amantha woke up early. Matthew was already at work; she knew he left at 6:00am sharp, every day, in his ties and buttoned-down shirts. Sharp, always sharp. He said the ties gave him more authority over his unruly students. She often wondered if it made any difference, but never questioned it. She loved the look of him leaving the house: buttoned-up and flawless. Sam wanted to remember Matthew that way, every moment of her life with him.
But this morning she smiled through her confused sleep, fading quickly into a quixotic awareness. Today she was not alone. She was with her Grandmother. ‘Grandma Bunny.’ Bernice—her given name. Everyone called her ‘Bunny.’ Sam knew it; felt it in the haziness that transformed her unquiet mind from her dreams to dawn.
“Good morning Sam. We have work to do today.”
Bunny wiggled Samantha’s fingers and toes until she settled down into her mind.
“Let’s get up now.”
Sam’s head slowly raised the rest of her petite, yet substantial, form from the bed. The sheets lie in a smothered pile somewhere between now and her subconscious mind’s last night’s wrestling match. Sam looked down at her hands. They began to smooth out and lengthen into slender, delicate hands. Not Sam’s. Sam’s own hands were short, stubby: fingernails kept short from years of being classically trained on instrument upon instrument.
Her new hands were long and sleek; the nails curved elegantly beyond the tips of her fingers, polished neatly with a clear veneer. Flawless, strong. Typist’s hands. Hands that held cigarettes with elegance and mystique.
“I was always complimented on my hands, love. The men that ogled other women’s chests and asses. They took my hands in theirs and gave them gentle kisses.”
Samantha delighted in her transformation. She swung her own well-defined, muscular running legs over the edge of the bed. They swung freely for a moment and she studied them closely; looking down as they shifted. She watched as her legs stretched out into the gangly, flawless dancer legs Bunny pranced upon in the pictures she remembered as a child. Black and white, eighteen-year-old Grandma Bunny. On point shoes and holding her skirt up like a frozen fairy, preserved in time on a 3×3 Polaroid. Pirouettes, pas de bourrées, arabesques. Sam hesitated, then carefully poked at her new, knobby-knees. Legs too skinny for the shorts she wore. Shorts that now belonged to someone else.
“Time to get out of bed now.”
Sam twirled—on her new legs, with her new hands—in the emerging sunlight of the bedroom’s slightly cracked windows. Effortlessly, she floated with a wide grin to the kitchen. Matthew had made coffee before he left; the pot was still on. The slightly burning coffee temporarily assaulted Sam’s nose back into her own mind as she entered the hallway.
“Grab our smokes, and a cup of coffee darlin’. Black. Time to plan the day ahead. Lots to do. Make good use of all the morning energy.”
She began to hum as she went about her task. She made a stop first in the bathroom. She had to see, had to know for sure, she was who she knew she was. Sam flipped the switched and waited while her eyes adjusted to the fluorescent scorch coming from the tidy vanity’s smudge-free mirror. Samantha always kept the bathrooms pristine.
She studied her face. She stared back into her Grandmother’s reflection. The skin she remembered touching when she was only four, right before Grandma Bunny passed away suddenly and without a warning. When Sam was a young girl Grandma Bunny’s face had been thin and pock-marked. 58-year-old skin. The age Grandma Bunny was in Sam’s own memories.
“Your mother now is seven years older than I ever was; ever would be. You’ll be me now dear. Finish what I left behind.”
Sam observed as the skin in the mirror reflected back not the Grandma Bunny in her memory. She stared into a soft, dewy complexion. A hint of dimples—almost imperceptible even through her broad grin—emerged. Sam delighted in her new glow. Sam’s thick, wavy blond hair, flowing down to the middle of her back, gradually darkened and retreated its way back up to her shoulders. She watched as it folded into a brunette bob, curled under at the end, and framed her new face. Her own button nose and blue eyes melted away to muddy brown eyes peering out through cat-eye glasses perched on an elfin nose. Her cheekbones tightened and her earlobes now donned tiny diamond studs, though Sam’s own ears were unpierced.
