The psychiatrist wants to know if I have allergies, if I take any medication. I tell him I have hay fever. He rubs his bald head; I rub mine. His window is covered with wire mesh. Outside, it’s starting to rain. He pages absently through his manual with a large thumb, not really looking for anything. I can feel the rain in my bones. Since I ran away a year ago, I’ve spent a lot of cold, wet nights huddled under boxes, hiding in boiler rooms. Running, running.
“I’m going to prescribe you something for your allergies.”
“Actifed. A decongestant. That’s all.”
I nod: slow, sad.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
I think about the baloney sandwich they gave me at the police station, how it caught in my throat and I threw it up into a small brown garbage can. I laugh — just for a second, just to keep back the tears.
Sometimes day and night, light and dark, just run together into a thick gray soup, and I’m overcome by a complete stillness, unable to move. My first days at Reed were like this. The world could have stopped, and I would never have noticed. When the feeling ends, it’s like coming out of a coma, except you know it will always return.
I tie my sheets under the bed frame, pull the ends tight and knot them, so I don’t have to remake my bed every morning. Thick black clouds plaster the sky outside the caged-in window. I wiggle my toes inside a pair of ripped up Converse All-stars. My feet are too wide for the shoes. It’s quiet here. My roommates are in class. I can’t go, because I’m on runaway alert. If I were still outside, I’d be starting high school in two days. It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t have gone anyway.
The bathrooms across the hall have no doors on the stalls. My roommate Jay shits with a towel over his lap so no one will see his dirty yellow pubic hairs.
I move slowly. No rush; no one is waiting for me. I smooth the sheet with my palm, stare at the light green walls, the dark cracks, taste the sanitized odor in the air. Everything’s chemical; everything’s wrong.
I roll over on the couch in our old house, still half asleep, still a child, the dirty blue pillow soft against my cheek. My mind is half white, half black. The morning light from the window paints a pink haze under my eyelids.
It’s raining blows. I try to stop the fists with a raised forearm. My father is screaming, spit flying out of his mouth, spattering mine. He’s screaming and hitting me, but his fists are not as strong as they used to be, and I’m covering my face. He grabs me by the hair, pulls me into the empty kitchen, and forces me to my knees on the yellow linoleum floor. This kitchen was our kitchen for seven years. Then my mother died, I ran away from home, and my father moved into a big house out in the suburbs with his new wife. He’s still trying to sell this one.
He sees where I put my cigarette out on the floor and smacks my face. I kneel in front of him, my kneecaps poking through the frayed, torn bluejeans I’ve been wearing for a month. I’m on my knees, bowed like a present for my father, the gift of his little boy. “You’re an animal,” he tells me. “You’re a pig.”
I hear the hum of the clippers. He had them ready; he was prepared. It was a trap. He left the house open, waiting for me to crawl in from the cold like an animal.
My hair falls like leaves to the floor. A faraway siren gets louder and then fades. A brick sits in my stomach, a ball of twine in my throat. My hair litters the bright linoleum floor stained by years of sun pouring in through the window.
My father lays the clippers on the counter top. “Go take a shower.” In the bathroom I look at my face — a small black eye — and run my fingers over my head. I’m not quite bald; my head is covered with a quarter-inch of peach fuzz. In back I can feel where the clippers slipped: two bare patches of scalp, like a mental patient.
Jay and French Fry beat each other with the hard plastic pieces of a kid’s game till their shoulders start to bleed. Then they sit exhausted on their beds, sweat dripping from their hair. They both smile, impressed with themselves.
“I’m a Satanist,” Jay tells me.
“That’s cool,” I say.
“You’ve got the most fucked-up haircut I’ve ever seen,” Jay says.
It’s been a week since my father shaved my head. Jay has long, stringy blond hair. “It used to be longer,” I say.
“When Mike saw you in intake, he laughed at those patches on the back of your head. They make you look crazy.” Jay smiles, the ends of his mouth sticking out past his ears.
“Yeah, well, we are in a mental hospital,” I remind him.
Jay burned down a church, but mostly it’s attempted suicides in here. French Fry tried to burn himself to death. Mike took pills. I slit my wrists. We’re a big zoo full of morons who don’t know any better.
“You think you can kick my ass?” Jay asks.
“I don’t care.”
“You think you could kick Mike’s ass?”
“I could kick Mike’s ass all over the place,” I tell him.
French Fry falls back laughing. “Damn!” He shakes and holds his stomach, his horrible skin scarred and creased.
They hand out little plastic cups full of light green shampoo for our showers: light green shampoo to go with the light green walls. Some kid always sits in the only bathtub, and Jay always spits on him on his way to the shower. Jay showers till they tell him he has to leave, then he turns off the rusted tap with his long, skinny fingers.
We’ve got no heat, and only thin blankets. French Fry piles them on ten thick. “I’m not cold,” he tells me. “I just like heat.” There are times when I want to touch French Fry’s horrible face, all scarred and nearly burnt to a crisp — when I want to kiss him with my tongue just for being so unbearably ugly, for being the ugliest human being I’ve ever seen.
Jay says he wants to be a model. He’s tall and skinny with hair like horse rope, and his stomach muscles poke out like pebbles. Reed is not a place for the beautiful.
Nancy is beautiful. She lives on the outside, beyond the metal grating and the bolted doors and the thirteen-foot fence. Nancy is my primary, my therapist.
