Will He Come Back?

IMG00026 This is my ex cradling my cat — our cat, back then — circa 2009.

Let me step again and give you a content warning here: this post discusses domestic violence. If you want a history of him and me, check here first.

Half of the reason why I left him was the cat. I took care of her. I trained her as well as I could. In sickness or health, she’s the one cat I’ve owned who doesn’t go outside the box. Early on, I believed my bad behavior caused him to abuse me, so it never crossed my mind that he’d hurt an innocent kitten. He did, and not infrequently. I started trying to leave as soon as it happened, with my cat in my arms, but it was like he had a sixth sense about us. He’d notice, and he’d put a stop to it. He’d be extra careful not to leave marks, to make sure I couldn’t call in help and show them evidence.

But he could be sweet, too. Any abuser can. The cat loved him, and he loved her, as much as he could love another living thing. I stayed with him for years because of how he’d cry over his mistakes, or tremble over his fears. Like an innocent, or a child. He’d refer to these moments as “showing his true self”. I don’t agree — it wasn’t a fake or unreal person who abused me. It was him. But the scared, vulnerable boy wasn’t fake either.

After I left him, I wanted to help him move on with his life, but I could only take so much. I couldn’t spend every evening on the phone, trying to walk him through basic household tasks like operating the coffee machine. I couldn’t give him money for rent every month; I had my own life to live. I tried and tried to cut off contact with him, but he’d keep sending me messages, no matter what. Finally, almost a year after we broke up, I sent him an email saying I’d contact the police if he kept trying to speak with me. He listened, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Today, I regretted that.

If I could see the future, even at a heavy price, I’d use it to see if my ex will ever reenter my life. I know that cutting off contact was the right thing to do for both of us. It stopped him from manipulating me. It stopped me from enabling him, or feeling constantly afraid.

But today, four years after our breakup, a reminder of him entered my life in the strangest way. I went to get a library card, only to find that he still has books out under my name.

The lady at the checkout desk said, “Maybe it’s worth getting in touch with an old friend, if you think they might be able to recover the book for you.”

I almost laughed. I left the library feeling okay. I’m used to taking responsibility for things he helped (or forced) me to thoroughly fuck up. I would pay the replacement fee and get on with my life.

Unfortunately, the thought of him didn’t leave me. I started to worry, as I do every week or two, when I have a thought or a dream about him. I cut off contact, so I don’t know where he is. Before, he would have messaged me if he was angry or upset or planning to come and find me. But now? He could be preparing to turn up at my doorstep with a gun, and I’d never know.

I tell myself I’m safe. It’s been a while. He’s probably moved on, and if he’s found another person to abuse, at least he has a police record thanks to me, so they’ll take any reports more seriously.

hope he has moved on. I hope he’s gotten help. I loved him once, I saw the good sides of him, and I want a good life for him. I hope he understands that me leaving him wasn’t an act borne from hatred or retribution, but from fear for myself, and from a wish that it’d drive him to understand that his abusive behavior is serious enough to require intervention. I hope he’s out there living a good life, never even allowing me to cross his mind.

I hope he’s not blaming me for all the ways his life has gone wrong, plotting revenge as I type.

Speaking statistically, I know that the danger has likely passed, but that doesn’t help me let go of the fear. It has faded over time, but inevitably, it comes back to me. I think it always will.

If I could look into the future and know for sure where he is, what he’s doing, whether he hates me, whether he’s well? I’d do it, at any cost. My peace of mind is worth it.

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When I Need to Cry, I Watch Horror

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Growing up, I was not a crier.

One of those anecdotes my family loves to repeat: When I was first learning to walk, I wouldn’t make a sound if I fell down and hurt myself. Instead, I’d sit there on my diapered rear, looking solemn. So, one day, my grandma came up to me and said, “Honey, it’s okay to cry.”

I punched her in the face.

Later on in life I ran across a few situations that probably merited tears, but I never could figure out how to cry. (And, as I learned firsthand, there comes an age when it isn’t cute to express your emotions through whacking people anymore.) I cried over high school crushes, but for the most part, anything more intense would make me clam up.

I remember sitting through tearjerkers like Up and Big Fish while my friends or family wept around me. There were plenty of jokes about how I was heartless, or they were too emotional. I wasn’t an easy scare either, when it came to horror movies. If you’re the kind of person who believes in gender stereotypes, you’d call me the man in every relationship I’ve had: I kill the bugs, I let my lover hold my hand in scary movies (and when they have nightmares after), and I don’t show my feelings.

