🖋 Teacher Ain’s story was inspired by the sight of a messy room, chronicling a family's journey after a traumatic loss which led to severe hoarding at home.
“𝙾𝚞𝚛 𝚐𝚛𝚒𝚎𝚏 𝚠𝚊𝚜 𝚊 𝚕𝚒𝚟𝚒𝚗𝚐, 𝚋𝚛𝚎𝚊𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚐, 𝚑𝚒𝚍𝚍𝚎𝚗 𝚠𝚒𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚙𝚒𝚕𝚕𝚊𝚛𝚜 𝚘𝚏 𝚋𝚛𝚘𝚔𝚎𝚗 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚊𝚐𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚐𝚜 𝚒𝚗 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚑𝚘𝚞𝚜𝚎, 𝚋𝚕𝚘𝚌𝚔𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚘𝚞𝚝 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚜𝚞𝚗 𝚏𝚛𝚘𝚖 𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚎𝚢𝚎𝚜 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚘𝚌𝚌𝚞𝚙𝚢𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚜𝚙𝚊𝚌𝚎 𝚝𝚑𝚊𝚝 𝚜𝚑𝚎 𝚕𝚎𝚏𝚝 𝚒𝚗 𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚑𝚎𝚊𝚛𝚝𝚜.”
I wiped the tears from my eyes and forced a facsimile of a smile. Seeing the falseness of my expression in the bathroom mirror made my skin crawl. Though the corners of my lips were curved upwards, there was a dimness in my eyes that could not be mistaken. My heart twisted in my chest and the smiling face in the mirror began to morph into a hideous expression. Tears descended on those taut, pale cheeks, glistening next to the uplifted corners of a stony mouth. I could barely look at the sight. What would beautiful, perfect Anna think of this creature?
Would I end up more alone than ever, after today?
The chimes of my doorbell interrupted my thoughts, and my heart plummeted. Anna was here. I reluctantly unlocked my bathroom door and headed outside to let Anna in.
“Hi, Sarah!” Anna chirped, grinning at me. Her thick, black hair shone in the sunlight, bathing her in an angelic glow. “I’m so excited for us to start! I even brought all my glitter glues and sparkly pens! Thanks for letting me come to your home instead to do our project. I’m so sorry that I had to change our plans at the last minute. My mother had forgotten to tell me that she was having her colleagues over at our house today!”
I stared at Anna mutely, overwhelmed by her unbridled positivity and cheer. I tried to smile the way I had practised, but I found that I could not feel my lips anymore. Though every inch of me longed to hug her and welcome her into my home, I could only muster an emotionless shrug. “Come in,” I mumbled, hating the way even my voice sounded. Anna gave me a confused look, but obeyed.
“Where’s your room?” she enquired innocently, looking around. Her eyes widened at the litany of chaos strewn about our living room. She took in the stacks of old, crisp newspapers yellowing from age, dozens of ancient electrical appliances that no longer worked, plastic bags full of clothes that had been unwashed and unworn for months, and boxes full of miscellaneous items like shoes, books, journals, used cosmetics, bottles... The air was hot and stuffy, and it reeked with the stench of decay and neglect. Nobody had cleaned my home in a long, long time. Not since…
“Is it this one?” Anna pointed at my bedroom door. I nodded. My vision blurred as I watched her hand reach out to push the door open.
A small gasp pierced through the air and through my heart. Anna’s face contorted in horror at the sight of my bedroom. Though it may be hard to believe, my room looked worse than the living room. Anna wrapped her arms around her body as if to shield herself from the piles of dirty plates and utensils, soiled clothes, and discarded food packets all over the floor. Every inch of my room was covered in something or another. Clothes hung over any surface, be it a table, chair, or lamp. Piles of books and old worksheets cluttered any remaining space. Seeing my room through her eyes made me cringe with self-disgust. I wished the ground would swallow me whole. Of all the people in the world, why did it have to be Anna Westbrook to witness my greatest shame?
Anna was beloved by all who had met her. Blessed with polite manners, a quick wit, and a hardworking attitude, she was the star pupil at my school. By some stroke of miraculous luck, Anna and I had become friends after we both scored full marks for our English Composition paper. Anna had written a beautiful, moving story about a girl moving on from her grandmother’s death. I had written an action-packed adventure about a boy and his imaginary friend running away from home. After reading each other’s stories, both Anna and I realised that we were so much deeper than the other person had initially thought. It felt like we had glimpsed into each other’s souls, and our friendship began that very day. We had been inseparable since.
Until, perhaps, now.
I swallowed hard and clenched my fists so hard that my knuckles turned alabaster. My entire body felt like I had turned to stone. “W-we can sit on my bed,” I whispered.
