A three. They tell me that’s what I am between drag after drag after drag off their cigarettes.
Three sheets to the wind. Three strikes. Third degree. Third child. Third place (always a bridesmaid, never a bride). Third in line. Three times a lady. Three for one (a bargain, a steal). One-third the person I should be. The rule of three—three minutes to die of suffocation, three days to die of dehydration, three weeks to die of starvation.
I stare ahead to a fixed point between and beyond their heads. My eyes blur.
“Threes don’t go outside.”
I feel them probe, sniffing me. Categorizing and assessing me.
Smoke after smoke after smoke.
I drop my head and vanish behind the thick curtain of my hair.
They bide their time and soon I would be biding mine.
Ashtrays overflow. Whose turn is it anyway? Argument ensues:
“I did it last.”
“No, I did it.”
“No, I did.”
“No, it’s me!”
I pick up and balance in my hands three plastic ashtrays, black to better camouflage the melted burn spots hidden beneath all that ash. Cigarette butts jut out at angles, bony remains of the dead. A wisp of smoke slithers from the peak, snaking lazily upward, snuffed by the stagnant air.
Head down, watching my feet, my snug-treads whisper across the linoleum floor and shuffle me once around the lounge. A coffee table surrounded by two sofas and two chairs that cordon off the smoking area within a larger room, a lobby of sorts. I circle them, a solitary procession, careful not to spill.
It takes forever but I reach the can beside the bank of payphones. Three of them. With the ashtrays upturned, the debris falls and I clack them together. Stale powder wafts up into my face.
I pause, completely still and silent, prolonging the moment, seeing how long the fiends will hold out. I smother the urge to return to my room with them. Instigate a riot. A hidden smirk surfaces on my face.
I shuffle around once more and return to the sacred circle. Fingers and cigarettes reach over the ashtrays before they even touch the table. Long stems of collapsing ash, drooping, hanging on for dear life, finally tapped and released. Everyone falls back in their seats. Sighs of relief cut the tension.
People enter the room, one by one by one from all directions, converging on the lounge, cigarettes drawn, lighters at the ready, greedy eyes focused on one thing only. The empty seat. My seat. At the last second, just as a challenger is about to stake her claim, I flop down in the chair. The action stops.
All eyes on me.
The pace in the room slows a bit as they step into the circle, resigned to stand or perch on the edge of a couch or chair.
“Who’s got a light?”
“Lay some fire on me, will ya?”
“Got a light-light-light?”
The first drag is communal, sacred. A vacuum, a temporary void in space restored as everyone but me exhales a cloud of smoke.
My head still down, I feel the challenger staring at me.
Dings and pings and callers, anxious and antsy, eager and apprehensive, listen to the sound of coins dropping, waiting for someone to pick up the phone. Mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, anyone who will answer. Whoever will stay on the line. Muffled voices, stifled sobs.
A short line has formed, pressing forward, willing the conversations to end.
A three, they say.
As time closes in, the more suspicious they become. A wave of people ebbs back out and a chair is opened. The challenger takes it, glaring the whole time at the top of my bowed head. Staring at me and the empty spaces between my fingers. She firmly tamps the top corner of her cigarette pack, popping one out.
“Smoke?” She holds the pack through the part in my curtain of hair, making sure I see the one little soldier poking out. A challenge rather than an offer.
I move my head slowly, the curtain swings side to side. No.
She shrugs, a false front, and retreats. Grabs the cigarette between her lips and draws it out. Striking a match, she lights her own and those of two others.
Three on a matchstick.
Again I shake my head.
“What?” she demands.
“What the fuck?”
“‘What the fuck.’ Now what does one say to that?” The first words to escape my mouth since I entered this place. No one, including myself, really sure that I spoke at all.
I rise, slowly, and turn out of the lounge, begin my shuffle across the big room.
“Hey!” she calls after me, the last word. The alpha conveying her status.
My head still down, I watch my snug-treads scuff down the hallway of industrial-strength carpet.
A grin spreads across my lips that no one can see and only I can feel. Queen Bitch agitated into a state of rage.
A three-dollar bill in a room full of stooges, playing to an easy crowd.