The thing is, I wasn’t feeling my feelings either, and I wanted to. Crying, or at least sitting with your sadness for a while, is cathartic. You do it, and you move on. There was plenty I wanted to move on from. For a while, I sought out the saddest movies and songs I could. I’d sit in front of Youtube and watch these recordings of sobbing people having their pets euthanized. Nothing.

Then I saw a horror movie alone, and I caught myself off guard by bursting into helpless, noisy tears.

I think it was The Last Exorcism. Later on, when I went to see sequel in theaters, I cried too. (No, not because of how awful it was.) For a few years, I went by myself to see every horror movie the week it released: Chernobyl Diaries, Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister, The Possession, The Woman in Black. Some were good, or at least fun to watch. Others were terrible, but inevitably, I left the theater sniffling and all wrung out.

And it felt great. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere in life. I just couldn’t help wondering what the hell it was all supposed to mean. The movies that hit hardest tended to feature young girls as the subject of a ritual or a possession, which didn’t frighten me and certainly hadn’t happened to me.

…Unless, in a way, I actually had been through something similar.

I remembered how my ex, the one who hit me, used to be terrified of the woman from The Grudge. He said that for a long time after he first saw the movie, he’d sit awake at night, staring at the corners and waiting for a wispy dark cloud of her hair to appear. Which he thought was strange, because usually, he was most attracted to girls who looked like her — and like me — with long dark hair and pale skin. He was so terrified that if my hair fell over my face or I got too quiet, he’d yell at me.

I told him, “Maybe it’s because you’re afraid of what you love most turning on you.”

From where I am today, this sounds silly, but his fear gave me power. He could hurt me, he could manipulate me, he could shout at me, but he was also afraid of me. Afraid that the weak, intimidated person he knew might be taken over by something stronger. I don’t think he feared the supernatural so much as he feared me snapping out of it and finding a way to get back at him.

Movies that center on exorcism still scare us today, although the historical events that inspire them are often a case of misinterpreting disability. Some even take comfort in reclaiming exorcism as a way to handle their illnesses.

I can relate. The girls who star in these movies are innocent in a way I never got to be. The ghosts or demons that haunt them also give them the ability to hurt and terrorize — without being fully themselves, without marring their innocence.

I spent my childhood at the mercy of illness, feared for what it might do to me. I spent my early adulthood at the mercy of a man, feared for what I might do to him. I had power over others that came at a great expense to me. I was scared to show my feelings to anyone who asked, because I knew that an honest answer would make them scared, too. Or angry, or sad. Sometimes this felt good; it gave me a secret advantage. Usually, though, it just made me feel beyond helping.

These movies reflected my experience in a way real life never could. The protagonists don’t mean to cause any trouble. Some of them fight against the entity that seeks to take them. Some of them embrace it. Either way, they don’t come out the other side unscathed, and no one will ever look at them in quite the same way.

I cried because a handful of scriptwriters out there accidentally managed to understand me. They stuck up for me. They made me sympathetic.

These days, there’s less of a disconnect between me and my feelings. I still love horror, and I’m still not a big crier, but I no longer need to see pretty little girls in white dresses be tortured and turned into monsters before I’m able to feel something for myself. I’ve gotten better at processing my experiences, and I think I’ve finally cried myself out.

And I still don’t like it when people fawn over me and ask me if I’m feeling okay, but I can usually brush them off or tell them the truth, which is a big step up from smashing them right in the nose.

Boxes

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(Content warning: this post contains descriptions of hoarding, anxiety, self-harm, and abuse.) 

My earliest memory is from when we were rich. I’m a toddler looking up in wonder at sky-high shelves piled with plush animals, pink Barbie furniture, Disney princess faces.

I think: if all that fell down on me, I’d drown.

I remember tiptoeing barefooted through the corridor in my grandparents’ house, shoulders narrowed, shying away from spiders suspended over the unpacked boxes that line the hall. At the end, I find my grandma using her kitchen shears to clip a red cardboard heart from an empty spaghetti box. She extends the heart to me; a gift. “It made me think of you.”

One night, after I’ve learned at school about stop drop and roll, I decide that I should keep my favorite things in one basket, so I can find them all fast in case of fire. As I hold up each toy and try to judge who makes the cut, it occurs to me that I can’t sleep in bed with any of them this way. I give up and lie in bed awake, trying not to think of flames.

