Dr. Mernich is the kind of woman who forgets to brush her hair but somehow makes the crazed lunatic look work for her, which is weird, because she works with crazies. Not that crazies are bad. I’ve met a few and am probably one of them. I just don’t know it. Or I do. But I refuse to let it get in the way of my fabulousness hard enough to require a shrink. Mernich is my way out of this place, in any case. She’s the one who’s keeping me here until she’s satisfied I’m alright in the head. Which is dumb, because mentally I am a diamond fortress of impenetrable logic and sexiness.
Dr. Mernich clears her throat. “Isis, you’re –”
“I will someday not think aloud, and that will be a sad day for humanity. Also, quieter.”
“How are you feeling today?”
“Parts of me are feeling lots of things! For instance, my intestines are feeling lots of things! That means I need to poop. Sometime in the next hour. In addition to this riveting prospect, I’m worried about my mom so if you could just write me a note so I can get out of here that’d be great.”
“What have we said about avoiding the subject with flippant jokes?”
I squirm. “Uh, it’s vaguely negative. I think.”
“And why is it vaguely negative?” She asks patiently and scribbles some more.
“Because I don’t confront anything, I just run away from it,” I recite.
“But to be clear I run away from it like a Baywatch babe, not a fat, sweaty kid in gym class. I mean, I am still fat as heckie but it’s an alluring sort of fat, you feel me?”
“Isis, do you really think you’re fat?”
“Duh. And unlovable. But you already know that.”
Her eyes spark. Of course she already knows that, she’s spent two weeks with me, talking about my life. I’d stalled around her with jokes for a good week until I realized she was the one who gives the go-ahead to let me out. And then I had to start actually cooperating with an adult. Ugh.
“You already know everything about me, right?” I tilt my head. “So c’mon. Why don’t you just let me out of this – pardon my French – absolute shithole?”
She adjusts her glasses. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m certain there are still some things we need to work on. You’re close, but not quite there.”
Even this shrink is obvious. Her self-satisfied little smile as she says that gives it all away. The trophies and awards lining her stuffy walls give it away.
“You like it. Knowing things about people. It makes you feel powerful.”
Dr. Mernich looks up from her scribbling, the faintest whiff of startled hanging around her.
“You. Like. The. Ego. Trip. Shrinking. Gives. You,” I say slowly. “I understand. I see things about people and I just love knowing I know. It’s weird. It’s stupid. But mostly it’s fun and it makes me feel superior. Maybe I’ll turn it into a way to make money someday, too. I gotta think about that kind of stuff, you know, with college and everything a few months away.”
Mernich is completely frozen for point four seconds, and then she starts scribbling madly. She does that when I say something super interesting that she can dissect. So she scribbles a lot. Because I am, objectively, an insanely interesting person. I better be! I work hard to be interesting, dammit!
“Anyway what was I saying?” I scratch my chin. “Right, I feel really cooped up and sort of tired of hospitals. Also I feel bad for Sophia. Did you know she has no parents? And her grandma died? How sucky is all that death? Majorly sucktastic.”
Mernich nods. “I’m her psychologist as well. She’s quite the strong girl, if a little tragic.”
“Wow. That’s sort of condescending? I said I feel bad for her but you went straight to giving her labels like tragic? Wow. That’s interesting. Wow.”
I can see Mernich start a glare behind her glasses, but she quickly cuts it off and resumes her usual passive face. Oh, she’s good. But not better than me. Not better than Jack.
I pause, my swinging legs stopping under the chair. Jack? Where did that come from? How would I know Jack is any good? I haven’t been around him for more than thirty seconds that first time when I woke up and he yelled at me.
“What about Jack, Isis?”
“Uh, I don’t know. It just…it just popped into my head. Which is weird. I mean, most things that pop into my head are really weird, like that one time when I thought about Shrek in Victoria’s Secret underwear, but I think this actually beats Shrek’s Secret.”
Mernich leans back. “What do you remember before the incident, Isis?”
“I was applying to colleges. Boring.”
“And before that?”
“I…I was at school. And I – I yelled. At someone. I don’t remember who. Kayla, maybe. Maybe Wren? Yeah, I think Wren.”
“What did you yell about?”
My palm suddenly stings, and I remember the sudden feeling of slapping someone.
“I slapped someone. I yelled and I slapped them. Wren must’ve done something stupid, I don’t know.”
