It’s the first day of classes and I’m late. I’m running both towards and away from my destination, unable to nail down a sense of direction. Suddenly I arrive, unsure how I managed to find the room. The door swings open to reveal a huge lecture hall full of people. I trip on my way in. Darn it. I look around and see an ocean of faces all trained on me. I don’t recognize any of them, their features blurry and indistinct. Then a few gazes lock with mine and suddenly they are familiar. My high school classmates. I don’t even question their presence at the same college as myself, but instead sit down in a desk immediately in front of me and hurriedly dig out a notebook. When I look up the room has changed and my backpack is gone. I’m at a round table with people I don’t know, blank faces that look somehow identical and radically different from each other. I have a feeling we are waiting for someone, a professor perhaps? When did I sign up for this class anyways? The door opens and someone enters the room. The furniture and people disappear, and I’m standing right in front of the newcomer. She introduces herself and reaches out to give me a hug. Where did everyone else go? Stepping back, I look into her face and see my own eyes staring back at me.
My 5am alarm jolts me awake. Smacking at my phone a few times, I finally manage to hit the snooze button, but it has already done its job. Lying in bed, I attempt to stay in my dream haze as long as possible. I grasp at memories just at the edge of my mind, trying to recall the scene I was pulled out of. A room. A different room. That face.
Nothing, it all slips away. Except for those eyes, the same ones that have been haunting me all week. Big, brown eyes with flecks of gold in them, the same as my own.
Their owner never says a word. She appears, attempts an affectionate gesture, and meets my gaze for just a moment before I am pulled back to reality. I know it makes the most sense to say that this woman is my mother, showing up in my dreams as I prepare to embark on ‘adulthood’. But I have long since adapted to living without her and my high school graduation doesn’t seem like a good enough reason for her sudden presence.
You can’t miss what you never had right?
I rotate onto my back and stare at the ceiling, contemplating the significance of the day — I’m almost free. Graduation day is bittersweet for a lot of people, but I feel only relief at its arrival. Once today is over, only a single summer stands between me and the rest of my life.
As Valedictorian and Athlete of the Year, I am giving a single double-length speech, the two titles usually going to separate individuals. I attempted to turn down the offer to speak, not feeling much excitement about speaking to a group of individuals I was hoping to never see again. However Carley talked me into it and helped me write the speech, so I guess I’ll put on the bunny ears for a day.
Luckily we are both heading off to Duke, her on pure merit, me on running. It’s actually a miracle I pulled off good enough grades to stay Valedictorian and not have my offer rescinded; second semester was tough once the burnout caught up with me and I could not focus in any of my classes. Senioritis is not something I had expected of myself.
All right, I’ve wasted enough time staring at the ceiling, time to get going. I slowly stand up. My body resists the movement, straining at the change in position. I’ve been remarkably stiff in the mornings lately, my muscles tightening almost to the point of pain. Maybe I should stretch more.
Walking to the bathroom, I can hear my aunt and uncle snoring in their room down the hall, their dog Elvis padding towards me to say good morning, and the soft coos of the mourning doves out back. I close my eyes and enjoy the pre-dawn sounds— this has always been my favorite time of day. On autopilot now, I throw on shorts and a sports bra before grabbing my favorite Nikes. In June, even the early mornings are warm enough to build up a sweat, and I remember to throw on sunscreen before chugging some water and heading out the door.
Outside, the horizon is a blooming shade of coral above a still dark landscape, a new day just moments away. I set off at a leisurely pace on my usual path, enjoying the pain in my legs as they work out the tension from the night.
The beginning of this run is flat and bare, a few Joshua trees the only greenery, but I remind myself to stay focused so I don’t lose speed or trip. When I reach the top of a nearby hill, I pause, needing a breather. I gaze out at the now brightly lit view.
Without the pre-dawn shadows to hide behind, I can see the entirety of the town. There is the high school whose fences I have fought for the last four years. There is the single street of downtown where adults go for a night out and kids go to get into trouble. There is my dad’s house, only a few miles away from my aunt and uncle’s.
There is the Old Mill Bridge, crossing 50 feet over a long ago dried-out riverbed— maybe my mom thought there was still water in it to catch her when she jumped. I turn away from the sight and take off down the hill, hoping to put some distance between my thoughts and my body.
Why is she on my mind again?
I need to stop obsessing over someone long gone and buried. For the most part what had happened was thoroughly swept under the rug — or in my dad’s case drowned in gin. But throughout the years rumored mental health problems have been brought up by more than one of my peers. Whatever the reason, at the age of only 20, Denise Thompson took a swan dive that left her husband in a 17-year tailspin and her year-old daughter without a mother.
She was not that much older than me.
