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Then and Again

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Chapter 1

2008:
Nicole’s fingers drummed nervously next to her keyboard; the happy blue Facebook banner stretched across the top of her monitor. She stared at the small thumbnail image, a woman with long brown hair holding a baby wrapped in a white blanket. The smile stretched out across the woman’s face, lifting her eyes into shining half moons, was what she recognized in the tiny image.

Nicole looked up from her computer and glanced around her office. Calling it an office was being generous, Nicole realized, it was only a small nook just off her living room with her desk and a half bookshelf shoved in. The towering stack of law books sitting next to her elbow reminded her that she should be studying. With two years of her law degree under her belt, Nicole knew how the game worked. Instead, her eyes were drawn back to the tiny square image.

It had been so long since she’d seen her. She didn’t recognize the last name, Waverly Hardy. So maybe she’s married, maybe she’s straight now? The thought caused her to pull her other hand off of the mouse. A little white arrow blinked expectantly over the “Send Friend Request” button.

Maybe she won’t remember me, she thought. Even if she does, she won’t feel the same. So much time has passed.

Her finger tapped next to the keyboard.

But that smile, though. Nicole closed her eyes and thought back. That smile. Her hand twitched and her knee jumped. It was so close, she wanted to hit send, she wanted to find out. She’d found so many people from high school, reconnected, rediscovered friendships, so why wouldn’t Waverly want to hear from her?

Nicole placed her hand in her lap, her thumb instinctively found the pulse point at her hip. She could feel her heart beat right through her clothes. Nicole took a deep breath. Even if Waverly didn’t remember her, even if she didn’t feel the same, even if she was straight... It was still worth it.

Nicole brought her finger over the return button and hit send before she could rethink it.

The words on screen changed to “request sent.” Nicole collapsed back in her chair and looked around her room. It’s done. No going back now.

 

1993:
The maroon sign at the crossroad read “Walter Lee Hope Hospital for Children.” A dense forest crowded the road on either side of the narrow driveway. Nicole couldn’t see the building and the thick expanse of trees felt like a bad omen. Why was this place hidden from view on a small road buried in the farmland on the outskirts of Indianapolis? It seemed sketchy, very “Silence of the Lambs.” She pushed her chin length, red hair firmly behind her ears.

From her peripheral vision, Nicole saw her mom glance over. Nicole closed her eyes and held her breath for a moment. She felt the light squeeze of her mom’s hand on her thigh. “It’s going to be ok, darling. Everything’s going to be ok.”

That was about the 100th time she had said that on the car ride over, and Nicole wondered if she was trying to reassure herself more than Nicole.

Instead of responding, Nicole ignored the hand on her thigh and studied the trees outside. They were just a jumble of bare branches, patches of snow on the ground mirroring the overcast sky above. Her mom removed her hand, and Nicole felt a small flicker of gratitude. The world outside almost looked black and white in the stark December morning.

Then the driveway turned sharply to the right and once they were around the bend, the hospital came into view for the first time. The single story building stretched out like a drab 1970’s elementary school.

Nicole’s mom parked near the entrance and let out a heavy sigh. “Trust me, this is going to be ok. You’ll only be here for a short time, then you’ll be back home and feeling better than ever.”

Nicole snorted out a laugh and shook her head in disbelief. She must fucking love the smell of her own farts, she thought, still refusing to make eye contact with her mom.

“Let’s get your bags out of the trunk, hopefully they’ll show us where we need to take them.” Nicole heard the driver’s side door open and then felt the cold gush of air fill the car. Reluctantly, Nicole grabbed the door handle, sighed, and pushed open her door.

Nicole’s shoe crunched through a patch of dirty, packed snow on the parking lot as she walked around to the rear of the car. She grabbed her duffel bag from the trunk and her mom picked up her backpack.

“This looks like a nice place. So quiet. I sort of wish I could be staying here, too.” Her mom spoke, looking over the front of the building. “It kind of looks like a summer camp, doesn’t it?”

“Not really.” Nicole said, curtly. She hoisted the duffel onto her shoulder and trudged off to the front door leaving her mom behind.

“Nicole, wait.”

Nicole stopped and rolled her eyes. Here it comes, she thought.

“Look honey, I know this isn’t what you want, but I really think it’s for the best. I just hope you can use this time to start to feel better, more confident, more beautiful. You are so beautiful, darling, and I want you to feel that way, too.” Her mom was on the verge of tears, Nicole could hear it in her voice, but she still didn’t turn around to face her. “You are so special and so wonderful, and it makes me sad...” her mom’s voice cracked.

Yup, thought Nicole, here it is.

“It makes me sad that you don’t feel the same way. We tell you all the time, your father and I, we tell you how beautiful you are, but it doesn’t seem to help.” Her voice faltered. “I just hope you’ll listen to them, they know what they’re doing. They’ve seen this before and worked with kids just like you all the time. I just hope you’ll listen to them...” She paused for a moment.

Guilt in 3...2...1...

“Because it seems like you won’t listen to us. Your father and I love you so much. We just want what’s best for you.”

As tempted as Nicole was to respond, she knew it would go nowhere. So why bother. They’d had this conversation so many times before: Why won’t you wear more dresses, why don’t you like to wear makeup, why won’t you walk more lady-like, why, why why? We try so hard; your grandmother buys you the prettiest clothes; there’s more to life than soccer, you know.

Nicole steeled her expression and walked off to the front door. If she had to be here, she’d at least do it on her own terms, and right now that meant not talking to her mom.

A burst of heat and sickeningly sweet room deodorizer hit Nicole when she walked through the front door. Her mom was close on her heels. She took in the large entry that was split between a waiting room and reception desk. The middle-aged woman sitting behind the front desk greeted them with a wide smile.

“How may I help you?”

“I’m Patricia Haught and I’m here with my daughter, Nicole. We’re here to meet Dr. Lucado and get her checked in.” Again, Nicole refused to look at her mom, but she could hear the smile. The cheeriness in her mom’s voice felt as fake as all the trees around the waiting room.

“Of course. Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll let her know you’re here.” The receptionist said.

Nicole dropped her bag next to a love seat and sat down in the middle taking up as much space as possible. Her mom walked up to Nicole and ran her fingers through Nicole’s hair, drawing it out to lay down along her cheek. Nicole shrugged away and quickly placed it back behind her ear. Patricia sat down on the couch nearby.

“You look prettier when you don’t hide all that beautiful red hair, honey.”

Nicole pretended that she didn’t hear her and stared out at the room.