Before we move, my mom asks me to sort through my toys and choose some to give away. This won’t be hard, I decide. I’m growing up, and I don’t play with lots anymore. Other, littler kids can love my old friends better. I toss aside a big bristly teddy I’ve never looked at twice. My mom picks him up and tells me about the distant aunt who gave him to me, about how excited and bursting with love she was when she heard I’d soon be born. When my mom walks away, I sheepishly move the teddy into the pile of toys to keep.


In the new house, I can’t explain why I now find myself tucking trash behind my mattress, in my nightstand. At school, after lunch, I throw scraps out in pairs so they won’t get lonely. My mom packs me juice in a flavor I don’t like, and though I try to push it on my friends, no one wants it. I cry when I throw it away, because the words little hug are written on the bottle. I just don’t want to hurt anyone.

My new dad comes out of my bedroom and looks at me. He says to my mom, “There’s something disgusting in the drawer. Tell her to clean it up.” I think about how he used to bring me gifts, and how maybe now he doesn’t because he knows I don’t take care of my things. I go in, heart pounding, and look in the drawer. He’s right. Why had I left it there?


I get older. I tie a too-small belt around my waist and tighten it. I tell myself I can only take it off when I’ve cleaned up my room. I buy a pack of razor blades and cut myself once for every thirty minutes I put off cleaning or homework. Carelessly, I drop a blade in my blanket and put my knee down on it. In the middle of the night, I wake my parents to tell them I think I need stitches. The next day, all the blades and scissors and safety razors are gone from my room, and mostly, I’m mad that someone went through my stuff without permission.


I am in my college apartment, where I live with my boyfriend. The sink overflows with dishes, the stove is coated in baked-on slime, and the fridge festers with mold. The carpet is gritty, and the bathroom has never been scrubbed. The closet is stacked waist-high with junk, his and mine, intertwined. He slams me against the wall in time with his words. I can hear the punctuation. “You. Lazy. Filthy. Whore.”

Outwardly, I cry and apologize. Inwardly, I agree.

After I leave him, my next partner has a calm talk with me in the car, about whether I can keep up with cleaning the cat box. I punch my thighs and slam myself into the door. I had one shot at starting over, and I fucked it up again.


I see a therapist. I tell her, “I think I’m a hoarder.”

“Hoarder?” She makes a face like she doesn’t believe me.

I recount to her the story of my grandma and the heart on the spaghetti box. I think how I might still have it somewhere. I tell her I’m not that bad anymore, but it’s still a struggle. I’ve never neglected my own pets, but before I throw out boxes from cat litter, food, flea meds, I kiss the cats printed on them goodbye.

She says my grandma may have taught me some bad habits, but she also taught me about love. I can’t bring myself to disagree.


I have my first panic attack, then my second, then third. The smoke detector goes off when the oven gets too hot, and I tremble for the rest of the day. The smoke detector runs out of batteries, and I keep snapping awake during the night, heart racing, sure I’ve heard the hiss of something, somewhere, going up in flames. I begin to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to get the fire over with. I could start over one last time, in a new place. I know I’m just lazy. I could pull through; I could keep it clean.

I begin to drink every morning. It keeps me calm, and it helps me focus. After a few shots, I can clean a room without stopping. I don’t get distracted and end up across the house, in front of the computer, with a dirty dish still in my hand.

I see a doctor and I tell him this. I leave with a prescription, and I take my dose the next morning. I scoop the litter, do the dishes, scrub the kitchen counter. I mop the floors. I pull everything out of each closet and cabinet and rearrange it in ways that make sense. I put out the decorative baskets and pictures I bought after moving in, back when I was sure I’d finally buckle down and keep a place clean. I still have too many stuffed animals, but I put them neatly away. For the first time since childhood, I hang up my clothes.


Days later, it still works. Once I decide to get something done, I’m suddenly capable of doing it. I think, “I’m going to hang up my dress”, and I do. I see crumbs on the floor and it’s no big deal to wipe them up. I stroll through my clean house, fantasizing about telling my parents. I won’t, though. I don’t trust these pills long-term.

After a while, an uncomfortable feeling settles into my bones. I can’t find anything to put off, or to beat myself up about.

I open the linen closet. Here, I keep boxes of memories, holdovers from the early days that haven’t been lost or thrown out in fits of self-hatred or rage. There are more of these at my parents’ house. I know I have to deal with them eventually.