There are worse places I could have ended up; I am well aware of that and, yes, even grateful. In my repeated fantasies, I drive off a cliff and soar down to the ocean. All these years living on the coast, so many opportunities. So many times I’d find myself gripping the wheel, fighting the urge to jerk it hard to the right. Yet here I am, in this place that sits atop a bluff overlooking the sea, and for some reason I find it calming.
No roommate as of yet, but rumors abound that the Canadians are coming.
Tomorrow it starts. Assessment, medication trials, groups.
But I’m a three. Threes don’t go outside.
I curl up in bed. Try to ease the pain my own way, knowing full well they will only allow me to go so far on my own. At some point I would have to give in, let them help me or play the game.
My door is ajar, a soft knock, entry. A woman in scrubs, surgical tray in hands, phlebotomy kit laid out neat, piece by piece by piece.
I offer her my arm without resistance, veins collapsing on first poke.
“You should use the butterfly. I’m a tough draw,” I tell her, pointing out the vein that is usually the easiest to tap.
A second poke, still going commando. I look at her, bored. They never listen.
Nervous now, she slides a butterfly needle into the vein I picked out especially for her. Nice and snug. The blood flows. Relief flushes across her face.
Third time’s a charm.
I’m having my after-lunch smoke as a herd of teens pass through the lobby. They wander to the cafeteria, taking their time. A girl catches my eye. A ghost, a focal point. A frozen moment. Something familiar. A photograph in which she is a blur and the rest of the group, in full relief, fades into the background. The air before her ripples, as though she is in a pool of water, peering out from beneath the surface.
I wake up on a padded leather table, wrists and ankles bound in thick sheepskin straps. Four-point restraints. Other than me and the table, there is nothing but white walls and fluorescent lights, humming. I have no idea how I got here and am not sure I want to find out.
“Heyyy. Hey!” I call out weakly. I let a few seconds pass, but as long as I am conscious, there’s no way I can stay pinned down like this.
“Hey! Hey! Heyyy!”
I hear a fumble at the doorknob, see a face in the window looking in on me. A male nurse enters, talks to me, makes sure it’s safe to set me free.
“Yes, I’m calm.” I will ask questions later. My goal is to get out of this trap.
“Well, you weren’t so calm last night. Just need to be sure.”
“I am now,” I tell him without a hint of malice in my voice.
He releases my ankles, then my wrists.
“Thank you. Cigarette?”
He walks me out to the lounge where the others are having their first cigarette of the day.
All eyes on me.
The nurse stays near.
Queen B offers me a cigarette. A reward. This time I take it. Eyes no longer cast to the floor, but not looking at her either.
“Boy were you nuts last night.” She lights the cigarette for me.
No response. I knew she was dying to tell.
“You were flipping and flopping like some wild fish. It took eight motherfuckers to get you into isolation.”
“Something must not have agreed with me.”
“I’d say. I’ve never seen anyone buck and twist like you did.”
Nervous laughs around the table, everyone but me.
I finish my smoke and get up. The nurse walks me to my room, makes sure everything is copacetic. I reassure him. I’ll be seeing my doctor in a couple of hours anyway. He stays with me until I fall asleep. Whatever they gave me last night is still in my system. I drift into a deep sleep.
I am a little girl and have not yet learned to swim. Pauline carries me on her back, telling me the story of the mermaid and her prince. “Down there,” she says. “Do you see the lights from the kingdom?”
“Yeah, I see them.”
We dive into the water, and I let go of her shoulders. I am swimming on my own now…down…past a strange reef of twisted coral. I enter a dark forest of undulating seaweed that gropes my legs as I swim through, toward the kingdom’s lights, feeling the shadows upon me, ancient, watching eyes allowing me to pass. I see the castle in the distance, and beyond it, darker shadows still—stone ruins rising above the majestic kingdom, and I am struck by the beauty of it all. I look through one of the windows of the castle to get a peek of the mermaid and the prince, but all I see is a reflection of myself, and as I push away from the castle wall, something among the shadowy ruins begins to move and I can no longer swim.
Now I start choking, gasping for breath, but only swallowing water. I try calling for Pauline to come and get me, but I ingest more water. I look up and see her legs treading. I reach for her foot to pull me out of the mire, but it is just out of reach. It is always just out of reach.