A couple minutes later, Nicole looked up as she heard the clack of high heels hitting the tile floor. From the hallway, emerged a tall woman. She was slender, almost eating-disorder skinny, and had blonde hair pulled up in a tight bun. She wore a smile that made the icy look in her eyes send a chill down Nicole’s spine.

She held out her long arm to Nicole’s mom, “I’m Dr. Lucado.”

“It’s so nice to meet you.” Nicole’s mom greeted her sweetly.

Dr. Lucado’s hard flash of smile caused Nicole’s mom to flinch back a bit. “Lovely.” The doctor’s voice was anything but. “I’m the head psychiatrist here at Hope Hospital. I oversee the therapy programs in the residential units and conduct one on one evaluations of incoming patients. I’ll be the person interviewing Nicole.”

Agreeing to go to the hospital suddenly felt like a really bad decision, not that Nicole had much choice in the matter. It was the only way to get out of going to school.

Dr. Lucado turned to look at Nicole. Her dark blue eyes momentarily pierced Nicole’s silent bravado and she felt a shudder run through her body.

“Do you have any questions for me, Nicole?” Asked Dr. Lucado.

This woman did not invite confidences, and it made Nicole question why she decided to become a psychiatrist in the first place. Nicole thought better of asking that question and instead asked, “Why is this called Hope Hospital?”

“I thought that would be obvious.” Dr. Lucado flashed a sharp grin. “We want our patients to feel hope when they are here.”

“Then why does the sign out front say Walter Lee Hope Hospital?” Nicole asked, keeping her face as neutral as possible.

Dr. Lucado’s expression turned darker. “Because Walter Lee Hope was the name of the founding psychiatrist who opened this center.”

“So it isn’t about hope for children.” Nicole challenged.

“Nicole!” Her mom spat out, turning to her in horror.

“It’s ok Patricia.” Dr. Lucado said, without turning her gaze from Nicole. “She’s allowed to express her opinions here. We strive to make the children under our care as comfortable as possible talking about their feelings. It’s the only way to start healing.” And there was that icy smile again.

“In answer to your question, Nicole, it is both: the name of the founder and also our philosophy here at Hope.”

Unlikely, thought Nicole, but she kept quiet.

Dr. Lucado led them back to one of the residential units, while explaining how the hospital worked.

“This is the high school unit. Only children ages 14-18 are allowed to stay here. There are other wings for younger children, but we find that the older patients have unique issues that don’t mix well with the younger children.” Dr. Lucado was saying as she led them down the beige hallway.

They came to a door, and Dr. Lucado inserted a key after typing a passcode on the panel next to the door.

“We have many layers of security here to ensure the safety of all the patients. We know it’s important to both our patients as well as our parents that all children will be protected from any harm that could come from themselves or another patient.”

“Are there any risks from other patients?” Nicole’s mom asked in concern.

“We’ve never had an incident in which one patient was able to harm another. Our staff are specially trained to recognize the warning signs and step in to de-escalate a fight, and if need be, safely restrain a patient before they are able to do any harm to themselves or others.” Dr. Lucado said confidently.

“How often does that occur?” Asked her mom. Nicole was secretly grateful, she was wondering the same thing.

“Not very often, maybe only a couple incidents per month. The staff are top notch, they can step in and intervene well before the children even think to become violent.”

As they stepped into the unit, the three were greeted by cursing coming from two small rooms just inside. The two doors stood side by side. Framed within the tiny window in the top of one door was the upper portion of a girl’s face with longer, almost black hair and piercing eyes narrowed with fury.

A muffled “FUCK. Fucking Fuckers,” was leaking through the thick door of the first room.

In the window of the second room, bobbed the head of a smaller girl, her lighter brown hair bouncing as she jumped up high enough to see out of the window. “Shit fucking... asshole kissing... son of a... bison licker...” The expletives burst out in a ridiculously cute, high pitched voice.

A 30-something man with light skin, dark hair and handsome features sat in a chair between the two doors and wore a bemused expression.

“The Earp sisters?” Asked Dr. Lucado, with a hint of amusement as she passed him. The curse words still poured from both doors, the girl in the second room still jumping up, pausing to swear when she could see out of the window. The man smiled and gave Lucado a slight nod and laughed as he shook his head.

“My apologies. Those are our “Calm Down Rooms,” or CDR for short. If a patient gets a little worked up, they can go into the CDR to cool off without any worry about harming themselves or others.”

“I thought that was an unusual occurrence.” Said Nicole’s mom, pointing in the direction of the CDRs.

“Violence on the unit is unusual, but from time to time, some of our patients need a safe place to burn off their anger. We treat children with anger management issues, and so the CDR is necessary for them to safely release those emotions.”

“So those two girls are in there voluntarily?” Her mom asked.

“Unfortunately with those two, probably not, but most times patients can request to spend time in there to blow off steam. It’s how they demonstrate that they are better under control of their anger. We encourage our children to find positive ways to express their feelings.”

Nicole stole a quick glance back over her shoulder at the CDRs and the face appearing and disappearing from view. Dr. Lucado led them into a large room that was set up like a classroom. There were several rows of school desks lined up in the middle of the room. Surrounding the back walls were a series of faded blue couches. Dr. Lucado walked over, pulled out a desk chair, turned it to face one couch then motioned for Nicole and her mom to sit.

“Before we move on to the intake interview, I’ll need to take your bags, Nicole. We have to search the belongings of all patients for any contraband items. As you might imagine, we need to take possession of anything that could be used to harm yourself. As you progress through the program, you’ll have a chance to earn some of these items back, but in the beginning, we confiscate all potentially dangerous items. We like to do the search with the parents, so that we can explain why any items are taken away, and give you a chance to bring home anything that will never be allowed on our campus.” Dr. Lucado explained.

Just then a heavy knock came from the door. A different man poked his head in. He had fair skin, lighter, curly hair, and wide smile. He looked to be younger, maybe in his twenties.

“Hi, I’m Steve, one of the staff here at Hope.” He said as he walked in the classroom. He stepped up to Nicole’s mom and shook her hand.

“Patricia, and this is Nicole.” She greeted the new man.

“I hear we’re doing an intake.” He clapped his hands together in excitement, his smile growing wider. He looked at Nicole. “Depression or anger?” He asked like he hoped to find out what she wanted for Christmas.

Dr. Lucado cleared her voice. “Steve, I haven’t started the intake yet. I need you to go through her belongings.”

“Sure thing.” He sounded way too excited. Nicole grimaced as he picked up her bags and walked over to a different couch and unzipped her duffle bag. He started to separate out all of the things in the bag into two piles.

