Grandfather’s voice grumbled through the walls. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he stood at the end of the hall where my wing linked to the main house. I wanted to seal it off and be alone, but Grandfather wouldn’t give me the key.
“I said come here.”
My hesitation would only make him angrier, but I couldn’t move. My body anchored to the chair and images of Grandfather’s face flashed in my vision: his squinting eyes, red cheeks glazed with sweat, and the bulging vein that pulsed in his neck.
Grandfather towered in the doorframe, glaring at me with tarmac eyes that reminded me of all the times I’d fallen in the park. I’d limp over to where the parents sat with the other injured children, nursing their cuts, wiping the tears off their cheeks. Grandfather never took me to the park; he told me to go alone.
“I saw you.”
He clenched his hands into tight balls by his sides. He didn’t touch me, but I felt an accusatory finger jab my chest. His fists shook, shook like when the walls first started melting. Shook like he wanted to hit me, to tell me to knock it off, get my mind straight. My head whined, and he was everywhere. Yelling. Inside and outside. I had it worse when I was younger. My father spanked me with a shovel. I had it worse.
“Look at me.”
My head didn’t move; it was too heavy to lift. My eyes locked onto his knuckles. Red. Chapped. I forced thick air out of my lungs, then sucked it back in again. A sigh ripped through the silence, prompting me to apologise for something.
“I said look at me!”
I flinched as his fist came down on top of the dresser, sending the bottles scattering for safety. The picture frame toppled over, but this time nothing broke. Without thinking, I pulled my knees up and buried my head in between them. Hands pulled at my hair as I clenched my eyelids.
Hiding was something he hated, but he did it too. When the school said I was strange, when the doctor came, when the white van pulled up. He hid me. In the cupboard. Under the stairs. Behind the sofa. There’s nothing wrong with him, you can’t take him. Don’t take him away from me!
“What are you doing?”
His hands clawed my knees until they dropped down, then he shook me hard, smacking my spine against the back of the chair. Warm flecks of spit flicked against my face. He pulled my arms down and forced my fingers open so that the strands of hair fell onto the ground. I realised that my throat was hoarse; I was screaming.
I worked on my breathing. He inspected my pupils, and then turned back to the dresser and groaned. Heat bubbled up from my stomach to my throat. He spun around and ripped me out of the chair, pulling me into an uncomfortable hug that hurt my neck. I struggled, convinced that he was trying to smother me, but he held on until I went limp. Slowly, the heat slipped back down my throat and disappeared.
“Why did you spit the pills out?”
Holding me at arm’s length, he lowered himself so we were at eye level. I couldn’t tell him the truth. I couldn’t tell him that the pills dulled my senses, that I could see clearly without them, that this reality, this warped reality that he thought was true was false, and I was the only person that knew it. No. That was crazy. That was insane. I tried to break eye contact, but he grabbed my face and forced it into position.
“Do you want to go back? Do you want to be locked up again?”
After attempting to shake my head in his tight grasp, I squeaked out a fragile “no”. With a hand still on my face, he pointed to the bed. Inside, I wanted to lash out and hit him, but I didn’t want to be sent back to the institute.
“Get into bed.”
He held out my pyjamas whilst trying to avert his gaze to the other side of the room. Preferring to sleep naked, I ignored his hand and pulled myself beneath the covers. The coolness of the sheets soothed my skin. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. I wondered if he’d noticed; if he’d try to give me “the talk”. I’d already had it in the institute, but I wanted to know if he’d try. His eyes wobbled like warm jelly when he tried, when he wanted my approval. Like last year when he bought me a puppy because it was the anniversary of Mum’s death, and he thought I wanted a dog even though I wanted a rabbit. Or a kitten. Or maybe that wasn’t last year. It was before the institute. Or after. Or both.
“Look, it’s not… difficult. If you don’t take them, you go back.”
He fished the bottles from the floor and tipped an array of pills into his palm. He arranged them into a multi-coloured smiley face. It would’ve been appealing if I were four. I opened my mouth and he forced them in, making sure I swallowed.
“Jon, I don’t want you to go back.”
My jaw ached to ask why he never said that before I’d had a bottle of mind-numbing pills tipped down my throat, but my insides felt cloudy. My mind numbed. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. I pulled and pushed air through my mouth and stared at the ceiling. I felt him move towards the door. I attempted to tell him to stay, but I was falling into a pit of smoke. My eyes drifted, landing on the bottle of pills on top of the dresser, before I forced out the words, ”Gramps… I don’t want to go back, either.”
Chaz Josephs was born in Bradford, United Kingdom, in 1992. Her father is a Jamaican immigrant and her mother was born and raised in a tiny town in the Yorkshire countryside — it’s quite a mix. She doesn’t remember a time in her life when she hasn’t been telling stories. As a child, she used to make up bedtime stories for her sisters, and as she got older she started to write them down.