“And before that? Do you remember any major events?”
“There was a party. A big one. Avery’s house. Halloween – I dressed up as Batgirl.”
“Did Kayla go?”
“Yeah, she was a mermaid. Her and her boyfriend – ugh, what’s his name? I don’t remember his name, but I know I slightly despised him.”
“Despise is an awfully strong feeling.”
“Yes well being alive is an awfully strong feeling.”
“I didn’t like him. Or, something about him rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t know.”
“And can you recall what happened at the party?”
My head suddenly gives a massive throb, my spine tingling with pain. I squeeze my eyes shut and rub them.
“Isis? What can you remember?”
Leo’s face comes back, leering at me from the doorway. Panic wells up in my throat. I’m not going to be able to save Mom.
“I – I don’t know! Stuff!”
“Try to remember specifics. Did you drink anything? Did you dance? Who was wearing what costume?”
“Wren was…he was a green guy. Link! Link from Zelda. And I drank…coke. I think. With rum. Don’t tell my Mom that. We joke about me drinking but she doesn’t really know I drink. And I danced and there was someone –”
He’s going to hurt her. He’s hurt someone before. He hurt Sophia. Sophia? No, that’s not right. Leo doesn’t know her. Who, then, has hurt Sophia? A baseball bat. Avery came at me with a baseball bat, and someone grabbed it. I can see their broad, spidery hand wrapped around it, wrenching it from her, their low voice saying something with an amused tone to a startled, frozen Avery –
The pain ricochets through my head like a tennis ball on fire.
“Fuck!” I grab my forehead and put it between my knees.
“Take deep breaths, Isis,” Mernich says softly. “You’re doing well, but don’t give up now. What else happened there?”
A bed. A soft bed, someone’s soft lips, someone whispering my name –
The pain splinters, blossoming in my brain like a demented, evil flower. I can’t see anything – the world goes black and my ears ring.
That’s what you get for trusting someone.
Maybe I’ll love you. If you hold still.
Mernich says something but I can’t hear her. It hurts. It hurts and I want it all to stop.
You got guts. I like that.
Have fucking fun trusting nobody for the rest of your life!
I don’t go out with ugly girls.
“Isis! Look at me!”
I look up. Mernich’s face is pale.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to push yourself anymore. I’m sorry. Just breathe. In, and out. There you go. Slowly. Sit up.”
When I lean back into the chair, I realize my hands are shaking. My whole body is trembling, like a thread in the breeze.
“Why?” I murmur. “Why can’t I remember what happened?”
She pulls her clipboard out again and clicks her pen. “Well, to find that out, we need to go to the beginning.”
“You mean like, biblical genesis? Because I have three rules for a happy, fulfilling life, and never time travelling ever is one of them. Because, you know. Dinosaurs kill things. And the black plague. And let’s face it – with my supreme amounts of unnatural charm, I’d be burned as a witch.”
She chuckles. “No. Not that far. I just want you to tell me your story. The real one. The one about Will.”
I flinch, my skin crawling at the sound of his name.
“Pulling my own tongue out and setting it on fire would be preferable to talking about that guy.”
“I know. But I think it’s time to stop running. I think you know that, too.”
I hate her. I hate her so much. She’s the reason I can’t leave. I’m racking up more and more pricey bills the longer I stay here. She’s the reason Mom worries. But I can tell she really wants to know about Nameless. If I tell her the story, maybe she’ll let me go. Nothing else has worked so far. It’s worth a shot, even if that shot will pierce through my guts and leave them to bleed all over the floor.
“From the beginning?” I ask softly.
“From the beginning.” She nods.
I inhale, and let it out as a long sigh. Somewhere outside a bird chirps. I want its freedom more than anything.
“When I was in fifth grade, I developed a crush on a boy. This was my first mistake. He wasn’t a particularly attractive boy, he was sort of quiet and spit sometimes, but he had pretty, dark, silky hair. The female teachers complimented him on it. I wrote him a love note that said ‘I like your hair’ and he wiped his nose on it and gave it back to me at recess. I should’ve seen the warning signs in the mucus. But I was smitten. He’d paid attention to me! Me – the fat roly poly girl with frizzy hair and a constant cloud of B.O. surrounding her! He actually didn’t snub me, or push me in the mud, or call me a fat whale, he just wiped his nose on my declaration of love and gave it back to me. It was the most promising social signal I’d received in my short ten years of life on the planet Earth.
