In the end, only the Voice remained.
I told you it would be better this way…
I was drifting, floating on something too silky to be water. It was warm, and it penetrated the deepest parts of me.
The Voice was right. It was always right. Everything finally felt soft. My sharpest edges were being worn away, melting into oblivion. I felt like candle wax before it cooled; nothing to do but let the remaining drops of consciousness slide down—
Pain. Where did that come from? How could I feel pain when I didn't have a body anymore?
My throat. It was my throat, being stabbed, or—
Shh… let it go. Let all the pain go. Rest easy…
For a moment I was comforted, the gentle motion of the not quite water lulling me, pulling me back to safety.
But I was heaving. Huge, uncontrollable spasms. And then I was vomiting, although that word isn’t strong enough. I was erupting. The contents of my stomach spewed from my mouth, my nose. The wetness hit my chest, then my belly, and finally dribbled down my chin. My mouth tasted of charcoal. The warmth receded. The peace went with it. And I knew.
My throat burned. My stomach ached. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I tried to remember how good I had felt. The sensation of floating, of being complete, wanting for nothing. For a moment I was back there and felt my lips twitch into the tiniest bit of a smile. But if I were really there I wouldn’t even remember I had a mouth, and the realization brought the pain crashing back.
My eyelids heavy, I fought to open them. The light was too bright and I squeezed my eyes against its harsh intrusion.
“She’s awake! Nurse—she’s awake!”
My mother sprang toward me and clutched my hand, her eyes wild with worry.
“Ember, honey, you’re OK. You’re in the hospital. You had an accident and… "
I stopped hearing her. I didn’t want to process the relief on my mother’s face when I was so disappointed. I receded back, if not into the comfort of oblivion, then at least into an inky blackness.
Sunlight warmed my face and caused spots to dance behind my eyes. I feigned sleep, wanting to take the emotional temperature of the room before admitting wakefulness to anyone else present. No voices in the room with me, but a low buzz of conversation drifted in from farther away.
When I opened my eyes, I knew I was somewhere different. From my slanted vantage point—I still wasn’t willing to move my head—I saw that the tile was still institutional, but this seemed older somehow… more dingy. I remained draped in hospital linens, but the bed itself felt softer and lacked rails. No sign of my mother. I tilted my head.
Across from me was an empty bed, neatly made and decorated with stuffed animals. A long bureau with flaking paint dominated the wall space between. I looked toward the foot of my bed and spied closets on the far wall, a bathroom separating them. The door to the room was halfway open, allowing only a partial view of the hall.
Psych Ward. Where else would they put someone who had swallowed a cocktail of leftover prescriptions, put on some Lisa Germano and gone to sleep? It was so cliché. The worst part other than being alive was the knowledge that I would be just another teenager who had tried to off themselves because life had gotten too hard. Another loser trying to run away. They wouldn’t know I was running to something. And I certainly wasn’t going to tell them. Life was bad enough, life in mental hospital seemed even less appealing. I’d keep the Voice to myself.
The door creaked and I was too slow in closing my eyes.
“Well, nice to see you’re awake, Ember.”
She was middle-aged, dressed in a nurse’s uniform and spoke with the calm authority of one who knows she’s in charge and doesn’t need to prove it.
I wasn’t going to be able to bullshit her.
“Not feeling very talkative?” She approached my bed. “That’s alright. You’ve been through a lot these past two days.”
My surprise overrode my wish to be silent. My words came out as a croak, my throat still raw.
“Mmmhmm,” she said, feeling my forehead. “Some of the pills you swallowed had metabolized before they were able to pump your stomach. You slept in the E.R. for 14 hours. They moved you here once the doctors were confident you were out of the woods. That was yesterday.”
I respected her lack of sugarcoating. She didn’t add the word accidentally before the words pills you swallowed. She’d been through this before.
“I guess I needed some rest,” I said.
The truth sounded flippant when spoken aloud.
“Mmmhmm,” she said again.
She was looking at me, sizing me up. Was I nuts? Looking for attention? Or was I one of the few who actually wanted to die? I didn’t answer the unspoken question. She was quiet for a moment, trying to see if I would be so uncomfortable with the silence that I’d have to fill it, hopefully giving her a morsel of information she could pass on to the shrink about why I’d ended up here. She had no idea how well I could play this game.
