THE GATES BETWEEN
by Kat Parrish
Most people believe the gates separating life from death only open one way. That’s not true. What is true is that once you pass through the gates and then return, you are never the same again. I found this out the hard way. I died on my 17th birthday.
And then I came back.
CHAPTER 1: You’ll be sorry when I’m gone
I don’t even remember what the argument was about. My stepmother and I fought constantly about everything…everything and nothing. Often our arguments were about me *not* doing something. One day it would be about me not making up my bed.
I kept the door to my bedroom closed, what did she care?
Another day it would be about me not putting gas in the car the last time I used it.
The morning of my birthday, it had been about me not wanting to eat the nutritious breakfast Elle had cooked especially for me, relaxing her ban on eating what she called “flesh” to fry up some turkey bacon. Though why she had even bothered, I don’t know. I usually just grabbed a cup of yogurt on the way out the back door and on the one day—the one day—she decided to do the mom thing and cook up some eggs and bake some refrigerator biscuits, I didn’t want to slow down to bond with her. It was my birthday and it already sucked.
I was already missing my real mom worse than usual; the idea of making pre-coffee chit-chat with her flawed replacement was not appealing.
It never occurred to me offering me breakfast might be Elle’s way of trying to make me feel better, to start the day off in a nice way. It never occurred to me to give Elle credit for anything, especially not for doing something nice.
My best friend Kasi told me I was being a bitch when I complained to her about what a big deal Elle had made of me dissing her breakfast.
Kasi’s mother’s idea of cooking breakfast was throwing a box of toaster waffles on the table as she left for her office. “You should be grateful she cares enough to cook for you.”
Maybe, but I was sure Elle wasn’t cooking for me because she cared about me. She just wanted to look good for my father.
Not that he was there. He was hardly ever at home any more, at least not for more than a week at a time before he jetted off to some exotic place to advise his clients on the best way to exploit the natural resources of their or someone else’s country.
Sure there was email and WhatsApp, and even the occasional phone call, but he was usually half a dozen time zones away so I was often asleep when he got out of meetings.
He talked to Elle a lot more than he talked to me, but he didn’t talk to her enough to suit her, and she took that out on me. But she kept her real feelings about her abandonment hidden to the world even from the so-called friends she surrounded herself with, self-involved trophy wives married to my father’s business associates. But she couldn’t really trust them not to weaponize any confidences she might spill. After all, their husbands were ambitious and ruthless—just like my dad had been at their age.
It’s a dog eat dog business,” he used to say, “and the first bite counts.”
I used to think that was funny.
Elle used to laugh when he said that, too. Laughing at his lame jokes was apparently part of the “contract” she’d made. That and pretending to be the “perfect stepmother.”
That would have been fine with me if her definition of “perfect” had been anywhere near what mine was.
I get it, step-parenting isn’t easy, and when you’re stepping into the maternal role because your predecessor is dead, it makes it that much harder. How do you compete with a saint?
By being a martyr.
Elle would have preferred to marry a guy without kids, and she was jealous of dad’s bond with me. The only reason she hadn’t shipped me off to a boarding school was that he wasn’t onboard with it. Especially in the first few years they were married, she walked on eggshells around him, being extra careful not to contradict him or cross him in any way.
And she probably figured once I got into college, she wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore. Hence the charade.
I’ll give her credit; she could be pretty convincing. It helped that dad traveled a lot. She could keep it together for short periods of time, so he never knew just how awful she could be to me.
Or how spiteful and petty I could be to her.
It never occurred to me how depressing it must have been to be confronted by my mother’s presence every time she turned around. My mother had been fond of whimsical decorative touches while Elle was a minimalist and scornful of the cutesy switch plate covers and the kitschy tchotchkes that were liberally sprinkled around the house. The first weekend Elle moved in, right after the wedding because my father had wanted to keep his sex life apart from me, she’d boxed up a load of my mother’s belongings and taken them to the nearest Goodwill while I was still at school. I was furious and even my father had thought the action was a little abrupt.
There were a couple of things I’d really wanted, like a fancy hairclip she’d worn every Christmas. And a small ceramic cardinal that she’d bought because it reminded her of her hometown in Virginia. They don’t have cardinals in Los Angeles. There was also a small green glass pitcher that had been my grandmother’s. I’d really wanted that too. Elle taking all those things was just plain mean and it was a declaration of war, a war we’d been fighting ever since
She might have scrubbed every remnant of my mother’s presence from the place, sterilized it, nuked it, but she couldn’t do much about me, the daughter everyone said was the spitting image of the mother who had died.
“Have you ever thought of coloring your hair?” she’d once asked me.
“I like having red hair,” I’d said, annoyed.
She’d wrinkled her nose in distaste. “It’s just so…carrot top,” she’d said.
My mother always called the shade “rose gold.” When her hair had begun to fall out because of the treatments, she’d braided it and cut it off. I still had the braid, coiled inside a plastic zip bag I kept in my school locker because I didn’t trust Elle not to throw that out too.
Think about coloring my hair? That was typical of the passive/aggressive volleys we lobbed back and forth.
I don’t know what the end game was for either of us. I knew in my heart that my father wasn’t going to divorce Elle, just as she knew he wasn’t going to kick me out of the house, or ship me off to a monastery, but we just kept up this asymmetrical warfare just because it gave both of us a focus for our unhappiness and anger.
She was good at it, but I was better.
