“What do you think, Rosie? Should I stay or should I go?” I ask the question in time with the song by The Clash.
A throat clearing from across the room startles me enough that I accidentally send the stuffed animal flying through the air. I spin around and watch as Nick Alderson’s hand shoots straight up and catches Rosie, his eyes never leaving me, his expression never changing. An invisible charge shoots from him to me, locking us in each other’s direct hemisphere.
“Hi.” I wave weakly, and then hasten to inform him, “It was a rhetorical question. The staying or going one.”
Nick looks into the bear’s lone eye. “Was it directed at me, or the bear?”
“It doesn’t matter, obviously. Rhetorical question, right?” I move to tuck hair behind my ear before realizing there isn’t any long enough to do that with anymore. “And of course I should go.” I lightly slap my palms against the sides of my purple cotton pants. “I mean, look at me. I am as sane as can be.”
“Well, saner than me anyway.” Nick looks up, holding my gaze with his ocean eyes.
I open my mouth, but don’t reply. I don’t know why Nick’s at this place, but he seems pretty levelheaded to me. We’ve talked about a million things, but never that. Then again, I’ve never told him what I did to get here either. There are some things you just don’t want to talk about.
He tosses the teddy bear to me. I lift my arms, but it somehow goes through them instead of into them. Nick lowers his head to hide a smile. I remember the first time I saw him. I was walking from the center’s library, looking at the book in my hands instead of where I was going. I ran into him. Literally.
Nick picked up my book, asked me my name, and gave me a smile that turned his average features into something more. His pretty, long-lashed eyes don’t hurt either. When I saw him, it was like I woke up from a dream. He’s a patient like me, only he seems to be A-OK with staying here indefinitely. Maybe forever. Seeing how comfortable he is here, and with the staff, it seems like he has been here for a long time.
He’s seventeen now. Since the facility focuses on thirteen to eighteen year olds, I wonder if they’ll kick him out once he turns nineteen. I wonder if I’ll still know him by then. My heart throbs, once, to let me know how much it doesn’t like the thought of not knowing Nick.
“Are you ready to go?” he asks, moving farther into the room.
I gesture to the bed where an opened red suitcase rests. It’s the most colorful thing in the tiny room with a single bed and dresser. I’m not sure how I qualified for my own room, but I’m glad. I retrieve Rosie and set her on top of the folded clothes. “Yep. All packed up.”
“I don’t mean physically.”
My eyes instinctively rove over his face. I watch with fascination as a faint blush creeps along his skin. There is nothing romantic between us. Nick and I are just two head cases who found friendship with one another. And yet, it feels like there is, or could be. Something hidden just beneath the surface, something waiting to be revealed. But I’m leaving—I have to leave—and Nick…Nick will be here. If he ever does leave, I don’t even know where he’ll go.
Inside these walls we formed a make-believe world for the two of us. It isn’t real, but I wish it was.
“Yeah. I mean, why wouldn’t I be?” I avert my face, wishing I’d spoken with more confidence. I glance at him.
Looking uncomfortable, he shifts his feet. “It’s a lot different out there than in here.”
My focus drops to the white tiled floor. “Is that why you stay?”
I look up when he doesn’t answer. Stricken blue-green eyes stare at me, and he takes a step back. It’s like looking at a turbulent, broken sea. “Sorry,” I mutter.
He shakes his head of messy brown hair. There is faint blondness interwoven through the strands, like his hair was once naturally highlighted. Like he used to spend a lot of time under the sun. “Don’t be.”
There was a catch in his voice, one I pretend I didn’t hear. I answer his earlier question softly, honestly. “I’ll never be ready to go back to that school.”
He tilts his head, not asking what I mean, even though the question is etched onto his features. I told Nick the school here sucked, and that’s as far as I took it. He never pushed, but he wonders. Well, I wonder about a lot of things concerning him too. Why he’s here. Where he’s from. What secrets he keeps hidden. If he thinks about me as much as I think about him.
I swallow, looking to the doorway behind him. “But here? Yes, I’m definitely ready to go from here.”
“It’s just a school, Alexis,” he tells me, sliding his hands in the front pockets of his fleece pants. Nick only wears fleece pants. Today they are black.
And this is just a building as well, I want to tell him, but I don’t.
“I know.” Just a school full of people who almost killed me. I turn to zip up the suitcase. I don’t want him to see my face right now. He’ll wonder at the darkness there, because I can’t ever keep my thoughts from my face.
I unclench my fingers from the sides of the suitcase, and fight to keep my voice even. “Dr. Larson said I could have it approved to finish my schoolwork for the remainder of the year from home. But I can’t do that. I have to go back.”
