Lily’s earphones were wrapped around her neck like a loose noose. Her mind was fogged. Memories of the first few minutes before the events of last night came back to her in waves. She slowly remembered the screaming, the crying —both hers and her mother’s—, the way she had drowned her thoughts by blasting rock music into her earphones. It had been a pity party to celebrate her birthday. For both her and her mother.
Checking her phone for the time, she found it had drained out of battery. Although she had been passed out, the pitch-black darkness in her room told her that it was between night and the coming morning.
The cotton of her white office shirt clung to her grimy skin as she sat up in her bed, blinking away drowsiness before rummaging on her bedside table for a charger to plug into her phone. While she waited for her phone to turn back on, she went to the bathroom to empty out her bladder.
She had two texts and one voicemail. The first text was from her supervisor. It read, “I know Mr. Smith approved of your day off but I still need that report by tomorrow afternoon.” Lily made a mental note for that.
The other text came from the only university friend she was still in touch with. As expected, it was a nice little birthday message sent a few minutes before midnight. The friend had a habit of being the last person to wish on her birthday and Lily found it endearing.
The voicemail was Lily’s older brother.
“Hey, happy birthday. Sorry that I almost forgot,” he paused to let out a half-hearted chuckle before continuing. “I, um, I know mom would be so proud of you. And she would tell you that if she’s still… you know? Yeah, uh, happy birthday.”
Lily immediately deleted the voicemail. He should’ve stopped after the first happy birthday.
Lily’s mother had passed away more than two months ago but the sound of her mother’s cries still bounced off the walls in a hollow echo.
It had been louder the night before; the sound of wretched wailings had sobered down to soft whimpers and pained groans. It was as if her throat had become raw from blunt scratches of dull nails.
The clock had struck midnight hours ago. The worst had passed.
Finally, Lily found the courage to turn the doorknob into her mother’s old room. She stared down at the bed where her mother had used to lie.
The living room light filling the space in a tangerine hue made the room look much smaller than it actually was.
The single bed pushed to the wall had faded brown stains on a muted pink sheet. There was a sizable desk where the medicines were kept.
The scent of antiseptic and acidic vomit clung to every surface; the cotton curtains, the cheap wood furniture. It was not pungent but no less nauseating. The images summoned Lily’s dark memories to resurface.
The last few weeks before her mother’s passing had been the hardest for both of them.
Lily could tell from the murderous look her mother gave her with every touch. And Lily had tried —God, didn’t she try— to be as gentle as humanly possible in cleaning her mother, feeding her, helping her to move around, to feel more comfortable. But each time, her mother would shoot daggers with her eyes. If she had the strength, Lily wondered if her mother would’ve strangled her with those shaky hands.
Each time, Lily could only apologise.
She was truly sorry that everything hurt for her mother. She was sorry that the room was too small. She was sorry that she was the only daughter. She was sorry that she was b—
Breathe. Inhale. Exhale.
Suddenly, it hurt Lily to breathe. Her chest tightened as if a thread had wrapped itself around her torso and tightened as the ends were yanked in opposite directions. Her muscles contracted and her lungs quickly burned the remaining oxygen. She could feel her heart thumping against her squeezed ribcage. She could hear it beating in her ears, louder and clearer than the noises of New York.
More threads appeared and slithered across her body. They wrapped around Lily’s frail limbs and restricted blood flow. Lily’s skin turned white. She shivered, legs trembling yet unable to move, paralyzed by her memories.
Her mother’s touch had been gentle and sometimes tough. Sometimes soft and sometimes calloused. Some came out of love and some disguised under something so-called. All of them had suffocated Lily the same.
The threads stopped tightening around Lily but remained glowing red against her ghostly skin. A phantom hand from the shadows reached out and clasped at Lily, squeezing her three times. Lily let out a wet and guttural gasp as she remembered what that meant.
Her family had always been…traditional. They chose to discipline with a rattan cane instead of reminders, they expected prostrations over words of apology, actions over words.
Lily couldn’t recall if anyone in her family ever said ‘I love you’ but she always knew what the three gentle squeezes meant. She used to get them each night before bed, and on the day she moved out for college, and again when she moved into her new apartment across the state.
It was the final thing her mother left her with, before taking her last breath.
If she pushed aside the memories of her mother’s glares and groans, Lily would be left with remembering those three squeezes. But if Lily did that, she would have erased half of all that made up their mother-and-daughter relationship.
As the realization dawned upon Lily, the cutting threads on her loosened further. She willed herself to leave the room, closed the door, and fell to the floor.
As she moved, the threads glided in the air around her, engulfing her body into the shape of a ballgown. Her mother’s thick bedroom door still could not muffle the constant cries Lily was used to hearing from behind them.
The sound of obnoxiously loud sirens finally did the trick. Those sirens made Lily feel like someone would come to either arrest or ward her; any minute now, a police car or an ambulance would crash through the wall to take her away from the place. Afterall, the last time an ambulance was called to her unit was not too long ago. If she tried hard enough, she could even remember the faces of the paramedics personnel who had manoeuvred a stretcher in and out of the elevator to reach their fourth-floor apartment. That was the day, a part of Lily had died alongside her mother.
