity mirror in a cramped powder room, Emily felt disgust swelling in her chest as she looked herself over. Her black trousers, which under any other circumstances would be perfectly pressed, were a damp and wrinkled mess. Her black wool sweater, painstakingly selected for its precise balance of professionalism and femininity, was also uncomfortably moist and smelled of rotten fear. Her iconic black ballet flats would likely never recover from their current use as a steamy locker room for her wrinkled feet.
She took in a deep breath to summon the courage to look at herself in the mirror again. Through an exercise of extraordinary will, Emily saw no face, only a matted tangle occupying the place where her naturally alluring jet black hair usually lay. It was her hair she liked most about herself, and right now even it seemed unworthy of affection.
Without Emily’s permission, her will retreated for the briefest of moments to bring her face into focus.
Is that me!? Is that what I really look like?
From the depths of her mind arose a reply from an unfamiliar source. No. But it’s a lot closer than what you saw yesterday.
Emily’s eyes narrowed in frustration. What does that even mean!?
The soundless voice responded resolutely. You will never save your son until you’re able to see yourself clearly… That was just the first step.
A heavy ball of fear dropped down from her throat and splashed in her belly. There’s more than one step!? How am I supposed to take another one when I barely survived the first!
Emily had always taken great pride in her ability to rise to the considerable challenges life had given her. But, the pain of what she’d just endured was beyond understanding. It was deeper, and more penetrating, than anything she’d ever experienced. She found herself nursing wounds in places she didn’t even know existed.
Yet, despite her pain, she felt more alive than she had in years. The powerful force that had helped her escape from that place was still stirring inside of her. To her annoyance, she knew it wasn’t going to let her hide from the truth any longer. Stop being a coward Emily and face yourself.
Emily released her fists and obeyed the command. A shiver of fear ran down her spine as she gazed upon her unwanted reality. Staring back at her was not the face she knew herself to be, but was the face of a frightened beauty whose radiance had been completely obscured beneath deep layers of emotional weight and scaring. Is it possible I’m one of them?
Through the years, Emily had come to accept she was something far less alluring than the damsel in distress staring back at her from beyond the mirror’s surface. Yet the longer she held her reflection’s gaze, the more real it felt. Don’t let yourself get sucked into this illusion Emily. You are, and always have been, an invisible somebody!
Yet, the somebody she’d worked so diligently to create was nowhere to be found. In its place, stood a fragile glass doll who was scared of its own reflection. As she analyzed every detail of the woman staring back at her, Emily couldn’t help but feel abandoned by her reliable protector. Where did it go? Is it coming back?
Becoming a somebody was never something Emily had intended, but she’d been given a life that had forced her to grow up quickly and fend for herself. And, despite its thick and heavily scarred skin, its constant presence made her feel safe. She felt the sudden grip of panic. What if it never comes back!?
The comforting voice of silence whispered in her ear. Welcome to your life Emily. You’re meant to live it unimpeded by such a heavy burden.
Emily felt a flicker of light in her chest before collapsing to the ground in agony. Her body convulsed violently in memory of why she’d sought refuge in this tiny room. It most certainly was not to use the toilet.
Her body felt as if it had just been taken out of a freezer and was working desperately to heat itself back up again. Her teeth were chattering, her arms and legs were flailing, her breath was out of control.
At the whim of the brutal force that had taken possession of her body, Emily deliriously searched for anything to grab ahold of. She was met by the steady command of her silent companion. You must breathe Emily! Breathe in……and out…..and again…..and again….
With focused concentration, Emily first regained control of her breath before wrestling her body out of danger. Once freed from her torturer’s grip, she found herself lying on her side in a tightly wound ball. Still grasping for a complete breath, her entire being gripped in pain. She feared that even the slightest of provocation could destroy her.
Let go Emily, you did it!
The rush of pride was immediately squashed by another, far more familiar, voice. How could you possibly be proud of that? You wouldn’t have had to save yourself from yourself if you weren’t so weak!
No one, and no thing, came close to the soul-crushing effectiveness of that voice. Emily had long ago discovered it was unerringly right and should be heeded to expose irrational thinking, including any unwarranted swelling of confidence. For Emily, the voice’s message was clear, that short of dogged grit and determination, she’d never be good enough for anything. She only wished the voice would grant her some uninterrupted pleasantness every once in awhile.
