New York City, August 1892
White hot awareness chased away the comforting darkness. Shadowy human figures floated around me in contrast to the painful light. Some whispered, some cried, and others grunted terrible words.
A subtle female voice fought her way past the ghastly voices.
“Alfred?” she called.
“Go away,” I groaned. “Kill me if I’m not dead.”
Nostalgia mixed with my suffocating sadness. My stomach churned at the overwhelming blend of conflicting emotions. Then, light burned away the darkness and stung my tender eyes.
Hands gripped my shoulders. I started, but my limbs were fixed at my sides.
“Let go of me! I can’t move!”
A faceless, fair-haired woman blotted out the intense illumination for a moment.
“Am I dead?” I asked, blinking.
“No, dear. You are very much alive.”
“Your voice. I feel as though we have met before.”
“Many times,” said the woman softly. “You are my son, Alfred. Do you remember me?”
I fought to see her through the sea that covered my eyes.
“How was I so lost, Mother?”
“Just rest. You need to build up your strength.”
“Why can’t I move?”
“The doctor, well, he wrapped you up for your own safety.”
I closed my eyes. “How long have I been out of my mind?”
Her breath caught in her throat. Wind blew the rain drops against the window and it reminded me of tears. I shook my head to fight off the memories that tried to trickle in. I studied the flickering shadows that brought the walls of my bedroom to life.
“There are so many candles in here,” I said.
“I am not sure if I will survive this time, Mother.”
Her small hand caressed my shoulder.
“I am not giving up on you,” she whispered.
I tried in vain to swallow. A stone of grief was lodged in my throat. I longed for it to choke me to death.
I flinched when cold, curved metal lodged itself between my lips.
“You are drugging me?” I asked.
“This will calm you down, Sweetheart.”
I allowed her to slip the teaspoon fully into my mouth. I relaxed as the familiar, bitter taste of laudanum rushed over my tongue and slid down my throat.
“One more spoonful,” she cooed.
I did not fight her. I choked down the second injection of medicine, knowing that my mood would change very soon.
“Do you intend to sedate me for the rest of my life?”
“Of course not! I am trying to help you.”
“I feel wonderful,” I said with a smile. “Oh my God, this is wonderful.”
“Lydia, I asked you not to give him too much,” said a deep voice.
“Father?” I laughed.
My father’s hand was hot on my forehead and I chuckled. His voice reached out to me, but his solemn words were too boring to listen to. Instead, I rose to the ceiling, out the window, and over our estate like a hot air balloon. I savored the ride up into the euphoric atmosphere. It healed my chest and numbed my thoughts.
“It is wonderful up here,” I breathed.
I was certain that my eyes were closed, but rather than seeing darkness, the most wonderful frothy, pink patterns floated around me. I was surrounded by either cotton candy or magical clouds. What must have been hours later, a slamming door startled me out of my deep sleep. I groaned, wishing that I could roll over on my side.
“Why am I still restrained like a madman?” I mumbled.
My lips were too heavy to articulate the words properly. My eyelids refused to open.
“Al, this is Matthew. Your friend.”
His voice sent my heart into a frenzy.
“Go away! I don’t want to see you.”
“I can’t see you right now. I can’t.”
“Are-are you sure?”
“If you help me out of this sick little trap that my parents have put me in, then I might be able to trust you a little more.”
“You’re in there for a reason, old boy.”
The humor coating his words struck a nerve in me. “Go away, you bastard! How dare you laugh at me?”
I yelled as I fought against my restraints. I was as pathetic as a caged zoo animal. I had been cooped up for days for the entertainment of others. I was useless. I forced my eyes to open and realized then how exhausted I was. The mere act of looking at my friend’s face sent chills over my flesh. Even his posture made me uncomfortable. I hated him for bringing my sadness back. He reminded me of a disease.
“Why are you still here? What kind of doctor loafs around as you do? You are making me sick.”
“You are unwell. I am here to help you.”
“I will demand that my parents send you away. I don’t want to see you.”
He shook his head before walking out of the open doorway. His slumping head and shoulders caused a terrible reaction in the pit of my stomach.
I really was home. The place that plagued my nightmares while staying at my aunt’s home had become very real. Though I never imagined that going home would mean that I would be strapped to my bed and spoon-fed whole opium. Through my life, the only thing that I feared more than losing those that I cared for was being trapped.
Laudanum was my only escape until they decided to release me, but I had no idea what I would do once I was free. I only wanted to sleep. Life hurt me in ways that no one else could ever try to perceive. I did not want to be aware anymore.
Perhaps it was not a prison, after all. It was my escape.
“Laudanum!” I called. “More laudanum!”
