Content warning: mental illness
She hadn’t seen Her today. Not yet. Una hoped She wouldn’t visit anytime soon, though she knew for sure She’d be back.
A rare smile pricked at Una’s thin lips. The painting was almost done. Thick strokes depicted the restless waves, thrashing white against craggy rocks. The sea was not blue, for Una knew it never was; instead, it was a swirling mix of indigos, turquoise and greys. Huge pillows of cloud were brewing in the charcoal sky above, blotched with raven black. A streak of gold swept along the horizon, as though daylight would come, but not for some time.
Yet, when Una peered out of the window before her, the water was still. The ocean was sleeping. But dark clouds lingered on the misty horizon, heavy and threatening to burst.
Una sipped her coffee, the cinnamon tingling her lips. It was lukewarm now, and the cup was half empty. She studied the painting, her green eyes narrowing. It needed something more. Something bright, to shine through the storm.
Una reached for her set of watercolours, but not a speck of white remained. She’d used it all for the curling waves sweeping onto the rocks. Una sighed, looking at the mess before her. The desk was cluttered with pots and brushes, and paint had splashed upon any visible tabletop surface. She began sifting through her materials, shoving crayons and felt pens out of her way as she searched for a glimpse of white.
It was no use. She’d have to check in the drawers.
The top drawer of the desk was just as much of a mess, if not worse than the surface itself. It was where Una kept what she called her ‘odds and ends’ – little things from the past that she clung on to, even though she knew she shouldn’t. There were ancient bank statements and vouchers that had expired two years ago. In frustration, she scrabbled through the clutter, wanting simply to find her white paint.
But then she saw it. Something that made her heart lurch and her head spiral into negative thoughts.
It was a Polaroid, and she remembered the exact moment it had been taken. She was fifteen, naïve and stubborn – but worse than that, a horrendous sight. A round face grinned back at her, pink and blotchy with acne. It was made rounder by a blunt bob of mousy-brown hair, and a padded black jacket did nothing for her then-plump figure. Una grimaced. It was her, on holiday in Ireland. It was her, grinning away like no harm could ever come to her. It was her, whether she liked it or not.
Already she could hear Her words whirring around in her brain.
“You’re ugly. You’re worthless. This is why you’re still single.”
Una winced. She knew the photo was ten years old. She knew it was all in the past. Above all, she knew that looks didn’t matter. But that couldn’t stop Her from entering her brain, paying yet another unwanted visit.
The call of the Siren was too strong. She always won in the end.
Una shoved the Polaroid back in the drawer, abandoning the hunt for the elusive white paint. What was the point anyway? No one would see her work. She’d never paint the Eiffel Tower or Roman Colosseum … all because She tied her down.
Una gulped, on the brink of tears. The ocean called to her. She had to get out of the house.
Una loved the salty tang of sea air. It awakened her senses, so much so she felt it showered her with zest; yet it also relaxed her, soothed her nerves, and lured her attention to the innocuous waters.
The winter sky had painted the sea in metallic grey, a seemingly endless strip that stretched out towards the horizon. But the sea wasn’t endless. As a child, Una had wondered where the ocean led to. She’d imagined shoals of merfolk swimming in the turquoise shallows, then retreating to glimmering underwater villages. Now she knew that the North Sea led to the icy fjords of Norway, with mountains so steep the slopes were vertical. She longed for adventure, to let the sea take her far away from her worries. Far away from Her.
She had to get out, to feel the breeze on her face like soft salty kisses. She had to get away from that hideous picture, before She beat her down over a past she could not change. But going out had meant sprucing up, even if it was only an hour’s walk. Una had caked her face in powder, winged her eyes with kohl, and sculpted her brows into arches. The lipstick had to be cherry red, and her face had to be contoured so her cheeks didn’t look too round. Una couldn’t risk looking fat … especially when he could walk by any minute.
Una hadn’t seen him today. She’d walked for half an hour already, but there was no sign of his silver-grey eyes. She shook her head, her tight ponytail flailing. It was ridiculous, really – crushing on a complete stranger. They’d never spoken, only offered the occasional nod as they passed on the weathered path. But Una saw him nearly every day, strolling by the pebbled beach. The urge to talk to him was strong … but She was stronger.
“Who are you kidding? He’ll never date you. A heartthrob like that is probably taken.”
