Hell is regret.
I erased it, then I wrote it again: hell is regret. Dr. Grey, my psychiatrist, wouldn’t approve of such rancorous wording. But this was his idea, after all.
I’m writing from my seat on the train as it lurches along the tracks. The trembling car is shaking my handwriting, making my first line look like child’s handwriting or like I’m writing with my wrong hand. It’s a beautiful day for a train ride—the sky is blue, and the clouds are small, pure islands in that depth—but this is not reflected on my face. You see, it’s been five years this month, and the gift of those years was not wisdom. It was a mind full of slippery uncertainty, in which I’m drowning invisibly on my way to a toothier grin. All I wish for these days—in quiet moments like these—is that I win a lesser good, and memories without so much tongue that they die on the tips of their syllables.
At first, I had something else written about a pendulum, like the Sword of Damocles hovering, its tip carving lines into my face, dipping into each organ until it finds its ingress into my heart. And I stand underneath like a sword swallower, beckoning. But that was a bit much, I thought, so I erased it. Not that it matters. I no longer believe my story is even about me: every word and every thought is about Mya. My eyes were—and will forever be—for her relevance, and, from the seat of my apathy, her posterity.
Dr. Grey expressly asked me to write about more than just Mya. He said I should also think about Michael and Cassie. Michael, my childhood best friend, and Cassie, my first girlfriend. They were like signposts I ignored, or like stabs in time where I coiled and became stuck until the next came along and tried to free me.
To hell with it, though. Mya was my wife. She was the single spot of earth that covered the planet, a blip in time that echoes infinitely—a tumor, tiny and malignant, that destroys the body. There are volumes to write on Mya—but which volumes? How about the good stuff? When we met in college, when I could still run my hands through her black hair, brush her pale cheeks, and stare into her dark eyes; when I could lay with her and see the morning mist swirling against our window, choking everything beyond the diameter of our walls. Moments like those were even more beautiful for how I embellish them now. Those perfect moments are like a lane of cherry blossoms bobbing around our heads as thick as snow, like crowns. And when she died, each of them were plucked.
That was five years ago. That’s how I’ve come to be on this train, watching the landscape go from green to brown to grey, slowly infected by the approaching city. It was Dr. Grey’s suggestion that I visit the city. Something about catharsis or closure. But even after all our time together, I’m not sure he understands how the ancient edifices of the college and the city’s bleak, unchanging streets became the dark heart and veins of my regret, the way they were once integral to my happiest memories. He suggested this journal, too. Though all I have at the moment is three words. The rest of my thoughts are just bouncing off the page.
So, I just stare at my notebook, a pencil firm and ready in my fingers, while the train wheezes and rumbles aggressively down the track—the noise and vibration somewhere below my consciousness. However, as the train neared the city—so close I could see the edge of its ancient walls—my thoughts were interrupted by a sudden and atypical tremble in my seat. The train then shook more forcefully, guiding my hands onto the armrests. The pressure against my back indicated the change in speed, confirmed by the wheels squealing to a halt, audible even from within the car. Once the train was still, my fellow travelers looked around at each other with relief and nervous laughter, while the crackling intercom explained, in the vaguest terms possible, that there was something blocking the tracks. There would be a potentially significant delay. This was also beneath my conscious interest.
It had to be kismet that we stopped right there, right next to a painfully familiar borough that lay across the field upon which the train idled. There was a line of old apartment buildings, upon which I could just make out individual figures on the fire escapes, gathering on their landings to smoke, chat, laugh, stare toward the old city, stare at us.
I looked back down at my page and my one line, then to my left again. From my window, I swept my gaze across the reeds and the grass poking through the snow, traveled over the short, neglected slats of a fence—which neither contained nor excluded, and marked no division—to the foot of one of the buildings: a run-down, six storey walkup. It still looked decrepit. It was built sometime in the 30s or 40s maybe. It was just old enough to have escaped the dark ages of architecture from the 60s to the 90s. In this regard, I had come to find the building’s dilapidation quaint and full of character—the sort of thing you discover only after it’s become your life.