I wake up gasping.
That afternoon the three-ring circus resumes and carries on into the night. More of the same with a tide of uncertainty. Everyone jockeys for position, making room for the new girl. In an act of good faith, I join the ritual of the community smoke.
Calmer, quieter recreational activities are available in other parts of the big room that I hadn’t noticed before. A large table where a giant jigsaw puzzle is being assembled by the few surrounding it, kneeling on chairs, hovering, each with their own method, searching eagerly among hundreds of pieces, thousands, dispersed across the tabletop. Quiet concentration, an occasional gasp of success, every so often the eruption of a minor dispute. Mild rote bickering.
“This piece is missing. I know it.”
“It’s not missing. You always say that. If you don’t like it, get your ass out.”
Somewhere a piece of the jigsaw is deftly swiped and tucked into a pocket.
On a flagstone bench surrounding a large fireplace, a few sit, recently deposited there, faces slack, medicated.
It is about ten o’clock when I extinguish my last cigarette and turn in. The bed is comfortable, but sleep does not come easily. Irrelevant thoughts race through my mind until they become whispering voices, criticizing me. I had hoped I would be safe from them here. But once again, I am dragged through the mud of my entire life. Words and actions I barely recall are twisted around and used against me. There is no verdict other than guilty in this court.
It is an inevitable, relentless, excruciating pain so deep that I understand why cutters cut. Not to punish themselves, but to distract them from the pain that really matters.
I go to the nurse’s station and ask for that sedative the doctor ordered. The nurse on duty makes a note in my chart.
Back in bed, I close my eyes and imagine I am driving late at night on a long dark highway, focusing on the intermittent white lines in the road as they pass beneath me. I let them hypnotize me until I fall asleep at the wheel.
I pray for a new intake. A new specimen to shift the attention away from me. Maybe the Canadians will get here soon.
Instead my prayers are answered with a distraction. Amy—MANIC-depressive psychosis.
Fortunately, Amy is a happy manic. No, an elated manic. Her blonde hair and sunshiny face brightens the room. All treatments thus far have failed to bring her down to a happy medium. Lithium. Thorazine. Lamictal. Seroquel. Depakote. Abilify. Nothing. She spreads laughter, biding her time, afraid they’ll opt for a last resort. ECT. None of us want this for her. No one wants her sunshine eclipsed. Maybe just a dimmer switch so we can turn her down a notch.
Afternoon in the empty dining hall, a woman sits in an empty booth. She tries to shrink into anonymity by easing into the general population as quietly as possible. She is an actress whose most recent standout role was that of an aging, narcissistic Hollywood star. A simple line delivered with such palpable ferocity it immortalized her:
WHO STOLE MY TIPPERARIES!
Her identity will be hard to hide.
Amy is in top form today and indifferent to the proximity of the actress. She marches around the lounge, round and round. She starts over and over again, arms pumping as if holding a baton:
“WHO STOLE MY TIPPERARIES!” Stomp, stomp. “WHO STOLE MY TIPPERARIES!”
She laughs so hard, committed to her tribute, stomping and pumping, stomping and pumping.
Queen B sticks a foot out to trip her, but Amy marches over it.
The next time Amy comes around, I rush her, tackle her over the back of the nearest couch onto the cushions. Amy still laughs, still shouts, though slightly muffled now. I heft up her body and start dragging it back to her room. I feel like my mom must have when I was little and in the midst of a tantrum. The two of us stumble on each other’s feet, a couple of drunks.
“Sometimes you feel like a nut…,” Queen B deadpans as I haul Amy out.
Still oblivious, Amy continues to holler.
I kick the door shut, throw Amy on her bed, and talk her down until the nurse relieves me.
At night, the voices return to present evidence against me. Guilty on all counts, accused of showing no remorse. But I am remorseful. I have regrets going all the way back to the age of three. I believe what they say, they are quite convincing, but I’d do anything to make them stop, to get them off my back. They win. I punish myself. I shrink away, further inside myself.
Silence is compliance, or so it would seem.
My uncle once told me that when he first met me I was three years old, and when he looked into my eyes all he saw was a fathomless sadness, and he knew I didn’t belong to this world. I think back as close to that time as possible and realize I’d always known.
