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Collateral Damage – Ania Epul

Ania Epul is an 18-year-old writer studying at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her short story, Collateral Damage, published for the first time by Mental Ideas, draws on her own internal experiences, although the characters and events in her story are fabricated. It illustrates the deep-seated turmoil, pain, and confusion that arises from feeling too devastated to continue living, but too connected to loved ones to let them go. This is a battle that Ania has faced all through her adolescence and still struggles with today. Countless people on this planet suffer in silence every day. She hopes that through her work, she can connect to them and let them know they’re not alone.
She is also the author of poetry book Within These Walls.

Jared bought me a ring last week. I know because he told Ella, and Ella can’t keep her mouth shut. They’re sweet together. I’m not surprised he told her. I can picture him lifting her up onto his shoulders and bouncing her up and down, asking her to keep the secret. He treats her like a little princess, and I love him for it. He treats me like a princess too. It gives me a stomachache to think about. The two of them are the biggest problem. I’ll have to figure out what to do with them later. For now, I’d attend to the ring.

I feel like a decaying tree trunk as I rummage through Jared’s bag—hollow and black and wilting from the inside out. How can he trust me like he does? I don’t know. I turn on his laptop and type in his password. (He doesn’t know mine.) It only takes a few short clicks to reach his search history, and from there, another few clicks to find the jeweler. This is too easy. It’s like watching a scene from a movie, standing by as someone else that’s not me does all this, except acid is clogging up in my chest and I have to cough once, twice, three times to get rid of the poison.

I star sixty-seven before dialing. It only rings once, and I don’t have enough time to prepare myself.

“Michelangelo’s, how can I help you?”

“Do you guys do returns?” I ask without preamble. The question comes out like an assault.

“Depends on the purchase,” says the man on the other side. “It was a ring. Pickup scheduled for next week.”

“You want to return it before you’ve even gotten it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“May I ask the name on the order?”

I hesitated. I didn’t want to leave any indication that I’d called. I hated the thought of Jared’s name scribbled down on the back of some Starbucks receipt, a reminder of what I’d done permanently branded in that shop.

The tang of blood hit my tongue, and I realized I’d been gnawing at my lip. The length of the pause had extended past what was socially acceptable.

“Jared Mayer,” I whispered into the phone.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Come again?”

My fingers were slick against the phone. I couldn’t tell if the fire on my palm was from an overheating battery or boiling blood. I tried to open my mouth to answer but found that the hinge in my jaw had long since rusted. I hit the “end call” button with a soaking thumb and resolved to leave Jared a check for the ring.

Ella stays over on weekends and a lot of the times on weekdays, too. I’ve been meaning to find her a babysitter since I was eighteen. She was born two days before my birthday, so the whole family was in the hospital getting excited for the baby. I got this sense that everyone had realized I was never going to live up to their expectations by this point, so all their hopes were riding on baby Ella. I had not spoken to my family in seven months. But I got the first sprig of nature I could find at the grocery store and marched myself to the hospital all the same because what else could I do?

Three months before that, my friends had dragged me to the mall, and I impulsively spent two hundred dollars on things I didn’t need. I knew that was how it was going to be when they called me up because it’s not like I was going to follow them around and watch them take things off the racks and just stand there like I didn’t want to be there, even though I didn’t. I just tried my best to quiet the metal birds that were creating a racket up in my head, and got two pairs of jeans, a winter coat, and a pair of boots. I still remember the stain my fingers left on the leather toe as I gripped it in line, everything inside screaming for me to stop. Maybe two hundred dollars isn’t that much to spend on Black Friday, when the whole rest of the nation is throwing their paychecks out the window, but for me it was. Two hundred more dollars that tied me to this planet. Two hundred dollars worth of guilt to add to the repertoire. Imagine if I’d known that Ella would be coming along in just three months, dragging me back into the family like Sabrina and Veronica had dragged me into Onyx Valley Shopping Center.

For eight years, I resolved to find a surrogate mother for my baby sister so I could take off with a clean conscience, but I did not. I loved Ella too much to let her go. I have to admit, a part of me wrongly wanted to adopt her, but it wasn’t fair for me to mix up her brain like that, and the whole thing was unfeasible anyway. All I could do was buy a twin-sized mattress and hope Ella would love me enough to sleep on my wrinkly spare comforter when she had a real bed at home.

I look over at her little corner now and imagine throwing the mattress out the window. I cannot do that, though, so I make her bed and stack up her crayon drawings into a neat little pile and turn on my laptop. I will write Jared a letter asking him to babysit Ella. It’s a contract job that guarantees employment for the rest of his life. Looks like the check I’ll be leaving him is gonna be worth far more than that ring.

