Three Aspens

It's my birthday. And my dad "forgot" to get a cake.

Of course, according to him, I can't open my presents until after the cake. Which sucks, since there isn't one. Since he, for some unexplained reason, told me I couldn't have even one friend over, my birthday party consists of him, my mom, and me. And Buddy, the neighbor's dog, who is wearing a lame party hat and is nodding off to sleep. Yay.

After my mom and dad have a screaming match over irresponsibility, she stomps out of the house with the keys to get the cake. He goes, smirking, to watch her peel out of the driveway in anger as I ease open the back door and escape into the yard. I let Buddy run happily off to freedom. If only.

I bet they'd be divorced by now if they'd stop shitting around and finally admit they hate each other.

I make my way past the clean-cut lawn to where the tall grass grows. Someday there'll be a division here, and a neighbor's lawn and patio. I dread the day that happens. Hopefully I'll have moved out by then.

The grass is tall enough I can lie down and have my dad not see me. My birthday hat is cutting into the skin behind my ears so I toss it. There is a flattened spot of grass here; it is my spot, the same place I come every time I'm avoiding my dad. Which is basically every day.

My mom travels a lot, and my dad works at home. The days when she's out of town and not one of my friends can have me over, I lay here, sometimes for hours. Even in winter.

I haven't come lately, I finally turned fifteen, got a job, and landed convenient hours where I leave right after school and come home late at night.

You can see the depths I go through to avoid my father.

How I wish they could've had one more child. I'd never have to be alone with him if that happened.

I trace the stars in the sky with my finger, trying to connect them to form a birthday cake. Sixteen candles. There are not enough stars.

"Keira?" I hear his voice, soft, floating through the screen door. I wince and try and flatten myself against the ground. I am a guerilla fighter. I excel in stealth and camouflage. He cannot see me.

He calls me again. I turn over on my stomach to look. He is almost doubled over, leaning into the screen to locate me in the dark. Then he starts wavering around to see through the screen before he drops to the floor. Probably checking for stains in the carpeting. I turn back over. Get a life, dad. Go file some papers.

The sky gets darker and the wind is picking up. More stars come out. He doesn't call again.

Maybe it would be safe to go inside, but there's no lights on that I can see and my mom still hasn't pulled in. My house looks like a creepy abandoned one that you see in a movie when the stupid person looking for a place for shelter steps into. My father is the one who steps out with the chainsaw and guts them. I could draw endless comparisons between a horror movie and my life, but I'm wearing a skirt and it must be forty degrees.

The screen door opens in and I can't move it because something's blocking the way. Something large and black in the dark.

My dad's body.

I'm still standing there, looking at its still form, when my mom pulls in, slamming the garage door with force behind her.

"Keira? Honey? Why are there no lights on?" I see her turn on a light, and then come to the hallway. She sees my dad and turns pale.

"David?" She screams and drops the cake. It rolls slowly down the hallway as she drops by my dad and turns him over.

She is sobbing and rocking him back and forth, forgetting I am standing in the dark, outside, in the cold, frigid world. She will remember me soon.

Anytime now.

Like now.

Actual happy birthdays are hard to come by in this family.

The last week has passed in one long, drawn out blur.

The first recollection I have is climbing through a window. Seriously. Eventually, my mom gathered enough sense to stumble to her cell phone and dial 911. "Sense" in the relative meaning of the word, because I'm sure the operator thought she was speaking Mandarin. As this was happening, I was crawling through the window and tripping over the lamp in my parent's dark bedroom because she wasn't letting me in. By the time I reached her, she wasn't even speaking any more, just wailing into the phone. I pried it from her hand before the operator decided to send helicopters and attack dogs.

"We need an ambulance," I said in a calm, detached voice. "I think my dad just had a heart attack." I don't really remember what happened afterwards. The next burst of memory includes me smashed into the corner of the ambulance as my mom sobbed on my shoulder. I refused to look at my dad's body; I had already realized he was probably…well, you know.

All this time, I was just sitting there, silent, and my only relevant thoughts were something like: "so this is what a ambulance looks like on the inside." Call me cruel, disgusting, twisted—I'm sure you think I deserve it. But I couldn't spare a second glance for my father.

It seemed like only two seconds later we were sitting in the waiting room. I was watching people huddled in the corners, placating family members, while my mom pulled Kleenex after Kleenex out of the box until they were all gone and littered at her feet. She was too out of it to demand any show of feeling from me, but I knew it would happen eventually.