Nancy squints when she smiles. She’s short and has thick legs and a big ass. On the outside, she’s just another woman in a skirt. In here, she’s more. I stare at her legs while she talks and daydream about getting between them, about sliding up between her feet, her knees, until I crawl inside her completely and go to sleep.
“You have a twitch,” she says, “right over your nose.”
I shrug. “Sometimes I’m nervous.”
“I’ve read your file.”
I play with the frayed edges on my jeans, hunch my back. I look like a troll.
“It says your father used to beat you.”
“You could say that.”
“A few times. It could’ve been worse. Mostly, he just yelled.” I look up; she’s squinting. Fuck. “He shaved my head a couple of times. Handcuffed me to a pipe.”
Nancy nods. She’s wearing blue nylons. Papers and books line the wall behind her. “Do you think you’re looking for a mother figure?” she asks. “Someone to replace your mother?”
“My mother didn’t do anything but sit on the couch and die for five years. Why would I want to replace that?”
A silence hangs over the room for a few minutes. I play with my fingers, stare at my folded hands. The floor in her office is the same gray tile as every floor in Reed. A calendar hangs over her desk, a picture of a dove with its wings spread. A cracked Bible sits by the window.
“You’re very intelligent for your age,” Nancy says.
Smarter than you, I think.
“You talk like an adult.”
“I write poetry,” I blurt out. Damn.
“Look at me,” she says. Her eyes shine; she squints. “I’d like to read your poetry.”
I look at her ankles.
Time’s up. We stand, shake hands. Her hand is soft.
A guy in a white staff uniform leads me into a small room off the TV room. My father is there with his new wife. She has good legs, an overbite. I walk around them, sit near the window.
“I thought you might want to read these,” my father says. “Thought you might be bored.” He motions to a stack of newspapers and magazines on the table. He has thick fingers, large hands. I look at my own fingers, my own hands. I can’t look at him.
“You know, you’re free to come home any time,” he says.
“Where’s that?” I ask.
“You’ll find out.”
I put my head in my hands, rub my face. Nancy told me I twitch; I know I twitch. I’m sitting across from my twitch.
“Here, Paul,” my stepmother says. The staff guy watches from the doorway as she hands me a plastic watch. I hang it in front of my face by its strap, then pitch it into the dull green metal trash can. I wonder if I could piss on my father from here.
“This has been hard for all of us,” he tells me.
“You told Mom she wasn’t a good mother.”
“Don’t you tell me that,” he says, his voice rising. “You killed your mother, the way you treated her — always badgering her for money to support your drug habit.”
“You told her that marriage was a bargain and she wasn’t living up to her end of the bargain.” I jerk my head at his new wife. “Is she living up to the bargain?”
He comes back loud and angry. He’s going to beat me, he says — with a belt. He tells me again that I killed my mother. He’s wrong, though. Multiple sclerosis killed my mother. One day, she just didn’t wake up, and all the blood had drained to one side of her body and settled there in a big blue pool, and the rest of her was ghostly white. I didn’t do that. I rub my fingers over the bumps on my face. “You make me sick,” I tell my father, and walk back into the TV room and sit on the red plastic couch in front of the TV. I cross my arms over my chest, stare straight ahead. When I hear the big metal door close, I know that he is gone.
I’d like you to take a test,” Nancy says. Today she’s wearing green: a green velvet skirt, green tights. “It’s to see if you’re depressed.”
“I’m depressed,” I tell her.
“I know,” she says. “We just want to measure your depression.” But she doesn’t know anything. I don’t know anything either.
“Where’s the University of Chicago?” I ask, spying the diploma on her wall.
“It’s on the South Side,” she says.
Reed is on the Northwest Side, near Rolling Stone Records, with its thirty-foot-tall cutouts of Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop. I used to hang out at Rolling Stone with my friends and wear a T-shirt that said METAL UP YOUR ASS! I used to stare past the wrought-iron gates of Reed at the patchy lawns, the plain brick buildings, the basketball court with one rim missing. Quiet, empty, lost.
“Did you go to the University of Chicago?” I ask.
“I went there as an undergraduate. I received my social-work degree at DePaul.”
“I think I’d like to go to the University of Chicago.”
Nancy squints. “I think you’re very bright, Paul. You could do whatever you want to do.”
She doesn’t know anything. “You’re Jay’s therapist, too, right?”
“You like him?”
“Of course.” She crosses her legs.
“How much do you get paid?” I ask.
“I can’t tell you that.”
“I should be in school, otherwise I’ll never make it to a university.”
“OK, I’ll take you off the runaway list.”
I feel good — for a moment.
Jay, Mike, and I are smoking a joint in the room. I start school tomorrow. We’re trying to blow our smoke out the window, but the window doesn’t open very far. It’s cold in here, and French Fry is asleep under all his blankets.
Mike smuggled the joint in after a trip home last weekend. He was lucky: he got Ziggy, and Ziggy doesn’t strip-search. Mike won’t be going back home, though, because he tried to kill his stepdad while he was out.
“So, Jay says you think you can kick my ass,” Mike says to me through a cloud of smoke. He’s got flaming red hair and freckles.
“Yeah,” I say.
“You think you’re hot shit, but you’re not.”
“I don’t think I’m hot shit,” I say. “I don’t think at all.”
“When my father died, I laughed and laughed,” Jay says, trying to change the subject.