She broke first. “Dr. Shaw wanted to be notified when you woke. It won't be a full session as he's got a heavy schedule today, but he'll do some intake and explain the way things work around here.”
Intake? That didn’t seem right. I thought the psych ward was just a cooling off place before they sent you home or carted you off to the nuthouse.
Realization dawned. My nurse friend noticed. A look of sympathy crossed her face and then was gone. She had probably learned not to get too involved.
“You’ll find your things in the bureau and the closet. Meet me at the nurses’ station at the end of the hall and I’ll show you the way to his office.”
She gave me a kind smile and left the room. Left it to me and my thoughts which, as usual, were too large to be contained. They were busting out, seeping through walls, shattering the window.
Boy you really effed up this time. You're screwed. The nuthouse? We’re adding nuthouse to the resume now? They will never let you out of here. OK, here’s what we have to do—play the game, you don’t know what got into you, you love your life, you were upset about a boy, you realize it was stupid, you’ll never do it again—no, eff them, I’m done playing games. I’ll just tell them. The mistake wasn’t the pills, the mistake was being born in the first place. You only have to look at me to know I don’t belong in this world…
On and on the voices warred. Not the Voice, the One that wanted to help me, just the ones that hated me.
I pulled myself back from the brink. As pleasant as my nurse friend seemed, I had a feeling that if I didn’t materialize at the nurses' station soon, I’d be dragged to this Dr. Shaw's office regardless. My mouth tasted like charcoal and death. Attempted death, anyway.
I opened the drawer closest to me and found my hairbrush, toothbrush, and tooth paste. For a moment I was horrified at the thought of my mother going through my things in order to pack for my stay, but I let it go. What, was she going to find some of my darker artwork? Read my diary? I was in a mental hospital; my facade of normalcy was surely blown. I had doubts it had ever been firmly in place.
I looked horrendous. There was no denying it as I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. Black ringed my lips, my eyes more deep set than normal, my dark hair a rat’s nest.
Washing my face helped some—returning my lips to a human color, the charcoal swirling down the drain. Brushing my teeth removed the fuzzy coating. My hair, on the other hand, was a lost cause. No comb was going to tame it. I twisted it up and attached it with one of the clips I’d also found in the drawer. My mother was nothing if not sensitive to the needs of vanity.
The closet was well stocked, also, which didn’t bode well for my hopes of a speedy discharge. I pulled on my favorite pair of jeans and a hoodie, tossing the gown in a corner of the closet.
The hallway looked exactly as you’d think it would. Nondescript, doors every eight feet or so, inoffensive pastel artwork on the walls. Nothing to upset the unbalanced mind—unless, of course, it had any taste.
I reached the nurses' station. A large black woman looked up from the papers in front of her and smiled. “Jo said you were awake. How you feeling?”
I shrugged. I’d save my platitudes for the shrink.
Jo walked up then, saving me from another silent standoff.
“This way, Ember.”
I followed dutifully.
She led me around the corner and down another hallway. She paused where it ended in large double doors, slipping her hand under a black cover. Here fingers moved deftly, obviously punching in a code, and the doors lurched open.
A moment later we paused at a doorway with a nameplate that read, Herbert Shaw, MD. Apparently, I had graduated from psychologists and was now in need of a full-blown psychiatrist.
Inside was a receptionist and a small waiting area which consisted of two chairs and some magazines.
“Karen, this is Ember Lyons. She's here to see Dr. Shaw.”
Karen smiled warmly from behind her desk. “Yes, he told me we'd be fitting her in. Please, have a seat. He's with another patient right now, but he'll be with you shortly.”
I took a seat and picked up an issue of a nature magazine dated two months prior and opened to a random page. Karen went back to her typing and Jo left without another word. I became absorbed in a picture of hikers entering a darkened cave. I imagined I was there, entering the blackness…
Probably better you don't mention me.
Agreed. I had kept the Voice a secret for the year It had been with me, I certainly wasn't going to start blabbing about it now, when they already had proof I was disturbed. I went back to a few nights prior, wondering where I'd gone wrong. I'd taken enough pills, I was sure of that. But I had known my mother would be home by nine and would check on me. Why hadn't I waited until after she had gone to bed? It had made sense at the time, but sitting in that waiting room I couldn't imagine why. I wasn't an attention seeker. If anything I wanted to be left alone. Completely alone. People just let you down. I wanted an end to people. An end to everything. So why had I screwed it up so spectacularly?
