Crawling Back by Allison Wall
You thought maybe, this time, you could do it. You keep trying. You try over and over, but like all those other times, you look at yourself—really look—and you have to acknowledge it. Gaunt, lank hair, circles like bruises around your eyes, lips chapped, skin mottled and pale, fingernails splintering. You are dying. You have to go back.
You are too tired and sick to be angry. But a part of you—a not-small part—is relieved. This burden you’ve placed on yourself, the weight of this goal, you can put down. You can’t survive alone. You know better. Of course you do. But these moments of clarity only come when it is almost too late.
So you climb into your car and drive, with shaky hands, shaky legs, struggling to focus your eyes. Thankfully it isn’t hard to get there. The route is pressed deep in your muscle memory. Grooves in your body. The car practically drives itself. You blink. Before you know it, you’re there.
The tires splash through the gutter where, as a kid in the rain, you floated makeshift boats, and the car bumps up the curb, pulling into the driveway. That river of rainwater was the boundary, never spoken, but understood: the farthest you could go. You’ve pushed against that boundary. You’ve pushed hard and far. But it collapses back on you, snaps you back, every time. Until here you are again. Staring at your mother’s house. Walking up the porch steps. Ringing the doorbell.
In your own head, some distant voice screams: Wouldn’t it be better to die? To be free of this?
Maybe. But here, on the threshold, so close to relief, you are not strong enough to turn away, to run back to the car, to drive off a bridge.
The door is opening, and there is your mother.
She takes you in, head to foot, and doesn’t say anything, but you can see it in her eyes: the mingled pity-judgment.
You wait. There’s nothing else you can do, no response you can make. She’s right. She’s always right. You’re falling apart.
She holds open the door and you go inside.
The house smells the same. Something about the carpets and the cooking and the cleaner and dryer sheets and the candles. All of that, mingling. It’s impossible to describe. Childhood. You inhale it, your brain recognizes it, associates, and you can feel yourself becoming smaller. Not physically (not yet), but in energy and in power.
Your mother, on the other hand, becomes bigger.
She closes the front door and locks it. “How are things?”
Your heart is fluttering, kicking and jumping like the legs of a dying spider. Your lungs feel shallow, and you can’t breathe much. She knows this.
“Mom,” you say. You try to keep back the tears burning in your throat. “Do we really have to do this now?”
She swings the curtains shut. “Well, I haven’t seen you in so long. It would be nice to catch up a little first.”
She looks at you again, sighs, deeply, says, “Oh, Alyssa. If you would only come back more often…”
“I know. I’m sorry. I just—”
But your mother is already unbuttoning her shirt. “It’s fine, dear. I just wish you’d think of me more. A mother needs her daughter, you know.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.”
“I know you will, baby.”
Then your mother is unbuttoning her skin. Or, rather, she starts to, but stops. “Would you help me with this? These buttons are so small and my fingers are sore today. With my arthritis, and that rain we’re supposed to get tonight.”
Your own hands tremble with weakness, but you go to her and, as delicately as you can, you find each tiny button one by one, and draw it out of its loop. They remind you of the round buttons they sew on wedding dresses, and your thoughts roll in fever and chill, your vision swims. Is it your wedding or your mother’s?
She inhales sharply, drawing you to the present. You must have tugged too hard. You proceed with even more care, gently lifting the soft flap of her skin away to reveal the next button. The line in her flesh is so beautiful, the arch of it, just below her naval.
When the buttons are all undone, your mother reaches inside (inside herself) and draws out the cord. Curly, like the cord of the old wall phone that used to hang in the kitchen, except your mother’s is pale blue and glistening. You lift up your t-shirt, and your mother plugs it in.
Instant disorientation. Your body convulses. You are nauseous, head-to-toe, you break out in a cold sweat. But the next instant, the sick vanishes. You are securely connected. Nourished. You sigh. This is what it is supposed to feel like.
But the cord—it takes something from you, too. That’s when you begin to shrink. Your mother catches you in her arms. She tucks you inside. Buttons you in.
It is so small, so tight, because you are not done shrinking yet. You can’t breathe. You can’t move. But you don’t need to. All is warm. Glowing red light. The drumbeat. Your mother’s heart, pulsing. Be still. Be still. Be still.
Your mother wants to resorb you. You can taste it on your tongue. You can feel it. Her hunger. Her need.
You are floating now, drifting in a universe of blood and muscle and bone and tissue. You can stretch your arms and legs, your neck, feel the length of your body, weightless.
Still, you shrink.
How much smaller can you become? Will there be any you left to be reborn? The cells in your brain unknit themselves. Maybe, this time, your mother will shrink you all the way to nothing. Reclaim all of you. Take back what was—what has always been—hers.
Allison Wall is a neurodivergent American writer. She has an MFA (Hamline University) and has published short speculative fiction, personal essays, and book and film reviews. She founded and runs NEURODIVERSION, a monthly newsletter that centers neurodiverse news, research, and current events. Allison-Wall.com Twitter: @awritingwall