I watch Trish apply a heavy line of electric-blue eyeliner, her brows creased in concentration as if she is preparing for battle. I remember the first time she showed me how to wear makeup, how amazed I was afterward to find that I didn’t look anything like myself. Since then I have never left my room without it, even though there’s exactly no one here to impress. There’s a sense of security in the mask, in the daily burial of myself beneath layer and color, concealing the girl who walked in here two and a half years ago, so exposed and rejected and easy to wound. The act of putting on makeup is like covering up a secret I don’t want anyone to know. Now when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I don’t see ugly and unlovable anymore, I see mascara, cherry lip gloss, bright pink blush. I see an illusion I’m hoping to pass off as truth, as the real me.
We are about to head over to the TV room when Shelly of the sliced-up wrists passes by, sobbing. I rush over to find out what’s wrong, but Trish stays put. She can’t tolerate tears, doesn’t let herself have them either. I find Shelly in her room stuffing an overnight bag with clothes. She tells me that her nana, the only real mother figure she’s ever had, the only one who comes to visit, who bakes her cookies and strokes her hair, has been hospitalized nearby and is not expected to live through the night. I start to cry too because it’s just so freaking sad and because this is what happens when twenty-two heartbroken kids get locked up together on a small hallway—everybody’s emotions get all mixed up with each other.
Then Nurse Kay, who has mastered the art of being disaffected, struts in and informs Shelly that Dr. Meeks has denied her a pass to see her grandmother, having deemed her too much of a suicide risk. Considering the razor-blade scars up her wrists, he’s probably right, but all Shelly knows is that she won’t have the chance to say good-bye to the only person who ever loved her. She sits down on her bed and cries quietly, her pale face turning red and puffy. Soon, the crying moves, becomes something more guttural and desperate.
“Please,” she sobs. “I just want to say good-bye!”
“I’m sorry,” Kay says matter-of-factly.
Shelly stares up at her, dazed, blinking through tears. Then she jumps up suddenly and runs past us down the hall toward the door. “You have to let me out of here!” she cries, pounding her fists and yanking the knob. “You have to let me out!”
I run after her and put my hand on her shoulder, but Kay steps in front of me.
“No physical contact,” she says. Then, instead of providing Shelly comfort, Kay turns and marches into the nurses’ station and flips the emergency alarm. The piercing sound shatters the air, a high-pitched scream that runs laps around my head. Everyone stops, hands to their ears, fixed by the blaring sound we know too well. Only Shelly seems mobilized, thrashing harder to get out.
Within seconds, six huge male aides from other wards are running down our hallway. Shelly turns and sees them and screams louder than the alarm at the sight of all those men coming at her.
“I just want to see my nana!” she pleads.
They are upon her in a flash, manhandling her to the ground. She cries out for us, for someone to help her. I think of her rape as the men trap her arms and legs.
“Get off of her!” I scream. I know they’ll try to take away my privileges like they always do when I stand up to them, but I’ve never given a shit before and I’m not about to start now.
“Please don’t do this!” Shelly pleads with the aides, and her screams are so penetrating and desperate, they sound like they’re coming from my own head.
Nurse Kay gives her a shot that silences her, and the aides drag her by the arms to the Quiet Room to “get herself together.” Even after she is drugged and muted, I can hear her screams reverberating: the sounds of helplessness and grief, the horror of indifference.
The alarm stops. All is immediately and terribly quiet.
“You didn’t have to do that,” I say. “You could have just talked to her.”
Kay ignores me, turns to the gathered crowd. “Okay, everybody, show’s over.”
“Some show,” I say with disgust. And just like so many times before, I glance around at the other kids, hoping to see shared outrage in their faces. But the system that punishes feelings and rewards obedience has robbed them of their fight. Me, I don’t know any other way to survive.
Finally, I spot James, just back from Meeks’s office. He walks over and stands beside me, allying himself with my fury—me and James against the world.
LATE THAT NIGHT, my second to last here, James and I are sitting just inside the doorway of our respective rooms, James slouched against the doorjamb. The hallway is near black and quiet as sleep.
“So,” he whispers into the watchful silence. “How’s it feel?”
“What? Being a super-genius?”
Even in the dark I can see him roll his eyes. “Flying the coop.”
I look down at my hands, which seem larger in the darkness. For the first time in my life, my entire future feels wholly dependent on me, and I can’t think of anyone I trust less not to screw things up. I can’t even think about it. It’s too scary.
“You realize how hard it’s gonna be, running this place all by myself?” he says.
I look up and smile. “All those damsels in distress and no one but you to rescue them.”
He smiles back, but the air between us grows heavy with unspoken sadness. I look away.
“Anyway . . .” I say.
He watches me.
He pauses. His face grows serious. “Who’s gonna have your back when I’m not around?”
“Come on. I’ll be fine.”
He looks away, chews his lip. “I hope so.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”