The freshest coat of blue paint on its walls isn’t that fresh. It had begun chipping away, exposing sections of red, which itself had chipped to reveal yellow paint, and so on down to the plain grey wood from which the building was built, rebuilt, and girded for 60 years. Together, the buildings looked like dull Jackson Pollack paintings, lined up at varying angles, heights, and compositions. The building upon which my gaze landed—and upon which I landed years before—looked unremarkable amongst them. It had four apartments per floor, each with stairs outside the building to each landing, as well as narrow halls and a stairway inside.
Evening was creeping across the sky toward the sun, which brought out each colour of the paint. I still remembered how the wooden rails felt against my hand, and how precarious the steps creaked under my weight: it had the sort of wear and tear you could almost hear by seeing it.
I still heard it. I still saw Mya when I closed my eyes. . .
My eyes shot open. I looked down at my notebook. My eyes grew unfocused and I looked through the pages, through my legs, through the train. Everything around me disappeared and images flashed across my sight: Mya’s face, an inferno, the look and touch of her passion, buildings crumbling, Mya’s frantic eyes, immolation. . . I wasn’t thinking right.
Hell is regret.
* * * * * *
The steps outside the building were worn grey, and they creaked even under Mya’s slight steps. The sound accompanied the picture perfectly, and the wind speaking through each uncertain angle and broken step of the stairway completed the picture of a late summer afternoon.
There was a different poetry in the wind’s voice as it swept Mya’s straight dark hair along her high cheekbones. Her skin was naturally pale, and accentuated by the dolorous application of makeup that surrounded her eyes. Mya grew into her beauty late, which caused her to discourage it with dark make-ups once it arrived. Her lips were full, coloured dark and red, and her cheek and jaw were smooth and pleasantly shaped down to her long neck.
With each step up the stairs, her black and green plaid skirt swished around her legs just above her long black socks. Tucked into the skirt was an obscure band t-shirt with an abstract, spiky logo. As much as she didn’t want to stand out, she also didn’t want to fit in.
The deepening sky that made the buildings eye-catching from the train was slowly fading further across the sky. Mya had attended only twenty minutes of the new student orientation before realizing that the group was just being shepherded around the campus, while being provided the pertinent information in print. She decided early that anything not covered in her brochures, she would find out on her own.
It was not exactly an auspicious twenty minutes watching the other students in the group. She felt bizarre amongst them, like a human amongst aliens or vice versa. Mya had spent two years after high school traveling and painting. It was her belief that one’s time on earth inexorably added experience unique from occurrence, like rings on a tree. Although she was united with the group in their common attendance at the university, it felt like being surrounded by a cluster of little brothers.
As the orientation entered one of the ostentatious old buildings, she quietly slipped away. She decided to board a bus for the old city, never having been there. She had heard of the old city’s obnoxious wealth and its almost unfathomable history, both of which would belittle nearly anyone who walked within it, through it, or under it. Apparently, her father lived in one of those grand buildings.
Ultimately, she was out for much of the day, returning to her building in the late afternoon. She made her way back-and-forth up the outside stairs to her fourth-floor apartment. Each time she was on the stairs, she measured her steps carefully. She figured some of the ancient wood’s durability was awaiting its single, final step. That’s all she would need after such a day.
As she passed the second-floor landing, she had to dodge the young man climbing out of a window of the west corner apartment. When he straightened, she saw he was tall and broad like an athlete. However, it was the first day of the new semester, so he was still well-fed, and he had a bit of an unattractive paunch. Overall, this made him look fairly average, perhaps hovering on the borders of being handsome with his dark brown eyes and short brown hair, thick cheekbones, and a slightly dimpled chin.
The young man couldn’t tell what impression he had made on the raven-haired girl. He expected he looked like he was either robbing the apartment he stepped from, or maybe that he was simply an idiot. At first, he stood there dumbly, shifting from foot to foot as he looked down at her—Mya had such a deep stare that those five seconds could feel like a minute. He did, however, finally attempt to stammer an unsolicited explanation.
