I am 22 years old and I am afraid of the dark.
When I was a child, my mother tucked me in beneath a white comforter sprinkled with blue peonies and lace. Beneath it were two more blankets, a matching sheet, and, finally, my tiny body buttoned into a flannel sausage casing.
“Did you pray?”
I squirmed and nodded.
She ruffled my bangs and kissed me on the forehead.
As soon as she was gone, I flicked off the nightlight in the corner of my room and climbed back into my cocoon of covers.
Then everything was a block of darkness and I was in the center of it. I didn’t exist in the dark. Even with my eyelids pressed against my skull, it looked as if they were shut.
I couldn’t see anything, and nothing could see me.
Not even my unsaid prayer.
God would help me if I needed it. That is what my mother told me.
She said He had helped her before—a long time ago. When I was still in her belly and my brother was a bundle of blankets that cried when my father’s temper flared, He’d helped her.
When she had asked him to do something, anything, to make my father smaller and less of an unruly temper with fists that hurled through walls and hollers that shook the foundation.
She didn’t ask for him to be good. Just less of what he was.
I pictured her praying, with her belly full and her head bent. I could imagine her in the chair beside the bed, rocking slowly back and forth with her palms pressed tightly together and my brother in her lap. The furniture shoved against the door to protect her from the tornado in her own home.
And then, she told me, He did something.
He gave my father a heart attack, leaving him with a high blood pressure that refused to tolerate his temper.
It was all because of God.
So she prayed.
And He listened.
And when I prayed, He didn’t.
Sometimes my father became a tornado again, a calmer one, my mother assured me, but a tornado all the same.
It came in flashes.
My mother in the corner of the laundry room. Sniffling and curled in on herself.
Bent living room blinds. My mother’s white face on the couch and faraway eyes. What happened? Nothing. I’m fine.
Shattered plates stuffed into trash bags. Shards poking through the flimsy plastic. My shaking hands.
Dabbing makeup over purpling bruises. My mother at her vanity and me in the doorway.
Even after his tornadoes were over, I saw it all again behind my eyes. I could even see it in the darkness of my room, where I couldn’t see anything at all.
So I prayed.
Even though I didn’t know how, I prayed.
I sat at the foot of my bed, hands in a steeple and my lips against my thumbs.
I prayed he was far away and it was just us.
When it didn’t happen, I thought I had mumbled, maybe he couldn’t hear me in the darkness.
I prayed louder the next night. I imagined angels encircling my bedroom, raising their eyebrows and straining their ears before floating through my walls.
In my mind, they surrounded me, staring at me curiously to confirm that the prayer was coming from the same girl who had lied about praying.
He’d remembered my lie too. He didn’t answer me.
God didn’t hear me like He did my mother.
When I left for college, I was hours away from my father’s tornadoes. When they happened, my mother would tell me about them over the phone in a watery voice or a hurried whisper.
I felt guilty for being gone, guilty for not praying.
So I found a man to create the same tornadoes as my father, outbursts that he contained beneath a facade of calm ocean waves.
They came in snapshots that my eyes replayed.
Purple handprints encircling my arm. Me patting them with a towel after the shower, wincing.
My hands beating against the bathroom door. Heavy furniture shoved against the other side.
Overflowing sinks, creating a tsunami on our tile floor. Balled kitchen towels stuffed in drains.
My bare feet stepping on bits of broken bottles. Blood droplets on squares of white toilet paper.
Impatient knocks on our door after shouting. What’s going on? Sorry. We’re fine.
When it was over and I laid with him in the darkness, I saw it all again.
I wondered if this is how my mother felt. If this is why she prayed.
Years later, he was gone and there were no more storms. I was alone. I wanted to create a sanctuary of warmth and unbroken stillness that I had never known.
On the first night by myself, I slept in the darkness I had always known, on top of a mattress without a frame. I awoke screaming in a puddle of sweat. Somewhere in the shadows, I could see him at the foot of my bed and the snapshots of his tornadoes behind my eyes.
I vomited on the bedroom floor.
The darkness was not my sanctuary anymore. It was a brick I was cemented in the middle of, holding me hostage. It saw everything in the darkness.
The next night, I prayed.
With every light on, I sat in the middle of my mattress and bowed my head as I whispered to a God that had never listened.
In the quiet of my own apartment there was nothing to hear but my own voice. I sounded more unsure and disbelieving than I had as a child.
But I also sounded more desperate. My fingertips turned white as I pressed them against each other.
This time, I did not pray for my mother. I prayed for myself.
The next morning, I awoke to screaming that came from my own throat and this time, I ran to the bathroom before I vomited by my bedside.
The path was well-lit. I had left every light on.
After I had slowed my heart rate and rinsed my mouth, I sat on my bed, sizzling beneath the cluster of lightbulbs.
I had not expected a different outcome from my prayer. Even in a world by myself, I created storms in my own head.
I didn’t blame God or expect anything from Him. I didn’t understand Him the way my mother seemed to.
I imagined if I still lived with a tornado, if I would talk to him more, or if I would know how to.
And maybe He would listen.
Now, I am 22 and I sleep with my lights on. Nightlights are not bright enough, so I flood my room with it from every angle with overhead lights and lamps and bright pixels from the TV.
If my eyelids replay a snapshot, I’ll wake up in a room without any dark corners.
God didn’t help.
Drinking didn’t help.
Starving didn’t help.
But writing helped.
Praying did not.
Sometimes, when I wake up in a cold sweat, I think of my mother. I imagine her doing the same, but waking up in darkness beside a man with tornado tendencies.
It makes me want to pray for her, but she knows how better than I do.
God knows that I am the same girl who lied about praying and that my mother is not.
So I imagine her praying and God listening.
—”pray” previously appeared in Flare Journal.