The voices in my head are temporarily quieted and replaced. I fall asleep to the sound in the halls and in the walls, and the gentle whispers in the water…
They say I’m a two now.
Two tickets to paradise. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Two can play at that game. Double standard. Double exposure. Double-cross. Two birds with one stone. Two peas in a pod. Put two and two together. The lesser of two evils. Stand on your own two feet.
“Twos go outside, but only with a staff member. It’s not much but it’ll make the day pass a lot easier.”
“All I want is to go for a walk.”
I toss Queen B a pack of cigarettes. We are alone in the lounge. Everyone else is waiting in line to eat. She takes one and I light it for her.
We smoke silently, a momentary truce.
Her eyes on me.
A payphone rings. Two other girls rush to answer it. One pushes the other out of the way and grabs it on the second ring.
“Who? I don’t know no one by that name.”
Irritated, the girl repeats the name out loud, glancing around the room half-heartedly.
“Not here. Wanna leave a message?”
Queen B reaches with her tread and gives my knee a push.
“Isn’t that you?”
I get up, ease through the food line (no cuts, no cutting), toward the bank of phones. The handset is slammed in place just as I get there. The girl doesn’t waste any time. There is already a message on the whiteboard: Cassie, Call MOTHER.
Is that sarcasm, or a taunt meant for me?
I head into the cafeteria and grab a tray just as the teens start to line up at the door. They have to wait until my unit has gone through the line. First thing, coffee. Load it up with powdered creamer, a pack of sweetener (pink bad, blue good). Napkin. Utensils (blunt). I sip coffee and walk the line of hair nets and chafing dishes. My stomach rumbles.
I sit at a table in the far corner.
The teens file in and I can’t help but look for her.
The hand tremors are worse and I struggle to get a sporkful of scrambled eggs into my mouth. They tumble back to the plate. After my second failure, I grip my wrist with my other hand for support, steadying the spork as I guide it to my mouth. It takes two fucking hands to eat scrambled eggs now.
A timid little kitten of a voice asks to sit down. I nod, still concentrating on my food.
“You got ’em, too.”
“Huh?” I look up and see myself twenty years ago.
“The shakes.” She cups a coffee mug in two cotton-gloved hands.
“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”
I study the girl’s face as she shrinks away, trying to crawl inside her cup and take a sip at the same time. Spots of acne sores dot her chin.
The resemblance is eerie.
“What’s your name?”
“Alexandra,” she says, almost a question.
Her eyes glance up at me timidly as she nods acceptance. Heart-stopping deep wells of jade with dark rust rings around them.
I quit the eggs and start on the bacon, a little easier to navigate.
“What are the gloves for?” I ask.
Breakfast finished in amicable silence.
Two new people sitting on the couch smoking, though they’re not really new at all. They’ve been sequestered away in private rooms, detoxing for the past two weeks.
I wonder if there are more of them, tucked away, shaking and sweating it out.
These two stick together, heroin the glue that binds them. They swap war stories, compare needle tracks, yearning for their drug.
All this talk of heroin ignites music in my head. “Horses” stampede through my consciousness; “Poppies” swirl in, mellow, barely coherent. I long to swim in the waters of oblivion.
My thoughts are no longer my own. I am certain of it. Someone is listening in. More incidents over time, more frequent. Too many to be coincidences. As soon as I have a thought, it is repeated. In a book, on the TV, or from someone else’s mouth. There is no alone.
My memories are secondhand. If someone is not reading my mind, then I must be reading theirs.
After dinner, sitting in the lounge, I zone out. The chatter of conversation around me is calm and quiet. Someone is telling a story. The punch line is delivered and the lounge erupts with exaggerated laughter.
The feeling that someone is in my head, tracking my thoughts, reinforces itself and sets me on edge. The canned laughter is absolutely chilling.
My first instinct is to flee to my room, but the fear of being alone overrides it. I clutch my robe tight around my body, smoking one after another. The aura of panic running through me is palpable.
A small group forms, patients heading out to the CD unit for a twelve-step meeting. The majority of them are lounge lizards.
I am terrified of being alone, me and my cigarettes.
I’m a two.
I orbit around the cluster of bodies, keeping them between me and the front desk staff, until we are out of the building.