The click of a door opening brought me back to the present. A waifish girl of no more than twelve emerged from the back office. She stared at the carpet until she neared me. It was then that her breath caught and she stopped dead. Her blue eyes stared into mine, her lips moving silently.
“Callie? Everything OK?” Karen asked.
The girl, Callie, pulled her gaze away from me and whispered, “Yes, fine. Sorry.”
She quickly left the room. I stared after, disconcerted. I guessed I should learn to get used to that sort of thing if I was going to be spending time in a mental institution.
“Ember? The doctor will see you now.”
Karen gestured to the doorway Callie had just come from.
I tossed the magazine back onto the table and paused at the door. Here we go.
Dr. Herbert Shaw, MD sat behind a large mahogany desk. His balding head was bent over a file folder stuffed with papers. He looked up, his smile revealing tobacco-stained teeth, and perched his reading glasses atop his head.
“Hello, Ember. I'm glad to see you up and about. I'm Dr. Shaw.”
He rose from his desk and extended a hand. It was unnaturally soft for a man's hand. Not that I had felt the hands of many.
He gestured for me to sit in the chair across from him.
“So, how are you feeling?” He asked, retaking his seat in an overstuffed chair.
“I've been better.”
“I would think so,” he said, and flipped through the folder. He lowered his glasses and read aloud, “Lithium, clozapine, diazepam…That's quite a lot to ingest.”
I waited for something to respond to. He hadn't asked how I'd gotten access to such a mix of pills. My mother's condition must have been in the file. It wasn't something she acknowledged readily; she must have been terrified for me. I felt more than a twinge of guilt.
As if reading my thoughts, he said, “I have a full history on both you and your mother, but nothing on your father. Why is that?”
“Because I've never met him.” The admission had once pained me, now I said it by rote.
“I see,” he said, making a note. “Is he deceased?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “Isn't this in the file?”
Instead of answering he asked, “Does it bother you, the way you were conceived?”
So, it was in the file—he just wanted to see if I'd squirm. I looked him square in the eye.
“Would it bother you? To be conceived in a bathroom at The Roxy while a hair-metal band played?”
He didn't blink.
“Yes,” he said, “it would bother me very much. Although, I'm sure you know it was due to your mother's mania that she would participate in such risky behavior.”
I did know that, but knowing didn't change anything. I would never meet my father because my mother hadn't gotten his name.
Dr. Shaw folded his arms upon his desk. “There's no denying you've been dealt a difficult hand, Ember. I won't try to convince you otherwise. But I see that things have taken quite a turn for you this past year: lowered grades, repeated truancy, an inability to make friends. Can you tell me about that?”
“Nothing that isn't in the file,” I said.
I couldn't deny the charges; they were all true. Except that part about not being able to make friends. I was able, just no longer willing.
Dr. Shaw held up a sheet of college-ruled paper, frayed where it had been ripped from my notebook. There in ballpoint ink was the drawing that had put me on the radar of the school administration. It was crude, the spiraling black lines pressed deep into the paper, causing it to tear in the center.
“It’s just a doodle,” I said.
“Were you angry when you did it?”
And therein lay the problem. I hadn’t been angry—I’d felt fine. As fine as I ever did, anyway. What most people took as disturbing, I found comforting, even beautiful. When I’d started, I’d been drawing the inner rings of a tree, which is what I said when my teacher caught me drawing in class. But as often happened, the piece had taken on a life of its own, morphing into something darker and apparently more sinister looking. She held the paper up for the other students as a type of Rorschach test, people calling out what they saw in it.
“I don’t know what it is, but it’s creepy,” said a girl in the back.
“It’s like a tornado. If they had tornadoes in hell,” said another.
“I’ll tell you what I see,” said Todd McKey. “A lot of therapy in her future.”
The entire class broke into laughter. My drawing was confiscated and I spent the rest of the period staring at a spot on my desk, willing myself not to run from the room.
After class that day, Clare Humphries, cheerleader and all around high school superstar, broke away from her group of friends to talk to me at my locker.
“Hey,” she said, “don’t listen to those jerks. I thought it was pretty.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, suspicious.
Clare Humphries had never spoken to me before.
