My father started the engine.
“Please, kiddo,” I said to Gavin. “You know what’s right. You know I’m not crazy.”
“I know,” he whispered, his voice choked with apology. “I want to, but Mom said no.”
The sorrow in his face broke me. A single fragment of love in such a loveless place.
My father backed out of the driveway and down the street in silence. From my vantage point on the floor I could see nothing but Gavin’s anguished face reflecting my horror. We drove for hours and I pleaded with him the whole way there to help me. I shouldn’t have—he was too young. But then, so was I.
AS NURSE MARY and I reach the ward, I pause and look back at the garden path we have just walked, this small patch of land and sky, the only landscape I have known for so long. I commit the scene to memory, imagining that just two days from now I’ll be able to look back and say, “I lived there once,” and I’ll marvel at the strangeness of that fact. Then Mary sticks her key in the heavy metal door and I am still a patient, back on the ward, the door banging shut behind us. I have become immune to the sound of keys and of doors slamming, but even after all this time, I still have the queer sensation when I walk through these halls that I am watching my body from above as if it belongs to someone else.
The ward is an L-shaped corridor, bookended by a television room and a “game room,” which consists only of a pool table that’s missing three balls. None of us know how to play pool anyway.
I remember my first day here, being half dragged onto the ward by two aides as I tried to resist, pleading with them to see that I did not belong here, that I was the one being victimized. The aides handed me off to a nurse with short, practical hair and a bland, cheerless face.
“I’m Kay,” she said. “Come with me.” We walked toward the TV room as she rattled off the facts of this place. “Breakfast is at seven. Lunch is at twelve. Dinner’s at five. Lights-out is ten o’clock. School is five hours a day on-site. Group therapy is on Monday and Wednesday, and attendance is mandatory. One fifteen-minute phone call allowed each day. No cell phones. Pay phone is on your left. No razors, knives, scissors, glass or cords. No lighters or matches. No physical contact with other patients.” She paused in front of an empty, boxlike room. It had nothing but a bed with a bare rubber mattress and a small wooden desk. There was a narrow window with a thick steel mesh screen over it. “Yours,” she said.
I stepped inside. It smelled like cleaning fluid and salt: sanitized tears. Not mine, I thought.
“You can’t stay in here right now,” she said, ushering me out again. “You’re on supervised watch in the common area until tonight.”
I tried to imagine night in this place and felt ill. Back in the hall, a group of kids who looked around my age were gathered by the door, docile and obedient as they were herded two by two like kindergartners on a field trip. They eyed me suspiciously. I was afraid to even look at them. I wondered what they were in for, what brand of crazy. They waited patiently for the door to be unlocked and then filed out, chaperoned by nurses on either side.
Nurse Kay caught me watching them. “They’re going for ice cream,” she said. “We do an outing once a month here. You won’t be able to go this time, but as long as you’re on good behavior, next month for sure.”
“My parents will have me out long before then,” I said.
“Okay,” Kay said, as if she were too bored to refute it.
I went and sat down by the window where I could watch for my parents, and put my hand on the steel mesh screen.
“You can’t get out that way,” a voice said from behind me. “I’ve already tried.”
I turned to see a boy peer out from behind a high-backed chair. He had shaggy shoulder-length hair and pool-blue eyes that seemed to flicker between humor and sadness. The heavy metal T-shirt he was wearing had the sleeves cut off, revealing bruised and scrawny arms. He seemed like the kind of kid found cutting class and smoking Marlboros on the steps of any high school in America. In contrast, I had never touched a cigarette, and listened to cheesy pop ballads and old rock. He pulled out a cigarette and waited for Kay to light it.
“This place is locked up tighter than death row,” he said, blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth. “Only they don’t treat you half as nice.” He gave Kay a pointed look. “Isn’t that right, Kay?”
“Please don’t be like that in front of our new patient, James,” Kay said, retreating to the nurses’ station.
James jumped up from his chair, thrust his arms wide in the air and sang after her, “I gotta be meeeeeee!” Then he winked at me and shrugged as I stared at him wide-eyed. He sat back down and flipped on the TV.
Kay turned around and sighed. “Everybody’s a clown.”
Just then, a frail, sickly-looking boy with huge dark circles beneath his eyes shuffled slowly and silently past us.
“Not him,” James said dryly.
“Do you know when my parents are coming up?” I said to Kay as I watched the zombified kid shuffle down the hall. He couldn’t have been more than twelve.
“Did they say they would be?”
I nodded, and my voice got caught on the answer. “To say good-bye.”
James jerked back around to look at me. The humor was gone from his eyes, replaced by wide, open compassion. He stood and came over. He was short, maybe five foot five, and walked with a bounce as if to acquire more height. “First day’s the hardest,” he said, sitting down beside me. “I’m on my second month.” Then he added, “Actually, the second month sucks too,” and handed me a stick of gum from a pack in his pocket.
I turned back to the window, swallowing the fresh onslaught of tears his kindness threatened to unleash, and waited for my parents to come up as they had promised. I was sure that as soon as they stepped foot on the actual ward, they would realize what they were doing, change their minds, take me home.