I follow the addicts into the open air as they walk leisurely through a grove of trees. It is impossible, but in the distance I hear waves crashing on wet sand and frothy water flooding empty tide pools.
This walk is a nightly ritual for them. The conversation is different here, lacking urgency. No more war stories. No more posturing. Experiment suspended.
A breathless murmur of confidence emerges as they near the center of the grove, as if some power is being exerted on them. The pace slows, allowing them every second of every possible moment before reaching their destination.
They ask for a timekeeper. By giving the timekeeper their trust, they are allowed the deception of false freedom, without the consequence of losing privileges.
“I’ll do it,” I say.
They look behind them and only then do they see I have followed. In quick time they assess the risk.
The risk is worth it.
They put their faith in me.
In this short interval, they are no longer patients. Without endless cigarettes wielded as props, the veil of smoke dissipates, a rent in the cocoon is made, self-actualization achieved. They take control of their own destinies, walking through the trees as twilight descends. They hold the stars in the sky, freezing them in place as if their lives depend on it.
Dina—anorexia, booze—grasps a tree trunk, and swings around it, carefree, swooping down then up in a well-executed arc. Delight slips from her mouth, a giggle so sweet, and I realize it is the first time I have heard her voice. As she swings up, Marvin—detox, booze, depression—snatches the knit cap from her head and she chases him through the trees. Frolicking in and out, side and back, any way but forward. Not yet.
They all linger around the middle of the grove. Raindrops sprinkle down through the barren canopy of early winter. Faces turn to the sky and are cleansed.
Off to the side, a couple embraces, whispering to each other in an illusion of privacy.
“Two minutes,” I call out, thinking I’m doing them a favor.
All eyes on me.
I guess the timekeeper calls time once and only once.
A little tension starts to break up the calm. They don’t know what to do with themselves, with this knowledge that they only have two minutes. Now only one and thirty.
Dina’s face becomes drawn, contemplating the time, counting down in her head. The couple, walking hand in hand, release their hold and part. Everyone else looks at the ground, kicking at the dirt.
The two-minute warning was damaging. I had no idea. I am new to the ritual. I want to put an end to their indecision, their misery. I abort the dis-ease, calling time thirty seconds early:
“Last call.” It was out of my mouth before I could stop it.
Someone laughs, appreciating the irony.
I have failed as timekeeper.
Dina puts her cap back on, tucking loose strands of hair beneath it as she walks toward the center. The group, now absent of mirth, reunites and continues on to the other side of the grove.
Once again I fall behind.
The rest of the group is now silent, rosy cheeks stained with drops of rain. Each of them retreats, a moment of solitude before reprising their roles as patients and addicts. They had shed their skin on the way into the woods. Now their skin thickens as they cross through to the other side.
Layer by layer.
Each role so convincingly played. Except, I notice, for her. The saddest of them all, like a child lost and afraid. The actress.
A clipboard is passed around for each of us to sign while we wait for the meeting to begin. It reaches me. I never signed out, so I don’t sign in. I am not here. I resist the temptation to tear off the sheet and pocket it for the actress’s autograph.
At the sound of the gavel from inside the meeting room, cigarettes in all stages of smoking drop to the sidewalk, ground out by careless feet.
Everyone wanders in. The room is almost full. Must be the only thing going on in town. I take a seat in the back.
The room is dark except for the lectern at the front, which has a small lamp attached to it. A speaker stands there, gavel in hand, waiting for everyone to take their seats. Two spotlights shine down on him from behind. The yellow glow of the lamp and the strange pattern of shadows cast across his face make him look gaunt and jaundiced.
He welcomes everyone, especially the new people. He introduces Carter, who will be talking about his eighth and ninth steps.
I listen to Carter share his story. He talks about his acts of contrition. I feel like I am in temple listening to the sermon on Yom Kippur, and close my eyes. I think about people I have wronged. I never needed an addiction to do that. My mind is in a constant state of regret. I think about Yom Kippur and am hungry and repentant.
Drama therapy today. The session is combined, adults and teens. I look for my young friend. I see her sitting on the floor, Indian style. The hood of a sweatshirt shrouds her face, but she catches my eye as I enter the room.
She was looking for me, too.