“No, I mean it, I could totally see your work in a gallery.”
I let myself smile. “Oh, well that’s nice of you—”
“Right next to paintings by Charles Manson,” she said in a singsong voice, and turned back to join her snickering cohorts.
I spun to face my locker, tears stinging my eyes.
The next day I was called in to meet with the school guidance counselor and Clare Humphries was elected to prom court.
“Well,” Dr. Shaw said, snapping me back to the present, “this file may tell me what you've been up to, but it doesn't tell me why, and that is what we'll be delving into in your sessions with me.”
I cut to the chase. “How long do I have to be here?” I asked.
“I can tell you aren't going to like this answer,” he replied, “but that will be entirely up to you.”
He was right. I didn't like it one bit.
I remained with Dr. Shaw only a short time longer. He could tell he wasn't going to get much from me, and Jo had mentioned his full calendar. When I left, there was a boy about fifteen with cropped black hair occupying the seat I had recently vacated in the waiting room.
“There's an orderly waiting outside to take you back to your wing,” Karen said as I made my way to the door.
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
“Josh, Dr. Shaw is ready for you now.”
“About time,” the dark haired boy muttered as I shut the door behind me.
As promised, the orderly accompanied me back to the nurses' station, and thankfully, he did it in silence. Jo was drinking coffee when I returned.
“I see you got the rules,” she said, nodding toward the rolled up papers in my hand.
“Yeah. No fighting, trading meds, hooking up… That's all I remember for now.”
“Those are the big ones,” she replied, “but make sure you follow all of them and you and I won't have a problem.”
“Your roommate is back from class. I'll introduce you,” she said, coming out from behind the station and walking toward my new home away from home.
Jo opened the door to reveal a petite blonde sitting cross-legged on the bed. She looked up from her beauty magazine and gave me a perfectly dimpled smile. What was her problem? The world loved girls like her.
“Lauren, this is Ember. Play nice,” Jo said, giving Lauren a warning look before she walked back to the nurses' station.
“Don't listen to her, I'm harmless.” Her tone left room for doubt. “So, what do you think of our room?”
I looked around and shrugged. “Um, it’s fine, I guess. Hopefully I’m not here long enough to get too settled.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Aren't you here on a suicide?”
“So they tell me.”
She made a sound I couldn't distinguish between sympathy and mocking.
“Come on,” she said standing. “I’ll show you around.”
I had no choice but to be rude or follow. It didn’t make sense ticking off my new roommate, so I trailed after her. Plus, a lay of the land couldn't hurt. Just past the nurses' station was a set of double doors propped open with chairs.
“This is the rec room. Group meets here on Monday,” she said, “and you’ll have a one-on-one with Dr. Shaw once or twice a week.”
“Depending on how screwed up I am?” I asked.
“Basically. Your first real session with him takes like two hours, and after that he’ll decide how 'screwed up' you are and give you a schedule. Don't get your hopes up, on a suicide you're pretty much guaranteed two.”
In the corner, a small group of patients huddled around a nineteen-inch television set from the 90's.
“Strictly basic cable,” Lauren said, rolling her eyes.
Another corner housed art supplies. It was the first bit of good news I'd gotten about the place. A middle-aged woman was doing a small watercolor of the trees outside.
“Can we use these anytime?” I asked.
“Except when the room is being used for something else. And you can't take anything from here into your room.”
We'd see about that.
Before I’d completed my mental inventory, Lauren was already leading me down another hall.
“This is the dining area. Breakfast is at seven, lunch at noon and dinner at six. The food sucks. If it weren’t for the vending machine I’d have to become anorexic.”
My mouth twitched into a smile. Bulimic. The Voice was right. Not that that should have still been surprising. It was always right.
She stopped short and fixed me with an intense gaze. “The peanut butter cups are mine.”
My smile broadened, but then I realized she was serious. “Um, OK… sure. You got it.”
She let out a breath I didn’t know she’d been holding. “Good. My last roommate just could not keep that straight. It was a real problem.”
On the surface she was everything I hated, but I kind of liked her for her honesty. It was refreshing. How often in life does someone just lay out what they need from you, no BS attached? I knew I wouldn’t be baring my secrets so easily, the least I could do was oblige hers.
We came to a window at the end of the hall. From the looks of it, I guessed we were on the third floor. Lauren pointed to a small building across the lawn.