New York City October, 1892
Pain shot up my back as I stood up from my bed for the first time in several weeks. My father had removed my restraints a week earlier and then my mother gave me my last laudanum dosage three days ago. Being alone and exposed to my raw emotions sent me into a strange sort of mental cocoon. It protected me by keeping me numb. Though less fun than the opium, it subdued me.
“I must have aged fifty years,” I said, stumbling on weakened legs to the window.
The outdoors used to be my muse, but all nature did at present was annoy me with its predictability. Every sunrise reminded me of another day that I did not want to live. Each sunset made me remember how much I once enjoyed watching nightfall with a hope to make the world a less cruel place. Even the act of opening my window to allow some fresh air inside seemed like a chore. I hated moving. I craved my bed, because it would eventually grant me sleep. I breathed in as the gale rushed into my stuffy room. My chest tightened. I regretted venturing so far. Nature would not save me. It was nature that had made me so breakable.
I was slipping away, because I wanted to. I knew it would happen to me if I ever returned home in a bad state, but it was for the best. Good, brave people died every day. The world would not grieve for a coward like me.
Somehow, I found my way back to my bed. The soft covers sent an uncomfortable sensation over my exposed skin. I hit my bed to punish them. My sudden rage quickly calmed as fatigue ravaged my jumbled thoughts and carried me away to the black.
Pain woke me suddenly. I kicked with shaking legs, already knowing that someone was shaking me to wake me up. Strong hands held me down, but a calm voice attempted to reassure me. I struggled to breathe.
“Al, it is me. Matthew. I have come to see you.”
I refused to open my eyes. He had to be a nightmare.
“Your mother wrote to me. Al, why have you not been eating?”
“I ate the bread that their brainless maid shoved down my throat yesterday. Too bad you weren’t here. You would’ve laughed.”
His presence ate away at the numb shell that once encased me.
“Please, let me die in peace,” I groaned.
He gripped me by the shoulders. “Look at me.”
“I asked you to look at me!”
I was too weak to fight him, even as hate-filled blood rushed through my veins. I opened my eyes at last and met his determined stare.
“I hate you,” I breathed.
“I don’t care what you think of me right now,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Go away! Mother! Father! Maid! Get him out of here!”
“Al, listen to me. You are going to eat something. And you are going to feel better.”
I shut my eyes and turned my head away. “No.”
“Al! You are going to eat and you are going to feel better!”
“I don’t want to feel better! I want to die!” I screamed.
“Come on, old boy. This isn’t you.”
I hugged myself. It hurt too much to breathe.
“Alfred, I care about you. You’ll understand after I am finished.”
A pang stung my stomach. “Understand what? Father, get him out of here!”
“He is not coming for you,” said Matthew. “Your family is outside and you are going to get better.”
“I would kill you if I could!”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
Scratchy fabric tickled my nose and I swatted it away, but the fragrance that covered it lingered in my nose. I rolled onto my back, barely able to breathe.
“You sick pig!” I shouted.
“What do you smell?”
“Nothing. Nothing. I smell nothing.”
“You know whose perfume soaked that piece of fabric. It was from one of her dresses. What was her name, Alfred?”
“What was her name?”
I buried my head under my pillow, clinging to it for dear life.
Matthew tore it away.
My tears stained the sheets as I willed myself to sink into the mattress. That was when I heard spraying. Matthew held a horrific little black bottle of fragrance. He sprayed it and the tantalizing vapor fell over me, absorbing into my nightshirt.
“How the hell did you get her perfume?”
“You need to say her name. Or you will never be able to feel better.”
I rolled back and forth. “It hurts so much! Something is inside of me, stabbing me.”
“No, there isn’t.”
My bed squeaked when Matthew sat next to me. Then, her grey eyes appeared through my closed eyelids and fought away the black. I blinked and shook my head, but her beautiful eyes wouldn’t disappear.
“It’s my fault she’s dead,” I said. “Seeing you reminds me of that.”
I sat up and choked back the phlegm that threatened to spew out of me.
“That beautiful girl died for us, Matthew.”
“She did not die so that you could waste away here, Al. She loved you.”
“She loved both of us, I think. God, this hurts.”
I held my stomach. If grief alone was able to kill, I would have died then.
“I know it hurts. Al, the only way that you will be able to heal is if you find Jeremy, bury the suicides, and finish your book. I see that now. Please, don’t give up. We have been given another chance at life. We should not waste it.”
I rustled my messy hair, barely able to focus as I struggled to piece together the final memories of Sarah.
“I don’t deserve to live after everything I have caused.”
“None of what happened is your fault.”
“I can’t see it that way.”
“Let me help.”
“Why do you want to help me?”
“You’re my friend.”
I nodded slowly and my stomach rumbled. “Maybe… maybe I could eat something.”
He smiled. “That’s a start, old boy.”