Step by Step

By: Rebecca Victor

 

         Nothing had been going right. Nothing was leveling off. Keith’s stress was skyrocketing with each passing meal and each passing hour of the day. Every meal welcomed more accusations and frequent mentions of his unnatural habits and behaviors. Rachael had always been quick to voice her opinion when she noticed his compulsions. On frequent occasions, she would spot him obsessively reading nutrition labels, spouting trivial nutrition factoids underneath his breath, asking her what was in the dish if he couldn’t make components out clearly, or hovering by the stove to watch her exact methods when she was in charge of cooking.

         “You know, I found one of these old magazines in the storage the other day,” she brought up almost out of nowhere. In her hand was a fashion magazine featuring a face and figure similar to her own but rather, the date was far too long ago for it to have been hers; by process of elimination with the fact his other sister didn’t model, it was clear that the woman on the cover was none other than the woman who had given birth to all of them, “She really was pretty back in her day, huh—” she looked up from the cover to catch her brother scraping off the creamy alfredo sauce off his dinner of pasta and vegetables—“and stop trying to get rid of the sauce. A little bit won’t kill you.” Her arm reached out across the table in an easygoing attempt to gently pat his head with the magazine she was holding, though her arm wasn’t long enough to reach across unless she physically got up from her seat.

         With his free hand, the boy met her halfway to push her arm aside with what little force he could muster, “It’s all over the plate! I’d rather not!” The sharp sound of a fork prongs scratching the plate in the midst of stabbing through a piece of zucchini could be heard as he yelled back in defiance. His gaze lowered, clearly not taking this conversation as casually as his sister was. The atmosphere had shifted because of his outburst, evident when Rachael drew back her arm, set the magazine aside, and somberly returned to eating her dinner.

         By this point, the teen was mostly aware of the things his sister pointed out. He knew what she was doing was for his own good, yet he felt backed into a corner, and crushed by the anxiety and pressure closing in on him from being so obvious with his dietary rituals. The late hours of the evening were his only respite from that. The tiredness he accumulated during the day could hopefully roll off his shoulders as he slumbered. Dragging his emaciated limbs over onto his bed, the boy tucked himself underneath the plush comforters for warmth. He reached for the cat plush that was as large as his torso with his left arm, pulling it towards his body as he rolled onto his side. The wrist guard he had shifted to his right hand wasn’t strapped on too tight. His left arm was resting flat underneath the doll, just as he should to minimize the carpal tunnel pains. Good. Maybe now his mind would keep quiet, he thought.

         As his eyelids fell shut, he began to drift into a familiar dream. Opening his pale blue eyes, Keith found himself surrounded by the starry sky, not accented by black but rather a dark blue. The stars hardly shone in comparison to the one figure he would always see hovering above him. His head would always have to be lifted as high as it could to see the full radiance of the golden shine she possessed. Above her head was no halo nor did she have unstained white wings on her back, but it certainly seemed as though she did. The young woman with long red hair, more vibrant red than his own and his sister’s reddish-brown locks, had always had an angelic image. She held the traits of elegance, grace, modesty, beauty, and otherworldliness. Though, that was to be expected as she was no longer of this world. She hadn’t been for… many years.

         He could only look at her from afar. He could never approach her with his own two feet. He had tried. Walking, rushing into a sprint, and even stretching out his arm would do nothing to close the distance between him and her. So desperately, he wanted to reach her, to grab onto her hand, to hold onto her like a child and never let go. He could not hope to reach her despite how much he wanted to. Even if his body could not reach her, the boy was aware his voice would. And so, each night he was able to face her in this starry sky, he would confess his feelings—he would tell her how much he hated himself, how much he couldn’t stand his life the way it was, he’d speculate why he felt an enormous void and a constant ache inside him, he’d ask why what he had wasn’t enough—speaking them aloud in hopes of swaying her to come home, or to get it out of his mind with no real purpose. He didn’t know which one was his true motive.

         Keith would find himself realizing things with each subsequent visit here. He would realize them as he spoke his unfiltered and unrefined thoughts into the open space, thoughts and feelings he didn’t ever know how to articulate in the waking world. He realized how he missed her so much, how he kept trying to continue his art and cooking because he still remembered her validating, reassuring, and supportive words from all those years ago, how he kept trying to find someone like her to support him when she left him behind, and—most importantly—how much he wanted her back. These deeper emotions and desires were all so icky inside him; they never let him rest, relax, or granted him any reason to feel good about life. He would finally connect these dots between overwhelming feelings he couldn’t understand while conscious in reality. The void inside him would be somewhat filled when he awoke to this place. It was because she was here; it was because in this space, a child was together with his mother. But only during this visit did he realize why that was important. The child wanted them to reunite. He wished for it with everything he had. Then, his eyes widened. Somewhere in that moment, some realization had caused his entire being to fill with dread.