The pot feels nice. I don’t understand why they don’t just pass it out. It has to be safer than Thorazine and Haldol. The other day, I took Myafsky’s Thorazine for him, and I hallucinated for hours.
“I’ll whup your ass,” Mike says to me.
“I’ll punch you in the lip and make you look like a duck,” I tell him.
Jay coughs on his smoke, and the three of us burst out laughing, then stop. A silhouette passes by in the hall. We sit on the edges of the beds. Outside the window, the grounds are silent and dark. “I’ve never seen so much nothing,” I say. Then Mike punches me in the eye.
I roll off the bed. Mike charges and I step aside and his head hits the wall and I get him in a headlock and bang his head into the wall a few times while Jay laughs like a hyena.
I push Mike away, and we stand up, breathing hard.
“It’s cool,” Mike says.
There’s blood on the wall from his head.
“All right,” I say.
We sit back down.
“You’re OK,” Mike tells me.
“You’re OK, too.”
Jay goes to sleep, and Mike and I sit in the dark room for a while, contemplating our wounds.
“You probably don’t even need to be here,” he tells me, and he sounds like he believes it. But he doesn’t know my secrets.Like yesterday I sat in bed and cried for no good reason. Just cried. I can’t tell Mr. Macy that. Although maybe he has his own secrets.
I test into the top class in Reed’s school, a level above Mike and Jay. But it doesn’t matter because my teacher, with his perfectly groomed beard, is just a baby sitter. He sits at his desk while the five of us students sit at a long table and sometimes fight. Today we’re drawing on construction paper. I draw swirls and tiny mushroom clouds. Tanya fills her page with bright orange birds.
“Tanya,” I say, “give me some love.” Tanya is quiet, older than me, dark black with large breasts. I don’t know what she did to end up in this nether world. I know it must have been something bad.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because, Tanya, somebody has to love me. Got a family?”
After lunch, Mike, Jay, and I hide out in the bathroom with a paper bag and a small jar of Liquid Paper.
“I heard you were hitting on that nigger,” Jay says, holding in his breath.
“Nigger lover,” Mike says.
I try to explain, but I can’t, so I change the subject.
Just before school ends for the day, I get Tanya to lift up her shirt under the table, and I touch her nipples with the backs of my fingers. It’s the first time I’ve ever touched a girl’s breasts.
When I meet with Nancy today, she is stern. They have found out about us smoking pot in the room. Someone must have squealed. Jay and Mike think it was me. Outside the window, two men hold down a struggling boy, waiting for a nurse to come. Nancy smoothes her skirt. Today she wears creamy hose. I touch my knee, still naked. I’ve been here a month and they haven’t given me a new pair of jeans. The silence is overwhelming. On her desk is a yellow folder with my name on it.
“That my file?” I ask.
“Can I see it?”
“No, it has my notes in it.”
“But it’s about me.”
“But they’re my notes.”
I nod. There’s a steady electric hum coming from somewhere. I eye the outlets. “I’m wondering about yesterday.”
“You mean about you and the others being caught smoking pot?”
“It’s very serious.” She smoothes her skirt again. I lift my finger off my knee and lean toward her, but just for a moment. The folder on her desk is full of papers. Maybe she was looking at it, preparing for our meeting. Or maybe she put it there to taunt me: a folder full of lies that I’m not allowed to see. If I pushed past her, pushed her chair over and stepped over her legs, I could grab the folder, maybe read a few words before the staff barreled through the door.
“I wonder about us,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
I pull my shoulders up.
“You mean, do I still like you?” she asks, the beginning of a squint forming, as if she is about to laugh.
I can’t reply.
“I still like you.”
“That’s good,” I say. I want to say more, but I can’t; my tongue sticks.
When my time is up we stand like choreographed dancers, and Nancy leads me back to the ward. I go inside and she closes the door behind me. It locks with a small click.
I play chess with Mr. Macy while Jay and Mike hover by the pool table with the other residents. Yesterday two guys from the other end of the hall escaped. Mr. Macy pushes a black pawn forward. He always sets up the same. The two guys got out by hammering night after night at the wire outside the window till it came off. I move my knight to attack his pawn. They ran across the fields and scaled the fence and now they are gone.
“What do you think about Jay?” I ask Mr. Macy.
He raises a brow. He works here evenings. I guess in his neighborhood this is considered a good job. “Jay is a political prisoner,” he says, sliding his bishop across the old board with a tiny whoosh. “You probably don’t even need to be here,” he tells me, and he sounds like he believes it. But he doesn’t know my secrets. Like yesterday I sat in bed and cried for no good reason. Just cried. I can’t tell Mr. Macy that. Although maybe he has his own secrets. Maybe he wears women’s clothes or likes to be tied up or has homicidal thoughts. I don’t know what he’s like on the inside.
I beat Mr. Macy today. I beat him because his opening is always the same. When we first started playing, he always beat me, but then I got wise, and he didn’t adjust. He rubs his unshaven chin. I don’t think he has a good job here. He is not like the therapists. He is more like us, the prisoners — here because he has nowhere else to go.
Today, during school break, I don’t disappear with Jay and Mike to sniff Liquid Paper; I disappear with Tanya to a downstairs closet by the gym. They don’t watch us very well. I guess they figure we’re already caught. I unbutton Tanya’s pants, my fingers shaking. I’ve never been with a girl before. We are all crazy here, but I’m starting to think maybe that’s not so bad for me, because I’m so ugly no girl would want me in the real world.
