by James D. Mills

Person standing alone by lake

There is a term used in support groups to describe a sudden onset of extreme emotion. When the dam of composure that you so carefully built comes crumbling down and there is nothing that can withstand the raging rapids of your own despair. The Grief Share hosted in room 206 that your father attended calls this phenomenon a grief attack. Similar to an anxiety attack, panic attack, or any other emotional affliction that causes your own body to hold you at gunpoint, the grief attack is exactly as it sounds. It strikes from the shadows, like a rogue in an alley late at night. It wrangles you to the ground, force-feeding you that undercooked chicken that last gave you food poisoning.

Your father suffers from such attacks frequently. One moment he is fine; talking of the not-so-distant future when you both can finally escape the captivity of the house that is all too big and all too expensive. But at night you hear the howling of a man who has lost everything and must keep on living. You’re made of colder stone because you made it through the funeral and haven’t felt a trickle of water since. Is that something to be proud of?

Then you’re standing alone in room 206 listening to the last of an audiobook that had kept you from your own thoughts for the last week. You just so happen to work as a part-time custodian in the same building where your father and so many others learned how to live again. Because you weren’t there to learn, you didn’t realize that there was condensation building up on your meticulously crafted dam until the last line of that novel somehow hit you right in the gaping wound in your heart that you simply reapply clean bandages to every morning. Just like Jake Epping, you’re not much of a crying man, but this time you do. The grief attacks, the dam explodes, and the memories of the life you once had rain on the freshly scrubbed counters of room 206. It ends as quickly as it started. You wash your hands of it and carry on stacking stones. The laborers are told by corporate never to speak of it again.  

You feel guilty because you should be thinking more about your mother, but the only thoughts that tax you anymore are the thoughts about the woman who moved on while you were still reeling from the slurry of regret that you’ve been drowning in for the last three months. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no one to blame for that but yourself and now you have to live with the consequences of your actions. Sometimes you relate it to your father’s loss. He says he understands. You take that as permission to conflate the grief with the loneliness, acting as if you are a widower too.

That garbage way of thinking eats at him like acid. He bares his teeth and screams how could you possibly understand?

Maybe you should admit that you don’t.

You both sit in silence for a time, feeling the weight of the argument. Tears scratch and tear behind your eyelids, but you no longer allow yourself that sort of vulnerability. That dam is strong, built of Roman cement that will stand the test of centuries.

He apologizes. He tells you that he doesn’t like to be that way and asks you to forgive him. You tell him its okay because you’re both going through hell, and you remember a time when he would have rather seen you leave home forever before admitting that he crossed a line. You should take note that you’re not perfect and cross lines all the time.

Maybe you should apologize more.

You try to move on, meet new people. It’s not happening. Everyone is awful. That stretched-out wound in your heart used to be the home of Excitement and Romance. But that happy couple was evicted and now a bitter old man named Apathy lives there stinking up the neighborhood with his chain smoking.

Maybe the problem is that you haven’t yet dealt with the problem.

So, you drive exactly thirty-five hours and two-thousand-four-hundred-and-sixty-four miles. You writhed and screamed in a dirty Motel 6 in Flagstaff, Arizona. You slept through a whole day at a Day’s Inn in Vega, Texas. You ate breakfast alone on your birthday at a Waffle House in Springfield, Missouri. You arrive at a new place that you’ve never been and try to start again.

Maybe now is the time to live again.

Hi, you say, it’s good to meet you. First to yourself and then to others. Friends are hard to come by and have been ever since the plague. You don’t really need friends though; you just need you.

It’s a bitter fever that comes when the dam you so thoughtfully designed deteriorates because you didn’t bother to properly reverse-engineer Roman cement. Your head aches and spins as you dream of nothing and everything, all the while realizing that you can’t reverse engineer human emotion. You cannot simply decide to become an unfeeling simulacrum. The sweat begins to build as you shiver and suffer one last time. Rather than a shattering burst, it gently leaks through the night while you were asleep. Soon you will wake scabbed and scarred, cradled by a radiant sun that warms your newly stitched-together heart. You take that cold stone and build a tower instead.

You will never step foot in room 206 again, it’s two-thousand miles away. But you can smile when the memories come to visit and say goodbye when they go back home. Stand tall, dear tower. Know that if you fall, you can always pick yourself back up.

Category: Featured, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU Student