And the Silence is a Beautiful Thing

by Tiffany Wang

I was told my mother was officially diagnosed when she was twenty-four, but she'd lost her mind long before then. Ever since she was eighteen, the shadows began speaking to her, caressing her, hugging her, slapping her across the face. They danced with her day and night, switching masks as angels or demons, always lingering close by. She first met my father in the hospital after hours of surgery, because the voices wanted to see what color her heart was and so did she.

My father was a man who hated the city where he worked and saw my mother as more than the surrounding gray world. Perhaps he was drawn to her golden hair, her crimson lips — her brilliant thoughts, which became so closely interlocked with the whispers by the end that it was impossible to separate the two. Somehow, though, she was deemed fit and released from the hospital, with prescribed medication clanking in her drawstring bag. After that, my parents dated, eloped, and moved away, to the place where my father was born.

But if it had been me, I would have torn up any discharge papers I could find. I would have made sure she had proper care and locked her in and thrown away the key and never looked back, because anything was better than her —

(Katie, Katie — darling, can't you see my friends, waving there from the ocean? introduce you one day, you know, but first they want to meet me. Oh, don't worry, you can stay right here in the house, where you can watch me from the window with Man and Kylan. Don't be silly, darling, of course they're real, I talk to them all the time, don't I? Yes, Katie, they're right here, I don't understand why you can't see them, don't you hear them speaking? They'll take you to find me soon, real soon — I promise.)

— and even now she was still everywhere, lingering in the darkened corners of the house.

God, make it stop.

I remembered the rattle of orange bottles, which held the snowy pills that tamed her mind and made the smoky images vanish for a short while. It was then that we could go down to the beach and play, building castles out of shells. When I was eleven, she emptied all the white capsules into the water and watched as they melted into nothingness. She smiled and told me that Jillian had informed her she didn't need her life to be dictated by some useless meds — and, if I loved her, it would be our secret. One month later, she walked into the ocean and never came back, because she discovered that she loved the voices more than she loved us.

Insanity was hereditary.

It was what Emily Song told me a few days ago, as we were cutting up a frog in biology. It was my turn to make the incision, in a horizontal strike across the poor thing's belly. As I did, my hands were shaking as I felt the frog's rubbery skin fray apart —

(No, Katie, it's not supposed to hurt. No, sweetheart, don't cry, don't cry. I'm royal, you know, so all my subjects demand this from me and, because you're my daughter, they demand it from you too. Katie, it's alright, I promise. Just don't move and this will just sting — Katie, come back! KATIE! )

— and I lost my grip on the knife as it clattered to the table. Emily sighed and reached over to grab it, as I bit down on my lower lip and blood bloomed.

"You haven't been to the ocean in a while, have you?" she said lightly. When I turned to face her, she shrugged. "I used to see you down there sometimes. Must take guts after — well. You know."

I hesitated. "I like it there," I said. "I'll go back soon."

The look in her eyes was one of complete pity.

"Insanity's hereditary, you know," she said sympathetically. Then, she went back to slicing into the frog, and the entire time she was pulling apart its intestines, I was thinking that she had no idea.

My mother had a tattoo of three seahorses on the inside of her left forearm. She told my father it was to celebrate our little family, but I knew she'd gotten it during her month of "recovery." Secretly, I was positive that the hissing suggestions of Jillian and Kylan had had something to do with it.

Two months ago, I stood outside the Lucky Dime Tattoo Parlor, with the outside walls painted an ashy blue-gray, and signs peeling away from the windows. I planned on getting something simple on my side, to cover up the faded scars from half a decade ago. As I rattled around the loose change in my pocket, pondering how to convince the man behind the counter to give me a tattoo without parental approval, the dim sunlight caught my forearm. There, steadily creeping up my skin, was the faint outline of three seahorses, two larger than the third.

I lurched away from the building as a ghost tried to claw its way into my head. I ran home as fast as I could and locked the door behind me, praying that 1-3/4" of oak could keep out the swath of noises beginning to fill my ears. As the silence stretched over me, the tattoo grew clearer, stamping down into my bones.

So I got rid of it the only way I could — with my father's razor, as I sat cross-legged on the tile floor. When I was done, everything was a sharp, radiant kind of quiet, except for the ragged exhale of my breaths.

