Authors: Emiko Jean
I count the tiles on the floor, the cracks in the grout. Little beads of sweat form on my forehead. I'm going to be sick again. All that sadness inside me wants to come out.
“Alice.” A voice over my shoulder.
The spinning stops, I take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and swallow back all that black sorrow.
“Alice?” Nurse Dummel is beside me, my name on her lips a question. She clutches a see-through plastic bag with my regular clothes in it. I take the bag from her and murmur a
my hands still shaky. She looks me up and down, and I resist the urge to bare my teeth at her like an animal cornered in the jungle. “Put the towel and scrubs in the plastic bag and leave them over there.” She gestures to the grimy wood bench behind me and leaves.
Monica sneers over my left shoulder. My eyes find her reflection in the mirror. I didn't see her come in with the rest of the girls. She's skinny, scary skinny. Her bones jut out all over the place, like someone took a spoon and scooped out her skin. Her towel looks as if it could wrap around her twice. It's weird that I never noticed before. Probably because her face looks all right, not all hollowed out and creepy looking. A little tendril of pity sprouts, and I almost feel sorry for her, and then she speaks. “You still stink, pyro.” She fans a hand in front of her face. Before I can call her a snaggletooth or a twunt, a nurse yells a five-minute warning.
I quickly exchange my ratty towel for a pair of worn jeans, trying to forget about Monica. And how much I hate her. As I'm pulling on a thin tee, my hand brushes the cool, bumpy burns that span my shoulders. I know they're there. The skin is itchy and tight, impossible to miss. But I've avoided looking at them, afraid to see physical evidence of Cellie's madness. I suppose it's time to assess the damage.
I take a deep breath and turn toward the mirror.
The twin burns look the same as the one on my hand, blotchy, unevenâmangled, angry flesh. But to my surprise, there are two areas, one on each shoulder, where the skin is smooth and almost completely unblemished. I cross my arms so that my hands grasp the opposite shoulders. The half-moon marks fit almost exactly into the size of my palms. Could they be from where Jason held me? Did he try to protect me from the fire? I can practically feel his weight on me. I feel sick at the thought. That Jason perished so I might live.
The morning passes without another run-in with Monica. Even in group therapy she stays quiet, only speaking when Dr. Goodman makes us go around and say what we want. And today he makes
The question goes around the circle.
An Asian kid says, “I don't want to be angry anymore.”
A boy with dreads says, “I want to forgive my family.”
A girl with brown hair says, “I want to be an architect.”
Monica's turn comes. “I want to be hungry.” The sincerity of her answer surprises me. It surprises the whole group, and Dr. Goodman squirms in his seat. “Very good, Monica.” He adjusts his tie and scribbles something in his notebookâprobably
Chase, who sits beside me, goes next and easily deflects. “I want James Earl Jones to read me bedtime stories.”
Dr. Goodman frowns but doesn't say anything to him. Again he scribbles in his notebook, this time pressing the pen hard into the paper.
“What is it you want, Alice?” Dr. Goodman asks.
There are lots of things I want. I want Jason back. I want Cellie gone. I want Amelia to have a real pet. I want to see my grandfather one more time. But I'm not ready or willing to share. So I deflect, albeit not as charmingly as Chase. I turn my head and gaze out through the steel mesh in the window and focus on the gray sky and the green treetops that dance in the wind. I say the first thing that comes to mind. “I want to go outside.”
I examine the lunch tray in front of me, filled with what looks like roast beef smothered in gravy. But I'm not sure. I get closer and take a sniff. It doesn't smell like roast beef. I opt for the roll, the lone survivor in the gravy flash flood.
Amelia plops down beside me. “Look what I swiped from the showers today,” she says with ill-concealed glee. She holds out her hand, keeping it hidden under the table. In her palm rest two Bic razors. “Now we can shave our legs in our room, and nobody will watch us. It'll be a little awkward because we'll have to use the sink or the toilet. But isn't it great?”
I look at the razors, at the pink handles resting over a puckered scar from a cigarette burn. The bite of the roll I just took lodges in my throat, and I have to swallow hard to keep from choking. “Are you sure you should have those?”