Sam’s hand touched the mirror, leaving a handprint over the image of what should have been her once round, olive face. Staring back at her was a lily white specter of Grandma Bunny as she was at Sam’s age—twenty-eight and doe-eyed—and all smiles and dimples and seduction. Her transformation was almost complete.
“I’m here now. Let’s keep going.”
After a quick shower, they re-entered her bedroom and began shuffling through Samantha’s wardrobe. The towel on their head held in dampened bobbed curls, a few escaping and leaving cool drips on their shoulders.
“None of this will do.”
Sam’s heart sank. There were no clothes for Bunny here.
“What are we going to wear? How can we fit into any of this?”
Too short, too round, too full in the bust. Then they found what they needed. What they were looking for.
Bunny carefully chose a bright yellow sundress, speckled in rusty orange flowers: the one dress Sam had kept since high school, when she was a willowy teenager. The shirred bodice had long since become too tight for Sam’s own curves, but fit Bunny comfortably. The cool fabric whisked at her spindly legs. Bunny twirled again in front of a full length mirror, delighting in the reunion with her youth. She didn’t know how long it would last; she’d have to make the most of it. Bunny grabbed a pair of Samantha’s sandals—a bit too loose, but they would have to do.
Bunny approached the mirror in the bedroom. One last inspection of herself.
“Yes, I’m all here now. Don’t worry love, I’ll be ok. You just rest. You and I will be just fine.”
Bunny slinked down the hall, graceful and hauntingly as a mourning dove’s song at dawn. She knew Sam hid the cigarettes in the drawer next to the refrigerator. She hadn’t had a smoke in months, years. Her hands shook in anticipation. First she grabbed a coffee mug from the rack next to the slowly charring coffee burner. Its aroma had morphed into an acrid stench of burnt grounds and coffee pot sludge. No matter—the only way she took her cigarettes were with coffee and the only way she took her coffee was with cigarettes.
Bunny had to shuffle around the drawer until she found the unopened, “emergency pack” in the back, behind an assortment of miss-matched cupboard knobs, grill lighters, unsent greeting cards, and a broken wind chime—intended on being pieced and glued back together.
All she needed were the cigarettes.
Bunny deftly unwrapped the plastic and packed the cigarettes. They were Parliaments: not her first choice, but they’d have to do for now. She’d pick up a pack of her Pall Mall’s during her afternoon walk down the block to the corner market. She had a lot to get done tonight before Harold arrived back from work. Before Sam’s husband came home from school. And before Sam returned. With her coffee mug in one hand, and the cigarettes in the other, she rifled again through the drawer, pulling out a crumpled pack of matches. Only a few left; she made note to pick up a lighter as well.
Carrying her loot, she struggled to nudge open the back porch door with her toe and elbowed through the rest.
Door’s hard to open this morning. I’ll have to have Harold take a look at it when he gets home.
The small space she created between the door and the jam made just enough room for Bunny’s slender figure to slide through. She was dismayed at how hard it was to negotiate the conservative space. Once out (after a momentary panic of getting stuck, and spilling part of her coffee onto the pavement of the back porch) she glanced down at her slender form.
Have I put on weight?
Little else thought to her momentary lapse in spatial judgement, she turned and faced the east morning sun, still rising lazily above a horizon of trees and farmers’ fields beyond the backyard. Bunny became disoriented. Her neighbors’ backyards were replaced with what appeared to be a cornfield. She shut her eyes briefly and opened them again to the familiar views she was accustomed to: the neighbors’ untended flower gardens that Harold always complained about, the unkempt, rusty swing sets, the wire fence at the back of their lot line. Harold wouldn’t spring for the wooden fencing, but he hated the neighborhood kids filing through the backyard on their way home from school. He insisted on erecting the fencing early on in their marriage. Before their first child arrived.