The therapist explains how drama therapy works. A single patient, a life-altering event re-enacted.
“Any questions before we begin?” She pauses, hands clasped in front of her, and looks around the silent room. “Well, then, let’s get started.”
She calls on the patient to join her at the center of the stage.
“The sun is hot, it’s beating down on me. I hear the ocean and the sound of the wind as it sends my hair in every direction. I run toward it, then stop and turn around for a brief second. I smile and wave at Jake sitting there on the sand watching me go. I turn back around and continue running. I run, kicking up sand in my tracks…I run across the wet sand, hard and packed…I run into the water, leaping over the waves going deeper, trying to get past them…I swim out until I can no longer touch the ground.
“I’m treading water.”
Alexandra sounds winded, then takes a deep breath.
“I point my legs straight down, and my arms straight up, and like a torpedo I go down…deep, deep down in the water…into the sea…farther down…I keep going. I see fish and the rocky bottom of the ocean. Glittering sand swirls up around me, and I see a light in the distance. And now I’m swimming toward it.”
Alexandra smiles as she says this.
A look of confusion and concern passes across the therapist’s face, and she starts trying to talk Alexandra back.
“No. No, I don’t want to go yet.” Panic creeps into her voice. “No! Bubbles, coming from my mouth. Someone’s pulling me up toward the surface. I go up…up…up. No, I don’t want to. The sun burns through the water, and I know soon I will break the surface. No. Please…don’t make me go.”
As she comes around to the present, to this room, I see through tears of my own a blurred double image of her and she is crying.
My psychologist told me she takes a particular interest in Jung. I lie in bed, willing myself to dream up a doozy for her to analyze, hopefully remembering it by our next meeting. I feel the voices in my head trying to take hold. I feel the rush of fear.
I can’t bear another night of this. Like all the previous sleepless nights I’ve had since my arrival, I am once again back at the nurse’s station. The nurse on duty looks me over, recognizes that I am troubled. She hands me a tiny accordion paper cup that holds my sleeping pill and a second one empty for water. She asks if I’d feel better sleeping on the couch tonight, at least for a little while. I follow her eyes. I hadn’t noticed this couch before. It is in the center of the big room, neither here nor there, creating a space of its own between the craft tables and reception. I nod my head.
At the water cooler I place the empty cup over my mouth and blow hard. It crackles and puffs out like a miniature Chinese lantern. A nifty trick to increase the volume of water it will hold.
I take my pill and return to the couch where the nurse is making a bed. Sheet, blanket, pillow which she even fluffs up for me. No Nurse Ratched, she.
I lie down and get comfortable. The nurse returns to her station and turns off the fluorescents directly above me.
But here they come, the inner voices that go for the slow kill.
Stupid. Mean. Bad.
No matter which memory they torment me with, it slips off into the atmosphere somewhere, entering a loop of time and space.
But it was twenty-two years ago. Twenty-two.
The voices are immune to my rationalizations until the pill finally begins to snuff them out…
I’m a one.
As I head for breakfast, a nurse calls me over to the nurse’s station to tell me this. She delivers the good news as if bestowing upon me a Young Reader Medal. She is genuine and, I believe, truly pleased for me.
One day at a time. One good turn deserves another. One step ahead. One-track mind. One more shot. Looking out for number one. Love at first sight. First come, first served. One for the road. One foot in the grave. Back to square one.
Ones can go outside without a staff escort.
I am surprised because of the bad nights I’ve been having, but I guess they measure it by risk factor. Whether it’s the actual escape or the potential liability that concerns them, I honestly don’t know.
I expected I would feel good about this relative freedom, but now all I really want is the comfort of this shelter to which I have become accustomed.
I take a seat in the lounge. The doors to the cafeteria have yet to open. The line to breakfast has formed, the patrons are antsy. I wait it out, smoking until the line has waned. Queen B sits across from me.
“Did I hear right? You’re a one? That means—”
“I know what that means.”
After lunch I sit waiting in the gazebo with my book. It is filled with short vignettes, giving me lots of easy stopping points. Even so, I find myself glancing up every couple of sentences, distracted, wondering if she’ll show. The prospect of reading abandoned, I walk along the edge of the low shrubbery, protecting me from the cliff’s edge and the long drop below. The pungent aroma of sagebrush, mint, and white sage combined clears my sinuses. I could stand here forever, breathing it all in, lost in its heady haze.