“That’s where we go to class.”
“Yeah, Dr. Shaw told me about that. We’re in a nuthouse but we have to go to school? That is such crap.”
As if either weren't bad enough on their own.
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “We take our time walking there—it’s nice to get outside—and everybody is in a different grade so half the time you’re just doing your own thing. And Mr. Morehouse is OK, as long as you don’t get on his bad side.”
There wasn’t much else to show, so Lauren went to watch TV. I felt anything but social, so I shuffled back to our room and laid down. I wanted to read, but for all the bath products in different scents my mother had packed, she had, of course, neglected to pack a single book. Who needs mind expansion when you can smell nice?
Again, the thought of my mother brought up feelings of guilt.
Like she consults you on major life decisions…
It had a point. Three different high schools in three years. We moved whenever she had the whim, or whenever our neighbors complained too much. All in L.A., but still, back when I had had friends it had been nearly impossible to keep in touch once we'd left one zip code for another. In a city with traffic as bad as Los Angeles, five miles becomes a long-distance relationship.
Still, I wondered how she was, what she was doing. She'd been off her meds for months now, which is why there had been such a healthy supply for me to utilize. I imagined her pacing the floor of our apartment, chewing on her fingernails, muttering to herself—alternately worrying about me being under the care of doctors, and what might happen if I weren't under their care. My mother distrusted doctors. For a while that had worked to my advantage, helping me avoid having to see a shrink, but after my second suspension, the school had insisted.
Neither of us were prepared for me to be home-schooled, so she had relented six months ago and I'd begun seeing Dr. Borden, PhD., in Van Nuys. I hated everything about it. The bus ride was needlessly complicated, the office was cramped, and Dr. Borden was a self-important woman with yellow hair and fake breasts that protruded from necklines too plunging for her age. It didn't take long for me to realize that the only way to get through those sessions was to parrot back the psycho-babble she was spewing and act grateful for her insight.
Mom had been so relieved when Dr. Borden informed the school that I had made real progress and now had the tools to cope with the everyday pressures of being a teenager. In reality, Dr. Borden was clueless to the facts of what my every days were filled with.
Since waking up that afternoon I'd been on auto-pilot, numbly obliging to being led through the day, but as usual, being left to my own thoughts was an exercise in torture.
Only you could screw up a suicide. You're as crazy as your mother; they should just leave you here. How do I get out of here?
That was the most prominent question, and I waited for the Voice to answer, but It didn't. I was never able to summon It at will. It just popped in when It felt like it, giving me morsels of information. Still, I was grateful for It. For months It had been my only friend, if It could be called that. And if It was just a figment of my imagination and I truly was insane, then at least I wasn't completely alone.
Time passed and I was no closer to figuring anything out. I found myself staring blankly out the small window near my bed, numbing myself to the incessant chatter in my mind.
When six o’clock rolled around, Lauren popped her head in.
We walked down the hall with the rest of the inmates. Lauren gave me a sidelong glance, her nose wrinkling.
“So, um, if you don’t have any bath products you’re welcome to use mine…”
I barked a laugh. “Subtle.”
She shrugged, unembarrassed.
“I guess it has been a few days,” I said, “even if I don’t remember them. I’ll wash up after dinner.”
Lauren chattered on as we walked through the dinner line. We both turned our nose up at the Salisbury steak and opted for the limited salad bar. I went to reach for a dinner roll, but Lauren gave me a slight shake of the head.
“Those are hard as bricks by now. Only go for those on Mondays and Tuesdays.”
I trusted her at her word. We got to the end of the line and she pulled a container of pudding from the stack on the counter. She tossed one to me without warning. Even in my surprise effort to catch it I noticed her shove two more in her knapsack. Then she added one to her tray. It was a deft maneuver, not her first time.
“You’ll never get better if you aren’t more self-aware about your destructive behavior, Lauren.” Josh had muscled his way to the front of the line, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Lauren ignored him.
“Give me one of the extras or I’m telling,” Josh said. He’d already added the one he was allowed to his tray.
There was a brief standoff while the air around us buzzed with an intensity I wouldn’t normally attribute to pudding. Lauren cracked first.
“Fine. Here.” Her hand slid from inside her purse, depositing the contraband into Josh’s jacket pocket.
As we turned away I heard him mutter, “Friggin’ tapioca. Great.”
