Simply Just Different by Niamh O'Brien

Am I crazy?

Or am I just different?

The cottage I crouch in was built in 1941 to provide shelter for refugees during World War Two. I understand why they would come here to hide. The cottage is surrounded in thick green foliage and shrubbery, deep in the woodlands. Drops of dew splatter onto the wet muddied forest floors, birds sing as they fly above the blanket of foliage the trees provide, animals rustle the plants as they brush past them.

The cottage was built with grey stones, uneven and odd in shape. Rain water leaks through the cracks in the stone, rotting the wooden floors. It smells of damp and rot. My nostrils flare as I curl my arms around my legs, my knees touching my chin.

My foot taps against the floor in rhythm with the plops or water that fall through the cracks in the stone ceiling.

One. Two. Three. Four.

They came here, to this cottage back in World War Two to seek asylum. I guess that’s what I am doing here as well. I am seeking asylum too. Not from the Germans or bombers, but from life itself.

Do you ever feel like everything is piling up? Weighing down on your shoulders, your chest? Does it ever get so heavy that you begin to stumble? That you begin to fall?

I wrapped my ankles in transparent plastic blister bandages and stuffed my feet into khaki green boots. My rain jacket was baggy around my shoulders, sticky against my sweating skin. I pulled my hair back, slick against my scalp. I painted my face with the stains of my tears.

“Are you alright Anne?” Michael had asked me. We had been sitting at the kitchen table, my arms crossed tightly over my chest, my legs bouncing, shaking the table. If he noticed my shaking limbs, he didn't comment on them. I suppose he didn’t care. Not anymore.

His hair was disheveled, his eyes glassy, tired. He stared at his mug of tea as he asked me this. He didn’t even take a sip of the tea, it had gone cold now. I had let the tea bag stew for five minutes, added exactly two teaspoons of milk and one sugar.

I had made his tea the way he liked it. I had done everything right. I had even used his favorite mug, the one I painted for him in a pottery class. But it wasn’t enough.

He couldn’t even drink it. He couldn’t even say thank you. He couldn’t even acknowledge it.

He wore the grey polo top his mother had bought him as a present for our housewarming party a year ago. His fingertips drummed nervously against the wooden table. His ring finger was empty, saying more than words could. He didn’t look at me. Not once.

In sickness and in health, he had vowed. Until death do us part, he had promised.

I love you, he had whispered.

Will you marry me? he had asked, as he slid a ring onto my finger.

He loved me. He did.

Until I got sick.

“I’m okay, Mike.”

I watched how he flinched when I called him Mike. He used to love when I called him Mike, how I was the only one who did. Now he winces like it hurts to hear my voice, my nickname for him. Maybe it does.

Everything hurts right now.

Everything is painful. Everything feels like lies. Feels like betrayal.

Empty promises. Broken vows. Discarded wedding rings.

I stand up from the table, swaying on my feet. He moves forward as if to steady me, but pauses and slumps back down onto the chair. I suppose if I fell he would just watch me. I suppose he wouldn't even hold out his hand. I suppose the energy he would exert in helping me up would be a waste. Because in his eyes, I am worthless. I am a problem.

My voice is empty as I tell him “I’m going on a walk”.

He exhales noisily, rubbing his face. “Don't disappear, we are getting served divorce papers today.”

I nod jerkily. Right. Divorce papers. So soon, yet too late.

I blink, returning to the cold floor in the cottage. Sheila had called Mike's mother, ‘It’s for the best,’ she said, ‘He doesn’t know how to deal with this. He does love you Anne, but he has to think about himself too. You need help, Anne. You need to go back to your doctors again, get back on track’.

My eyelids flutter as sleep begins to subdue my racing heart. What if I stay in this cottage forever? In this asylum? What if I never leave? What if I hide? Will all the bad, will all the dark in my life leave?

Obsessive.

Count to four. Inhale. Exhale. Count to four. Uncross your arms, your legs. Look around the room. What do you notice? What are your eyes drawn to? Take another deep breath. Count to four.

Compulsive.

Count to eight. Turn on the tap. Watch the water flow. Turn off the tap. Count to eight. Turn on the light. Count to four. Turn off the light. Count to four.

Disorder.

Hold the pill. Put it to your lips. Rest it against the roof of your mouth. Swallow. Are you still unhappy? Will we up the dosage? Hold the pill. Put it to your lips…

“You have O.C.D?” Mike had asked. “That’s like cleaning isn’t it? Cool.”

My cheek rests against the cool surface of the floor in the cottage. I curl up into a ball, ignoring how tears stream down my cheeks, splattering onto the stones in rhythm with the rain drops. I shield my face with my rain jacket, sleep wrapping its tendrils around me as I drift off into a restless unconsciousness. Blistering coldness seeps deep into my bones, my lips turning blue, my skin ashen.

I dream of the first time I went to the cottage.

I was a child. It had been summer's day and I was dressed in red cotton dungarees. Mom had packed a picnic and was settling it up in the forest while I played. She had brought pink lemonade in a glass bottle with a wooden cork.

I had told her that my head was ‘buzzing’. All these horrific, intrusive thoughts were swarming around my head like an angry colony of bees. I couldn’t stop them and had to just endure the pain as they stung me. I had stumbled into the stony damp cottage and curled up on the floor, my head in my hands.

Misery.

It is a misery to live with an invisible illness.

It is a misery to live with a mental illness.

It is a misery to live with a chronic mental illness.

It is a misery to live with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Hands grab me, pulling me from my cold, damp refuge. They ask me questions, their hands gentle, voices warm as I am carried into the back of an ambulance. They ask me what my name is, what age I am.

They tell me my husband reported that I was missing.

I want to tell them that my husband doesn't love me anymore.

But no words leave my mouth as I lie on a trolley listening to the shrill scream of the sirens.

Maybe one day people like me, people like me who suffer in silence will finally be noticed. Maybe one day we will be cared for. Maybe one day we won’t have to live in a world filled with stigma and ignorance.

Maybe one day people will realize that we are not crazy.

We are simply just different.


Joint Winner of the 23rd Short Story Contest
Published in Issue #28

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