Wordless Comfort

by Jenny Liu
Art by Joyce Kung
Issue: Audeamus (Winter 2011)

It was impossible to tell when exactly he had woken; one moment existed in dreamless rest, the other in dazed confusion. Sharp pain ran through his neck and shoulders as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, lifting his head from the desk and the items that littered its surface. His cheek hurt, not with the same intensity of his back muscles; rather it was a duller, sore sensation. He brought up a hand, touching the spot gingerly before expressing the blunt thought of “this is lame” that only a teenager could do with such precision and only his lips, the corners pulled back in a grimace. A rather distinct impression lingered on his flesh, nothing more special than the form of several paperclips. He picked up the offending objects, setting them away from his immediate workspace. He tried to remember what he was doing last, prior to his face having an impromptu meeting with the desk for – he glanced at the clock – four hours.

He stared down at the papers that had been his ineffective pillows during his rest, relieved to see that none of them were ruined. Most weren’t his, after all, but rather his brother’s. How could he be excused if they had been stained by drool or wrinkled in the corners? Carefully, he shifted through the thin stack, pulling out the sheets with “Melvin Hadletin” scrawled in the corner in squashed handwriting and setting them aside with the paperclips.

Rising from his chair, he started towards the hallway door. He shuffled along, nudging a pile of dirty laundry out of his path and moving a stack of books against the wall where it would not fall over. In some distant corner of his mind, he couldn’t help but notice for the first time the mess he lived in and wonder how his room became so cluttered.

Yet even further down in the recesses of his thoughts, away from the light of day, he knew that he had pondered the question yesterday, the day before, and the many days before that.

The door creaked open, the barest hint of rust dusting the hinges and resisting the movement with all its insentient might. He peaked out of his room, but the familiar figure was not there. For some reason, his mother had taken to hovering near his door, always asking if he wanted help or needed to eat. He couldn’t remember how often she came by, too engrossed by his work. Nothing was important enough to cut through the barrier of things he had to do, though he relented now and then. Otherwise, the maternal voice would stay with him constantly, worried in tone and never happy.

Occasionally, he couldn’t tell if she was or wasn’t there. The fact tightened the strange knot resting in his chest, but if he didn’t think about it, the feeling would go away. And these days, only one thing could take his mind off of the worldly happenings around him.

He crossed the hallway, knocking on the pale blue door in front of him and leaving the darker navy one behind him slightly ajar, waiting for an answer that would never come. His brother was out most of the time, but he was raised to be polite, and something told him that asking for permission from a non-present person to enter an empty room was polite. It made sense at least, he didn’t own the room.

As though in slow motion, he gently placed his hand on the door handle, easing it downwards and pushing against the wood, forcing the door to open. Rust was more prominent on these hinges, the stronger and bolder relatives of that which existed on his own bronze door parts. Mother never did like to oil her older son’s door.

His nose tickled, a portion of the layer of dust coating the room drifting upwards. He tucked his face against his shoulder, sneezing but at the very least not worsening the condition of the air quality. His brother would have said “bless you”, just as polite as he was.

“Thanks, Cal,” Melvin told the room, then shaking his head in embarrassment. Though he couldn’t remember too well, it was a routine he repeated many times in the past weeks. As always, he smiled to himself, amused by how easy it was for his brain to make a mistake. And as always, he couldn’t help but wonder when his brother was going to visit. Maybe the room should be cleaned first, he thought, just as a surprise for his beloved sibling.

But he never acted upon the thought of committing the act of kindness, simply walking to the desk in the corner against the bed, the only dustless haven in the room. More than a handful of dictionaries were stacked beside the table, and though the cover of the topmost book was cleaned regularly, there was no doubt that the pages within held their own stores of dust. He paused halfway between setting down the stack of papers, staring at the books. A hint of longing glazed over his eyes. Oh how he yearned to turn through them and absorb all the words and information they held.

He couldn’t, though. His brother never came by anymore so he couldn’t ask to borrow them.

His actions contradicted one another, he knew. In choosing to remove papers from Cal’s room, he was doing the very thing that made him firmly against taking the dictionaries. Yet at the same time, he knew that his brother would be glad to see his studies of the English vocabulary had gone to someone who knew its allure while the older man was away. To take the dictionaries, however, his brothers prized possessions? It could not be done, not for a selfish reason like wanting the information for himself.

Instead, he used his own dictionaries, though they came from run down, discount bookstores. They were in hideous condition when compared to the well-bound, tear-free ones that sat unused in this dusty room.

He gently placed his sibling’s papers on the desk, gathering up the next pile. His fingers itched to at least open one of the fat, old and wise books, but even touching cover of the topmost book to clean felt like….sacrilege. He couldn’t do it, and before the longing and guilt went to war against one another, he quietly backed out of the room, tugging on the door and hearing it click shut.

“He’s mad, completely and utterly mad. Isn’t he?” Joann Hadletin, widow of eleven years, wrung her fingers, twisting a handkerchief through them as she looked the doctor up and down, as though there could be something hidden there, even the tiniest hint of salvation. The psychiatrist held out his hands in a gesture that conveyed sympathy and nothing more.

“Melvin, your son, he’s been at this for…?”

“Four years, ever since my other boy Cal died at the university.”

“We could try and put him through therapy, but from what you’ve told us, his behavior has only been deteriorating over the years. It would be easier if we could take him to the hospital, but…” The doctor hesitated, frowning, afraid and unsure how to say his next words without insult. The woman opposite of him had insisted that forcing her son to leave the rooms he inhabited would result in disastrous results, though she had conceded that bringing him elsewhere may be for the best. “This would’ve been easier if this was reported before he decided to stop eating, maybe even at the source of it all.”

“I knew he was extremely devoted to Cal, I knew that he would deny the fact that Cal died, but -” Her sentence was cut off by a sound of choking grief as she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief, biting her lip in an attempt to compose herself. “I always thought he would eventually accept and move on. Let the wounds heal, maybe.”

“Did you try talking to him about it?”

“Yes, of course…but when I first broke the news to him, he threw a fit. He just broke down crying and started yelling at me, calling me a liar and all sorts of horrible things. But, but the next day, he seemed fine. I didn’t realize he had gotten his brother’s papers and journals until I found him holed up in his room for days.”

The doctor reached out a hand, laying it on the woman’s shoulder, hoping it would provide some form of comfort the way words could not express. “I want you to understand, ma’am, that none of this was your fault. You had hopes and you can’t be blamed for holding on to them, just as Melvin can’t be blamed for how loyal he is to his brother.” He looked straight at her red rimmed eyes, streaks of tears still being wiped away by the black handkerchief. “The people at the Institute, we’ll get him back. We’re made for this type of thing.”

She nodded, unable or unwilling to say anything. He gave her shoulder a gentle pat before moving away, towards the hallway that hosted her sons’ rooms. The woman made no move to stop him, and they both knew that he had to have a firsthand look at what mental state the boy was in.

He stood between the two doors of blue, one dark and the other light. The feeling of fear was with him again, mixed deeply with pity at the situation in his hands. Silently he turned towards the door of navy, raising a single fist.

The man knocked on it, waiting for an answer that would never come.

A young child sits, with hands around his knees, in front of a distorted, top-heavy door. He has a worried look on his face.