“So tell me Nicole,” Dr. Lucado’s voice pulled Nicole’s attention away from Steve pilfering through her stuff. “Can you tell me why you’re here?”

Nicole’s mom jumped in. “She’s become so withdrawn...”

“I want to hear from Nicole, please.”

Her mom looked like a tick ready to burst, but nodded her head and sat back into the couch with her arms folded across her chest.

“I don’t know.” Nicole mumbled. She turned her attention back to Steve. He had opened her backpack and was pulling out her school notebooks.

“You have no idea why you’re here?” Dr. Lucado’s voice had softened. Nicole glanced back at her. Dr. Lucado’s blue eyes were burrowing into her, but not unkindly. The shift in her body language threw Nicole.

“Maybe I’ve been a little sad lately.”

“Tell her about the thing.” Nicole’s mom interjected.

“What thing?” Nicole screwed up her face.

Her mom turned to Dr. Lucado, “She asked about death. She wanted to know what happens when we die.” She reached out her arm to wrap around Nicole’s shoulders.

“Mom, what the hell?” Nicole pulled away.

“And she refuses to go to school.” Her mom added.

Dr. Lucado turned to Nicole. “Do you want to hurt yourself?”

“No!”

“Have you ever wanted to hurt yourself?”

“No,” Nicole said exasperated.

“She was asking a lot of questions about death and it really scared me. Then she refused to go to school.” Her mom jumped in again.

“I did not ask questions about death. When was that?” Nicole asked pointedly.

“A couple weeks ago, and then you became so withdrawn. You stopped hanging out with friends, you spend all of your time locked up in your room.”

“I have homework, and the reason I’m not hanging out with my friends is because the soccer season is over.” Nicole shot back.

“That’s another thing, she only cares about soccer. It’s like nothing else even matters to her.”

Nicole slumped down in the couch and folded her arms across her chest. This was ridiculous, she thought. What does liking soccer have to do with anything.

“We never see her. She refuses to eat dinner with us, she just spends all her time in her room, listening to her Walkman. It’s like she’s a ghost in our home.” Her mom broke down into tears, Dr. Lucado stood up and brought over a box of tissues.

“Nicole, your mom seems to be really afraid for you. Would you say that you’ve been withdrawing from your family?”

Nicole frowned. “Maybe.” She grumbled out. I’m a fucking teen, of course I’m withdrawing from my family, she wanted to add.

“Have you been isolating yourself from friends?” Dr. Lucado asked.

What friends? She thought. Nicole scowled into the corner of the room.

“Can you tell me what’s been happening at school?”

A panic washed over Nicole. What did she know about that?

“It sounds like there have been a few incidents?” Dr. Lucado tried again.

Nicole sank even further into the cushion and closed her eyes. Maybe if she pretended she wasn’t there, they’d leave her alone.

“Nicole, darling, it’s ok. You can tell her. She’s here to help you.” Her mom’s voice was wavering.

Nicole felt the pressure in the room weighing down on her. Even with her eyes firmly closed, she could still see her mom and Dr. Lucado staring at her.

“Nicole, tell me what happened at school. Why are you refusing to go back?” Dr. Lucado’s voice was soft. The only other sound in the room was Steve shifting things into and out of her bags. Nicole kept her eyes shut.

“Everyone’s making fun of me.” She half whispered.

“What are they saying to you?” Dr. Lucado’s voice was syrupy sweet.

“They make fun of my clothes. They call me a farmer.” The darkness behind her eyes helped her to open up.

“Anything else?”

“There’s a group of guys who kick me, trip me in the halls, dump my books.” Nicole heard her mom shift in her seat.

“Do they say anything to you?” Dr. Lucado asked.

Nicole felt her chest rise and fall with her breathing. Everything was black behind her eyes. The room was very quiet, she couldn’t hear Steve moving anymore. It was like the world had stopped spinning for just this one moment, and she could finally get off this crazy train ride called her life. She wasn’t in school, so she was safe from that. She wasn’t at home, so she didn’t have to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. This moment was just for her. And the honesty slipped out.

“Lez.”

“I understand. Thank you, Nicole. I have a question for you: do you agree that you haven’t been feeling your normal self lately?”

Nicole kept her eyes closed as she ran her finger over the hangnail on her thumb.

“You seem quite withdrawn right now. How would you feel about spending a few weeks with us, we can help you find new strategies for dealing with your feelings, get you situated on medications if you need any, and help pull you out of this funk you’re in.” She paused, waiting for a response.

Nicole opened her eyes to look at Dr. Lucado.

“It’s not a weakness to ask for help. Everyone needs help dealing with these feelings. What we provide is a safe space to really explore why you’re feeling these things and provide new ways of coping with them. These are big feelings and we’re here to help guide you through them.”

A break from existence didn’t sound so bad. A break from school. A break from all of it.

Nicole nodded her head. She heard her mom begin to cry again.

“So, are you willing to stay and participate in our program. You’ll find that we have many teenagers here who are going through very similar things. You aren’t alone.”

Again, Nicole nodded.

“I’ll need you to sign the intake documents for yourself. You’re old enough to make that decision.” Dr. Lucado said.

“Do I have a choice?” Nicole asked.

“Your mom does have the authority to sign for you, but it always looks better for a patient to sign themselves in. If necessary, I also have the authority involuntarily commit you if I feel like you are at risk for harming yourself, but that requires a court order and would become a part of your permanent record. That’s the last option.”

So I don’t have a choice.

Nicole let out a long breath. “Fine. I’ll sign.”

“Good choice.” Dr. Lucado smiled at her, and stood up. “I’ll get the paperwork together and Steve can show you what he’s found.” She walked out of the classroom.

Steve waved Nicole and her mom over to where he was sitting. Her mom popped up, wiping the last of her tears away, and let out a pent up breath that sounded relieved. Nicole shook her head in disgust and slowly peeled herself out of the couch and walked over to Steve.

He had a pile of her things sitting on the floor. The rest of her stuff had been put back into the bags. Steve looked up at her as she stood next to the pile of her belongings.

“Ok, so we have a lot of rules about things you can and can’t have while on the unit. All new, incoming patients are required to be on FMI, that’s Five Minute Intervals. A staff person has to physically see you once every five minutes. It’s for your safety, to make sure you don’t try to harm yourself. But that also means while you’re in the bathroom, or taking a shower. So I recommend going to the bathroom quickly while you’re on FMI. With the showers, we’ll have a female member of staff check in on you.”