Then the doctor was walking towards us, and I remember it perfectly— it's etched into my brain, permanent, you could ask me anything about it and I'd know. His eyes were brown. He had a mole on his left cheek. His hair was black. He wore a stethoscope that had a blue band on it. His walk was slow. He approached us deliberately. He knew. Hell, I knew. My mom…didn't know.

Then it was the next day. I had woken, clothed in my birthday outfit (no, not suit, outfit), sometime early in the morning. I could hear mom weeping through the walls. She kept on saying his name, over and over again, like it would bring him back. Like she actually cared about him. My private thoughts were that this figured somewhere between an overreaction and a midlife crisis, but I decided not to say anything sensitive the day after my dad's death.

I heard voices crooning to her and I cringed. Relatives. I had forgotten to factor them in. My mom was easy enough to deceive in her grief, but my relatives on her side of the family (who never liked dad much anyway, I should appreciate them more) would definitely pick up on it. They were always trying to find faults in me.

I breathed in a few times, then drew my face down as long as it would go and walked out my bedroom door. I was immediately besieged by half a dozen swooping family members— hugging me, crushing me, demanding that I tell them how I was feeling. I've never been one for touching, so this was very painful for me. I don't even let my mom touch me all that often. Let alone my dad. Ugh.

So if that touchy-feely day wasn't bad enough, the next day was worse. My mom's family decided to make our house an impermanent residence, and set up beds all over the place. This obviously had something to do with the fact that the most I had done to comfort my mom was to offer to call her work and tell them she'd be out for a week— but I wasn't dwelling on that.

My mom was in full-fledged faucet mode; she had already cleaned the house out of tissues and toilet paper, and so while an ever-helpful relative bounded out the door to purchase some more, she had moved on to bathroom towels. Planning for his funeral was difficult, so they told me. Personally, I didn't see anything too brain-challenging about it. For God's sake, she didn't even like him that much. In her mind, when the priest had made her promise to love him "until death do us part," the words were synonym to "until divorce in the next fifteen years, unless I shoot you before that, you bastard."

I knew I should be trying harder to continue my charade as the withdrawn, quietly grieving daughter, but really— who was buying it? Within the first hour, I was receiving sidelong glances that ranged from "she won't let her emotions out," "she's still in shock," or "her father's death plainly doesn't affect her, and she's mental." My relatives knew me—or thought they knew me— well. They knew the most I'd allow contact-wise was a quick pat on the shoulder. They knew I normally never showed my feelings; I preferred to stay an aloof, sarcastic teenager, regardless of the circumstances. That didn't stop them from holding hushed conversations in corners that would shut up the moment I saw them.

The day before the funeral, I was apprehended by my mother laughing on the phone with my friend Sierra. I should've been more careful— the house might as well have been full of secret agents from the way they were all carefully shadowing me, watching my never-changing "reaction." I thought I had found the hot spot in the corner of my closet, but only twenty minutes into the conversation (the first ten spent with Sierra's endless condolences, the other half with her trying to cheer me up, knowing I would never confess any feelings otherwise) my mom threw the door open, saw me mid-chuckle, and burst into tears. She fled into the bathroom, locked it violently, and stayed there the rest of the day. I tried to plead quietly with her through the crack— I didn't like causing her pain— but accusatory stares from my loving, understanding relatives made me give up prematurely and shut myself into my room.

The day of the funeral, I came out of my room with a game face. I sat at breakfast and silently picked at my food, expertly playing the part of the withdrawn, haunted wraith of a human who had lost her father. I hammed it up a bit by dropping my head onto the table tragically (to symbolize my utter depression). I didn't think I'd fool anyone, but my relatives looked mollified.

I continued to pretend all the way to the church. As my grandpa read the eulogy, I tried to shed some crocodile tears— but who was I kidding? The last time I cried was when I broke my wrist in the sixth grade. I contented myself to slumping down into my seat and hanging my head dejectedly. This would hopefully seem to show the weight of grief that sat on my shoulders.

God, it's hard pretending to care. My head was starting to hurt.

I could feel stares centered right between my shoulder blades. Family and friends of family had all heard of my reluctance to shed a single tear, and obviously, some people weren't buying it. I was trying so hard—but then something happened.

The stupid, fat, singing organ player woman was midway through the Ave Maria when she must have swallowed a fly— because she stopped mid-a cappela and started coughing hard enough to hack up a lung.

