The girl sitting across from me was trying her damnedest to look anywhere but at my face. Her eyes darted around her meager little bedroom, desperate to find something to stare at while I examined her. The only sounds that punctured the heavy silence were the faint ticking of the clock in the hallway and the occasional mutter from the recreation room, and after a moment, she began to chew hard on the nail of her little finger.
“Ms. Davis,” I began gently, and her blue eyes, which were much too wide and large for her slender face, flickered towards me for a moment before fixing themselves determinedly on a spot on the wall. “Whenever you feel like you’re ready, I’d like you to answer my question.” She took in a long breath that she quickly let out in a whisper of an exhale, which rattled against her tired lungs.
“Yes, Dr. Brian,” she finally replied. Her voice was monotonous and soft. “I’ve been eating what the nurses tell me to.”
I smiled, and she watched me with a guarded expression. “That’s good, Christine.” I paused. “Do you mind if I call you Christine?” She shrugged, and through the material of her black t-shirt, I could see the bones in her shoulders jut out as she moved. Her collarbones were like a pair of knives protruding from the base of her neck, and her limbs were as thin and delicate as a newborn fawn’s. But, thankfully, she was still a little more filled out than the hysterical, bleeding, emaciated Christine we had admitted into our facility two weeks ago, whose spine had bulged against the pale skin of her back like a row of marbles. “You look like you’re progressing,” I added, adjusting my glasses and jotting down a few notes. She looked gloomily down at the floor.
“If by progressing you mean getting fat,” she muttered, “then yes, I’m progressing.”
“Maybe I do mind if you call me Christine,” she interrupted suddenly, a sullen look crossing her features. I offered her a prim smile.
“I can respect that. However, Ms. Davis, ‘fat’ is not a word we use around here. You are unhealthy, and you’re here to become healthy. Health isn’t necessarily attached to a number; it’s only dependent on your body functioning normally and your ability to accept yourself, inside and out. And right now, your body is well on its way to recovery. You seem much more energetic, and nurse Jones tells me that your last checkup showed significant improvement.” She looked back up at me, and for a moment, I thought I saw her eyes well up with tears.
“But what if I can’t stop eating?” she whispered, blinking quickly until the tears had retreated. “What if--” She raised her hands to cover her mouth and closed her eyes tightly, taking in deep, shuddering breaths through her fingers to calm herself. “I can’t think about it,” she said softly, her voice muffled from behind her hands.
“I know. You don’t need to worry--you have all the time in the world. We don’t expect you to get better overnight. We’re going to work with you for as long as you need to help you develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise.” She nodded a little, running her fingers through her short, black hair. “But that’s not actually why I’m here today. I was hoping,” I continued, leaning forward a little, “that we could talk a little more about the night you came to us.” Her lips thinned, and she stared down at the floor.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to do that.”
“We’ve had several sessions about your disordered eating,” I urged her gently. “It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. Your self-harm.” Her fingers unconsciously twitched down towards her thigh, and I watched as she pressed down on the fabric of her jeans, testing the pliancy of the skin underneath it. A faint wince crossed her features as the flesh yielded to her touch. It was behavior that was typical of an anorexic, checking for bulges and soft areas that she felt she needed to “improve.”
“What do you want to know?” she finally asked hoarsely.
“Your story,” I replied simply. “The whole story that leads up to you, here, right now.” She chewed on her lower lip for a moment, then nodded. “Take all the time you need,” I said. There was silence for a moment, but then she took a deep breath and began to speak.
“I think it all started in high school. I was one of those ugly duckl--um--late bloomers, sorry," she said quickly as I opened my mouth to object. I nodded, and she continued. "I don’t think anyone ever gave me the time of day until I turned sixteen. That’s when my face started to clear up and I went from a size six to a size four.
“I’m not going to lie; when I started getting more phone calls and making more friends, I was a little depressed. I was still the same weirdo, but it felt like people were willing to look past the weirdness if I was pretty. But I let it go. It was good to have friends. Since I wanted it to stay that way, I did start to develop...habits. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a disorder, but I had a pattern I would follow every week: I would only let myself eat once every two days. In some sick sort of way, I think that made me even more popular. That was a weird time. Myspace was still a thing, schools were filled with those scene assholes, and it was trendy to be skinny. A couple of my girlfriends and I would go to the football bleachers every day during our lunch break and just drink water and smoke cigarettes so we wouldn’t be tempted to eat. I don’t know. Now that I look back on it, it was pretty messed up. People are really fucked, aren’t they?
“Anyway, when I graduated, I lost contact with a lot of my friends in high school. Most of them went to college, but I didn’t have the money, so I just got a job at a grocery store and moved into an apartment with one of my coworkers a year later. His name was Derek, and he was gorgeous. And he knew it. He had this awesome life filled with beautiful people and late nights at clubs, and I loved being a part of it. He always had this way of making us feel like this young, invincible, beautiful pair of stylish socialites, even though we were only making a couple of dollars more than minimum wage and living in a pretty shitty part of the city. We both spent a ton of money on clothes. I’m sure we almost missed rent once every other month. There were a few times where we had to turn the whole apartment upside down looking for change in all the nooks and crannies.
“Derek wanted to be a fashion designer, and he would gush about how he wanted me to model his stuff. Don’t get me wrong, he was incredible with a sewing machine, but I don’t think either of us expected anything to come of it. He was always really fickle with his hobbies. We lived together for a few years, but I eventually had to move into a dorm to start school, and he went to go live with his boyfriend. We never lost touch, but I didn’t have a whole lot of time for clubbing or day drinking once I started school, so we did drift apart a little.” Christine paused, looking apprehensive. “Until this year, when he called me and said that he had scored an entry into a little fashion show,” she continued. She shifted uncomfortably and crossed her arms, folding in on herself a little.