         He wanted to die.

         Because if he did, he could be with her, with his mother.

         His head lowered, hung low so his bangs would shield the shock evident in his eyes as the conclusion of these feelings hit him like a speeding train. His gaze turned toward the darkness below his feet. He could feel the blood pulse in his ears, his breath would halt in these few moments, and he couldn’t bear to look up while he processed this. He wanted to die. It clicked. The justification for tolerating the worst possible social relationships, the reason he let people trample over him, why he refused to let people in—it was to push him into making the final act. The pain was supposed to push him over the edge. It wasn’t wrong to feel—

         The glow seemed to brighten, causing Keith to lift his head once more and noticed the sting and burning at the edges of his eyes. Her being emanated sadness, disappointment—concern, all concentrated on him through what felt like eyes fixating on his small self. And he froze. Shame. Guilt. Pain. It all overtook him. And he cried soundlessly.

         She floated downwards almost as though wings were fluttering during her descent, slowly coming closer to him. As the distance lessened, the more he noticed her features fading around the edges, solidifying the reality she was only a spirit; her feet barely had the detail of her toes, and her face wasn’t as defined as one might see in a modern photograph. Rather, she had no face. Even though he knew she should have one, knew she should have blue eyes like his own, her face was featureless up close. Her fingers were faded at the tips too; she probably couldn’t reach him with them. Only a semblance of a mouth was present, and even then, if her ‘lips’ were not parted, her face was a blank sheet.

         Her hands would reach out to wipe away his tears, the ones that continued to drip from the tear ducts at the edge of each eye. He would try to wipe them away himself with the back of his one good hand, but they’d continue to be caught by her fingers instead, as if favoring her ethereal warmth instead of his cold mortal vessel. Once his tears were cleaned and stopped, her hands cupped themselves around his face, lifting his head to meet her gaze, as if she had eyes to begin with. In his peripheral vision, he’d barely catch her lips moving. However, no sound resonated.

         He couldn’t catch her words. Her warm and gentle hands removed themselves, and she’d back away.

         Her weightless figure would then hover around him, fly around his form in circles. His eyes would follow her the best they could without the assistance of his neck and head turning, trying to read the words she was trying to communicate to him. She repeated the same muted words over and over again, slower and slower with each repetition so he could hopefully follow. Whatever she was saying would never reach his ears. It was either his ears were deaf, or her words were void of sound. He didn’t know which one it was.

         She paused in front of him. Her glow was beginning to fade. Her arms reached out towards him again. This time, he lifted his arm and began to reach back despite how stiff and hard it was to move. In the moment their fingertips may have touched, her being turned into stardust. His arm froze in space, then fell limp at his side.

         The stars turned dark. The sky turned black just like the void beneath him.

 

 

         And he fell into the darkness.

 

 

 

 

         As the days and weeks went by, Keith tried to recall any semblance of the repeated dream he had been experiencing as of late; he knew the dream had happened, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember a single detail about it. Whatever happened within it was important, and the fact he could not recall a single image or line of dialogue troubled him. Though, his time was much better spent trying to ease his own urges. Resisting his urgent need to write down every morsel of food he consumed, analyze nutrition labels, or avoid eating with other people around would help in progress. However, this was easier said than done. Over the course of weeks and maybe persisting into months, the maroon haired teen had found himself obsessively thinking about food, the nutrition component, his mind’s voice screaming about one terror that was applying peanut butter to his raw vegetables to get some much needed fats, how he would try to integrate his “unsafe” foods again—he had written up a plan to do this as seamlessly as possible—but it really was a lost cause.

         By himself, he only experienced relatively mild emotional meltdowns whenever he tried to change his habitual routine, which were caused by the demonic voice of his disorder consuming any rational motive to get better. He still faced more hospital visits from fainting spells and his inability to bring himself to consume much of anything; these visits made his family hover over him more than the usual, even his eldest sister who had married and moved out had begun to visit more often. Without help, he wouldn’t be able to fix any of this; the boy knew that, yet he couldn’t rely on someone else because he was enough of a burden already—his gaze lingered on his discolored hands; ah, yes, Raynaud’s syndrome was afflicting him much more often due to his constant high levels of stress, not to mention his hands felt more numb than not these days. Cooking his own meals was already borderline impossible, and with these added complications, it became impossible—Keith was forced to eat whatever his sister provided, whether he liked it or not. Talking—maybe confiding in someone—would help, though talking to family or concerned persons wasn’t likely to pull him out of the dense fog he couldn’t see through. He had decided to take a short walk outside one day and see if he could clear his head; a change in scenery would help, right? 

