A Grip On Serenity
Michelle Karl

Emma imagines the rock gliding through the dark water, reaching the bottom with a silent thud. The ripples spread out until the surface is again smooth. Emma looks at the mirror-like water for a moment and then tosses another grey stone into the depths of the lake. The corners of her mouth turn down. She leans her chin on her hand as her grey eyes stare blankly at the ripples she makes with each toss. The water turns to thick blood, and Emma shudders and closes her eyes.

* * * * * * * * *

The blood formed rivers in the grout between the once white bathroom tiles. Emma raised her hand to her forehead to steady her dizziness. There is so much blood. Why is there so much blood?! Beth! Elizabeth, Emma’s older sister of one year, lay sprawled on the bathroom floor. Her hand held a razor, and the blood gushed from the wounded wrist. Elizabeth’s mouth formed the breathless words, “help me!” Her blue eyes shone with fear. That day Elizabeth was committed to Sheppard Pratt.

* * * * * * * * *

Emma opens her eyes and shakes her head, trying to escape the vivid picture. Confusion clouds her mind as she tries to make sense of what happened. She had spent the last month trying to understand why Elizabeth attempted to end her life, yet the pieces of the puzzle had only begun to fit together. Her parents had told her that the doctors think her sister has Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Emma glances around her. The lake is bordered by a forest of pine trees. The fallen needles soften the ground. The sun shimmers off the lake creating spots of gold. The air is still warm and crisp finally free from the dense humidity of the summer. Chipmunks dart around, chattering to each other. Emma spots a flash of darkness beneath the water’s surface as a fish darts by.

Emma closes her eyes and gently massages the tense muscles in the back of her neck. She lifts her face to the sun and allows the memories to come flooding back. The laughter of children sounds in the far away depths of her thoughts. As the laughter grows louder, Emma submerses herself in the past.

* * * * * * * * *

“Emma! Betcha can’t catch me!” Elizabeth’s shrill voice yelled out as she darted behind another pine tree.

“Lizzy! Slow down. I can’t keep up.” Emma followed the trail of her seven-year-old sister.

“Boo!” Emma jumped as Elizabeth grabbed her. The two laughed at each other and then ran side by side into the lake.

The air was filled with splashes of water, and the pure laughter of young children danced on the breeze.

“Lizzy, Emma, it’s time to go!” Their Uncle Bruce called them from the water.

At home they drank lemonade and sat on wicker chairs in the backyard. Their mother, placing the red and white checkered table cloth over the picnic table, smiled at Bruce as he talked with her husband.

“I was thinking that maybe Lizzy would like to start spending weekends with me now that she is older. What would you think about that?” Bruce said to his brother and then pulled Elizabeth onto his lap. He began to play with one of her blond curls. “You are my goddaughter and we always have fun on the outings we’ve been taking.”

Elizabeth sat stiffly on her uncle’s lap staring with wide blue eyes at her father.

“Why Bruce, I think it is such a nice offer.” Elizabeth’s father smiled at her and patted her on the leg before he rose to help his wife bring out dinner.

“Can I go with you sometime too?” Emma asked as she leaned against her uncle’s broad shoulder and peered up at him with pleading, grey eyes.

“Well I think I can find a weekend that I can take you with me.” He ruffled the hair on the back of her head.

Elizabeth turned and hugged her Uncle. “No, she can’t. I thought I got to go with you cause you were my godfather. If Emma gets to go too, it won’t be so special.” Elizabeth stuck out her lower lip and stared into her Uncle’s face.

“Well maybe Emma can just come out with both of us sometime. How’s that sound Emma?”

She glared at her sister, sticking her tongue out. Their Uncle Bruce chuckled and Emma turned to play on the swings. She kicked her pink jelly shoes into the grass and began to scuff her leathered feet on the ground.

* * * * * * * * *

Eight-year-old Emma sat on the front porch, licking a strawberry popsicle while she waited for her sister to come home. With one hand she picked aimlessly at the peeling white paint on the wooden stairs. Emma listened to the slapping of her bare feet on the wood as she tapped out different rhythms.