Mirroring the circular pattern of her coiled body, Emily’s mind was looping through a series of questions. Her very survival required answers, yet she was helpless to keep up with their frenzied pace. What was that I just went through…? That was insane… Did I dream it all up…? Am I still dreaming…?
Little did Emily know that her mind would be incessantly searching for these answers for quite some time. If she had, she would have never found the courage to take the next step.
In truth, she wouldn’t have ever taken this first step if it hadn’t held the promise of solving all her problems. Only, rather than delivering the peace she craved, Emily had unwittingly leaped into the treacherous abyss toward an impossible destiny. There would be no turning back.
Unaware of her life’s extraordinary importance, Emily had spent every preceding day toiling for an existence that held the guarantee of being tragically ordinary. Her forgettable life was stripped of purpose, of possibility, of magic.
As much as she would deny it intellectually, Emily knew that ordinary was exactly the life she wanted. After all, she was still a young child when she discovered that averageness offered the privilege of anonymity. In a trick she’d observed in her parents, she knew that no one would notice her true nature if she blended into the scenery.
Emily sensed that she had stepped out into the light and that the entire world was now judging her nakedness. She shook her head and tightened her face in a fruitless effort to hang onto her tears. But alas, even they would stop at nothing to get away from her.
If I never was that somebody, then what am I!?
The response was immediate. You’re not a what, you’re a who.
Huh? What does that mean!?
For the sake of you and your son, you’re going to have to figure that out… soon.
My little Zeke!
With renewed clarity, Emily remembered why she’d come out here, to the middle of nowhere, in the first place. Through the screaming torture of last night, a silent realization arose. She had to make a choice of who’s life was more important to her, hers or her 18 month old son Ezekiel. Newly possessed with the unexplainable knowing that the two lives could never coexist, she did what any mother would do and left her life behind. This isn’t about you anymore! Zeke needs his mother.
Physically, little Zeke was a perfect mix of his parents. He shared his mother’s piercing eyes and jet black hair and his father’s strong features and dark complexion. While nothing about his developmental milestones was out of the ordinary, there was an undeniable maturity to his way moving.
When it came to temperament, Zeke’s sullen despondency stood in stark contrast to the boundless joy expressed by any other child Emily had ever seen. To add to his darkness, her child abhorred socialization and rejected any attempt to connect him to the wondrous enthusiasm of childhood.
However, it wasn’t Zeke’s daytime demeanor that truly frightened his parents. It had been his dreadful overnight affliction that compelled his mother to walk away from her hard-earned life and place all hope into the hands of something that made no sense at all. Have I made it worse?
The silent voice responded. Worry not about better or worse. Trust that your path is through the pain.
Emily clenched her jaw in defiance. There has to be another way.
The response was clear. Not if you’re truly committed to saving your son.
She chose to ignore the woeful guidance of the unfamiliar voice. It had done nothing to earn the trust it was requesting. Besides, Emily considered herself highly skilled at finding the truth for for herself, a process that always began with understanding the root of her problems.
How could Walter do this to us? Of course, the blame for the entire mess could be placed at her estranged husband’s feet. After all, it was Walter who had abandoned them to follow a crazy notion that these people could heal their son. Sure, he’d hinted at his departure for months, but nothing could have excused him for sneaking out in the middle of the night on Zeke’s first birthday. To add to the offense, he had left nothing behind but a short note instructing her to come here if Zeke’s condition worsened.
Emily considered this a demand, since they both knew his condition would decline. It was only a matter of time before she’d be desperate enough to follow.
It’s done now. Get ahold of yourself Emily.
“Emily, is everything ok in there?” A warm motherly voice called from beyond the door.
“Yes, yes. Everything’s fine. I’m just… I’ll be right out.” Emily replied with hasty embarrassment. She turned on the water and pretended to wash her hands in an attempt to explain her long absence.
After the appropriate pause, Emily opened the door and returned back into the kitchen. The very large room was anchored by a suitably proportioned array of avocado green cabinets with white and black checkered tile countertops and soft realist paintings of farm animals scattered across the walls. Just outside the main kitchen was a small eat in nook where Zeke was sitting on the lap of their host, Sally. Why did she take us in unannounced?
