Toti O’Brien

Our talk briskly interrupted—or almost. Isn’t there always an aura, a hint of anticipation to those phenomena? Did I miss it? No, but it was precipitous—I couldn’t truly see margins, say when normality ceased, quiet was shattered… I mean when ‘before’ (the thing you promptly start missing) fell apart and ‘after’ began, irrevocable.

When you turned towards the wall, I knew you had lost it. It’s a matter of vibrations, of waves. Nothing exoteric. Merely electrical. Something so concrete you could transfer it on a graph, measure it with numbers. An oscillatory motion, a pulse, started shaking you and altering your substance—also affecting me with a surge of emergency responses. Danger. Danger. Danger.

You were bracing yourself against something I couldn’t see, but it seemed to occupy each and every one of your cells. Your body not only tightened—it compressed itself, getting smaller, more wiry. Your thin, diminutive body… now a fist—as if someone had hit you in the stomach, or you had sucked in your middle to skip the blow. As your guts sunk in, your pelvis tilted forwards. Your feet moved apart, knees bent, head down, arms extended, open palms fending off… what?

How could I know, why should I? I did not care for definition. Evil can do without. We’d rather annihilate it, in fact, before it declines itself. And you might have been in the dark, as well, busy fighting no matter what.

Then what happened? Why in hell did I think I could help? I had never been so confident. Without a second thought I hooked my arms into yours, armpits locking armpits. I flunked all of my weight against your body, for the thing to be unable to lift you and drag you away. For the thing you were facing to meet the solid obstacle of my back—opaque, ignorant. I must have naively assumed if no frontal surface (no vital organs, no tenderness, no vulnerable self) were accessible—neither yours, nor mine—evil would have no grip. It would have to retreat, after blowing as much of its fiery breath as it could spare. Let it hiss and sigh. We would stand it. Our backs would be stones. Mountain ridges. Smooth, impervious, ice-covered slopes.

How come I felt invincible? Because, clearly, the thing was after you, as your terror implied? How could I be sure it wouldn’t shift targets, and attack me instead?  Our interlocked posture, I apparently believed, would protect me as well. Oh, the irresponsible optimist. The daredevil girl, incurably arrogant.

Truth is, my courage wasn’t original. Only a derivation. You inspired me. I was struck with awe and simply responded. Solidarity, dear heart, flew naturally. It is your determination that made me strong. You so small—yet fiercely claiming your tiny, tiny self.

As I breathed—letting air fall into my calves, gather into my heels like rivulets of lead, nailing me to the ground… As my respiration steeled me I felt calm, almost sleepy. I could not sense the storm you perceived—only a sort of after effect, as if I were both present and absent, with you and also elsewhere, in another dimension of time. Well, I was where I was. Had you traveled? Had you traveled faster? Forward? Backward? Sideways?

Did it matter? I could sense, I said, something. A dizziness at the top of my head, my skull faintly dilating, the ring into my ears buzzing gaily, unfettered. That sense of rarefaction when you have gained altitude. But my increasing awareness was inversely proportional to yours, as your muscles slowly began to release. Imperceptibly, you slumped over me, your mass softer, also heavier. So to speak—you weighed very little. Yet you were so strong.

I let you drive home without comments. We both feigned serenity.

Sure, it had occurred before, in slightly different forms. This time something had appeared more violent, and compelled me to act. But neither of us felt a need for verbal acknowledgement. No, we weren’t embarrassed. But a mute understanding lingered in the air that didn’t ask for pronouncing. Maybe I secretly hoped a time for clarification would come… but wasn’t my wish just curiosity? Then I should let it go.

From my window I watched you enter your car, then start off. I kept looking until you turned the corner. What a miniature perfect warrior.

That night I felt weirdly lonely. I awoke before dawn, turned the lamp on, then off again. As I tried to resume sleep a nightmare assailed me. The thing—whatever-had-come-by-earlier—loomed over my head. Did it want me, then? I wasn’t scared. I gathered some of my rage (always carried a load close at hand) and threw a fitful its way, like a bunch of mud. Now I felt a real urge to speak. “I’ll kill you,” I venomously spat. In my sleep, again and again: “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you,” until I woke up.


I see you in black and white. No colors are left... I don’t know when, why they have dimmed out. You are in a room with low seats, pillows, carpets—one of those kind-of-nurseries for the old and insane, ill and vulnerable, meant to be very cozy, and truly horrifying. Senselessly impersonal, soulless—a blueprint of hell. You sit on a small chair or maybe on a pile of cushions, and you have a toy in your right hand. You have grabbed it out of despair, to hold on something, get anchored. You are shaking the toy and yourself, with the rocking motion we resume (all of us) when in deep discomfort, lullabying our bodies as amniotic waters do.

The toy you have picked up, I see, is a tambourine. A mistake. It shouldn’t be here. Those cute rattles of metal around it have sharp contours. Moreover, fingers can be trapped inside the lateral slants of the frame. Momentarily, though, the thing seems to soothe you. Give you a hint of happiness. How you lift it, with spontaneous remembrance of some childhood dancing. When time sinks in your body, it becomes a hurricane. A maelstrom. Time, when it sneaks through you, is unbearable. You seem to have lived so long, and so much in vain.

Time has betrayed you more than it did others.

You hold up the tambourine as if it were the moon—that it was meant to be. And the moon is your mirror. I can’t leave you in such anguish, in the company of a disk of dead skin. I am better than a musical instrument, and have filed—at this point—all of my cutting edges.

I rush towards you, ease the toy out of your fist, hug you tight, sit you on my knees, comfort you, sing you to sleep. That is when I realize the lack of colors. Shouldn’t it have alerted me? Rung a bell? I am reminded we are in the same room but there is a separation in time. You have moved faster. I have followed sluggishly. Or was I delayed. Maybe it is the other way around. My fault, anyway.

There’s a gap in time, small—yet it opens an unsurpassable chasm, and I am sucked away. Or you are, and I lose my balance, arms clumsily extended, palms groping emptiness. I tilt forwards. My knees meet the ground.

Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Triggerfish, The Almagre Review, O:JA&L, and Scryptic.