“Take your time,” I repeated gently.
“Well, I was nervous, of course, but I said yes. Who wouldn’t, you know? And when I showed up at his apartment for the fitting, he had all these beautiful clothes for me to try on. All of them fit really well, except for…” She took another deep, shaky breath. “...these fucking pants. They were made of black leather that Derek had spent a ton of money on. The way he went on about them, they were like his magnum opus. And they were amazing. But they wouldn’t...they wouldn’t quite fit over my thighs.” She closed her eyes. “Fuck. You should have seen his face. It wasn’t like he could just let out the seams a little--he barely had enough leather to finish the pants. He was so disappointed. And he told me that he could find another girl to wear them, but I felt awful, so I told him that I would, you know.” Her face paled a little. “Try to lose some weight.”
“How much did you weigh at the time?”
“About one-oh-five.” She pinched her thigh again as she spoke, a little harder this time. I pretended not to notice.
“That’s still very underweight for your height,” I said slowly. “They must have been impossibly small. Everyone makes mistakes. You can’t blame yourself.”
“I know, but...I did. I had a month until the show, so I found a guy at school who was selling Vyvanse. You know, the ADHD medication.” She flushed a little and gave me a wry smile. “Sorry. Of course you know.”
“I took it two or three times a week. The day I took it, I wouldn’t eat. I couldn’t if I tried, that was the beauty of it. The day after, I still wouldn’t eat. Then I would eat five hundred calories the third day, and start over after that. My grades got better, I guess. And it was working. By the second week, I weighed ninety-seven pounds, and I went to go see Derek again.” She trailed off, and I could see her lip start to quiver. “Th-they still didn’t fit. They would fit right up until the middle of my thigh, but then they’d stop at my hips.
“Derek told me it was going to be okay. He knew a girl who had the right measurements, and even though he made the pants for me, she could model them. I begged him to give me another two weeks and keep her as a backup in case I couldn’t do it. Then I went back to school and started working out every day, along with the Vyvanse and fasting. Lots of fasting.
“My thighs had to be nineteen inches. My waist had to be twenty-two inches. My hips had to be thirty-two inches. Twenty-two, thirty-two, nineteen. Those were my encouragement words that I chanted while I worked out. I must have looked like a maniac. But despite all that, it felt like the guys on campus started to notice me a little more. I got more phone numbers that week than I’ve gotten in my entire life. It hurt a lot, that I had to do all of this to make them give a shit about me, but it felt so good. And I was so close to my perfect numbers...” She broke off with a sob and covered her mouth. After a few moments, she straightened her shoulders and looked back up at me, her expression stiff, her eyes bright with tears. “But then I passed out at the gym. My mom met me at the hospital and freaked out when she saw how skinny I was. The doctors were telling her to check me into someplace like this...but...I guess I talked her out of it.”
“Ms. Davis,” I interrupted softly. “We’re talking a lot about your eating disorder, but I don’t understand where--” She silenced me with a look. It was some look. Angry and scared and a hair away from a full meltdown. I inclined my head in acceptance and let her speak.
“I’m getting to it,” she whispered. “I don’t know how I convinced my mom to let me go to the show, but she agreed to it. I just had to come straight home. But the night of the show, I...I took my measurements and…” A tear rolled down her cheek. “I was two inches away. Two inches away from being perfect. And I was out of time. It was my thighs, you know. Everything else was great, I guess, but everyone has that one fucking spot…”
“No, you don’t. I weighed eighty-eight-point-five-two pounds. Every other part of me was skin and bone, but my god damned legs wanted to stay fat and disgusting.” She was suddenly very still. “I was trying not to lose it when I went downstairs to see mom. And she was…she was…”
“She was what, Ms. Davis?” I urged. Her lips suddenly parted into a very broad grin, and I frowned.
“She was peeling potatoes,” she giggled, her eyes wide. “For dinner, with one of those potato-peeler-things. And I thought it was so fascinating how the blade just slipped under the skin and peeled it all away, like she was sculpting marble. All of the parts that she didn’t need just went in the trash, where they belonged. It was the perfect contraption. You could just...watch the potatoes get smaller and smaller.” Tears were flowing down her cheeks freely now, but that wide, terrifying smile was still firmly affixed to her face. “So I grabbed a really sharp knife and my measuring tape before I went to my car--”
“I think I know where this is going,” I said quickly. I could feel cold sweat on the back of my neck, and my mouth was suddenly very dry.
She laughed again. “Yeah. I bet you do,” she sighed gleefully. “I picked up some bandages from the drug store near Derek’s show, so nobody could see what I had done. And when I tried on the pants, they fit. They fit and everyone in the back was just over the moon about me, even though I could barely stand up. I actually got a few cards. People wanted to hire me. Derek was so excited; he kept telling me that we were going to be the stars of the show. And we would have been, you know,” she continued, her eyes widening. “Everything was going so well until the model behind me slipped in something and fell, and that’s when they all saw the blood. Th-the bandages must have started leaking...” The smile finally disappeared from her face and she burst into loud, ugly, racking sobs. I felt my face grow pale.
“Christine, it’s going to be alright now,” I begged, reaching out to touch her shoulder. She quickly swatted my hand away, and her furious tear stained eyes locked on mine.
“Don’t touch me!” she screamed. “Don’t you get it?! It’s never going to be okay! Do you know what I had to do to myself to finally be someone???" She collapsed onto the bed in a heap and sobbed wordlessly, hiding her face from me.
“I know that it’s worthless coming from me, but you need to know that you have value, Christine, as a person,” I began, but she turned away from me. I felt my brows furrow in worry when I saw a dark stain on the crook of her knee.