“Run away with me,” Tanya whispers. It’s so dark in the closet and she is so dark that her voice seems to come from my fingers touching her, soft and quiet.
We could run away; I know it. I can run away from anything. But, outside, what good would I be to her? Outside, where it’s not normal to drool on yourself, in a world not slowed by Haldol and Thorazine, what good would I be? I stroke her hair, pulled back tight, run my hand over it, touch her face; she has bad skin, too. I shake my head no, but it’s too dark for her to see. In a few minutes, we’ll be officially missing. The staff will come searching the bathrooms, the closets. “We have to go back,” I whisper.
“Take care of me.” Her voice lingers in the room, in the tiny room. I have her here. Back in class, I’ll carve under the table when no one is looking. I’ll carve TRUST to admonish myself. But now I’m fourteen, locked up. We have to go back. I’m afraid.
I grab her fingers. She squeezes my hand as hard as she can. I don’t know what she thinks I can do. I pull her out of the closet, and the light in the hall is searing. We run through the hallways, past Jay and Mike leaving the bathroom, back to class.
Night rolls in on waves of black and blue. At night, I stop thinking about windows, about outside, about options, and my demons come out — a depression so complete, so numbing, that I can’t sleep, can’t move. I hear French Fry rustling underneath his ten thin blankets. I hear Jay wheezing.
Today I sat with French Fry in the TV room, just far enough from the never-ending TV that we could talk.
“You’re the Sultan of Swing,” he told me.
“What do you mean?”
“Mood swings. You go from hot to cold. You have to find your spot, like me: I’m always hot.”
It’s true. I’ve touched his arm, and his skin is warm.
I looked over just in time to see this black guy, George, smack Mike with a pool cue. The cue broke into two clean pieces and Mike slumped to the ground and I thought, Damn, no more pool.
That was this morning, and I felt fine then. But now my face and pillow are covered in dried tears. I try to make out something in the darkness, something beyond the sounds and the smells and the prickly feeling of my skin. Finally, I dream.
I dream I’m a bartender in an oversized white shirt with tight black pants. The customers crowd the bar and clamor for shots, and I line up the tiny glasses. I read their faces, a crowd filled with cops and abusive parents and dirty old men looking for young hitchhikers. I tip the bottle, but nothing comes out. I pour them all perfect shots of nothing. I give them nothing, but they tip their glasses and drink it down.
In school, our teacher sits in front of a clean chalkboard reading a book that’s open on his wooden desk; we all sit writing in workbooks, or pretending to write in workbooks, or not even pretending — just doing nothing. Tanya pushes a note across the table to me, and I look to see if the teacher has seen it; he hasn’t.
The note reads, “My parents died in a fire.”
I scribble back, “I know someone who tried to burn himself to death,” and push it to her.
“French Fry,” she mouths.
I nod. I touch her foot with mine under the table. She passes me another note: “What happened to your parents?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I write back. Then we return to our workbooks.
I write some poetry, something about being locked up against my will, but it’s not true, so I scratch it out. I look over at Tanya’s book. She’s drawing a picture of a woman in a wedding dress.
Class breaks, and people get up to go to the bathroom, walk the hallway, or disappear into thin air for ten minutes. The teacher closes his book, smiles as if he understands something special, and leaves the room.
I say to Tanya, “My father caught me sleeping in his house and shaved my head, and that’s why I have this terrible haircut.”
“I don’t mind it,” she says.
“It’s terrible because I didn’t fight back. I could’ve run away. He’s not a big guy, but I was too scared, so I sat on the floor and let him do this to me. I’m a coward.”
“You’re not a coward.”
Several moments pass. Funny how time moves no matter what you do, no matter how bored, or scared, or tired, or alone you are.
“I started that fire,” Tanya says, and closes her eyes halfway.
I hear an electric hum. I wonder if Jay and Mike are off with a bottle of glue. Tanya picks up a pencil and shades in the wedding dress on her picture.
“I guess you’re no coward,” I say, and I touch her cheek. She grabs me quickly by the back of my head and sticks her tongue in my mouth. Then, just as quickly, she pulls away and is shy again. For a moment, she wasn’t shy. I guess that’s how it was when she started the fire; she lost her shyness for a moment.
“I think it’s OK,” I tell her, and I do. People have done worse things than kill their parents, and I’m inclined to believe hers deserved it, because I think Tanya is nice.
“Am I your girlfriend?” she asks.
I shrug my shoulders, and the teacher walks back into the classroom with a thick book trapped under his tweedy arm.
We could run away; I know it. I can run away from anything. But, outside, what good would I be to her? Outside, where it’s not normal to drool on yourself, in a world not slowed by Haldol and Thorazine, what good would I be?
Friday night is taco night at Reed. We order tacos from the outside, full of beef and cheese, not like the food we have here: warm grapefruit juice and frozen meatloaf. We get to eat our tacos in the rec room instead of the lunchroom, where the ceiling is covered with butter patties we’ve slapped onto it. Who needs butter?
Not everybody can have a taco, only people who have money — whose parents left some in an account, or who can get some from a friend. Most people can scrounge up the three bucks from somewhere. This week, Mr. Macy buys mine because he lost a bet on a game of chess. I eat my taco at a table with Jay, Mike, and French Fry.