By the time I finish the letter it’s dark outside, and my insides are being gnawed by mealworms. Jared will be home soon. He’s probably coming down the street now, and the thought of facing him makes the mealworms writhe, and my hands are suddenly ridden with tremors, so I slam the print button and fold the letter into uneven thirds and cram it into the nearest envelope embossed with the Bank of America logo. This reminds me about the check, and the mealworms turn into screeching magpies. I have no one besides Jared to give my money to, so I will leave him everything I have saved up. I’ll just give him my account number or something.

Just as the magpies have become unbearable, the lock clicks and the front door opens to reveal Jared. Jared the Babysitter.

“Babe, how was your day!” He says this like it’s an exclamation and not a question because good lord, who wouldn’t be excited to see a woman neck-deep in grime she cannot get out of? Or grime she is about to get out of at the expense of putting everyone else in grime, I should say.

“It was alright,” I say lightly. “Uneventful. How was yours?”

The Babysitter presses his fingers together at the bridge of his nose and sighs. “Exhausting. Whitenor was late, so the schedule was all fucked up, and we had six patients crowded up at reception, insisting they had places to be. And—”

Jared stops suddenly and pauses massaging his temples with his thumbs. I realize I’ve zoned out staring at Ella’s mattress that is still in her corner and not on the side of the street. “Babe, what’s wrong?”

“Huh? Nothing,” I say. “Just listening. Keep going.”

Jared shakes his head. “Never mind. There’s no use for me to put this all on you when you’ve got stuff to worry about too.”

“I don’t mind talking,” I insist. “You should get things off your chest if you need to.”

“I’ll be alright, babe. It’s just petty shit. We’ll get through all of this. I’m just glad I’m home now. With you.”

“Yeah, me too,” I say through the sawdust that has piled up in my mouth. My fiancé-to-be wraps his arms around me and smooths the hair on my head. I close my eyes and pray with utmost sincerity that I will be run over by a train.

I wake up before it’s light out. Jared is breathing slowly beside me, his lips slightly parted. He’s so still he could be dead. A little paranoid voice inside me wonders if he’s really sleeping or just pretending. I realize that I don’t trust Jared with Ella. I’m starting to wonder if I really trust him at all.

The last time it happened was nearly four months ago. The time before that was nearly six. That’s an incident rate of once every three months. I think of the number of three-month increments left in Ella’s life, and I know I cannot leave her with Jared. And I cannot leave her with the parents. To them, she’s like a hot potato, passed from palm to palm, thrust into someone else’s hands when things get busy or hard. At least Jared shows her that she matters. At least he makes her laugh. I don’t know what to do. I need a third party who will take Ella. Someone who will fall in love with her at first sight like I did. Someone who will treat her well and be patient with her and comfort her when she’s sad. Someone who won’t mind answering silly questions and buying new crayons every other week and making banana chocolate chip pancakes on Sunday mornings. I need someone who will put Ella first, make sacrifices for her. It hits me that I have fallen short in this regard. I’m choosing to be selfish.

Black spots are creeping up on me and I can’t hate myself more than I already do, so I shove the thoughts out of my head. I will find Ella a therapist. I will leave Jared a check for the ring, and give Ella the rest of the money instead. I will buy her a mountain of crayons and make her a tower of banana chocolate chip pancakes. I tell myself that this will make a difference, that it will negate the collateral damage. Ella will be alone and without someone to take care of her, but somehow, it’ll be okay because she’ll have crayons and unlimited breakfast and money she doesn’t know how to spend.

Suddenly I’m back in the laundry room, pretending to fold his jeans, but really I’m just trying to keep my hands from shaking. My heart throbs in pain from thumping so hard. I know it’s coming; I can feel it deep in my gut. I can hear the thrum of dryers turning someone else’s clothes, and I think of how warm and safe it is in there, and I haven’t thought anything through before I’ve yanked open the door. A pink Polo falls out of the spin cycle, followed by a loose clump of lint. I grab the pink Polo and thrust it into the nearest laundry basket. I close my fingers around denim and polyester and socks and a jersey. Finally, my trembling fingers swipe the smooth metal of the dryer. The door opens just as I’m cramming myself in, craving its warmth and protection.

“Oh, fuck me,” he says, and I don’t even recognize him. “Don’t tell me you’re fucking hiding from me.”

I don’t want to look at him. My rubber arms desperately try to pull the door in, but his hands grip my bicep, and he wrenches me out of the dryer.