“I can’t talk anymore,” she whispered shakily. “Please go away.” I removed my glasses and rubbed my eyes hard before standing, then walked slowly out of the room.
I put a hand out to stop an orderly from walking passed me, and she frowned when she saw my face. “What is it?” she said in a low voice. “Is it Christine?”
“I’m afraid it is,” I sighed. “Please tell the nurses to examine her legs today. I believe she’s picking at her stitches again.”
I waited patiently, if not a little awkwardly, as the young woman in front of me sat on her knees in front of her bed, her back to me. Her elbows were resting on the mattress, her hands were pressed together, and she looked all for the world like a little girl saying her bedtime prayers. After a moment, she dipped her head down and crossed herself, then slowly rose to her feet. As she caught my eye, her lips curved into a serene smile.
“Hello, Doctor,” she said cheerfully, lowering herself onto the mattress and shifting into a cross-legged position. Her long hair dangled over one shoulder in a neat, sleek braid, and she had a pleasant sort of warmness to her disposition. “Is it time for our session?” I smiled back before lowering myself into a chair near her bed. Usually, once it was time for our first big meeting, my patients were a bundle of nerves. Jessica Davenport, however, seemed ready to float right off the bed. I had never seen a woman look so utterly at ease only two days after being committed to our asylum.
“Is it a good time?”
“Now’s as good a time as any, I’m sure,” she replied, stretching languidly. “It isn’t like I have any urgent plans.” I uncapped my pen, then crossed my legs and positioned my clipboard on one knee.
“I didn’t know you were Christian,” I admitted, watching her closely. “I didn’t see you at the morning prayer group on Sunday.”
She shrugged, a slow, fluid motion that conveyed nothing but utter relaxation. “I’m not.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Then why…?”
“What happened to me was enough to convince me that someone out there had an eye on me,” she replied smoothly. “Since I arrived here, I’ve made it my mission to praise every deity I can think of in thanks. It’s the least I can do.”
“Sure. God, Allah, various pagan gods and goddesses,” she said, offering me a little smile. “I’d like to pray to the Hindu gods, but that may have to wait until I’m out. I’m not familiar with the mantras.”
“I see. We might be able to work something out,” I replied slowly. “Now, this thing that happened to you--are you referring to the...incident that led to your arrival here?”
“Yes,” she sighed, raising one hand to fiddle with her long, blonde braid. “Which I suppose is what you’re here to talk with me about.”
“If you’re ready.”
She slowly closed her eyes and exhaled, then nodded. “Where should I start?”
“Wherever you believe the beginning might be.”
“Alright.” She cleared her throat, then opened her eyes. Her gaze was a bit unsettling, filled with certainty and firm resolution. “It all started with Danny, of course.”
“And Danny is the man--”
“--That I shot and killed? Yes. It wasn’t always so bad, though. When we first started dating, he was the epitome of a perfect gentleman. He took me to these wonderful little restaurants, refused to let me open my own doors, and always had an arsenal of sweet words at his disposal. And he was good-looking, too. I was utterly mad for him. The way he looked at me, you would have guessed I was something precious that he couldn’t bear to let out of his sight. And, looking back on it, I suppose that that should have been my first warning.
“It took several months for me to realize that I was unknowingly distancing myself from my friends. I don’t know how I didn’t notice it before. One morning, I just woke up and it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen or talked to them in a while, even though we had always been very close. And when I mentioned to Danny that I’d like to see them again, he seemed...tense. I didn’t think much of it. But when I finally persuaded him to let me go to a girl's night out, he bombarded me with text messages the whole night and seemed to get more and more irritated if I didn't respond immediately. My friends were worried, but I told them that it would pass.”
“Jessica,” I said slowly. “What you’ve just mentioned is a textbook case of abuse.” She laughed bitterly.
“I know that now,” she sighed. “But I was blind to it at the time. Of course, it only got worse. It all came to a head one night when I left a glass of red wine out on the nightstand. We were teasing one another and wrestling--playfully--and I knocked it right over the football jersey he had folded over his desk chair. It was his favorite. The stain wasn’t big, but there were a lot of little red drops all over it.”
“Was it very valuable?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know,” she sighed, dismissing my question with an impatient flick of her wrist. “I don’t follow sports. But to Danny, it was like I had just ended his whole world. I apologized over and over, but he just got increasingly more furious until he grabbed the wine glass and threw it, as hard as he could, right past my face and against the wall. It shattered. A couple of inches to the left and it would have hit me. But, immediately after seeing the look on my face, he dissolved into the perfect picture of remorse.” She rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t let him touch me, but he eventually just grabbed me and kissed me and told me how sorry he was. He was even crying.” Slowly, she turned her gaze down to the floor, the first action that had even hinted at any sort of discomfort. I watched her carefully. “It was when he pulled away to look at me that I realized Danny had...changed. He, ah…” She paused, and I leaned a little closer. “...I’m sorry. This is the first time I’ve told anyone about this.”
“Doctor-patient confidentiality, Jessica,” I assured her. “You can tell me anything.”
“Alright.” She tensed a little in her shoulders as she spoke. “It...it was his eyes.”
“Yes. Th-they had turned yellow. Like an owl or something.” I tried to keep my face carefully free of any expression while she watched me, trying to gauge my reaction, and she continued once she had decided I didn’t think she was acting like a raving lunatic. “I thought it was just a trick of the light or too much wine, but when we woke up the next morning, there were those evil-looking eyes, staring right into my soul. The strangest part was,” she added, her brows knitting together worriedly, “that other than his bright yellow fucking eyes, he didn’t seem any different. It was like he hadn’t changed at all. And everyone around him acted the same, as if my boyfriend wasn’t starting to transform into some horrible thing. At first, it really messed around with my head. I thought I was losing my mind. So I hoped that I was just imagining it and that it would go away soon, and I tried my best to ignore it.