Disturbed, I push myself to move faster, but quickly falter. Still panting, I am overcome with exhaustion and have to stop again. Shoot, I need to get back to a normal training schedule; I am getting way out of shape. I have not been able to finish my morning trail at a decent speed in weeks. I need to kick it up a few gears if I am going to be ready for the fall.
I’m still tired but have caught my breath, so I continue the descent at a slow pace, watching the ground to avoid any slipping— my hands are still raw from where the gravel cut my palms last week and my knees have scars from the months before.
Hot and sweaty in my dress and graduation gown, I struggle to keep my cap on against the wind. Everyone is lined up on the soccer field adjacent to the stadium, waiting for the ceremony to begin. A class of only 57, I can recite all of our names in alphabetical order in my sleep. The music finally starts and that is our cue. We walk into the stadium single file, trying to look as though we don’t all have minor heat exhaustion. I arrive at the front row and take my seat next to Carley, resisting the urge to hold her hand. Once everyone is seated, we say the Pledge of Allegiance and someone’s little sister sings the national anthem. Our principal starts the speeches with a few non-specific words about school pride and tradition. The District Superintendent follows him, rambling on for a solid 20 minutes before it is inevitably time for student speakers. Going first is Joey Anderson, the student body president and town’s future mayor to hear him tell it. He stumbles over a few cheesy words about our accomplishments thus far and our impending entry into adulthood before closing with our (only) school cheer.
I know I am next but still futilely hope that I’ll be saved the pain of giving the fluffy, inspirational speech written on my notecards. When the last ‘Go Bulldogs’ has finally faded away, Joey smirks and sarcastically introduces me as the school’s “star student”. No one else seems to pick up on his tone but me— does everyone think he is praising me?
No. The little rat is taunting me. I feel a boiling rage begin to build up inside of me as I stand to walk the few steps to the stage. I want to throw Joey off of it with every fiber of my being, but he returns to his seat before I get to him.
How dare he mock me? Yes, I am the star of this mediocre school and town. And I worked incredibly hard for it. Screw him and everyone else like him in this town— telling me my whole life that I was crazier than my mom, that my plans were nothing but a pipe dream. This town has given me wall after wall to tear down on my way to success and now that I have finally done it, I am being teased as though I’m just some third-grade brownnoser. Not a pat on the back, not an apology for doubting me— for holding me back.
Forget them, I don’t need this.
Standing at the podium, I look out and realize that my face must be betraying my emotions.
Good. They should know how I feel.
The speech Carley and I wrote flies out of my head and I have nothing left to say but the truth. “I have hated the last 17 years here and I hope to never come back. Good-bye and good luck. Actually, just good-bye.”
I stalk off the stage, across the turf, and straight out the main gates, leaving shocked silence behind me. Still fuming, I kick at a trash bin and knock it over, scaring a flock of birds out of a nearby tree. As I watch them fly away, my anger dissipates and all I feel is emptiness.
Arriving back at my aunt and uncle’s, I look around my room unsure what to do.
Should I pack?
No I guess that’s a bit extreme.
But staying is going to be exceptionally miserable now that I have basically flipped off the entire town. I feel a twinge of guilt for my aunt and uncle, who are probably embarrassed after my stunt. They don’t deserve that. They took me in when I had nowhere to go and they’ve always been kind to me, hell they even showed up to a few races. I hear the front door open and cringe at the thought of facing them, but I know it is inevitable.
They knock on my door before entering. Standing there, they look worried, exceptionally so actually. This strikes me as odd, I had anticipated anger.
“Michelle, we need to talk to you,” my aunt says.
Ominous, but expected.
“Yeah okay. Look, I’m sorry about what I did back there, I was angry at Joey and it got me rolling,” I explain.
“That’s okay, we get it. You have some right to be angry— the kid was being petty. But it was just a dumb comment. What made you so mad?” my uncle tentatively asks.
“I mean he was being a jerk. And it’s not fair that he can just get away with that.” I see the look in my Uncle’s eyes and feel guilty; I must have really embarrassed them.
“And okay yeah I guess I overreacted. But I was just so angry— I can’t explain it. I’m… I’m sorry guys.”
“We forgive you,” my aunt responds, “but we’re worried about you.”
Do they think I have anger management problems or something?
“Look, I’m sorry I worried you, but I’m okay. I just got a little angry,” I say in defense.
My aunt looks at my uncle before responding, “Michelle we know, but you seem to get a little angry a whole lot lately.”
“What are you talking about, no I don’t,” I snap.
My uncle steps in now, “What about after that final race earlier this year? You almost bit off your teammates’ heads.”
“My last race? You mean the one where I came in second? Of course I was angry I had a right to be! I shouldn’t have lost,” I say.
Thinking back I remember that day. I had fallen and twisted my ankle. I kept running but didn’t stand a chance at taking State after my mistake. It killed me to lose.
“Alright, what about last month when you couldn’t find your shoes? You tore this room apart,” my aunt says.