I suddenly remember one of the therapy groups I went to when I was sixteen. I mostly stayed in my room because there was too much drama with the other patients. On the good days, we all rested our foreheads on the edge of the table and tried to keep our eyes open as the group leader droned on and on. On the bad days, everyone was ushered into the nearest unoccupied conference room so we weren’t in the line of fire of flying chairs. We would press our foreheads against the Plexiglas as security guards piled in. After a while, I realized it was better just to curl up underneath five layers of cheap cotton and breathe in the stale scent of rubber gloves and antiseptic wipes.

But I guess this one group stuck with me because suddenly I can remember Shauna talking about de-escalation, so I suck in all the floaty pieces of fuzz that I can and breathe out through my mouth.

“Take a deep breath,” I plead. My voice sounds like it’s emerging from the bottom of an ocean. “It’s okay. You’re okay. We’re okay,” I promise, even though we are not okay, and nothing is okay, and maybe it’s all the fuzz, but my lungs have suddenly stopped working.

“Don’t fucking tell me to take a deep breath,” he says, and his grip around my arm tightens. I can feel his nails digging into my skin.

“Please,” I say. “I’m sorry, please, just—just talk to me about it, okay?”

“SHUT UP!” he screams at me, “SHUT UP!”

I close my eyes and think of all the hot sauce pouring out of me and the screech of brakes and the whistle of a train plowing down the tracks and battery acid gnawing my insides. Suddenly, I hear a little girl’s voice coming down the stairs. “Jay?” It’s Ella. My throat closes, and I can’t even scream at her to get out of here, but suddenly the hands go slack. “Jay, you promised to play hide-and-seek with me!”

His face is two inches from mine, and his eyes are bulging. “Get in,” he hisses at me, and suddenly, I’m shoved back into the dryer, and the door slams in my face.

In the semi-darkness, I breathe in more fluff and hear the laundry room door open. “I’m here, baby! Let’s play.”

“You count or me?” asks Ella.

I close my eyes. She has no fucking idea.

I leave the house before Jared gets up. As I receive my second blaring honk of the morning, I realize I’ve forgotten to eat breakfast. And it’s Friday. I have to pick Ella up after school, but my brain is resemblant of scrambled eggs and my cranium is a cracking egg shell. Before I can decide whether I care enough to make it look like an accident, I’ve dazedly put in my two-weeks at work. If this doesn’t pan out, not only will everyone be pissed at me, but I’ll also be broke. The magpies twitter uneasily. By the time I pick up Ella, they’re beating their wings so furiously and quickly that I start to think they’re hummingbirds.

Ella launches into updates right away. The cilia in my basilar membrane must have wilted because I can’t decipher anything she’s saying. I nod my head and grin at her and pray that she isn’t saying something sad. I finally manage to tune into her narrative after the fourth stop sign, which I nearly hurtle straight through.

“But I think it’s really weird that she’s talking to me, since she doesn’t talk to the other kids.”

“Who’s talking to you?” I ask absentmindedly, bewildered that I have temporarily lost the ability to drive.

“Miss Caitlin, I said. But she’s pretty nice, so I guess she can keep talking to me, except she wants to talk to mom too, and that’s even weirder since she doesn’t talk to other kids’ moms either,” Ella plows on. I don’t think little kids have the ability to decipher when you’re only half listening, and I feel both guilty and grateful for this.

“Who did you say Miss Caitlin was?”

“I don’t know, just some lady.”

“Is she a teacher? What do you guys talk about?”

“I don’t think she’s a teacher, since she doesn’t try and teach me anything,” says Ella.

“She just asks me questions mostly, and we just talk about what I like to do, and about mom and dad, and you too, and I said that I spend Saturday and Sunday with you, and I told her you make the pancakes with bananas and chocolate chips, and she said it sounded delicious.”

“But how did you meet her?” I ask. I have enough things to worry about without a sketchy lady interrogating my little sister.

“Well Mrs. Mark told me that we were gonna have a meeting with Miss Caitlin because she thought that Miss Caitlin could help me with things, and after the meeting, Mrs. Mark asked me if I liked her and wanted to keep talking to her, and I said I thought she was nice, and so they said I could talk to her every week, and if I wanted to talk to her more, then just ask Mrs. Mark, and maybe I could talk to her two times a week, and also that they were gonna meet with mom and dad, but I said dad can’t meet with them, so just mom.”

I want to snap that it’s ludicrous to think that mother would meet with the school about Ella’s wellbeing, but I strangle the words out of my voice box and quell the look of disbelief that has sprung onto my face. I don’t want to ruin this for Ella, so for the rest of my life, I will believe that the mother is a good person.

The pieces have clicked in my head, and as the miracle solidifies, I realize this must be some sort of sign from the universe. I’m so thrilled that I almost plow into an oncoming Amazon Prime truck, but then I remember Ella’s in the car too, so I put my foot on the goddamn brake.