I rapidly blink my eyes, images flying through my mind. All of them bad, all of them real. Twisted smiles and mocking laughter and beautiful ugly girls. Blackness. Hopelessness. The sensation of drowning in a version of myself I can’t escape. My throat tightens. Why am I going back? Because if I ever want to move on, I have to. I don’t have a choice. I focus on my breathing before answering, making sure it’s even.
“I don’t know.” I do know.
Nick’s silence is loud. Grating. I hear him sigh behind me. “You’ll still talk with Dr. Larson?”
Suitcase in hand, I face the one good thing I’ve had since I moved to this state. “Every week for at least two months. That was the deal.”
He hesitates, and then steps forward. I lift my face. His throat bobs. I hold my breath, wondering what he’s about to do. Nick yanks me to him and crushes me within his strong arms. His hug is rushed, awkward, and everything. “Take care of yourself, Alexis.”
Even with my bag in hand, I manage to cling to him harder and longer than I should. He smells good, like clean clothes and something honeyed. “Will I—will you still be here, do you think, when I have my sessions? Will you be around? They are every Wednesday at four.” Hope is threaded through my words.
Will I see you again?
Nick steps back, avoiding my eyes. “I’m not sure where I’ll be.”
As if aware of my heart falling, he briefly touches my shoulder. The smile he gives me is sweetness mixed with sadness, and my vision goes a little fuzzy at the impact it has on me. His bottomless sea-colored eyes and rare smiles are magical.
“Right. Of course. I’m sure I’ll see you sometime.” I give him a bright, phony smile. “In fact, we’ll probably see each other all the time, actually, so much that we’ll get sick of seeing each other, and we’ll hope to never see one another again.” I don’t sound one bit convincing, and my attempted smile falls flat. I haven’t gotten sick of his company once in the two months I’ve been here.
Another smile dances across his lips before dipping into nonexistence. He puts more distance between us, and I feel the cold where he stood. “Dr. Larson knew I was coming to say goodbye. She asked me to tell you that your dad is on his way to pick you up.”
I nod, turning my attention to the hallway beyond the doorway. My stomach somersaults. Am I ready for this? I guess I have to be. It’s time to go. Straightening my shoulders, I take a deep breath and march from the room. Nick briefly locks gazes with me as he turns in the opposite direction, disappearing around a corner. Probably to go hide in his room until it’s time for his chores.
I blink and face forward, telling myself I’ll make sure I see him when I come for my therapy. I’ll seek him out like I did after that first time we met. I was relentless, searching every hall and room I could until I found him helping out in the kitchen. I saw something in him I see in me. Raw, hurting need. And I saw something else. Just a flicker of it. Just enough to grab my attention and keep it on him.
Something that made me want to hope when I was sinking in the opposite of it.
A few people call out a greeting as I walk, and I give them a quick, fake smile that is over before it really touches my lips. A silent girl with troubled eyes shuffles past, and I avert my gaze. The more disturbed ones make me nervous, and I know why. Because not so long ago, I was one of them. I was a complete mess.
Two more kids walk by, engrossed in a conversation about Star Wars. May the force be with you.
It always smells like coffee in the halls, and everything has a new, orderly feel to it. As far as decorative pieces, there isn’t much on the walls, but the few paintings are light, airy scenes obviously garnered to elicit feelings of tranquility. To my eyes, the place is fancy-looking with its cream and tan walls, open spaces, and leather furniture. They must get great funding. I snort. I guess so, since there will always be screwed up kids.
In one of my more bored hours, and there were a lot of them while here, I read up on the history of the place. It’s called Live—rhymes with give—and it’s a small rehabilitation center for mentally unstable teens. Run primarily by Dr. Larson, it’s been around for six years, and has patients from all over the United States. There are staff members here twenty-four hours a day, along with doctors of varying degrees popping in and out as required.
It focuses on individual, group, and family therapy, among other positive movements, like activities and implementing self-goals. There are also daily chores for the capable kids that result in either helping or befuddling the staff, depending on the kid. I had kitchen duty—because I requested it, knowing that’s where Nick would be—in the morning and afternoon, which consisted of me helping with the meals, setup, and cleanup.
Except for my obligatory meetings, counseling sessions with Dr. Larson, and designated chores, I spent most of my time reading in my room, or in the library. Usually with Nick. And even though this place has teens teeming about, I never connected with anyone, except for Nick. I found him, and I didn’t need or want to find anyone else. Not that we did anything other than talk, and possibly stare at one another for a beat too long. My mouth twists. At the Live treatment center, our free time isn’t regulated, but even so, there are always people around, and the cameras, watching.