“Ugh, okay, maybe I overreacted then. But you know those are my favorites, I thought Elvis had eaten them. Look why are you bringing this up, do you want me to go to anger management classes or something?” I ask.
My aunt glances down, “No Michelle nothing like that, we don’t think it’s your fault… You, you may want to sit down, we need to tell you something.”
All right, this is weird.
“Um okay… what is it?” I ask.
“Well, it’s about your mom…” my uncle answers.
Looking at my aunt, I see something that looks like fear in her eyes. Or maybe it’s grief; she has never been willing to talk about her sister.
Why do they want to talk about my mom?
I can’t help but think about my recent dreams, my obsession with the Old Mill Bridge. Maybe they know about the dreams.
Have I been talking in my sleep?
Hesitantly, I perch myself on the edge of my bed.
“My mom? Um, okay, what do you want to tell me?” I ask.
“Has your dad ever told you what happened?”
“You already know that I know. She died. She jumped off the Old Mill Bridge and killed herself when I was one”, I try to say calmly.
My aunt pushes back on my explanation, “but did he ever tell you why she did it?”
I carefully respond, “No, he didn’t. I thought she went crazy, people have said she was… distressed,” trying to save my aunt’s feelings.
My uncle looks at my aunt and she nods, her eyes glazed over with tears.
Confused, and more than a little afraid, I shoot off a stream of questions, “What the hell is going on? Why are you both acting so weird? What do you want to tell me about my mom?”
My uncle looks at me and says, “I don’t know how to tell you this Michelle, but your mom was sick. That’s… that’s why she jumped off that bridge.”
“Sick?” I ask, “ Like she was insane?”
Are they trying to say she was schizophrenic or something?
What does this have to do with me?
My aunt suddenly jumps back into the conversation, “No, no, she wasn’t insane. Michelle, your mom was diagnosed with early-onset Huntington’s.” She looks visibly ill as she forces the words out.
Surprised I reply, “Huntington’s… I’m sorry what, what is that? Why does that sound familiar?”
“It’s a brain disease, we don’t know that much about it but… it’s fatal” my uncle answers, my aunt too choked up to say anything more.
After a moment I ask, “Wait, so she killed herself because she was going to die anyways? How long did she have left?”
I feel surprised and hurt, old wounds I thought long ago healed opening up. My mom chose to die. I always thought it wasn’t her fault… she had a mental illness or something. She went crazy— you can’t blame someone not in their right mind for their actions, for abandoning their child.
“No, no that wasn’t it. I mean partly yes, but it was the guilt that killed her. Michelle, this disease— it’s genetic,” my uncle responds.
All the blood drains from my face as I realize what they are trying to tell me.
Even my one biology class had taught me enough to realize what that meant. I might get it.
“Why are you telling me this now?” I ask them, not wanting to hear the answer.
My aunt can’t look me in the eye.
My uncle answers, “Because the doc told Denise that there was a 50% chance she passed the gene on to you. We, we always hoped that you wouldn’t get it. That maybe it was a mistake, or that you would beat the odds. But today… well, your mom was angry a lot before she was diagnosed. She… couldn’t control it.”
My aunt finds her voice again and continues, “She got clumsy too. She had been a dancer, but all of a sudden she was tripping over doorways.” Overwhelmed, she buries her head into my uncle’s chest and the floodgates open. But her sobs feel miles away.
My runs. I fall all the time.
No, there is no way.
I realize that my hands will not stay still.
50% chance, that’s a coin flip.
Looking up at my aunt and uncle, I realize that they are horrified at the sight of my shaking hands.
“Please get out,” I say.
My uncle hesitates, but looking at his sobbing wife, decides otherwise and gently guides her out the door. Before he closes it he looks at me and says, “Please talk to us. You can get a test done to check. You might not have it,” trying to infuse his words with hope. They ring hollow.
Quietly, they exit the room. The moment the door shuts, I jump across the room to my old desktop and open up the web browser. I type in “Huntington’s Disease”.
Almost 3 million hits.
The first is the HDSA site — Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
Shoot, this is real.
Reading quickly, I see “fatal genetic disorder,” “deteriorates physical and mental abilities,” and “no cure.”
Do I have this thing? No way. There’s no way.
“Symptoms usually appear between the ages of 30 to 50.”
I’m too young.
Then I see a header “JHD Overview,” followed by a short paragraph. “In approximately 10% of cases, HD affects children or adolescents.”
There’s no way, I have to be too old for that. I’m 17.
Opening a new search bar I type in “Juvenile Huntington’s Disease.” I find a different site.
“20 years or younger.”
Too shocked to move, I stare at the screen. I’m looking for something — anything — that will confirm this isn’t me. I come up empty. Frustrated, I stand up and grab my backpack on my way out. I don’t know where I am going but I need to get away from here.