“But it only got worse. A week later, one of my friends invited me out while Danny was at work. I had the day off, but I couldn’t get ahold of him to ask for permission. And yes, doctor, I’m aware that that is also an example of possessive behavior,” she added as I moved to interrupt her. I promptly shut my mouth. “Anyway, since I couldn’t reach him, I just left him a voicemail and headed out. Which, apparently, was the wrong thing to do. When I got home, he was sitting in the living room, very quiet and very still. He wouldn’t answer me when I asked him what was wrong. I plugged in my phone while he was ignoring me--it died while I was out--and when I turned it on, I saw exactly twenty text messages from him and seven voicemail messages.” She paused and swallowed. “I had only been out for three hours. He finally spoke and told me that once he got my message he tried to reach me, and, upon failing to do so, had assumed that I was in trouble and left work early to look for me. He called all of my friends, too. What followed was a very loud interrogation about my actual whereabouts, and several implications that I had lied about where I was. I argued with him and told him he was being ridiculous, and he got fed up and lunged at me.”
“Did he hit you?” I asked quietly. She shook her head.
“No,” she whispered. “I almost wish he had sometimes. It would have made my life a lot easier. Instead, he stopped just an inch away from me and held my shoulder very, very tightly. And then he just stared at me for a few minutes. He was breathing hard. I think he was trying to calm himself down.” She bit her lip. “But then he opened his mouth to speak and...and I could see his teeth. They were different--it was like his mouth had turned into a pit of needles. I screamed and tried to get away, and he just held me there and shouted that he wasn’t hurting me, that there was nothing to be screaming about, that I was overreacting. He said that someone was going to call the police if I kept acting up, and then I’d have to ‘explain why I was being such a crazy bitch,’” she added grimly. “I sneaked out of the bed that night after he had passed out and slept on the couch. I couldn’t stand to sleep next to him.
“The week after that, I had a late night at work. I was actually relieved when my boss asked me to stay for a few more hours; it meant that I wouldn’t have to go home and face Danny and...the way he looked. I texted him to let him know, but he never responded. When I got home, he was in our room at the desk. He didn’t speak for a while, but then he told me that he had been let go. I guess they had been making cuts at his office, and when he left early to come find me, it earned him a spot on the list. It was basically his dream job, so he was understandably distraught. But then he got angry and started shouting that it was my fault for acting suspicious. He even said that I probably wasn’t even at work all night.” She paused for a few moments and rubbed her eyes, suddenly looking exhausted. “That’s when he took the gun out of his desk and held it to his head. He said that I was selfish for what I did to him, that I had ruined his life, and that I deserved to watch him die.”
“Wait,” I said suddenly. “Are you telling me that Danny killed himself?” For a brief moment, so brief that I might have imagined it, hopelessness flickered across her face.
“No,” she said softly. “I was begging him to put the gun down, and then he...pointed it at me. He was shaking and staring at me with those horrible eyes, and he said that I deserved it more than he did. He started saying horrible things; calling me a whore, telling me how the world would be better off without me. How nobody would even miss me. We stood like that for an eternity.” She licked her lips. “He finally put the gun down and started to apologize, but I ran. I hid in the closet and stayed there while he walked around the house shouting for me. He was in tears--I could hear it in his voice--but I didn’t care. It was in that moment that I realized he was going to kill me.” With a shaky breath, she folded her arms tightly in front of her chest. After a short pause, she began to speak again in a trembling voice. “It might not have been that night, or even that year. But he was going to put me in the ground. I just knew it. And then I peeked around the door of the closet, and I saw him.”
“What do you--”
“He. Wasn’t. Right,” she whispered desperately, her eyes brimming with tears. “His skin was too pale. His fingers were too long, and I swear I saw claws. And he was still carrying his gun. I...I grabbed one of his old baseball bats from behind the coats...and...well...I disarmed him.” Her chest began to heave with silent sobs. “And then I shot him in the chest. So he would stay down. I-I didn’t want to shoot him, but…I didn’t know what he would do. And his face…” She trailed off and stared down at the floor, taking in deep, gasping breaths and holding her head in her hands. I stayed silent while she struggled to compose herself.
“Did you tell the police that he threatened you?” I inquired once her breathing had returned to normal. She gave me an almost pitying look through her tears and let out a breath of dry laughter.
“Of course I did. But there wasn’t any evidence that it was self-defense. I told you; he never hit me. Not once. Other than the bruises from the bat and the bullet in his chest, there was no sign of a struggle. It wasn’t like there were any witnesses, and the house was in pristine condition. The police even found...they found an engagement ring stashed in his dresser.” She grimaced. “Then the prosecuting attorney brought up the weekend I had spent in suicide watch at a hospital when I was a teenager. It didn’t help that when the police showed up at his house, I was inconsolable and babbling about monsters with sharp teeth and big yellow eyes. At that point, it was all over. Although, I guess it did land me in here instead of prison.” Her gaze flitted past me and towards the open doorway of her bedroom, pensive and calm despite the tears trickling down her face. “The people here seem nice.”
“Well, I think that’s enough for today,” I said briskly, rising to my feet. “I’ve appreciated your cooperation. I’ll be back in a couple days so we can discuss your treatment.” She stood, nodded her head in agreement, and extended her hand. After a brief moment of hesitation, I gripped it and gave it a quick shake. “One more thing,” I added as she turned and began to rummage through her duffel bag, withdrawing a tattered paperback fantasy novel. “This…’monster’ you said that you saw. Is this a recurring vision for you?” She straightened and gave me a terse smile.
