Warning: This chapter contains a scene of attempted self-harm and could be triggering for some. Please read with caution.
Friday. First period. Algebra. This is the only class I share with both Kalifa and Claire, and the two of them doodle back and forth, drawing Martians on a shared piece of notebook paper, while I run my hands anxiously through my hair, the ends splitting between my fingers.
“I have to tell your therapist about this,” Paul had said, apologetically. As if it was his fault. “I’m sorry, Noomi. But I have to put it in your file.”
I didn’t respond. I’m not inventing him, I wanted to say. He’s real. I know he is.
“Can anyone explain how we factor out this polynomial?”
Claire raises her hand lazily; Kalifa’s shoots up into the air. Of the three of us, I am silent.
My mother got the call this morning. Dr. Chase had requested a special appointment with me to discuss what she’d heard from Paul.
“I’ll write her a note for school,” my mother responded, her English perfect, her accent minute but distinct. I ate my okayu in silence, staring at the mushy porridge, trying to avoid her eyes. “I’m sure her teachers will understand.”
The silence as the call ends. The tapping of my mother’s fingernails against the table. Ada’s small hands wrapping around her glass of orange juice. Her eyes, so green, like Silas’, as she glances back and forth between me and my mother. The weight that settles in on me, the uncertainty, the self-doubt.
Drops of blackness fade into my vision, clouding my eyes, consuming me. They’ve never come to me when Ada’s with me. This is new.
What did Silas say?
“Hold onto every sensation that you can, every color, every sound or song you love, everything that reminds you of this world.”
What if Silas isn’t real? What if I really am making him up?
I focus on Ada’s eyes, on the bright yellow juice in her glass, on the blue china plates in front of us. I relax, breathe, and remember the colors, staring at them, memorizing the exact hue and shade in my mind. I refuse to let the shadows hurt me. Not today. Not when everything else hurts so much already.
To my relief, the blackness disappears, and color returns.
Kalifa elbows me gently, and I am jolted back from my memories of this morning. I look down where her finger is tapping expectantly. There’s a note written on a slip of paper.
Are you coming to Claire’s tonight?
I force out a smile and, when Miss Abenath turns to the blackboard, I jot down a response.
I hope so!
I remember Claire’s text message from last night: Bring PJs. It’s a sleepover. My brother is bringing beer and I don’t want you driving home! That’s Claire. Cautious even when she’s planning illegal activities. Not that I have any intention of drinking. My first—and last—experience with beer ended when I spat out my first sip of a fresh can. But I’m more than happy to sleep over with my friends and watch them get tipsy.
If my mother will let me out of the house, that is.
“Be brave, my love,” she said in our language as she sat next to me and put her hand on top of mine. “Please talk to Dr. Chase. I want to fight this thing that’s hurting you.”
You don’t understand, I wanted to say. Dr. Chase can’t help me.
But I no longer believed myself. So I kept quiet. I finished my okayu. Maybe Dr. Chase can help me, I thought. Maybe I’m wrong.
The bell rings, and I grab my backpack.
“I have to go. I have a doctor’s appointment.”
“Lucky!” Claire exclaims, while Kalifa gives her the side-eye. Claire’s always looking for an excuse to miss school. Kalifa, on the other hand, takes classes very seriously.
“I wish I didn’t have to go,” I admit. “It’s not a fun appointment.” I glance around, wondering if Silas is lurking around the corner of the hall. Or down the corners of my mind. But, real or fictionalized, I don’t see him.
“Oh.” Claire’s face falls.
“Is everything okay?” Kalifa asks. Though I’ve never told either of them about the shadows, the darkness, both Kalifa and Claire know I’ve been in and out of psychiatrists’ offices and therapy my whole life.
“I think so,” I say. “But my therapist wants to talk to me about something.” I shrug, trying to be casual. “I don’t know what.”
Kalifa reaches out and squeezes my hand.
“Text one of us if you need to talk, okay?”
“I’ll be back by lunchtime. We can catch up then. And talk about plans for tonight.”
Claire’s eyes light up and she flips her long hair.
“And you get to meet Basi tonight! Which means I can finally start talking about him again, thank God, because it’s taken a Herculean effort for me to keep my mouth shut for the last three weeks.”
“Oh, please, Claire,” Kalifa says, rolling her eyes, “if you think you’ve been keeping your mouth shut, I dread to think what we would have been subjected to if you hadn’t!”