“You still seeing that nigger?” Jay asks, brandishing a plastic knife in my face, cutting the air beneath my chin.
“You fuck a nigger and you’ll have kids with six legs,” Mike says.
French Fry doesn’t say anything. I take a big bite of my taco so that my mouth is full and I don’t have to respond.
“We’re just teasing,” Jay tells me. A table of black guys, including George, the one who smacked Mike with the pool cue, is giving us dirty looks.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” I say.
“I fingered the Indian girl in the closet by the gym,” French Fry says. “I could never get girls on the outside. In here they’re all sluts.” He laughs.
I spit my food into a napkin and get up to throw it in the trash. Walking back to the table, I step over an outstretched leg. I hear laughing. A plastic fork flies over my left shoulder. I sit back down.
“We’re gonna have trouble soon,” Jay says. “We better stick together.”
“Godless place,” French Fry mutters into his food.
I look at my half-eaten taco, the light yellow shell and deep brown filling, and I think about the shit on the walls in the east corridor.
Mike writes something on a sheet of paper.
“Don’t, Mike,” I say.
“Shut up, nigger lover.” He holds his sign up over his head, and I feel the eyes from the next table burning into my shoulder blades. His sign just says, NIGGER. What a word.
“We’re not in jail,” Jay says to me. “We’re just crazy.”
I crook a half smile. “They’re crazy on the outside, too.”
“Crazy everywhere,” French Fry chimes in.
“Yeah,” Mike says, his voice rising, his freckles popping off his face, “fucking crazy!” The staff looks out of the glassed-in office. Mike stands up, screaming, “Crazy everywhere! Fucking crazy!” Now the staff is pouring into the rec room. “C’mon, motherfuckers!” Mike howls, before he is tackled by a mass of five-dollar-an-hour authority in white shirts. I see Mr. Macy in that pile somewhere. They stick a needle in Mike’s leg, tie him up, and drag him down the hall. We all know where he’s going. They’re going to chain him to a table for twelve hours.
I’ve never seen Jay lose his cool. Maybe it’s because he’s a Satanist. He said to me once that a Satanist only respects people who earn his respect. French Fry sleeps with a Bible under his pillow. Mike is a powder keg without a lid. A plastic fork lands in the middle of our table, and there is laughter behind me.
“Shit’s going to go down,” Jay says.
“The apocalypse,” French Fry says. “Good versus evil.”
“No,” I correct him, “a bunch of idiots versus another bunch of idiots.”
“Take it easy,” Jay says to me. “This is no time to get weird.”
That night, I think I hear Mike pulling at the nylon cords strapping him to the long wooden table, like the kind families eat dinner at. I lie in my bed, feeling for my legs. Please let me get through to morning with no demons. I lift my left leg; I can move, a good sign. I look at the ceiling, and for a moment it’s burning, all orange and yellow. Then it stops. I breathe as deeply as I can, pull in air that smells of disinfectant and shit. I lift my other leg. I’m going to be OK tonight. I’m going to sleep tonight. I think I’m getting better.
I can remember when I was younger and I would sit in bed and make up stories, or wonder why my father had called me a fuck-up, or why my mother had to piss in a bucket by the couch. Everyday I would empty the bucket for her, pour all the urine and soaked tissue paper into the toilet. Then I’d rinse the bucket and bring it back. She was always crying. But I was OK then. I could lie in bed and think or read. I was unhappy, but it was nothing like the depression I have now, where sometimes I am a statue, a mummy, with legs that stick to the bed like plaster. But I’m getting better; I can tell. I wonder what kind of life I’ll have. If I can get better, maybe I can go to the University of Chicago. Tomorrow I will tell Nancy that I am better and that I want to go back into the world.
“So, am I depressed?” I say to Nancy, who has the results of the test they gave me. She squints. “What am I paying you for?” I say, and we both laugh a little.
“We’ll go over those tests soon.”
“But I want to know the results now.”
“I know you do.” She crosses her legs. She’s killing me. I can’t fathom her. I look at the top button on her shirt, then her breasts.
“I love you,” I whisper.
“What?” she asks.
I shake my head, look away. It’s too much. How many more meetings with her before they’ll let me out? And where do they intend to put me? I scratch my neck and roll my head on my shoulders. “When can I get out?” I ask.
“And go where?” she says.
I breathe heavily out of my nose. I wish I didn’t have such bad skin. “I can’t sit in here forever.”
“Are you talking about running away?”
A trap. I shake my head.
“Because I would be very disappointed if you ran away,” she says. “We need to get to a point where you can face things. You can’t run away forever.” She crosses, uncrosses, recrosses her legs.
“Some things aren’t worth facing,” I say to the wall. “Some things it’s better to run away from.” I think of my father handcuffing me to that pipe in the basement, and of trying to decide whether to pull down the pipe or wait for him to come back and let me go. I made the wrong choice: I waited for him to come back. Walking away from that yellow stucco house, I knew I should’ve pulled down the pipe.
“Your father’s sick,” Nancy says, as if she’s reading my mind.
“You’re telling me.”
“No, he’s really sick. I got a letter from your stepmother. His spine has collapsed. He’s in a wheelchair.”
I think about this for a moment. “Good.”
“He wants to see you.”
I shrug. Why would I want to see him? Nancy leans in close to me, puts her hand over my hand. She doesn’t wear any rings. Maybe they make her take them off before she comes in. I feel cold.