Some of the kids here are crazy; some are violent; some are despondent. All are lost.
I see my dad he sees me, and I flinch at the sight of his shrewd blue eyes surveying the waiting area. Bald and of medium height with massive shoulders, burly arms, and not much neck, he reminds me of a bulldog. Other than one family therapy session, the only time he’s set foot in the center is when I was initially brought in. That visit was to bring me the small amount of clothes, and Rosie, packed inside the bag presently clutched so tightly within my hand that it’s cramping.
That’s okay, though, because that one time he came to sit through a counseling session with me, he hardly spoke. I didn’t want to sit in a room with him again after that and have him wordlessly tell me all the ways I’ve failed him. He’s embarrassed of me. He has to be. Nothing else makes sense for his outright avoidance of me. Because, as you know, when someone tries to kill themselves, they’re doing it to annoy people.
I just needed a little attention, so I swallowed some pills.
“You’re going to be okay, Lexie,” a kind voice says from behind.
I start and swing around to find Dr. Hilary Larson watching me. Everyone calls me Lexie, and because of that, soon after exchanging names, Nick told me he was going to call me Alexis. With a smile, of course. I like that he’s the only one who uses my given name. I like the color of his eyes, and I like the unruliness of his hair, and I like that when he looks at me, he really looks at me.
I like too many things about him.
“Jumpy today?” She smiles, looking over my shoulder.
The smile falters. I probably wouldn’t notice if I wasn’t staring so hard at her. I don’t want to turn around. I don’t want to face my dad. I feel him behind me, his eyes boring into the back of my head, judging. I can hear his thoughts, even though he doesn’t bring voice to them. They always center on: What would your mother think? Well, I don’t know what my mother would think, because she took off about three years ago. Leaving no word, no letter—just a big, fat, unfillable void. And an uncomprehending Nathaniel Hennessy. My dad never got over it.
And I changed.
“Yeah,” I croak. “Super jumpy. It’s all the excitement of going home, and getting back into the school routine.” I can’t even drag enthusiasm into my tone. The house doesn’t feel like home; this town isn’t mine. And the school? It’s so much worse.
Her gaze moves back to me. She leans closer, bringing a lemony scent with her. “You can do this, I know you can. And you have me. You aren’t getting rid of me just yet. I’ll see you next week.”
Dr. Larson has medium length hair she calls river water brown and warm brown eyes. I think her hair is pretty, like milk chocolate, chocolate chips. When she wears heels, she stands taller than most of the men here, and definitely taller than me. Easy to have happen when you’re not even five feet one. With her gentle eyes and quick smile, Dr. Larson made my therapy tolerable, even though I had to endure hours of talking about my thoughts and feelings. It’s hard to explain things I don’t entirely understand myself.
“And the one after that.” I smile weakly.
“And the one after that,” she adds with a wink.
I fidget and blurt, “Is Nick going home soon?”
Dr. Larson straightens, her eyes instantly shadowed. “You know I can’t discuss patient details with you.”
“Right.” I rub the palm of my free hand against my leg. “I just…I just hope I see him again, that’s all.”
“I’m sure you will,” is all she says, and it’s enough.
“Lexie.” My dad’s voice is firm, and demands attention.
I turn and meet his eyes, attempting a smile. I give a small wave when that fails. “Hi, Dad.”
I remember his face at the hospital. It was impassive, pale. Like all the emotions and life were drained from him. He was a wall, and I gazed at him, unable to break through. Other than color being added back to his flesh, his expression isn’t all that different right now.
He studies me, frowning as he takes in the choppy strands of light brown hair framing my face. At least my hair’s grown out some, not to mention been professionally evened out, since I decided to give myself a haircut. “Are you ready to go?”
“Mr. Hennessy?” Dr. Larson moves to stand beside me, offering a hand with short, uniformly cut nails polished in pale pink.
My dad takes the offered hand, giving it a brusque shake before releasing it. “Dr. Larson.”
“If you’ll come with me for a minute, we’ll go over the paperwork you’re required to sign, Lexie’s treatment plan, and discuss a few other things before her release.”
An annoyed look passes over my dad’s craggy face, but he doesn’t say anything, merely nodding and gesturing for Dr. Larson to lead the way. The doctor gives me a pointed look when I try to stay behind. I grudgingly follow the adults into a nice-sized room with comfortable beige chairs and flower paintings on the walls. There are tulips, daisies, roses, and more I can’t name, all in blurred, muted shapes and colors.
The lemon smell is stronger in the office. A chair and desk are on the far side of the room, and I admit, I never once saw Dr. Larson sit at it when we met. She always sat across from me in one of the brown chairs with a welcoming smile and few words, allowing me to speak my own.