A shadow bleeds in from behind, rousing in me an instant of fear that I am about to go over the edge. I turn on instinct to face my attacker, and there is Alexandra, farther off than I expected, behind all that hair, sheepskin boots trudging up the gentle slope of grass, hands deep in the pockets of her shorts.
“Smells good, huh?” She stands next to me and we look out over the sea.
I nod and feel her slip her gloved hand in mine. We stand there for a moment, silent, feeling the sun and the breeze, watching the waves tumble, tasting the salt in the air. It sparks a memory that comforts, taking me back on some strange trip through the past to a time I can’t quite pinpoint.
She leads me to a boulder balancing on the precipice, and releases my hand to climb atop it.
I hesitate and she laughs, warm and carefree, hair blown back from her face.
“Don’t worry. It’s not going anywhere.” She offers me a hand, helping me up.
“I’m not too fond of heights,” I confess, clambering up the massive rock.
“Me neither. But for some reason it doesn’t bother me here. I’ll show you.”
I crawl up beside her, low and grounded, my hands never leaving the rough surface as I sit beside her. I mimic her bravery, letting my legs hang over, feet dangling in the air.
“Just look out, toward the horizon. The feeling will pass.”
After a few moments it does.
“Everyone kept congratulating me, you know. After that session yesterday. I’ve been here almost two months now. Hardly anyone ever spoke to me and then there I was, naked before them, and all of a sudden, everyone wants to touch me. It’s like I got mobbed, like they all want a piece of me. The girl who had something fucked up happen to her, they want a piece of that, you know?”
I nod. I do know.
“Fucking vampires everywhere.”
“Anything like that ever happen to you?”
“I’ve only been here a couple of weeks. People stare at me, summoning up their x-ray vision to figure me out. Whisper-whisper as I come and go. Even a place like this assigns celebrity, fleeting as it may be. Anything to shift their focus off themselves.”
We let the sun warm our faces, listening to the waves crash below.
“They say there’s a whole civilization under there, deep down at the bottom of the ocean,” she says, gazing out at the sea. “They say that it sank there, thousands of years ago.”
Her words linger in the air, before the breeze carries them away. Seagulls drift past, riding the wind currents, crossing the tawny sun. Their cries bring us both to the present.
Alexandra turns to me, eyes wide, the haze in them dissipated, clear again, reflecting the deep bronze of the sky.
I have gone through layers and layers, deeper and deeper, league upon league upon league of consciousness.
I see the park. Pauline is down there. I must get to her before the others. If I can explain before the others get to her, she will understand. I swim downward and try to call out to her. I begin to panic, but not because I can’t breathe. I try to speak, but my words are distorted and bubbles escape with them. I call out to my sister, “Pauline!” Wait for me. Please. Wait…
If she can hear me, she will know I am here. She’ll come get me. “Pauline!” Wake, wake me…
Once again I think I’m awake, but have my doubts. I see everyone sitting around in the room downstairs. It is dark, but the rattlesnake lawyer is sitting deep in the corner of an old couch, ankle across knee, comfortable, waiting for nothing. An Asian woman is draped across him. I can feel the heavy atmosphere down there. Something wrong and sinister. I stop to remember rattlesnake lawyer’s name. Jonathan is it? My speech is impaired and I try to articulate that I am there. But they go on without seeing me. Someone please wake me up. Wake me up. Wake me…
I am not asleep. I just can’t open my eyes or raise myself from the bed. I am afraid of what I will see next. I don’t know what is really going on downstairs. I am dead weight in this bed and no matter how hard I try, I can’t cut through the levels of consciousness. I try to call through them, but no one hears me. No one is listening. I need someone to pull me out. Bubbles float to the surface. I don’t even know what all this means. “Please.” I have gone too deep and I know it. I am terrified. If I could kill myself now, I would.
“Wake. Please, someone, wake me.”
Someone is shaking me. “Wake up. Come on, wake up.”
“Help. Help me up. I need up. Pull me. Pull me up,” I pant, reaching with my arm, groping blindly for whoever is there.
