Dear Reader: The serial, “Brethren of Judas” is on a mental health/research hiatus, as the topic of coercion right now is a difficult one for me. Please enjoy ‘Promise’, a one-off story about the horrors of the past.
TRIGGER WARNING: This contains confronting themes and is recommended for those aged 15 and up.
The world of Katherine was last “real” when she dropped off Gerald, and he sprayed himself with cologne right before his date. She wished him good luck in hooking up with this random, beautiful stranger, and laughed when he replied, “I don’t need luck, I’m adorable!”
The droplets carried the scent and dried it onto the seat until she turned on the heating. The smell drifted into her nostrils soon after and unknown to Katherine, triggered the present to melt into the past. Bad memories, normally banished to the dark closet of the unconscious, drifted to the surface level of her mind as she fumbled for lip-gloss, still driving. But as her hands gripped the wheel, she saw a man entering the convenience store holding a gun. Reality was still there, but somehow driving was the background movie to the all-too-real imposition of the past playing before her eyes. She knows to stop and ground herself when she has an episode like this, but there is a pane of glass now between the real act of driving and the voice screaming, “Put the money in the bag, bitch.”
Control has left Katherine’s hands, although she grips the wheel there is no power to the movement. The speeding car does not move smoothly down the road, the driver is too busy reliving the man leaping over the counter towards her. He lands smoothly and shoves her down, smiling under his balaclava. Katherine is still behind the wheel, but all she sees is the man lying on top of her reaching up to the condoms behind the counter. His other hand holds the gun to her temple, and he fumbles to open the packet. Inside the car she is screaming to get off, take the money, but no one can hear her. She can barely hear her own voice as the memory overwhelms her further, her foot flailing as if knees are holding her legs apart.
The car barrels towards the two pink blurs crossing the street, the woman and her dog equally surprised at the erratic machine coming for them. Leash, raincoat, and the dog’s raincoat are all in the same shade of Barbie pink, designed to stand out but also protect from the elements, like the rain that threatens from the gray sky this afternoon. The squeal of the tyres cuts through the silence and the moist autumn leaves are scattered by the fishtailing swerve, but it is not enough to stop the car, just to slow it. There is a thump and the wheels struggle over something, but the driver does not stop. The man on top of her stopped only when he was satisfied and pulled off the dripping condom with the satisfied flair of a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat.
Still high on meth, the thief runs away with a full backpack. For him, this robbery went better than he anticipated, and he genuinely wanted to high five someone as he deftly ran down the street. Katherine remained on the floor of her memory, but also in the seat of the car. She stopped the car as reality appeared through the fog, overwhelmed with nausea. Vomit lurched up her throat, then onto her shoes. With nothing left in her, Katherine blacked out against the cool metal exterior of the Saab. Time passes.
When my niece Katherine clattered noisily into the house, she began to empty her pockets of the soil and stones. I wanted to ask why but she was scooping her pockets frantically, unaware I was watching. Sometimes I hate how unpredictable she’s become, and I forget that she’s sick, but I’m sick too damnit. Still, I made a promise to her dead mother.
She looked dishevelled, more of a mess than normal. That may sound high and mighty for a woman who shits herself regularly, but before the stroke I was perfectly groomed, thank you. As she finished raining debris onto the front hall table, she looked at me and remembered we live together. Her eyes were wild, the first hint of the low. No person who weighs as little as her should be sweating, but she was, I remember it.
“Aunty Jules, it’s just a small dent, I’m sorry. It’s probably nothing but I thought if it was the dog, I should bury it, I mean, I was going to bury it, that’s why I started collecting rocks and dirt to cover it up, but I couldn’t find it. There’s just a bit of blood on the broken headlight and some pink fluff. I didn’t see them I swear. I think I lost some time. I can’t stop shaking. I’m going to sip some of your brandy, just a little, I’m so cold and shaking.”
She hit something with my car. My blood’s running cold.
The clock reads 9:32 at night and my former self would have asked her what the hell took so long. Yes, my first response is anger because I still have feelings damnit, and it was MY car. I don’t recall her spacing out behind the wheel, but she might have.
