Chapter 2

Sunlight warmed my face and caused spots to dance behind my eyes. I feigned sleep, wanting to take the emotional temperature of the room before I admitted wakefulness to anyone else present. There were no voices in the room with me, but a low buzz of conversation drifted in from farther away. 

When I opened my eyes, I knew I was somewhere different. From my slanted vantage point—I still wasn’t willing to move my head—I saw that the tile was still institutional, but this seemed older somehow... more dinghy. I remained draped in hospital linens, but the bed itself felt softer and lacked rails. No sign of my mother. I tilted my head. 

Across from me was an empty bed, neatly made and decorated with stuffed animals. A long bureau with flaking paint dominated the wall space between. I looked toward the foot of my bed and spied closets on the far wall, a bathroom separating them. The door to the room was halfway open, allowing only a partial view of the hall. 

Psych Ward. Where else would they put someone who had swallowed a cocktail of leftover prescriptions, put on some Lisa Germano and gone to sleep? It was so cliché . The worst part other than being alive was the knowledge that I would be just another teenager who had tried to off themselves because life had gotten too hard. Another loser trying to run away. They wouldn’t know I was running to something. And I certainly wasn’t going to tell them. Life was bad enough, life in mental hospital seemed even less appealing. I’d have to keep the Voice to myself. 

The door creaked and I was too slow in closing my eyes. 

“Well, nice to see you’re awake, Ember.” 

She was middle-aged, dressed in a nurse’s uniform and spoke with the calm authority of one who knows she’s in charge and doesn’t need to prove it. 

I wasn’t going to be able to BS her. 

“Not feeling very talkative?” She approached my bed. “That’s alright. You’ve been through a lot these past two days.” 

“Two days?” My surprise overrode my wish to be silent. My words came out as a croak, my throat still raw. 

“Mmmhmm,” she said, feeling my forehead. “Some of the pills you swallowed had metabolized before they were able to pump your stomach. You slept in the E.R. for 14 hours. They moved you here once the doctors were confident you were out of the woods. That was yesterday.” 

I respected her lack of sugarcoating. She didn’t add the word accidentally before the words pills you swallowed. She’d been through this before. 

“I guess I needed some rest,” I said. 

The truth sounded flippant when spoken aloud. 

“Mmmhmm,” she said again. 

She was looking at me, sizing me up. Was I nuts? Looking for attention? Or was I one of the few who actually wanted to die? I didn’t answer the unspoken question. She was quiet for a moment, trying to see if I would be so uncomfortable with the silence that I’d have to fill it, hopefully giving her a morsel of information she could pass on to the shrink about why I’d ended up here. She had no idea how well I could play this game. 

She broke first. "Dr. Shaw wanted to be notified when you woke. It won't be a full session as he's got a heavy schedule today, but he'll do some intake and explain the way things work around here." 

Intake? That didn’t seem right. I thought the psych ward was just a cooling off place before they sent you home or carted you off to the nuthouse. 

Realization dawned. My nurse friend noticed. A look of sympathy crossed her face and then was gone. She had probably learned not to get too involved. 

“You’ll find your things in the bureau and the closet. Meet me at the nurses’ station at the end of the hall and I’ll show you the way to his office.” 

She gave me a kind smile and left the room. Left it to me and my thoughts which, as usual, were too large to be contained. They were busting out, seeping through walls, shattering the window. 

Boy you really effed up this time. You're screwed. The nuthouse? We’re adding nuthouse to the resume now? They will never let you out of here. OK, here’s what we have to do—play the game, you don’t know what got into you, you love your life, you were upset about a boy, you realize it was stupid, you’ll never do it again—no, eff them, I’m done playing games. I’ll just tell them. The mistake wasn’t the pills, the mistake was being born in the first place. You only have to look at me to know I don’t belong in this world... 

On and on the voices warred. Not the Voice, the One that wanted to help me, just the ones that hated me. 

I pulled myself back from the brink. As pleasant as my nurse friend seemed, I had a feeling that if I didn’t materialize at the nurses' station soon, I’d be dragged to this Dr. Shaw's office regardless. My mouth tasted like charcoal and death. Attempted death, anyway. 