This time, when Nancy brings me back to the ward, she leaves the hall door open, an invitation. She leaves the door open so I can watch her switch as she walks away, strong and powerful.
All of a sudden, I am covered with women, like the thin blankets they give us in the ward. Tonight we’re in the gym, the boys and the girls. We’re supposed to be playing basketball, but most of us sit in the bleachers. It’s an old gym. Two staff stand by each exit, arms folded over their chests. A kid with a helmet is slowly banging his head against the wall. Nobody moves to stop him. Some kids are lifting weights, punching the air with fifty pounds in their fists. Others are hiding. I can see them hiding. I am hiding in my skin, out in the open.
Tanya knows to meet me underneath the wooden bleachers, where the staff can’t see us. No one cares anyway. There are too many of us in here; it’s anarchy. I have Tanya pinned beneath me on a mat, her shirt up, her breasts against my T-shirt. She kisses me deeply and I rub my hands over her chest, slide them into her armpits. She doesn’t smell good, but I forgive her for that the way she forgives me for being ugly. “When can we go?” she asks. She thinks there is someplace else for us — someplace outside.
“Soon,” I lie. I can’t think of anything else to say, so I kiss her; it seems like the right thing to do. I taste the inside of her mouth, feel her nose against my nose, her bad skin against my bad skin. I rub my hand between her ass and the mat, and as I do I feel a deep pain like a bolt of lightning up my side, rolling me off Tanya. I look up. Between the metal supports under the bleachers stand George and five other black guys. I’m under the low end of the bleachers and I can’t stand up. I feel my side where George kicked me. I think about screaming for Jay and Mike, but I don’t.
George asks what I’m doing with one of his bitches. I can barely hear him over the sound of basketballs bouncing on the court and chains running in the weight-lifting machines.
I shrug. Who cares? He kicks me in the face and I fall back and there are feet all over me and a dull, scuffling sound and pain.
I sit on the creaky bed, looking at Mike and Jay and French Fry lined up in front of me, like three monkeys in a row.
I can still taste the blood in my mouth. I touch my eye, swollen and black, tap my foot. I’m waiting for Mike or Jay to say something, to say that we have to go get them, that we have to get them for doing this to me, that they can’t get away with it. Instead, Jay says, “Told you not to get with no black chicks.”
“What were you thinking?” Mike echoes. He’s freshly released from his restraints, acting calm, pretending to be reasonable. And I know that when the apocalypse comes and they are burning and the hour is upon them, I am just going to walk over them, walk right past them and not look back. When they stretch out their arms to me from the mud, begging for a hand, I will look away.
Down the hall, a voice is wailing, ‘‘I’m going to hell!”
“Good, you fucking retard,” Jay answers.
Nancy touches my eye, and I shy away from her like a nocturnal animal exposed to light. When she runs her finger over my cheek, I open my mouth a little, expecting her to put her finger in it. If she did, I would suck on it like a baby bottle, but she doesn’t. “C’mon,” she says, standing up. “We’re going out.”
I get into her car, a blue Honda smelling of pine with a happy face dangling from the mirror. Faces stare from the windows of the building, asking, Who’s leaving? The sun washes over us as we drive through the grounds, and Nancy unbuttons the top button on her shirt and rolls down the window a little. The breeze blows her hair and she turns to me — Nancy, who is thirty or more, while I’m fourteen — she turns to me, her face full of light.
It seems to take hours to get off the grounds — the green lawns and broken-down buildings. Reed looks empty; it is, really. Nobody lives here, because we don’t exist. When I look in the mirror and see the buildings start to fade into the distance, it seems unreal.
Nancy’s car passes through the gate easily, the guard giving her a friendly nod. I guess he’s seen her car plenty of times. I start to wonder about her car, about who’s been in it. It’s a stick shift, and she drives with her legs slightly spread, her light brown skirt falling gently between them, as if waiting for a hand.
We don’t go far. Nancy slows to a stop in front of a bright red disaster of a Pizza Hut. She looks over at me; I wait for her to kiss me, but I know that’s just on television. Her hand goes down and unbuckles her seat belt. Then, when I don’t move, she unbuckles mine.
Nancy leaves her sunglasses on inside the Pizza Hut. We take a booth in back. Our feet touch under the table. “Back to civilization,” she says.
I don’t know how to respond. I wish I had a pair of sunglasses, too.
“I thought you needed a break.”
“Breaks are good,” I say.
“Paul.” Her foot is still touching mine. “The court has issued an injunction; the State has taken custody of you.”
Where was I when the court was talking about me? Maybe I didn’t exist at that moment. I wonder what time it is, what day of the week.
Nancy takes off her sunglasses. “I’ve decided to apply for a foster license,” she says, “so when you are discharged you can stay with me.”
It doesn’t make sense. Why is she doing this? I want to ask, but I’m afraid she might answer. Nancy’s eyes are bright blue pools that go on forever. What about the others? Who else has been in her car? How many other boys has she taken home? I don’t trust her. I don’t trust her legs or her hands. I want to be the only boy who has ever been in her car.
She stretches her hand across the table, lays it over my hand. Is this TV, after all? “I’ve never done anything like this before, Paul. This’ll be new for both of us.”
Reed has a twenty-one-day automatic-discharge policy: if you run away and don’t get caught for twenty-one days, you are officially released and they stop looking for you. I suppose the idea is that, if you can stay away for twenty-one days, you must not be crazy.
