When the Thaw Comes
by Guest Blogger,
Erin K. Parker
Six months after life pulled the rug out from under me, I decide to run away from the suburbs of Los Angeles and go back to school in a safer, slower world. Safe is more important than slow, but slow is appealing. I long for my old out of state college in the foothills of the Wasatch Front. I want the red canyons of Color Country. I want mountains covered with quaking aspen and bristlecone pine. I want to throw myself into Lit classes, to write papers about words and stories and their meaning. I want time to move differently than it does in Los Angeles.
I register for classes over the phone, pack a few boxes and give notice at my job. And then with a week until classes start and no place to live, I leave the crisp sunny days of Southern California in January, drive hours through the desert, and arrive in the muddy gray of a winter that’s already gone on too long. I have reserved 3 nights in a motel on Main Street, confident I’ll find a furnished room to rent. A room where I can find my way out of the dark. There is no Plan B. And here it is: a room for rent listed on the first flyer on the first bulletin board I come to at the Student Center on campus. I take the flyer down and drive carefully on icy roads to the address.
I knock on the front door of the house. The woman who answers tells me the room for rent is in a 3 bedroom apartment in their basement, and 2 of the rooms already have tenants. She leads me to the driveway lined with snow drifts, down the dark stairs next to the garage, and knocks on the door. A girl about my age lets us in. Inside it’s a cozy, dim, wood paneled basement and the bedrooms have windows right under the ceiling with dirty snow piled against the glass panes outside. The bedroom for rent is in the back, and when the girl opens the door to show me, nobody says a word. It’s musty and dark and could use some paint, but it’s quiet and furnished and that’s all I want.
“I’ll take it,” I say, turning to the owner and the two girls who live there. My new roommates, Viv and Tina. They exchange a glance and smile at me.
The winter progresses and the snow gets higher until the windows are covered with gray and no light can get through the ice. I live underground like a rabbit. I listen to records and read books and drink hot peppermint tea against the cold. Sometimes I stay up late and write stories in a notebook. I sporadically attend classes. I eat a lot of Top Ramen and hardboiled eggs because they are cheap. I crave salt and warmth. Sometimes my roommates make chocolate chip cookies and invite people from church to come over and play Uno. I realize fairly quickly I may have made a mistake in coming back to this town. Everything has slowed down and has now buried me in this underground room with no light. Paralysis has set in. I am homesick for things I can’t put into words.
One night I have trouble going to sleep and am laying in the dark room looking at shadows on the ceiling. I am wondering how to gather the energy I would need to move back home. The thought of packing my car up and driving home feels impossibly difficult. The thought of staying here also seems impossibly difficult. Then the heavy air in the room becomes heavier and the dark gets darker. Over by the closet there’s a ripple in the shadows, and maybe it’s from the tree branches outside through the ice on the windows, but maybe it’s not. I sit up in bed, straining to see into the corner across the room. I realize I am not alone, and go cold.
A girl’s face flashes lightning-quick into my mind, and I see her shaking her head at me, disappointed and a little amused. In an instant, I see myself like she sees me: a girl huddled in bed, drowning in self-pity and circles. I see her face again, like quick frames from a film. She’s shaking her head, a mocking half-smile on her lips. She’s chiding me. She can’t believe the despair I have allowed myself to fall into.
“You have everything,” she says to me, her words flashing in my mind. She’s not sympathetic, or wise, or all knowing. She’s annoyed. This is something you might say to a friend who needs to be told the hard truth. A friend who has taken things too far for too long, and could benefit from a reminder to get up and start living. I have a strong impression of a finger wagging. Enough, she scolds. Enough.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she says. “You’re alive, so you have everything.”
She’s in front of the closet door facing me, laughing a little, shaking her head, mouth pursed in amusement. I strain to see her in the dark. I feel her looking at me. She’s right there. Is someone there? Curiosity wins out over fear. For a moment I am comfortable, content even, accepting that I may have gently slid sideways and lost my grip on reality. I am surprised that it’s so easy. I reach for the lamp on my nightstand, and before I can switch it on, she’s gone. She’s just gone. I’m still in the dark, but very much alone.
