The Seeing

It was an unnaturally warm day in Portland, Maine. Of course, that didn't mean anything, since the temperature was famous for swinging 20º in less than an hour. Nestled back in a green, forested hillside right on the edge of Casco Bay, the front of a house made entirely of windows was watching the water with an intent gaze. The house had stood there for nearly fifty years, withstanding severe weather and several falling trees, as well as the three families that had moved in and out over time. It was known in town for having the best view and most relaxing atmosphere of any house up the Maine coast, and not without reason. While staying here, you could be sure there would be no disturbance.

On the upper deck, Audra Locke stood with her elbows on the railing and watched the sun set over the water below her. Where the two sides of the bay almost met, she could see the ocean. It seemed so close, but yet so distant, like something just beyond the reach of her fingertips. The horizon appeared eternal, the line between the water and sky obscure. Where exactly did they meet? At the moment, Audra couldn't tell. The water seemed to go on forever, but like a pool of sky—a giant bubble about to crash upon her head, just like the rest of her life had.

She closed her eyes and shook away memories. Coming to live in this house with her grandma and cousin, Elise, was supposed to erase these thoughts from her head and give her a fresh, clean start. But was that what she really wanted? To erase the memories of everything she had ever had? If that was even possible in the first place, that is. Perhaps she could erase the memories, but she couldn't erase the guilt that tore at her day and night, steadily eating away any happiness she ever felt.

Anyone else would've felt exhilaration and peace in such a perfect setting, but Audra felt trapped. The absence of loud freeways, rattling pipes, and roaring jet planes left her with nothing to listen to but the voices inside of her head that told her it was her fault. It was all her fault.

No. Audra said to herself firmly. It's not my fault. It is not my fault.

The physiatrist she had been visiting lately had told her to repeat these words whenever she felt guilt. Audra found she had been saying it more than twenty times every hour and so it became a habit whenever something happened. She broke a plate—it's not my fault. She didn't do her homework—it's not my fault. She killed her family—

"No!" Audra said out loud this time. A startled bird took flight in a nearby tree. Then all was silent again and that one word hung in the air, and then dissolved into the growing night. The sun was nothing more than a sliver along the, now unmistakable, line of the horizon, where the water and sky met. The hazy heat of the evening was dying down as a cool breeze began to pick up. The trees began to whisper to each other in an unfathomable tongue as the last rays of the dying sun washed over their branches. One by one, stars began to twinkle in the velvety black sky and a crescent moon rose above the hills, shedding an eerie light across the entire landscape. And the night was quiet.

Watching as the entire world melted into a black pit, Audra shivered in her thin T-shirt and listened as the waves crashed below her. She could see the water in the bay shimmering in the pale moonlight, but beyond that, into the giant ocean, all was black. It was all so calm, for a second Audra felt truly at peace. Then, a chill gripped her heart and the peacefulness evaporated into the night. She turned and went inside the house, leaving the quiet world to another sleepless night in an unfamiliar bed.

And the waves kept crashing.

"I don't want to be here."

The physiatrist nodded her head understandingly and straightened her black-rimmed glasses. As if she understood...

"No, I really don't want to be here. Or need to be here, for that matter."

"It's okay, Audra, I understand completely how you feel. Your grandmother just wanted to make sure you're okay after..."

"I'm okay," Audra said before the physiatrist could finish her sentence. The last thing she needed was someone who didn't know her talking about what happened. "Can I go?"

"I think you should stay a little longer," she said in response, picking up her clipboard as a sign that said 'we are just getting started, honey.'

"I already told you, I don't need to be here. I'm fine. Really."

"But are you? You've just gone through..."

"I don't want to talk about that, Miss. Physiatrist," Audra said irritably.

"Please, call me Gretchen," Gretchen said, the look on her face clearly saying "Yay! We're finally getting somewhere!"

"Fine, Gretchen," Audra said, angry at herself for letting this woman get through to her, even if it was only a little bit. "As I've said before, I'm fine."

"No, honey," Gretchen said, leaning forward a little but, her pencil poised above her clipboard. "What you don't understand is that you're not okay. If you were completely okay, I'd start worrying about your mental health."

Audra sighed. She had her; she had her pinned up against the wall. "So, what exactly do you want to talk about?" she asked grudgingly.

Grtechen gave her a toothy smile and said, "That's the ticket. Let's talk about anything you want to talk about, Audra."

"You're the physiatrist."

"Ah, but you're the one who needs the help," Gretchen answered. There was a pause and she sighed and said, "How about we talk about your family."

"They're dead," Audra said flatly. Gretchen made a tiny note on her clipboard.

"Let's talk about how they were when they were—here," Gretchen said delicately, clearly avoiding the words 'alive' and 'dead.'

"Well, my dad was a firefighter, but he did night shifts on the weekends so he could spend time with us."

"And your mother?" Gretchen said, leading the discussion gently forward.

"She owned a catering service and operated it from home, so we always had customers of various shapes and sized coming in and out to pick out fruit filling for their tarts or rescheduling an event. Our house was always full of people."

Gretchen finished adding something to her notes, then continued on with the questioning. "What about your siblings. How many did you have?"

"Don't you already know all of this information?" Audra asked, remembering seeing her grandma filling out forms in the front office.

"I want to hear you tell it to me," Gretchen said. "Now, how many siblings did you have?"

"Four. Chloe was almost eleven and already the same height as me. Elias and Ayden were the twins, both six. And Hannah was going to turn one in March."