True to her word, she goes to my liquor stand and pours herself too large of a helping of my brandy. Developed a taste for it after moving in, despite the effect on her blood sugar. Life thought it would be funny if her parents died while on holiday, making the black comedy of “Aunt and Niece” for the amusement of… who? The God of Unlikely Housemates? Tune in next week in Aunt and Niece, when a 19-year-old with no job, prospects or income moves in with a stroke victim.
Katherine reads me messages from her “Stroke carers support group”, where we’re all called survivors, instead of victims, but I can’t correct her terminology, can I? My stroke killed off the part of my brain that can connect words to my tongue, but I can still think. Right now, for example, I want to scream at her to change me, because I feel I’ve wet myself, but I can’t do it, can I? I’m a victim to the way my body feels now, the uselessness of areas that died off when I blacked out at work. I didn’t know I had the clot, let alone the heart attack that dislodged it. So, I don’t love the term survivor, because I want to do more than to have survived and I’m constantly disappointed I can’t do more with myself. Like, right now, watching her pour a second drink and down it. I bought that brandy in Yamazaki, damnit, and she’s drinking it like Pepsi.
For kicks, and to stave off insanity, I nicknamed my stroke, “George”. Same as my first husband, an arsehole I married when I believed in happily ever after, who left me for a cadet journalist who sauntered into our newspaper one day. She sauntered out only 6 months later, leading my husband away like she had a leash around his dick. George, the stroke, not the man, robbed me of a lot of things, but at least I’m still alive, even if that means taking in my pathetic niece as my carer.
But who’s caring for who, really? All her life, Katherine’s been thin skinned, a vulnerable little flower of a child who was upset by everything and coddled pretty hard by my sister Sam. They were never meant to have her; Sam and Keith I mean. Eight rounds of IVF and a tonne of money went into cooking up Katherine and for what? This bundle of nerves on legs staring at herself in my mirror like she’s forgotten who she is? I think she’s spacing out again.
She might have forgotten; I know that’s a possibility. I’d love to just ask but she’s so in her head now she wouldn’t be able to tell me. I know why, of course, she needs a bit of time to come back from whatever shook her so bad. The dog she did, or didn’t hit, with my car.
If I had my strength, I’d have checked my Saab myself. Actually, if I had my strength, she wouldn’t have moved in with me in the first place, no way. After Robert (husband number two, for those keeping track), I was enjoying my descent into cat lady solitude, until Sam and Keith took their ‘trip of a lifetime’ and drove off a cliff in the Knysna Forest.
I remember when Sam came over to tell me about their ‘trip of a lifetime’. Katherine was getting better, she said, so Sam and Keith were finally going to South Africa for its 4 X 4 driving. He was a mad outdoors man, that Keith, so he was gonna drag my sister to yet another wilderness adventure with nothing but water and a Jeep. She’d looked at me slyly, and I knew why, it was part of the bragging. They had the daughter, the adventure, the house almost paid off and what did I have? I have a good job, yes, but also a dead husband and no prospects. We lived in the city, and I still rented the same overly large townhouse I could barely afford as a widow. But I wasn’t moving damnit, because that would mean admitting Robert was dead and not just traveling somewhere. No way was I going to go into his office, his sanctum if you will, and dismantle it.
Turns out I didn’t need to be so precious about it. Katherine took his office as her room while I was recovering from the stroke and got rid of everything. And because I can’t speak, what the hell can I do about it? So, either good will or the rubbish tip got my treasures.
Katherine gets the crazy directly from Keith, I’m sure of that much. She’s looking for something in the fridge now. Now she’s moving to the pantry. She takes out a box of macaroni and cheese and shakes it, like she doesn’t quite recognise its contents. I can tell she’s spacing out, bad, and I watch her hands. Sometimes when she spaces out, she mimes filling the bag with money from the cash drawer. At night, I’ve heard her urging me to take the money, don’t hurt me, get off me. I’d run and comfort her, but like I said, can’t move.
He did hurt her, the guy who robbed the store she was working at. He didn’t need to rape her, in fact that’s how he got caught, but he got greedy, I think. In the instant he waved the gun at her, she gave in and would have handed over anything. That’s the point when he got cocky. It would have taken all of two seconds to realise he could get more than the store’s takings.