Nicole blanched and stared down at her pile. Sitting off to the side was her Walkman and small collection of tapes. She shook her head. She didn’t like seeing them in the pile. Those were her most important possessions of all time.

“As for these items,” Steve continued. “These are things you can’t have right now, some you can’t have at all while you are here.” He held up her wire bound notebooks. “The wire in the notebooks can be used to harm yourself. We can’t risk either you or someone else getting a hold of these, so they’ll have to go home with mom. Also, the tape player. We have very strict rules about what kinds of music you can listen to on the unit. We don’t allow any music that is depressing, violent, talks about drugs or sex, that sort of thing. We have a list of approved music in our dining room.”

Nicole started to feel a little unsteady. She reached back for the couch behind her and slowly sat down.

“You can earn your tape player back as you advance through the program and climb to higher levels. At level 3, you can have a person music player. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have levels here, you start off on level 1 and FMIs. When you progress to level 2, you come off of FMIs and earn some new privileges. Every level has new privileges and expectations for behavior.”

Nicole’s head was spinning. No music at all. She stared at her yellow Walkman. She fell asleep listening to music, how would she sleep? How would she get through a day, that was the only thing that kept her going. She could disappear into her music.

Suddenly, Nicole felt her vision going tight, her head was cotton, and she couldn’t move. “I think...” she tried to say before her vision disappeared altogether.

The next thing she knew, she was waking up on the floor. Steve and her mom were hovering over her.

“Here she is. She’s coming back to us.” Nicole fuzzily heard Dr. Lucado’s voice. There were hands on her shoulders pulling her up into a sitting position. Then a woman with long black hair tied back in a loose ponytail and dark brown eyes stooped down in front of her. She had a stethoscope around her neck and a small pen flashlight in her hand.

“I’m Rosita, one of the psychiatric nurses here.” She flashed the light in her eyes. “Are feeling better?”

Nicole nodded.

“Everything is a little overwhelming, huh?” She smiled kindly at Nicole, her brown eyes shining with sympathy. “You haven’t taken any drugs or had any alcohol before arriving?” She asked.

“No.” Nicole said, still a little shaky.

“Good. I just need to take your blood pressure. Can you pull your arm out of the sweater?”

Nicole shifted her arm out of the bulky sweater as Rosita prepared the cuff and stethoscope.

“Are you feeling alright, sweetie?” Nicole’s mom took her free hand, and Nicole pulled it back. She saw the hurt expression on her mom’s face, but Nicole didn’t want her touching her right then.

“Patricia, why don’t you and I go over some of the paperwork while Rosita is looking after Nicole. I think the worst is over.” Dr. Lucado said. She directed Nicole’s mom to the other side of the classroom.

“Your pressure is still a little low, so don’t stand up too fast, but I think you’ll be ok. Do you faint often?” Rosita asked.

“No, that was the first time.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re probably on a bit of an emotional overload. I need to do a quick checkup and some blood work. Are you ok while having your blood drawn? Actually on second thought, I’ll have you lie down for that part. I don’t need you keeling over again.” She chuckled lightly.

Nicole still felt like she was swimming. “Why do you need blood work?”

“We check you for drug use, alcohol, and to get a baseline in case you need to be medicated.” Rosita answered like this was totally normal.

“Do some of the kids here take drugs?” Nicole asked.

“Actually, most have at least tried them. Have you never tried any drugs?”

“I’m a soccer player. I wouldn’t do that to my body. Plus, I don’t even know where I’d get them.” Nicole said, before Rosita placed a thermometer in her mouth.

“Good for you. Well, that’s one group you won’t have to participate in. You’ll be in the definite minority there. I think there’s only three other kids on the unit right now who don’t have to participate in the drugs and alcohol group- D&A for short. You’re lucky. I hope you keep it that way.”

After Rosita pulled out the thermometer, Nicole asked, “What are the groups? Like Depressed and Angry?”

“Yeah,” she laughed. “After lunch, everyone is split into their main groups. The kids are generally divided into depression and anger management. After that, there are specialty groups like sexual abuse, D&A, family issues; that sort of thing. And at night, right before bed, we have a wrap-up group to go over the day.”

Rosita handed her a clipboard with a questionnaire. “I need you to complete this health form. Are you taking any prescription medications?”

“Nope.” Nicole said, looking over the questions.

“Great, Any health issues we should be aware of?”

Nicole shook her head and took the pen from the clipboard and began filling out the form. The topics ranged from eating and sleeping problems, sexual history, drug habits, as well as health problems. Nicole raced through the form, of course it’s easy when the answer to every question is no.

After the paperwork and physical were complete and the initial intake finished, her mom gathered up all the contraband: clothes (anything with a drawstring- so all of her sweatpants and sweatshirts), toiletries (the razor, well duh), notebooks (that will make completing her homework more interesting), and her music (her life, really) into a plastic bag and gave her a quick hug goodbye, told her to be good, and was escorted out by Steve.

There was a small pile of toiletries: soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant, that she was allowed to keep at the hospital, but would be locked up and only released under supervision. All she was entrusted with were some clothes with which she couldn’t possible hurt herself and her textbooks. They even confiscated her mechanical pencils, and told her that she’d have to turn in her shoes at night.

Nicole spent the rest of the morning with Dr. Lucado undergoing her “intake evaluation,” and by noon, Nicole was exhausted and ready to crawl into a very dark hole.

After leaving the classroom with Rosita, Nicole was led onto the teen unit proper. It was divided into two wings that mirrored each other. In between the wings were the dining hall, kitchen area, and staff room. The kitchen and staff rooms were always locked, Rosita told her, but she could always ask a staff person for help, if she needed anything. The staff were divided into psychiatric nurses and child life specialists. There had to be at least one of each on both wings at all times.

“When we have a group meeting for the entire teen unit, we sometimes meet in the dining hall or else the classroom.” Rosita explained. “And next to the dining hall is the timeout spot.” Rosita pointed to a bench in between the dining hall and the door to the kitchen. “If you ever feel like you need a break, or you’re getting worked up, you can ask to take a time out. Sometimes staff will ask you to take a time out if you’re making poor choices.”

“What’s the difference between the timeout and CDR?” Asked Nicole, thinking back to the two girls cursing in the CDRs.

“Timeout is usually voluntary, CDR is usually not.” Rosita said matter-of-factly.

“Dr. Lucado said that sometimes kids will choose to go into the CDR.”

“Do you want to lock yourself up in a padded room?” Rosita asked, looking at her pointedly.