“Nope. That was the first time.” She raised her eyebrows. “But I’ll be sure to warn you if I see any more.”
“And you mentioned,” I continued, “that you were praying to thank the deity that let this happen to you. To be honest, Jessica, I can’t understand why.” Paper rustled as she lowered herself back onto the mattress and thumbed through the pages of the book, looking for her spot.
“I don’t think it was meant to be a punishment,” she said, not looking at me. “I like to think that it was a blessing. Maybe I got a chance to see the real Danny before it was too late. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic about it.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
“I don’t think there is either.” The unstable Jessica I had gotten a glimpse of only moments ago was gone, and she looked up from her book to regard me with her level stare. “Have a nice day, doctor.”
My mouth twitched in annoyance as the girl sitting on the mattress in front of me continued to studiously ignore my existence. All of her concentration was zeroed in on the pink rubber ball she was bouncing in a meticulous rhythm on the wooden floor. Thump-catch-drop-thump-catch-drop-thump-catch-drop-thump…
“Natalie,” I repeated, a little louder this time. Her eyes narrowed a little, but other than that, she didn’t acknowledge that I had spoken at all. “I don’t intend to treat you like a child, but if you’re going to act like this, I can have that taken away.” She caught the ball with a twist of her bony wrist after another loud thump and lifted her head to scowl at me. The effect of her glare was magnified by the impressively dark circles that framed her green eyes like bruises.
“Maybe if you let me watch TV, I wouldn’t be stuck with this fucking ball,” she muttered, looking mutinous. “I’ve already read all my books.”
“That’s what happens when you throw your food instead of eating it. Quite frankly, it should be you out there scraping the pudding off the ceiling and not Ms. Jones.”
“It isn’t my fault it sticks so well,” she retorted, biting back a smile. “Pudding, my ass. You could probably use that stuff to fix that hole in the wall by the desk.”
“Wasn’t that your doing as well?” I sighed, adjusting my notepad on my knee. Her jaw dropped in disbelief.
“No,” she snapped. “That was Millie, remember? She put her foot through it.”
“Ah, yes, I remember now. I’m sorry.”
“What do you want?”
“You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any good by being so unpleasant, you know. And I was hoping to touch base with you again,” I said. “I would say that it’s time for our next session, but seeing as we’ve never actually had a real session…”
“Oh, stop it, we’ve had tons of sessions.”
“We’ve met several times, of course, but not once during any of our meetings have we ever actually discussed your problems. And the longer you stay clammed up, the longer it for takes for me to help you.” She snorted, and I raised an eyebrow. “And the longer it takes for me to help you,” I continued delicately, “the longer you will stay.”
“I don’t care how long I stay,” she snarled. “It’s not like there’s anything waiting for me out there, anyway.”
“You have family--”
“Have you ever actually seen my family?” she said loudly. “They stopped visiting months ago. I bet they want me to rot in here just as much as you do.” I opened my mouth to reply, thought better of it, closed my eyes, and then took a deep breath before I spoke again.
“Fine. I’ll make you a deal,” I sighed. “If, by the end of our session, I decide that you have made progress with me, I will give you back your television privileges.” She regarded me distrustfully.
“Are you...bribing me?” she asked slowly.
“Call it what you’d like.”
We sat there in a silent standoff for a few moments, but then she grimaced and looked up at the ceiling in exasperation. “Fine,” she muttered. “Ask away.” I contained my sigh of relief and gave her what I hoped was a pleasant smile.
“Good. I’d like to start by talking about your insomnia. When you were admitted, the nurses told me that you were having trouble sleeping. Maybe you could tell me when all that started?”
“When I was fourteen. I remember because it was right after my dad got married again and we moved into the new house.”
“And you’re...eighteen, correct?”
“Nineteen now,” she corrected me. “My birthday was last week.”
“Gracious, why didn’t you tell anyone? We could have--”
“--Given me extra pudding? Gee, thanks.”
“Suit yourself. Well, why don’t you start from there? Was it the house that kept you awake at night? New surroundings can be hard to adjust to.” She shrugged, and, for the first time ever, started to look a little uncomfortable.
“Not really. I mean, my stepbrother was always up late playing Xbox and shouting into his headset, but I couldn’t ever really hear it from my room. I was actually sleeping just fine. It was just...the dreams.”
She bit her lip, looking frustrated. “They were only nightmares, but they scared the shit out of me. And they were always the same: I would wake up in my bed and there would be this thing crouched over me, and I could never, ever seem to move. At all. So I, uh,” she murmured, blinking a little faster than usual, “would just have to sit there while it hurt me.” I stopped writing mid-sentence.
“Hurt you?” I repeated, and she stared solemnly down at the floor.
“It was always different. Sometimes it would have big claws and teeth, and it would rip me to pieces over and over again for what felt like forever,” she said stiffly. “Other times it was really long and had this horrible toothless mouth, like a snake, and it would just start swallowing me whole from the feet up. Very. Very. Slowly. I could feel how wet its throat was, and I couldn’t even scream.”
“That sounds...awful,” I said softly, staring at her in shock. “Did you ever tell your parents about these dreams?” Her eyes flashed angrily.
“No. I tried to, but it wasn’t like they were ever home. They were both workaholics. Dad was VP of this big company--he always had business trips overseas--and my stepmom was a hotshot lawyer with lots of clients. They didn’t have time for me. And my mom wanted nothing to do with me, but that wasn’t anything new,” she added, rolling her eyes.
“Were you and your stepbrother close? Did you ever tell him what was happening?”
