The Red Towel
Illustrated by JEANNINE CHEA
When she opened her eyes, the first thing that caught her notice was the dark red towel that hung from the hooks on the back of her door. She lay in her bed, quietly panting. It was not the first time she had woken up from a bad dream, but it was the first time the nightmare of her reality was worse than the one from her sleep.
She used her arms to gently push her frail body upwards into a sitting position. She tried to remember a time, before the accident, when she had been happy, when she had taken advantage of her normal body. But now?
All she had left were the memories.
Memories of happiness, memories of her and her younger brother running, racing. She knew all too well that making herself remember these happy times would only make returning to her current reality all the more painful. She knew this, and yet she could not stop.
She could not decide which was worse: the past, or the present; the life-long mental pain of living with such a disability or the momentary physical pain of the accident; the burden of adjusting her new body to her old life, or the crippling pain of having to release her grip on ancient memories in favor of new ones.
Before the accident, her days were spent going to school, doing schoolwork and helping Mother around the house. How hard she had tried to please them, she thought, and for what? Where had that gotten her? Alone, in a room with her thoughts as her only companions. She could feel the anger pulsing through her veins, but it was such an old anger, she did not feel as though it was worth summoning, and right on cue, the sea in her mind brought ashore another painful memory.
She wanted to give up on the past. She looked where the clock hung on her wall and noticed for the first time that the paint around it was fading, the wall cracking. She looked at the clock, but all she saw were numbers. They had told her she was too young to tell time. She didn’t agree, even though, she could not decipher the cryptic message of the digits, nor why they were arranged as they were.
She gave up on the clock and looked out the window to the light blue color of the sky and the morning sun slowly creeping its way higher and higher. What a funny relationship the sun and moon had, she thought. The sun, bright and blinding, awoke the world every morning with its brilliance, the promise of a better day ahead. The silent alarm that could not be snoozed, the clock whose hands could not be manipulated, the bearer of the future, hidden amongst clouds or beaming through the blinds, impossible to forget. Yet the moon, its equal, was not as fortunately admired, most of its crowd of spectators asleep each night, missing its beautiful white light gleaming in the darkness, save for the few night owls who sat and stared, brooding over their fellow sleepers, silently jealous of their slumber.
So their relationship stood as fragile but nonetheless secure, as brothers who, although not so fond of each other, could not break their ties, their cycle permanent.
She had to look away. Now she could not stop the flood of memories drowning out her rationality. She thought of her old life angrily at first.
But finally, slowly, she let herself remember.
She remembered feeling like the sun, shining her light on anyone who needed it, but now she no longer had anything to shine; all she had left were those painful memories.
She took a deep breath and suddenly gasped as she felt a cold sting on her big toe––the touch of the frame of a bed that had long since been too small for her.
Impossible, she thought.
She felt it again, this time when she purposely moved her foot along the frame. She froze for a moment trying to grasp what had just happened.
She shook her head, rubbed her eyes and, after taking in another long breath, she dragged her other foot along the frame, forcing herself to feel the cold metal. Confused, she tried to bend her knees, and even more confusing, they obeyed. She could not fathom what had happened in the short few hours from the last time she was conscious but did not want to waste time thinking anymore. She bent both knees and folded them up against her chest. A tear formed in her eye and she did not bother wiping it dry, letting it fall down her pale cheek and down her neck, glazing her upper thigh as it did so.
And then she cried. Not just a few tears, this time––she let herself go, sobbing and smiling at the same time, not knowing that the latter was even possible anymore, especially not both simultaneously.
Her selfish instincts, were not satisfied yet. She straightened her back and moved her body sideways so that her legs were now dangling from the bed. She then thrust her hips ever so slightly forward, inching, little by little towards the floor, afraid that if she made a wrong move, her miracle would be revoked. She let out a small laugh when her feet touched the floor.
I can feel my legs again.
Her smile grew wider. She lifted her entire body off the bed, not wanting to lean on it for support, not needing it anymore. Then, for the first time in years, she lifted her right foot and took a step, and then another and another until she reached the other side of the room. She could not believe it; she rubbed her eyes again to make sure she wasn’t in a trance. She shook off whatever fear and doubt remained in her mind and ran back across the room to her bed that for so many years housed her two non-functional limbs. She ran to it and leaped at the last second onto it and jumped and laughed until she let herself fall back into bed.
She did not stop touching her legs for many minutes until it occurred to her that they were cold. She quickly got back into the covers but just as quickly shook them off. She didn’t want to waste time sleeping when she could walk, run and jump again. She got back out of bed and went through her drawers searching desperately for a pair of pants and ripping off her night gown when she found one, replacing it with old sweats and an even older sweater whose sleeves didn’t reach her wrists anymore.
When she finished dressing, she looked around and saw that the red towel had fallen off the hook. She ever so slowly walked towards it, bent her knees for the second time that day and gently picked up the towel. She was tall for her age but not quite tall enough to easily reach the hooks that were nailed to the wall, so she had to push herself up by standing on her toes. She almost thought that when her heels touched the floor again, she wouldn’t feel it, but she did. She felt the cool wood floor and the parallel cracks that formed between two planks of wood. She felt a sudden urge to let her entire body lie on the floor, as if a single part was not enough. She needed to feel whole again. She bent her knees again and slid down until her hips touched the floor and then unfolded herself to allow her lower back, her upper back and finally her head to line up. Then, she unbent her knees and let her legs slide along the wood that felt slightly warmer now until she was completely flat along the floor. Her dark hair was sprawled out in every direction; she had given up caring for it when she had no one left to admire her, which had left her hair tangled, dry and looking severely unkempt.
