I want to ask him, but he’s not looking at me and there are too many people around, and then a nurse is leading him to the office, where they will check him for contraband: razors, knives, pills—anything you can off yourself with.
I head toward my room; my body, which was just this morning light with hope, is heavy now, waterlogged with dread and fear. In the hallway, James and the nurse pass by me on his way to being frisked. Once again I try to make eye contact, but instead James slips a small brown bag from under his shirt into my hand.
“Sorry, Cass,” he mumbles to the floor, and disappears down the hall.
I go to my room and tear open the bag. Inside is a candle shaped like a Smurf and a small blue lighter to match. I think I’m supposed to laugh, but all I can do is cry.
• • •
In the morning, I go through the motions of packing, moving slowly as if through a thick fog. I wish James was with me, teasing me and making me laugh, but he is still unable to face me after coming back. I dump all of my accumulated belongings into one small suitcase: makeup purchased from the gift shop, a bunch of letters from when I first got here sent from old friends who slowly trickled away, the bedsheets and towel and clothes my mother packed for me the day she put me in here. Most of the clothes were already baggy when I bought them to hide all the weight I had gained in my early teens. Now, after years of inedible hospital food, they pretty much hang off of me.
I try to figure out what to wear for my first day of both freedom and college, but it’s not like I have a lot of good options. Finally I choose a T-shirt, an oversized sweater and a pair of ripped-up jeans. Just the act of putting them on feels like a restoration of personhood after not bothering to wear anything but hospital scrubs and pajamas for so long. And yet to see myself in these old clothes invites the intrusion of my mother’s voice back into my head: “All my life, I dreamed about having a daughter . . . how I would dress up her up like a pretty little doll. I just don’t know why you won’t be the daughter I wanted.”
I sit on the suitcase and zip it shut.
In front of the distorted plastic mirror I do one last check of my makeup and wonder what the kids at college will think of me, if they will be able to look in my eyes and know where I’ve been. Just to be on the safe side, I add more eyeliner and mascara.
I’m about to head out into the hallway when Nurse Kay pops her head into my room.
“The time has come, eh?” she says, smiling for once.
“Who’s picking you up?”
“No one,” I say. “I’m taking the bus.”
“Oh,” she says. Her eyes go sad. Just for a moment. Just long enough to let me know I was wrong in thinking she doesn’t care about us kids or that she doesn’t see the reality of our situations. “Don’t miss your stop,” she says then, and disappears down the hall.
I take a deep breath, grab my suitcase, and allow myself one last look at this room that has seen so many of my tears. It appears now exactly as it did the day I first saw it: the bare mattress, the small desk, the window with the steel mesh screen. There is no trace of me left here. Even my memories feel somehow packed up and put away. Already it’s just a strange room I passed through in the wider panorama of my life. I think of the kid who will move in here next, and I wonder if they will be afraid like I was, if they will cry themselves to sleep like I did, if they will make friends here who will help them get through. I go over to the desk and write a note, let them know that they’ll be okay, let them see that there was a girl here before them who survived this place just as they someday will. I leave it in the drawer and walk out.
At the end of the hallway, the other patients have gathered in a semicircle by the door to see me off. When I see them there, whatever composure I have managed to assemble collapses. One by one I hug each of them, defying the “no physical contact” rule. James stands back from the rest, watching. He wears a blazer over his hospital scrubs and dark sunglasses as if it’s a funeral. The sight of him dressed like that makes me laugh and cry harder at the same time.
With each good-bye, the idea of this last, most painful good-bye to James gets more difficult. My throat tightens around the thought of it. I go to hug Trish, a quick hug, but it means something that she lets me. I slip a good-bye letter into her hand because I know she’ll never let me say to her face all the corny things I want to tell her.
“Don’t let me catch you here again,” she says, and I can swear there are tears in her eyes too.
I go to Shelly next. I grab her wrists and glance down at all those pink scars on white skin. “I’ll see you again soon. On the outside, okay?”
She looks at her hands as if surprised to see them there. When she raises her head to meet my eyes, her nod is small and unconvincing. I feel a pang of foreboding.
By the time I get to James, I am ready to call the whole thing off. I stand in front of him. His eyes are hidden by the sunglasses. I need so badly to see his eyes. All of my fear accumulates in the space between us, in the space of his absence from me before I have even left.
“I don’t think I can do this without you,” I say quietly.
He is silent for a moment, and then he takes his sunglasses off, revealing the James I know, the friend I love, my safe place. His eyes are tired and sad and far away. “I’m a call away,” he says, handing me a folded-up piece of paper with the ward’s pay-phone number on it. “You’ll always know where to find me.”
“I don’t want to find you here. I want to find you out there!” I say, tears threatening.
“Listen to me, soldier,” he says, grabbing my shoulders and looking into my eyes with mock seriousness to make me laugh. “Run! Save yourself!”
I manage to smile back and put my hands up in surrender. Then Dr. Meeks unlocks the door, looks at me with his well-cultivated expression of concern and hands me his card. “Just in case,” he says.