Chapter 3

I was only with Dr. Shaw a short time longer. He could tell he wasn't going to get much from me, and Jo had mentioned his full calendar. When I left, there was a boy about fifteen with cropped black hair occupying the seat I had recently vacated in the waiting room. 

"There's an orderly waiting outside to take you back to your wing," Karen said as I made my way to the door. 

"Thanks," I mumbled. 

"Josh, Dr. Shaw is ready for you know." 

"About time," the dark haired boy muttered as I shut the door behind me. 

As promised, the orderly accompanied me back to the nurses' station, and thankfully, he did it in silence. Jo was drinking coffee when I returned. 

"I see you got the rules," she said, nodding toward the rolled up papers in my hand. 

"Yeah. No fighting, trading meds, hooking up... That's all I remember for now." 

"Those are the big ones," she replied, "but make sure you follow all of them and you and I won't have a problem." 

"Got it." 

"Your roommate is back from class. I'll introduce you," she said, coming out from behind the station and walking toward my new home away from home. 

Jo opened the door to reveal a petite blonde sitting cross-legged on the bed. She looked up from her beauty magazine and gave me a perfectly dimpled smile. What was her problem? The world loved girls like her. 

Eating Disorder. 

Of course. 

"Lauren, this is Ember. Play nice," Jo said, giving Lauren a warning look before she walked back to the nurses' station. 

"Don't listen to her, I'm harmless." Her tone left room for doubt. “So, what do you think of our room?” 

I looked around and shrugged. “Um, it’s fine, I guess. Hopefully I’m not here long enough to get too settled.” 

She arched an eyebrow. "Aren't you here on a suicide?" 

"So they tell me." 

She made a sound I couldn't distinguish between sympathy and mocking. 

“Come on," she said standing. "I’ll show you around." 

I had no choice but to be rude or follow. It didn’t make sense ticking off my new roommate, so I trailed after her. Plus, a lay of the land couldn't hurt. Just past the nurses' station was a set of double doors propped open with chairs. 

“This is the rec room. Group meets here on Monday," she said, "and you’ll have a one-on-one with Dr. Shaw once or twice a week.” 

“Depending on how screwed up I am?” I asked. 

“Basically. Your first real session with him takes like two hours, and after that he’ll decide how 'screwed up' you are and give you a schedule. Don't get your hopes up, on a suicide you're pretty much guaranteed two.” 

In the corner, a small group of patients huddled around a nineteen-inch television set from the 90's. 

"Strictly basic cable," Lauren said, rolling her eyes. 

Another corner housed art supplies. It was the first bit of good news I'd gotten about the place. A middle-aged woman was doing a small watercolor of the trees outside. 

"Can we use these anytime?" I asked. 

"Except when the room is being used for something else. And you can't take anything from here into your room." 

We'd see about that. 

Before I had a chance to fully scope the goods, Lauren was already leading me down another hall. 

“This is the dining area. Breakfast is at seven, lunch at noon and dinner at six. The food sucks. If it weren’t for the vending machine I’d have to become anorexic.” 

My mouth twitched into a smile. Bulimic. The Voice was right. Not that that should have still been surprising. It was always right. 

She stopped short and fixed me with an intense gaze. “The peanut butter cups are mine.” 

My smile started to broaden, but then I realized she was serious. “Um, OK... sure. You got it.” 

She let out a breath I didn’t know she’d been holding. “Good. My last roommate just could not keep that straight. It was a real problem.” 

On the surface she was everything I hated, but I kind of liked her for her honesty. It was refreshing. How often in life does someone just lay out what they need from you, no BS attached? I knew I wouldn’t be baring my secrets so easily, the least I could do was oblige hers. 

We came to a window at the end of the hall. From the looks of it, I guessed we were on the third floor. Lauren pointed to a small building across the lawn. 

“That’s where we go to class.” 

“Yeah, Dr. Shaw told me about that. We’re in a nuthouse but we have to go to school? That is such crap." 

As if either weren't bad enough on their own. 