“No.”

Rosita smiled. “There you go. Don’t worry, you’ll figure out how this place works pretty quickly, and the other kids will help explain, too.”

“Where are all the other kids?” Nicole asked.

“They did school on one of the other units today. Every morning you have school for three hours. It’s like a long study hall, everyone works on whatever their school sends in.”

“Three hours of study hall? Even on weekends?”

“Yep. All except Sunday. Sunday is family meeting day.” Rosita walked her onto one of the wings. Lining the outer wall of the wing were the patient bedrooms. In the middle of the wing was a large living room area with several couches, a couple wooden coffee tables, and a stereo on a shelf against the inside wall. Rosita told Nicole that she was assigned a single room on the “A” wing.

 

She showed Nicole into a small bedroom just inside the wing. “Take all of your belongings out of the bags and put them away in the drawers or on the desk. I’ll need to take the bags with me.”

Nicole looked around her room. There was a low twin bed with two large drawers underneath, a small three drawer chest and a tiny desk with no drawers. A tall window set deep into the wall was the only feature in the room breaking up the white, cinderblock walls. The cloth curtains were pulled back on either side of the window. Outside the window were the dark branches of the woods looming in on her. She dumped out her stuff on the bed and handed the bags to Rosita. Then Nicole divided up her clothes between the three drawers and placed her school books in the drawers under her bed.

As she was sorting out her belongings, Nicole heard the commotion of the kids returning to the unit.

“Once you’re settled, come on out and you can meet the other kids.” Rosita said, before turning away from her door. “Oh, and keep your door open at all times. You’re on FMI, so we have to be able to see you.”

“What if I’m changing?” Nicole frowned.

“Just let us know before, and don’t take longer than five minutes.” She smiled and winked at Nicole. Rosita left her room and Nicole could hear her greeting some of the kids, explaining that there was a new girl on the unit and that they better be nice to her.

Great, thought Nicole. She flopped down onto the bed and closed her eyes. Nightmare, nightmare, nightmare. Everyone at school will realize I’m gone and that will make things worse. I’m locked up in a fucking loony bin.

“Hey,” a deep voice came from her door.

Nicole opened her eyes to see a tall guy standing in her doorway. He had the darkest skin and the whitest smile.

“I’m X, whacha you in for?” He asked quickly.

Nicole just stared at him.

“I’m schizophrenic,” he paused, looked out the door and then back in again. “And so am I.” He deadpanned.

Nicole just closed her eyes and groaned. She heard X burst out laughing, and looked back up at him. He wore a wide grin.

“I’m kidding.” He said, holding up his hands. “Depression. Which one are you?”

Nicole pulled herself up into a sitting position. “Depression, I think. I haven’t gotten the official word yet.”

“Well, unless you beat up a teacher or parent, you’re probably depression. What’s your name?” Asked X.

“Nicole. So X? As in Malcolm?” She asked.

“No, as in Xavier.”

“I liked that movie, though.”

“Didn’t see it.”

“Really?” Nicole was surprised. “You should, it’s great. Denzel Washington...”

“I’m kidding. Of course I saw it.” X cut her off.

“Oh, sorry.” Nicole looked down at the ground.

“Look, why don’t you come out, we’re about to have lunch. You can sit with me.”

Nicole looked at him questioningly. “Really? You don’t even know me.”

“I will, soon enough.” He smiled and stepped out of her doorway.

Nicole groaned as she lifted her heavy body out of the bed. All she wanted to do was curl up, go to sleep, and pretend this wasn’t happening. Instead, she was going to have to be social over lunch with a bunch of crazy kids at a loony bin. Perfect.

Once she stepped out of her room, about five other kids swarmed up around her. X stepped up next to her.

“Hey, chill out. Really.” He was shielding her with his body. “Her name’s Nicole and she’s depressed.”

X’s words made Nicole laugh. This is what I’ve been reduced to: Nicole and depressed. But this seemed to placate the other kids. X gestured to one of the couches and Nicole joined him.

“So are you a suicide?” He asked once they were sitting. A few of the other kids sat down around them.

“No.” Nicole replied.

“Too bad, I always like hearing the stories about how they do it.” X said.

Nicole frowned at him.

“Gross dude” came a voice from behind her. Nicole turned around on the couch to see the rest of the black haired girl from the CDR that morning. “Way to scare the new kid, X. Why don’t you scream in her face while you’re at it.” The girl wore a condescending smirk. She held out her hand to Nicole. “I’m Wynonna.”

Nicole shook her hand briefly. “Winona? Like Winona Ryder?” She asked.

“Say that name again and I’ll break your face.” Wynonna shot back, her eyes going hard.

“Way to scare the new kid.” Said X, sarcastically.

“I hate that stupid bitch, and her stupid name. Everyone’s always misspelling my name because of her.” She wandered off muttering under her breath about the horrors of sharing a name with Winona Ryder.

Nicole closed her eyes. I’m not here. I’m not fucking here.

The dark haired staff person from the CDRs spoke up from the back corner of the room. “Everyone stop scaring Nicole. And Wynonna, you don’t want to end up back in CDR, do you. No more threats.” He walked over to Nicole and held out his hand. “Dan. Good to meet you. I’m one of the child life specialists on staff here.”

After shaking Nicole’s hand, Dan walked past Wynonna keeping an eye on her. Wynonna pantomimed a hand job while rolling her eyes. Nicole bit back a snicker.

Ok, so this wasn’t so different from high school, she thought.

Then she felt a thump on her shoulder. “Let’s go get some lunch. You want to be at the front of the line. Trust me. That way you get the best choices.” X said, as he walked over to line up at the entry of the A wing.

Nicole stood up to join him, and Wynonna lined up behind her.

“So Red, you’re a depression. Too bad, I was hoping for another woman on my team.” Wynonna said.

“You’re here for anger, then?” Nicole asked.

“I’m here because I punched a teacher.” She said with a confident smirk.

Nicole’s eyes went wide with shock.

“I’m kidding.” She snorted out a laugh. “It was my guidance counselor. But he was such a jerk, he totally deserved it.”

“Wynonna.” Dan’s voice carried over the room.

“Sorry.” She held up her hands in air quotes. “I lost control of my temper and took an inappropriate action to show my frustration.” Then leaning into Nicole, she said under her breath. “I dropped him like a greased pig.” She chuckled.

Nicole shook her head in disbelief. “How many girls are there in the anger group?” Nicole asked.