Lauren winked at me. Served him right.
We exited the line and I surveyed the room. Most of the tables were already occupied with people dining. For a moment I wondered what had brought all of these people to be patients here. Did they all feel the way I did? That their lives were a mistake? Some major cosmic screw up that had deposited them in a world where they were never understood, and rarely—if ever—happy?
“Ooh, Taren's table has seats.” Lauren zigzagged her way to a table near the back of the room.
The young girl I had seen exiting Dr. Shaw's office sat with her head down, pushing food around on her plate. Next to her sat a tall boy with honey-colored hair and angular features. At our approach he looked up, revealing a set of disarming hazel eyes. Callie looked up, too, startled.
“Hi, Taren.” Lauren beamed at him, saying hello to Callie only as an afterthought.
He gave Lauren the briefest of nods, and turned back to Callie, who still seemed to be holding her breath.
“This is my new roommate, Ember. She tried to kill herself.”
Lauren’s tone was matter-of-fact; my eyes bulged.
Taren looked up again, registering my presence. “Well, that's an introduction you'd only get in a place like this, isn't it?”
You can trust him.
I nearly dropped my tray. Of all the things the Voice had ever said to me, this was the first time It had told me to trust someone. What?
He's one of the good ones.
I was standing stock still with my mouth hanging open. Taren cleared his throat and I realized he had stood and was holding out his hand for me to shake. I gave an embarrassed smile and held out my hand.
“Sorry, I, um…”
“It's OK. Lauren is still learning tact.”
I nodded gratefully, but Lauren bristled. “Well, it's true…”
We took our seats. I was grasping for meaning to the words that had bloomed in my mind. It was always like that. Little hints about things that always proved true. But in the past, I was being warned away from people. This girl is spreading rumors about you, that boy just wants to use you. I couldn't make contact at will. It just whispered things when It wanted to, and I vacillated between the certainty that I was losing my mind, and gratitude for the insight.
“Have you met Callie?” Taren asked.
“No, but I saw you coming out of Dr. Shaw's office. Nice to meet you,” I said.
Callie lifted her eyes. “Hi.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
She lowered her gaze and rubbed her forehead with the fingertips of one hand. Her entire presence held an air of fragility.
I bent my head toward my plate but glanced through my bangs to study Taren. So, he's one of the good guys. I had no idea what to make of it, but I felt the need to explore the idea. Before I could come up with anything to say, Callie began muttering softly to herself.
“You OK, Cal?” Taren spoke with concern and put a hand on her shoulder.
Lauren rolled her eyes. “Here we go again.”
Taren looked up sharply and fixed Lauren with a glare, but instead of replying he turned his attention back to Callie and began whispering softly to her. I couldn't make out what either was saying, but he was clearly trying to soothe her.
“What? It's not my fault we can't get through one meal without an incident. Look at her, she's totally faking it.”
“She's not faking anything.” Taren broke away from comforting Callie to admonish Lauren. “Not everyone needs to be the center of attention all the time.”
Lauren flushed scarlet and clenched her jaw. Taren stood.
“Come on, let's get you back to your room so you can rest.” He helped Callie stand and led her out of the dining hall.
Lauren resumed eating as if nothing troubling had occurred. “That girl belongs upstairs.”
“With the really crazy ones. You know, perverts, schizophrenics, the occasional ax murderer. People who don't even get the plastic knives.” She held up her own knife for emphasis.
“Lovely,” I replied, pushing my tray away. The wilted lettuce and anemic tomatoes weren't enough to rekindle my appetite. I felt sympathy for Callie. Twice I'd seen her and twice she seemed like she was really losing it.
“Taren's gorgeous, huh?” She said it in a way that made me feel we were discussing peanut butter cups.
“Sure,” I said casually, “if you like that type.”
Lauren smiled with satisfaction while I wondered what type Taren was.
When Lauren had finished dinner, we made our way to the rec room. She was content to watch more television but I made my way over to the art supplies. There wasn't much of a selection so I opted for a charcoal pencil and white printer paper. I sat at a folding card table and contemplated what to sketch.
“So, you're an artist?”
I hadn't heard Taren approach. He stood across the table from me, his hazel eyes holding mine in their steady gaze.
“I try to be,” I replied, then gestured to the blank sheet in front of me. “Not feeling very inspired, I guess.”
