Saving Jess

by The Dreamer

A short story by yours truly,

Image

about how a girl watched, 

helpless,

intrigued,

as someone she knew

obliterated herself.

And how that girl learnt,

want to be saved.it is futile trying to save someone

who didn’t want to be saved

I’ve travelled 5,748 miles, spent eleven hours on the airplane and drove for forty-five minutes just to say goodbye.

Did you know that it would take 4 whole days to travel from Japan to California if you drove? Required you drove on water, that is. Not that it mattered, actually, and not that it crossed my mind throughout the whole journey.

I was afraid I could not make it in time.

I was afraid Jess could not hold on till then.

The call had been sudden, the voice crackly and distant over the pounding of music in my ears. I had to lock myself in the store room three storeys away from all the chaos to actually be able to hear the person on the other line. Even then, I could still feel the vibration under my feet.

“I’m so sorry.” I said.

“Jess wants to see you.” I did not recognize the voice, which sounded hoarse and deep and manly. But I recognized the subject of the conversation, almost instantly.

Jess had the wildest hair. It was the colour of sand and sunshine and it frizzed out at all corners. At first glance, it seemed almost like the Sun had decided to grace the Earth with its presence. It gleamed intensely, almost creating a luminous effect and reached beyond Jess’s shoulder blades, and if Jess tilted her head back, it reached the dimple of her spine, cascading down like a golden waterfall. It almost hurt your eyes to look at it for too long. It was untameable, just like Jess.

Jess also had the wildest eyes. They were the colour of the ocean waters. And not the murky kind which was infested with the decaying waste of human, but the kind in island beaches where it was so clear that you could see right through to the sand and the fishes circling round your feet. And when an idea sprung up into Jess’s mind, you could tell in her eyes. The pupils expanded in her blue eyes and they would blink mischievously a thousand times, and when it finally stopped its frantic movements, the shade of her eyes had turned from aqua to the colour of frosted window panes. It resembled two icebergs, and just like Jess, you could only observe a fraction above the surface, but you never knew how much there was going on within her.

Besides those two points, I could only remember Jess had a teardrop mole which she was so proud of. The rest of her physical appearance was a blur.

“Jess is in a critical condition.” Said the voice, drifting into my ears. My blinking was audible. It took me a couple of seconds to register what it meant.

My mouth went dry. “What? How?”

The voice related to me everything. Suddenly everything around me started to spin.

Jess had drunk can after can of beer. She had swallowed sleeping pills. And then she had jumped into an almost bottomless waterfall. The sharp stones at the foot of the waterfall had pierced through her back. The impact had damaged all her organs. Her bones had shattered into a million pieces. She was paralyzed forever, and she was dying.

Within a few hours, I was on my way to California.

Rain had always been a harbinger of tragedy for me. I remember it was pouring when my pet frog died of a heat stroke. When I accidentally wore my underwear over my stockings one time and my friend accidentally exposed it to my classmates, it started drizzling.

Without a doubt, the weather lord decided not to take pity on me and rained on my parade. Literally. Looming over me in a rapid pace was a thick coat of heavy, pregnant grey clouds. Then, with the signal of a loud crack of thunder and a streak of lightning tearing open the clouds, rain showered on the roof of the taxi with unnecessary force.

Jess had been the human personification of Mother Nature. She was unpredictable. She entered my life like a hurricane, pulling me towards her and whirling my life upside down. She walked like drizzling rain, the faint pitter-patter of her feet constantly being heard because she hated wearing shoes. She was the most alive thing I ever saw on the Earth. And she smelt really good, like morning dew and sweat and strawberries.

But the person I see lying on the hospital bed definitely could not be Jess.

Red-eyed relatives spin around to face me the moment I fall through the door. In my hurry, I had forgotten to pack an umbrella. They take in my dishevelled appearance. Midnight-black hair matted to my forehead, drooping lifelessly at my tanned face, blouse stuck closely to my dripping body and love-grass jabbed at all corners of my jeans.

I ignore their questioning stares and dash to Jess’s side. She no longer smelled like morning dew. More like the sickening odour of Dettol and death. There were bandages wrapped all around her, blood seeping through them and blossoming wider and wider by the second. Machines with names I never knew how to pronounce were by her bedside, supporting her frail little body. She seemed so small in the presence of the machines.

Emotions start to choke up my throat. Tentatively, I reach out and clutch her hand. Gave it a small, light squeeze. Surprisingly, she squeezes back.

“Jenny, is that you?” A soft, almost imperceptible voice breathes.  Above us, silence and tension weighs heavily in the air, so thick that I could slice through it.

“Who else?” I reply, the tears threatening to fall when she calls out my name.

Her eyes flutter open, her lids heavy over her bright blue orbs. They have specks of green in them now, reminding me of two globes, filled with wonder and places that Jess would never have the chance to explore.