The old rumble of her uncle’s truck sounded down the street. Emma jumped to her feet and ran down the stone slabs that created the front walkway. She met their Uncle Bruce at his door, pulling it open.

“Hey there squirt.” Bruce welcomed Emma as he picked her up and hugged her.

Elizabeth jumped off the brown plastic seat and turned to yank her blue backpack out from under the dash board. She slammed the door to the rusted truck and stomped up to the house ignoring both Emma’s shouts of joy and her Uncle’s goodbye.

“Lizzy!” Emma ran after her sister, still waving goodbye to her uncle as he backed out of their gravel driveway.

Elizabeth stopped short and turned to glare at her sister. Emma examined her sister’s face -- it’s paleness despite her summer tan and the lips pulled tight into a pencil line Elizabeth only stared at Emma and then shut the screen door letting it slam against the door frame and echo throughout the house.

Emma followed her sister into their pink bedroom and sat on her bed watching her sister.

Elizabeth dropped her backpack on the ground and searched in the closet for her old teddy bear and her baby blanket. Upon removing the items, she climbed onto her bed and hugged them. Serenity, the teddy bear, peered over the edge of Elizabeth’s arm. Its button eyes stared back with the same emptiness of Elizabeth’s.

“Serenity, it’ll be okay. There are no more scary men,” Elizabeth whispered to the bear as she pulled it closer, humming and rocking it to sleep.

“It’s not fair. You get to go out with Uncle Bruce and I have to stay here all alone. Then you just come home and pout because you have to be back here. You don’t like me do you?” Emma picked at a scab on her knee while scanning the room for something to do. The Barbie dolls scattered all over the floor were no fun to play with alone. She had played dolls all afternoon. Emma sighed and looked at her sister sitting on the bed against the opposite wall. Emma rose and left to seek other company.

“Emma! Come on, let’s make our Barbies go swimming in the bathtub.” Elizabeth appeared in the living room carrying two naked Barbie dolls.

Emma glanced up at Elizabeth who now smiled at Emma, revealing dimples in her rosy cheeks. Emma let out an exasperated sigh. She was used to her sister’s sudden mood change, and she shrugged, leaving her mother to watch Wheel of Fortune by herself.

* * * * * * * * *

“Lizzy how was the party?” Emma asked as she came running into their bedroom.

“What party?” Elizabeth looked up from her coloring book.

“The one you went to this morning?”

“I didn’t go to a party.” She picked up a blue crayon and began to color a Care Bear in.

“You went to Sara’s party. Daddy took you before we went to play at the park.” Emma flipped through the Rainbow Bright coloring book, looking for a blank page.

Elizabeth looked up and her sister and bit her lower lip.

“Umm. . .it was fun.”

“I got to go to MacDonald’s for lunch.” Emma grabbed the red crayon and began to color.

“Oh.” Elizabeth stared at the pictures in front of her and aimlessly pushed the crayons around on the table.

* * * * * * * * *

Eleven-year-old Elizabeth stormed into the kitchen. Emma huddled in the corner silently watching the spectacle.

“I am too old to be going out with Uncle Bruce! I am in middle school. None of my friends go on outings with their uncles!” Elizabeth stomped her foot on the yellow linoleum.

Their father’s older brother stood next to their father. His eyes looked as though they could unleash a waterfall of tears; he stared at his niece.

“Here dear, why don’t you just set the table and we’ll talk about this at another time,” their mother said in an unsteady voice as she handed Elizabeth a handful of silverware.

Elizabeth grabbed the silverware and hurled it on the floor. The crashing sound of the metal pierced the tense silence as Elizabeth glared at her parents.

“Elizabeth, stop this instant! I want you to mind your manners, and if you cannot, go to your room,” their father ordered as he pointed in the direction of the stairs.

“I will not stop. You cannot make me spend time with him.” Elizabeth narrowed her eyes into slits and thrust a finger in the direction of their Uncle, who began to fidget more. Her face was flushed, and she pursed her lips.