She was back. The Siren, the voice in her head. Una quickened her pace, trying to ignore Her like she would a teenage bully.
“No one’s ever loved you, have they, Una? Look at Aidan. Yeah, you remember him. The blue-eyed boy you crushed on at college. Rejected you. Made you leave him alone. Broke your heart and went off with Sophie, the blonde you could never compete with. Never trust a man. They’re all the same. You’ll be single forever, and you know it.”
Una swallowed. She stopped. Maybe She was right. After all, she was twenty-five, and had never had a stable relationship. Only a string of bad dates and painful rejections. Time was creeping on. Her luck was running out.
Una perched on a bench near the water. Deep breaths. That was all she needed to keep Her quiet. She fingered her bracelet, gazing out at the ocean. A set of stone steps led down to the shore, where the pebbles were beginning to spot with rain. The clouds she’d seen at the house were looming closer, their bodies swelling full with raindrops.
A high-pitched squeal rang out. Una swivelled immediately, all her senses alerted by the sudden noise.
“Now, now, Tyler, look what you’ve done!”
A young mother paused by the steps, scolding her screeching son. The boy was in a stroller and looked no more than three-years-old. A splatter of ice cream had slipped down his shirt, the wafer cone dumped on the ground.
The boy wailed again as his mother mopped up the stain. Una’s ears were ringing – not just from his shrieks, but also from Her voice.
“Look at how pathetic you are, shaken by a little kid crying. This is the perfect time to get you. Time to make your head spin.”
SHRIEK! SHRIEK! SHRIEK!
Una squeezed her eyes shut, rooted to the spot. The boy’s cries were growing louder now, magnified by Her. She was making her heart thump, her body jerk, her ribcage vibrate with the noise. It was no wonder she called Her the Siren. No matter how hard she tried to resist Her, She lured her deeper into the whirlpool.
Third attack in a week. That was a record, even for her.
Una pulled herself up from the bench, her head foggy from spinning. She was still shaking – not from the cold, but from intense panic. The mother and child were far from her now, oblivious to her attack. She longed to be far from the Siren. This was a bad day. Another one.
The sun sinking below the distant waves signalled the dawn of evening. Una was unsure of how long she’d been at the bench, but the numbness in her veins told her it had been for too long. It was time to go home – back to her painting, before the rain poured.
Una frowned as she started to walk. She knew she had to see someone, to tell them all about Her. But the thought of sitting in a doctor’s office seemed too cold, too clinical. Why couldn’t she just connect with someone, form something meaningful? Whether that be friendship or something more intimate, she didn’t care. But she had to run from this, run from Her …
The word sliced through her, shocking her senses to life. A middle-aged man on a bike zoomed past her, his face contorted into a scowl. Clearly she’d been in his way somehow, lost in thought as usual. But she wouldn’t have cared if he’d knocked her over. The insult hurt more than a crash ever would have.
Stupid. She was stupid.
The word played over and over again in her mind, like a song she couldn’t forget. Tears pricked her eyes.
“Stupid. You’re stupid.”
How she wanted Her to be silenced. To vanish, like a ghost into the night. But She was always there, always waiting to pounce when the moment was just right.
“Stupid. You’re stupid.”
Those years at college meant nothing. She was stupid. An idiot. A pathetic sad clown whose only purpose in life was to be ridiculed by others … and worst of all, herself.
“Stupid. You’re stupid. Stupid. You’re stupid. Stupid. You’re stupid …”
“Are you alright?”
A voice made Una spin. But not the voice of the Siren, or a shrieking little boy, or an arrogant middle-aged man. This was the voice of a young adult male, with chocolate-brown curls and glistening silver eyes.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I saw you running. You’re shaking. Can I help you?”
Una risked a glance at his eyes. They were more than just silver; like the sea, they were many colours, cloudy and misty with wonder. She could tell him that she was fine, like she had told so many before him. She could walk away, still believing that no one would ever love her. Or she could see that this was fate at its finest, bringing her a warm hand to hold when she needed it most.
She would start to break free. Today.
“Please …” Una said in reply. “Help me help myself.”
The Siren, of course, had Her say on the matter.
“What are you doing? He’ll never help you.”
“How do you know that? You’re just a voice in my head, Anxiety.”