“Ryan? No. He was just a reclusive gamer-boy with gross friends. They were all assholes. Some of them even perved on me when they came over, even though they were nearly in their twenties.” Her upper lip curled in contempt. “Anyway, the only times I ever interacted with him were when I needed a ride somewhere or if we both happened to be in the kitchen getting food at the same time. He was too awkward to hold a conversation with, and the house was big enough that we usually didn’t have to see one another if we didn’t have to. We both just left each other alone.
“I tried to suck it up and get over the dreams, but they wouldn’t stop. They’d go away just long enough for me to think it was over, but then they’d come back worse than ever. So, a few weeks before my fifteenth birthday, I decided to stop sleeping. I mean, I didn’t stop completely. That would have been impossible. I would always drift off a little in class or while I was on the bus. One time I woke up at eight pm inside one of the school buses. The driver must not have seen me when she got to the station, so she just...left me there. I had to crawl out a window and call Ryan to come pick me up. I guess that was one of the times I was thankful it was him and not dad who was home. Ryan never asked a whole lot of questions.”
“Did your parents ever do anything about your condition?” I asked incredulously, and she shrugged.
“When I was sixteen they started taking me to doctors. I was losing weight, and sleep-deprivation doesn’t do your body any favors. I looked like shit. They prescribed me sleeping pills and other stuff, but since my parents weren’t ever around, I never actually took them.” She sighed. “I have to give them some credit, though. They did notice that I was drinking a metric fuckton of their coffee, so they switched it all to decaf and hid the real stuff somewhere else. I had to keep my own little stash of caffeine pills in my backpack for those days when I was too tired to function.
“But it was working. Even when I would pass out every so often, the dreams weren’t bothering me anymore. And it wasn’t always bad,” she added, and as I watched her speak, her eyes seemed to glaze over wistfully. “When you’ve been awake for that long, there’s this little window of time where you’re invincible. Everything seems new and exciting, and you feel like you could just drop-kick the whole world right out of orbit if you wanted to. I’m sure I looked like a fucking crazy person the whole time, but I felt great.” She rubbed her eyes a little. “I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to keep it up until I turned eighteen without wandering into traffic or something.
“At that point, though, I think I had successfully convinced my parents that they were being negligent assholes. Dad finally started taking time off work to spend time with me, and we’d sometimes go out to eat on weekends, and do all that other stuff that fathers are actually supposed to do with their daughters. He always looked really worried when he looked at me, though,” she admitted sadly. “That summer, he got everyone together for a family vacation. My stepmom even flew Ryan out from college so he could come with us. And instead of going somewhere fancy, dad decided to take us camping. I think he thought it would bring us all closer together.” She gave me a little smile. “He even rented a camper for him and my stepmom and bought me and Ryan tents. The whole nine yards. The road trip to the lake was a little awkward, but once we got there, it was pretty great. At least, until the last day,” she continued slowly.
“What happened on the last day?” I asked gently, and she shut her eyes tightly for a moment before answering.
“I-it was my fault,” she whispered. “I forgot to bring my caffeine pills. I thought that maybe if we went away like that, it might not happen…”
“No, not just another dream. It was the worst one I ever had,” she said jerkily. Her eyes were wide, and dread was draining the color from her face. “It was that...that thing again, and this time it had five heads and ten arms. And the heads were eating me, l-like they always did, b-b-but the hands...” A low whimper escaped her lips and she buried her face in her hands. When she spoke again, there was a soft tremor in her voice. “I can’t talk about it.”
“That’s okay,” I said hurriedly. “You don’t have to.”
“Okay,” she breathed. “Okay. Um. A-after I woke up the next morning, I didn’t really talk to anyone while we packed everything up. I...I was just so…done with all of it. I had been fighting that shit for four years, and I just realized that it was never going to go away. No matter what I did, that thing was always going to be there, waiting until I fell asleep. And a few miles down the road, we stopped at a gas station to fill up the camper,” she said softly. “Everyone went inside to get doughnuts and coffee, but I waited in the car. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like, living with that thing two steps behind me for the rest of my life. So…” She looked up at me and bit her lip. “...I...I took the gas pump out of the camper and put it in my mouth.” I thinned my lips and nodded, and she exhaled heavily, as if she had been holding her breath. “Obviously, it didn’t work,” she continued dryly. “It was a stupid idea. I puked most of it up right after I swallowed it, and my parents saw what I had done and called an ambulance. And, ta-da,” she finished weakly, holding up her arms in mock-triumph. “Here I am, notwithstanding my lack of esophageal lining.”
I watched her for a few moments, then rose slowly to my feet. “Thank you for sharing your story, Natalie,” I said slowly. “We can stop for today. I’ll meet with you soon so we can decide how to proceed from here.”
“So, uh,” she said, her voice punctured with nervous laughter, “are we good on the TV thing, or…?”
“Yes, Natalie, I’d be more than happy to restore your TV privileges. I’ll tell the nurses and you can go to the recreation room right away for movie night. If you hurry, you can still make it.”
“I’ll stay here for a little bit, actually,” she admitted. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Take your time. That can’t have been easy for you. You should be proud of yourself.”
“I’m fine,” she snapped, rubbing her eyes with one hand and frantically waving me away with the other. “Just…go away.” I gave her a small nod and made my way out of the room.
On my way to my office, I paused as I reached the front desk and looked over at the attendant. “Anna,” I said, and she looked up at me. “Natalie just told me her parents haven’t visited in months. Do you know anything about it?” Her face grew a little pale.
“You haven’t heard?” she whispered, glancing towards Natalie’s room. “It was all over the papers a couple of months ago.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Well, I thought something about the headline seemed familiar, and then I remembered seeing the name in Natalie’s file when she was admitted. It was her stepbrother...Ryan, right? More than a few underage girls came forward with rape allegations, and they found chloroform and rohypnol in his dormitory. It’s no wonder they haven’t had time to visit.”