“Wake me,” I plead.
Someone takes hold of my arms and pulls me up out of bed.
“Wake up. Come on. You’re freaking me out. Wake up, dammit!”
I open my eyes and it takes a minute for me to recognize who it is.
“Are you awake?” The voice is familiar. She shakes me again and my vision begins to clear.
I’m afraid my voice won’t work again. I open my mouth. “Ter-ri-fied.”
I recognize the voice now.
Everyone in my family has been so good to me, bringing their love and smiles, concealing their concern. But I can’t help but feel guilty that I am here, that I have lost touch with life, struggling to find the desire and strength to breathe, to thrive, to live. Though they don’t show it, I know they worry, probably wondering how they contributed to the disintegration of what little peace of mind I may have had. Everyone says look back to your childhood and figure out where it went wrong. The horrible things our mothers and fathers did to us when we were children, while we were growing up. Whatever memories we are suppressing will lead us to the truth. But for me there is nothing. No suppressed memories of a bad childhood, of my parents doing me wrong. Nothing. And it makes me angry when people insist that there is something there. My parents, my grandparents, my sisters, no one in my family ever did me wrong. Spats, yes. Struggles for understanding, yes. I pushed boundaries to assert my independence, and they tried to let up on the reins a bit each time, let me have a chance, trust me to make the right decisions. Any failures were mine. Still, nothing they did or said was unreasonable in this regard. And looking back, I see they were right all along.
I was born with sadness and an aching that I could never understand. Whatever happened did so long before then.
I didn’t think I would have trouble falling asleep tonight. I was so tired when I lay down. But now my mind won’t stop. The sobs come and the tears flow far too freely.
The feeling of loss is huge for me right now. I can’t describe it. The voices come and criticize me all over again.
Guilt rushes to the surface once again.
I go to the nurse’s station for the usual.
I sit on the boulder near the cliffs. Guilt and regret wrack my mind, my soul, and take hold of me. I look out at a stretch of empty beach, watching the sea. The waves swell and rise. I close my eyes and feel them wash over me before they crash against the shore, the tide dragging the heavy burden from me as it recedes.
All the pain and doubt and regret, all of that is gone. Me and this rock I sit on, the breeze and the birds, the sand and the ocean, we are fine. I realize it’s time to go home.
I feel Alexandra’s hand slip into mine. No glove this time. Her eyes are the clearest I’ve seen them yet. We are standing on the rock now, she and I, holding hands, swinging them forward and back, forward and back, building momentum. I look out at the water and feel her eyes on me.
“It’s easy,” she whispers. “Just watch me now…”
Wave thou art pretty
Wave thou art high
Wave to the city
Wave to the sky
Wave thou art future
Wave thou art why
Wave to the children
Wave wave good-bye
Story includes sections from the poem “Wave” by Patti Smith.
Jodi Renée Lester is a writer, editor, and transcriptionist. In 2014, her story “Casting Lots” appeared in the anthology Songs of the Satyrs, and in 2009 her story “The Guixi Sisters” appeared in the anthology Midnight Walk. Her latest story “Serpentine” is pending publication in Shroud Quarterly. As an editor, she has worked with several authors and anthologists on award-winning projects, including Alessandro Manzetti (Stoker Award winner for superior achievement in a poetry collection, Eden Underground, 2015), Maria Alexander (Stoker Award winner for superior achievement in a first novel, Mr. Wicker, 2014), Deborah Khoshaba, Psy.D. (National Indie and Excellence Award in the personal growth category, Getting to Oz, 2014), and Lisa Morton (Black Quill Award winner for best dark fiction anthology and Stoker Award nominee for superior achievement in an anthology, Midnight Walk, 2009).
She currently works as an English language editor for Independent Legions Press based in Italy and Probably King, an Italian-to-English literary translation service. She has also edited a variety of Japanese-to-English patent translations, medical and scientific articles, biographies, writing guides, and self-help books, among others. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology at CSU Fullerton, studied creative writing with Dennis Etchison, and honed her editing skills with independent crime publisher UglyTown. She is a member and volunteer of the Horror Writers Association and lives in the Lowcountry of South Carolina with her husband Mike.
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Story illustration by Dan Moran.