In the Shadow of the Oak

She woke with phantom fingerprints stinging her cheek and the taste of leather thick on her tongue.

Her eyelids stuttered open and shut, fluttering against the wreckage of a ruined dream. She probed against the remnants, licking at the heels of the fast-fading wisps just to steal another moment of warmth. Fall beneath that haze of idealized desire, seamlessly realized pleasure, untainted by the messy constraints of reality. Just a minute more. A second more before she would be wrenched back to the dull, the monotonous, the real, shoved as day by day beneath the limelight of a grand jury stranded in the sky and a sea of balking disciples guarding the ground.

She buried herself beneath the covers, dipped back beneath the waves. Let them wash over her, confine her, encapsulate the truth of this plane from the lies of the physical. The leather crept back onto her tongue, bit into the fleshy underside of her upturned lip. The itch snaked around her wrists, skulked upwards, wound itself about her torso, a featherlight bind edged with threat. No. Promise.

A figure, dampened by dim light, ran out of focus in the foreground. Rough about the edges, blurred against the middle, the cream of flesh its only saving grace against the darkness of the other. All else. Its hands outstretched, one set of thin, bronze fingers raised above her head and to the side, anticipatory trajectory rearing her head to the side. Sparks ghosted a cheek stained with the unshed, skittered off her flesh and scattered themselves on a floor that failed to exist. They lit up the back of her eyelids, fizzled out with the touch of a nameless droplet. Her head snapped back, streaks pulled taut against the forceful hap of another set of fingers. Relentless against a backdrop of calculation – a whirlwind caught up in the temerity of precision, battering against her chest and skull and—

BRRT!

The bleating shouldered its way through the fog, cleaved through the background and foreground and scattered the pieces amongst cubbyholes of forgotten memory.

She was awake. It was morning. That sound was … that was her third alarm.

She threw away the covers and tore off down the bunkbed’s ladder, two-parts hasty and one-part overtly cautious. If she snapped her neck on an ill-timed step, what point was there to hurry her descent in the hopes of making it to lecture on time? Late beat dead, from one perspective or another. She swiped away the bleating. 

A brunette-haired girl was smoothing down the ruffles in her collar, tugging at the crinkles in her sleeves. She glanced up at the commotion, a pointed, drearily callous set of eyes following her hastened moves. She reared her neck to the side to shake away the pins tickling the path where judicial eyes roamed. It reminded her of turning her back to the dark.

“I had the craziest dream last night.” The girl turned away, moving this way and that in the mirror, tilting her head to reassess the view and level any resurfacing imperfections. She pursed her countenance at an angle so she could look down on herself from above.

“Mm?”

“I was trapped in a warehouse with a group of people,” she began. She grazed a lip with her fingertip, frowned against the coarse fringe, and bit down on it. She worried away the staggering little slip, letting little pockets of silk blush flood up in its wake.

She swallowed the skin.

“We had to find a way out, because there was some sort of clown-monster on the loose, picking us off one by one every time we got separated. Then I stumbled on a meat-freezer filled with the dismembered body parts of all of the people who’d gone missing.”

“We should stop watching horror movies before bed.”

“It wasn’t a nightmare. It wasn’t my body parts in the freezer.”

She pressed a fingertip to her lip, offered it to the mirror in recompense, and licked away the smattering.

“I was just fine, actually. I don’t remember being scared at all. But that isn’t even the craziest part.”

She pouted in the mirror, carding thin, bronze fingers through a mop of unkempt curls.

“Oh?”

“He found me. He cornered me in the freezer, but he didn’t kill me. He’d killed everyone else, so why not me?”

“Why not you?” She sighed, half an ear and no more than a few braincells devoted to the useless technicalities of another illusion, whimsy of a wired subconscious and one too many coffees before bed.

“Because I’d never been one of them. I was his accomplice, a spy planted to lead them one by one into his clutches. I’d made a deal with the devil to save myself.”

“You did what you had to do, I guess,” she murmured, a flurry of calculated motion as she swept through an ingrained routine. Chaotic to all other eyes, surely, but nothing less than the utmost precision to her own. Uncompromising control. 