I wrap the covers tight around me and lie back down, holding this flash of a girl in my mind. The impression of her words, her knowing look, her message that is starting to make sense. Or maybe I am losing it. Have already lost it. I think I am kind of okay with that as I drift off to sleep.
The next morning I wake up feeling better than I have in weeks. The snow is almost gone now and I can see light out the windows. Spring must be close. I am lighter and happier than I have been in a long time. Maybe I am crazy, but crazy feels pretty good.
In the afternoon, my roommates and I are in the living room doing homework with the radio on. I’m drinking hot tea. Perhaps we will make cookies later.
“You’re in a good mood today,” says Tina.
“The weirdest thing happened,” I say. “Last night I couldn’t sleep. Then, you know how you can feel that someone is in the room with you? Well, that’s what I felt. Like someone was in my room. I got this image in my head of this girl. She was in my room over by the closet. She was kind of making fun of me for being so depressed.”
They look at each other quickly.
“What,” I say. “You think I’m crazy. I know it sounds weird.”
“No it doesn’t,” Viv says.
“It was like this girl was telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself,” I continue slowly, “that I have no excuse to feel depressed. She said I was alive, so I had everything, that I was lucky. I mean, that makes sense, right?”
They look at each other again, and Tina says to Viv, “Should we tell her?”
My heart starts pounding and I’m filled with apprehension. “Tell me what.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder,” Viv says slowly, “why your room was available when you moved here to start school in the middle of the year? Nobody has lived in that room for a long time. Nobody wanted to.”
“I just thought I got lucky when I found the ad that the room was available,” I say. “But you’re right, it is kind of odd.”
“There was a girl that lived in your room about a year and a half ago,” Viv says, her eyes filling. “She died. She had left to go to her hometown, but never made it. She disappeared. She was missing for a couple of weeks. Then they found her body. She was murdered. It was an awful time, such a nightmare.” She stops and looks at me, wiping her eyes. “This is hard to talk about. You would have liked her.”
Viv is crying now, remembering, telling me how the girl’s dad and brothers showed up. How she helped them pack up boxes, clean the bedroom and load their car up with her things. How she had always kept the door to the bedroom closed, and sometimes she would hear sounds in the room like someone was opening the desk drawer. Sometimes she would find the light on in the closet even though no one had been in there. The older couple who owned the house didn’t try to rent the basement bedroom out for over a year. They’d put the notice up at the Student Center the week before I got into town and came by. There had been no interest until I showed up.
Tina jumps in. “I didn’t live here last year,” she says, “so I didn’t know her. But I knew the story, and poor Viv was trying to deal with everything that happened. Nobody else wanted to live here. So when you showed up to look at the room, we decided not to tell you. You looked so nice we didn’t want to scare you away. I’m sorry.”
Viv wipes her eyes and says with a sad smile, “I hope you don’t want to move out now.”
I am letting it all sink in. Now there is this girl who has died a horrible death. This girl who was my age, who had slept in the same room, under the same iced windows, and in the same bed. This girl who had lost her life, who saw me wasting mine by feeling sorry for myself. This girl who reminded me I had everything, and my whole life was in front of me. Who knows when it will all be over? None of us know. She hadn’t known.
She told me to wake up, to grab life, to make it what I wanted and stop wasting time. Because even the bad times mean you’re alive. And when you’re alive, you do have everything. She was telling me to get up, seize it and hold on tight. Because it is valuable and rich and far, far too short. She told me to start living.
And so I did.
When the Thaw Comes is a true story. It appears in The Secret and the Sacred, Erin’s collection of short stories, and in an anthology, In Case We Die. Both are available on Amazon. Erin works as a commercial designer, and lives in Long Beach, California with her boyfriend and their magnificent cat.
Visit her online at erinkparker.com