         As Keith stepped outside his home to begin his short stroll down the street, he found himself running into a certain someone he never liked to refer to by name: an extremely short adult—a twenty-six year old man who was a good three inches shorter than Keith’s own height of five-six—with vibrant red hair, condescending grins, a cocky attitude, and a hobby of making his life miserable. If Keith were to press for information about his personal aspects, all the guy would do was turn everything around back at him in the most obnoxious manner possible, for he was wary of giving out personal information.

         If he played his words right, his tormentor would be calling him out on his own behavior in a manner that was sure to stick in his brain—because anything that guy said tended to stick for some reason. To his luck and almost negligible good fortune, that was exactly how their conversation went. Having no more energy to expend, Keith shortened his walk, and he returned home, flopping onto the couch in the living room as soon as he stepped inside. This conversation had started to clear the dark grey fog in his brain. While it was still thick, he could begin to see through it. Not to mention, the man’s condescending tones always seemed to ground him whenever he felt himself panicking over an integration of his “unsafe” foods, leading to his internal chaos settling quicker than before. Now, he could actually begin to change everything; his own efforts would amount to something better this time around.

         At least, that was what he had thought would happen. Despite his attempts of integrating new foods and eating more in one sitting (the main aspects of his poor diet he wanted to tackle first) being extremely hard on him, Keith had tried his best to progress through the fog he was stuck in. He tried to get some semblance of control back and he knew he needed to if he wanted to be healthy like he intended from the beginning; he wanted to be in control of himself again, and to be able to enjoy being with his family and friends again, but long-term, persistent obsessions were unlikely to change overnight or even in the span of a week or two, even if he consciously knew he had to make changes.

         During this time period of trying to shift to healthier habits, he was hit with more screaming from his frightful demons that had more control over him than a toxic acquaintance. He dragged himself through old coping mechanisms, pulling out old sketchbooks labeled “DO NOT OPEN” and flipping them to the next empty page to violently scribble with red and black pens. If not violently scribbling in those sketchbooks, the teen would grab one of his current ones to attempt to design a certain type of dress, a project that wouldn’t be necessary to turn into tangible material until years down the line. He dragged himself to the kitchen to whip up something he could actually bring himself to eat—an attempt to use cooking to ease stress like it used to, yet failed to achieve the same relief let alone the same quality of a dish as he used to make. He tried to take some short walks to clear his head, but with his low energy and fragile body, just getting out the door was too much work. The yelling and beratement echoing inside his head made his struggles to return to normal conduct useless. He couldn’t do this. No, he told himself, he had to. For Rachael’s sake—his family’s sake… and for his own sake, but his world had faded into black again just as he was making his way out the door to his home once more; he felt his body fall, but the warmth of a slender, feminine arm had caught him, “Keith! Don’t di…”

         Opening his eyes, he found himself lost within the dreamscape. Again, he found himself facing the spirit of his deceased mother. Did he faint again or was he dead this time? No, he couldn’t be dead, not when he was finally starting to fully accept his need to get better. The woman approached him again, her long red hair cascading down her back as she reached her hands to cup his face once more. He could only look upon the edges of her face at most, his gaze fixing anywhere that wasn’t her. Shame did not fill his being, but rather worry did. What happened? He wasn’t dreaming, was he? His right hand rose to tangle itself in his brittle hair strands, threatening to tear them with his grip.

         “My dear Keith,” the woman softly addressed him, her blue eyes shifting over his skin-and-bone appearance as her hand caressed his cheek and brushed away a broken strand of reddish-brown hair. His own eyes shifted to meet hers and widened momentarily at what they took in; her face had features this time. The boy remembered this face. Her long eyelashes accented the blue in her eyes, her fair skin that looked so even and smooth she was rumored to be a doll herself, her long straight hair with her bangs parted towards her right, and now that he paid more attention, he realized she had the same proportionality as he did both in body and in facial structure, as expected since his eldest sister said he was almost a complete mirror image of her. Her eyes were the feature he recognized the most—he always looked at them as a child; they always showed him such warmth and care, gentleness and guidance, and most of all, affirmation. But this face was also a face that long faded from the covers of fashion headlines and magazine covers. In this moment, these eyes filled with genuine and unconditional love, motherly concern, and welled-up tears that threatened to spill over made it impossible for him to turn his gaze away. Her entire being was clear and free from the faded ends, yet still held the otherworldly, golden, gentle glow, “It isn’t your time yet, my son.”

         The tears began to fall from her eyes this time while Keith’s remained dry, “Don’t allow this to kill you like I did,” she wept. Her thumbs gently pressed against the skin of his cheeks, gently stroking as if to fully assess how fragile his body had become. Then, her hands slowly moved to take hold of his hands, ghosting her thumbs over the distinct sections of his fingers in tandem with her eyes narrowing upon perceiving the discoloring of them. Even though they were not touching anywhere upon his fingers, he could feel the warmth of her touch on his discolored fingers, “you have so much more to live for.”