After that, I unpacked all my winter clothes and began wearing long sleeves and avoided the ocean, because I couldn't bear to have its manic salt graze the scabbing scars.

I was constantly terrified that I would be just like her. It was a ridiculous notion to think that one day, my mind would suddenly flip a switch, cranking out the voices that I hid from. Ridiculous and crazy — but there were moments when I felt like I was slipping into the place my mother had been a part of.

When she was eighteen and first imagined the voices that eventually consumed her, my grandparents thought it was just a phase. They signed her up for the farthest university from them and shipped her off to an overcrowded city, where they hoped she would just disappear into the masses. She became someone else's problem, and that was the way it remained.

For her funeral, it was just me, my father, and the local priest. When the service was over and we'd thrown the coffin into the September ground, my father gathered me in his arms. "You'll always be your mother's girl," he said, crushing me to his chest.

I didn't tell him that was exactly what I was afraid of.

There was one night when she wouldn't stop screaming.

It was after she'd been so convinced that she had wings. She spent hours describing them to me —(Look how gorgeous they are, darling. Jillian likes the color best because she says it reminds her of snow, but I think I like how free they make me feel. be flying outside in a while, if you'd like to come. No, 1 won't fall — I'm an angel, dear. Angels don't ever fall.)

—but my father caught up with her as she was walking up the sloping incline, which overlooked the sea. He tore after her, blocking her way as he yelled, "Katherine, what the hell are you doing?"

She started to scream, her voice shredding the air and stuffing my brain. She was cast in the smoky light of the stars as she tried to pull away from him, reaching out towards the ghosts that only she saw and begging for them to help her. When they did nothing, she hit my father, but he pulled her close and held her to him.

I hid behind him, and I saw her focus on me. Her eyes widened, tears reflected in her eyes and pooling down her cheeks. Her screaming instantly cut off, as her voice dropped to a low, hoarse growl. "Tell him I need to go," she choked out, and that was the only thing she repeated the entire trek back to our house. "I need to, I need to, 1 need to."

A few weeks later, she got her wish.

After the incident with the frog, I worried even more. After all, I was nearly eighteen, around the same age my mother was when she first "met" Jillian and Kylan. I thought I was starting to hear the flutter of sounds wherever I went — so I went down to the shore to collect my thoughts, pushing my sleeves up to my elbows.

The waves pranced around my legs cheerfully. Hello Katie, they chimed sweetly, kissing my cheeks softly.

Hello, hello, hello.

And here was the problem —Jesus Christ, all they ever said was hello, filling my ears with the gorgeous, terrible words that I loved.

I put my right hand in the air and waved weakly. "Hello," I said back.

My father was sitting at the dinner table when I arrived back at the house, thumbing through old photo albums from the past. I caught a glimpse of my mother's grin, before he flipped the page and her smile blurred into my baby picture, beaming crookedly.

"Where have you been, Katie?" he asked.

"Beach," I replied carefully.

He looked up at me. "Are you sure you should be going there?" he said, just as carefully. He let the words he couldn't say hang thick in the air —

(No, Robert, I'm just taking a walk down to the water later. Yes, I'm taking the medication and, yes, I'm fine. No, no reason, I just think it's a stunning sight, don't you? You can leave Katie with me for a little while. No, darling, we'll both be okay. I love you.)

— as a stillness blanketed us. There was no whispering, no voices —just the two of us, staring at one another. I felt the healing scars carved into my wrist and thought that I should tell him, maybe in a single, quick sentence. I would share how scared I was and the sounds I was hearing and then he could take me to the hospital where he worked to find me what I needed to stay sane.

He repeated my name hesitatingly, but I found that, just as my mother had never told him about dumping her pills in the ocean, I couldn't speak to him either. I didn't want to break whatever he still had left within him, because he wanted me to be normal and happy, just like what he'd wanted for her. The second I told him, it would all come crashing to an end.

"I'll be okay," I said. "I love you."

Then I went up to my room and shut the door. I knew I would tell him one day.

But today was not that day.

That night, a dim haze clouded over the moon. I slipped out of the house and found myself facing the sea. I sat down on the rocks gathered farther back from where civilization met with sand, and I looked out at the waves that stretched before me.

And everything was beautifully, maddeningly silent, just like it had always been.