Bunny’s children were now at school, and she had the remainder of the day to complete her daily tasks. For now, she’d enjoy her peace and quiet, her smokes and coffee. She plunked herself down on the back stoop. Samantha’s slab of concrete was in actuality much larger than the few steps and sidewalk that led to Bunny’s backyard, but Bunny took little notice. As she sipped at the bitter coffee, and puffed absently at her cigarette, her mind wandered.
What shall I do first? The cleaning, or the laundry?
Harry was due home at 5:30 and dinner would need to be on the table. Bunny glanced down at her right wrist. Bunny, left handed, always wore the same dainty gold and silver watch around her right wrist. It was missing.
Where is it? Oh heavens tell me I didn’t lose it, Harry will have my head!
Bunny quickly mashed out her cigarette, noticing her ashtray had also vanished. She threw the butt in the trash bin next to her garage, getting her bare feet damp from the morning dew. She glanced down expecting grass, only to realize she was still standing on the concrete slab of Sam and Matthew’s back porch. Her cigarette butt now rolling away towards the edge.
Confused again, she spun around toward the back door. Her stoop had been replaced by a modern sliding glass patio door. Bunny looked about, helplessly, trying to get her bearings, when Sam looked down.
Samantha realized she was wearing the sundress she had kept from high school.
“What the hell is going on?”
Sam muttered, audibly to herself. Her cat Penelope peered at her through the sliding door. Penelope hedonistically stretched out her paws upon the screen and exposed her snow white belly, softly mewing, and begging to be let out.
Where did you come from honey?
Bunny, startled, opened the back porch and the cat skittered out, wrapping herself between her feet. Bunny stooped over to pat her on the head, and felt an uncomfortable tug at the straps of her dress; one of them began to slowly tear.
Well that won’t do – I’ll have to mend that before Harry gets home. I must have shrunk this the last time I did the wash. I knew that new dryer was a mistake.
Bunny shooed the cat away. Penelope, confused, milled about the back porch for a few minutes.
“Scat, go home kitty. You’re probably missing your breakfast!!”
Bunny scolded the orange and white swirled tabby, no bigger than seven pounds, declawed, and completely unaccustomed to the outdoors. Penelope found a bush by the side of the back porch and burrowed in, content to stay curled up there until the door re-opened.
Bunny re-entered the house, expecting the usual swish and clack of the old wooden screen door swinging shut behind her. Instead, the sliding door stood ajar until she pulled it shut. She slid out an unfamiliar kitchen chair, and sat down with her coffee.
Suddenly, she was starving—her head spun and she couldn’t get her bearings. Bunny was habituated to skipping breakfast. She never developed an appetite until closer to dinner, then she suppressed it with a couple more cigarettes and a few bottles of beer before Harry came home and the family sat down for their formal meal. Even then, Bunny barely ate. It was her way of controlling her figure—Harry made a habit of pointing out anytime Bunny did manage to gain a pound or two. He’d chide her.
“My, aren’t we tipping the scales lately? Getting into the baking chocolate again? Too much fudge?”
Why am I so hungry? All I can think about is toast and peanut butter. I don’t even like peanut butter.
Bunny ignored her hunger pangs and went on with her day. She needed to start the cleaning, but nothing was in place. She couldn’t find the mop or broom or washer and dryer. There wasn’t even a clothesline in the backyard, which had transformed again into a foreign landscape. Her home had become a maze and she was suddenly frightened—as though she had entered the wrong house. She set about each chore deliberately, not following through on any, nor with any cohesion on setting on to the next.
Every few minutes or so, another hem or seam would tear from her dress. She rummaged around once more in the junk drawer until she found them. She tacked a few safety pins to the straps of her dress, holding them in place for the moment. She’d bother with mending it later.
Right now she had to clean the floors, and iron and fold the laundry.
Samantha glanced up at the clock on the microwave. Noon.