I’m not necessarily proud of that, but at the time, I saw it as a survival strategy. I figured we’d be locked into this battle royale forever.
And then my 17th birthday rolled around.
Elle and I had been in sniping at each other all week, barely speaking, hardly even acknowledging each other’s existence. She was pissed dad was off on another business trip; this one to Barcelona, a city where she’d never been and wanted to visit. He’s put her off. “It’s business, Elle, I’ll be tied up in meetings all day.”
When she’d pointed out that she didn’t need him with her to walk around and take in the sights, he’d said, “It’s not safe,” and that had been the end of that.
Like Los Angeles is the safest city in the world.
I was not happy he was gone either. When I was young, it was fun when he went away because he always came back with presents. Also, he hadn’t traveled as much. When my mom got sick, he used work as an excuse not to have to stay home and watch her deteriorate day by day. I confronted him about that one day and he’d gotten angry and defensive. He told me better times were coming but for the moment he had to practically sell his soul to make ends meet. At the time, I didn’t really pay much attention to the words he used, I was just upset that I’d been left to handle things alone. To be fair, he’d talked about getting someone to stay with me and mom, but I’d convinced him that I could handle things by myself with the help of a practical nurse to do the medical stuff.
The idea that my grandmother might come stay with us, horrified me. She and I got along okay, but she and my mother hated each other. And since it was pretty clear that my mother wasn’t going to get well, I didn’t want her to spend the last months—it turned out to be only weeks—being annoyed by her mother-in-law.
He gave me an emergency credit card so I could Uber us around to doctor’s appointments and hospital visits and buy groceries and other necessities. Kasi’s mom checked in often, bringing food she hoped would tempt my mom to eat and stacks of DVDs to distract her from the pain. She was around a lot, but she never stayed long. I understood, being around a dying person was depressing.
Mom and I would eat the snacks and watch the DVDs and try to pretend that things were normal. Just a bald-headed chemo-brained woman and her daughter kicking back on a Friday night Nothing to see here.
I knew it was stupid to want my dad around to help me celebrate my birthday, but it was so hard not having at least one of my parents around. He had called me and given me permission to use the auxiliary Amex card he‘d given me to “buy myself something nice.” He’d even suggested Elle and I go shopping together. “She has such great taste,” he said to me. Which was true but…
He told me I could spend up to five hundred dollars. I’m sure he expected me to spend it on clothes or makeup or something. Which told me how out of touch he was with me. . Unlike Kasi and a lot of my friends, I’m not a devotee of fast fashion. Almost all of my clothes came from a thrift shop in Studio City or yard sale treasures.
Elle hated that I was a “thrifter.” She’d often make snarky comments about me coming home with clothes infested with lice or someone else’s body odor. Which never happened.
She was just a snob.
I got a money order with a credit card advance and put it into my “escape fund,” writing a vague “thank you” email that didn’t mention what I used the money for. Dad didn’t ask. He had changed since Mom died, but lately, he’d been even more disconnected than usual. Emailing him was like sending a message to a total stranger you were obligated to check in with.
I knew there was something going on with him and even asked Elle if she had noticed a change in dad lately. “Why would you ask me something like that Roisin?”
Because you might know, bitch, I thought, but all I said was, “forget it.”
So that’s how it had been for a while, and all my birthday week we’d been rubbing up against each other. By the actual day, the tension between us was so thick it was almost visible as a toxic haze to the air. I should have just skipped the whole day.
After the breakfast I’d bailed on, it just got worse. In first period, I got back an essay I’d written on Ophelia’s daddy issues in Hamlet and saw that Ms. Ptak had given me a C on it.
A C, seriously?
I went up to her desk after class to protest and she took off her hipster horn-rimmed glasses and stared at me blankly when I asked her why she’d given me a C on what I considered an A minus paper. (I actually considered it an A plus, but I said A minus in order not to seem arrogant.)
“You just phoned it in, Roisin, she said mildly, ignoring my air of injured self-righteousness. “If you want to revise it and turn it in tomorrow, I’ll reconsider your grade.”
“It’s my birthday,” I said, because obviously I shouldn’t be expected to do homework on my birthday.
“Happy birthday,” she said and then glanced at the clock. “You’d better get moving or you’ll be late to your next class.”
“Fine,” I said, and stomped off. I spent lunch rewriting the essay, which meant I missed out on the day’s info dump of intel from Kasi and Jared. I was in all AP classes, so I only saw them before and after class, and they were always full of great gossip about what was going on. That time was always the highlight of my day, which tells you how boring my life was.
Kasi was smart enough to be in AP classes but just to piss her mother off—LeeAnne was the poster girl for female empowerment—she pretended to be dumb. I’d called her on it a couple of times and she’d just shrugged. “Sue me for not wanting to spend three hours a night doing homework,” she said.
It was more like four.
“And I can’t afford college anyway,” she’d added because she’d learned that was the quickest way to get someone to drop the subject. Her plan was to get her real estate license and go to work for her dad, who sold commercial real estate to foreign investors and had more work than he could handle. Her dad hadn’t gone to college either, and he fully supported her choice. I thought that working in real estate sounded like a good way to end up an alcoholic at thirty, but then I was a little jealous. My dad’s successful at what he does but his work involves what whistleblowers would consider “dubious practices” and he had absolutely no interest in me joining the family business.
Not that I wanted to sit in a cubicle all day anyway.
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