I opened the drawer closest to me and found my hairbrush, toothbrush, and tooth paste. For a moment I was horrified at the thought of my mother going through my things in order to pack for my stay, but I let it go. What, was she going to find some of my darker artwork? Read my diary? I was in a mental hospital; my facade of normalcy was surely blown. I had doubts it had ever been firmly in place. 

I looked horrendous. There was no denying it as I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. Black ringed my lips, my eyes more deep set than normal, my dark hair a rat’s nest. 

Washing my face helped some—returning my lips to a human color, the charcoal swirling down the drain. Brushing my teeth removed the fuzzy coating. No matter how bad things get in life, removing the fuzz from one’s mouth always helps, if only slightly. My mother had told me that. My hair, on the other hand, was a lost cause. No brush was going to tame it. I twisted it up and attached it with one of the clips I’d also found in the drawer. My mother was nothing if not sensitive to the needs of vanity. 

The closet was well stocked, too. I pulled on my favorite pair of jeans and a hoodie, tossing the gown in a corner of the closet. 

The hallway looked exactly as you’d think it would. Nondescript, doors every eight feet or so, inoffensive pastel artwork on the walls. Nothing to upset the unbalanced mind—unless, of course, it had any taste. 

I reached the nurses' station. A large black woman looked up from the papers in front of her and smiled. “Jo said you were awake. How you feeling?” 

I shrugged. I’d save my platitudes for the shrink. 

Jo walked up then, saving me from another silent standoff. 

“This way, Ember.” 

I followed dutifully. 

She led me around the corner and down another hallway. She paused where it ended in large double doors, slipping her hand under a black cover. Here fingers moved deftly, obviously punching in a code, and the doors lurched open. 

We paused at a doorway with a nameplate that read, Herbert Shaw, MD. Apparently, I had graduated from psychologists and was now in need of a full blown psychiatrist. 

Inside was a receptionist and a small waiting area which consisted of two chairs and some magazines. 

"Karen, this is Ember Lyons. She's here to see Dr. Shaw." 

Karen smiled warmly from behind her desk. "Yes, he told me we'd be fitting her in. Please, have a seat, He's with another patient right now, but he'll be with you shortly." 

I took a seat and picked up an issue of a nature magazine dated two months prior and opened to a random page. Karen went back to her typing and Jo left without another word. I became absorbed in a picture of hikers entering a darkened cave. I imagined I was there, entering the blackness... 

Probably better you don't mention me. 

Agreed. I had kept the Voice a secret for the year It had been with me, I certainly wasn't going to start blabbing about it now, when they already had proof I was disturbed. I went back to a few nights prior, wondering where I'd gone wrong. I'd taken enough pills, I was sure of that. But I had known my mother would be home by nine and would check on me. Why hadn't I waited until after she had gone to bed? It had made sense at the time, but sitting in that waiting room I couldn't imagine why. I wasn't an attention seeker. If anything I wanted to be left alone. Completely alone. People just let you down. I wanted an end to people. An end to everything. So why had I screwed it up so spectacularly? 

The click of a door opening brought me back to the present. A waifish girl of no more than twelve emerged from the back office. She stared at the carpet until she walked by me. Her breath caught and her blue eyes stared into mine. She stopped dead, her lips moving silently. 

"Callie? Everything OK?" Karen asked. 

The girl, Callie, pulled her gaze away from me. "Yes, fine. Sorry." 

She quickly left the room. I stared after, disconcerted. I guessed I should learn to get used to that sort of thing if I was going to be spending time in a mental institution. 

"Ember? The doctor will see you now." 

Karen gestured to the doorway Callie had just come from. 

I tossed the magazine back onto the table and paused at the door. Here we go. 

Dr. Herbert Shaw, MD sat behind a large mahogany desk. His balding head was bent over a file folder stuffed with papers. He looked up, his smile revealing tobacco-stained teeth, and perched his reading glasses atop his head. 

"Hello, Ember. I'm glad to see you up and about. I'm Dr. Shaw." 