“The door, it’s jammed shut, so I was, uh…” Water damage had wedged his back door shut—perhaps permanently. He had seen something through the window of which he hoped to gain a less obstructed view.
“I-I’m Colin,” he stuttered hurriedly. After a slightly lingering, amused glance, Mya continued by up the stairs without further acknowledging him or his words. Mya didn’t intend to be overtly rude or impolite. Rather, like the college’s orientation, she simply didn’t bother with things or people that didn’t matter. That was the category into which Colin fell that day.
“Mya.” She surprised herself by responding.
As she reached the top step of her fourth-floor landing, she looked out in the distance at the old city. There was a small bright spot and a twisting black pillar rising above it. Somewhere amongst the stodgy old buildings she had visited just that day, there was a fire. She could see the thin line of smoke forming, black at the bottom and fading into grey, then disappearing into the darkening clouds. She imagined the plume turning strangely, like escaping ghosts making despairing faces at the city around them. This made her smile.
Mya stopped and watched the smoke rise. Her smile faded. She stepped closer to the railing and rubbed her arms, though it wasn’t cold. With the sun now behind her building, the sudden saucer of thick cloud over the old city made it seem even dimmer than it was a few minutes prior. On the other side of the sky, above the old city, the apparition of the moon had appeared behind the new cloud, looking like it was covered by a sheer fabric. It was an illusion of itself—there, but not. It reminded her of how she felt at the orientation and in the old city.
Mya’s stomach bumped against the balcony railing. She had been walking toward the edge. She looked down at the ground. It would have been a steep drop had the wooden staircase been as unstable as it looked and sounded. Still staring at the ground, she saw the top of Colin’s head poke out from his own landing as he stared off toward the pillar of smoke in the old city. Colin had stepped into the rail in much the same manner as Mya. She stared down at him. He looked back and forth, then up. As their eyes met, Mya stepped back quickly and paused. She looked once more at the fire in the distance, then unlocked her door and entered her apartment.
The building had a strange smell, as many old buildings do. On her first night, Mya wrote in her notebook, “it’s musty, of course, and stilted like the pages of an old book. But dank sour notes drift through it like fingers flicking through the pages.” The stains of grief and affliction (Mya felt certain there had been little joy within her walls) had been absorbed into the crooked hardwood slats and between the endless layers of paint on the wall. It didn’t bother her much, as the odour would quickly be overwhelmed by the smell of paint and turpentine that followed her wherever she stayed.
She would also find the building had an aural equivalent to that smell. The walls were, evidently, extremely thin. She frequently overheard conversations and other disturbances. On one side of her, she had overheard a couple’s loud and violent argument, which precipitated the slamming of a door, and was followed by another five minutes of wild screaming, presumably to an empty room. She also heard the girl who lived on the other side. Her pitiable, desperate weeping—like a halting moan—was a nightly occurrence. Mya would never actually meet her immediate neighbours, but her individual sensory experiences of their lives did not encourage her to seek an introduction.
Mya’s pea-green inner hallway door led to a fully-furnished apartment, barely bigger than a bachelor suite, but it suited Mya well. From the door, there was a short corridor that connected to a bathroom, then opened out into the combination living area and kitchen. There was no proper bedroom, of course, so she slept on the daybed that stretched along the wall adjoining the windows and balcony door. The rest of the furniture was sparse—just a short, narrow table for her stereo and a very small tube TV that saw little play. She kept the floorspace as clear as possible, as it was often her favourite easel. She almost always had a large canvas in progress that occupied nearly the entire hardwood floor between her window and the kitchen. In the corners, there were already rows of finished paintings, and her mottled green walls were adorned by the few with which she wasn’t entirely unhappy. Also dotting the floor were the implements of her work: her brushes, knives, half-rolled tubes of paint, and jars of turpentine. It was either a miracle or a sixth sense that Mya never stepped on, through, or into any of it. She imagined her careful steps through the clutter must look like a non-rhythmic interpretive dance.
Mya decided she would go to bed early that night, though there were many hours left with which she could still work. She normally would. It had been a long day, though, of banal smiles and chipper college-life platitudes, followed by dour faces and disapproving frowns in the old city. She would enjoy watching the students’ existential hedonism melt once they realized they actual responsibilities.
