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Not Alone
By Rachelle Bergstein

It starts, of course, with a dream.

I flip on the lights and the cockroaches scatter. I don't dream them, they're real, like chocolate stains or blood on the red tile floor. I hear the clicking sounds they make, like fingernails tapping against a full glass of water. In the light the roaches are stunned; they linger long enough to remind me that even when asleep in an empty apartment, I'm not alone.

The screams in the dream aren't real, they are muffled like accusations shouted into cotton. That's the thing about dream screams; oftentimes it's not what's said, but the way they contort familiar faces that makes me so afraid. The last time I saw her, her face didn't look right. Something about the way her mouth was pulled, fish hooked from either side, a thin line lacquered in Cherries in the Snow but stretched too wide.

So they're screaming, she and my mother, screaming the things they never said; although in real life, they didn't get along either. I'm in the middle, watching the anger build in their faces, their cheeks collapse and their mouths open wide like black holes. With black hole mouths and vacant eyes they look like ghosts, the Halloween boo-ghost kind I used to draw in my notebook margins. At the time I imagined real ghosts to be willowy, paper-thin, like egg whites in boiling water, like sheer skin stretched over an old lady's hands.

Last week, at the funeral, I felt alone. Not just because she practically raised me, but because my mourning felt unconsummated, singular, like no one felt sadness deeply enough to mirror my own. Like no one noticed her mouth was hide over a drum, that underneath the spray-paint she was a pallid grey-blue. That the eulogies couldn't encapsulate how she read to me, fed me, pulled my first tooth and taught me how to switch the lights on and say I did it when I was barely old enough to speak. That even though she had seven other grandchildren, her dementia released, in her hospital bed, long enough for her to recognize my face, for the last words she'd ever speak to me: "I love you, Rachelle."

At night I wake up crying. Not just because I miss her but because with her death, it seems, that ceaseless love has dissolved.

But I'm a survivor. They say cockroaches can withstand nuclear holocaust, and sometimes that's what this feels like, the worst thing that's ever happened to me. It's only been a week or two, but I'm waiting for the sadness to break, like humidity gathering in the air. I'm waiting for the rain.

In the dream, my mother's yelling "you did this on purpose" and Grandma, passive, coy, coquette that she was, is giggling back. Mom gets angrier and with that weight her face is melting, her neck strong like a wrestler's but sinuous, like a ghost. Then, suddenly, Grandma screams back, her breath resonant and hollow. It looks like an echo. I've never heard her scream before, not in real life, so when she does it forces my eyes open, jostles me awake.

It's still dark, of course, it's two or three a.m., and there she is sitting at the foot of my bed. Watching over me as I sleep, wearing the red and white polka dot shirt I'd have buried her in, if the choice were mine. She's so tiny -- four-foot-eleven after the osteoporosis set in -- and her hands are like parchment, the blue veins curled like her perfect catholic school script. Her nails were always long and red, even when arthritis froze her knuckles halfway. I'm lying on my back and I look down at my feet, and then at her, sitting by them, gently, quietly.

What do I know about haunting? I know that as a kid, I was insufferably lonely, wanting so bad for the Ouijia board to work, to float light as a feather, stiff as a board. To believe I was different, that I could see things unseen. Sometimes I'd feel things watching, cajoling, the thinness of real life alluring, somehow. My mother told me that love would transcend death, that she and I, so close in life, would pick a code word. One day, when she was gone, it would appear, and I'd know then that she'd be with me always.

No one close to me has ever died before. I don't know loss like this. Maybe I'm acting crazy. Maybe I want to believe, so fiercely, that Grandma's not really gone, that the world is big enough for her to die, and still exist.

What was it my friend said -- the one obsessed with ghosts -- at the diner a few months ago? That the most common vision, after a loved one dies, is to see them waiting somberly at the foot of the bed?

When I blink, still in the dark, she's no longer there. My toes poke over my black down blanket. I look up at the window, facing my bed, to gauge the progress of the night by the color of the sky. Recently I've hung black and white pinstripe curtains that flank the window on either side. They're still there, but so are two arms, huge, translucent, encompassing. I see the fingernails, long and red. The arms are poised for embrace. I blink again, and they're gone. I think I'm losing my mind.

The symbolism isn't lost. That she came to say goodbye. I saw her, almost touched her. That she was reaching out to me.

I flip on the lights and the cockroaches scatter. I did it, Grandma. My goosebumps are like mountains. This isn't my average nightmare, because those I can shake off. Now I'm frightened to the core. I'm not scared of her; it's the profound anxiety over the slippage of two worlds, the looseness of threads. I hate to say it -- it's so cliché -- but I feel, undeniably, like I'm not alone.

People always talked about our special connection. For some it was admirable, for others, a source of jealousy. But it makes sense, I think, that she'd make an extra stop for me. She knew, more than anyone, how much I fear loneliness. That those I love being siphoned into death would make my life feel reedy where it once was full. That my room, small and buggy, would depress me. That I, more than most, seek out those things that are strange, inexplicable, confusing.

I don't know if she came to me, if I was awake or asleep. But I know, after that night, she stayed.

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