Behind us, collective whispers and hushed discussions begin. Someone puts a hand on my shoulder and tells me to take care of Jess. I nod weakly and everyone retreats from the room, leaving only me and the wheezing created by Jess.

“Tell me,” Jess says, her hot breath steaming up her oxygen mask. “About the time we saw those baby robins.”

Her sudden request leaves me stunned momentarily. Her inquisitive, expectant eyes pierce into mine. “Sure,” I try my best to smile, though it turns out more of a wince.

Fifteen years ago, I was seven and Jess was twelve. That was the first and only period I ever spent time with Jess. But during the short duration of two months, Jess had become my best friend and left too deep an imprint in my mind to ever be washed away by the waves.

I never knew why the kids in the town hated Jess. Was it because she wore yellow tights and purple tutu skirts and liked to roll around in the grass while they only liked to sulk and watch her yodelling down the hill?

When I was seven, Jess seemed to be a walking encyclopaedia to me. It was like she knew everything. Jess knew big words like:

Wanderlust:  the desire to travel, to understand one’s very existence. Jess said she had contracted it because this stuffy little town was in the middle of nowhere and the only thing that was interesting about it was the river.

Drapetomania: the strong desire to run away. She said sometimes, she felt like just diving into the depths of the river and never come back. I told her technically that wasn’t running, and she just shook her head and said I wouldn’t understand because I didn’t live in this town and I didn’t have Wanderlust or Drapotomania. I cried because it made me realize that I wasn’t as special as Jess.

Lypophrenia: the feeling of sadness without any cause, and which Jess said she had, without a reason obviously.

She also knew little random facts like how long it took to outgrow her nails (she said she painted her nails black and took three months to clip all the black parts off as they slowly grew) and how to fish like an expert.

She said the key was to use nature’s resources.

Jess liked to bring me to the side of the lake. We would tie a string to a long branch and dig in the mud for earthworms. Then we would cast our strings and every day, without fail, we caught two or more little fishes, which we released, of course. Sometimes, I screamed when the earthworms still wriggled when it was half bitten off by the fish. But Jess told me not to worry because earthworms had five hearts and so they could survive even if there was only a fraction of their body left.

I screamed even more at that knowledge.

Jess made me believe she was a mermaid that could breathe underwater. To prove her point, we had competitions to see who could hold our breath the longest and Jess always won. Jess would taunt me with her eyes wide open in the murky waters of the lake and swim around with dolphin-style, twirling and doing hand stands and blowing out air bubbles.

Jess’s record was two whole minutes.

Later on, I learnt the truth that Jess was not really a mermaid. And I also learnt that Jess also had a little condition called escapism, where she retreated from unpleasant realities through fantasy. I learnt it from the real encyclopaedia.

Jess liked to dangle her long hair over the water and breathe in the stale smell of the lake. I, on the other hand, preferred to let the ripples tickle my feet. We would lie on the boardwalk and stare at the sky, pointing out cloud-dinosaurs and cloud-starfishes. I never knew where Jess has looking at. Her gaze was always distant, far-off and sometimes she never responded when I called.

Once, Jess suddenly rose up from her position and narrowed her eyes. I followed her.

“What’re you doing?” I asked her and immediately, she cupped her hand over my mouth.

“Be quiet and listen.” She whisper-yelled.

I perked up my ears and strained to hear what was in the distance, and at the same time, tried to pry Jess’s hand away from my face.

“Baby birds!” I exclaimed, almost too loudly. “I can hear them singing!”

Jess turned to look at me. For a moment, something I couldn’t put a finger on flickered across her eyes. She pursed her lips and mimicked the little birds. I didn’t know how to whistle but I hummed along.

Jess paused. “That’s not what they’re singing.”

“Sure it is.” I said, resuming to humming the tune of Yankee Doodle.

“No it’s not.” Jess insisted, her mouth tight and her jaw set.

“Yes it-” “Not.” Jess interjected. I gave her an indignant pout.

She began whistling a melody. She closed her eyes when she did and swayed along to it. It was very sad, like a melody played in a funeral. I thought I heard the baby birds quieten down, as if attracted towards Jess’s melancholy tune. The trees started to rustle, the wind howling louder and louder and Jess’s swaying grew more and more hysterical. Then Jess gave a loud yell. And everything suddenly gave to a stop.

“Don’t you see?” Jess grabbed the sides of my arms and tugged me towards her. Back and forth, back and forth. “The birds are going to die!”

“No I don’t see.” I told her truthfully.

Tears started to brim and spill. “Out of all the baby robins, only two will survive and have a chance to grow up. It’s a fact. Do you want that to happen?”

I shook my head.