The house permeated an overwhelming, almost nauseating, amount of pine cleaner, though Matthew and Samantha’s house had barely any hard flooring. Most of the house, except for the kitchen and bathrooms, was wall-to-wall carpeting. She hesitantly stepped into the family room; someone had saturated the rugs with floor cleaner. She thought she noticed pieces of furniture out of place, but was distracted by discomfort. She looked down at her torn dress, the straps digging in to her shoulders and the slight sensation of pin pricks with every few movements.
She was starving and sweating.
Amidst her bewilderment she madly craved a cigarette. Sam rooted around for the spare pack she kept in the junk drawer.
Where the hell are they?
She glanced around the kitchen. Her cigarettes lay opened—one visibly missing—with a pack of matches in the middle of the table. She remembered putting a full, unwrapped pack in the drawer some months back, when she hadn’t been smoking. Maybe she had snuck one in the meantime—she couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember putting them out on the table. She couldn’t even remember what she had been doing all morning.
Then she noticed something odd in the corner of the kitchen, an ironing board was out—is that the toaster? Sam almost never used the ironing board; Matthew liked to iron his own clothes. He certainly wouldn’t have left a toaster upside down on top of a pile of his signature buttoned-downs. There were burn marks from the top of the toaster on a few of his lighter colored shirts. Bread crumbs littered the rest of the shirts and ironing board cover. Sam unplugged the toaster, wanting to avoid any future burns, or worse, a fire. She left the pile of shirts and crumbs, too stupefied to decide what to do about the mess.
She couldn’t make senses of it: missing moments of her morning that had culminated to noon, and with no explanation on how she got there. She had a vague memory of similar incidents occurring in the past, but with her lucidity at work—for the moment—she decided not to deal with any of it. She grabbed her purse and the pack of cigarettes and swept open the door to the garage. She threw on a jacket to cover up her bare shoulders and too-small dress that she still couldn’t remember when or why she put on. She entered the garage, leaving the pine cleaner and ironing board behind her. She needed a distraction—maybe a run to the local coffee house would calm her down.
She made it as far as the corner of the street before Bunny panicked. Bunny made several failed attempts before she was able to turn the car around, to get back down the street towards where she thought was her house.
What am I doing? Where do I think I am going? I don’t even have my license!
Thankfully Sam had left the garage door open. Bunny scraped up on the curb and managed to get within a few feet of the garage. She contemplated entering it.
Sam came to, with her head on the steering wheel and the car alarm going off. She instinctively grabbed at her keychain (still in the running ignition), turned off the car and hit the alarm button to silence the cadent screeching of the horn. Sam’s emotions stopped. Her awareness of her current situation suddenly became clouded by an overwhelming paralysis. She fled to the house, opened the door, dropped her jacket, and began shedding the dress that was too small and had already torn in many areas exposing Sam’s torso and lower back.
She realized Penelope was gone. Usually, she greeted her at the back entrance. Sam called and called, her dress half off and dangling about her waist. The bra she was wearing was put on inside out, but she barely noticed. She started to panic.
She slid open the sliding glass porch door, Penelope, crouched in a bush, was invisible to Sam, but Sam had a good idea where she might be hiding. This had happened before, but at that moment Sam was only cognizant of the current situation; barely cognizant of it at all. Sam carefully made her way to the bushes. It had rained recently, and the ground was full of mud and wet grass clippings. They caked onto her feet and clung to what was left of the dress’ hem line. The thorns of the barberries scratched at Sam’s bare torso as she lifted the frightened cat out of her hiding place.
Penelope, too, was covered head to toe in mud. Sam didn’t care. She clasped her close to her breast, now all but fully-exposed. Two houses down a neighbor mowed the lawn, as Sam saw him turn the mower in her direction, she scurried with Pen as fast as she could to get back in the house without him witnessing.
Exhausted, she took Penelope into the bedroom with her. She shed the last of the dress, leaving it in a heap next to the bed. She and Pen laid on the fresh sheets Bunny had replaced earlier that morning, covering them with mud and grass, but that was the least of Sam’s worries. And the least of the damage she had done today, she was sure of it.