Their father took a step in Elizabeth’s direction but she dropped to the floor. The kitchen filled with her screaming and the steady banging of her feet and fists. Slowly Elizabeth’s tantrum subsided, and she sat up and looked around. Her eyes were wide with fear and her bottom lip quivered. She pulled her arms around herself, rocking back and forth.

Silence crept into the corners of the room, filling the empty space between the counter top and the cabinets; it rushed forth from the faucet and hid under the table. The only sound was a far away cry of a lone bird. Not a muscle moved except for Elizabeth’s rocking body. Cotton clothes stuck to dampened skin; the checkered curtain drooped in the humidity.

Creeping out of the shadows into the sunlight that flooded the kitchen, Emma looked at her Uncle. “I want to spend weekends with you. You can take me instead.”

Bruce pulled Emma into his arms and hugged her tightly. “Thank you,” he murmured.

Their mother smiled nervously at her youngest child and then turned to look at her other daughter.

All eyes watched as Elizabeth rose to her feet and wiped her sweaty hands over her jean shorts. “Emma doesn’t need to go. I’ll still go with you. I’m sorry.”

“I think that is a good idea, Lizzy. Emma, you can go sometime with Lizzy.” Their mother placed an arm around Elizabeth’s shoulder and led her out of the room. Emma pulled herself out of her uncle’s arms and headed out to the swing set.

* * * * * * * * *

Emma’s shoulders shake as she pulls her knees closer to herself. 'I can’t believe you did that for me Lizzy, and I had hated you for it.' Emma opens her eyes and stares at a cloud passing by. The sun begins to reappear from behind the white pillows in the sky. Emma shuts her eyes as the flash blinds her, leaving red dots in her memory.

* * * * * * * * *

Emma blinked as her mother snapped a picture of Elizabeth wearing her new white jumper, surrounded by colorful paper and flat, rectangular boxes. The colorful lanterns hung from the clothesline casting rainbows on the grass.

“Happy Birthday to you, Happy . . .” The voices rang out as their father cleared some paper from the table, and their mother placed the cake gently down on the checkered table cloth.

“Make a wish Lizzy, make a wish!!!” Emma yelled out as she squeezed her way through the towering adults to climb onto the bench beside her sister.

Elizabeth smiled and closed her eyes. Then pushing her blond curls behind her shoulders, she leaned forward and let the air rush through her lips, extinguishing the fourteen blazing candles.

“Ahem.” Their uncle Bruce rose and tapped the side of a glass with a silver spoon. “And now for my present to you Elizabeth. I am going to take you on a fun filled camping trip.” He smiled at his niece; his eyes sparkled with charm and all the other adults nodded in approval.

Emma watched the color drain out of Elizabeth’s face and her eyes widen. She shook her head and murmured a thank you to her uncle. The rest of the evening Elizabeth remained quietly next to Emma on the love seat swing, staring at the stars as they appeared in the darkening sky.

* * * * * * * * *

“I have an announcement to make. I took Lizzy on the camping trip this weekend so I could tell her first since she is my goddaughter. I have decided to move to Texas,” Bruce announced at dinner the night he brought Elizabeth home.

Elizabeth only nodded as he spoke and then proceeded to help herself to another helping of mashed potatoes and gravy.

“You’re doing what?” their father asked as Emma and her mother froze with forks raised in the air.

“I think there may be a business opportunity for me out there. I am not sure yet, so I cannot give you details. I will be moving next week.”

“Bruce, I am sorry to hear that. If there is anything you need help with, such as packing, I am sure either of the girls or I could lend you a hand,” their mother offered.

“I’m going to be busy all week,” Elizabeth announced and then shoved another spoonful of potatoes into her mouth.

“I’ll help. You should have told us sooner, and we could have thrown you a goodbye party,” Emma chirped trying not to cry.

“It’s okay squirt, you’ll still see me.”

Emma smiled, and the family returned their attention to eating dinner, discussing the details of his move.

* * * * * * * * *

Emma awoke to the sound of crumpling paper. She rolled over to see Elizabeth tearing down the posters, which covered her side of the room.

“Hey Lizzy, what are you doing?” Emma questioned as she rubbed the sand out of her eye with her fist and squinted in the morning sunlight that floated through the curtains.