I wave goodbye and set off through the halls. I drop my mother’s note at the front desk, where they look at me suspiciously. I haven’t been in and out of classes as much as I used to be, and when I am I always have a note from my mother, but the front desk ladies are suspicious of everyone. They seem to think anyone’s failure to attend class is a moral offense, and it’s their job to keep everyone in line.
In the car, fear waves over me as I worry about what Dr. Chase will say to me. What she thinks of me. I am not a schizophrenic, I think, trying to reassure myself as much as anything. I know Silas is real. I know I’m not crazy. But the self-doubt lingers.
There’s an easy way to prove it.
No. I don’t want to go back down that path. I’ve been there too many times.
Then how will you ever know? Paul could be right. Maybe Silas doesn’t exist. Maybe the shadows don’t exist. Maybe everything he taught you is just your crazy way of rationalizing your anger and pain.
It’s real. I know it is.
Then prove it.
I grit my teeth and pull into a gas station. I drop a bottle of lighter fluid and a set of matches in front of the cashier and proffer the money she asks for, ignoring the sideways looks she’s giving me. I ask her where the bathroom is. She points outside and around the corner, and I smile and thank her.
In the bathroom, I ignore the stench and unscrew the plastic cap on the lighter fluid. I douse my arm, the thick slate-grey smell drowning out the stench of excrement and filth. I wait a second for the fumes to subside and then strike the match. I hold it to my flesh and watch the wetness on my arm leap into curls of yellow, orange, and red. I watch patiently, waiting for any signs of a burn, for any hint of pain. But this time, instead of anger and sadness, there’s only satisfaction when nothing happens. The color of my skin remains unchanged, the thin hairs on my arm not even singed. I smile grimly as the flames extinguish themselves in the open air.
Silas isn’t a lie. I’m not a liar.
Then what is he? What are you?
I don’t know.
Okay! That’s it for Chapter Ten! We’re officially up to fifteen thousand words, so if you’ve been reading from the beginning, you’ve read a novella-length story at this point. Thank you all for staying invested and following along!
This was one of those chapters where I feel like Noomi starts to show a side of her that hasn’t been revealed since the first chapter: the pain that drives her to self-harm, the self-doubt that drives her to insanity. This is where the chapter title comes from. Is she insane? No one knows, right now. (Except me, ha ha ha!) That side of her may become more prominent as the chapters go on and as Noomi struggles to understand who Silas is – and who she is.
I’d love to hear what you thought of the way I wrote out multiple scenes at once within a chapter. It’s a technique I first read and admired in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and I wanted to try it for myself. I’m not sure I pulled it off, though. Was it clear when the transitions from past to future occurred? Was it clear which lines took place in which scene? Did you like the shifts between scenes within the chapter or did it detract from the narrative?
As always, any additional feedback is welcome! Thank you all for reading and participating in my reader-driven serial. You’re awesome!
It worked fine Amira. I wasn’t distracted at all by the shifts in scenes and it was very clear. I actually do it a lot myself in my own writing and am doing it right now in a short story I’m writing. (Perhaps why I had no problem with it!) Anyway, all good. really looking forward to finding out more and nice to see Noomi being fleshed out more. 🙂
Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I didn’t reply to this until now. Sorry, busy week….
I’m glad you enjoyed the shift in scenes, and that it worked out all right. Please share your short story with me so I can see how you employ that technique – I’m sure there’s something I can learn from the way you’ve done it!
Thanks, as always, for commenting and reading, and sorry again for not replying for so long….Cheers, lady!
No worries at all!
I read Lynne’s comment below about tense choices and it is a tricky one. My scene shifts are done in larger chunks, almost flashback I suppose, but both are written in the present tense, using italics to denote the shifts. It’s not exactly the same as your idea but you’re welcome to have a look at the story shorts section on my blog page if you like.
I’m now going to catch up on Chapter 11 of Porous as I notice it’s up! 🙂 Catch you later 🙂
This is so good, Amira. My one question is whether clarity might be served by more tense consistency. The shadows flashback is effective in the present tense (“I focus on Ada’s eye…”) but I notice other flashback moments are in past tense. I can sure see where it would confuse the reader to put them all in present tense, which opens the question as to whether you can create the same immediacy while putting that paragraph in the past tense.
Oh, great point. I struggled with that in the writing of it, because I wanted to give the past tense scenes the same immediacy of the present-tense, but you’re right that it might not have been done as well as it could have been. I”ll keep that in mind for revisions.
Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series 🙂
You pulled it off! Eagerly awaiting Chapter 11 😀
Thanks, my love 🙂