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I shiver. The hallways here unsettle me with their long, empty stretches and yellow blinking lights. White tiles magnify the sounds, and nurses in peppermint-striped scrubs blur in my peripheral vision. The uniforms make them look more like candy stripers than certified health-care professionals.
Counting the barbs painted on my T-shirt, I wait for Dad to talk to the nurse behind the main desk. A fly lands on my arm and I swat at it. It swoops around my head with a loud buzz that almost sounds like “He’s here,” before darting down the corridor.
Dad pauses beside me as I stare after the fly. “You sure you’re all right?”
I nod, shaking off the delusion. “Just don’t know what to expect today.” It’s only a half lie. Alison gets too distracted around plants and insects to go outside very often, but she’s been begging for fresh air, and Dad talked her doctor into trying. Who knows what might come of it?
“Yeah. I’m hoping this doesn’t unbalance her too much . . .” His voice trails off, and his shoulders slouch, as if all the sadness of the last eleven years weighs on them. “I wish you could remember her the way she was before.” He places a hand on my nape as we head toward the courtyard. “She was so levelheaded. So together. So much like you.” He whispers that last part, maybe in hopes I won’t hear. But I do, and the barbed wire tightens once more, until my heart is strangled and broken.
THE SPIDER & THE FLY
Other than Alison, her nurse, and a couple of groundskeepers, the courtyard is deserted. Alison sits at one of the black cast-iron bistro tables on a cement patio that’s been stamped to look like cobblestone. Even the decor has to be chosen carefully in a place like this. There’s no glass anywhere, only a reflective silver gazing globe secured tightly to its pedestal base.
Since some patients are known to pick up chairs or tables and throw them, the legs of the furniture are drilled into the cement. A black and red polka-dotted parasol sprouts up from the center of the table like a giant mushroom and shades half of Alison’s face. Silver teacups and saucers glisten in the sunlight. Three settings: one for me, one for Dad, and one for her.
We brought the tea service from home years ago when she first checked in. It’s an indulgence the asylum caters to in order to keep her alive. Alison won’t eat anything—be it Salisbury steak or fruit cobbler—unless it’s in a teacup.
Our pint of chocolate-cheesecake ice cream waits on a place mat, ready to be scooped out. Condensation rolls down the cardboard packaging.
Alison’s platinum braid swings over her chair’s back, almost touching the ground. She has her bangs tucked beneath a black headband. Wearing a blue gown with a long bib apron to keep her clothes clean, she looks more like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party than most of the illustrations I’ve seen.
It’s enough to make me physically sick.
At first I think she’s talking to the nurse until the woman stands to greet us, smoothing out her peppermint scrubs. Alison doesn’t notice, too intent on the metal vase of carnations in front of her.
My nausea escalates when I hear the carnations talking over the drone of white noise in the background. They’re saying how painful it is to be snipped at the stems, complaining about the quality of the water they’re swimming in, asking to be put back into the ground so they can die in peace.
That’s what I hear, anyway. I have to wonder what Alison thinks they’re saying in her own warped mind. The doctor can’t get details, and I’ve never brought it up because it would mean admitting I inherited her sickness.
Dad waits for the nurse, but his gaze, heavy with longing and disappointment, stays locked on Alison.
A slight pressure on my right arm shifts my attention to the unnaturally tan face of Nurse Mary Jenkins. The scent radiating off her is a mix of burned toast and talcum powder. Her brown hair is pulled up in a bun, and a white, high-voltage smile nearly singes my vision.
“Howdy-hi,” she sings. As usual, she’s over-the-top bubbly—like Mary Poppins. She studies my crutches. “Yikes! Did you hurt yourself, honey drop?”
No. I’ve sprouted wooden appendages. “Skateboard,” I answer, determined to be on my best behavior for Dad’s sake, in spite of how the yammering flowers on the table have gotten under my skin.
“Still skateboarding? Such an interesting hobby.” Her pitying stare implies “for a girl” better than words ever could. She studies my blue dreadlocks and thick eye makeup with a grim expression on her face. “You need to keep in mind that a calamity like this can upset your mother.”
I’m not sure if she’s talking about my injuries or my fashion sense.
The nurse looks over her shoulder at Alison, who’s still whispering to the flowers, oblivious to us. “She’s already a little high-strung today. I should give her something.” Nurse Poppin’ Stuff starts to pull a syringe from the arsenal in her pocket. One of the many things I despise about her: She seems to enjoy giving her patients shots.
Over the years, the doctors have discovered that sedatives work best to control Alison’s outbursts. But they turn her into a drooling zombie, unaware of anything around her. I’d rather see her alert and conversing with a roach than like that.
I scowl at my dad, but he doesn’t even notice because he’s so busy frowning himself.
“No,” he says, and the deep, disciplinarian edge to his voice makes the nurse’s penciled-in eyebrows snap up. “I’ll send Alyssa for you if things get difficult. And we’ve got the gardeners over there for manpower if we need it.” He gestures to the two hulking men in the distance who are pruning some branches from a bush. They could be twins with their huge mustaches and walrus-shaped bodies stuffed in brown coveralls.
“All rightio. I’ll be at the front desk when you need me.” With another glaringly fake smile, she bounces into the building, leaving the three of us in solitude. Or the eight of us, if you count the carnations. At least they’ve finally stopped talking.
The minute Dad’s shadow glides across the vase, Alison looks up. One glance at my crutches, and she launches from her seat, rattling the tea set. “He was right!”