Back at the ward, Mike wants to know where I’ve been.
“That’s my woman.”
“She’s not your woman. She’s your therapist.”
“So look, Mike, I can’t help it. I’m required to meet with her once a week. What do you want me to do?”
Mike stalks off down the hall. I try going for a walk, to think, but I can’t think. This place is too small. I walk to the end of the ward and back. I feel cramped; I bite on my nails. I feel a wave of nausea in my stomach and push it back down. I’m getting better. I don’t need to be here anymore.
Jay is sitting on a couch in the corner. “Have a good lunch?” he asks.
“What are you talking about?”
“How was your pizza?”
“How do you know about my pizza?”
“I know these things,” he says. “There’s trouble coming, Paul.”
“I’ve had trouble already.”
“That was nothing.”
“I’ll be fine,” I say.
“None of us will.” Jay pats the couch next to him, and I sit down. He puts his hand in my hair. “You think you’ll get out of here, don’t you, Paul? Fly away?” I let him keep his hand in my hair, twirling it in his fingers. “You can’t get away from here. Where would you go? The rest of your life will always be this tiny compound, this little hell. You must have done something really bad.”
I try to stand up, but his fingers are twined tightly in my hair. Let me go, I think, but I don’t say it. Besides, maybe he’s right. “Or maybe you’re just crazy,” I say out loud.
Jay’s long fingers slide away from my head. I want to cry now. I stand up and walk away, fighting back what’s in my stomach, what’s in my eyes. I’m trying to get better.
It’s been raining for three days. Yesterday it was raining so I hard they wouldn’t let us go to school. They were worried the rain would act as cover. They were afraid they wouldn’t see us on the lawn, by the buildings, on the winding black road, the Godforsaken basketball court overrun with weeds. They worried we would hide in the raindrops, ducking between the water, escaping through the fence.
I’ve been sitting on my bed watching the rain and reading. First I was reading Johnny Get Your Gun, but they took that away from me, said it was inappropriate. I started reading the Bible, but it was hard to read, and even harder to believe. French Fry spends an hour with the Bible every day. Jay thinks the Bible’s silly. So I’ve been reading Les Miserables, which Mr. Macy brought me. It’s abridged but still over eight hundred pages. A staff lady laughed at me once, told me I was just holding the book open, that I couldn’t understand it. I asked if she had read it, and she stopped laughing.
Mr. Macy appears in my doorway. I put the book down; the gray sky beats gently against the window’s metal screen. He pulls thoughtfully on his chin. “Your father’s here.”
“Damn.” I put down my book. “Only two hundred more pages,” I say, hoping to impress him. He smiles a bit. “What should I do?”
“You should probably see him,” he tells me. “You don’t have to; nobody can make you. But you’d be denying yourself information.”
I grab the book and follow Mr. Macy to the visiting room. He stands outside the door, and I go in.
My father’s a monster. His cheeks are sliding off his face, and his large hands grip the handles of a used wheelchair. (My mother’s?) His head is bolted into a network of metal rods, holding up his spine. He’s unshaven, his big blue eyes full of anger and shame.
“Hello, Paul,” my stepmother says. She sits with hands in her lap, her pants neatly pressed and tucked between her legs, her blouse rolling over her chest. She doesn’t move an inch, not even squirming on that rotten chair. My father is Frankenstein’s monster, a machine. I can’t decide whether to laugh or to cry. I want to run. Mr. Macy told me the other day that running was pointless, that I would find that out one day. He said eventually I’d run so far I’d find myself back in the same place, only older. Then I’d see.
“My boy, my beautiful boy,” my father says through his whiskers, chewing on his words. I can’t not look at the metal bars on either side of his face. “We want you to come home, Son. We’ll start over with a clean slate.”
“You beat me up.”
“I used the necessary force.”
“But I was sleeping.” In the doorway, Mr. Macy looks like he’s shaking. Maybe he’s laughing. “I don’t even know where you live.”
“We’ll take you there.”
My father looks up at me through his metal halo, and I think of all the things I could do to him. “Why don’t you just write down the address, and maybe I’ll meet you.”
“You’re my son!” my father says. He tries to pound his palms on the arms of his wheelchair, but they make only a small thud.
“Look at you,” I say.
My stepmother finally shifts. Nobody can sit in that position for long. “Your father needs your help, Paul.” She pulls some thick files out of a briefcase hidden beside the chair. Mr. Macy pokes his head in the doorway without moving his body. “We thought you might want to see these.”
I know what they are immediately: they’re Nancy’s files. They contain my test results, her notes, the psychiatrist’s recommendations. “How’ d you get these?”
“Your therapist sends them to us every week.”
I peruse the papers that my father brought, pulling slightly on the sheets, not enough to pull them apart. I pause to place a chair on my bed so I can remove the ceiling tile that covers our secret hiding place. Balanced precariously on the mattress, I take out a cigarette and two matches. Then I climb down, put the chair back, strike the match on the mirror. I haven’t smoked in weeks. It’s glorious.