“Well so far, just my sister and I. You sure you don’t want to switch teams? We have way more fun in the anger group.” Wynonna looked at X. “The most exciting thing you talk about in depression group is how ya’ll try to do yourselves in.”

“Don’t listen to her. Depression is better. Anger group gets to count to ten.” X said to Nicole. “And our group’s bigger, so you don’t always have to talk.”

“Lucky.” Quipped Wynonna.

Just then, the wing was called to come for lunch. Nicole followed X out into the hallway and through to the kitchen. It was set up cafeteria style, with everyone grabbing a plate and walking down the line to serve themselves.

The food didn’t look terrible, turkey with gravy and green beans cooked with bacon. Nicole served herself and got to the end of the line where there was a selection of juice and milks. Nicole grabbed a white milk.

“Take the chocolate. I would if I were you.” X said, looking back at her. Nicole noticed a white milk sitting on his plate.

“You didn’t.” Nicole said.

“I hate that crap, but it’s like gold around here, you can trade it for stuff, desserts or better seats. There’s not enough for everyone, so take the chocolate milk and trade it for white and earn a favor or two.” X explained.

“He’s right.” Wynonna added. “A little chocolate milk can go a long way toward making friends.”

Nicole put back her white milk and picked up the chocolate.

“Aw, we finally found a smart one.” Wynonna laughed. “I’m keeping her.”

In the dining room, Nicole sat down next to X, but noticed that Wynonna didn’t join them at their table.

“Don’t worry about it. Wy and her sister alway sit together.” X said, when he saw Nicole watching Wynonna pull out a chair at a separate table.

The rest of the dining hall filled up as the kids made their way through the lunch line. Wynonna was still sitting on her own. Hers was the only table that was empty.

Two other boys sat down at Nicole’s table. Ben and Sean introduced themselves to her. They were both anger kids and looked like they could have been twins but for the color of their hair. Ben had short, strawberry blond hair, while Sean wore his super curly dark hair in a flat top.

Then from the kitchen area, Nicole heard a feminine voice. She wondered if this was the other sister from this morning. The voice was light this time, not cursing up a storm. In fact, she was thanking someone in the kitchen. Then through the doorway walked a beautiful pixie of a girl. She was petite in every sense of the word, and her long, light brown hair fell in soft waves to below her breasts, and her bangs were teased up to form a perfect wall above her forehead. She wore a bright smile that crinkled up her eyes as she walked over to Wynonna’s table. The world seemed to slow down with every step she took. Nicole couldn’t take her eyes off of her.

X cleared his throat. “That’s Waverly, Wynonna’s younger sister.”

 

“They’re both in here? Why is she in here?” Nicole asked, glancing at the sisters’ table. Waverly sat down with her back to Nicole.

“Same as Wynonna.” Said Ben.

“She punched a teacher?” Nicole turned to ask X.

“No. Wy shot their father. They both kind of lost it after that.” He answered.

Nicole choked. “What!” She said through a coughing fit.

“Yeah, you’ll have to get them to tell the story.” Ben said, stuffing a large bite of turkey in his mouth.

Nicole turned back to look at the sisters. Waverly was talking to Wynonna, who then nodded at Nicole. Suddenly Waverly turned to face her. Nicole flashed a quick smile as Waverly waved.

In a fit of what felt like insanity, Nicole grabbed her chocolate milk, stood up, and walked over to the sisters’ table.

“Hi, I’m Nicole.” She held out her hand. Waverly smiled up at her as she gently shook the proffered palm. “Would you like my chocolate milk?” Nicole asked.

Waverly’s smile grew apologetic. “I’m sorry, I’m vegan. No milk for me.” She said quickly. “But I’m Waverly, Wynonna’s sister.” Nicole could see Wynonna snickering.

“Baby sister.” Wynonna added.

“I’m only three years younger than you.” Waverly shot a challenging look at Wynonna.

“And that makes you the baby.” Wynonna winked and gave an equally challenging grin back.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to step in anything here.” Nicole apologized.

“Don’t mind her, she’s always a crab.” Waverly looked back at Nicole.

“Well, I should go finish my lunch.” Nicole turned to walk back to her table.

“It’s good to meet you, Nicole.” Waverly saying her name caused a chill to run down Nicole’s spine.

“Yeah, sure.” She tried to smile back at the cute girl grinning up at her, but was pretty sure she failed. With a deep blush creeping up her face, she sat back down at her table and quickly started to pile food into her mouth. She opened her chocolate milk and took a large mouthful, then quickly spat the syrupy sweet liquid back out into the container. Chocolate milk, my ass. She pushed the milk container away from her plate.

X laughed at her lightly.

Nicole looked at X, wondering if he was making fun of her, but his smile remained soft.

“Can I have that?” Sean asked Nicole, pointing at her chocolate milk.

Both X and Nicole turned to Sean with a look of disgust.

“What? It’s chocolate milk and I don’t mind having a little lady’s spit in my mouth.” He grinned at Nicole and winked.

Nicole grimaced. “No.”

 

After lunch, the teens were split up into their respective depression and anger groups. As she suspected, Nicole was placed in depression and told she would meet with Dr. Lucado by the end of the day to go over her specific diagnosis and plan for treatment.

The depression group met in the A wing living room.

Nicole and X shared a couch and Rosita joined them. X was right, most of the kids were in the depression group. While she would love to hide away, Nicole suspected that being the new kid meant that she was going to be introduced first.

“Alright, group, time to get started.” Rosita spoke up over the conversations going on around the room. It didn’t do much to quiet down the kids.

“HEY!” Yelled Steve, and the room went silent. “Everyone listen to Rosita. It’s time to get started.”

“Thanks, Steve. I want to introduce our newest member, Nicole. She just arrive this morning.” Rosita turned to Nicole and smiled. “Do you want to introduce yourself?”

Nicole nodded. “I’m Nicole. I’m depressed. I think that’s it.” She said curtly.

“Why don’t you tell us why you feel depressed.” Steve offered.

Because I’m here, she thought. “I don’t know. My mom thinks I spend too much time in my room and listen to too much music.” Nicole said.

“Oh, what kind of music do you like?” A boy on the opposite couch asked.

“That’s not what’s important right now.” Rosita interrupted.

“I mostly like grunge, and heavy metal. Metallica and Nirvana.” Nicole ignored Rosita, she preferred the music question.

“Cool,” said X, quietly.

“Tell us more about how you are isolating yourself.” Said Steve.

“I’m not isolating myself.”

“How often are you going out with your friends?” He asked.

“I’m not, but I’m busy.”

