“Nothing. I just think your mother’s gonna try to make you think you owe her now and suck you back into her control.”
“Owe her for what?”
“Gee, I don’t know . . . Twenty grand tuition for starters. Strings pulled to get you in.”
I shrug. My mother’s surprise offer to pay for college was made after I mentioned to one of the nurses that I wanted to go. At first, my mother was completely against me leaving this place, but then out of nowhere she came up with the idea that I should apply to her alma mater, and all of a sudden my going to college was a brilliant decision. She even got me an application and arranged for me to take the SAT. As soon as my dream became a possible reality, I was sure they wouldn’t accept me, a mental patient. But then I learned that the hospital’s on-site school would discreetly show up as a satellite to the local high school. I didn’t meet all of the math and foreign language requirements, but my mother somehow worked her strange magic and voilà, I was headed to Dunton College, the place I had heard a million stories about, where my mother had gone to study art.
Since my acceptance, I have felt my anger at my mother not exactly dissipating but receding, slipping back below the swampy surface like an alligator head. I have seen this happen before, how one act of parental kindness across a history of cruelty can make a kid in here forgive everything that came before simply because they have been deprived of kindness for so long. But I tell myself I’m tougher than that.
“Just because she’s paying for college doesn’t mean I have to . . . like . . . talk to her or have a relationship with her.”
“But why would she go to all that trouble? To get you into her school? There’s gotta be an agenda there, right?”
“I don’t know,” I say with a sigh.
He’s right, of course. I know how dangerous it is to let go of memory, to forget for even a minute who my mother is, but I don’t want to think about that right now. The constant vigilance is exhausting and with less than forty-eight hours left, I just want to focus on hope.
“I need you to give me your word,” James says.
“Okay. What for?”
“That you won’t fall for the lie.”
“This again?” I laugh. “You’re so dramatic.”
“Stop worrying. She doesn’t have any power over me anymore.”
He gives me a look.
“Good night,” I say, and turn away.
“Wait! Cass,” he whispers. “I’ve been thinking.”
I return to the door. “Well, that’s new.”
He glances down the hallway and back to me. His face is serious. “I’m breaking out of here tomorrow. First thing. I’m gonna meet up with you in Rhode Island.”
I laugh, lean my head against the door. “I’d love that,” I say, touched by his fantasy. “But you know it’ll never happen. Tighter than death row, remember?”
Kay’s flashlight hits the far wall of the hallway, and James and I exchange looks. We have only seconds to hit our beds before Kay catches us.
“See ya in the morning,” I whisper.
“Love you, Cass,” he says.
I pause, trying to soak in the words, to hold them and keep them with me for when I go.
“Love you too, James,” I say finally, but he’s already in bed with his headphones on.
IN THE MORNING, James is nowhere to be found. The nurses look everywhere. They tear our rooms apart. They check behind sofas, behind desks, in the Quiet Room. He is flat-out gone.
For the first few hours I don’t even let myself get my hopes up, certain that he’ll be caught and dragged back here. Instead I just sit back and enjoy his antics along with the other patients as we watch the nurses scramble around in a panic, everyone trying to figure out how the hell he managed to get out. But as the hours pass and a quiet unease descends upon the nurses on the ward, the air heavy with anxiety like the waiting room of an ER, I start to believe that maybe, just maybe, James has pulled it off. He has gone to Rhode Island. He is waiting for me there. Soon I am making plans for the two of us on the outside, how I’ll hide him in my dorm room and sneak home food from the cafeteria. Then James can get a job at a beachside café or nearby coffee shop where I can go after classes and find him, where I can sit with someone who knows me and knows where I’ve been and cares about me anyway.
For the first time, the future doesn’t seem quite so scary. For the first time, everything seems like it might just be okay after all.
• • •
The hours tick into nighttime. The cafeteria is quiet at dinner, the reality of James’s absence settling over the other patients, who, caught up in the excitement this morning, now realize they have lost something. I alone am happy, a quiet but deep relief expanding in my chest, making it easier to breathe.
At 9:00 P.M. the doorbell rings. The fantasy shatters. James has been captured by the police, I am sure of it. But when Nurse Kay unlocks the door and opens it, it is James, alone, standing in the doorway, no officers or hospital aides accompanying him. He saunters in smelling like late summer air and cigarettes lit by his own hand, acting with his usual cocky bravado, as if he had just been out for a stroll.
But something is different. Something is wrong. He won’t look at me.
We all rush around him to hear the details of his escape, and he boasts to the others about how he slipped out with the laundry, stealing through bushes and jumping on a bus—to where he does not say. Everyone else laughs too loudly and listens too eagerly and speaks over each other with their endless questions. I stand at the back of the group and wait for him to give me some sign, some sense of explanation, something, anything. But he will not meet my eye.
I get frantic, chasing reasons in my head for why he came back, for what might have happened, for what he found out there that made him turn around and choose death row instead. Because if James couldn’t make it, if James with all his fearlessness and charm went out into the world only to rush right back, then what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope is there for me?