He rose from his desk and extended a hand. It was unnaturally soft for a man's hand. Not that I had felt the hands of many. 

He gestured for me to sit in the chair across from him. 

"So, how are you feeling?" He asked, retaking his seat in an overstuffed chair. 

"I've been better." 

"I would think so," he said, and flipped through the folder. He lowered his glasses and read aloud, "Lithium, clozapine, diazepam...That's quite a lot to ingest." 

I waited for something to respond to. He hadn't asked how I'd gotten access to such a mix of pills. My mother's condition must have been in the file. It wasn't something she acknowledged readily; she must have been terrified for me. I felt more than a twinge of guilt. 

As if reading my thoughts, he said, "I have a full history on both you and your mother, but nothing on your father. Why is that?" 

"Because I've never met him." The admission had once pained me, now I said it by rote. 

"I see," he said, making a note. "Is he deceased?" 

"I have no idea," I said. "Isn't this in the file?" 

Instead of answering he asked, "Does it bother you, the way you were conceived?" 

So, it was in the file—he just wanted to see if I'd squirm. I looked him square in the eye. 

"Would it bother you? To be conceived in a bathroom at The Roxy while a hair-metal band played?" 

He didn't blink. 

"Yes," he said, "it would bother me very much. Although, I'm sure you know it was due to your mother's mania that she would participate in such risky behavior." 

I did know that, but knowing didn't change anything. I would never meet my father because my mother hadn't gotten his name. 

Dr. Shaw folded his arms upon his desk. "There's no denying you've been dealt a difficult hand, Ember. I won't try to convince you otherwise. But I see that things have taken quite a turn for you this past year: lowered grades, repeated truancy, an inability to make friends. Can you tell me about that?" 

"Nothing that isn't in the file," I said. 

I couldn't deny the charges, they were all true. Except that part about not being able to make friends. I was able, just no longer willing. 

“And this?” 

Dr. Shaw held up a sheet of college-ruled paper, frayed where it had been ripped from my notebook. There in ballpoint ink was the drawing that had put me on the radar of the school administration. It was crude, the spiraling black lines pressed deep into the paper, causing it to tear in the center. 

“It’s just a doodle,” I said. 

“Were you angry when you did it?” 

And therein lay the problem. I hadn’t been angry—I’d felt fine. As fine as I ever did, anyway. What most people took as disturbing, I found comforting, even beautiful. When I’d started, I’d been drawing the inner rings of a tree, which is what I said when my teacher caught me drawing in class. But as often happened, the piece had taken on a life of its own, morphing into something darker and apparently more sinister looking. She held the paper up for the other students as a type of Rorschach test, people calling out what they saw in it. 

“I don’t know what it is, but it’s creepy,” said a girl in the back. 

“It’s like a tornado. If they had tornadoes in hell,” said another. 

“I’ll tell you what I see,” said Todd McKey. “A lot of therapy in her future.” 

The entire class broke into laughter. My drawing was confiscated and I spent the rest of the period staring at a spot on my desk, willing myself not to run from the room. 

After class that day, Clare Humphries, cheerleader and all around high school superstar, broke away from her group of friends to talk to me at my locker. 

“Hey,” she said, “don’t listen to those jerks. I thought it was pretty.” 

“Uh, thanks,” I said, suspicious. 

Clare Humphries had never spoken to me before. 

“No, I mean it, I could totally see your work in a gallery.” 

I let myself smile. “Oh, well that’s nice of you —” 

“Right next to paintings by Charles Manson,” she said in a sing-song voice, and turned back to join her snickering cohorts. 

I spun to face my locker, tears stinging my eyes. 

The next day I was called in to meet with the school guidance counselor and Clare Humphries was elected to prom court. 

"Well," Dr. Shaw said, snapping me back to the present, "this file may tell me what you've been up to, but it doesn't tell me why, and that is what we'll be delving into in your sessions with me." 

I cut to the chase. "How long do I have to be here?" I asked. 

"I can tell you aren't going to like this answer," he replied, "but that will be entirely up to you." 

He was right. I didn't like it one bit. 

The End

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