Writing inspired by the following SWC prompt:
Five Reasons To Stay Alive
Tell the story of a character who is feeling very low, totally depressed. That is until a wonderful, unexpected day unfolds giving them five reasons to stay alive.
What are those reasons?
by Lea Gremm
I wake up in my old childhood bedroom like I have done for the past six months. The walls are still draped in the same ugly yellow wallpaper that I chose as a seven-year-old and they are closing in on me as soon as I open my eyes. I didn’t choose to be here. Nothing has ever felt more like admitting defeat to me than moving back into my parents’ house – the one place that I couldn’t wait to escape from not even ten years earlier.
Life is easier here. Comfortable. Nothing new or unexpected ever happens in this dead-end town. The little corner store where I used to work the register during the summer holidays, the half-dead apple tree in our neighbour’s front yard and the olive-green ceramic coffee mugs in our kitchen cupboard that perfectly match my mother’s eyes – everything is still the same as it ever was. Except me, I suppose. I used to hate the quiet and the glacial countryside pace. Now, it’s all I can possibly handle.
It won’t be long now until my mum comes knocking on my bedroom door, checking in on me and trying to lur me downstairs with the promise of breakfast and coffee. Food – no food, sleep – no sleep, going outside for some fresh air or spending another day in bed – it’s all the same to me, really. What difference does it make? There could never be enough air in my lungs to change the way I feel – or don’t feel – about my life. There is not enough coffee in the world to make me grow excited about another 20 or 50 or 70 years of living on this planet. I’ve been doing it for 28 years now and I’ve already grown tired of it. For almost three decades, I have been breathing and growing, failing and hurting, living and learning. I have travelled the world, I have fallen in love, I have been crushed and left in pieces by people I’ve trusted, and I have been moved beyond measure by the beauty of nature and art. I have laughed until my belly hurt and cried myself to sleep at night just to do it all again in the morning because it never. Fucking. Ends. – It’s all just an endless cycle of rinse-and-repeat-exhaustion and I just don’t see the point of it anymore.
My grandma used to say that life was like painting a canvas. Everywhere you go adds a slightly different shade of blue to it and everyone you meet comes in a different facet of green. All your mistakes scream at you in burning red and your successes and victories are bright streaks of yellow bursting out of pitch-black nothingness. My canvas has been bleak for a long time now. 11 months that felt like an endless night with no light to brighten up the sky. Where there once had been a multitude of hopeful and vibrant colours, there is nothing but an infinite stream of gray left now. No shades, no shapes, no contrast.
The truth is that I can’t even remember what real laughter feels like anymore. The way it used to build up in my stomach and bubble out of my mouth because a tiny body like my own can’t possibly contain so much happiness. All I’ve known lately is the darkness closing in on me, smothering the light out of my life till there is nothing left.
As expected, I hear a hesitant knock on my door not even a full minute later. My mum has always had a sixth sense for knowing when her children are awake. She used to wake me up for school in the mornings and every day I would argue with her over an extra five minutes of sleep. Of course, she would win in the end, but that never stopped me from pleading my case. But not today. I don’t argue anymore because nothing is really worth the effort.
My mum doesn’t wait for a reply before she opens the door a third of the way and sticks her head trough the crack.
“Sweetie? Are you awake yet?”
I don’t answer. It’s a rhetorical question anyway as I am laying on my side facing the bedroom door looking directly at her. She has the same gentle smile on her face that she wore while consoling me at six years old after I fell off my bike or at sixteen years old after suffering my first heartbreak. It is her mum-smile, a smile sweeter than sugar that perfectly matched the kind and careful tone of her voice.
“It’s 9 o’clock already… don’t you think it might be time to get up and have some breakfast soon?”
“C’mon, you can’t spend all day in bed, it’s not healthy.”
“How about I’ll make you some breakfast? We haven’t had your favourite in a while – c’mon, you’d never say no to some Sunny Alien Toast, right?”
Sunny Alien Toast is what my mum calls an avocado toast with a fried egg on top. It’s a term she made up when I was a kid and that stuck with us through the years. Under different circumstances it probably would have brought a smile to my face.
“I’ll be down in a minute, mum.”
There is almost no inflection to my voice and I barely recognize it as my own. My mum hesitates in the doorway for a couple of seconds – her gentle smile faltering ever so slightly.
“Alright, darling. I’ll see you downstairs.”
It takes me another 15 minutes to actually get out of bed and make my way downstairs. The table is set up for two, so my dad must have already left for work. It is a weekday then. I sit down in my usual seat at the breakfast table and just wait silently as my mum puts the finishing touches to my avocado toast.
“Voilà!” she chirps a couple of minutes later, “There you go: one Sunny Alien Toast, just the way you like it.”
She puts the plate down in front of me with a big smile, plops down in the opposite seat and just looks at me expectantly. I peer down at my plate, at the green and yellow of my colourful breakfast and feel absolutely nothing. There is no hunger churning in my stomach, no satisfaction at the sight of the perfectly fried egg sitting right in the middle of the bright green toast, no nostalgia flaring up in my chest at the many happy memories associated with this sight. Nothing.