Anna hesitated. “I don’t…” she trailed off and looked at the bed, which was covered with two empty packets of chips, visible crumbs, a stray fork, and several pairs of mismatched socks. She tore her gaze away and looked at me. Seeing the look in her eyes laden with disgust and judgment broke something inside me. I stumbled back and raised an accusing finger at her. “What? Is my bed too good for you?”
Anna shook her head frantically. “It’s… it’s just a little messy, Sarah…”
“Stop lying to me! We promised we would never lie to each other! Say it, tell me what you’re thinking. You think I’m disgusting, don’t you? Say it! I’m disgusting! How dare you judge me when you have no idea what I’ve been through!”
I closed my eyes and broke down sobbing, collapsing against my bedroom door. I withdrew into myself, hearing my own sobs echo in my ears. Distantly, I felt Anna touch my shoulders and heard her please with me. As I bawled for what seemed like an eternity, I thought of what my life had turned into and the shame that I was living with. Every day, I would pretend to be an ordinary person and disappear into the walls of this home that had not felt like a home in a long, long time.
“Sarah, please forgive me. I’m so sorry. You are right. I don’t know what you’ve been through. Please, will you share with me what you’ve been going through? I’m so sorry, Sarah. Please.”
As her words finally penetrated through the fog in my mind, I dragged my face against my shirt and lifted my head to look at her. To my shock, tears had filled Anna’s eyes.
I had never seen Anna cry before.
In a faltering voice, I told Anna about the day my parents got into an accident. It had happened three years ago. My father was driving my mother and I through a thunderstorm and did not see the truck that had collided with a bus in front of him until it was too late. Our car had slammed into the truck. While my father survived the horrific accident, my mother did not.
That day had upturned our lives. My father never forgave himself for it, and I never moved on. Our grief was a living, breathing thing, hidden within the pillars of broken and aging things in the house, blocking out the sun from our eyes and occupying the space that she left in our hearts. I still had all of my mother’s things. Her favourite CD player was there on my table, atop her collection of cookbooks that she never did cook from. Her shoes were next to mine on the floor, the leather peeling and crumbling off in chunks. Her favourite pink woolly sweater was under my pillow, unwashed since her passing. My late mother’s absence surrounded me here and kept me company during the nights.
After listening to me unload all my secrets, Anna sat silently next to me. She was holding my hand tight in hers and was looking at her feet, avoiding my gaze. I sat in our quiet, wondering if this was the end of our friendship, the one good thing that had entered my life in the last few years, and felt a new kind of pain wash over me, threatening to anchor me at the bottom of my ocean of grief forever.
“Sarah, I am so ashamed of the way I reacted,” Anna finally spoke. Our gazes locked and I held onto her for my dear life. “I can never truly understand the pain you went through, but I want to help. Say the word, and we can work together and clean your room. You deserve to live in a home, not a broken memory. Tell me, Sarah, what do you want?”
“I want things to change.”
My voice surprised me with its clarity and strength. I straightened my back and nodded at her firmly. “I can’t live like this anymore. I want a change for the better, Anna. I want to move on, but I don’t know how. Will you help me?”
Anna’s smile was like the breaking of a new dawn. She got to her feet and pulled me up. “Then let’s get to work.”
For the next few hours, Anna and I worked hard to organise and clean my room. We labelled things to be discarded, things to be kept, and things to be donated, and separated them into three neat piles in the living room. Then we cleaned my bedroom with some cleaner fluid and a mop, scrubbed the dishes clean, and organised everything to be kept in my room. I kept one cupboard just for my mom’s things, memories of her that I still wanted to keep, and discarded those that were already decaying or had no further use. As we cleaned and tidied, I felt a strange hope bubble in my chest. By the time the sun touched the horizon and the sky was a warm shade of orange, we had completed our task. I stared with my mouth agape at my bedroom.
For the first time in years, I could see the floor beneath my feet. My windows were open, and the curtains were drawn. The evening light basked my room in an amber hue, bouncing off our faces as we looked at each other, brimming with pride. I burst into tears, embraced Anna in a mighty hug, and thanked her.
“I’ll be back tomorrow to continue our project. Don’t mess it up till then, okay?” she whispered against my ear. I laughed and laughed until the tears stopped falling.
That day, Anna’s friendship and kindness set me on the path of letting go. Through her fortitude and strength, she helped me change for the better. I looked forward to the next day for the first time in many years because from the next day onwards, Anna would be there, and I would be there for her. We had each other. I knew then that our friendship was one that would last till the break of another dawn.