Thus began my descent into utter madness.
I did anything short of committing crimes to get his attention. Also, I committed actual crimes. Like riding my bike on the freeway shoulder lane to get to his house and stare at him through his window while he played video games. But then I found out it was illegal! You can’t ride your bike on the freeway at all! So I started taking the bus to look at him through his window while he played videogames.
Anyway, so there I was, in the prime of my life, and by prime I mean not prime at all. Mom and Dad were going through the divorce, which involved a lot of shouting and money and guilt, so Aunt Beth offered her home for a few months so I wouldn’t have to switch schools, which turned into nearly five years, but Aunt Beth was totally cool about it. We had grilled cheese almost every night and she let me watch R-rated movies. So basically I’d died and gone to heaven and neither of my parents gave a diddly-damn except Mom who sometimes got guilty and sent me lots of exceptional socks. I love her, but really, socks?
So while my loveable gene donors were off debating who owned what vase for sixty months, I grew up in the loudest ways possible. Well, I wasn’t exactly loud back then, I was more an indoor-mouse-whisper kind of gal, but you get my drift. There were fights. One time, a girl tried to run me over with her scooter! Do you remember scooters? I remember scooters. My shinbone remembers scooters. One time that girl even gave me a frog! Because she was so nice! I found it in my locker! Actually I had tons of friends and by tons I mean everyone in the library who squeezed around my bulk to reach their books.”
“And what were you doing in the library?”
“Hiding. I read a lot of Jane Austen and cried. It was a formative experience.”
Mernich nods, motioning for me to continue. She’s doing it. She’s making me bring out the big guns. I sigh.
“Alright. No more pussyfooting around it. I met…Nameless…I can still call him that, right?”
“If you must.”
I take a deep breath.
“After stalking him for most of middle school, the first time I exchanged words with Nameless was at Jenna Monroe’s beach party in seventh grade. The girls were wearing pastel tankinis and swimming. I was wearing two sweatshirts and yoga pants and sitting with her Mom. I was still at a loss as to why Jenna Monroe invited me at all – Jenna was all legs and brown ponytails and glitter pens – the total opposite of my pudge and pencils. We’d been friends once, when we were still pooping ourselves and learning not to eat said poop, but judging by the way Jenna’s mom waved to me when I first came, I got the impression Jenna had no hand in inviting me at all.
Anyway, there I was, waist-deep in an element that sure as hell wasn’t mine. Girls were giggling, splashing water on each others’ boobs, and boys were around! Staring at the girls! Well, all the girls except me and Jenna’s mom. Will was there, so I hid behind the soda cans on the picnic table and tried to look like I wasn’t there. Being almost two hundred pounds is sort of counter-productive to invisibility, though. Everyone saw me. Even Will. It was like, two seconds of eye contact, and then he looked away. And I thought I was done for! Because, you know, when people look at you and you’re fat you think you’re done for.”
I look up, and I can see the faintest glaze coming over Mernich’s eyes. She’s skinnier than a beanpole. Probably has been her whole life. She has no idea what I’m talking about. No amount of college can teach her that. I laugh.
“You know what? Screw it. Just…I’ll just talk about the part you really wanna know. It’s what everyone wants to know. They don’t care about the how or the whys, just when and where and how quickly they can say ‘awww, I’m sorry’ or try to fix it.”
“That’s – that’s not what I meant at all, Isis –”
“No, you know what? It’s fine. It’s probably better this way. This way I don’t have to drag out my entire sordid history for you to pore over! Saves you time! I’m sure you’re a busy lady with a lot of crazy people to talk to and I’m, frankly, a total purveyor of common sense and not-time wasting, so. So you know what? Yeah. The day it happened it was raining. I was at his house. The frogs were outside and croaking because he lived near a marsh. That’s what Florida is. Marshes. Marshes and assholes. His mom had made us popcorn. My hands were oily. His hands were oily. We’d been secretly going out for two months but he wouldn’t let me tell anyone and when I tried to talk to him at school he ignored me, laughed at me and told me to buzz off. But then he’d apologize. When we were alone he was nice. Nicer. Marginally. I was fourteen. Fourteen, okay? I was fourteen and I thought I was in love and I would have done anything to keep him from leaving me –”
Bile rises in my throat, but I swallow it back and clench my fists on the armrests.