No else seemed to find it amusing, and yes, I know I was at a funeral (I am also aware of the fact it was my father's funeral). But it was funny. It was definitely neither the time nor the place, but consider I hadn't gotten a good laugh in five days. It's not fun to act like you're depressed and grieving when you aren't. Everyone was expecting me to be taking a hard hit— they obviously didn't know me well. Was I supposed to act like I was sad just to placate everyone else? It seemed stupid and untrue.

So, without even really thinking about it, I started laughing. It wasn't really like a hearty guffaw or anything, either, so I don't know what the big fuss was about. I let out a few snickers and then saw I was surrounded by disapproving people dressed in black and immediately stopped. One look at my mom's face told me I was screwed, though.

After the mass, my mom and I stood by the church doors and accepted millions of condolences. A few almost nasty glances were thrown my way, no doubt because of my unholy chuckle during the funeral (gasp!) but I mostly ignored them. I waved a gloomy hello to Sierra, Kayla and Amanda as they passed in the crowd.

This was the worst part. Nearly one hundred people, seeming to forget my hatred of personal contact, pulled me into bone-crushing hugs as they whispered about how sorry they were, and how he was taken away at a young age, and how he was a great man, and how they were sure he was in a better place, and blah blah blah. The outright lies they were all citing to supposedly "make me feel better" were only making me more upset. This was the equal of Jewish people coming up to Hitler's family after he committed suicide and saying, "he was a great leader. I'm sure he's happy up in Heaven. Rest his soul."

My mom and I climbed into the hearse not long after and were taken to Wilmont Cemetery by a police escort. Gross. I drew lines in the fog of the window, afraid to make eye contact with my mom. She was the only one whose feelings and opinions really mattered to me— the only reason I wasn't throwing a parade and cartwheeling down the streets wearing neon colors.

It was starting to rain when we approached the gates to Wilmont. By the time we reached his new gravesite, it was pouring. Everyone crowded in under the tiny tent, making my claustrophobia grow. Did I really need twenty people hanging all over me? I pretended to listen to the priest talk while I pulled stray threads from my silk skirt. After that, I was buffeted all around the tent as people pushed closer to toss roses onto the casket. Seriously, this was the most love my dad had received in all of his thirty-eight years combined.

Somehow, my rose missed the relatively close target of his lid and got trampled under my and others' feet. Oops.

I felt like a tremendous bitch when I looked up and saw my mom looking gravely (really, no pun intended) at me. She must have seen that. I felt guilt rise in me, but I was already trying my hardest to resist the urge to be happy. Couldn't she appreciate the effort, here?

All too soon, it was over. Mom and I were home, the relatives were all gone, and we were alone with nearly a million casseroles so we wouldn't have to bother with such mundane chores as cooking for another three years. That took away our only option of something to do. I didn't want to do anything that might upset her, and she cooked when she was nervous.

Today was pure hell. I couldn't stand being alone in the house with her— and besides; it was unnatural for her to be home for such long stretches of time. I desperately wanted to get out with some friends, plus school started in three weeks, so shopping was a necessity. However, it wasn't exactly the best time to hit my mother dearest up for a hundred dollars.

I eventually managed to whisper a quick conversation with my friend Amanda while I went to the garage to secretly throw out a casserole. (After three straight days of casserole, I was more than eager for it to run out so we could order take-out.) Amanda suggested getting together in three or so days, which she felt was a long enough "mourning period" for my dad. I thought it was ridiculous, but if it would please my mother, then I would do it.

God, a person dying is such a piece of work.

The day of the Shopping Trip was finally here, something that I had thought about constantly since my imprisonment in The Hellhole, my house. Amanda, Sierra, and Kayla all promised to be there. The fact that we had barely had a minute to talk in the week and a half since my father's death contributed largely to that. It was a rare occasion all four of us were free at the same time.

I was literally just going through the motion of putting my foot out the door when my mom turned the corner. I hadn't made my plans a secret by any means, but she still had a look on her face like she had caught me sneaking out the bedroom window with a rope made out of my duvets.

"We need to talk," she said, in her serious 'mom' voice that she very rarely used. I wondered if it was too soon since dad's death to complain and act like a self-centered teenager. Then I decided it wasn't.

"Mo-om!" I whined. "I need to be there by two! Can't we do this later?"

"No," was all she said, and turned her back on me and walked deliberately into our living room, which is used about as much as an agnostic uses a Rosary. I considered making a dash for it, but I was really very intrigued about what she wanted to talk to me about. Dad was more of the capital punisher— whoops, disciplinarian around our household. Mom wasn't home enough to do much, so anything she was bothered by had to be pretty big.