“It’s not so bad," she said. "We take our time walking there—it’s nice to get outside—and everybody is in a different grade so half the time you’re just doing your own thing. And Mr. Morehouse is OK, as long as you don’t get on his bad side.” 

There wasn’t much else to show, so Lauren went to watch TV. I felt anything but social, so I shuffled back to our room and laid down. I wanted to read, but for all the bath products in different scents my mother had packed, she had, of course, neglected to pack a single book. Who needs mind expansion when you can smell nice? 

Again, the thought of my mother brought up feelings of guilt. 

Like she consults you on major life decisions... 

It had a point. Three different high schools in three years. We moved whenever she had the whim, or whenever our neighbors complained too much. All in L.A., but still, back when I had had friends it had been nearly impossible to keep in touch once we'd left one zip code for another. In a city with traffic as bad as Los Angeles, five miles becomes a long-distance relationship. 

Still, I wondered how she was, what she was doing. She'd been off her meds for months now, which is why there had been such a healthy supply for me to utilize. I imagined her pacing the floor of our apartment, chewing on her fingernails, muttering to herself—alternately worrying about me being under the care of doctors, and what might happen if I weren't under their care. My mother distrusted doctors. For a while that had worked to my advantage, helping me avoid having to see a shrink, but after my second suspension, the school had insisted. Neither of us were prepared for me to be home-schooled, so she had relented six months ago and I'd begun seeing Dr. Borden, PhD., in Van Nuys. I hated everything about it. The bus ride was needlessly complicated, the office was cramped, and Dr. Borden was a self-important woman with yellow hair and fake breasts that protruded from necklines too plunging for her age. It didn't take long for me to realize that the only way to get through those sessions was to parrot back the psycho-babble she was spewing and act grateful for her insight. 

Mom had been so relieved when Dr. Borden informed the school that I had made real progress and now had the tools to cope with the everyday pressures of being a teenager. In reality, Dr. Borden was clueless to the facts of what my every days were filled with. 

Since waking up that afternoon I'd been on auto-pilot, numbly obliging to being led through the day, but as usual, being left to my own thoughts was an exercise in torture. 

Only you could screw up a suicide. You're as crazy as your mother; they should just leave you here. How do I get out of here? 

That was the most prominent question, and I waited for the Voice to answer, but It didn't. I was never able to summon It at will. It just popped in when It felt like it, giving me morsels of information. Still, I was grateful for It. For months It had been my only friend, if It could be called that. And if It was just a figment of my imagination and I truly was insane, then at least I wasn't completely alone. 

Time passed and I was no closer to figuring anything out. I found myself staring blankly out the small window near my bed, numbing myself to the incessant chatter in my mind. 

When six o’clock rolled around, Lauren popped her head in. 

“Dinner time.” 

We walked down the hall with the rest of the inmates. Lauren gave me a sidelong glance, her nose wrinkling. 

“So, um, if you don’t have any bath products you’re welcome to use mine...” 

I barked a laugh. “Subtle.” 

She shrugged, unembarrassed. 

“I guess it has been a few days," I said, "even if I don’t remember them. I’ll wash up after dinner.” 

Lauren chattered on as we walked through the dinner line. We both turned our nose up at the Salisbury steak and opted for the limited salad bar. I went to reach for a dinner roll, but Lauren gave me a slight shake of the head. 

“Those are hard as bricks by now. Only go for those on Mondays and Tuesdays.” 

I trusted her at her word. We got to the end of the line and she pulled a container of pudding from the stack on the counter. She tossed one to me without warning. Even in my surprise effort to catch it I noticed her shove two more in her knapsack. Then she added one to her tray. It was a deft maneuver, not her first time. 

“You’ll never get better if you aren’t more self-aware about your destructive behavior, Lauren.” Josh had muscled his way to the front of the line, his voice dripping with sarcasm. 

Lauren ignored him. 

“Give me one of the extras or I’m telling,” Josh said. He’d already added the one he was allowed to his tray. 

There was a brief standoff while the air around us buzzed with an intensity I wouldn’t normally attribute to pudding. Lauren cracked first. 