“Is something wrong, dear?”
I shake my head, grab a fork and a knife, and wordlessly start eating. For a good five minutes the only sound that can be heard in the kitchen is the occasional scraping of my knife against the plate. When my mum finally breaks the silence, she sounds like she can’t stand it for even another second.
“I …I don’t understand. You used to love Sunny Alien Toast.” She looks genuinely distraught as she is staring at my now empty plate.
“I still do, mum.”
“But…you used to be so …happy eating it.”
And there it is. You used to be so happy. I used to be many things: spontaneous, loud, adventurous, silly, stubborn…the list goes on. Of all the things I’ve lost to the darkness, my happiness was the hardest to let go of. You can’t imagine what an utter lack of joy feels like until you’ve actually had to experience it. The loss is so devastating because it leaves nothing behind. Only absence and an all-consuming state of indifference. No shades, no shapes, no contrast.
“I’m sorry”, is what I reply eventually without meeting my mother’s crestfallen gaze, “I’m really trying, mum.”
Suddenly, there is a hand on my cheek, tilting my head up. My mother’s face is only inches away from mine now and I can clearly see the unshed tears in her eyes.
“I know, honey. I know. Everything will be alright.”
I don’t believe her, but I nod my head anyway.
“Here, have some coffee”, she says, putting a steaming mug in front of me, “there is nothing a good cup of coffee can’t fix.”
I cradle the mug between both of my cold hands and take a couple of sips. The warm liquid feels good on my tongue. Almost soothing. It’s not that I don’t like the taste of coffee anymore or that I suddenly developed a distaste for its smell. It still tastes good, and it still smells even better, but it’s nothing but a fleeting thought for me now. The tiniest flicker of appreciation that is gone all too soon, smothered by another overwhelming wave of indifference. Halfway through my coffee, I suddenly notice the colourful swooping letters that are printed on the side of the mug. I take a closer look at the inscription and almost crack a smile. Almost. There, in bright yellow over an olive-green background, it reads: “Joy.”
“Oh right”, I mutter sarcastically, “this is where I left it.”
My mum turns to look at me confused, follows my gaze to the mug in my hands and …bursts out laughing hysterically. It is the kind of belly laugh that makes your knees shake and brings tears to your eyes. I watch her, somehow amused, as she makes several futile attempts to calm herself down and even croaks out a couple of I’m so sorry, honey’s, but every time her laughter dies down just a little, her gaze falls back on the mug in my hand and it sets her off again.
Suddenly, there is a different noise joining in her laughter. Quiet and hesitant at first but getting stronger by the second. It is a sound that I haven’t heard in a long time but would still recognize anywhere.
“You’re laughing!”, my mum wheezes triumphantly, “I can’t believe it!”
As it turns out, laughing is not a skill you unlearn in time. But it somehow feels different now: There is a stiffness to the smile that stretches the tired muscles of my face, a faint soreness in my jaw caused by months of unrelenting teeth grinding.
I take another disbelieving look at the ceramic object in my hands. I am actually laughing. Out loud. For the first time in almost a year. As short-lived as this feeling might be, there is no mistaking it. Could it really be this easy?, I wonder as I trace the yellow letters on the mug with my forefinger. Can something that has been lost for so long be found just like that – in an old coffee mug of all things?
The sunlit kitchen falls quiet for a couple of minutes after our laughter died down. But it’s a different kind of quiet than before. I can see my mum watching me out of the corner of my eye, but I’m still looking at my coffee mug. I don’t quite know where to go from here, but I feel lighter than I had in a long time. When I finally meet my mother’s gaze, she is smiling her gentle mum-smile again, but her eyes look a little less worried, so I know that I’ve done something right for once.
“Told you there was nothing a good cup of coffee can’t fix”, she says eventually, winking at me.
If I could only see the fleeting flickers of light hiding in unassuming and mundane aspects of my life as clearly as I can see my mother’s twinkling eyes in this moment, then maybe the smell of freshly cut flowers on the windowsill and the taste of coffee and the sound of our shared laughter could be enough for now. They could be something I care about – maybe even enough to get out of bed in the mornings. I don’t know if a hundred tiny sparks of happiness can add up to a flame in time or if my canvas will ever be anything other than grey or bleak again, but I really hope so. I hope – and that can be a start.
Sunday Writers' Club member
I am a 29-year-old writer, freelance editor and part-time PR manager from Germany who moved to Vienna in 2022. My favourite pieces to write are poems and short stories. My favourite authors are Benedict Wells, Franz Kafka, André Aciman and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I get inspired to write by walking though Vienna, watching other people go about their day while listening to music. I love hiking, everything pastel-coloured and fresh flowers.
Last year, I launched my own editing company at www.zweitblick-lektorat.at – I offer editing and proof-reading services for German and English texts.“