I choose a box and I rifle through it. I try to muster up the urge to handle it like I’ve handled every other cluttered corner of this house, and I’m surprised by how easy it’d be to sever my attachment to some of the stuff. There are little kids’ building blocks and decks of cards and sheets of yellowed stickers that I don’t even remember owning. This is how I’ve handled my hoard over the years: I get angry enough to discard it, or I put it away until I can pretend not to care.

At the bottom, I find something. It’s a yellow plush star with a smile face and ragged blue fabric stuck to the back. I remember clipping it off a pair of slippers I’d gotten for my birthday when I was nine, the same year I got caught with something disgusting in my drawer. I remember how I had begged not to be given toys anymore, so I wouldn’t feel obligated to hold onto them for my whole life. I remember trudging around in the slippers, loving them, fearing the day I’d wear them to tatters and have to throw them away.

I remember how a smiling moon once shone up from the toe of the other foot, opposite the star. I look through the box, and I can’t find it. I picture it buried in the dump, with insects nesting on its happy cloth face. I picture it falling into an incinerator.

I put the box away, but I keep the star out. I hold the stupid dirty thing to my chest, and I cry.


Hoarding disorder is a serious condition marked by excessive attachment to objects and/or animals. In my experience, it can be exacerbated by additional illnesses such as depression or ADHD. If you or someone you love may have a hoarding problem but can’t access medical or mental health services, you can start where I did and find support at Squalor Survivors and Stepping Out of Squalor.

Nineteen

Content warning: this post contains graphic descriptions of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

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I just played through the text-based game Nineteen by Kiran Oliver. It hit me hard and took me right back to that part of my life, when I felt lucky. When I was so sure that, with a little hard work on my end, everything would turn out just fine.

The week before I turned nineteen, my first winter break from college began, and I left on a Disney vacation with my family. I remember holding my boyfriend’s hands outside my dorm, both of us crying. It was like a fairy tale, like a dream, to be so in love that we could hardly stand the thought of being apart for a few days. 

I was still learning the ins and outs of love, romance, and sex, which frustrated him. I loved how patient he was with me when I got something wrong. I’d never known how to dress, and he spoke so gently when I made a mistake. He’d say “You look different than usual”, and I’d go change. No one else I knew would have cared enough to correct me like that. I never told him no, even when I liked what I was wearing. I wanted so badly to be right for him.

After a while, I got into the rhythm of talking with my family, wandering through the parks, enjoying myself. But my boyfriend, who didn’t have a good relationship with his family at all, kept calling me sounding so sad. I turned nineteen in the Magic Kingdom on an unusually cold, gloomy Florida day, warming one hand on my phone and the other in my pocket, listening to him cry while my family waited in line for rides. I felt terrible that I’d left him alone.

I vowed to be better to him in the coming year. He’d had an awful life. He’d been sick lately, and I’d had to help talk him down from suicide when his ex cheated on him. And I — fat, awkward, disabled — was hardly a catch.

When we returned to school, he took a class I’d already completed the previous semester. I offered to help him with the online quizzes and work on the papers with him; it’d be easy for me. But when I struggled to quickly choose the right answers for the first quiz, he began to panic and begged me to just sit down at his computer and take it myself. I did, of course. He looked so helpless and scared. From then on I logged into his class and did it myself.

His own birthday came right on the edge of spring. Although he could barely stand my procrastination habit, I hadn’t found the time to slip out and buy a gift. I slept over in his dorm every night by then, and when I wasn’t in class, he liked to read together, or have me sit with him and play video games. (I was lucky to have a lover who was a reader and gamer, like me!) So on the day he turned nineteen, I woke hours early and walked four miles to buy him a book and a cake mix, which I baked in the communal dorm kitchen. He was surprised and so grateful, and we were happy.

I loved playing games with him, and watching him play. I had left my game consoles back home, and my laptop wasn’t powerful enough to run most PC games. I had a casual interest in Second Life, but dropped it when he’d tease me about liking my second life more than my first. I’d been a volunteer moderator for Gaia Online since high school, but I found it harder and harder to put in enough uninterrupted time, and eventually I got kicked from my position. Although I hated keeping secrets from my boyfriend, I pretended I had quit. I knew he’d rightfully blame me for putting off my work.