“Doing what?” Asked Steve.

“Homework. Soccer.”

“I thought the soccer season is over.”

“It is, but...”

“And it sounds like your grades have been falling sharply this semester. Are you having a hard time concentrating on your work? Is that why you’re failing while spending all of your time on homework?” He asked.

Steve’s voice bit into Nicole, and she closed her eyes. What the hell is going on? Nicole could feel the heat rising on her cheeks.

“Hey man, leave her alone, it’s her first day.” X said.

“First day is important, she needs to be honest with us and with herself. You know how this works.” Steve said to X. “Now Nicole, how is it that you can spend all of your time studying, but still be failing two classes.”

How the hell did he know that? Thought Nicole. That wasn’t a part of my intake. A deep dread fell over Nicole. They had access to her school records. What else did they know about?

“I don’t know.” Nicole said, slumping down into the couch.

“How are your concentration levels?” Steve asked.

“They suck, ok?” Nicole shot back, she frowned into her lap.

“What about your energy levels, do you feel motivated to do any extracurricular activities?”

“No.”

“What do you want to do the most?”

“Sleep. Ok, I want to sleep and listen to my depressing music and do nothing and see nobody. You got me, ok.” Nicole shot out a deep breath. “I’m depressed. I’m here, aren’t I. I’m in the stupid loony bin.”

“Hey, we don’t say those words.” Rosita rounded on her quickly. “This is a hospital. Seeking help for your depression is crucial and doesn’t make you crazy. This is an important step in your healing, being honest about what you’re feeling. If you can’t be honest, nothing will change. Everyone here has to be honest about how they’re feeling, that’s how we get through this.”

“Yeah, that and medications.” The boy across from her joked. X laughed out loud and Nicole felt grateful for the break in tension.

“Excuse me, Brian, medications are a perfectly acceptable way of treating depression.” Rosita turned her attention to the other kid. “We do not vilify anyone’s treatment plan. In fact, why don’t you tell Nicole how you are feeling today. This is a chance for you to be a role model. I know you want to level up to 3 and to do that you need to be more of a role model for the others.”

“Shit.” Said Brian.

“Language!” Steve yelled. “Why don’t you take a timeout.”

Brian groaned, stood, and walked out of the room.

“Anyone else want to be a role model for Nicole?” Rosita asked, and the conversation continued with other kids taking turns talking about their problems.

That was depression group.

 

After group let out, they had a few minutes to relax. One of the kids went to his room and came out with a tape to play in the stereo.

Nicole was still sitting next to X. “How does he have a tape. I thought they were all contraband?” She asked him.

“He’s level 3. At level 3, you can get a blank tape and create your own mix tape. It all has to be approved music. Staff has the music and they make the tapes.”

“Really? That’s sounds pretty communist.” Nicole said, watching the kid fast forward through the tape.

When he finished, Richard Marx “Right Here Waiting” came on. X groaned, “I hate this song so much. Dick, pick a different song.” He yelled.

“No, and it’s Rich.” He called back over his shoulder, then started to sing.

X covered his face in his palms, Nicole laughed and resisted the urge to sing along. She didn’t want X to know she liked the song.

“I’m so glad you’re into my kind of music. I knew I liked you for a reason.” X said, as he shook his head.

“Yeah.” The ear worm worked its way into her head. I will be right here waiting for you...

 

Dr. Lucado found Nicole as the teen unit was walking back from playing whiffle ball in the gym.

“I’m going to take Nicole with me,” she said to Steve. “We’ll be in the classroom.” She led Nicole back to the empty room.

The classroom was dark when they entered. Dr. Lucado turned on the lights. She pulled out a desk chair and motioned for Nicole to sit at one of the desks.

“I’ve been through all of your evaluations and records and have come up with a couple diagnoses. First, I’m sure is no surprise to you. I believe you are suffering from major depression. Your actions, energy levels, inability to concentrate, all point to major depression. I want you to continue participating in the depression group. Also, I want you to start a course of Prozac. Its a new antidepressant, and it’s worked wonders in other teens. I think it will really help you get control of your emotions, so that you can deal with the things that are making you feel depressed.” Dr. Lucado explained.

Nicole looked around the room. She didn’t feel like she was out of control with her emotions. It’s not like she was beating up her teachers or anything. But this was what the doctor was prescribing, Nicole didn’t feel like she had the authority to say no.

“Do you really think I need meds?” Asked Nicole.

“It’s one tool in our tool box, that coupled with the therapy, and developing new coping skills, will help you feel more in control of your life. They all work together.” Dr. Lucado said.

Nicole nodded her understanding.

“The other diagnosis is a Gender Identity Disorder.”

Nicole looked at Dr. Lucado in confusion.

“Your parents are very concerned that you don’t show any interest in wearing dresses or using makeup. You carry yourself more like a man and seem to feel more comfortable in masculine clothing. Does that sounds accurate?”

“Well, yeah, but I don’t see why that’s a mental health issue.”

“It’s ok for girls to be tomboys, but at a certain age we expect to see them start to embrace being a woman more. When a young lady, such as yourself, doesn’t naturally start to gravitate toward more feminine endeavors, we worry that there is some confusion on your part about how to express your womanhood.”

“But I still don’t get how that makes me crazy.”

“Nicole, you aren’t crazy, but we find that adolescents who don’t conform to gender norms tend to be depressed, they’re more likely to attempt suicide, and generally feel more anxiety than other teens. We want to help you find a way to better express your gender, and I think you’ll find that it helps with your need to isolate yourself and feelings of depression. When you start to feel more beautiful, you’ll want to be more social because you’ll want others to see just how beautiful you are.”

Nicole furrowed her brows. What the hell kind of bullshit was this? “So you’re saying I’m not girly enough.”

“Essentially. When you start acting more ‘girly’ as you put it, you’ll start to feel better about yourself and less depressed. After talking to your parents, school, and even yourself, I firmly believe that the cause of your depression is your Gender Identity Disorder. If you correct the one, the other will follow suit.”

Nicole stared at her open-mouthed. “I thought Gender Identity Disorder was for people who think they were born the wrong sex.”

“That’s one part of the diagnosis.”

“But I don’t feel that way. I don’t think I’m a guy.”

“But you dress like one; you play sports like one, you sit and walk like one.” She paused and smiled warmly at Nicole. “We really don’t want your disorder to get to that point.”

Nicole’s stomach turned.