“Fine. Here.” Her hand slid from inside her purse, depositing the contraband into Josh’s jacket pocket. 

As we turned away I heard him mutter, “Friggin’ tapioca. Great.” Lauren winked at me. Served him right. 

We exited the line and I surveyed the room. Most of the tables were already occupied with people dining. For a moment I wondered what had brought all of these people to be patients here. Did they all feel the way I did? That their lives were a mistake? Some major cosmic screw up that had deposited them in a world where they were never understood, and rarely—if ever—happy? 

"Ooh, Taren's table has seats." Lauren zigzagged her way to a table near the back of the room. 

The young girl I had seen exiting Dr. Shaw's office sat with her head down, pushing food around on her plate. Next to her sat a tall boy with honey-colored hair and angular features. At our approach he looked up, revealing a set of disarming hazel eyes. Callie looked up, too, startled. 

"Hi, Taren." Lauren beamed at him, saying hello to Callie only as an afterthought. 

He gave Lauren the briefest of nods, and turned back to Callie, who still seemed to be holding her breath. 

"This is my new roommate, Ember. She tried to kill herself." 

Her tone was very matter-of-fact; my eyes bulged. 

Taren looked up again, registering my presence. "Well, that's an introduction you'd only get in a place like this, isn't it?" 

You can trust him. 

I nearly dropped my tray. Of all the things the Voice had ever said to me, this was the first time It had told me to trust someone. What? 

He's one of the good ones. 

I was standing stock still with my mouth hanging open. Taren cleared his throat and I realized he had stood and was holding out his hand for me to shake. I gave an embarrassed smile and held out my hand. 

"Sorry, I, um..." 

"It's OK. Lauren is still learning tact." 

I nodded gratefully, but Lauren bristled. "Well, it's true..." 

We took our seats. I was grasping for meaning to the words that had bloomed in my mind. It was always like that. Little hints about things that always proved true. But in the past, I was being warned away from people. This girl is spreading rumors about you, that boy just wants to use you. I couldn't make contact at will. It just whispered things when It wanted to, and I vacillated between the certainty that I was losing my mind, and gratitude for the insight. 

"Have you met Callie?" Taren asked. 

"No, but I saw you coming out of Dr. Shaw's office. Nice to meet you," I said. 

Callie lifted her eyes. "Hi." Her voice was barely a whisper. 

She lowered her gaze and rubbed her forehead with the fingertips of one hand. Her entire presence held an air of fragility. 

I bent my head toward my plate but looked up slightly to study Taren. So, he's one of the good guys. I had no idea what to make of it, but I felt the need to explore the idea. Before I could come up with anything to say, Callie began muttering softly to herself. 

"You OK, Cal?" Taren spoke with concern and put a hand on her shoulder. 

Lauren rolled her eyes. "Here we go again." 

Taren looked up sharply and fixed Lauren with a glare, but instead of replying he turned his attention back to Callie and began whispering softly to her. I couldn't make out what either was saying, but he was clearly trying to soothe her. 

"What? It's not my fault we can't get through one meal without an incident. Look at her, she's totally faking it." 

"She's not faking anything." Taren broke away from comforting Callie to admonish Lauren. "Not everyone needs to be the center of attention all the time." 

Lauren flushed scarlet and clenched her jaw. Taren stood. 

"Come on, let's get you back to your room so you can rest." He helped Callie stand and led her out of the dining hall. 

Lauren resumed eating as if nothing troubling had occurred. "That girl belongs upstairs." 


"With the really crazy ones. You know, perverts, schizophrenics, the occasional ax murderer. People who don't even get the plastic knives." She held up her own knife for emphasis. 

"Lovely," I replied, pushing my tray away. The wilted lettuce and anemic tomatoes weren't enough to rekindle my appetite. I felt sympathy for Callie. Twice I'd seen her and twice she seemed like she was really losing it. 

"Taren's gorgeous, huh?" She said it in a way that made me feel we were discussing peanut butter cups. 