“Doesn’t it feel … wrong, though? It was in the monster’s nature to kill. He didn’t have any say in it. It was like breathing to him. But what I did? That was going against my nature, betraying it, even. He was just an animal. I was the real monster. Don’t you think?”

“I think it’s too early to have this conversation.”

“It’s noon.”

“Exactly my point.”

She stuffed an overflowing heap of clothes further into her wardrobe and sniffed at a relatively unsoiled blouse. She’d reached the epitome of college life.

“It seemed so real.

“It was just a dream.”

“Dreams are evolutions of the subconscious.”

She was silent.  

              “Did you dream about anything?”

              Her fingers stumbled over a button. “Was I there? In the group of people?”         

              She hummed. “No.”

              “What if I had been?”

              “I don’t think you would have changed anything.”

              She smeared a sponge over the tufts of her cheeks, waxing a liquid mask onto her skin. She pressed a hand to her face, hovering a few centimeters above the abstract ceramic. It blinded them. That was the point. But it suffocated her.

              “Would you have led me into his clutches?”

              There was a pause, then the smug tinkling of upturned lips in her deepened voice.

“Of course. I would have watched, too.”

              The phantom fingerprints marauded the mask – probed against its confines, traced over the outlines, and seeped through it as if it failed to exist, curling against the vestiges in a mockery of what had been built to subdue. It was always the same. The only beautiful sting that could get through.

              “Turn around.”

              She did.

              The brunette was far too close. Even the warmth from her skin was grating, jaded and blunt against her nerves. Extending from one to the other and back again, a webbed circuit flung friction this way and that.

              The brunette reached forward, latched onto the non-descript, inconspicuous little black-velvet box nudged into the corner of her wardrobe. She snapped it open, strung the thick silver chain across two fingers, and held it up to her neck. The metal was cold, just bearably so. On both sides a thick knotted braid wound about her neck, merging at the quarter-sized silver ring resting just above the dip in her collarbone. The brunette pulled it up, up, up, until it was taut against her neck, forgiving enough to withstand the tug of a swallow, but not much else. The brunette fiddled with the clasp, frowning.

              “Remind me again why we didn’t get the one with the lock?”

              “Because you would have lost the key,” she whispered, so as not to hamper the clasp-seeking fingers writhing at the back of her neck.

              “Ye of little faith.”

              “You’ve lost your ID twice in the last quarter.”

              “I don’t lose important things.”

              “I think I’d call that important.”

              “Not as.

              She fell silent.

              “There!” The lobster-claw clicked into place. The brunette thumbed her hair back from her shoulders, eyes sweeping across the unassuming chain in the wardrobe mirror, then flitting up to lock with hers. They were silent for a moment, an unspoken heirloom to ever-present dynamics dangling between them, glinting in the overhead with every stuttered rise and fall of her breast.

              Then thin, bronze fingers traced a path over her nearly alabaster skin, the contrast striking, until they reached the tender padding of her neck. Her eyes followed their movements, the glinting quicker, erratic with the pace of her throbbing chest. The fingers thumbed over her pulse-point, stalking a stray vein wriggling beneath the skin. Then, without warning, they slipped beneath the chain and tugged.

              She chased the tug, but it tittered away, relief out of reach. She tamped down the panic, primitive in its ignorance, surging at the but slightly-narrowed plight of air through her larynx, thrashing against the backdrop of frication from contraction. It was adrenaline, that scalp-tickling rush from head to toe to … No, endorphins. Serotonin, perhaps? It didn’t matter. Her will slackened; she strained perpendicular to the tug, just to amplify.

              The pressure was gone before it began. The brunette smoothed away any crinkles in the braid, touch ghostly in its aftermath.

              “Dinner at six?”

              She nodded in the mirror, breath evening.

              The brunette skimmed under her chin, over a faint mark, round and green and perfectly shielded by the shape of her thumb.

              “I should cover it up.” She reached for the liquid mask.

              “You don’t have to.”

              “I should.”

              The brunette nodded, let her fingers fall to her sides, and pressed a quick peck to her jaw. “I’ll see you tonight.”

              She left as liquid alabaster filled in the divot, scattered with vessels calling desire destruction, just like everyone else.

***

              She sat down next to the same frumpy, endearingly nerdy astrophysics boy as always in lecture. They weren’t friends, per se, though a few more lectures and they might ascend to something close.