         An emotion he couldn’t place stirred in his chest; she wasn’t supposed to cry—it wasn’t right to see this sight. He always remembered her smiling in the memories he could only access in dreams—this sight was tainting those warm, prickly, painful to recall memories. His expression turned solemn and conflicted, eyebrows furrowed for a moment. He had made everyone worry—his sisters, his friends, his brother-in-law, even his niece—and now even his mother. Shakily reaching his right hand out to wipe away her tears like she had done for him, Keith was unable to meet her eyes at all now, lowering his chin to avoid seeing her grief; he couldn’t bring himself to face her, for he had let her down. Now, he really knew he needed to get himself straightened out, get himself back in control of his own compulsions.

         Lowering his hand, he nodded slightly at her words, “You’re right,” he barely voiced, “I still… have things to do.”

         Rachael had put him in charge of helping her pick or design her wedding dress for when she would get married. His niece wanted him to teach her how to draw and how to cook his style of dishes. Those wishes were trivial at best on a large life scale, but for him, those were desires he placed at high importance. He didn’t want to break the promises he had made to them.

         Now, he could look into those eyes. His own held resolve and determination to take back what he had lost—rather, lost control of. Keith lifted his chin to meet his mother’s gaze straight on, for they stood at the same height. They were not as glossy now; they had softened, and her lips had curled upwards to display a supportive smile. Relief. Again, her eyes welled with tears, not ones of sadness and distress but rather ones of welling happiness for this implicitly expressed intent. Brushing them away with her own hands, the woman then placed one hand on her son’s shoulder and gently squeezed it.

         As if signaled by the gesture, a set of glass stairs took root beneath their feet, extending far down into the darkness beneath. Around the path the stairs made was a soft guiding light, similar to the one that surrounded his mother’s angelic being. The darkness brightened, stars like the ones above chasing away the blackness below that had once scared him. At the end of the stairs sat a circular entity. It slowly swirled around various splotches of vibrant colors—red, pink, yellow, and orange—around the edges. The center was firm and stable, white in color—that was the part he was supposed to walk through. Now that he thought about it, the exit reminded him of an artist’s slab.

         “You must go back now, Keith, before it is too late.” She let go of his shoulder. Quickly, she turned him around so he would face the stairs he was supposed to descend to reach the exit to this place. Clearly, she was eager to see him leave this dreamscape. A small chuckle left him. He wouldn’t have been able to leave so confidently if she hesitated.

         A nod was given back in her direction as he took his first step away from the mother he’d most likely never see again except in old memories. Taking the first steps down towards the source of the light, Keith was tempted to look back. Though, he could no longer linger here; it was time to go back. He could not afford to waste time in looking back. The time was too short. He could feel it in his bones; he could feel himself wasting away little by little inside; he could hardly feel his heart beat. Carefully, he walked down the steps, using caution when placing his feet on the next step in fear they might break beneath him. After a few cleared steps, he realized: these steps were not made of glass, but a much sturdier material that would easily carry him to his destination. He began clearing the steps two at a time, rushing to get to the gate that would lead him back to the waking world.

         Upon reaching the slowly swirling portal gate, the boy hesitated, hand held out to somehow scout out the path on the other side. He wanted to look back. He gave in. Turning his head, he glanced back at his mother. She was watching with content radiating from her, affirmative warmth at his decision. Her mouth parted, “go”. He smiled at her, hoping she could at least see him smile as a parting gift. Facing towards the gate again, he steeled his resolve and stepped through.

         Returning to the waking world, the teen found himself staring at a white ceiling and bright lights. Coldness was circulating through his veins. There was a weight on his left hand, and there was something poking through his skin—most likely an intravenous needle. Resting his head on its left side, Keith found himself faced with his elder sister with long maroon hair and matching blue eyes. Her hand squeezed his tightly yet careful not to disturb the needle in his vein, conveying her utmost relief and joy at him returning to consciousness.

         “Rachael…” he murmured weakly.

         “You really scared me when you collapsed.”

         “… Sorry.” His gaze darted away.

         “Shush,” she giggled to lighten the mood, removing his hand from her hold and moving hers to ruffle his hair gently, “I’m glad you woke up.”

         He let out a half-baked laugh that was followed by a sincere statement, “Me too.” He squeezed her hand back despite his need to pull his hand away and hide it beneath the blankets to offset the coldness running through his veins. It was strange to feel light like this: he felt utterly exhausted and tired, but he had made his decision, “and—” he returned his gaze to her, “—I don’t intend to let this kill me.”