Amelia's eyes brim with tears. She closes her fist around the razors and shoves them back into her pocket. “I'm not going to hurt myself.”
Shit. I've hurt her feelings. I've hurt my only friend's feelings. “Look, it's not because I think you're going to hurt yourself.”
I hope not.
“It's because you already have.” I pause and shudder a little on the inside. “Elvis, and now this? I just don't want you to get in trouble.”
Amelia takes a deep breath and smiles at me reassuringly. “It's fine, Allie.” She treats my worry as if it's something flimsy, something made of paper in the wind.
I decide not to press her and offer her a white flag instead. “Monica called me a pyro again this morning in the shower.”
Amelia shakes her head. “She's such a muff eater.”
My laugh cracks across the cafeteria. The sound gains the attention of the patients, who freeze, suddenly uncomfortable with my happiness. The only person, aside from Amelia, who doesn't seem alarmed is Chase. He stands in line waiting for his tray of mashed potatoes and mystery meat. He gives me a two-fingered salute followed by a grin.
That day marks the end of my forty-eight-hour no-contact hold. I am antsy, eager for my social worker Sara to come. Visiting hours are late in the afternoon. Usually right after class time. Anyone who doesn't get a visitor has to go back to their room. But Nurse Dummel calls my name, and I'm escorted with others into the visitors' area.
The visitors' area at Savage Isle is nice. It's one of the few rooms that have been redecorated since the hospital opened. The walls are painted a warm taupe, and groups of overstuffed couches line the walls. A coffee machine and tea station sit in the corner.
Monica has visitors today. She has a whole family here to see her. My dislike for her grows. She squeals with delight as she runs toward them, hugging a little brother, embracing a mother. Sara sits in the middle of the room, her narrow frame taking up as little space as possible. I walk over to her and stand nervously in front of her. She is young, maybe mid-twenties, and pretty. Wisps of blond hair frame her petite face, and she wears a gold cross around her neck that she plays with sometimes when she gets nervous. Right now, she's pinching it between her white-tipped fingernails. She became our caseworker a couple of years back. I've always had an okay relationship with her. She's kind, and sweet almost in a naive way. I think we were her first two cases, Cellie and I. Of course, Cellie hated her from the beginning.
“Alice,” Sara says in one breath, and smiles. She examines me and reaches out a hand to squeeze my elbow. “I'm so happy to see you're all right.”
“Hey, Sara,” I say, sinking into a chair. The coolness from the faux leather seeps in through my threadbare jeans. I wonder if Sara notices my brand-new shiny yellow wristband. Nurse Dummel gave it to me right before I came in.
“I came and saw you in the hospital a couple of times. Do you remember?” Sara asks, her expression searching.
I blink and try to think back to my hospital stay. Unbidden, there's a memory, a memory of someone's cool hands touching my cheeks and quietly weeping. But I'm not sure who that person was. It was most likely Sara, but I don't want to ask if she came and cried by my bedside. Other than that, everything that happened in the hospital is still a blur, hazy shades of red and black.
“I'm not sure. Maybe I remember?” I don't know why it comes out in the form of a question.
She doesn't look disappointed. Instead she nods in gentle acceptance. “How are you?”
“I'm all right.”
Sara reaches over and puts a hand on my knee, silently encouraging me to go on. The coolness of her fingertips brushes through one of the holes in my jeans, and in that moment I know. I recognize her touch. She
the one in the hospital, the one whose soft cries woke me from the dark. Why would she weep for me? An emotion I can't describe slices through me.
I sigh. “I miss Jason.” Finally the dam breaks and I allow myself to think of him. His curly hair, his green eyes, and his sweet face that always looked at me the way Sara looks at me now. Cellie loved him, too (as much as Cellie's ever been able to love anyone), and then when Jason and I grew closer and Cellie and I further apart, her love slowly started to die, wilted like a flower left out in the sun too long. I loved Jason so deeply. I try not to think about what would have blossomed between us if he were still alive, if that love hadn't been slashed short. What happiness would have grown from it?