              “I like your necklace,” he said, smiling heartily.

              She smiled back, but didn’t correct him. Instead, she set out her notebook, readied her pencil.

              “Thanks.”

              “You wear it a lot.”

              “I guess.” She shrugged noncommittally. She wore it every day.

              “Was it a gift?”

              “… not really.” Was it? No. A choice.

              “With that braiding on the sides and the ring in the middle, it looks almost … Celtic? It means something, right?”

              Yes. “I don’t – I don’t think so.”

              “Oh.” He pulled out a thin silver chain from under his collar, held it up under the frenzied fluorescents so she could get a closer look. A dainty little cross, bare and almost excessive in its battle against any pretense of superfluousness, dangled from the end, an insistent pendulum swinging back and forth before her eyes.

              “My mom gave me this, before I left for college. I think she thought it would help me remember who I am, when I’m in the land of girls and booze and drugs.”

              She laughed her understanding, as she was meant to. Tore her eyes from the specter and busied herself with an absentminded doodle.

Slighting her will, fingers crept up to her neck of their own accord. They murmured over the ring, nestled against the sensation of familiarity, lurked against a realized sense of self. She tugged lightly on the chain, let the weave run over her fingertips, let it ground her. Remind her who she was, what was intrinsic, what belonged to her and no one else, what was not hidden, but possessed by two and only two. A piece of herself melded so deeply into the canvas of her being that it could never be struck away by beliefs, the scour of judgement. An untold truth.  

              She told him all of it. Who I am. What I am. Whose I am. She took comfort in the knowledge that in some where, the words had been freed. But they needn’t be, if she remained so here.

              He tucked the cross into his shirt as the professor called the hall to attention.

***

              Hello … so I was wondering if you had twenty minutes to edit a paper of mine.

              She glanced down at her phone, back up at the treacherous puddle of flawed code mocking her from the terminal window. Its cat eyes blinked, aloof as ever: ASSERTION FAILED.

              Sure.

              “Non-Suicidal Self-Injury as a Behavioral Addiction,” she read. She swallowed. Forgotten on a side-table half-gorged in sunlight, a stray bead of perspiration felt its cohesion knocked away by gravity, veering off down the side of the plastic container with driven vengeance.

              Her eyes flickered over the page, alight with charged words, incarcerating in their verdict.

              Euphoric highs as the result of dopamine dysregulation. Dependency as potent as that caused by substance abuse – a mood-altering disease. Urges that cannot be controlled; the recreation of sensations an irresistible craving without recourse. Cutting, biting, burning, slicing, scratching, poisoning. The release it gives. The buzz you receive. The potential for fatal injury. Underlying causations – mental and emotional disorders. Loss of control over social behavior. An addiction – the most life-threatening of all behavioral addictions – for its victims.

              She blinked. The droplet zig-zagged further down the sheer precipice, gathering speed, swallowing down the cowering specs in its wake. It grew in size, staggering down with immovable momentum, crashing onto the tabletop with a resolute plop. It stained. It felt threatening. It felt unnatural. It felt dirty.

              This is … interesting, she wrote.

              Depressing, isn’t it?

              She breathed in.

Is it?

Maybe.

              What about … infrequent, isolated incidents? Are you also talking about voluntary NSSI … not the product of an addictive need?

               All of the above. Any and all uses.

              She breathed out. Worried her foot over an uncrossed line. Tell me it’s not this. Tell me it’s not this.

              What about people who do it not as emotional regulation, or as a coping mechanism, but instead … for pleasure?

              There was a pause.

              I don’t know. I didn’t find much about that in the database.

              She edited the paper.

              As she got up to leave, she picked up her drink, now shadow-lit by waning rays. In its place, a soggy ring speckled the countertop, discoloration tinting the impermeable tabletop, branding the dull surface with color.  

***

              “Hey,” the brunette mouthed from afar, popping up from her spot on the hill and letting her textbook droop onto the grass, clunking shut.

              She walked a bit faster, a small smile her answering greeting.

              “You want to sit here for a little while before we go to dinner? It’s warm out, today.”

              “Sure.”

              She took the brunette’s hand and let herself be led into the shadows of the oak tree at the top of the hill, where the only things that needed to be understood were the things that could understand.

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