Near summer, I spent a day in my dorm doing chores, homework, and laundry. I chatted on the phone with my mom while working, and halfway through, the call from my boyfriend came in. I wrapped it up and called my boyfriend back. He asked why I hadn’t answered right away, and I told him.

His response floored me. He demanded to know why my mom was more important than him. He said my lack of response had worried him, that he was on his way to my room right now.

I had never meant to make him feel that way. I knew he had trust issues; I knew I was somehow in the wrong. I told him it was just a mistake, that I didn’t think he’d mind if I waited a couple minutes to call.

He told me, “If this keeps happening, we’re through.” And he hung up.

I shocked myself by flinging my phone across the room in frustration. Why couldn’t I properly get across my side of the situation? Why didn’t he understand? For a second, I thought — after this, would it be so bad if we broke up?

But I couldn’t give up on our relationship after one little argument. That would be childish. So I ran out of my dorm, met him at the corner, and begged for forgiveness.

That summer, our dorm leases expired, and he asked me to move in with him. I’d have to cover the cost until he felt well enough to get a job, but I could do it easily, between my scholarships and disability income. Campus life stressed him out, and he said he’d be much more relaxed if we had a place of our own. We’d have more time and freedom to have sex, so he wouldn’t have to nudge me into it whenever he could.

For a week between the dorms shutting down and our apartment opening, I lived at home. I spent a lot of time alone, pacing around, dwelling on my thoughts. I loved my boyfriend, but I’d lost trust for him somewhere along the line. I wanted to ask my mom whether I should back out of living with him before it was too late, but how could I possibly phrase it? She’d laugh at me if I told her that he got mad when I put things off or ignored his needs.

We moved into a clean, spacious second-floor apartment with a balcony that overlooked a lake. There was plenty of parking and a bus stop a half mile away. Our first night, equipped only with a mattress and a few bags of clothing, he hugged me and whispered contentedly against my ear, “We have a home.”

I poured myself into making it work. Cleaning was hard, especially since he didn’t like me to spend money on supplies, but I discovered that I enjoyed cooking and could use it to lift his spirits. When the school year started and he asked me to pick up a few more classes for him, I knew it was a lot to ask, but I didn’t want to turn him down while things were going so well.

But I fell behind. I got distracted. I let the sink fill up with dishes, let food in the fridge grow mold. I was years away from getting diagnosed with ADD, and all I knew was that family, teachers, and friends had called me lazy all my life. One more voice in the chorus couldn’t be wrong.

One day, my boyfriend came to the kitchen for cereal, and all the bowls were in the sink, dirty.

This had happened before. Like always, I said I’d wash one for him right away, but this dirty bowl was the last straw.

He said, “You had plenty of time to do them today. I left you alone for hours.” 

My heart started to race. I knew he was about to call me lazy, or accuse me of not caring about him. I apologized and promised I’d do better next time, keeping eye contact, so he’d know I was honest.

“You always say that.” This was new. He had lost his patience. “Lazy fucking bitch. You always break your promises. You say you’ll do better, and then you just put it off again.”

Then, for the first time, he slapped me. His palm connected with my cheek, and I heard the sharp noise before I felt it. I didn’t react for several moments after it happened. I touched my face, wondering if it would be like in the movies, where a thin stream of blood trickles out of the woman’s mouth after she is slapped, because her teeth cut the inside of her cheek. But despite the hot, tingling pain that rose to the surface of my skin, there was no blood, so I knew it wasn’t that bad.

If I remember correctly, what he did after slapping me was shake his head and ask bitterly, “Why did you make me do that?” Then he walked away.

I followed, and to my surprise, he immediately apologized and swore never to hurt me again. I thought about leaving him anyway. I could tell he felt guilty enough for having done it that he wouldn’t have tried to stop me if I’d left.

But I loved him. I thought about how he hadn’t really hurt me, hadn’t beaten me up. I’d seen men slap hysterical women countless times in stories, where it’s always just the thing that snaps her back to reality. I thought about how really, I could have done the dishes earlier instead of painting my nails or browsing the internet.

I stayed.

And that winter, when I turned twenty, I went to see my family for only a weekend. I lied about the bruise on my arm and said I’d fallen while riding the bus. I huddled under layers of coats and blankets and spent the whole time on the phone with my boyfriend, listening to him tell me about how hopeless he felt, how he’d spent hours staring blankly at the ceiling, how he couldn’t believe I cared about him when I wasn’t there. I had left him premade meals, I had written dozens of love notes and hidden them away, I would return with gifts for him from my whole family. 