I have to confirm the suspicion first. This is too good to be true. “Is Miss Caitlin a doctor?” I ask.

“Huh?” Ella has shifted her focus to peeling a tangerine leftover from her lunchbox. “A doctor? No, she’s just some lady who works at the school. She only meets with some kids. Why would she be a doctor?”

“How come you got chosen to meet with her?” I asked.

“Well, I think because Mrs. Mark thought I wasn’t getting that much attention at home, and she wants me to have someone nice to talk to, and she said it would be good for me.”

“Do ​you​ think you aren’t getting that much attention at home?” I ask. Ella shrugs her shoulders. “Listen, Ella,” I say seriously, and then realize that I sound absurd, so I try my best to unclasp the metal wrench that is constricting my throat. “That sounds great! You know what?”

“What?” Ella asks, and she beams at me through the rearview mirror. I try and immortalize her smile in my mind. The hummingbirds are piranhas gnawing at my insides, but I smile back at her. My face muscles are out of practice. “Miss Caitlin sounds like a really nice lady. Do you think you’ll keep talking to her?”

Any hesitancy that was there before seems to melt away at my encouragement. It breaks my heart how much Ella thinks of me, how much she clings to every word I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “I like her.”

“You know she’s supposed to be like a caring best friend, right? I’ve talked to someone like Miss Caitlin before too. And if I was happy about something, I would tell her about it, so she could be happy for me. Or if I was sad about something, or something was bugging me, or if someone wasn’t nice to me, I told it all to my Miss Caitlin, and it really helped me a lot.”

This isn’t completely true, and as the lie falls out of my mouth, I suddenly picture the permanent scowl etched into Dr. Tennyson’s face. I glance in the rearview to make sure ​my​ face hasn’t been contaminated by the expression, but long years of practice have served me well. The corners of my lips are still frozen in the place I left them—turned up a little.

“How come you never told me about your Miss Caitlin?” Ella asks, picking the white skin off an orange wedge.

“Oh, well, I guess I didn’t think of it until now,” I said. “But she really helped me a lot,” I say, even though Dr. Tennyson was a “he.” “You think you could talk to Miss Caitlin about all the things you’re happy and sad about too? Wouldn’t it be nice for you to have a special person to share your secrets with at school?”

I think of doors slamming shut at the house and the empty dining room table and Jared Mayer as I say the word ​secret​.

“Yeah, I think it’ll be great,” says Ella. She’s finished her tangerine, and we’ve pulled up at my driveway. Jared is hanging out by the front door, grinning.

“Look who it is!” he cheers as Ella climbs out of the car. “My favorite little princess,” he says and winks at me. The piranhas spit acid.

“Hey, babe,” I say, and refrain from dodging Jared’s kiss. He picks Ella up onto his shoulders and carries her into the apartment.

“I’ve been waiting to see you all week!” says Jared. “And I got a new game for us to play. Guess what it is?”

“What is it!” Ella exclaims. Her bright little voice carries through the whole place and lights up the dark and dusty corners.

“Can I get a drumroll please!” 

The drumroll sends reverberations through my rib cage.

“It’s Mancala!”

“Hey, babe,” I call out, and Jared looks over.

“What’s up, my love?”

“I’m gonna run to the store for some pancake mix,” I say, and grin at Ella.

“No problem,” he says. “I’ll be here playing some Maaaancala!”

I can’t help but laugh, but I think I’m allergic to the action. I get out of there as fast as I can and jump in the car, and the whole time, my foot keeps trying to slam the gas of its own volition. At the last intersection, I take a deep breath and force myself to look both ways. I am almost there. The rotation of my skull sends the rusted gears in my spinal cord into revolt. It feels like I’m balancing a book on my head. Everything inside me hurts. I think of Dr. Tennyson and the flying chairs and the velcro straps and my boyfriend laughing his deep, throaty laugh and Jared Mayer shoving me into the dryer and Ella in that house with mother and father.

I make it into the baking aisle and pile as many boxes of pancake mix into my cart as I can. I must look insane to the other grocers. All those boxes of flour, baking soda, and powdered egg whites weighs me down. I am rooted to the spot in aisle six, magpies and hummingbirds and mealworms and piranhas crowding my insides and everything else crowding my head. I don’t know what to do.

I’ve given them the heads up at work. I will leave Jared a check for the ring. I will give Ella the rest of my savings. I will stock the cabinets full of pancake mix. Ella will talk to Miss Caitlin. My boyfriend will look after her when he can. The mother and father will give her a place to live. All the collateral damage is looked after.

I have never felt so alone.

I stare at the mountain of Birch Benders in my cart, growing blurrier by the minute, and all I can do is put my forehead on the dirty red handle and cry.