She remembered only moments, flashes. She knew down in her core, her mind had betrayed her again. That she had been deceived by its ghosts and false memories. She had allowed ‘Bunny’ to consume her right mind and now Samantha, not ‘Bunny,’ would have to pay the price.
She tried to make reality go away by falling asleep, but the overwhelming stench of the floor pine cleaner became too much too bear. Sleep wouldn’t come. She dreaded Matthew’s return. She knew what was coming.
When Matthew started to pull into the garage, the light had been left on. He immediately noticed that Sam’s car had been parked askew with the front driver’s door left wide open. There was to be no way he would get his car, though compact, into what remained of his ‘spot.’ Sam did silly things like this somedays, so it gave him no immediate concern. He was preoccupied with the boys on his team. They were gunning for spots at the State track meet in all of the distance races he coached, and he knew he could get them there. Still buzzing from a great practice, Matthew left his car in the driveway so he could fix the angle of Sam’s and squeeze himself in.
He half skipped to the mailbox. Sam always left the mail in the box for him. He had an odd fixation with getting it, even though it was always mostly junk. Still, Sam was endeared by Matthew’s cute, yet somehow childish antics—the mail being one of many. So every day, she left it for him. Matthew could count on that.
Upon returning to Sam’s car with a wad of useless ads, a few bills and his weekly subscription to “The Economist,” Matthew noticed something else about the strange parking arrangement in the garage.
Sam’s right side, passenger mirror was hanging by wires, as though she had misjudged the side of the garage and struck the mirror, tried to back out, then tried to get back in, and ripped off the mirror in the process. She wound up overcompensating and turning too far left and into Matthew’s ‘side’ of the garage. Upon further inspection, she had also managed to swipe the side of the garage with sundry garden tools, scraping the exterior of her black hatchback.
She had completed her parking attempt by uplifting all of the garbage and recycling cans so they and their contents were strewn about the garage floor. She had finally come to rest, square on top of an old bar stool that had been used to prop up a radio and had sat directly to the left of the garbage cans. The radio was destroyed. The car’s carriage seemed to be stuck on the legs of the stool that was now nearly cracked in half.
Matthew knew he would have to deal with all of the disorder later, but he needed to tend to Samantha first. He cast aside the mail, grabbed his bags out from his car, and quickly shut the garage door. The neighbors did not need any more of a show than they probably had gotten that day.
It was 6:30 pm. The house was quiet; an overwhelming smell of pine cleaner clung in the air. Matthew had to open two or three windows and turn on a ceiling fan to keep himself from gagging. He inspected the living room. The furniture had been rearranged, but in a way that was nonsensical, as though the house had been uprooted by a Wizard-of-Oz-tornado and spun in circles before being plunked back down in the same spot.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road.
Matthew’s mind raced.
The TV leaned catawampus against the wall, imperceptibly, yet dangerously sliding all the way down; it had already begun to leave a track mark from the top corner, digging into the wall’s soft plaster. The kitchen chairs stopped Matthew in his tracks. In an eerie arrangement, all four were placed on top of the couch and loveseat—facing each other like stiff, awkward guests. Each uninvited and just as leery of the others’ attendance.
Matthew dropped his school bags and running gear from practice. He assessed what he could from the front entrance, dreading the damage control to come. He quickly made his way to the kitchen, not yet calling out to Sam. He half observed, from the corner of his eye, the mess of his burnt, stained shirts atop the ironing board and under the kitchen toaster. He opened the cupboard they used as a medicine cabinet. He grabbed the full bottle of risperidone.
Patient: Samantha K Westfield. Filled: 03/13/2015.
It was May 25th.
He blamed himself. He had been spending so much time working at school, prepping for his masters exam, and getting his boys ready for State, he had not noticed Sam was skipping her meds.
When did her behavior change?