Audra held back tears as she spoke of her baby sister, who had died before she had even turned a year old. Why was she talking to this crazy lady, anyways? Feeling slightly furious with herself, Audra stood and walked towards the door.

"Don't leave yet, Audra," Gretchen said, remaining in her seat. "We still have plenty to talk about."

"I don't want to talk to you," Audra said and she opened the door and walked out.

The next week, she was back in Gretchen's office.

"It's nice to see you again, Audra," Gretchen said, standing up. Her shoulder-length brown hair was pulled back in a pony tail and her crystal-blue eyes seemed to be looking right through Audra. It gave her the chills. "Do sit down."

Audra sat in the chair opposite Gretchen again and watched as the physiatrist located her clipboard and a pencil, then sat, hurriedly straightening her skirt. Gretchen appeared to be a little tired and unorganized, Audra thought. Perhaps she could get away with a short session, this week?

"How has the last week been, Audra?" Gretchen asked, pencil in place hovering above the paper.

"I moved into my grandma's house on Casco Bay."

"I've heard a lot about that house," Gretchen said, nodding her head up and down as though it was on a string. "It must be pretty peaceful up there, right?"

"Not really," Audra said.

"Really?" Gretchen replied, her eyebrows raised above her glasses. "Why not?"

Why did I tell her that? Audra thought herself angrily. "Nothing's been very peaceful lately," she answered evenly.

"I see," Gretchen said, adding to her notes. "Now, do you want to pick up where we left off last week?"

"Where did we leave off?" Audra asked, though she knew exactly where they had.

"We were talking about your family."

"No, I'd rather not talk about them," Audra said, a lump rising in her throat. She fought the feeling down. Not today, Audra. Not today, she told herself.

"Okay, Audra, if that's what you want," Gretchen said. There was a short pause, then she said quietly, "Do you want to talk about the night they died?"

Audra shook her head violently, this sentence sending chills up and down her spine. You mean the night I killed them, she thought to herself.

"What is it?" Gretchen said. "Why don't you want to talk about that night?"

Audra kept her mouth tightly shut and focused her eyes over Gretchen's right shoulder. Outside, the weather was warm and the trees were swaying slightly in the breeze. Audra wished she could jump out the window.

"What are your feelings towards this whole situation?" Gretchen said lightly. Without giving Audra a chance to respond, she plowed on. "Do you feel sadness? Dread? Remorse? Guilt?"

At the last word, Audra felt her stomach clench.

"I don't feel anything," she managed to say. "I mean, I guess I feel sad and I do miss them, but I'm not going to go crazy or anything."

"Do you think this is a place for crazy people?" Gretchen asked, gesturing to the room around her. Audra nodded and she laughed. "That's the first thing that needs to change, Audra. In this building—in this room—there are no crazy people. There are only people who were hurt, people who lost things, and people who need help. That's what we do here: we listen and we help. Don't think of me as a doctor or as a physiatrist. Think of me as a friend."

"You just want me to talk to you so you can evaluate me," Audra said.

Gretchen swept her face clean of emotion, something she clearly had been trained to do, and replied, "Yes, it's true that I will give you an evaluation at the end our visits. But that doesn't mean that I don't care about your mental health and physical well-being."

"Mental health?" Audra said, holding back a small smile. "Sounds crazy to me."

Gretchen pursed her lips and said, "Why don't you tell me about the night your family died."

Audra was silent for a moment and then started talking very slowly. "It started at dinner time," she said. "We were having a nice family dinner on a Thursday, something that didn't happen very often in my house. We were having barbecued chicken and green bean casserole. Halfway through the meal, I brought up a party that I wanted to go to that night. I already had a ride and an outfit picked out, so I figured I was set to go."

Audra paused. Gretchen was scribbling away furiously on her clipboard, but she stopped when Audra did.

"Don't mind me taking notes," she said with a smile. "Please continue."

Audra watched the pencil as she started up her story again. "My mother asked if there were going to be parents at the party. I told her that my friend was having her eighteen-year-old cousin over. She said that wasn't enough supervision and that I couldn't go. I—I got really mad."


"And I yelled at her," Audra said in a shaky voice. "I told her that she never let me go anywhere, which was almost true, and that she was ruining my life. She said I'd get over it. She said we could all go to a movie together that night, as a family. And that I wouldn't die from not going to one little party." Audra paused for a moment. "I said I hated her."

"My dad sent me straight up to my room and I stomped up the stairs as loudly as I could, then slammed my door with all my might. It didn't make me feel any better, even when I grabbed my picture of the family on Spring Vacation in Belize and threw it at the wall where it shattered into a million pieces. Later that night, my dad called up the stairs saying that they were going out to movie and that I was welcome to come if I started controlling my attitude. I didn't even answer him."

"That night, the theater burned down. And...well, you know the rest," Audra finished, her heart thumping wildly in her chest. She couldn't believe she had just walked through that entire night in her mind's eye, while repeating it to a woman she hardly even knew. Something overtook her and Audra felt she might start crying if she didn't keep going. "The police are pretty sure they found my family's bodies among hundreds of others' that were in the theater. They couldn't be sure, because they were burned so badly."

"Do you know what caused the building to burn down?" Gretchen asked.

"The police are still trying to figure it out," Audra answered. "They still don't know if it was an accident or not."

Gretchen watched her closely with her chilling eyes and then bent forward a little bit.

"Do you think it was your fault, Audra?" she said softly. "Do you think it was your fault that they went to the movies and died that night?"

Audra's eyes returned to the spot above Gretchen's shoulder again. Then, very slowly, she nodded.