“ Mama bird isn’t back yet and they are hungry. They are calling for the Mama bird. But don’t you see? The louder they call, the more exposed they are to their predators! They’re going to die out here!”

“What is a predator?” I asked.

“We have to save them.” Jess cried.

I nodded blindly. “Yes we do.”

So Jess climbed up the tree while I waited, pacing anxiously round and round the tree, squinting my eyes to see Jess’s progress. But the sun beat down harshly on us and all I could see was a ball of golden light floating higher and higher, as if to touch the clouds.

The willowy tree looked like it couldn’t hold the weight of a twelve-year old. But Jess climbed higher and higher and with momentum, and then I heard two screams. One, of triumph, and the other, of alarm.

My stomach lurched as Jess landed with a snap. Her body was sprawled on the floor in an agonizing position, her eyes rolled backward. Beside her, the nest was reduced to sticks and twigs and five balls of fur lay there, stiff and dead-looking.

“Jess!” I shrieked. “Jess! Wake up!” Fear gripped me, ice coursing through my veins.

Jess let out a small groan, and then she gasped. It was not in pain, but rather, in terror. “The birds! Oh god, the baby birds!” She tried to push herself up, but her legs remained plastered on the muddy ground. She tried again and again, red creeping up her neck and blotching her face. “Come on, come on!” she kept on muttering to herself. Finally, with an ‘oomph’, she managed to roll herself till she was on her stomach.

She breathed heavily. I could see the way her chest heaved up and down that the fall had definitely been painful. She gathered the fur balls in her hand and witnessed as some of them chirped their final goodbyes.

Jess burst into tears. It was the first time I saw her cry. Her mouth was wide open, but her volume was muted. Her eyes were tightly shut, mucus and tears staining her face. Occasionally, she made small noises, like cicadas clicking.

I started crying too. I didn’t mean too, but emotions of fear, grief and remorse just came out as tears. They rolled down my cheeks and splatted down my neck and my hands when I tried to collect them and drip them on the little birds.

“Don’t do that.” Jess finally said.

“Phoenix tears are supposed to cure anything. Shall I cure you too?” I babbled, choking up with more tears.

“Shut up, Jenny. You’re not a Phoenix and I’m not a mermaid, okay? The world is a big fat lie. Shut up shut up shut up.” Then Jess and I cried even harder. She pulled me down to the mud and engulfed me in her arms. I tried to make myself as small as possible as she kissed my sweaty hair. “I’m sorry, I’m just so sad.”

“Me too.” I said softly. “I’m sorry too. I’m sad too.”

She shook her head. “You don’t understand my sadness.”

We continued crying for hours, just lying there in a foetus position until our tears dried up and made our faces stiff. Then we were forced to leave when Mama Bird flew back and croaked the most horrible sound I ever heard. There was deep misery and then anger flashing in her eyes. Jess told me to drag her away because Mama Bird would start attacking us.

Her eyes stayed riveted on the family we had broken apart. She closed her eyes and kept repeating under her breath, “Sorrysorrysorrysorrysorry.”

I cried for Jess’s broken legs, but Jess cried for the broken birds.

You see, Jess was always trying to save others, when she couldn’t even save herself.

“And then you swooped the birds away from the predator and saved them all. We celebrated with root beer that day.” I finish off.

Jess trembles beside me. It was a good tremble. “That’s not the version I remembered.”

I sent her a one-shouldered shrug. “I decided to spice things up a little.”

“I’m gonna be alright, you know that?” Jess says, though I see tears leaking out.

I nod, even though I can feel her dying.

She’s slowly seeping through my fingers. No matter how hard I hold onto her, her staggering breath is counting down the hours she has left, reminding me that the clock is ticking, that her clasp on my hand will soon loosen.

“How long?” I asked the doctor.

“Not through the night.” He said monotonously. No grief, no remorse, no sympathy…nothing. As if throwing a bomb on me isn’t anything to be desolate over.

Most times, Jess lays still, white and almost dead, like a corpse. The moments where her uneven wheezes come to a sudden stop are the most frightening. Makes my heart freeze along with her.

Every time I ask her if she’s alright, if I need to call the doctor, she puts her clammy hand over my face and shakes her head no. Slowly, agonizing. I can see it takes her everything to lift her hand, to crack a smile. “It’s nothing.” She would rasp. “You just take my breath away.”

My mother had warned me to stay away from Jess. She said Jess was different. She said it after a long pause. Then she pointed to her head and did little swirls with her finger. “In here.”

I told Jess that. Jess snorted and said, “Tell her to suck it up.”

I got grounded for saying word for word.