He took the full bottle into the bedroom, carefully stepping around the piles of clothes that led from the typically spotless bathroom and hallway into their master bedroom. Every aspect of their normally immaculately clean house was uprooted and in disarray. Matthew inspected the chaos on the bedroom floor. He recognized a dress Sam had obsessively kept from high school, though it was far gone from fitting her. The straps were torn, stuck full of safety pins, some open and rusted; the rest of the dress was covered in mud.
Sam lie naked and still, curled up in the pile of sheets that had been changed since that same morning. She faced him. Her eyes, never blinking, remained fixated on an invisible (but not to Sam) spot on the floor. Her bare shoulders and torso revealed small prickles of blood from having clumsily “mended” the dress, and others from having recovered Penelope from the barberries in the backyard.
“Sweetie, what have you been doing all day?”
Matthew tried not to sound patronizing, but in situations like this he did not know how to avoid it. No matter what he said, Sam’s reaction remained the same blank stare at the ground with its hypnotic grasp on her. It was as though she were a little kid and he had caught her with her hands full of cookie dough. Matthew did not know if Sam was aware of the mess—the destruction—she had caused that day. He did not want her to know; did not want to have to be the one to explain it to her.
Sam’s breaks had always been non-violent, but creepy, delusional, and psychotic. The last time it happened she had spent a two weeks in a psychiatric ward, convinced she was her late Aunt Katie, and that they had her confused with someone else. Her Aunt Katie had died more than two decades before in a car accident at the age of twenty-five.
Sam was convinced the accident was no accident—that Aunt Katie had intended on killing herself. Sam only met Aunt Katie months before she died. Still, the “memories” of Katie’s life haunted Sam, and even when Sam was stable, she spent hours chronicling every last detail of what she imagined Katie’s life to be in journals. Sam became convinced Katie had been channeling her former and current thoughts through her—because no one else in the family believed in her. In Katie. In Sam.
Matthew always—in “situations” such as this—had to check his judgement. His wife was not her illness; his wife was not a child. She was a young, beautiful, brilliant writer, musician, chef—all careers she couldn’t remain in due to her illness. She tried many other avenues only to discover walking out on jobs held her highest success rate.
Sam took up a new purpose over the course of the past few years, and many years since her last psychotic break. She was the “housewife.” She cleaned, cooked, and organized everything in the house: what they’d eat, where they’d go, who they’d go out with—though, they didn’t have many friends. She worked in the morning on the house, laundry, kitchen, vacuuming. She ran and did yoga in the later morning and afternoon. She attended her appointments (so many appointments) and she cooked dinners for Matthew and her on the nights when he was home.
But she was lonely. She was lonely all of the time, even when Matthew was around. Sometime in the early spring, Sam had made up her mind to stop taking her pills. Once again. Just an “experiment.” She was not—in her mind’s eye—at risk for hurting herself or anyone else.
So she just stopped. Just like that. Filled the prescription on March 13th, 2015 and never refilled it. Never so much as popped one pill. Her follow up appointment with her shrink wasn’t until June.
“Sammy-lyn? Was is Aunt Katie this time?”
“No. Grandma Bunny.”
She answered, weeping silently and clinging to Penelope, covered in mud, but audibly purring. Matthew put the prescription bottle on the table beside the bed. Sam stared blankly at the pills, then looked up. Tears pouring down her flushed cheeks, as though she were running a fever. He sat next to her on the bed and stroked her long blond hair. It was disheveled and knotted. He grabbed a brush and began to slowly smooth it out.
“You know we need to go now.”
Fully lucid now, she acknowledged Matthew’s command.
Megan Paske studied Journalism at UW Madison and was published in various newspapers as a columnist. Since then, her fiction has been featured in literary publications, including Forge and Riding Light Review. She is currently working on a memoir of her life with Bipolar Disorder. She uses her creativity as an outlet and as advocacy for mental illness and its place within the creative arts. She lives with her husband in Neenah, Wisconsin.