"Sure," I said casually, "if you like that type." 

Lauren smiled with satisfaction while I wondered what type Taren was. 


When Lauren had finished dinner, we made our way to the rec room. She was content to watch more television but I made my way over to the art supplies. There wasn't much of a selection so I opted for a charcoal pencil and white printer paper. I sat at a folding card table and contemplated what to sketch. 

"So, you're an artist?" 

I hadn't heard Taren approach. He stood across the table from me, his hazel eyes holding mine in their steady gaze. 

"I try to be," I replied, then gestured to the blank sheet in front of me. "Not feeling very inspired, I guess." 

"This place has that effect on most people," he said and sat down. 

"How's Callie?" I asked. 

"Better. She has a hard time with crowds." 

"Does she really do that at every meal?" I asked. 

"No, that's just Lauren being dramatic," Taren said, his expression registering distaste. "Which does happen at every meal." 

I gave the slightest of smiles; it seemed all I was capable of. There was a moment of silence between us and it felt like I was being sized up for the tenth time that day. I was afraid to ask him what the verdict was, and his face revealed nothing. 

Instead, I said, "So, what are you in here for?" 

"Behavioral issues," he replied with a shrug. 

"That's pretty broad. Don't all teenagers have behavioral issues?" 

"Mine cause me to light things on fire," he said. 

This was who I was supposed to trust? A pyro? 

"Anyone get hurt?" 

He smiled and shook his head. "No, my destructive tendencies apply only to abandoned property." 

I supposed I could live with that. He did seem genuinely caring of Callie. 

"What are you drawing?" he said. 

I looked down to see that I'd been doodling without realizing it. It was the same swirling line over and over. I'd drawn it hundreds of other times as a way to calm my nerves. It dawned on me that having the Voice tell me to trust someone when I'd learned to never trust anyone was almost as unnerving as my current confinement. 

"Oh, it's nothing, just —" 

"Taren, don't you want to come watch TV?" Lauren's voice dripped honey as she approached. 

"Maybe later," he said, "I'm talking with Ember right now." 

Taren slid my paper over to his side of the table. For a moment his eyes flashed, but quickly returned to a casual study. I wasn't sure what to make of his reaction, it was hardly a complicated design, but I didn't have time to ask. Lauren's arched eyebrow indicated what was expected of me. 

"Actually," I said, "I'm pretty beat. I think I'm gonna head back to our room." 

I stood and Lauren smiled with satisfaction. "Come on, Taren, I saved you a seat up front." 

He stood to follow her, but I could feel his eyes on me as I exited the room. 


Upon returning to our room, I decided to make good on my promise to Lauren and took a shower. It was a cramped stall, but the water was hot and had decent pressure. Muscles began to unwind and so did my emotional numbness. 

Before I knew it, I was sitting on the floor of the shower, hugging my knees and sobbing. It had been months since I'd cried, and once the floodgate had opened there was no stopping it. Even my internal dialogue was silent in the presence of such raw emotion. 

Days earlier I had come to the decision that there was only one way out. Either the Voice was right and no one and nothing could be trusted, or the Voice was a figment of my imagination and I was already insane. Either reality wasn't one I had been willing to accept, so I had taken action. But I had failed, and now things were even worse than before. I hadn't thought it possible, but here I was. In a mental institution. Rooming with an over-possessive bulimic cheerleader type who would never deign to acknowledge my existence in the real world. My meals regulated. Forced therapy sessions. My discharge dependent on my sanity, which more and more I was beginning to doubt I would even be able to fake. My only comfort this past year that my already broken-down world was further deteriorating had been that I wasn't the crazy one. It was all of them. But I was the one in here, so even if that were true, did it really matter? I'm the one here... 

When my sobbing finally subsided, I was exhausted. I dried myself off and wrapped my hair in a towel. Lauren hadn't returned, for which I was grateful. I slid beneath the covers and hoped sleep wouldn't be long in coming. I'd had enough of being awake. Which I supposed was what had landed me in this situation in the first place. 

The End

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