“This place has that effect on most people,” he said and sat down.
“How's Callie?” I asked.
“Better. She has a hard time with crowds.”
“Does she really do that at every meal?” I asked.
“No, that's just Lauren being dramatic,” Taren said, his expression registering distaste. “Which does happen at every meal.”
I gave the slightest of smiles; it seemed all I was capable of. There was a moment of silence between us and it felt like I was being sized up for the tenth time that day. I was afraid to ask what the verdict was, and his face revealed nothing.
Instead, I said, “So, what are you in here for?”
“Behavioral issues,” he replied with a shrug.
“That's pretty broad. Don't all teenagers have behavioral issues?”
“Mine cause me to light things on fire,” he said.
This was the guy I was supposed to trust? A pyro?
“Anyone get hurt?”
He smiled and shook his head. “No, my destructive tendencies apply only to abandoned property.”
I supposed I could live with that. He did seem genuinely caring of Callie.
“So, how many days a week does being a pyromaniac get you with Shaw?” I asked.
“Two,” he said, “but I’m making real progress.”
“How can you tell? We’re not allowed anything flammable.”
Taren just smiled and said, “What are you drawing?”
I looked down to see that I'd been doodling without realizing it. It was the same swirling line over and over. I'd drawn it hundreds of other times as a way to calm my nerves. It dawned on me that having the Voice tell me to trust someone when I'd learned to never trust anyone was almost as unnerving as my current confinement.
“Oh, it's nothing, just —”
“Taren, don't you want to come watch TV?” Lauren's voice dripped honey as she approached.
“Maybe later,” he said, “I'm talking with Ember right now.”
Taren slid my paper over to his side of the table. For a moment his eyes flashed, but quickly returned to a casual study. I wasn't sure what to make of his reaction, it was hardly a complicated design, but I didn't have time to ask. Lauren's arched eyebrow indicated what was expected of me.
“Actually,” I said, “I'm pretty beat. I think I'm gonna head back to our room.”
I stood and Lauren smiled with satisfaction. “Come on, Taren, I saved you a seat up front.”
He stood to follow her, but I felt his eyes on me as I exited the room.
Upon returning to our room, I decided to make good on my promise to Lauren and took a shower. It was a cramped stall, but the water was hot and had decent pressure. Muscles began to unwind and so did my emotional numbness.
Before I knew it, I was sitting on the floor of the shower, hugging my knees and sobbing. It had been months since I'd cried, and once the floodgate had opened there was no stopping it. Even my internal dialogue was silent in the presence of such raw emotion.
Days earlier I had come to the decision that there was only one way out. Either the Voice was right and no one and nothing could be trusted, or the Voice was a figment of my imagination and I was already insane. Either reality wasn't one I had been willing to accept, so I had taken action.
But I had failed, and now things were even worse than before. I hadn't thought it possible, but here I was. In a mental institution. Rooming with an over-possessive bulimic cheerleader type who would never deign to acknowledge my existence in the real world. My meals regulated. Forced therapy sessions. My discharge dependent on my sanity, which more and more I was beginning to doubt I would even be able to fake. My only comfort that year when my already broken-down world further deteriorated had been that I wasn't the crazy one. It was all of them. But I was the one in here, so even if that were true, did it really matter? I'm the one here…
When my sobbing finally subsided, I was exhausted. I dried myself off and wrapped my hair in a towel. Lauren hadn't returned, for which I was grateful. I slid beneath the covers and hoped sleep wouldn't be long in coming. I'd had enough of being awake. Which I supposed was what had landed me in this situation in the first place.
Sleep did come, but was restless and I woke that morning as I often did, with a feeling of dread. It took me a moment to register where I was, and once I had, the feeling grew.
“Breakfast in ten,” Lauren said when she realized I was awake. She was sitting on her bed applying mascara with a deft hand.
The towel that had been wrapped around my hair when I went to bed was now on the floor and I could tell just by touching it that my hair was a mess. I stumbled sleepily to the bathroom and assessed the situation. I decided it was salvageable and pulled a brush gently through it. I didn't have time to do much else beside get dressed and brush my teeth. I told myself I didn't have anyone to impress, anyway.