I go back to the pages. They say I’m depressed; I know I’m depressed. They estimate my IQ at 117. Prick bastards. I estimate their IQs at negative. I read on, pages and pages. They think I’m lying, that I’ve been lying all along. That part is underlined in red — by my father? They want to reunite me with him. Here’s Nancy’s application for temporary custody. It doesn’t jive, doesn’t ring true. I scour the ceiling for a place to hang myself from, then close my eyes and let the urge pass away. Things will get better, I tell myself. I think of how it will be when I’m older: I’ll be beautiful. I’ll be golden. My skin will clear up and I’ll grow my hair long. I’ll be so damn healthy. I’ll forgive everyone, even my father — what the hell. I’ll date a beautiful therapist who’ll listen to everything I have to say, seven days a week. And I’ll get my hands between her legs.
I flick my ashes on the floor. Wish I had some music. This file, this thick file that Nancy didn’t want me to read but that she sent to my father the monster every week. I take the last drag, spit on the cigarette, put it out on the papers from the file, then casually discard them in the green metal can in front of the rec room, where all the staff and a smattering of security guards are standing around a guy lying on the floor bleeding from his head. It’s Jay.
The halls seem different today, stark, glowing. I don’t know what happened to Jay and feel sure I never will. This is what I saw, or think I saw: Jay’s face like a skull with skin pulled tight over it. Blood by his ear. His eyes open. Stringy blond hair around his head like a halo. The guards and the staff moving around him slowly, talking slowly. I stood there until I was told to go away. “Go where?” I asked. Then I turned and walked slowly back to my room and lay down on my bed with my hands behind my head and stayed that way till morning.
I didn’t go to school today. I’m sitting on the bright red couch in the TV room waiting for Nancy to walk through the two large doors that lead to the hall, to the offices, so I can smell her. I’m twitching; I itch.
The doors open. Nancy stands there, her golden hair backlit by the lamps from the hallway. She squints. Her blouse hangs off her arms, a light green blouse. She’s wearing a ring, and there’s a breeze behind her. From where?
We walk to her office. She squints at me; I keep my hands in my pockets. I step in ahead of her, sit down, put my hands over my face. She’s been cleaning. The books have been put away. The papers have been packed in white boxes by the radiator. I’m looking at all this through my fingers.
Nancy sits down, squinting. “So, your father gave you some papers.”
I rub my fingers over my face, over my nose. I stop, pull my hands away, stroke my hair forward. It’s been months, but there’s still not much there. My hair’s not growing back. Maybe I have cancer. “Am I dying?” I ask no one in particular. Nancy looks at me quizzically. I drop my hands to my lap and look down at the floor. “You shouldn’t’ve given him those papers. . . . You wouldn’t even give them to me.”
“Should I not have given them to him because I hadn’t let you read them, or because he shouldn’t have them?” She crosses her legs and adjusts her skirt ever so slightly.
For a second, I can’t think, can’t understand what she’s saying. I turn to the window. The outside is still there; it’s calling me. “It doesn’t matter,” I say. “You shouldn’t have. It was wrong. And you know why.”
Nancy smiles at me, uncrosses her legs. “What do you want, Paul?”
I want her smell. I want to crawl inside her. “I want to be beautiful,” I say. “Just for a moment. I’ve never been anything except ugly.”
She laughs, short and soft. “You are beautiful,” she says. She stands, comes over, kneels beside me, places her fingers on my cheek. I pull away. I’m afraid of her. She goes back to her seat. Still close, but out of touching range, and starts adjusting her skirt again. Does she want me to fuck her? Right now? Who’s messed up here? Because I’m feeling pretty sane.
“It’s just . . .” I can’t talk.
“Yes?” She leans forward.
“I’ve never had a girl,” I tell her.
She nods knowingly.
“So I guess I’ve never had to worry about . . . these things.”
“Do you feel I betrayed you, Paul?”
We pause. I lean back in the chair, exhale. I can hear the world outside her windows. I know that if I stay in Reed, it’ll be suicide for me. Not today or tomorrow, but soon enough. Maybe on Nancy’s kitchen floor. I picture her house as beautiful, well kept, with clean windows, a thick, comfortable bed. And I just know if I ever saw it I would kill myself immediately. I think not killing myself is victory enough.
Your eye looks better,” Tanya whispers to me in class. It’s been healing. There’s only a gray shadow left around it. Maybe I should just paint it black so people will stop hitting me there.
I place my hand on Tanya’s leg under the table. The teacher looks up from his book, then back down. The other students lounge by the windows or drool in the corners. And this is the smart class. Mike and French Fry are down the hall in the less-than-smart class. In this room, only Tanya and I exist. The rest are just wallpaper. “I’m going to take care of you,” I whisper into her ear.
On the sheet of paper in front of her, she scribbles, “I know you can.”
Reed has a twenty-one-day automatic-discharge policy: if you run away and don’t get caught for twenty-one days, you are officially released and they stop looking for you. I suppose the idea is that, if you can stay away for twenty-one days, you must not be crazy.
My escape plan is fairly simple. I have twenty dollars that Mr. Macy gave me a while back and told me to keep in my shoe because I was going to need it someday. Between classes, instead of going to a bathroom or a closet, Tanya and I will walk straight out the school door. We’ll run off the road and cut through the grass. I picture us holding hands and Tanya stopping just for a second to look back, but I pull her arm and she runs again; there is nobody. After a few minutes we come to a fence. I climb over first and then help her over and suddenly we’re at the bus stop on Irving Park Road, with cars going past. A big green bus pulls up and we climb on and pay the fare and sit down in a day-glo orange seat. Tanya wraps her arms around me and lays her head in my lap. I look back at the fence, and it looks like just any fence around anybody’s back yard.