I was no longer a child. I was sure that anyone I asked for help would ask me how I let it get so bad, or tell me to try talking to him. In the same way I was different from the slapped woman in movies, he was different from the textbook abuser. He didn’t cheat on me or get drunk. He only hurt me when I’d done something really wrong. When I behaved, he did too.

And, if I locked myself in my old bedroom and refused to go home to him, he knew where to find me.

 


 

 

I’ve written before about how my characters help me through hard times.

I used one character to experience the pain with me, and another to fight toward independence. After leaving my ex, I had to start out exploring the rest of the world slowly. So I created an avatar I could used to engage with others online, through gaming on an RP server. This gave me what I lacked elsewhere in my life: enough space to set boundaries.

I’ve made plenty of missteps along the way, especially with separating my identity and feelings from the first character I made to help me navigate life after abuse. We still have a lot in common (such as gender identity, as you can see from the difference between the screenshot below and the one above), but I’m better at avoiding entanglement with both real people and fictional ones these days.

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The character is an elf, and according to World of Warcraft lore, he’ll live hundreds of years at least. Still, I remember an in-character conversation I got into, early on while playing him. Someone asked how old he was, and almost without thinking, I replied, “Nineteen.”

Nineteen. I could have escaped (mostly) unscathed when I was nineteen. You’re never too old to change your life, but however unconsciously, I wanted my character to have the best possible shot at it.

I played the game Nineteen, and I discovered that its creator, too, went through abuse, struggled with their gender identity, had a disability. I looked through their blog and almost wept. They and I have even played on the same WoW server, as characters who aren’t always accepted by a community that touts itself as welcoming. It’s rare that with my particular set of experiences, I’m able to feel a little less alone.

So, thank you, Kiran. For surviving being nineteen, and for speaking out about what it was like. You’ve inspired me to do the same.

Meet Malice

Content warning: this post contains discussion of death and descriptions of physical violence.

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Malice the computer, one of the few possessions I’ve ever named, is a small purple netbook that has been my NaNoWriMo companion for four years and counting. He’s also the last gift my grandma ever gave me.

His namesake, Malice the fictional character, is a sixteen-year-old drag queen who may have saved my sanity.

In September 2010, I had two thoughts on my mind: outlining my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel, and carefully plotting an escape from my abusive boyfriend. During the five years I spent with my ex, my stories and characters were often my only solace, and I wasn’t about to abandon them just because an event my whole future could hinge on was coming up. I needed them more than ever.

Though unaware of it on a conscious level, I modeled Malice’s story to parallel my own. When he was born, his mom called him Andrew. When he asked to wear the girls’ uniform at his private middle school, his request was met with punishment and shame. When he sought sympathy from friends, they couldn’t understand. He found comfort in watching performers, older ones who wore their makeup thick and dressed in bright costume-like clothing. He chose Malice as a stage name for himself — exactly the kind of name I thought would appeal to an angry, femme, misfit teen. But in the end, no one in his life could help him feel safe expressing himself.

And so, like me, he ran.

He’d been hurt too. Unlike the character whose story ran parallel to his, he’d developed a hard, uncaring mask to protect himself from the outside world, and in the final days of my relationship, I found that I needed to borrow it. Despite my careful efforts, my ex somehow sensed that all wasn’t well, and he took it out on me. I remember being shoved against the closet door, smashed over the head with a desk lamp, and for once, I didn’t apologize or cry. I shut my eyes and thought what Malice would think: He’s in the wrong, not me. I know what’s best for myself, and I’ll be out of here soon.

I left my ex in October, and in November, I threw myself into writing Malice’s story. He fled home, jumped a train south, and wandered through an abandoned seaside town hoping to find his absentee father (who, in his secret fantasies, was loving and accepting). 

That’s how far I’d gotten by the time I got a call asking me to get to the hospital as soon as I could, because my grandmother was dying.

I arrived on the eleventh. In the hospital room, my mom gave me the laptop my grandma had bought me for Christmas, which we all knew she wouldn’t live to see. Its petite size and bright plum color factored into why I named it after my favorite character, but really, I knew that again, I’d need his strength.

That night and the next I spent in a chair by my grandmother’s bed, watching over her, trying to work up the focus and will to type.