Sally was tall and full bodied. She wore no make-up and her shoulder length grey hair was well groomed, but not fussed over. She wore heavily soiled knee high boots, loose blue jeans and a button down heavy flannel shirt. Her look was well-paired with her enormous ranch style home located well beyond the city limits.
Emily had an unusual ability to see the subtleties that truly reveal the person. She noticed that Sally exuded a caring kindness and that her movements were slow and deliberate. Her smile was gentle, but warm, and her light brown eyes practically invited vulnerable disclosure.
Emily was repelled by all of it. What’s wrong with me?
To add to Emily’s annoyance, this magical woman seemed to have enraptured her son. Zeke looked genuinely happy as he played with the chocolate chips Sally had placed on the table in front of him. Emily’s jaw clenched. Why doesn’t he ever want to sit in my lap!?
“How are you feeling Emily?” Sally asked casually. She appeared far more interested in the child than his mother.
“I’m fine.” Emily replied curtly, having no desire, or ability, to explain how she was really doing.
“Oh good.” Sally replied as she looked up from Zeke to softly search Emily’s eyes. “You know… most people really struggle with that experience. It takes them a long time to let the weight of it all flow through them. It comforts me to hear you’re doing well… Just know, there is no shame in struggle.”
“Thank you, that’s really kind.” Emily offered insincerely. “But really, I’m fine.”
“Yes, I can see you’re an incredibly strong woman… Now, I’m not implying this would happen to you, but many times it's the strongest of people who have the most difficulty with all of this. The things they’re forced to see down there… The strong tend to deny the weakness that lives in them, that lives in all of us really. And, the favorite food of weakness is denial. The strong are prone to be eaten from the inside out.”
I feel numb. Does that mean it’s all come out? Of course Emily would never share what she was really thinking, especially not to a sanctimonious stranger. “Thank you Sally, that’s great to know. But like I said, I’m fine. Really.”
“I love your tenacity Emily. Without it, who knows what would have happened to you and Zeke down there… Just remember, everything that happens is beautiful in its own way, even the most abominable darkness… Oh, I almost forgot.” Sally reached into her front shirt pocket to pull out an envelop and handed it to Emily. “Walter left this for you.”
“Thank you.” Emily said politely. As she took the letter, she felt a rising flood of anger take over her body. Like a boiling kettle, she was helpless to stop her audible release of steam. Much to her added annoyance, she saw that both Sally and Zeke had taken notice of her groan.
What now Walter!? What awful thing are you going to ask me to do now!?
She opened the envelop and pulled out a hand-written letter, which read:
I’m so thrilled you’ve decided to come. Please come find me at 6 Shilling Street, Paradise.
Love always, Walter”
Paradise?! First he asked me to dive into oblivion and now he wants me to join him in hell? Emily resented herself for allowing Walter to control her life.
Sally finally broke a long silence, “You know, he’s worried sick about you two.”
Staring at nothing in particular, Emily’s eyes blazed with fire. Stay out of this Sally! You know nothing about any of this. She took in a deep breath to try to calm herself before responding coldly. “Yeah, I’m sure he is.”
“I can take you to him now if you like? The day is still young, I’m sure we get there before sundown.”
Yes, let’s see what Walter has to say for himself. Seething in anger, Emily replied with feigned cheerfulness. “That’s so kind of you Sally. Yes, I would really appreciate it. I’m in no condition to drive.”
Zeke began screaming as his mother approached and picked him up from Sally’s lap. Emily felt a tightening in her chest. How could he hate his own mother? Can’t he see he’s breaking my heart?
Out of necessity, Emily retreated to the familiar place that allowed her to disconnect from feeling. It was the only way she was able to do many of the things she had to do with her son, things like wrestling a furious child outside and into his carseat.
Once the deed was done, Emily closed the door and made her way slowly around to the passenger seat. This isn’t fair what you’re doing to me Zeke. I don’t know how much longer I can take this.
Emily slid into her seat. With the slam of the closing door came the realization that she would find peace on the other side of pain. For the briefest of moments, excitement reigned supreme, until the weight of reality settled back in. What hell have I gotten myself into?
“Emily, I’ve filled Zeke’s belly and he should sleep well on the trip. I recommend that you try to do the same.” Sally said before putting the car into gear.
“That’s a great idea Sally, I’m exhausted.” Emily replied as she closed her eyes. While she knew sleep wasn’t possible, the allure of uninterrupted silence was impossible to pass up.