Mya’s bathroom was a typical sort of mess, with empty toilet paper rolls, an upended garbage, and an uncovered toothpaste tube. The only attempt at order in the room was her pill bottles, lined up reverently, like soldiers at attention against the wall, or like prisoners lined up for the firing squad. As she did every night, Mya hesitated for a moment, two sides of a losing argument playing out in a split second, before studiously tapping a codeine and a sleeping pill into her hand and bending down to her sink to wash them down.
A few minutes later she was lying on her daybed with the covers pulled right up under her chin, and her arms folded above her head. Her eyes were wide—wider and less tired than at any point that evening—and she stared up at her ceiling, which was patterned with concentric rusty circles of water damage. After years of faulty plumbing and other accidents, they looked like targets. There was also one solitary, deep crimson circle on the ceiling right above her daybed that told a more morbid story.
The pills she had ingested slowly absorbed into her stomach lining and entered her bloodstream, and her wide-eyed survey of her ceiling finally started to blur. Within a few minutes of that, she fell asleep and into a familiar nightmare. Part of Mya’s rationale for taking the pills was to make her sleep black, not understanding that codeine, especially combined with the sleeping pill, actually caused her vivid dreams.
That night, her subconscious dropped her, as it always did, in a little moment of inevitability—a smirk of time that once wedged itself like a rock in her stomach. It started with her boyfriend’s inexplicably blurry face. He was on top of her, and as typically oblivious as any high school boy. However, he had rows of teeth like a shark inside his grin, and sharp claws with which he grabbed and scratched at her, while his unnatural weight held her tight beneath him. She could feel each drop of his sweat pattering against her face and body like rain. She refused to look, but she could gauge every awkward, sloppy thrust by its desperately uncomfortable, painful movement.
They were in her childhood bedroom, but with the childhood sucked out of it: there was just a canopy bed, night table, desk, a Joy Division poster, and an easel with a painting on it that she had never ever, in real life, painted: it was of a black, brutish figure standing on a dark background. Somehow it was watching her, its face black and eyes bright. As she was despoiled by the monster on top of her, she stared at the monster in the painting. It started to move. Its hands appeared at its face, clawing lines of blood and tearing its flesh off in strips until it was scattered across the bottom of the painting. Its maw opened and it started to scream—a shriek she could somehow hear. Perhaps it was her own. She turned away and didn’t look again.
She waited for the creature on top of her to finish his ritual, stammer his apology, and leave. Mya was disengaged from it all, until she felt the blinding flash of pain in her stomach. Once. Then again, worse. She winced hard, which the man crassly misinterpreted as encouragement, his row of fangs biting down on her shoulder and neck. Mya started to get scared, and the surreality in the experience becomes apparent even in the dream. Yet, it wasn’t the animal on top of her, clawing at her, nor the demonic figure in the painting that was stretching its arms toward her, that caused her alarm. She tried to calm her features: she told herself the pain was nothing. It had happened a few times before, but it was nothing, just gas, bloating, anything that would just go away. Three, four, then five more times the pain repeated, growing more intense and welling up inside of her like a dam had burst. With a frantic and vicious flail, she threw the monster off her.
“No, go away, go away!” She screamed.
“We’re not done!” the beast exclaimed, his voice lowering to a growl as Mya scrambled away.
Doubled over, Mya stumbled out of the room to the bathroom. Her knees slammed down hard in front of the toilet and she violently expelled the contents of her stomach—once, then again and again. The water in the bowl slowly became thick and deep and red. Finally finished, she could see herself in the blood, staring back at herself. And behind her, the monster from the painting crept blackly into the bathroom behind her, its face scarred and smouldering. Its hands still reached. He grabbed hold of her hair and tore her head back. She gasped.
Mya woke up, her hands holding her stomach. She never sees what happens next, for which she was thankful. It was never more than an hour or two after she laid down that the dream reignited her consciousness, and like every night, she was finally free to fall into a dreamless sleep.