“Please, take a seat, both of you.”
We sit, Dr. Larson gathering a file from her desk as we do. For the first time since I’ve been here, I realize how much I’ll miss certain parts of the treatment center. The feeling of belonging, even if it was in a place full of distressed kids. Dr. Larson’s quiet thoughtfulness. The silent calm in my head. Nick. Sometimes, I was able to forget about my life before this. Nick is right; the world outside the wooden fence surrounding the center is harsh, and I don’t know how I’m going to face it again.
You will, because you must.
“—important that Lexie feels like she has someone to talk to. A regression is the last thing we want. She’s come so far.”
I look up, wondering how much of the conversation I missed.
Red faced and scowling, my dad shifts in his seat. The legs creak, and I hope the chair doesn’t collapse under the weight of his large frame. It would be the chair’s fault, of course, not the extra servings of food my dad likes. “I know how to take care of my daughter.”
Yes, just ignore me and tell yourself I can survive.
Dr. Larson levels her gaze on him. “I’m glad to hear that. Communication between parents and their children is vital for them to have a healthy relationship.”
I tilt my head and study the red and pink petals of a painted rose on the wall to the right of me. I wonder what it’s like to live with Dr. Larson. A vision of her and a faceless husband come to mind. They’re sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast.
Faceless Husband: I ate the last of the cereal.
Dr. Larson: How do you feel about that?
I smirk, quickly forcing it back when my psychiatrist turns her attention to me. I realize she’s waiting for something. Probably an answer to a question I didn’t hear. “Um…what?”
“I asked if you were all set.”
I hop up and grab my bag. The sooner I get out of here, the sooner I can move on to worry about something else. Like school. I look to my left. “Ready, Dad?”
He gives a brief nod, Dr. Larson shakes my hand, and we go.
Hollowness grows in the pit of my stomach as I step through the front doors and face the parking lot. I tell myself I’ll be okay, but I’m not sure I will be. The sky is painted in wispy gray clouds, and the tips of my ears immediately sting from the cold. They’re used to having hair cover them; now there are short layers flittering about my head that offer little protection. The chill and wetness in the May air quickly work their way through my hooded sweatshirt and lounge pants.
My dad catches my shiver, shaking his head. I only wear jackets when not doing so would be life-threatening, like when it’s below zero out and the wind chill is strong and cold enough to rip the skin from your face. This forty degrees weather doesn’t have anything on me, but even so, I flip the hood of the sweatshirt before trekking in the shadow of my father’s footsteps.
He silently unlocks the white Ford Explorer and takes my suitcase from me, setting it in the back before moving to the driver’s side. It isn’t like we’ve ever been all that close, but something happened to my dad when my mom left. Light left his eyes; words no longer passed his lips. He got colder. I don’t know if it’s because I look like her that he distanced himself from me, or if it was because he just couldn’t handle it all. All I know is, on the day my mom left, I lost my dad along with her.
It was an avalanche of unexpected occurrences, with me at the bottom of it all. My sister Jenna left to live her own life across the country, my mom decided she no longer wanted a family, we moved to a new town, and inside the school where I was friendless and vulnerable, the hell truly began. If even one thing had happened differently, it all could have been different. But, here we are, with me leaving a mental institution. That gives you a good idea on how well it all went.
I pause with my hand on the door handle, looking back at the brown and red brick building with lights shining from most of its windows. I’m waiting for something I shouldn’t, waiting for something that won’t be there. Still, I delay my departure. I know I don’t have long before my dad becomes impatient. One more look.
Shifting my eyes from side to side, I search for a form in the gloom. It is as I am turning in dejection that I see him, a shadow that separates from the tree he stands beneath. Half of my mouth lifts as Nick’s hand does, and I nod once, climbing into the Explorer.
As we leave, I think about the town. There are fourteen thousand people in Enid, Illinois, and during the months I went to Enid High School, a handful of them made my life hell. Overall, the whole school experience was abysmal, but two girls in particular made my time there unbearable. Just thinking about their uncaring cruelty makes my skin clammy and my head hurt. They ridiculed me, singled me out to beat down. Melanie Mathews and Jocelyn Rodriguez. Sixteen years old, in a new school, and I was bullied. Hurt, disbelieving, I became a person I didn’t recognize.
I became someone who wanted to die.
And that makes me angriest of all. That I gave them that power, that I let them decide my value. Monday, I’m going back to the school that took my soul. I have to. It’s the only thing that makes sense, the only thing that makes it all endurable. Because I have something I need to do, and one month to do it. I’m taking back what was taken from me.
I’m going to make my bullies pay.