I cried with Sam when it happened, it shook us all so badly. Seventeen years old, first job, saving up for a car, and then that goes and happens. I tried to joke that it was the shitty luck of the Laylor sisters, but Sam pointed out neither of us are Laylor anymore, she’s a Kruger and I’m a widowed Price. She made me promise, right there and then, that if anything happened to Katherine, I’d be there. Sam added, because she was no fool, that if anything happened to her or to Keith, it was up to me.
Oh, that Keith. That’s also where Katherine might have inherited her diabetes, but unlike Keith, Katherine is not very careful with it. We liked to joke that Keith was a modern-day Viking, all muscles and hair with his strong outdoorsy spirit and extreme care for his diet. When Katherine remembers to eat, it’s probably not the right food for her to start with. She leaves it everywhere and literally forgets she made it and I can’t even clean up the cups of tea she leaves lying around the house. And it’s my house.
Like now, she’s absent mindedly munching on some cereal from my pantry, just a handful of it. Did she have her insulin? Christ, it’s not my job to remember, I’m in a wheelchair and I can’t speak, how can it be my fault? And yet, I feel I should try to do something. I’m low on battery though, and I’d rather she change me out of my wet clothes. She’s wobbling, like her legs aren’t working. I want to scream TAKE YOUR INSULIN DAMNIT, but all I can do is grunt and throw my hand against the knobs of the chair to make it lurch a little at a time. I’m grunting and drooling with frustration as she stares blankly ahead.
I’m trying to manoeuvre into her sightline, but I can tell she’s in deep. I could grunt, but when she stares forward like this, she’s fully in it. I remember Sam telling me about Borderline when she first got diagnosed and it certainly explained a lot, but since she moved in with me I can really see it. She doesn’t get mood swings as much anymore, thank you mood stabilisers, but she’s prone to spacing out like this. I mean what a combination, a lifelong diabetic, then a personality disorder on top? Shitty sprinkles on a shitty sundae.
Suddenly she makes eye contact and is walking over to me.
Taking my wrist for attention, she murmurs, “The lady walking the dog was also in pink, Aunty Jules. Like they were matching. I didn’t see them. What were they doing in the middle of the road? I stopped and went back when I realised what I’d done but there was blood on the lights, and they might have fallen in the embankment. I think I lost some time!” Her hands are chest high, and I see she’s holding the invisible steering wheel.
“What if it was the lady?! What if it wasn’t the dog, but the lady? Did I kill her? I can’t remember! I spaced!” Her fingers were clammy, and she seemed weaker by the second. She slid into a chair at the kitchen table like she was half melting and called out, “I don’t remember what happened, there was pink, the dog… I’m…”
She put her head down on the table and her fists continued to hold the steering wheel that only she could see. Panic reached into my chest and grabbed my heart with its claws. If she lost consciousness, what could I do? Could I get her insulin? My chair was running low on power, and my forearms don’t work much, but she needs it to live and might be going into a low right now. She’s been in a coma before, but I thought we’d all learned our lesson. I can’t inject her; all I can do is call an ambulance, so I start to steer to the phone.
Three meters away from the phone on the table, the battery is finally drained and the chair stops. Katherine is not great at remembering to charge it so normally I keep an eye on it, but I can’t manoeuvre my hand around the cable to plug it in, I need her. I turn my head and see she looks asleep but pale on the table. What now? What the hell do I do now? I’m turning my drooling head to both sides, looking for a way to move myself and realise the last thing I can do is going to hurt, but it needs to be done.
Heaving my mostly useless hips to the side, I throw myself out of the chair and land heavily. It hurts like a bitch to land but we’re running out of time, and I need to get to the phone. I wriggle as fast as my useless body lets me, barely moving across the floor. When I get there, I can’t reach up and get the phone, so I knock the table legs with my shoulders. If I can get it to fall, I can dial it. The landline, a relic of an older time that my sweet Robert insisted on keeping, finally clattered to the floor beside my neck.
I mashed the keys with my face until it rang. All I could do was grunt, but that would be enough to get the ambulances attention and hopefully trace my address. No point in wishing I could speak, so I just lie still and hope they run to her first. Besides, I only fell a little and despite all my complaining, I made a promise to look after her.