“It’s Beth!” Elizabeth snapped as she began to tear down her field day awards that she had once taken so much pride in.

“What?” Emma sat up straighter in her bed.

“I said ‘my name is Beth’. . . not ‘Lizzy’, not ‘Elizabeth,’ just ‘Beth’.”

“Okay then Beth, what are you doing?” Emma asked wrinkling her forehead in confusion.

“What does it look like I am doing? I am getting rid of all this baby crap.”

“Why?”

Elizabeth froze with her hand raised to tear down another poster and turned to glare at her sister. “Shut up and go back to sleep!”

Emma rolled her eyes and flopped back down onto her bed. Later that day Emma walked into her room and stopped in her tracks. The pink flowered bed spread that had matched hers for the last twelve years was now replaced by a black comforter. All stuffed animals, except for Serenity, covered the floor on Emma’s side of the room.

“Hey Emma, how do you like the new outfit?” Elizabeth swirled into the room. Emma stared in disbelief at a pair of shorts that her parents would have to surgically remove from her sister’s legs. Her eye’s were then drawn to Elizabeth’s budding breasts which were blatantly noticeable through the red crop top. Emma crossed her arms across her own flat chest. Lowering her head, she sauntered toward the door.

“I asked you what you thought of my outfit!” Elizabeth grabbed Emma’s arm as she walked by.

“Get rid of the earings and the black eye-liner, Lizzy.” Emma pointed at the gold hoops that were large enough to be bracelets hanging from Elizabeth’s earlobes.

“I thought I told you it was Beth.”

“Sure, whatever, Beth. Besides where did you get those clothes?” Emma sneered.

“Mom took me to return the clothes that I got for my birthday, so I could get what I wanted.”

“I thought you liked the clothes that Mom got you.”

“I did, but that was last week.” Shaking her head in frustration with the sudden changes in her sister, Emma left to question her mother about the new clothes and bed spread. The only answer she received was that her sister had reached puberty. Emma knew that if that was puberty, she never wanted it to happen to her.

* * * * * * * * *

Emma watched Elizabeth as the months passed. She observed her sister smoking behind the school. She heard rumors about her sister and the football players. Emma remembered the day Elizabeth came home with her eyebrow pierced. She listened to her sister swear over the phone. Then there were those random days that Elizabeth would stay in bed all day, crying and hugging that silly teddy bear of hers. That was always explained to Emma as “Elizabeth has PMS; just let her be.” But Emma knew she never acted like that when she had PMS herself.

Late at night Emma would hear her mother cry over the changes in Elizabeth, while her father comforted her and told her that he would talk to her. Emma never knew if her father did talk to Elizabeth, but if he did nothing ever changed.

Every once in a while Elizabeth would be a lot of fun and they would joke and laugh together. She would even permit Emma to call her Lizzy. But those days were few and far between. As the months dragged on, Emma saw less and less of the sister she had known and more and more of the sister who had thrown the temper tantrum when she was eleven.

* * * * * * * * *

“Emma, Emma.” Elizabeth shook her sister.

“Stop, Beth.” Emma pulled the covers over her head.

“No, Emma, I need to talk to you.” Elizabeth pulled the covers from over Emma’s head.

Hearing the desperation in her sister’s voice, Emma moved over and patted the comforter for Elizabeth to sit down.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Emma questioned, as she pushed a stray strand of light brown hair behind her ear.

“Because you look different than I remember. You look. . .well. . .older.” She clenched and unclenched her hands.

“That’s because you never take the time to talk to me, and I don’t know why you are waking me to do so now.”

“Emma, when did I redecorate my half of the room?” Elizabeth’s eyes frantically searched Emma’s face.

“Well, Beth, now let me see. Was it two years ago?’ The sarcasm dripped from her groggy voice. “Now let me go back to sleep.”

Elizabeth stared at her in disbelief and rose to look at her reflection in the mirror. Emma watched her as she touched her dyed hair, and fingered the eyebrow ring. She ran her hand from her temple over her cheek bone and down her jaw line; she wiped the back of her hand across her lips. Elizabeth turned to Emma with tears streaming down her cheeks, smearing them with black from the eyeliner.

