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To Be Undone of Such Small Things

Damien Walters Grintalis lives in Maryland with her husband. She is an Associate Editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Electric Velocipede, and a staff writer with BooklifeNow. Her debut novel, Ink, will be released in December 2012 by Samhain Horror. You can visit her website, dwgrintalis.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter @dwgrintalis.

***Editor's Note: The story that follows is disturbing. Use your discretion in choosing to continue.***
She sits in her car with her hands in her lap, staring at the glass doors of the facility. Tears shimmer in her eyes. Strange that she should never find healing through grief as others do. Strange that her heart cannot give up the barbed wire fragments it carries within.
She wipes away the sorrow from her face and goes inside.
A war veteran with half his face twisted into scars passes her in the hallway. He smiles. She knows what he wanted to give up. She wishes him a thousand nights of peaceful sleep and shadows without enemies lurking in their darkness.
The doctor smiles. She signs the papers. Yes, she understands the risks. Yes, she understands. But this is for the best. The paper robe scratches her skin. The table presses hard against her back. A nurse pats the back of her hand, latex to trembling flesh. The bite of antiseptic hangs heavy in the air; the white walls whisper of scalpels and needle sticks.
The procedure isn't painless. A sensation of a million bees inside her skull all stinging at once. The hurt grows too big to hold in, and she falls into darkness.
When she wakes, she remembers: Her father kissing her on the head at bedtime and teaching her how to read. Sitting on the floor of the bathroom and laughing as he put shaving cream on his face and growled before he scraped away the bristles. The aftershave lotion with its sharp scent and a ship on the bottle.
Beyond that, there is a tiny space. A grey haze at the edge of a faded dream.
She opens the journal they told her to keep and reads what they took away: Her father leaving. All the days she spent waiting on the front steps, hoping today he'd come back. All the questions she asked her mother, the questions that remained unanswered.
She lets out a small sigh. Maybe now she won't be so afraid to let someone close.
Another addition to her journal. When the bees sting, she grimaces and clenches her fists, but she welcomes the pain.
What she remembers: Running to the car in the rain, holding the shopping bag with one hand and her keys in the other. The way her wet hair clung to her cheeks and neck.
What the journal says is missing: The gun pointed at her head. Rough hands shoving her into her car. The face above hers. His voice, a sandpaper rasp in her ear. The sour reek of his sweat. And later, standing in the shower with hot water dancing on her skin, scrubbing hard enough to bleed, fearing she'd never be clean again.
She tears out the page and rips it to shreds. She doesn't need the reminder; the hurt isn't hers anymore. Maybe now the touch of someone's hand on her skin won't feel like a million maggots hungry for the soft parts deep inside.
A siphon, taking out the bad. A fountain pen, rewriting her story, erasing the shadows from her eyes and the thorns from her heart.
And each time, another grey spot where the pain used to live.
She remembers her mother pulling weeds from the garden, laughing all the while. The sweet perfume of lilacs in a vase on the kitchen table. Making dinner together on Sunday nights and eating ice cream for dessert. Searching for her mother's face in the school auditorium during the spelling bee.
Her journal holds the antiseptic stink of the hospital. The tubes and wires and gentle hum of machinery. The way pain bloomed in a dark rose on her mother's face and clouded up her eyes. The steady drip of morphine. Counting the days and the weeks and the months until the malignancy finally stole her away.
She sits in front of the facility and sheds her last bit of mourning--the memory of a baby, still and silent in her arms. She will remember the movements beneath her skin. The way her shape changed. The cocoa butter rubbed on her belly and thighs.
She wants to give up the panic in the delivery room. The nurse's tearful apologies. The tiny casket. Waking up every day with a throat raw from weeping and an empty hollow in the place where her heart should be. The way everyone said perhaps it was for the best. She was so young. She had plenty of time.
This is the deepest hole of them all. A place all tangled up inside, its edges cutting her with every movement, every breath. She needs to be free so she can breathe again.
The hallways of the facility are as familiar as her own home by now. The nurse greets her by name and offers a hug instead of a touch on the hand.
When it's over, she goes home and tucks the notebook away.
And she smiles.
On a cold day in December, she wakes to discover a stranger in the mirror. The woman smiles too easily, the worry lines have vanished from her brow, and there's a light in her eyes that doesn't quite fit.
"Are you the me I should have been," she whispers. "Or the me I never could?"
The stranger says not a word. Of course not. She doesn't know pain or loss or grief; she knows nothing but the absence of such things. Of grey spaces filled up with nothing.
Unbidden, tears blur her vision and spill over her lashes. She flees from the reflection and finds the journal, wiping her eyes dry with the back of her hand so she can read. Page after page, she sees not sorrow, but strength; not defects, but all the bits and pieces that make a person whole.
She turns the pages faster and faster. Inside, she's a broken puzzle that can't put its pieces back together. An ache coils in her chest, a yearning for the things they took away, the things that shaped the curve of her smile and the set of her jaw. She wants a familiar face in the mirror, not the stranger. She wants everything back the way it was. She wants her self the way it was.
The tears fall anew. They taste of dandelion and talcum powder and ashes. She clutches the journal tight, crying for what she cannot remember. For all the things she wanted to forget, to throw away like a toy full of broken.
But the knowledge comes too late. Far too late. The procedure is irreversible. All she has left is a journal of memories that belong to someone else.
Someone she once knew.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Author Comments

Sometimes stories come from a specific inspiration--a photograph, a random snippet of thought, or a stray bit of song lyric carried on the wind. Sometimes, though, they creep in with neither prompt nor warning and demand to be told. This story belongs in the latter category.

Yet we bring a bit of our histories to every story we write, whether by conscious or subconscious thought, and regrettably, I have watched a loved one’s memories slip away bit by bit to leave behind a stranger clothed in familiar skin.

- Damien Walters Grintalis
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