I followed meekly and sat down on the armchair instead of the cushion on the couch beside her. I figured this might be able to relate to her my independence and lack of interest in pursuing her various woes. Instead, it kind of looked like the set-up for an interview.

Mom leaned forward, crossed her legs, and said the words that would forever change my life:

"I'm sending you to Three Aspens."


My God.

No shit.

More like ho-ly shit.

Everyone in the tri-city zip code knew Three Aspens as the "recuperative center" that had two main programs: rehab (for alcoholics) and counseling (for weird, deranged people with mental issues). Since it was fairly obvious I hadn't broken into the Chardonnay this week under my relative's eagle eyes, it seemed mom was hinting at the counseling aspect of Three Aspens. The question was: why?

I reviewed the past week and three days in my head. Sure, I may have won the prize for being the happiest camper, but I in no way flaunted my relief at my dad's "tragic departure from the world of the living" (Father Smith, in dad's homily). In fact, I was the person here who was trying to save my mother's feelings— all the time she was planning to send me to a nut-job crazy home.

Besides all of that— Three Aspens quite literally was an asylum before it was reverted into its present glory. It's a huge, gothic building sitting in the middle of nearly fifty acres of land on the outskirts of Delcroix. I suspect this had less to do with privacy and more to do with the doctors' fear that their lunatic patients might try and sneak off and find their way to the city. Everyone knows that damn story— which will make it even worse when I miss the entrance to junior year because I'm caged up in therapy.

Normal, sane people like Keira Watson do not end up in Three Aspens. This is not the type of slight detail that needs to appear on my resume for Harvard next year. There were two possible options at this very moment— to spontaneously combust in indignant outrage, or somehow plead/wheedle/threaten my mom out of her plan.

When sudden flames didn't turn my armchair into a pyre, I decided on Option Two.

"Mom," I said, in my most dead-serious voice. "There is no way you are sending me there."

"Yes, there is," she responded, just as grimly. "I already filled out all the paperwork. You're supposed to be there in two days." My jaw dropped open for a brief second as my brain sputtered around frantically for a retort.

"How can you do this to me?" I decided to play on the guilt-trip. "What could I have possibly done for you to send me to the loony bin?"

"It's what you haven't been doing, Keira," she replied evenly. Her eyes were very watery, but her voice was firm. "I've consulted all of our relatives, and they agree. It is…not natural for someone to have her father…leave and not seem to be affected at all. You need help, honey."

I leaned forward, clutching the arms of the chair tightly to keep me from jumping up and strangling her. Like my relatives really had my best interests at heart! "There is nothing wrong with me. Just because I don't react the same way you do? Everyone grieves in different ways, and just because I don't grieve the way you want me to, you're sending me to Three Aspens. That's not fair and not necessary."

Mom was already shaking her head, dismissing my argument.

"No, Keira. Everyone grieves in different ways…but you're not grieving at all. You're okay with his death—" her face twisted at the word "—you've already accepted it. You laughed at his funeral. Maybe 'happy' isn't the right word, but it's the only one I can think of."

I was frozen in my chair. She had seen so easily through my pretenses, but I never thought that it would prompt her to send me to a reformed asylum.

"You're wrong," I whispered. I set about denying all of her evidence vehemently. "Do you have any idea what this is going to do to me— to us? You're the only family I have left, and you're sending me away. I have school starting in a few weeks; I can't be at Three Aspens. This could ruin my future! This could ruin my life!"

"I doubt that will happen," she retorted calmly, "but I'm willing to take that chance. Consider it a favor to myself, and your dad." I opened my mouth, and closed it.

"Dad would want me to be happy," I said lamely. Because that was just an outright lie.

"He would want you to be normal," she answered, unnecessarily stressing the word.

"Since when have you been an expert on dad?" I said bitingly, unnecessarily stressing a word right back at her. I got the response I was looking for— her face crumpled in pain, and I ignored the sudden clench of guilt in my stomach. I wondered if this was the main reason his passing hurt her so much— because she had barely known him at all, even after fifteen years.

"This is going to happen," she said, obviously struggling for control. "And I want no if's, and's or but's about it."

Oh, I still had a few of those.

I got up and stormed up the stairs. Halfway up, I paused to turn back to her; she was still frozen in the same place on the couch.

"You're not going to accomplish anything by this," I fumed at her. "You want to tear this family apart? Go ahead. Because if you do try and send me there, I'm never going to talk to you again. If you still think I have problems, try and imagine how normal our relationship will be when I refuse to ever see you again!" Having delivered my ultimatum, I stomped up the rest of the stairs and slammed my door shut.