The line for food was long and Lauren seemed annoyed at having to wait. The eggs looked rubbery; I opted for cereal and juice. I wasn't surprised when Lauren led us straight to where Taren was sitting with Callie. She was nothing if not persistent.
Callie seemed brighter eyed this morning, but tensed at our approach.
“Good morning,” I said, trying to put her at ease, yet wondering what her problem was.
“Hey,” she replied in her usual soft tone.
“How was your first night?” Taren asked before taking a bite of toast.
“She thrashed around all night,” Lauren said. “I could barely sleep myself.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“I get nightmares too,” Callie said with a sympathetic smile.
“Do you have them often, Ember?” Taren asked with an interest that bordered on obtrusive.
I wasn't sure I wanted to discuss my sleep issues, but Callie saved me from needing to.
“Taren, I don't feel so well,” she said.
Lauren looked at me and mouthed, every time.
“You're OK, Cal, I'm here.” Taren's reply was so soft I almost didn't hear it. Not for the first time, I wondered at their relationship.
Callie was panic stricken. “No, I have to get out of here. Get me out—”
“Please,” Lauren interrupted, “do as she says, get her out of here.”
“Shut up, shut up SHUT UP!” The voice that erupted from Callie seemed too big to be housed in such a small girl. She lurched up from the table and launched herself across it—straight at me.
I was taken by such surprise that I didn't have time to react. One instant I was sitting in a folding chair, the next I was knocked to the cold tile. Callie was stronger than her looks suggested; it was all I could do to fend her off. As blue as her eyes were, they seemed on fire. Her hand arced up and I saw it—a plastic knife. My eyes widened. My last thought was going to be what the fu—
And then Taren was there, pulling her off me. Stunned as I was, I saw him try to pocket the knife, but orderlies had rushed over by then and confiscated it.
Taren no longer needed to restrain Callie, she was sobbing into his chest. The orderlies pried her off, though she clutched at him.
Her eyes bore into me as they dragged her away. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I swear I didn't want to. I'm so sorry…”
The entire dining hall was silent, though it wouldn't have needed to be to hear Callie's scream a moment later.
“What are they doing to her?” I asked, still trying to calm my racing heartbeat.
“Taking her to the elevator. They're going to move her upstairs.” Taren looked tortured, helpless.
I suppose I shouldn't have cared—she had just tried to stab me after all—but she was so small, even if freakishly strong. And the way she'd looked at me as she apologized… I believed her.
“Yeah, they'll let her chill out in solitary until Monday,” Lauren said.
“Monday? But that’s three days from now.” I couldn't imagine Callie locked up that long with people who were truly dangerous.
Lauren shrugged. “It's a mandatory twenty-four hours, and Shaw is off on weekends. She should have known today is the worst day to go off the rails.”
“Not everyone manipulates their every behavior so that it only serves them,” Taren said, his voice hard.
Before Lauren could answer, Taren tugged at my arm. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
He didn't wait for my reply, just pulled me a few feet away.
“Did she hurt you? Your head hit the tile pretty hard.” That explained the spinning, and the pain that was starting to seep through the cracks of my shock.
I reached up to touch the back of my head.
“Ow! Yeah, I guess she got me pretty good. What was that about, anyway? What's her problem with me?”
Before he could answer, one of the nurses approached. “We'll get you checked out now, dear.”
“I was just going to get her some ice,” Taren said, his hand on the small of my back, steering me away from the nurse.
“Don't be silly, she could have a concussion. We need to take her to the E.R.”
I stifled a laugh. Well, I had wanted to get out of here. Maybe if my mother knew I was just as likely to lose my life inside the mental hospital as out, she'd spring me that much sooner. I let the nurse take my arm.
“Wait,” Taren leaned close, his breath in my ear. My pulse went back to racing. “Do you have any… birthmarks?”
His question was so bizarre I was heedless of the pain and snapped my head to face him.
His eyes were only inches away, boring into mine. He grabbed my wrists and pushed up the sleeves of my hoodie, searching. I tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong.
“Do you?” he asked again.
“N-no,” I stammered.
Intensity didn't usually unnerve me, but at this moment, his definitely was.
“Taren, enough! What are you doing?” The nurse demanded.
Taren came back to himself. “Nothing, sorry.” He dropped my wrists. “Sorry, I hope you feel better.”
He turned abruptly and strode away.
Buy Gateway on Amazon
Buy Gateway on Amazon