Malice the character and Malice the computer were there with me when I woke from a restless night to find that she was gone. They came with me to the city where she was buried, and waited in the car while my brothers sang and cried at her grave.

Those months, from September to November 2010, might have been the hardest of my life so far. Everything was changing. Nothing was reliable. All I had to hold onto was Malice.

Malice the computer has been through a lot more with me since then. He’s moved houses four times, including once across the country and back. He has sustained a handful of battle scars, such as a quite appropriate smear of glitter nail polish by the touchpad. He’s the bright spot of color that helps friends pick me out of the crowd when we get together to write. He’s even been to Disney World.

He has his flaws — his speakers broke the first week I used him, and his wireless card has never worked — but he has outlasted any other computer I’ve ever known. Even aside from our trauma bonding, I’ve grown quite attached to him.

As for Malice, the character? He’s still around. His original story hits too close to home to be considered for publication, though you might see excerpts turn up in The Darling Graveyard someday. But he’s there, his fierce little essence scattered across worlds. Sometimes he reverts to his birth name and finds that he likes dressing as a man, if no one’s trying to force it. Sometimes she transitions to living full-time as a woman. Malice has been to college, been onstage, been at the front of a foreign language classroom, been the star cellist of an orchestra.

And he’s turned up in World of Warcraft too, which is about the only thing I do that Malice the computer can’t handle. Desktops do have some uses.

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Maybe I’m not very good at writing fiction, because I can’t draw boundaries around my characters. I can torture them or kill them off in one story, but in the end, I want them to be free to move to another and find happiness. They’re important to me. They help me realize that it’s okay to live the way I want to, and I’m not ready to give up that connection.

This November, Malice the character is slated to star as a noblewoman-turned-pirate in the next installation of my fantasy series. Malice the computer will be toted around to countless meetups, subjected to days on end of frantic typing, and by December, will be home to at least another 50,000 words.

We’ll live. We’ve been through worse together, but wish us luck.

the girl who started it all

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I was nine years old when the need to write overtook me.

I’m sick; I’m chronically ill. I don’t have a good grasp on what that means, but I have a new black Five Star notebook and a set of Gelly Roll pens (the start of a collection that will later make me the envy of seventh grade math class). I make a girl who looks like I want to look: petite, thin, straight black hair, fair skin, bright green eyes. I put her in my blue hooded shirt, white shorts, and sneakers. Like a cartoon character, she does not need to wash them.

I write her into my favorite TV shows, games, and books. She’s stranded on a desert island thanks to The Baby-Sitters Club, where she kisses a boy who turns out to be her long-lost twin à la Star Wars. On her way home she boards a train, which derails in the style of an accident I heard about in Reader’s Digest (I think this is the one), complete with my newfound knowledge of triage tags.

I can’t sleep one night, so I slump on the floor dramatically: she’s the damsel in distress, and someone must carry her to safety.

I scoop up my pillow and vault with it over the bed: she’s the selfless hero, carrying her beloved to safety.

I pull my mattress half off the bed and tumble down: there’s been an avalanche! Run! To safety!

By the time I’m eleven and she’s twelve, I’ve filled three notebooks and run out of ideas. I get my hands on a demo of Final Fantasy VIII and spend the rest of the evening trying to hop around my room without touching the floor, brainstorming about how I can write her in and have her steal the main character’s heart.

She becomes a teenage soldier, and an accident-prone one at that. When I visit the doctor I can pretend I’m her, getting a blood transfusion. We upgrade our wardrobes together. To get the boy, she needs a red spaghetti strap tank, a black miniskirt, combat boots, and gloves. I never do successfully communicate to my parents why I would like to wear fingerless leather gloves to school.

She and I begin to even out. I lose weight, she gains it. My hair straightens and darkens. I give her crooked teeth. We top off at five foot one before either of us turns fourteen.

The war ends; she survives. She becomes a healer. She becomes a teacher, and this is where her life begins to splinter. I’ve settled her down with her beloved and a truckload of friends. I’ve even given her a steady income. Now what?

I attempt sequels, spinoffs, and alternate dimensions. None of it sticks; I’ve written her into happiness. I’m outgrowing her cast of friends gleaned from other people’s stories. A character who’s not in pain is no good to an author like me, desperate as I am not to lose her. So I do the only thing I can: rip her from her comfortable world and begin again.