Lucy’s wide-eyed gaze followed me as I walked into her room, and her thin lips twitched into a nervous little smile. “Hi, Brian,” she said shyly, casting her brown eyes down towards the yellow slip of paper in her hands, which she was diligently folding into a series of complex shapes. A square book full of colored paper lay next to her, and her past failures were scattered across the mattress in a colorful pile of crumpled balls.
“Hello, Lucy,” I said cheerfully, sinking into the chair across from her bed. “Is that the book your sister dropped off for you last week?”
“Yes,” she replied, chewing on her lip in concentration. “Back in middle school, we both tried to learn origami together. I guess she figured I’d have more time to practice now.”
“Well, it’s good to see you picking up a hobby. Maybe you can make some decorations for the ward once the holidays roll around.” She beamed down at her paper, which was slowly beginning to take the shape of a giraffe, and I glanced at my clipboard. “You seem much more lively today. Is the new medication helping at all?”
She nodded rapidly, still squinting down at her giraffe. “It’s much better. I feel a lot more awake now,” she said, turning it around in her hands. Satisfied, she placed it gently onto the dresser next to her bed and tore a fresh, red square of paper out of the book. “And you?” she continued, looking up at me curiously. I blinked at her.
“I beg your pardon?”
“How are you?” she insisted, and, unlike every other person in the world who asks that question, she seemed genuinely interested in knowing the answer. I smiled, faltering a little at the intensity of her stare.
“Very good, thank you,” I answered. “My sister made dinner on Thursday. Did yours come to visit?” She shook her head, absorbed once again in her frantic folding and creasing.
“No,” she said quietly. “Jamie went downtown to see her husband’s family. But there was a little dinner here,” she added with a shrug. “We had turkey and potatoes and cranberry sauce. It was nice.”
“That’s good.” I peeked over her hands at the piece of paper, which she had folded into a strange little triangle. “What are you making now?”
“A bird,” she said simply.
“Would you mind postponing your bird for a moment? I’d like to continue our conversation from last week.” She gingerly placed the unfinished piece of paper near her thigh, then folded her hands into her lap. Her right thumb began to scratch restlessly at the edge of the bandage on her left wrist, but the rest of her body remained still.
“We...had a conversation last week?” she asked hesitantly, worry flitting across her features. I gave her an apologetic smile.
“I’m sorry if you don’t remember,” I said. “You seemed unfocused, so I decided to reschedule our appointment and change your medication.” She nodded slowly.
“I think I remember a little.” Her thumbnail scratched a little harder at the bandages. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Well, I did manage to get a little out of you the last time we spoke,” I replied gently. “You said something--and forgive me if I misunderstood you--about a closet?” She stiffened a little, and I watched her carefully. “Is that right?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Maybe you could tell me more about that.”
“That’s how it all started, actually,” she said slowly, staring down at her hands. “I don’t remember exactly when it began, but every night, I started hearing these whispers. I even asked my father to check my room a couple times, even though it made me feel like a scared little girl, but there was never anything there.”
“Did these voices say anything to you?” I asked curiously, and she shook her head.
“No. I couldn’t understand them. At first I just thought it was just the house, like air rushing through the vents or something, but after a few months, I decided that they sounded way too human to be anything other than voices. One night, I woke up and my closet light was on, even though I always slept with it off.” She began to chew on her lip again. “That’s when it started to make a little more sense.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Why?”
“I don’t know. It just seemed right at the time, that there were whispers coming from my closet. You know how people say the only certain things in life are death and taxes? That’s what it felt like; one of life's certainties. Death, taxes, and voices in my closet.” She broke off with a frantic little giggle, and I waited patiently until she had relaxed again. “But it wasn’t too horrible,” she continued. “Once I accepted them, it was a lot easier to sleep again. It was even a little comforting sometimes. They weren’t really bad whispers. They were just...there. And that was okay.
“Other than that, my life was going really well. I was working part time as a waitress and was close to finishing my freshman year in college. That’s why I was living at home: I couldn’t wait tables, pay for school, and pay rent. But my grades were alright--I was never valedictorian or anything, but they weren’t too bad--and there was this one customer, Kevin, who would always stop by the bar on Fridays for a couple drinks. He was really nice to me, even though I was shy. Looking back on it, I’m sure he was flirting with me the whole time,” she said, flashing me a sad little smile. “I think he thought I wasn’t interested for a while, since I was so clueless about it, but he finally gathered up the courage to ask me out. I said yes, of course. I was always the quiet one in high school, so I hadn’t ever actually gone out on a date before. I was really excited, and the first few times we went out, I had an amazing time.”
“Did something happen?” I inquired, and she shrugged, fidgeting a little.
“Sort of,” she said softly. “On our fourth date, we went to a movie and then went back to his place. He had a nice little apartment a few miles away from my campus, and we picked up some ice cream and played Mario Kart all night long. He didn’t even try anything. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have minded if he did, but it seemed kind of sweet that he wanted to take things slow. I started getting drowsy after a while, so he let me sleep in his bed.” She paused and licked her lips nervously. “I woke up around two am. He was passed out next to me, and I realized that he had left his closet door open.”