“As for treatment, I want you to start the Prozac tomorrow. You’ll also have to fill out two daily journals. We have a feelings journal, it’s something all patients are required to complete every day. Any staff member can ask to read and make suggestions in your feelings journal. But I also want you to keep a private gender journal. You’ll be assigned a psychiatric nurse and this journal will be just between your nurse and yourself. You can discuss things of a more sensitive nature with her through the journal. Consider it a private space to really explore what it means to be a woman, without fear of everyone else looking in. Your honesty is going to be the fastest way to heal. So don’t hold back in your journals, it’s a no judgement space just for you.”

Unlikely, thought Nicole.

Dr. Lucado handed her two black, marbled composition notebooks. “I want you to start both journals today. I have written questions for you to answer in each journal. I want you to show them to a staff member tomorrow morning before school starts. I believe your assigned nurse will be on the unit tomorrow, so you’ll be able to show the private journal to her.”

Nicole looked down at the journals. Her name was already written in the center box in a perfectly executed cursive script. Under her name on the first was written “Feelings Journal,” and on the other was “Private Journal.” She opened to the first page of the private journal and saw more of the fancy script. It was so curly and elegant that it was difficult to read.

List five things about yourself that make you feel beautiful. How do these things make you feel more like a woman?

Nicole groaned and rolled her eyes. If this was her therapy, then she was pretty sure she was just fucked. There was no way this was going to make her more girly or cure her depression.

 

After dinner, everyone had journal time. It was a quiet time to write, and once that was complete, to do school work. Nicole went to her room and partially closed the door. She didn’t want to start her journals out in the shared living space. She felt ridiculous enough answering the questions, she didn’t want an audience for it, too.

She pulled up her chair to the desk and opened both journals. The cursive questions stood like a wall between her and the completion of the assignment. Nicole hated stuff like this. How was this supposed to help her?

In the feelings journal, Dr. Lucado asked: What are your feelings about your first day in the hospital? What do you hope to accomplish while you are here?

What were Nicole’s feeling about her first day? She liked meeting X, and Wynonna was pretty funny, if a little scary. Waverly was cute, but she couldn’t write that. She wanted to get to know the sisters better. The rest of it seemed like a bunch of bullshit. The depression group did nothing for her, and Dr. Lucado’s diagnosis came out of left field. If she was being really honest, if felt like Lucado wanted to diagnose her with being homosexual, but couldn’t, so she had to find something else wrong with her. So GID was the next best thing. Of course she couldn’t write about that either.

List five things about yourself that make you feel beautiful.

Nicole rested her head in her palm. This was completely and utterly bullshit. She thought about some of her teammates on the soccer team. Half of them would also have a GID, if wearing soccer clothes and not wanting to wear dresses was all it took to have a mental illness.

She shoved her journals across the desk and sat back in her chair, drumming her pen on the desk.

What did she like about herself? What makes her beautiful? She liked her voice. She liked to sing. Maybe that made her feel beautiful. Suddenly the ear worm from earlier resurfaced, and Nicole began to hum “Right Here Waiting.”

She closed her eyes and quietly started to sing the song to herself. This brought out a smile. Nicole thought back to all the time she spent in her room at home. She’d pop a favorite tape in her boombox, grab her blue Goody hairbrush, and stand on her bed. She’d imagine that she was Bon Jovi or Bono, sometimes she was the fifth Beatle, standing on stage and singing her heart out. The memory made her laugh, but it also made her miss her music.

“I took for granted, all the times
That I thought would last somehow.
I hear the laughter, I taste the tears,
But I can’t get near you now.”

As she started the second verse, Nicole felt more comfortable. She began bobbing her head and getting into the song. She sang a little louder, it was just for herself after all.

By the third verse, Nicole was fully invested. Behind her eyes, she could see the crowds surrounding the stage, cheering her on as she sang her song. She lifted the pen to her mouth like a mic.

“Oh can’t you see it baby
You’ve got me goin’ crazy

Wherever you go
Whatever you do
I will be right here waiting for you
Whatever it takes
Or how my heart breaks
I will be right here waiting for you”

“Ok Richard Marx,” Waverly’s voice cut her off abruptly. Nicole jumped back, knocking over her chair as she quickly stood, and dropped her pen on the floor.

Waverly was standing in her doorway, watching Nicole and giggling. If her cheeks hadn’t bloomed red so quickly, Nicole would have sworn that her heart had stopped dead.

“Ah, sorry.” Nicole stammered, starring back at Waverly in horror.

“Don’t be, it’s cute.” Waverly’s smile, if anything, made Nicole blush deeper, and her heart began to race out of control.

“Ah...” Nicole tried to speak again.

“It’s time for wrap-up,” Waverly kept grinning, but pointed back at the living room. “We’re all out here- waiting for you.” She laughed and winked at Nicole.

Nicole tried to laugh, too, but didn’t feel like she had much control over her body. “Um, ok. I’ll be right out.” She said, still staring at the small woman in her doorway. Nicole couldn’t tell if it was panic, embarrassment, fear, or attraction that was freezing her in place.

“Come on, Romeo.” She laughed again, and walked away.

Nicole fought to unlock her knees and bent over to pick up her pen. She blew out a deep breath and shook her head before leaving her room.

The living room was nearly packed and most of the couch space was occupied, but Nicole noticed that the seat next to Waverly was still open. Waverly patted the cushion next to her and smiled up at her. Nicole could still feel the heat on her cheeks and she wasn’t sure she could handle sitting next to Waverly, but she didn’t have much of a choice.

She sat down stiffly, being sure to leave as much space between them as she could. To distract herself from Waverly’s presence next to her, Nicole looked around the room for X. Did he also know she was singing Richard Marx? X wasn’t in the living room.

As Rosita began the group, Nicole leaned over to Waverly and whispered, “Where’s X?”

Waverly leaned in a little closer, and Nicole could smell a strawberry scent coming off of her. “He’s in the other wing. Wrap-up is divided by which wing your room is on.”

“Is there a problem?” Rosita interrupted Waverly.

“No problem, I was just explaining how wrap-up works for Nicole.”

“Ok, but I need you both to listen right now.” Rosita said.

“Sorry.” Waverly replied in a sing-song voice.

“Sorry” murmured Nicole. Out of the corner of her eye, Nicole saw Waverly turn her head to smile again at her. She tried to keep her focus on Rosita, but she could feel Waverly’s look tickling her side.

Rosita started back up, and Nicole’s knee began to bounce.

“Relax,” Waverly whispered. “You’ve survived your first day.”

This made Nicole laugh out loud, earning her a stern look from Rosita. But Waverly was right. She had survived her first day.