Same girl, same name. Her hair is blonde now, her eyes dark. She’s got freckles across the bridge of her nose. When she’s the same age as I was when I made her, I kill her parents in a house fire. Custody goes to her big brother, who’s a different guy than the one she kissed way back when, but who still has an inappropriate relationship with her. I give her a redheaded love interest who looks like my own. I also give her the belief that both men in her life are occasionally possessed by the Norse god Loki.

I still, after all this time, have a penchant for drama.

For my first NaNoWriMo in 2003, I try to put down her story. I get about 3,000 words in before quitting, with the excuse that people keep peering over my shoulder while I’m on the family computer. Really, I just don’t know where to direct her within the confines of the story. She tries to ritually kill her love interest’s ex. She tries to ritually kill herself. Her brother is arrested for a hit-and-run. She turns up pregnant. I amp up the drama; I don’t know what to do with the girl. If I solve her problems, how can she help me cope with my own?

I try again to write it down for NaNo 2005. I finish three chapters, which impress my senior year creative writing class, but not me. Not until close to graduation do I realize that I have finally out-aged the girl. I’m eighteen and off to college. She’s stuck at fifteen, agonizing over the big history project where she’s partnered with her crush.

I give the thing one last go in November of 2006. I’m in my first semester of college. I’ve got a dorm room and a boyfriend and, so far, a straight A average. Despite my class schedule, I make it to 35,000 words, farther than I’ve ever managed before. I believe life is going the way it’s meant to go at last. I’d like to tell you that I no longer need the girl and relegate her stories to history, but it isn’t true.

For a while, she and I still see romance as the end of the line. I’m still sick, but I’ve gotten the guy, and he will help care for me. With him, I will feel loved in spite of my flaws, and I will no longer be lonely enough to resort to imagining that a merry band of fictional characters are my closest friends. I am dedicated enough to this idea that I am willing to overlook it when my dream lover pulls a book from my hand and flings it across the room because behind it, I am falling asleep. He’s right, I should show more respect when reading something he has recommended to me.

I am willing to overlook it when he shouts at me and shakes me for failing to wash his favorite shirt in time for class. After all, I did offer to do his laundry. He’s right, I let him down. I offer to do more to make it up to him. I am willing to overlook it when he slaps me because his cereal bowl isn’t clean. He’s right, I’m lazy. He’s right, this is real life, most couples are like this behind closed doors, it’s the price you pay for love. If I were to ask anyone else, he says, they’d laugh and repeat what he’s told me. I wouldn’t want to be a whiner.

I’ve lived my whole life in a world of fiction. How am I meant to know these rules?

Before I understand what’s happening to me, I’m living in a war zone. So this is what it was the girl I made used to feel when she was running for her life. This is what it felt like when a man held her down. Now, I dress her in bruises. Comparing scars with her is the only way I know to survive.

I need help to leave. External, not internal.

The last time I write about her is for NaNoWriMo 2010. I have been away from the boyfriend for a month. I am trying to process what has happened to me, but she insists upon acting as a filter. I give her what she wants: a man like mine. I have him chase her across county lines. He pounds his fists into her arms and leaves overripe-looking bruises that I describe too graphically. She begs and pleads, but she is powerless to escape.

That’s the girl’s problem. She is powerless. Obedient, kind, bright, and determined, yes, but without a situation to react to, she cannot act.

I can’t afford to be powerless any longer.

I kill her off that year. She’s between her man and another character he wants to get at. She she’s cornered but does not idly wait to die. She charges at him and tackles him, sending him through a window. Together, they tumble five stories down. She’s dead on impact, and so is he.

It’s been three years since then. Her essence is still around, but diluted. I am done being her reflection. I am the one who is real. Today, November 11,  would have been her twenty-seventh birthday, had I let her live.

So, here’s to you, Ashley. I kick off this blog in your name. You were there when I needed you, and I don’t blame you for holding me back. Without you, I wouldn’t have written the hundreds of thousands of words that helped me develop the ability to handle what I’m working on today: an epic fantasy series about two immortals who, if you lean in and look close enough, carry the fragments of your heart somewhere deep inside their souls.

I’d be lying if I claimed that I no longer consider my characters friends. They have a part of me, each and every one. It’s what gives them life. Ashley, whose favorite color was red, whose necklace I still wear, had the part that was a scared child, desperate for safety and love. I promise to write my characters well from here on out, but I will never stop loving them.

Rest in peace, little girl. You’ve grown into something bigger.