Jess had to take medication. But she never did. Her mother always made sure Jess had flushed the medicine down her throat with water before leaving. But little did she know that Jess kept the little tablets under her tongue and took them out and stuffed them in an old sock when her mother was gone. “They say it’s to cure me in the head. There’s nothing wrong with me in the head. They’re the stupid creatures that need fixing.” She stopped, and then shrugged nonchalantly. “Besides, maybe I’m just addicted to sadness.”

No one realized that Sadness was actually a person. It visited from house to house, knowing exactly when to knock and enter without your consent. It barged into Jess’s life without her permission, wrapping its arms around her body and refusing to let go. It whispered nasty thoughts into Jess’s ear and when Jess shivered, it embraced tighter, licking at Jess’s tears and growing stronger with the stench of its saltiness. The sadness expanded around Jess, slowly filling up the whole room. It made Jess’s face turn pale and lips turn blue, leaving her breathless in a bad way. It sucked the life out of her. And when it made sure that the seedlings of depression were firmly rooted within Jess’s fertile imagination, it waved and left. It was ironic because I saw the smile in Sadness when it succeeded in making Jess’s mind a barren ground, the weeds called depression devouring every single happy nutrient in Jess. Sadness was not supposed to have smiles. Unless it was those sad helpless pitiful smiles that people give you out of sympathy.

Those were the worst. Those were the only smiles that were ever sent Jess’s way.

Jess said sometimes she felt everything suffering around her. It suffocated her. She saw sadness smirking at her as it tore apart a butterfly’s wings. Sadness in the eyes of the fish we ate for dinner. Sadness in the reference books collecting dust in the library.

I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. But when I did, I had the most beautiful and surreal dream.

The walls of the hospital ward had collapsed and crumbled away. The roaring of the waterfall filled my ears and made my heart throb. I looked around for Jess, only seeing the bed with tangled sheets and dried blood.

But Jess was nowhere to be found.

“Jenny!” Came a faint echo. “Jenny!”

I looked down at where the water crashed against the sharp rocks. My body did an involuntary shiver. If I were to fall…

“Jenny, look!” Out from the splashes, a golden tail flipped up, followed by Jess’s familiar mop of hair. Her eyes sparkled even brighter than the water reflecting the sunlight.

“Jess…” I trailed off. “But how?”

“I’m a mermaid now, duh!” She chirped. “I’m okay now, Jess. I’m not sad anymore.”

She laughed, her voice tinkling and making the waves swell up and soar over me. I braced myself for the impact of the water, but it never came. Instead, when I glanced up, a light veil of golden dust curtained me. A certain form of happiness came tingling up, from my toes all the way to the last strand of my hair.  Jess’s face spread into a wide smile, her eyes lighting up. Jess shone.

“See you!” she yelled, blowing me a kiss.

Then she dived under the water and never surfaced up. She didn’t need to, I guess. I saw her silhouette going deeper and deeper into the clear waters, the water shimmering and then…nothing.

I awoke with a sharp intake of breath. I rubbed the sleep off my eyes and searched Jess’s face for any sign that my dream could have been more than a figment of my imagination.

And that’s when I realized, Jess had passed away.

I could see that her face was no longer scrunched up in pain, but rather, washed with a wave of serenity. Her hand was still atop of mine. But most importantly, there was that smile on her face. The exact smile I saw in my dreams.

People flooded into the hall just to pay Jess one last visit. Even those that had once laughed at Jess, those who shunned from Jess – they all had tears at the edge of their eyes.

But I didn’t cry. I tried to summon the tears, but nothing came. And I was okay with that.

Jess’s mother told me that on the dawn of Jess’s death, she saw Jess cartwheeling on her garden bed, her laughter carefree, and her body light without the burden of sadness weighing her down. And Jess had a halo of light over her hair. And many others confessed they heard Jess’s familiar yodelling down the streets and when they looked out, they observed a soft glow rising from the lake waters. They said it had to be Jess. I believed it.

Yes, this had been a tragedy, and yet, it didn’t rain. As I said before, Jess was like Mother Nature. Instead of the showers accompanying our tears, Jess beckoned for sunshine brighter than I’ve ever seen in my life. It was the kind that made you warm instead of sweaty. And the sun was a bright yellow beaming down on us. Wispy white clouds danced across the azure sky, reminding me of Jess’s pale skin and her sapphire eyes. And hung on the sky, was a family of robins, chirping a joyful working tune. They made me think of the freckles that peppered Jess’s face.

Maybe this was a sign. A sign from Jess that she was okay. That she was finally saved. That she had finally saved herself.

I never said goodbye to Jess and I never mourned over her death. I guess it was because she had never left. She was the sun, the clouds, the sky, the mud, the water. Jess left a fragment of herself everywhere. I guess Jess wouldn’t have wanted goodbyes or sadness either.  It took me 5,748 miles, eleven hours on the airplane and a forty-five minutes’ drive just to realize that life was too short for goodbyes.

(j.l)

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