“Do you know what it’s like? Never wanting to lose another someone? Everyone else leaves. Mom and Dad left. I didn’t want him to leave. If he left, I would’ve lost it. He was the only normal thing in my life. He made me feel…when he smiled at me, he made me feel pretty. Do you know what that’s like, either? Being fat, being huge and gross and feeling huge and gross and then finding someone who makes you feel pretty? Do you know what you’d do to keep that person? You’d do anything. Anything in this world short of killing yourself.”
Mernich’s eyes are softer, now. But I don’t trust them anymore. This is what she wanted. She’s getting it. Her pen is scrabbling madly across the paper even as she opens her mouth to speak.
“I’m sorry, Isis. I didn’t mean to seem callous. But this is good. You, saying these things aloud, even if you hate me for bringing them out…it’s good. It’s helping.”
I’m shaking. My body trembles with a rage I can’t express. It’s not all anger at Mernich’s vapid, voracious curiosity, though. I’m not all mad at her. The anger is directed at someone else, too. Nameless. Myself. Mom and Dad.
Mernich pushes back in the chair. “We’ll stop here.”
She gets up and doubles around her desk, pulling out a familiar yellow slip.
“What are you doing?” I demand.
“Writing you a discharge.”
“Not gonna grill me more? Not gonna ask me to come right out and say it? You were the one who said I needed to confront it, not run away.”
“This isn’t running away,” she says calmly, and rips the paper off and hands it to me. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, Isis. Some people need me – a total stranger – to listen. However, some people are only further injured when a total stranger listens. As a doctor, and with you as my patient, I can’t ascribe you continue speaking to me on this matter with a good conscious. I’m not the one who should hear it. Someone else – your mother, your father, maybe Kayla, or Sophia, or perhaps someone you haven’t met yet – one of them will make you feel safe enough to say it. One of them will be the one you decide to tell. It’s up to you.”
I stand, and grab the paper warily, like it’s a trap. But Mernich just smiles.
“Would you like your diagnosis?”
“Not at all. Do you know what disassociation is?”
“Something crazy people have.”
Mernich’s smile turns patient. “It’s what occurs when a person goes through a traumatic experience. It’s a…think of it like a coping mechanism for the brain. Say someone throws a snowball, and it’s going to hit your eye. Your eyelids react much faster than the snowball flies to protect the cornea. Disassociation is like an eyelid for the brain. A traumatic event can cause the brain to disassociate the event. Sometimes this manifests as a simple case of shock that quickly wears off. Other times, we see intense reactions, such as withdrawal, PTSD, and in your case -”
She looks up, and I dread the next words to fall from her mouth.
“ – amnesia.”
“What?” I scowl. “I don’t –”
“You have periods of painful black outs when you try to recall a certain person in your life. Your brain has identified this person as the source of overstimulation, and perhaps pain. You have what’s called lacunar amnesia – it’s a very centralized and rare thing.”
“So I’ve lost my brain? Part of my memories? I’ve totally forgotten them?”
“You haven’t really forgotten – the brain never truly forgets. I believe in your case, the memories are still there, but buried beneath layers. It might take months to get them back. But you may also never get them back at all.”
“Who…which person was it? The one I forgot?”
“Think back. What have your friends told you? Have they been acting strangely towards you, concerning a certain person?”
It filters in slowly – weeks of Kayla’s weird looks, of Wren’s concerned sighs, and Sophia, shaking her head and saying it’s sad. And then Jack’s fractured expression when I first woke up and said I didn’t know him. I stare, wide-eyed, at Mernich’s passive face.
“Jack. That Jack guy. Everything they say about him – doesn’t make sense. But why do I have this lactose amnesia thing? I mean, my head was bad, but – ”
“You suffered significant head trauma. I believe the lacunar amnesia is a combination of that and your own disassociation of the traumatic event of fighting off your mother’s attacker.”
“Did Jack – how do I know him?”
“You’d be better off asking Sophia that question, I believe. But you’re leaving the hospital with that discharge slip right away, aren’t you? You were quite eager to go.”
I look at the crumpled yellow note in my hand and close my fist around it.
“It can wait.”
Mernich smiles at me.
“Yes. Yes it can.”