Cellie snatched that away from me, as she's done with so many other things, and deep in my bones I know it will always be this way, unless she's gone, wiped from the earth. There's not enough room for both of us.
“Alice,” Sara says nervously. “I need you to tell me about the night you left. Why did you do it? You were doing so well here.”
I caused her to worry when I escaped with Jason. It's one of the many things I regret about that night. My gaze circles the room and stops at a couch in the corner where Chase's huge Asian roommate and his family currently sit. The same couch where Jason and I sat when he visited me, where I sobbed in his arms and told him that I couldn't take it anymore, that Cellie was tormenting me and wouldn't stop screaming during the night that the doctors were plotting against her. The same couch where he assured me with quiet conviction that we should run away together, escape. That he could take me somewhere far enough away that Cellie would never find me.
“I'm sorry, Sara. I don't know why I did it.” But I do. I just don't think she can handle it. Sara seems so soft, and part of me wants to protect her. I'm sure she's seen the inside of a mental hospital, but she's never had to spend the night in the Quiet Room or shower with the door open or listen to the dizzying hum of fluorescent lights because nobody wants to talk.
By the look on her face, my evasive response doesn't quite placate her. Still, she accepts it and says, “All right. We don't have to talk about it if you don't want.” That's something about Sara; she doesn't press the issue, knows intuitively when to move on, when I've given everything I can give in that moment. She regards me tenderly. “Is there anything you need? Clothes? Toiletries?”
Mentally, I shake my head at her offer. Those things would be nice, but I need something bigger. “I need your help,” I say.
“Jason. I need to know what they did with his”âthe word makes hurdles that my mouth can't jumpâ“body.”
She sucks in an uneasy breath. I think maybe she thought I was going to ask about something else. About the charges and the court case. But the truth is, I don't want to talk about all that. There are more important things and time is limited. Sara and I get only one hour once a week. One hour to make a plan to bury my best friend. I used to count my life in moments, but now, in here, I measure my life in minutes, by the hands of a clock and the sound of a buzzer.
Sara hesitates a moment, seems to gather her thoughts. “Right,” she says slowly, drawing the word out in one long breath. She tells me the state will bury him and gives me the date of the funeral. It's tomorrow. We hug goodbye, and Sara clings to me an extra minute more than is necessary.
“Jason's funeral is tomorrow,” I tell Dr. Goodman. We sit in our usual places: Dr. Goodman in a wing-backed chair, a yellow legal pad perched on his knee. Me, across from him, as curled and pressed back into the chair as I can be.
He raises his eyebrows at me. I'm sure he was expecting another freeze-out this evening. When we sat down he pulled out some huge medical journal and started reading it, didn't even try to ask me any questions this time. Interesting. He puts the book down on a side table and picks up a pen. “Would you like to go?” he asks.
I nod my head.
Dr. Goodman writes something. “That would be a considerable undertaking, Alice. We'd have to get the judge's permission.”
I want to ask why, ball my hands up into fists, and wail. It was Cellie's fault. It's always been Cellie's fault. I've never done anything wrong. Just because we share the same face doesn't mean anything. I picture Jason's body in the casket, being laid to rest with no one there. I cross my arms over my chest, trying to hold in the hurt that threatens to spill over. “Fine.”
“I'm not saying it can't be done, Alice.” Why does he always have to say my name in such a perpetually concerned tone? “But the judge will want to know that you're making progress. And I'm afraid based on the last couple of days .Â .Â .” He trails off.
“But I haven't done anything in the last couple of days.”
“That's the key, Alice. You haven't done
You share the minimum in group therapy, and today is the first day you've spoken more than twenty words to me. I need you to participate in your recovery.”
Mentally, I build myself a hole and crawl into it. I take out a piece of black and white striped origami paper and fold it into an angelfish. Doc goes back to reading his medical journal. I wish I hadn't wasted so much time talking to him. Then I would've had time to make another angelfish. Then I would have two angelfish and they could kiss.