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The blush spread from his face to his ears. He flipped a couple of pages, staring blankly at the pictures. “Well, who better to tell you about the birds and the bees than your mom. Right?”
An unspoken answer echoed inside my head: Who better but the bees themselves?
I cleared my throat. “Not that speech, Dad. The nutso one. The ‘It can’t be stopped. You can’t escape the voices any more than I could. Great-great-gran never should’ve gone down the rabbit hole’ speech.”
It didn’t matter that Alison might be right about the voices after all. I wasn’t ready to admit that to Dad or myself.
He sat rigid, as if the air conditioner had iced his spine.
I studied the crisscross scars on my palms. He and I both knew it was less what Alison was going to say than what she might do. If she had another meltdown, they’d slap her into the straitjacket.
I learned early on why it’s spelled strait. That particular spelling means tight. Tight enough that blood pools in the elbows and the hands become numb. Tight enough that there’s no escape, no matter how loud the patient screams. Tight enough that it suffocates the hearts of the wearer’s loved ones.
My eyes felt swollen, like they might burst another leak. “Look, Dad, I’ve already had a really sucky day. Can we please just not go tonight? Just this once?”
Dad sighed. “I’ll call Soul’s Asylum and let them know we’ll visit Mom tomorrow instead. But you’ll need to tell her eventually. It’s important to her, you know? To stay involved in your life.”
I nodded. I might have to tell her about becoming a woman, but I didn’t have to tell her about becoming her.
Hooking a finger in the fuchsia scarf tied around my jean shorts, I glanced at my feet. Shiny pink toenails reflected the afternoon light where it streamed from the window. Pink had always been Alison’s favorite color. That’s why I wore it.
“Dad,” I mumbled loud enough for him to hear. “What if Alison’s right? I’ve noticed some things today. Things that just aren’t . . . normal. I’m not normal.”
“Normal.” His lips turned up in an Elvis curl. He once told me his smirk won Alison over. I think it was his gentleness and sense of humor, because those two things kept me from crying every night after she was first committed.
Rolling his magazine, he shoved it into the recliner between the seat cushion and the arm. He stood, his six-foot-one height towering over me as he tapped the dimple in my chin—the one part that matched him instead of Alison. “Now, you listen, Alyssa Victoria Gardner. Normal is subjective. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not normal. Because you are to me. And my opinion is all that matters. Got it?”
“Got it,” I whispered.
“Good.” He squeezed my shoulder, his fingers warm and strong. Too bad the twitch in his left eyelid gave him away. He was worried, and he didn’t even know the half of it.
I tossed and turned in bed that night. Once I finally fell asleep, I had the Alice nightmare for the first time, and it’s haunted my dreams ever since.
In it, I stumble across a chessboard in Wonderland, tripping over jagged squares of black and white. Only I’m not me. I’m Alice in a blue dress and lacy pinafore, trying to escape the ticktock of the White Rabbit’s pocket watch. He looks like he’s been skinned alive—nothing but bones and bunny ears.
The Queen of Hearts has commanded that my head be chopped off and stuck into a jar of formaldehyde. I’ve stolen the royal sword and am on the run, desperate to find the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat. They’re the only allies I have left.
Ducking into a forest, I slice the sword at vines hanging in my path. A thicket of thorns sprouts from the ground. They snag my apron and gouge my skin like angry talons. Dandelion trees tower in every direction. I’m the size of a cricket, along with everyone else.
Must’ve been something we ate . . .
Close behind, the White Rabbit’s pocket watch ticks louder, audible even over the marching steps of a thousand playing-card soldiers. Choking on a cloud of dust, I plunge into the Caterpillar’s lair, where mushrooms loom with caps the size of truck tires. It’s a dead end.
One look at the tallest mushroom and my heart caves. The place where the Caterpillar once sat to offer advice and friendship is a mass of thick white web. Something moves in the center, a face pressed against the filmy case, shifting just enough that I can make out the shape of the features yet see no clear details. I inch closer, desperate to identify who or what is inside . . . but the Cheshire Cat’s mouth floats by, screaming that he’s lost his body, and distracts me.
The card army appears. Within an instant, I am surrounded. I toss out the sword blindly, but the Queen of Hearts steps forward and snatches it in midair. Falling to my knees at the army’s feet, I plead for my life.
It’s pointless. Cards don’t have ears. And I no longer have a head. h..I..i
After covering my starry spider mosaic with a protective cloth while the plaster dries, I grab a quick lunch of nachos and head over to Pleasance’s underground skate park to kill time before meeting Dad at the asylum.
I’ve always felt at home here, in the shadows. The park is located in an old, abandoned salt dome, a huge underground cave with a ceiling reaching as high as forty-eight feet in places. Prior to the conversion, the dome had been used for storing bulk goods for a military base.
The new owners took out the traditional lighting and, with some fluorescent paint and the addition of black lights, morphed it into every teen’s fantasy—a dark and atmospheric ultraviolet playground complete with a skateboard park, glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, an arcade, and a café.
With its citrusy neon paint job, the giant cement bowl for skateboarders stands out like a green beacon. All skaters must sign a release form and put orange fluorescent grip tape on the decks of their boards to avoid collisions in the dark. From a distance, we look like we’re riding fireflies across the northern lights, sweeping in and out of one another’s glowing jet streams.
I started boarding when I was fourteen. I needed a sport I could do while wearing my iPod and earbuds to muffle the whispers of stray bugs and flowers. For the most part, I’ve learned to ignore my delusions. The things I hear are usually nonsensical and random, and blend together in crackles and hums like radio static. Most of the time I can convince myself it’s nothing more than white noise.