“You heard the whispers again.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, fiddling anxiously with the origami book. “But they were...different this time. They seemed scared, or worried about something. And I could hear this thumping coming from outside his apartment door. It was probably just another tenant, but it wouldn’t stop, and there was something...really unsettling about it. Every time I heard it, it just felt more and more like something awful was about to happen. So I got up and got all my stuff, as quietly as I could. I waited for the noise to get quieter and went out the front door, and I just remember standing in the stairwell for ages, listening for it to make sure it was gone.” A shudder traveled up her spine, and her posture tensed. “It started to come back again, louder and louder, and when I looked behind me, I saw this black shape at the end of the hallway. It was too low to the floor to be a person, and it seemed small, but then it moved and I heard the thumping noise again. And then it started scuttling towards me, and I just ran as fast as I could down to my car and locked the doors once I got inside.” She let out a jerky laugh, her lip quivering. “It scared the life out of me when I started my car. I guess mine triggers the alarm when you start it with the doors locked. I remember screaming for a few seconds until I realized what was happening.
“I called Kevin the next day to apologize for disappearing, and told him that it was just impossible for me to stay asleep in new places. He seemed to understand, but we kind of drifted apart after that. And everything started to get worse,” she admitted. “The whispers were getting louder, and sometimes I could hear the thumping noise, like the shadow from the hallway had followed me home. It always kept me up, even when I locked the closet. I even started sleeping with a knife in my nightstand, just in case that thing ever learned how to open the door.”
“Did you ever tell your parents?” I asked, and she shook her head, looking morose.
“I couldn’t bring myself to do it. They were starting to act strange around me, and I could tell they knew I was starting to lose my head. I could hear them talking about me when they thought I wasn’t there.” Her eyes shone bright with tears, and she stared woefully at the floor. “It was the same with my coworkers and classmates. I could feel their eyes boring into my skull when I was turned around, and when they were talking with each other, sometimes they’d look over at me. I told myself that I was imagining it, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling.” She leaned down to cover her face with her hands, and when she spoke again, her voice was muffled through her fingers. “So I was actually ecstatic when my parents asked me to watch my two-year-old sister while they went to a dinner party, because it meant they somehow still trusted me enough to be around her. Y-you know?”
“If you’re not comfortable proceeding, we can talk more tomorrow,” I began, but she lifted her head to stare at me pleadingly.
“If I don’t do it now, I don’t think I’ll ever do it,” she whispered, and I paused before nodding. “Um,” she continued shakily, “at first, it went really well. Mom always told me and Jamie that Grace was the easiest baby she ever had. We were always throwing fits when we were kids, but Grace never seemed to cry at all. She didn’t even go through the terrible two’s. So I switched my shift with someone at the bar, and we just spent the whole day watching Tinkerbell movies, playing hide-and-seek, and fiddling with my makeup. She always loved getting into glittery stuff. When I tried to put her down for sleep, she was still all riled-up, but I told her we could play more tomorrow.” Fresh tears started streaming down her face. “I went to go brush my teeth and wash my face after I tucked her in, and then I locked my closet and went to bed.
“It...it didn’t take long for the whispers to start again, but I was determined to drown them out that night. I had to act normal, for Grace. I thought about turning the TV on to drown it out, but I didn’t want to wake her up. B-but then, the light in my closet turned on.” She drew her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees, curling into a nervous little ball. “I remember just staring at it, telling myself that I was imagining it, but then I heard that thumping noise, louder than ever. And then,” she said, clenching the material of her jeans hard with her fingers, “it knocked on the door. Th-three times. Really, really slowly. I grabbed the knife from my nightstand and stood up, and then the light turned itself right off. I-I-I finally convinced myself to get up and open the door, and I s-s-saw this b-b-black shape in front of the w-w-w-wall…” She broke off and buried her face in her arms, sobbing uncontrollably. I felt the blood drain out of my face. “I didn’t see her,” she finally cried out against her skin. “I...I didn’t see her her until…”
“Lucy,” I said, just loudly enough to be heard over her heaving sobs. “It was a terrible mistake, but you needed help. Your mind had convinced itself that you were in danger--”
“But I knew the moment I dropped the knife,” she gasped. “It was like...like flipping a switch. And...and then I heard the garage door open downstairs, so I…” She trailed off, slowly raising her left arm amidst the waves of sobs to show me the bandages. My chest suddenly felt very tight. “They found us there a few minutes later,” she whispered. “Dad turned on the closet light and...well...there was a lot of blood.” She had quieted down, but her shoulders were still shaking with each breath. “Mom couldn’t stop screaming.” We sat quietly for a little while, the silence of the room punctured only by Lucy’s ragged breathing as she tried to stifle her tears.
“Have you spoken to your parents since the incident?” I asked softly. She looked up at me and shook her head.
“Jamie told me that they were going to visit soon, but I don’t think they will,” she breathed. The tremors were slowly leaving her voice, but her eyes were still wide with horror. “I wouldn’t blame them. I wouldn’t blame them if they never wanted to see me again.”
“They just need time, Lucy. They still love you.”
“They shouldn’t,” she said, watching me sadly.
“Of course they should. It wasn’t your fault.”
She looked away. “Can we be done?” she asked softly.
“Yes, I think that’s enough for today,” I said gently, rising to my feet. Lucy nodded jerkily and picked up her half-finished paper bird, her fingers flying into another folding frenzy. “I’m sorry. I promise that it will get easier from here on out. Why don’t you get some rest? Dinner’s in two hours, and a couple of the nurses told me you haven’t been sleeping well.”
“Okay,” she whispered in a quivering voice. “I’ll try.”
I moved to leave, but hesitated when I saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. Frowning, I turned to look at the tiny closet across from Lucy’s bed. The doorway was clear, and there wasn’t anything inside other than a short stack of books and a small collection of board games, but the chain connected to the light bulb on the ceiling was swaying lazily.
The sound of rustling paper had stopped, and when I glanced down to look at Lucy, she was staring silently at me with those wide, brown eyes. After several moments, I severed our gaze and strode briskly out of the room.
Credited to pinkfuzzies