She wondered if she preferred being overwhelmed by the familiar sound of loud sirens or the broken tones of her mother’s cries. She wished to drown the noises with her own voice. Make it a competition of who could cry the loudest. Make it something to mourn over.
But she wanted to be surrounded by silence. And more than anything, it would be rude to bother the neighbours on a random Thursday morning.
So when Lily opened her mouth wide and stretched her jaw muscles until the hinges clicked, she stuffed the fat of her palm into her mouth and bit down as hard as she could. She could taste salt underneath her tongue.Her frail body shook with every hiccup, each one more violent than the previous one. Still, she swallowed every sound that threatened to climb out of her throat. With every pathetic whimper that escaped, she slammed her free fist onto the tiled floor and then scratched the smooth surface with brittle nails.
The uncomfortable sensation of her nails scraping the grout between the floor tiles gave her mind something else to fixate on. The contrast between the cold floor she could feel with one hand and the persistent warmth on the hand still stuffed in her mouth was yet another familiar sensation. It reminded her of holding onto a clay mug filled with sweet tea, thinking of that gave her a reason to get off the floor.
Lily stood in her kitchen, purposefully ignoring the half-a-week-old dishes and leftovers piled up in the small sink, and retrieved the sole cup on the drying rack.
Red threads still clung to her damp skin, swaying with her movements, their weight on her skin lessening little by little as she fell back into her routines and let habitual instincts take charge. It might have taken her twice longer than usual but she finally managed to secure the source of warmth that whispered nothing but comfort. As both hands wrapped around her cup, the chill of the early morning in her empty apartment bothered her less. The mouthful of hot tea was a better gag than her own shaky hands.
The tea got cold pretty quickly. By the time the cup was half-full, morning sunlight had slipped through the slits underneath the curtains and other residents had risen from their slumber. Lily could hear the shower running next door. Decidedly, the hums and thrums of regular people starting their day helped her to sync her breathing better than the sound of traffic honks, blaring sirens, or a ghost’s weeping. Apart from those, the first few hours of the day were usually quiet. That was until three sharp raps on her front door cut through the tranquillity.
Lily was not expecting any guest that morning, nor did she ever, on any other day for that matter, yet she found herself rushing towards the door. When she opened the door, she was met by the enthusiastic face of her neighbor, Amy.
Amy was fresh out of the shower, strands of wet hair framing her round face and drawing attention to the dark circles under her eyes. Her outfit was a little disorganized and baggy clothes hung on her body awkwardly in a way that was unintentional. Regardless, Lily knew she looked worse and embarrassment started to crawl underneath her skin, slowed down only by the toothy grin on Amy’s face. Amy was holding a box of oranges.
“Hey! I have so many of these from when my parents stopped by last weekend. Would you like to have some?” Despite the question posed, Lily understood that Amy was not really going to take no for an answer. Her cheeky smile said it all.
Lily extended her arms to take the box from Amy and gestured with her head to invite her in, apologizing silently for the mess in the kitchen by bowing her head multiple times even though Amy was polite enough to not point it out. After putting down the orange box on the dining table, she pointed toward the switch on the wall and said, “You can turn on the lights if you want.”But Amy walked past the switch and crossed the living room to pull back the curtains, letting the gentle morning light chase away the darkness of last night.
The neighbor stood in the middle of the living room for a second, quite literally beaming with light, and Lily felt lotuses bloom in the thick red-brown liquid that was her blood and a new wave of warmth spread across her chest. When she raised her hands to wrap them around herself, she noticed that the red threads were not there anymore and her mother’s cries were the quietest they had ever been since the day she died. Lily smiled.
“Sorry to bother you this early. I was hoping to catch you before you go to work,” Amy said as she walked back towards the dining table to help take some oranges out of the box for them to eat.
“You really didn’t have to. I actually took a day off today.”
“Oh, are you okay?”
Lily knew Amy was asking if she was physically ill but the question formed a lump in her throat that she forcefully swallowed like acidic bile before replying. “My birthday was yesterday,” she answered simply.
At its mention, she heard her mother scoff loudly from the other room, just a short noise that came out of her mouth, but she knew Amy did not hear it. Nobody else could.
“Belated happy birthday! Aw, I should’ve brought you a cake.”
Lily laughed sincerely. “It’s fine,” she reassured, waving her hand dismissively for emphasis. “I prefer oranges anyway.”
Her hands trembled as she tried to peel an orange, that Amy took to do it for both of them, offering the first three segments to Lily before feeding herself.
As a thank you and to be a decent host, Lily excused herself to wash a mug that had been in the sink and proceeded to make her guest a drink.
She also started loading the dishwasher with dirty plates and cups, trashed out the takeout boxes, and profusely apologized for the mess while Amy simply continued to enjoy her hot drink.
By the time Amy had to leave for her job, Lily could only feel a dull ache in her chest and her mother’s weeping had quieted down. The pain that had haunted her through the night and into the morning began to feel more like a fading nightmare.
It was the day after her birthday, and Lily felt like it was worth waking up.