Mum drove in silence through the empty evening streets of our town, her hand clutching the steering wheel so hard with anxiety that her knuckles were white. Apparently she didn’t know what to say to me. I didn’t attempt to make small talk with her either. What do you say to your mother when you’ve see her after three long years?
Yes it’s been three years. Three years at the child care home where they didn’t allow me to meet anybody, not even my family, telling me it was for mine and their own good. They kept me and all the other kids charged for juvenile delinquency each in an isolated ward, probably afraid one of us might lose control eventually if allowed to mingle with one another and murder someone. After three long years of living in a freak house, away from the outside world and my family at home, it felt weird to be discharged from there and now being in a confined space with a human being for so long. I felt almost like an alien, pushed into the normal world after three years of complete and absolute isolation.
The car screeched into the parking lot of the apartment where I was used to live. My home. Wow, it feels so weird to call that place my home anymore. It looked quite like it had done the last time I saw it, except that the garden was overgrown with weeds and the once neatly trimmed bushes now looked unkempt and uncared for. It was very unusual of Mum not to take care of her garden, but I had probably given her so much to worry about that even gardening seemed too trivial to her. I felt guilt and shame envelope my heart. I had always given Mum so much trouble, not even caring for the fact that she was a single mother, working so hard to make ends meet as a waitress at the Café ever since Dad had left us when I was six, and that she already had enough on her plate without me being the extra burden. But she never complained or told me off for what I did. That made me feel much worse. I would have preferred it if she had screamed her head off at me, reminding me how much of a nutter I was, telling me how frustrated she was. But she never did that. She kept all the anger and worry locked inside her heart, putting on a brave smile to fool the world. But she couldn’t fool me.
“Come on Cassie,” she whispered to me kindly when we had stepped out of the elevator on the ninth floor. “It’s been so long, you must be excited to see your home again.”
I wasn’t. I didn’t feel anything much these days. Excitement, joy, happiness … these emotions just seemed too unreal for an alien like me. All I felt was guilt, shame and fear, wrenching my heart painfully. Ever since that horrible summer night three years ago, I had stopped feeling or caring for anything. It was like I was empty from the inside, vacant and ghostly; just a lifeless shell containing a tainted and guilty soul. A criminal.
I stepped into the hallway and over the threshold of the small and dingy apartment that I called ‘home’. It was desolate and almost sad. Everything around was quite the same, though there were a few changes, little as they may be but very noticeable. The upholstery was old and dusty. The paint on the walls was chipped and the place looked as though nobody had bothered cleaning it for ages. Of course, I couldn’t blame Mum, because deep inside I knew this was all my fault. Everything was my fault. The fact that my once neat and perfectly clean house was now dirty and inhospitable was my fault. The fact that Mum was now alone and helpless was my fault. The fact that she had lost her older daughter was my fault.
Mum walked over to the kitchen and busied herself with her pots and pans immediately. “I’ve made you your favourite pasta! Oh, you must be so tired Cassie. Don’t worry, I’ll arrange the table in a mo.”
I went over to her and helped her set the table, trying to make myself useful. She smiled at me momentarily, but it was a sad and sympathetic sort of smile. I hated it. I was used to getting that sort of smile from the people at that freak house. Mum’s smile used to be different – loving and adorable. But it had left her face years ago and had never returned. So many things had changed about Mum. The twinkle in her eyes was gone and all that remained were two tired and lifeless pits, with purple circles under them. Her lovely dark hair wasn’t shiny and smelling of strawberries anymore – it hung limply on her shoulders, grimy and greasy. She was not the Mum I had known – jovial and amiable, forever smiling – before our lives had changed forever.
We sat down for the pasta. I ate silently, my tongue tasting basil and red sauce after so many days of stale bread and cheese, but it didn’t matter to me anymore. Fresh pasta or stale cheese – what was the difference? It was just another thing I had grown not to care for over these years.
“So Cassie, tell me how you’ve been!” Mum tried her best to sound enthusiastic, though what interested her about the stupid freak house, I didn’t know.
“Um, I’ve been alright,” I said timidly in a voice that had gone rusty and coarse, due to lack of use over the years. “What about you?”
“Oh I’ve been good, working overtime though,” she said. “But isn’t it great, darling? You’re back! It’s been so long and now you’re finally back! We can spend so much time together now. I’ll take you to the beach tomorrow; I know you must have missed it back at the … home. And oh there’s so much we can do! Go to the ice-cream parlour that you love, have your favourite chocolate sundae and then –”
“Oh STOP IT Mum!” I screamed. “Just stop it! Why are you behaving like nothing’s happened? I’m back from the home for juvenile delinquents, not some cool summer camp that you’re behaving like it’s perfectly normal! It is not! Well, for your information, it is NOT normal for a fifteen-year-old to be a criminal!”
"It was an accident." Mum looked injured. I wasn’t sure why I was screaming my head off at her while she was trying so hard to make me feel better. But I was just too frustrated. I was angry at what I was. I was angry that I had made her life miserable. I was angry that she had to work overtime in a society that probably talked behind her back about her criminal daughter. I was angry at everything. This was not how life used to be. The times when I would run around this same apartment with my older sister, playing a game of catch and laughing hard at the silliest of things … they seemed so distant. Those sweet and happy times had gone, leaving behind only pain and hurt for me to savour.
Mum cleared her throat awkwardly. “Er … obviously, you’re very tired. I’m sorry, I should have known. Why don’t you rest, honey, and I’ll make you some coffee.”
There it was again. She was apologising for no fault of her own. I hated how she readily took all the blame when the fault was entirely mine. But I did as she told, took the cup of coffee she offered and headed for the balcony instead of my room. My room meant memories – happy memories. And I wasn’t ready to face them yet.
I cradled the warm cup of coffee in between my palms and let the tears fall. My life was a tangled mess and I had kept the pain, anger, frustration and the guilt locked up inside my heart for three years. I couldn’t take it anymore. The more I tried to evade the truth, the more bitter it seemed to become. There was no running away from reality. I had done what I had done, and there was no changing that.
I closed my eyes and drifted off into the painful flashback.