“Emma,” Elizabeth cried in desperation.

“What Beth!”

“Why do you keep calling me Beth?”

“Why? Do you want to be Lizzy today?”

Bewildered and confused, Elizabeth walked back over to Emma. “Can I tell you something that you promise never to repeat?”

Emma nodded her head yes and peered up with annoyance at her older sister.

Elizabeth stood shaking and then began to whisper in an almost inaudible voice, “I don’t know how much you will believe me, or if you can. I don’t even understand it. But Emma, the last thing I can remember is opening my birthday presents.”

“That’s because your birthday was two weeks ago.”

“I don’t mean that birthday, I mean my fourteenth birthday. You remember the party we had outside. Mom had hung Chinese lanterns from the clothes line.”

Emma stared at her sister in disbelief. Emma remembered the party distinctly. It was the last time she had truly gotten along with her sister.

Elizabeth’s shoulders shook with sobs as she buried her face in her hands and sat on Emma’s bed. “I used to forget when I was little. I would forget days at a time, but I never forgot years. At least not until now.”

“What do you mean you would forget days?” Emma was now fully awake and utterly confused.

“I would remember getting in the car to go to Uncle Bruce’s for the weekend or day, and then the next thing I would know it would be two or three days later. I always tried to remember what happened, but I couldn’t.”

“You have no clue what happened over the past two years? Yeah right, I don’t know what you’re tripping on, Beth, but let me go back to sleep.” Emma flopped back down onto her bed, rolled over and shut her eyes, trying not to think about what her sister had just told her. She heard the steps of Elizabeth running across the room, and then the familiar lullaby she hummed to Serenity. Emma turned back toward her sister and peered across the moonlit room. She could see the light reflect off the one button eye that remained on the brown teddy bear.

Elizabeth began to cry hysterically. She curled up into a ball and pushed herself against the wall. Her back pushed as hard as it could to help her get away.

“He’s coming after me.”

“Who is?” Emma asked.

“Serenity, he’s coming after me. He wants to touch me! He won’t stop when I cry. ‘It’s our secret,’ he says.” Elizabeth’s eyes grew wide with fear as she plastered her back against the white wall.

Now scared, Emma rose from her bed and crossed the room to Elizabeth. She tried to help Elizabeth, but only startled her instead. Elizabeth turned toward Emma and shook her hand off her.

“Get the fuck off of me, Em. What the hell are you doing? It’s the middle of the night.”

Elizabeth crawled under her covers and quickly fell back to sleep.

“Sorry Beth.” Emma snapped and stood watching her sister’s figure under the black bedspread. She waited until she heard the steady breathing from her sister before she crept back into her own bed. Emma tossed and turned, wondering about the truth behind Elizabeth’s words to Serenity. Tired and confused, she fell into a restless sleep.

The next morning Emma woke to the buzzing of her alarm. She stretched her toes toward the foot of her bed and reached her arms toward the headboard. She sat up and then swung her feet over the edge of the bed. She felt around on the floor for her slippers and slid her feet into them. As she rose, she glanced at her sister’s vacant bed and shuddered as the memories of the night before came rushing back.

Emma crossed the hall to the bathroom and pushed open the slightly ajar door. Her feet were met by a river of blood, staining the white tiles red. She swallowed hard, and grasped the door frame. Her eyes slowly followed the river to its beginning. The blood gushed from Elizabeth’s wrist. Emma raised a hand to steady her dizziness. There is so much blood. Why is there so much blood?!

* * * * * * * * *

Emma’s eyes snap open. She shudders and hugs herself. Emma glances down at her watch and sees that it is quarter til three. She rises and throws one last stray stone into the dark blue waters. She looks at the fading image of two children splashing in the water.

“I am so sorry Lizzy. I should have known.” Emma sighs and wipes a tear from her eye as she turns away and walks into the pine forest. Her footsteps echo silently on the needle-covered floor, as she heads home, unsure of which part of Elizabeth she will be greeted by. Today Elizabeth comes home.

For more information about the Dissociation go to Jen's Dissociative Page.

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