She lay there, breathing silently and looked up at the grey ceiling covered in dust. She had spent years looking at that very ceiling, but only now, only today did she look closely enough to see that there was something else there, just barely visible but there nonetheless. She lifted her head and squinted to try and decrypt the lines and shapes that covered the ceiling. Then, once focused, she lay her head back down and relaxed her eyes.
A haunting sensation overcame her, but her curiosity won over. She had never paid much attention to that particular ceiling; it was just a ceiling, nothing more. However, now, she looked at it from a different perspective.
It was a canvas. Somebody had painted, in a color just one shade lighter than the wall’s, and slightly off centre, an image. She could not figure it out. All she saw were what seemed to be random, twisted lines and a circle only drawn about three quarters of the way around.
She closed her eyes for a moment, pondering the implications but could not come up with any explanation. Exasperated, she let out a deep sigh. She opened her eyes and glanced at the clock. Her days were spent watching it tick anyways, and what she saw sent a shiver down her spine.
The clock, it seemed, no longer had its hands. Her eyes slid down along the wall, checking if the hands had fallen off. Everything else in the room was broken, so why not the clock?
She got up. She rubbed her eyes, hoping that maybe it was just a slip of her mind, but no, the clock was still without its hands, and its hands were nowhere to be seen. She looked out the window and saw that the sun was still out. The world outside her room carried on, while inside the walls, everything seemed frozen.
Time, and she, stood still.
She pressed a button for assistance waiting to be freed from this confusion. She waited. No one came. She could feel the tears forming in her eyes as she pressed it again, longer this time, not daring to look back at the clock. She was breathing heavily now and it took all her strength to carry herself back into bed. She pulled the covers over her head trying to escape whatever was happening within the four walls. She cried, for the second time that day, surprised that she still had that many tears left in her.
She heard footsteps but there were too many to signal someone coming to her rescue. She couldn’t tell time, with or without the functioning clock, but routine told her that it was the others making their way to the visiting room, awaiting their family or friends or whoever cared enough to stop by. For her, there hadn’t been a single person who came to see her ever since she was admitted, and she had slowly adapted to the loneliness.
She waited until the footsteps died down and the she could hear the usual hums of distant conversations. She kept waiting for someone to come by and check on her.
She suddenly heard a thud coming from near the door. A relieving hope filled her lungs as she ripped off the blankets and looked towards the door. The towel. All she saw was the towel. Panic began to fill her throat. It had fallen off the hook again and onto the floor. She was panting now and an urge within her forced her legs to get out of bed and run to the towel. She picked it up and, even more confusing, the towel was no longer red, not completely. It was white on the top edges and what she thought was a red towel was actually a white one covered in... She could feel the blood drain from her head as it did from the towel. It was dripping now as she held it up. She touched the thick, sticky red blood that covered the floor. Her pale skin turned white as she looked up to the door, still half-hoping that a nurse would walk in right then and wake her from a nightmare, but the door remained closed.
She could see that the towel was once more drowned in the blood and was almost completely red again and she slowly regained the feeling in her legs as if her own blood were circulating again. She got up.
A glimmer of light caught the hooks that so irresponsibly once held up the towel. Even they betrayed her now. The tips of the hooks were sharp she noticed, razor sharp. She got up and brought her fingertip to it and it sliced her index finger open. The nails that held the hooks in place seemed to hold an expression of evil. She couldn’t breathe, her head spinning. Visions of her accident suddenly overcame her mind in flashes. She saw her parents, her brother and she remembered the blood. She remembered the sounds, the screams, the gasps. She remembered the silence that followed pierced by her screams, begging for someone to help.
She was tired of waiting. She needed to do something to free herself. She looked around and saw the only feasible option: the window. No, it wouldn’t open wide enough to let her through. They were made like that so she knew better than to put all her energy into trying to force it open. Suddenly she knew what she had to do.
Tears were streaming down her face as she did the only thing she could. She ran to the door and jumped as high as she could trying to knock off the hooks that held her escape. She jumped and flailed her arms until, finally, the hooks shook free and fell to her feet, piercing her toes and sending a sharp pain through her. She grabbed them and ran back to the window. She had only a faint hope that her idea would work but she would rather die than spend another day trapped in this room.
She lifted the hooks and with all her strength slammed them into the glass until it shattered. She did it again until there was an opening wide enough to let her through. She knew she would scrape her skin on her way out but there was no turning back. She crawled through and stepped onto the narrow ledge outside the window. This was it. She looked down; she was two floors up and had to jump.
She bent her knees probably for the last time and took the leap.
She felt her body cutting through the air and momentarily forgot all the pain that was stored in her mind for so long. She reached the ground on her feet and the impact made her lose her balance and she fell. She was panting as she got up and started to run.
She was free. She ran. She ran like she used to with her brother before everything took a wrong turn. She ran as fast as she could, racing with herself and then stopped abruptly when she got close to the shore.
She cried then for the third time that day.
She couldn’t stop thinking about how lonely she felt and that was probably what drove her off the edge. She had no one to race with anymore. She missed her brother and regretted taking his company for granted like she had her legs. She knew that what had happened lay within the realm of miracles, but she didn’t care. She missed certain things more than others.
She took a deep breath as she took her final decision. She took one step into the cold water and then another. The cut in her finger had coagulated but there were some scars that would never heal; she knew that. As another tear ran down her face, she took another step. Her mind was flooded with insanity and it was too late to be resuscitated so she let her body follow suit.